SEC Basketball Preview 2013-14: NCAA Tournament Bubble Teams

We kicked off this three-part SEC Basketball Preview with a look at the NCAA Tournament “locks.” Now it’s time to analyze the all-important bubble teams.

A few, or all, of these teams could easily play themselves into the tourney, but must first answer some questions.

Alabama

Alabama was a great example of how SEC resumes just didn’t stack up last year. Despite going 20-11 (12-6) and 1-1 in the SEC tournament, ‘Bama was left out of the NCAA Tournament. Alabama made the quarterfinals of the NIT before losing to Maryland by one.

Then came a wacky offseason. One key player, Trevor Lacey, transferred to NC State. Then highly-prized recruit Devonta Pollard withdrew after a conspiracy to kidnap charge. Where did that come from?

Alabama had no choice but to regroup, so let’s get to who is still on the team. Leading scorer Trevor Releford, and his 15 points per game, is a great returning piece. Rodney Cooper is also a useful player; last year he averaged 10 points and four boards from his guard spot. Levi Randolph is another nice guard who scored eight points per contest. Nick Jacobs was a good spark, notching seven points and four rebounds in only 21 minutes per game. Further down the bench is 7’1 Carl Engstrom, who has improved each year, and Retin Obasohan coming off a decent freshman year. Freshmen Jimmie Taylor and Shannon Hale will help right away.

I know Alabama fans are excited about the transfers, Ricky Tarrant and Michael Kessens, for next season, but make no mistake, this Crimson Tide team will win their fair share of games. They should be on the bubble next March.  The Tide have UCLA, Wichita State and Xavier in the non-conference, so the resume issues from a season ago shouldn’t be a factor.

LSU

Perhaps it was the seat getting hot, or maybe he wanted good BBQ, but Trent Johnson’s defection to TCU was stunning. Had LSU not hired one of their own, former player Johnny Jones, the 2012-13 season could have gone done the tubes. In his first year, he coached LSU to a 19-12 season. A lackluster 9-9 mark in the league and a very soft non-conference schedule kept them out of the tourney.

So what puts them on the bubble to start 2013? A solid returning core, featuring Johnny O’Bryant III (led the team in scoring and rebounding), Anthony Hickey (second in scoring, led the team in assists), and Shavon Coleman (second in boards and a double-digit scorer).

That’s a nice start, but it won’t get you to March Madness. So this is where the depth comes into play. First up is Andre Stringer, a popgun, shoot-first guard  standing 5’10. He put up 10.4 ppg with a solid 41-percet from behind the arc. Highly recruited freshmen Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey look intimidating for the frontcourt. Tim Quarterman is already going to split time at point guard with Hickey according to coach Jones. A third freshman power forward, Brian Bridgewater, turned down Arizona and Marquette to sign with his hometown team. Seven-foot Aussie freshman Darcy Malone will be a project. Lastly, both Shane Hammink and Malik Morgan return after averaging 10 and 18 minutes off the bench, respectively.  If one of them shows strides, the depth of this team will be outstanding.

Despite having a lot of returning talent, this team is a bubble team, at best, due to a horrible schedule.  They scheduled just one power league team, a subpar Texas Tech squad, in the non-conference (they also have UMass from the A-10). With that gaping hole in their resume they need to win early and often, especially in the Old Spice Classic.

Mississippi

A tournament team from a year ago, Ole Miss returns the explosive Marshall Henderson. Henderson shows flashes of greatness punctuated with ego and selfishness. That’s just his on-court game. As for away from the hardwood, he is a young man battling his share of demons. The 20-points-per-game kid can be the greatest Rebels hoop star if he maintains the straight and narrow. Assuming he does, Ole Miss is a bubble team once again.

The departures of frontcourt boomers Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner will be difficult to overcome. So how can the Rebs fill their shoes? First of all, returning guard Jarvis Summers will be called upon to increase his nine points per game from last season. Two other guards, Derrick Millinghaus and Ladarius White were reliable role players last year; perhaps they increase their production.

The frontcourt is a mixed bag. Returning players Aaron Jones, Terry Brutus, Anthony Perez and Demarco Cox all have experience, but aren’t legit starters.  Sebastian Saiz, a freshman from Spain, looked good in the U-19. Perhaps he is the answer. Dwight Coleby, a three-star recruit who picked the Rebs over the likes of Memphis, could also clear up the frontcourt. Janari Joesaar is also a new forward, but at 6’6, can’t help at power forward or center.

If Henderson stays out there, this team has an amazing backcourt. If they can get any production from the bigs, Ole Miss should be alright. Admittedly it is a lot of “ifs,” but Andy Kennedy has built a consistent winner in Oxford. He has won at least 20 games in all but one of his seven seasons at the helm. If any team can succeeded with so much uncertainty, it’s a squad coached by Kennedy.

Missouri

Mizzou was a strange team last year, only once winning more than two games in a row after January 1. When it was all said and done, their 23-10 (11-7) record got them into the Big Dance due to some decent non-SEC wins. The up-and-down nature of Frank Haith’s teams leads many to wonder whether he is good a coach. The jury is still out on that one, but this season will go a long way, considering they lost a fair amount of talent. The biggest losses were Laurence Bowers and Phil Pressey.

For the Tigers to succeed, do-it-all Jabari Brown needs to maximize his game. Sitting at 14 points per night with 3.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists is good, but to win consistently Missouri needs him to be great. Helping the cause will be Earnest Ross, who had 10 points and five boards per game a season ago. The 6’5, 228 pound beast of a guard is a matchup headache for anybody. Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson averaged 16.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg and 2.5 apg in 2011-2012- the last time he saw the court. Tony Criswell is also a nice body to have down low, as he played nearly 19 minutes per game coming off the bench.

The new faces also burst with potential. Wes Clark at the point and power forward Johnathan Williams III are both top-100 recruits and can provide an impact from opening night on. Shane Rector and Torren Jones are both three-star recruits, but turned down offers from other power league teams to head to Columbia.

Mizzou’s players are under the radar due to the talent on other SEC teams, as well as Haith’s violation at Miami. Make no mistake, though, this will be a tough opponent for anybody, on any night. Adding to this team’s potential is a terrific home court in Mizzou Arena.

Tennessee

Following a six-point loss to Georgia in early February, the Vols sunk to 11-10 (3-6). Forget the NCAA, this team would be lucky to even sniff the NIT. Then it happened. The team found itself.  They won nine of their final ten, including games against Florida, Kentucky and Missouri. Then they won a game in the SEC Tournament to get to 20 wins. For a Big Ten, Pac 12 or ACC team you would be feeling pretty good about your NCAA Tournament chances. However, due to perception of the SEC, and a loss to Alabama in an ugly 58-48 SEC Tournament Championship Game, Tennessee was on the outside looking in. An opening round loss to Mercer in the NIT concluded the season.

So how does Tennessee get off the bubble and hop into the NCAAs? Experience! Jordan McRae led the Vols in scoring (15.7). He was also a good rebounder from his guard position, getting his teammates involved with several assists per game. He is joined by juniors Jarnell Stokes (nearly a double-double per game last year) and Josh Richardson (a nice, grinding guard). Stokes had a “humbling” NBA draft evaluation experience and used that to trim weight and add to his game. Richardson has reportedly added a nice three-ball to his repertoire. This gives UT the look of a wonderful core from which to grow.

Adding to the potential of this team is Jeronne Maymon, who had 12.7 ppg and 8.1 rebounds in 2011, but missed all of last year with an injury. Rounding out the roster are fresh faces in Memphis transfer Antonio Barton (another scrapper), Robert Hubbs III, and solid recruits A.J. Davis, Darius Thompson and JUCO transfer Rawane Ndiaye.

Like many teams with both expectations and question marks, you look to who might make the leap. Armani Moore logged 13 minutes per game last season, seeing greater action as the season progressed. Derek Reese also hit the hardwood for 13 minutes, but barely saw any action in league play.  Quinton Chievous saw double-digit minutes, with increased time late in the year. If any of these kids can get some meaningful time in the rotation and hit five to 10 points per game, it will help immensely.

With the core intact and some intriguing new faces, Tennessee is one or two guys from not only making the dance, but impacting this wide-open league. Cuonzo Martin has increased his year-to-year win totals at both head coaching gigs he has held. Assuming that plays out this year, this team is good for at least 21 wins. A non-conference slate that includes Virginia and Wichita State will also help the resume, which was the roadblock that kept last year’s team from dancing. There’s a lot to like about this team, but right now they have more questions than answers.