The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference
The Official Website of the Southeastern Conference

SEC Tipoff Blog: Men's Basketball

413 days ago
Photo: SEC

6:50 PM CT: Georgia

It wasn't news to new coach Tom Crean that football's kind of a big deal at Georgia.

"I knew that walking in," Crean said. "I've embraced it."

Crean has a football background of his own. Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh is his brother-in-law. As an assistant to Tom Izzo at Michigan State, Crean admired the relationship between Izzo and football coach Nick Saban.

"I always wanted something like that," Crean said, and he's developing that kind of bond with Kirby Smart.

"But it's more than football," Crean said. "Sports at Georgia is fantastic. There's no reason we can't be successful. I never looked at it as a football school. I looked at it as a fantastic school for athletics and academics."

Crean's biggest concern in his first season with the Bulldogs is expectations - not from the fans but from himself for his players.

"I've got to make sure we don't have an expectation too high for where we are and where we aren't."

Crean gets his first gauge with a Thursday night charity exhibition game at UAB to benefit the American Red Cross in support of disaster relief efforts.

"We're not even close to being prepared to play a game," Crean said. "It's far too early to play, but it's for a good cause. I'm glad we're doing this."

6:30 PM CT: Auburn

Bruce Pearl wants you to know something. Yes, Auburn is coming off its first SEC regular-season championship since 1999, but no, the fun isn't over.

"Last season was not a one-season wonder," Pearl said. "We're trying to make history and keep it going."

Bringing back athletic center Austin Wiley, who's dealing with a foot injury at the moment, and dangerous shooter Danjel Purifoy will help, but for the Tigers, it all starts with junior point guard Jared Harper and senior shooting guard Bryce Brown. Pearl called the pair "probably as good a backcourt as I've had."

Their personalities are perfect for a team trying to avoid complacency because, as Pearl said, "they both play with chips on their shoulders." As Harper said, "We've had that chip our whole lives."

How will Brown and his teammates keep that edge on a team picked to finish third in the SEC?

"It's the feeling of winning," he said. "We don't ever want to go back to those years when we were losing. Winning feels really good. We just want to build on that."

Brown expressed confidence that the Tigers will keep that good feeling.

"We're deep in guards," he said. "We're deep in bigs. I feel like we can go as far as we want to. It's up to us."

6:00 PM CT: Florida

Florida coach Mike White has an interesting challenge this season. For the first time in his coaching career, he gets to coach a five-star prospect in point guard Andrew Nembhard.

"It's foreign to me and my staff," White said. "It's not foreign to the University of Florida."

Nembhard has the challenge of following the veteran Chris Chiozza, who was a security blanket for the Gators, leading them to the 2017 Elite Eight and finishing last season as the program's career leader in assists.

Chiozza, senior guard Jalen Hudson said, "was so experienced. His IQ was so high. I felt he was so far above the other point guards in the league."

But Hudson, White and senior center Kevarrius Hayes all expressed confidence in the 6-foot-4 freshman Nembhard.

"Cheese was a great player," Hudson said. "Andrew is a great player as well."

"For a freshman, he has a lot of poise," Hayes said. "He's a really great passer."

White called Nembhard "an elite passer" and more. "Regardless of where he was ranked, he's a high-character guy, a high-IQ guy."

Sounds like the perfect fit for a Florida team with "a high ceiling," Hayes said. "A high, high ceiling. All we have to do is put it together."

5:15 PM CT: Missouri

Let Jontay Porter describe the roller coaster of emotions the Missouri basketball program experienced last season.

After the Tigers signed his brother, the heralded Michael Porter Jr., "the expectations were at an all-time high."

After Michael hurt his back in the season's first game, "everybody was like, 'Mizzou's back to being Mizzou.' "

Not so fast. Instead of rolling over, the Tigers finished in a tie for fourth in the league, their best conference finish since joining the SEC, and they reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time as an SEC member.

As Jontay Porter said, "We surprised a lot of people."

The 6-foot-11, 240-pounder was a pleasant surprise of his own as a freshman. He emerged as SEC Co-Sixth Man of the Year, leading the team in rebounding and blocked shots. After testing the NBA Draft waters, Porter has emerged as a more assertive offensive presence in the low post, Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said.

"The biggest growth in his game is the ability to post up," Martin said. "He's dominating the ball in the post. He grew up a lot from the whole experience."

Porter agreed.

"I think I'm there," he said. "I think I'm ready."

4:00 PM CT: LSU

Tremont Waters tested the waters. No, seriously.

"I got a lot of jokes about that because of my last name," he said, but the benefit of submitting his name for the NBA Draft was no joke. The LSU point guard, who made last year's Freshman All-SEC Team, returns for his sophomore season better for the experience after going through workouts and evaluations with NBA teams.

"Last year I didn't have the hunger and the mindset I have now," Waters said. "After the workouts, I feel like I'm a totally different person. My mindset is different, and I'm able to trickle that down."

As good as Waters was as a freshman, finishing No. 8 in the league in scoring, No. 2 in assists and No. 1 in steals, the Tigers will need even more leadership from him this time around. Will Wade signed the nation's No. 4 recruiting class according to the 247Sports.com composite.

LSU overachieved last season. After being picked last in the preseason - and staring at those rankings in the weight room daily - the Tigers finished ninth. They're picked sixth now, but Waters said, "I think that's still not good enough. We have to prove we're No. 1 in the league."

Wade said a thicker, stronger Waters, with an improved jump shot, can help push the team in that direction. The coach already has seen the benefit of Waters testing those waters.

"I thought the feedback he got was great," Wade said. "It's really narrowed his focus and helped him become the player we know he can be."

3:00 PM CT: Arkansas

Mike Anderson may have the youngest team he's ever coached, but his SEC opponents aren't going to feel sorry for him. His Arkansas team still has Daniel Gafford.

The 6-foot-11, 234-pound Gafford returning for his sophomore season "was huge for our basketball program," Anderson said. Gafford was the first freshman in program history to record 400 points, 200 rebounds and 60 blocks.

Alabama's Avery Johnson said Gafford "has lottery-pick talent."

Kentucky's John Calipari called Gafford "special. He has some things the normal human does not have."

Gafford gained even more valuable experience in August as one of 25 college players to participate in the Nike Skills Academy, where his favorite memory was playing alongside NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors.

"At first, I was shell-shocked," Gafford said, but then he settled in and played like a preseason first-team All-SEC selection. What was his reaction when he learned of that honor?

"I gave myself a pat on the back and said, 'Work hard to get picked again - at the end of the year.' "

2:15 PM CT: Tennessee

A select panel of SEC and national media members made Kentucky the preseason choice as SEC champion. Mississippi State coach Ben Howland begs to differ.

His pick? Defending co-champion Tennessee.

"They return everybody from the team that was the regular-season champion last year," Howland said. "There's no question in my mind they're the team to beat. I think they beat Kentucky twice last year if I'm not mistaken. How are they not the favorite?"

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes has an answer. Last year is last year. This year's SEC "is probably the deepest it's ever been." Last year the Vols were picked to finish 13th, and "nothing's going to be given to anybody in this league."

The Vols have a realistic chance to go back-to-back because they return all five starters, led by SEC player of the year Grant Williams. The 6-foot-7, 236-pound junior forward is the preseason pick to earn that honor for a second straight year, which no one in the conference has done since Corliss Williamson of Arkansas in 1994 and 1995.

"If you focus on the now, you'll leave a legacy in that way," Williams said. "We want to leave a lasting impression with this team, even with Coach Barnes. Ten years from now, we want him to say, 'This was one of the favorite teams I ever coached.' "

1:45 PM CT: Mississippi State

Expectations? Bring 'em on, Aric Holman said. The Mississippi State forward is well aware that the Bulldogs, coming off a run to the NIT Final Four, have been picked to finish fourth in the SEC and are a popular preseason choice for the top 25.

He likes the fact that outsiders like the potential of this team.

"Absolutely," Holman said. "It adds more motivation to me and my teammates. We like having pressure on our shoulders. It keeps us locked in."

Fellow senior Quinndary Weatherspoon understands the flip side of those expectations.

"People will come out and play harder against us because they say we're one of the best teams in the SEC," Weatherspoon said. "Every night, we're going to get everyone's best shot."

The Bulldogs seem equipped for that challenge. Coach Ben Howland returns his top six scorers from a 25-win team, led by the 6-foot-4 Weatherspoon and the 6-10 Holman. Having enjoyed some NIT success, their goal is to lead the Bulldogs back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.

"It'll mean a lot because it's been so long," Weatherspoon said.

Holman added, "I wanted to help make changes around Mississippi State basketball. That was my goal from the jump when I got on campus."

1:15 PM CT: Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew doesn't pull any punches. Freshman point guard Darius Garland, the centerpiece of the most decorated recruiting class in program history, "is the leader of our team."

The consensus five-star recruit, who's expected to set the table for fellow freshmen Simisola Shittu and Aaron Nesmith and the rest of the Commodores, sounds like a young man ready to accept that responsibility.

"I'm the leader of the team," Garland said. "It's hard to say that as a freshman, but Coach Drew told me I had the keys to the car."

The 6-foot-2, 175-pound Garland described himself as "a pass-first point guard, but I can score at a high rate if I need to." His role models at that position include Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving.

As a Nashville native, Garland is an especially significant addition to the Vanderbilt roster. Despite a flood of offers from other schools, including the likes of Kentucky, he decided to stay home to play his college basketball. If trying to live up to his billing as a hometown hero sounds like pressure to you, it doesn't to Garland.

"I don't really see it like that," he said. "I just want to win games. I know the city has my back. I know my teammates and my coaches have my back."

12:40 PM CT: Kentucky

Reid Travis was a big man on campus at Stanford. He was a first-team All-Pac 12 choice last season, one of just three players in school history with at least 1,400 points and 700 rebounds in fewer than 100 career games.

Then he graduated and transferred to Kentucky for his final college season.

"I felt like a small fish on that campus (at Stanford)," Travis said. "Now I'm at a place where basketball's the center."

The 6-foot-8 Travis is a big man, Kentucky's only representative on the preseason All-SEC team, but by one measure, he's not as big as he used to be. At coach John Calipari's urging, he's slimmed down from 262 pounds to 245. By eating clean and staying in the gym, Travis said, "I feel I'm moving a lot quicker and finishing above the rim a lot more."

He's also still pinching himself that he gets to play at tradition-rich Kentucky, which is the preseason pick as SEC champion by a panel of SEC and national media members.

"To put on that blue, to put on that white, to look down and see Kentucky on my chest, it's still unreal to me," Travis said. "Every day, I learn more about the tradition. It makes you want to do your part for the tradition."

11:45 AM CT: Texas A&M

Billy Kennedy is still getting used to the new up-tempo style he's installed this year at Texas A&M after saying good-bye to twin towers Robert Williams and Tyler Davis, who turned pro after lifting the Aggies to last season's Sweet 16.

"I see him scratching his head at times," senior guard Admon Gilder said.

But it just makes sense for a team whose strength has shifted from the post to the perimeter to play to its talent. For the Aggies, it's a veteran backcourt led by Gilder and sophomore point guard TJ Starks.

Ask them about playing at a faster pace, and watch them smile.

"I appreciate it," Gilder said. "I enjoy practice. I enjoy shooting a quicker shot. When you come across halfcourt and feel it, you feel it."

"I love it," Starks said. "I love everything we're doing. We're running, looking for the (fast) break. It's definitely more fun."

"It may bring Coach a few long nights," Gilder said, "but our guys are really buying in."

11:30 AM CT: Ole Miss

Kermit Davis Jr. had the SEC in his blood long before leaving Middle Tennessee, where he was the winningest coach in school and Sun Belt Conference history, to take over the Ole Miss program. He's a Mississippi native. His dad coached in the conference. He worked as an assistant at LSU.

So when he talks about the quality of basketball in the conference, you should listen.

"It's the best the league has ever been in the history of the league, top to bottom," Davis said.

It's more than a league-record eight SEC teams reaching the last NCAA Tournament. It's basketball recruiting starting to resemble the unparalleled football recruiting in the conference, Davis said, "where you can have the No. 10 class in the league and still be in the top 25 in the country." It's the funding of basketball across the board, which is "better than it's ever been in the history of the league."

It's "total commitment" to basketball at each program, which helped convince him to take the job in Oxford.

"You want to coach against the best coaches? You want to play against the best players?" Davis said. "I don't think there's any question in anybody's mind the SEC is the best basketball league this season."

10:45 AM CT: South Carolina

How raw was Chris Silva when he started his college career at South Carolina?

"I didn't know the offense," the senior big man said. "I didn't know technique."

So coach Frank Martin made a deal with him.

"Coach said, 'You grab a rebound, you'll be in the game.' "

Silva has done so much more since. The 6-foot-9, 223-pounder was a first-team All-SEC selection in 2018 and co-defensive player of the year in the conference. He's a first-team All-SEC preseason selection heading into his senior year.

"Here's where I get excited," Martin said. "I go on track record."

Martin then compared Silva's development to that of former Gamecock stars Michael Carrera, who led the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots as a senior in 2016, and Sindarius Thornwell, who matured into the SEC player of the year as a senior on a team that reached the 2017 Final Four.

"Chris is like that," Martin said.

High praise, but even as a senior leader, Silva still encourages Martin to push him toward greater heights.

"Sometimes I'll make a mistake to get him to yell at me," Silva said. "If he doesn't yell at me or pay attention to me, that's bad."

10:15 AM CT: Alabama

Better than a team that won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2006? Better than a team that featured an NBA lottery pick at point guard? Better without Collin Sexton?

That's the plan at Alabama, where the cupboard is far from bare. The Crimson Tide returns four starters, 10 lettermen, 69 percent of its scoring and 80 percent of its rebounding.

"Hopefully, we won't be so easily scouted," coach Avery Johnson said. "Collin was an alpha dog. Teams could load up their defense to try to shut him down. We may not have one guy who can get us 20 points every night. I'm hoping we'll have four or five guys who can get us 14 or 15."

Johnson said he plans to use four different players at the point. Dazon Ingram will start, with help from Avery Johnson Jr., Swiss Army knife Herb Jones and 17-year-old Kira Lewis, who graduated from high school and reclassified to enroll at Alabama this year.

"He's young, but he's talented," Johnson said of Lewis. "There won't be age discrimination. If he can help Alabama win games, he's going to be on the floor."

Sophomore guard John Petty said he's confident Alabama can accomplish more even without Sexton.

"What gives me confidence is the guys we have coming back and coming in," Petty said. "We're going to try to wrap it all together and do something positive."