Sure, we're only about 350 hours (a mere 21,000 minutes, or right about 1,260,000 seconds) from the kickoff to the football season - just a blink of the eye and it will be 7:30 on August 30 at Vanderbilt Stadium. So it's definitely time to talk about basketball now, isn't it? Absolutely!
Back on August 10th, the SEC announced the 2013 conference basketball schedule. Here's how league plays breaks down for the Cocks:
|Jan. 9 at Mississippi State
|Feb. 10 vs. Tennessee
|Jan. 12 vs. Auburn
|Feb. 14 vs. LSU
|Jan. 16 at LSU
|Feb. 16 at Alabama
|Jan. 19 vs. Vanderbilt
|Feb. 20 vs. Ole Miss
|Jan. 22 at Missouri
|Feb. 23 at Georgia
|Jan. 26 vs. Arkansas
|Feb. 28 vs. Missouri
|Jan. 30 at Florida
|March 2 at Texas A&M
|Feb. 2 vs. Georgia
|March 6 vs. Mississippi State
|Feb. 5 at Kentucky
|March 9 at Vanderbilt
The first thing you'll notice is that the league has now finally abandoned the divisional scheduling format; true, the SEC went to a unified standings model for the 2011-2012 season (after Alabama was unfairly excluded from the 2011 NCAA Tournament) but the conference kept the old divisional format for scheduling - i.e., annual, in-season home-and-homes for teams in the same division, and alternating home-and-home games every other year for cross-divisional foes - which had been in place since 1992, when USC and Arkansas joined the SEC.
So what's new? This year, South Carolina will have home-and-home series with three "East" squads - Georgia (which will be our permanent hoops rival until further notice, at least until Greg McGarity complains - I kid, I kid!) along with newcomer Missouri and our more established foe, Vanderbilt. Additionally, we're deviating from recent practice by picking up in-season home-and-homes with two "West" teams - LSU and Mississippi State.
As far as the other three of our old "East" division rivals, instead of home-and-homes, we now play them just once this year - @Kentucky, @Florida, and hosting Tennessee. Of the "other" western teams (i.e., not LSU or MSU) we play @Texas A&M and @Alabama, while hosting Auburn and Arkansas.
So how does the schedule stack up? Frank Martin says "[w]e are extremely excited for the opportunities that the SEC schedule presents." At first I wasn't so sanguine, but looking over the sked, there's some daylight for us possibly to make a run - at least with a lot of hard work and a little luck.. In this post we'll analyze the first half of our conference slate to see what kind of noise we can make.
Keep reading after The Jump.
I think we look good for the first three games. Mississippi State [21–12 (8–8 SEC)] missed out on the NCAA's after an inexplicable late-season swoon, and got bounced in the first round of the NIT - which ultimately cost long-time head coach Rick Stansbury his job. State has had some critical losses (including PG-Dee Bost, F/C-Arnett Moultrie, F/C-Renardo Sidney, SG-Brian Bryant) - representing 84% of MSU's scoring. New head coach Rick Ray (the ex Clemson assistant) will have to basically start from scratch - at lot like Martin. If the Bulldogs have any advantage, it will be a full house at Humphrey Coliseum. We played State tight last season in Columbia (falling 69-67 in OT). If Frank Martin can out-coach Ray, this would be a key road victory. I'm going to be a homer and call it for the Cocks, but really it's a toss-up. Prediction- Win.
Auburn [15–16 (5–11 SEC)] was a big disappointment last season, marred by a second losing season under Tony Barbee and a point-shaving scandal involving junior poing guard Varez Ward. Still, Auburn managed to whip us at Auburn Arena. Veteran guards Frankie Sullivan and Josh Wallace will return to bring some continuity to the Tigers backcourt, but 6'2" F Chris Denson is the best returning forward and after him, the Tigers' frontcourt play drops off.. We should be able to out-muscle Aubie underneath the glass at the Colonial Life Arena. It will be Martin's first home game and we can only hope the fans will turn out to cheer us on; my best guess is that a rocking crowd will carry us to victory over the Plainsmen. Prediction- Win.
Louisiana State [18–15 (7–9 SEC)] was a pleasant surprise last year and made it to the NIT - which was just enough for 4th year head coach Trent Johnson to swing out of Baton Rouge to greener pastures with the TCU Horned Frogs (which at first blush most would see as a step down). Did he know something about the 2012-2013 Tigers we don't? LSU made an inspired hire in Johnny Jones (a former 13 year assistant under legendary Bayou Bengal coach Dale Brown) who led North Texas to a couple of NCAA Tourney appearances. Nevertheless, Trent Johnson's departure saw the loss of lead-scorer C Justin Hamilton to pro ball and guards Ralston Turner and John Isaac to transfer. Along with graduations, the Bayou Bengals are relatively thin and inexperienced; like Ray at MSU, Jones basically has to start from scratch in Baton Rouge. LSU is probably thinking the same thing about us, but we'll be following the Gators into the Pete Maravich Center, so perhaps we can catch them while they're down in the mouth. Plus, it won't be Jones' first home game so the crowd won't be as jazzed. You have to figure it will be a tough get, but the homer in me wants a 3-0 start so I'll bite. Prediction- Win.
The next six games are going to be rougher however.
Vanderbilt [25–11 (10–6 SEC)] were SEC Tourney Champs (ending UK's 24 game tournament winning streak), made it to the Sweet 16 and finished # 24 overall for 2011-2012, but it was bit of a mixed bag for Kevin Stallings' club who had expected to do better than 10-6 in conference play, and had an anemic non-conference record in November and December. Fortunately for us, Vandy loses six players to graduation or the pros - the great John Jenkins foremost among them, as well as key starters Jeffery Taylor, Lance Goulbourne, Festus Ezeli and SteveTchiengang. That's a lot of shooting/rebounding for the 'Dores to replace; Stallings still has talented F Rod Odom and guard trio Kyle Fuller, Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson, not to mention some excellent newcomers (including a target we dearly wanted in Sheldon Jeter). It's becoming a cliche, but like the other guys, the 'Dores are probably going to be down a bit in 2012-2013. They're still going to be better than us; even if Coach Martin can keep the Colonial Life Arena full to the brim, I think the Commodores out-play us in Columbia. Prediction- Loss.
Missouri [30-5 (14-4) Big XII] was one one of 2011-2012's biggest surprises, which saw Frank Haith's Tigers gel into one of the nation's elite squads - finishing second in regular season Big 12 play and sweeping through the conference tournament (and don't let anyone tell you it was expected - Haith had a mediocre record at Miami and was dogged by allegations he was involved in Nevin Shapiro scandal, before getting hired as an also-ran candidate to replace Mike Anderson - poached away by the Razorbacks). Despite the early exit from the NCAA's [falling to # 15 seed Norfolk State], Haith was named the AP Coach of the Year. Critics will say he did it with Anderson's seniors - six of whom he loses: Marcus Denmon. Ricardo Ratliffe. Kim English. Matt Pressey and Steve Moore - representing four starters, one key bench guy and 70% of the Tigers' minutes. Haith does return talented G Phil Pressey and sixth man (now projected starter) Michael Denson, plus he gets 6'8' Laurence Bowers back from ACL surgery, some key transfers who will become eligible and a five star recruit in Jabari Brown (eligible in January). In a recurring meme, Mizzou won't be as strong as they were in 2011-2012, but like Vandy, they'll be stronger than we are - particularly at Mizzou Arena. Prediction- Loss.
Arkansas [18–14 (6–10 SEC)] was up-and-down last season - practically unbeatable at home, and hopeless on the road through the first two-thirds of conference play - before faltering down the stretch losing five of their last six (gaining their sole road win at Auburn). The Hogs lose a few role players to graduation/transfer on an otherwise exceptionally young squad; they do, however, get the super F Marshawn Powell back. Mike Anderson will bring his up-tempo style to the Hogs, but he will need a couple of seasons to recruit players to fit his system. Even with Powell back, I like our chances against the Hogs at the Colonial Life Arena. Prediction- Win.
Florida [26–11 (10–6 SEC)] having made it to the Elite Eight in back-to-back years, Billy Donovan is building the Gators back to elite status. Losing Bradley Beal early to the NBA was a big blow, and G Erving Walker exhausted his eligibility; but unlike a lot of other SEC teams, the Gators return a bunch of veterans, including G Kenny Boynton and C-F Patric Young , as well as F Erik Murphy and G Mike Rosario, Donovan will be looking for big things especially from Murphy and Rosario This Gator team is almost a lock to return to the NCAA's - chalk full of 5 stars and McDonald's All Americans in the veteran ranks. This year's recruiting haul was not as strong overall as some of Donovan's prior classes (which is odd considering how well the Gators did), but that is only by a matter of degree - the headliner is big-time PG Braxton Ogbueze, who will probably see a lot of p.t. Having to play them at the O'Connell Center, where they were practically unbeatable last year (losing only a head-scratcher to the Tennessee Volunteers late in the season), will only make the task that more daunting. The best news is that we don't have to face USC transfer Tre Harris - at least next year. Prediction- Loss.
Georgia [15–17 (5–11 SEC)] was one of the weaker teams in the conference - splitting the home-and-home with the Gamecocks - mostly due to the early defections of Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie to pro ball at the end of the 2010-2011 season. Last year, Mark Fox was able to bring in some great freshmen in McDonald's All American G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montenegro hoops sensation F Nemanja Djurisic, who will both be depended on to mature into leaders and scorers as sophomores. Losing seniors Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware, however, will be a big hit to this squad- especially prolific scorer Robinson. Fortunately for Fox, he has some good height on the frontcourt (including 6'9" Donte Williams, 7'0" John Florveous and 6'10" Tim Dixon); he also brought in a meat-and-potatoes recruiting class that will bring more depth throughout the roster. This will be our 100th meeting with the Bulldogs (which Georgia owns a slight advantage 51-48 due to Darrin Horn's 1-4 record against the Red and Black in our last five meetings). Both teams have a wide-edge in the win column on their respective home courts, however (Georgia is 30-15 against us in Athens; the Gamecocks are 30-16 against UGA in Columbia). Based on the history, another split season seems rational; a big home crowd may be just what the doctor ordered. Prediction- Win.
Kentucky [38–2 (16–0 SEC)]. What can you say about John Calipari's Wildcats? A perfect SEC regular season run. A national championship. Only two losses - to Indiana and Vanderbilt. Six players drafted into the NBA, including the first ever number 1 and number 2 overall draft picks from the same team in Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. So can we expect them to be down this year? No way. The 'Cats have reloaded, especially with recruits 6'10" Nerlens Noel (C), 6'7" Alex Poythress (PF) and 6'4" Archie Goodwin (PG), not to mention transfer Ryan Harrow from NC State. It's fair to say that Kentucky has transcended the rest of the conference; Calipari openly courts one-and-dones and last year's championship run will be a billboard for UK hoops for the foreseeable future. Having to play them at Rupp Arena probably doesn't mean anything - barring an epic and improbable collapse, the Wildcats will beat you on your court, their court or a neutral site, no matter which edition. Maybe we can keep it respectable. Prediction- Loss.
Prediction at the half-way point: 5-4.
Yes, yes. I know that's probably highly unrealistic now that I look at it. Call it a best-case scenario if it makes you feel any better. We'll probably be heavy underdogs at MSU and LSU, and Georgia - at least on paper - looks to be the better team, so that midway record might just as easily be 2-7. Nevertheless, I'm sticking with it for the time being, on the basis of Frank Martin's coaching skills and my supposition that both Bruce Ellington and Shaq Roland will join the team after football season.
Stayed tuned for Part 2 where we roll through the second half of conference play.