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

SEC Live Blog: Men's Basketball Tipoff

272 days ago
By Kevin Scarbinsky
Photo: SEC

All of the league's 14 coaches and 28 of its players are gathering today at SEC Tipoff 20 in Birmingham to discuss the season ahead. Check back for updates throughout the day.

7:00 PM CT: Breein Tyree is the man in the mid-range for Ole Miss

The mid-range shot is supposed to be a dinosaur, but not to Ole Miss guard Breein Tyree. The senior from New Jersey is the league's leading returning scorer in large part because he loves and lives in that part of the floor.

"He's got such a great, compact game," Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis said. "He can get separation. He's maybe the best mid-range shooter in college basketball."

Tyree takes pride in his ability to score at every level, from the 3-point line to the goal, but he excels in between. It's the result of years of practice back in New Jersey, where his dad was a physical education teacher with "full-time access to the gym."

"In basketball, two points is two points wherever you can get it," Tyree said. "It's a high-percentage shot for me. It's something I've been working on my whole life. I can do it in my sleep."

It's a big part of the reason Tyree scored 17.9 points a game last season, third in the SEC, which he raised to 19.1 ppg in conference play. He helped lead the Rebels to a sixth-place SEC finish and an at-large NCAA Tournament bid despite being picked to finish last in the league in Davis' first season as head coach.

"You never know when he's going to pop off," backcourt partner Devontae Shuler said. "He's such a great scorer."

As veteran guards, Shuler and Tyree have the primary responsibility of leading the Rebels back to the postseason. As a preseason first-team All-SEC pick, Tyree said he feels a little extra obligation.

"I've gotten a lot of attention," Tyree said. "It's up to me to live up to that and be there for my team."

6:35 PM CT: Nate Oats making basketball fun again at Alabama

Alabama players didn't know a lot about new coach Nate Oats at first, despite his successful run at Buffalo, but they felt his energy. They learned some details about last year's Buffalo team, which led the country in transition points per game and finished fourth in offensive pace of play.

They watched the clips Oats showed them, junior Swiss Army knife Herbert Jones said, "of how much fun they were having."

That enthusiasm has traveled to Tuscaloosa.

"Playing fast brings excitement," Jones said. "We take after him with his energy. He's never down when he comes in the gym."

Oats said he's noticed a positive change in attitude since his arrival.

"We wanted to get that culture back where they actually enjoyed playing basketball again," he said. "I think the guys are loving being in the gym."

Junior power forward Alex Reese is enjoying his leaner frame - "I think he's going to be great in our system," Oats said - and Jones is excited about playing everywhere from point guard to power forward as needed. Oats called Jones one of the better defensive players he's coached who "can be a long-time NBA player" if he improves his outside shot.

"That gives me a lot of confidence," Jones said. "At the same time, I have to put in the work. It drives me to work harder."

Working hard and having fun were baked into Oats' up-tempo system at Buffalo. With players such as Reese, Jones, point guard Kira Lewis Jr. and the versatile John Petty, Oats expects that formula will work at Alabama as well.

"What we did at Buffalo the last four years wasn't easy to do," Oats said. "We're playing the way kids want to play. I think we'll surprise a few people."

6:00 PM CT: A scary commentary from South Carolina's Frank Martin

This is Frank Martin's most talented, balanced, deep team at South Carolina.

Says who?

South Carolina coach Frank Martin.

"It's my opinion," Martin said. "It's something I said. You know I don't bark a lot. When I say something, it's something I believe."

That's saying a mouthful considering what the Gamecocks have accomplished under Martin. Winning 25 games in 2016. Reaching the 2017 Final Four. Finishing in the top four in the SEC in three of the last four years.

Can these Gamecocks be better than those teams? "I have no idea," Martin said, "but this is the most balanced team I've had. If we were playing a game tomorrow, I'm not sure who I'm playing."

Sophomore guard A.J. Lawson no doubt would make the cut. He made the SEC All-Freshman Team last season, and Martin was disappointed that he wasn't one of the 12 players named to this year's preseason all-conference team. Not to mention that the Gamecocks were picked to finish 10th.

"All that's irrelevant," Martin said. "I'm not here to win a popularity contest. I am disappointed our program isn't given more respect."

Lawson said he feels the Gamecocks, despite their recent run, are still searching for respect.

"Truthfully, yes," he said. "We're always the underdog."

To opposing players and coaches in the SEC, they're the all-bite underdog no one enjoys playing.

5:50 PM CT: Vanderbilt's Jerry Stackhouse not your typical college coach

Jerry Stackhouse played 18 years in the NBA, which is 18 more seasons than his SEC rivals combined, but the first-year Vanderbilt coach stands out in ways beyond his 6-foot-6, two-time All-Star stature. His coaching path to the SEC took him through the NBA G League.

In two years as head coach, Stackhouse led the Raptors 905 to two straight G League Finals and one G League championship. He moved from there to an assistant's job with the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, and after two years, he was receiving feelers about NBA head coaching jobs.

Stackhouse wasn't looking to coach in college, but when Vanderbilt Athletics Director Malcolm Turner, the former G League president, called, "it was a hard deal to turn down."

His NBA career, which included playing with Michael Jordan at the end of MJ's legendary run, gave Stackhouse instant credibility with the Commodores.

"Coach Stackhouse deserves all the respect he commands when he walks into a room," sophomore swingman Aaron Nesmith said.

"I have their eyes," Stackhouse said. "I have their ears. I have their attention, having the cachet of being in the NBA because they all want to be there."

Stackhouse has said that the 6-foot-6 Nesmith reminds him of himself but is a better shooter at the same age. Nesmith, who led the team in scoring at 13.5 ppg in SEC games as a freshman, said he feels he "can learn everything" from his new coach since he plays the same position Stackhouse did.

"I know what kind of player he was," Nesmith said. "He was a definite don't-take-no-for-an-answer kind of player."

What kind of college coach will Stackhouse be? He learned from Hall of Famer Dean Smith as a college player at North Carolina but said most of his influences come from his NBA playing days "having an understanding of what works."

5:00 PM CT: Ashton Hagans steps up in Kentucky's proud point guard tradition

How does Ashton Hagans compare to the stellar lineup of point guards that preceded him at Kentucky under John Calipari? It's a distinguished club that includes such big names as John Wall and De'Aaron Fox, now making headlines in the NBA.

"He's a better defender," Calipari said of the sophomore Hagans, but the Wildcats will depend on last season's SEC co-Defensive Player of the Year to do more than create havoc on the defensive end. He is Kentucky's leading returner in minutes, points, assists and steals.

Calipari noted Hagans' strength on the pick-and-roll, which UK didn't run much with its previous point guards, and added that he just needs to build confidence in his jump shot. The media that selected Hagans as a first-team member of the preseason All-SEC team has confidence that he'll deliver.

"Coach is putting a lot on my shoulders," Hagans said. "I have to play a big role for this team."

The Wildcats started last season with what Calipari jokingly called a 70-point loss to Duke - the margin actually was 34 - and finished it with an Elite Eight overtime loss to Auburn. Kentucky grew so much from start to finish that had it gotten past Auburn, Calipari said, "I felt we should've won the national title."

To get there this year, the Wildcats may need sophomore big man EJ Montgomery to make the kind of leap that PJ Washington did a season ago, although Calipari said the 6-10, 228-pound Montgomery isn't the physical "beast" that Washington was.

"What EJ has done is become more consistent offensively," Calipari said. "We're going to ask a lot of him."

If Montgomery and Hagans answer the call, and another highly rated recruiting class steps up, UK should be in position to fulfill its preseason prediction as SEC champions - at least.

4:15 PM CT: How Mississippi State's Reggie Perry spent his summer vacation

Did any SEC basketball player enjoy a more interesting and productive summer than Mississippi State sophomore forward Reggie Perry? After making the SEC All-Freshman Team last season, he added two experiences to his resume that help explain why the 6-foot-10, 250-pounder is both a preseason All-SEC and All-American selection.

First, Perry went through the NBA Draft process before deciding to return to Starkville for his sophomore season.

"I learned a lot of things and got a lot better," Perry said. "You're working out 2-3 times a day, constantly being in the gym, focusing on basketball with nothing else on your mind."

After that intense basketball education, Perry blossomed as a member of the U.S. Under-19 team that won the gold medal in the FIBA World Cup. He was the tournament MVP after averaging 13.1 points and 7.9 rebounds a game, highlighted by a 28-point quarterfinal explosion against Russia.

"I gained a lot of confidence playing with a lot of good players," he said.

Mississippi State coach Ben Howland sounded excited about Perry's continued development as the Bulldogs try to return to the NCAA Tournament. They earned a bid last season for the first time in 10 years after being ranked for most of the season, including 13 straight poll appearances during one stretch. That made Howland the 15th coach in NCAA history to lead a fourth program to the NCAA Tournament.

After Perry's special off-season, Howland said, "I think he'll really, really have a great sophomore campaign for us."

3:20 PM CT: LSU can't wait to introduce freshman phenom Trendon Watford

Skylar Mays is one of the unquestioned leaders of an LSU team coming off the program's 11th SEC regular-season championship and its 10th trip to the Sweet 16. Will Wade has such strong feelings for his senior guard that the LSU coach said he may weep when Mays finishes his college career.

So what does it say about the defending SEC champions that both Wade and Mays, a preseason All-SEC second-team selection, have such high praise for incoming freshman five-star Trendon Watford?

The 6-foot-7, 235-pound Watford, a two-time Alabama Mr. Basketball who led Mountain Brook High School to three straight state titles, made his presence felt during LSU's four-game summer exhibition trip to Spain. Watford led the Tigers in scoring at 15.7 points a game on the trip as they won three of their four games.

"He's awesome," Mays said. "He's got such a mature game. In Spain, he looked like a senior out there. We have high expectations for him."

Wade said he expects Watford, the state of Alabama's all-time high school rebounding leader, to help the smaller Tigers compete on the backboards - and distribute the ball - and score the ball.

"He'll play a big role," Wade said. "He's so good with the ball in his hands. When he gets the rebound, he can start the break. He's a tremendous, tremendous talent, and he'll be a huge help for us. I'm excited about how good he's going to be this season."

The goal for the Tigers, after going 9-0 on the SEC road and winning the league at 16-2, is competing for another conference title and making a second straight NCAA trip for the first time since John Brady was the head coach in 2005 and 2006.

"We don't want to be a one-hit wonder," Wade said. The return of Mays and the addition of Watford should help assure that the Tigers will be fighting for another title.

2:45 PM CT: Like father, like son (to a point) for new Arkansas coach Eric Musselman

Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks once said the only difference between the father-son coaching duo of Bill and Eric Musselman was "their first names."

"I don't know if that's good or bad," Eric Musselman joked.

A long and successful career as a pro and college assistant and head coach, most recently at Nevada where he won 110 games in four years, shows the new Arkansas boss certainly shares his late father's legendary intensity, competitiveness and "love of the game," as Eric said.

Where the son has followed his own path is embracing a more entertaining and high-scoring style that features the 3-point shot. Eric Musselman remembered working as an assistant to his dad with the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves and playing grind-it-out affairs that might end 79-75.

"I told Dad, if I ever become a head coach, I'll never play this style because it's boring to watch," Eric said. He imagines his father up in heaven watching his teams play and saying, "What are you doing? Your team's taking 30 bad shots a game."

The son is doing something right. He won 503 games as a professional head coach, which included two seasons with the NBA's Golden State Warriors and one with the Sacramento Kings.

All-SEC post man Daniel Gafford is gone to the NBA's Chicago Bulls, but the cupboard isn't empty in Fayetteville, where the Razorbacks are the only SEC team to return two of the league's top 20 scorers. Sophomore guard Isaiah Joe is the third-leading returning scorer - after setting a school record with 113 made 3-pointers - and Mason Jones is No. 4 among returning scorers. "We need Isaiah, Mason and Desi (Sills) to knock shots down from the perimeter because of our lack of size," Musselman said. "That'll distinguish who we are, our ability to get extra points behind the 3-point line."

So it's like father, like son - but only to a point.

1:30 PM CT: Tennessee tries to uphold the Rick Barnes standard

There was no mystery to the Tennessee team that spent the entire 2018-19 season ranked in the top 10, lived for a month at No. 1 and finished at No. 6 in the AP poll. Rick Barnes' fourth UT team tied a school record with 31 wins and reached the Sweet 16, and he was named Naismith College Coach of the Year.

Everybody knew the Vols would guard hard and rebound hard, and as Barnes said, "everybody knew when we needed a basket where the ball was going."

The ball would almost always find one of the cornerstones of Barnes' rebuilding job in Knoxville, two-time SEC player of the year Grant Williams or Admiral Schofield. But those stalwarts are gone, along with two other starters and four other players from one of the best runs in Tennessee history.

Now it's up to senior guards Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden to take over the leadership for the Vols.

"They have to lead by example, and they've both done that," Barnes said. "We expect them to be coaches on the floor."

Turner, who will play this season as a graduate student, is the only player left from Barnes' first Tennessee team.

"I remember Coach recruiting me," Turner said. "He said, 'We're going to be good. We're going to change the culture.' Sure enough, that's what we've done."

UT enters this season with a number of impressive streaks. Among them: 26 straight home wins, tied with Buffalo as the longest active Division I streak, and 35 consecutive appearances in the AP Top 25, which ties the school record. Turner said he feels a special responsibility to maintain that level.

"That's the standard we set," he said, "so that's what we're going to do."

12:50 PM CT: Missouri's big man has a mission to play big minutes

You want to make Jeremiah Tilmon Jr. smile. Tell Missouri's junior big man the Tigers were picked 13th in the 14-team SEC in the preseason media poll.

"Of course we saw that," Tilmon said. "It put a smile on my face. Nobody knows how hard we've been working. That just adds fuel to the fire. That's just a number. That can change instantly."

You want to make Tilmon focus. Mention the words "foul trouble."

"I knew I was going to get that question," he said.

"Jeremiah Tilmon is one of the most talented big guys in this conference," Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said. "The biggest thing people ask is how do you keep him out of foul trouble. Thus far, he's done a great job."

Tilmon shot 54.5 percent from the field a season ago, the highest field-goal percentage of any returning SEC player. The Tigers went 10-5 in the games where he scored at least 10 points.

Tilmon said Martin challenges him at practice, sending double-teams his way, telling him he has three fouls and encouraging him not to get a fourth and a fifth before practice ends by moving his feet and keeping his hands up. Tilmon believes improving his technique will increase his minutes, which would go a long way toward proving that preseason prediction wrong.

For Tilmon, sophomore guard Javon Pickett said, "the sky's the limit," including expanding his shooting range to the 3-point line.

For himself and this Missouri team - watch veteran Evansville transfer Dru Smith - Tilmon sees big things ahead. In his words, "Anything is possible."

12:00 PM CT: The Gators land the biggest recruiting fish in Kerry Blackshear Jr.

It's not often a program adds two McDonald's All-Americans in the same recruiting class and neither one is the newcomer drawing the most attention - not just on the roster but in the entire conference.

That's the case at Florida, where graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. has been named preseason SEC player of the year. The skilled and versatile 6-foot-10, 241-pounder proved himself at a high level at Virginia Tech, where he scored 1,152 points and grabbed 616 rebounds in 103 appearances.

Blackshear said he considered transferring to Florida, Kentucky, Arkansas or Texas A&M - where he would've followed coach Buzz Williams - or staying at Virginia Tech. Ultimately, it was "the energy" Blackshear received from the Gator players that convinced him Gainesville was the place for him.

"They were persistent," he said. "Very persistent. They kept engaging me (on the phone and social media). They really wanted me to come, and I really wanted to play with them."

Point guard Andrew Nembhard said he and his teammates "worked really hard" to recruit Blackshear and the two spoke almost daily when it got close to decision time. Preseason practice has demonstrated to the Gators that their efforts were well worth it.

"He's been amazing at practice," Nembhard said. "He's a great teammate. He makes everything easier for us."

Blackshear gives head coach Mike White some much-needed experience on a young roster.

"He's a proven fifth-year producer at the highest level," White said. "Our guys know he's good. He's a high-level communicator. He's a positive reinforcement guy with his teammates. He makes us better, and he makes us a little more confident."

11:15 AM CT: Auburn shoots for a third straight conference championship

Two years ago, they won a share of the SEC regular-season championship for just the third time in school history. Last year, they won the program's second SEC Tournament title on their way to becoming the first Division I program from the state of Alabama to reach the Final Four.

This season, the Auburn Tigers are aiming to earn a third straight conference crown of some sort, but despite that unprecedented run of success on the Plains, leave it to Bruce Pearl to find a motivational edge. The Auburn coach finds it "kind of curious" that none of his players was named to the 12-person preseason All-SEC team as voted on by the media.

Pearl said it's especially "hard to believe" that there are a dozen SEC players better than Austin Wiley, particularly since the injury-plagued senior center "is healthy for the first time in a long time."

Wiley is expected to be a dominant inside presence for an Auburn team that will continue to fire away from the perimeter even though the 3-point line has been moved back for this season. Last season, the Tigers set the SEC record and finished second in Division I history with 454 made 3-point shots.

Senior forward Anfernee McLemore predicted that a healthy Wiley, who earned the team's Mike Mitchell Courage Award for battling through his injuries, "will be the toughest guy in this league to guard."

For his part, the 6-foot-11, 260-pound Wiley said he feels he's as healthy as he's ever been "but there's always another step to take." He wants to improve his stamina and avoid foul trouble because "being on the floor at crunch time is very important to me."

Wiley saved his most confident statement for an Auburn team coming off that historic Final Four run: "Everybody on the team expects to make it back there."

10:40 AM CT: Buzzing about new Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams

Not sure a coach has ever covered as much ground at SEC Basketball Media Days as Buzz Williams. Literally. The new Texas A&M coach walked the platform almost continually during his question-and-answer session Wednesday.

"It's hard for me to stand still," he said.

The Aggies learned that early about Williams, who's coming off a successful run with three straight NCAA trips at Virginia Tech and coming home to College Station, where he was an assistant coach from 2004-06.

"With him," senior forward Josh Nebo said, "it's 24/7 energy. He's never just standing around and quiet."

What stands out to senior guard Wendell Mitchell was the first four meetings Williams conducted with the players after taking the job. Those meetings lasted about 2-3 hours each, Mitchell said, and the coach "didn't say a single thing about basketball."

Williams spent that time talking about life, standards and expectations, getting to know his players as people and letting them get to know him.

"I enjoyed those meetings," Mitchell said. "It was different. Coach Williams is different."

Williams said that, before taking the A&M job, he needed to be convinced that the school was committed to men's basketball.

"After being there 194 days," he said, "I do believe they're committed to doing what it takes while following the rules to have a chance to turn the program around."

10:15 AM CT: All eyes on Georgia freshman Anthony Edwards

All eyes in Athens this season will be on true freshman Anthony Edwards. It's only natural because the 6-foot-5, 225-pound five-star prospect was ranked as high as the No. 1 player in the Class of 2019. He's Georgia's highest-ranked recruit of the Internet age.

Georgia coach Tom Crean said he believes Edwards, who just turned 18, "is going to have a huge impact."

"Right now it's about going from being productive to being efficient," Crean said. "He's got athletic ability and overall ability. He doesn't even realize how fast he is. He can be not only an outstanding offensive player but also an elite defensive player."

Edwards is the biggest name in a recruiting class ranked No. 5 in the nation by ESPN.com, a class that includes five top 100 players, as Crean heads into his second season in Athens. One of the Bulldog veterans, senior guard Tyree Crump, said what impresses him about the highly rated newcomer is Edwards' understanding of the game.

"He's a very smart player," Crump said. "He really knows the game of basketball."

9:40 AM CT: What do you do for an encore after your conference sets a personal best with eight teams reaching the NCAA Tournament and matches your all-time high with 10 postseason teams ... after Bruce Pearl and Auburn reach the Final Four for the first time, giving you six Final Four coaches and eight Final Four programs ... after 12 of your players get selected in the NBA Draft, six in the first round, four in the lottery?

It's a good question - and a good problem to have - for the Southeastern Conference coming off one of the more successful seasons in conference history. Georgia coach Tom Crean pointed out that Auburn reached the Final Four after being the fifth seed (and winning) the SEC Tournament.

"That says a lot about Auburn," Crean said. "It says even more about where this league is from top to bottom."

SEC programs already have begun to step up to the challenge of putting together another special collective season in different ways. First by adding four new coaches, proven winners in Buzz Williams at Texas A&M, Eric Musselman at Arkansas and Nate Oats at Alabama and a big-name newcomer to college coaching in Jerry Stackhouse at Vanderbilt.

Then by signing 18 of the top 100 players, 11 of the top 50 and five of the top 25 in ESPN.com's rankings for the Class of 2019 and compiling five of the top 25 recruiting classes in the country: No. 3 Kentucky, No. 5 Georgia, No. 12 Florida, No. 17 Alabama and No. 21 Auburn.