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October 22, 2007
SEC Preview
Teams, Part One

by John Gasaway

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ALABAMA
What Alabama did well: Attack the offensive glass.

In a year when the Crimson Tide's best offensive player--point guard Ronald Steele--struggled with injuries and Mark Gottfried's team had to find other ways to score, Alabama hit the offensive glass with a vengeance, pulling down a higher share of their misses than any other team in SEC play. Only problem: there were a lot of misses to rebound, because this team couldn't hit a shot to save its life (no SEC team fared worse from the field in-conference). And given that the Tide turned the ball over on a relatively generous 21 percent of their possessions, this offense last year was a test case of the following question: how far can outstanding offensive rebounding alone take you? Answer: 1.03 points per trip in the SEC, a rung or two below the conference average.

What we learned in 2007: A team's best offensive player isn't necessarily its key variable.

The Crimson Tide had that weird Georgetown thing going on last year where they were virtually dominant on the offensive glass yet strangely helpless when it came to defensive rebounding. Indeed, if not for South Carolina, they would have been the worst defensive rebounding team in the conference. Odd, yet instructive…

Last year Alabama was ranked as high as fourth in the nation in early December and was widely expected to be the team, if one were going to emerge, that would challenge Florida for supremacy in the SEC. In the end, however, Gottfried's team was able to manage only a 7-9 record in the relatively docile SEC West. This was usually chalked up to Steele's injuries and, to be sure, that didn't help matters. But make no mistake: Steele could have been 100 percent last year and Alabama would have still underperformed, for they suffered a total collapse on defense. Among major-conference teams, only the aforementioned Gamecocks, Baylor, Miami, and Penn State allowed their respective conference foes to score more points than did the Tide, who let SEC foes run right through them to the tune of 1.12 points per possession.

The problem was on the interior, where Alabama had returned everyone of note from 2006, namely Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix. Opposing teams made almost 54 percent of their twos against the Tide in SEC play last year while rebounding no less than 38 percent of their misses. Alabama was simply eaten alive on the inside and it wrecked their season, Steele or no Steele.

What's in store for 2008: In September, Steele announced he's going to redshirt this year and focus on rehabbing his knees. How big a loss is that? If his healthy year in 2006 is any indication, Steele at 100 percent this season would have displayed the same accuracy from outside and the same rate of assists that we saw last year, only with much better shooting inside the arc and fewer turnovers. All well and good, surely, but that alone wouldn't have transformed a team whose debilitating weakness last year was defense. A healthy Steele, by itself, wasn't going to cure all that ails Alabama. His loss hurts, of course, but this team would have faced many of the same challenges even with Steele.

(Forget the knees: Steele made National Honor Society in high school and is on-track to graduate in December after just three-and-a-half years. I, on the other hand, had to utilize the five-year plan in college, so feel free to consider the source here: the attention paid to Steele nationally as a player--he was named a preseason first-team AP All-American last year--might be a little overstated. He is indeed the Tide's best offensive player, but it doesn't necessarily follow that he's an All-American in all but health. In fact, the numbers from his healthy season in 2006 suggest otherwise. Sure, Steele would be a good option for many teams on offense but, when it comes to point guards who score, we'd be well-advised to hold off on anointing him as the second coming of Acie Law just yet. Most notably, Steele's 2FG percentage with sound knees in 2006 was surprisingly weak: about ten points lower, for instance, than Law's last year. Or, to use a different first-round point guard from last season as an example, think of Steele as the polar opposite of Mike Conley. Unlike Conley, Steele's deadly from the perimeter but he's most benign to opposing defenses when he puts the ball on the floor and is little threat to record a steal. Based on performance to date, one read would be simply that Steele's an excellent perimeter shooter who's played a lot of minutes at the point and done a pretty good job.)

With Steele seeing limited action last year, Alabama's most consistent perimeter threat was 6-6 wing Mykal Riley, who hit 37 percent of his numerous threes. Now a senior, Riley will likely continue as the lone spot-up shooter for a team--like LSU, Arkansas, and Florida of late--that doesn't hazard that many shots from beyond the arc. Riley will be joined outside by 5-11 junior Brandon Hollinger, whose 43 percent shooting from outside last year was either misleading or a plaintive cry for more touches, for he shot next to never. Moreover, Hollinger turned the ball over at a high rate last year: about as frequently, per individual possession used, as Steele but without Steele's health-related mitigating circumstances. Hollinger's first two seasons suggest this will be an ongoing concern.

Even without Steele, this team won't be lacking for bodies in the backcourt. Gottfried already has two reserves on hand--sophomores Justin Tubbs and Mikhail Torrance--and now he's brought in two more guards with this recruiting class. Tubbs did traditional freshman penance on the bench last year, but the glimpses he provided suggest the coach might want to see exactly what he has here. At 6-3, Tubbs is the only Alabama player who registers steals and he made the very few shots he had a chance to take; just don't ask him for any assists. The 6-4 Torrance, conversely, will need to cut down on his turnovers dramatically to win more minutes among this group, for the newcomers include 6-1 freshman shooting guard Senario Hillman and 6-3 freshman point guard Rico Pickett.

Down in the paint, 6-8 junior Richard Hendrix will carry a heavy load for the Tide. Most crucially, he's the only proven defensive rebounder for a team that couldn't get any defensive rebounds last year. Hendrix was also Alabama's most efficient offensive player in 2007, making a robust 61 percent of his twos while taking pretty good care of the ball. Joining Hendrix will be Alonzo Gee, a 6-6 junior wing whose athleticism--he's being mentioned as a potential 2008 first-rounder--far exceeded his numbers last year. Available off the bench will be: 6-7 sophomore Demetrius Jemison, whose contributions to date have been purely defensive; 6-9 sophomore Yamene Coleman, who might be Gottfried's best bet for additional non-Hendrix help on the defensive boards; and 6-9 freshman Justin Knox. It's a small group, one that will likely need every bit of offense it can get to offset its defensive shortcomings.

ARKANSAS
What Arkansas did well: Impress the selection committee.

At just 7-9 in the SEC, it's fair to say Arkansas made the NCAA tournament thanks in no small part to the quality of their opponents. Blessed (or cursed) with one of the ten toughest SOS numbers in the country, the Razorbacks may have sported a classic bubble-team 21-13 overall record, but their RPI was actually in the lofty mid-30s. Run-of-the-mill life in the SEC, plus a non-conference schedule that included West Virginia, Texas Tech, Texas, and (most crucially for the numbers) Southern Illinois positioned the Hogs for formulaic success on Selection Sunday. In fact, the November OT win on a neutral floor against the Salukis may have done as much as their run to the SEC tournament title game to get the Razorbacks into the tournament.

What we learned in 2007: Athletic directors can be tougher to impress than the selection committee.

As a man in his position is wont to be, outgoing Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles was more concerned with ticket sales than an NCAA bid, especially a bid that led only to a 17-point first-round loss to USC. And so Stan Heath was shown the door after five seasons at the helm. During the tumultuous search that followed, the Hogs lost out on Billy Gillispie, eyed John Calipari, employed Creighton's Dana Altman for a few dozen hours before he changed his mind, looked long and hard at Winthrop's Gregg Marshall (who subsequently went to Wichita State), and eventually hired South Alabama coach John Pelphrey. As a former Kentucky player and Florida assistant, Pelphrey has some worthy SEC bona fides. Now he's the head man at a program once feared for its "40 minutes of hell" trapping defense. Mindful of this heritage, Pelphrey has pledged to go up-tempo, only this time under a different label: the "mother-in-law defense," i.e., constant pressure and harassment. (For their part, Arkansas fans appear to favor "40 minutes of Pel." We'll see what sticks.)

A change in style in Fayetteville would mean that Arkansas will be fascinating to watch this year: same personnel, new scheme. Newcomers notwithstanding, Pelphrey will have the exact same players that Heath had--everyone's back. And Arkansas already, pre-mother-in-law, had the best defense in the SEC, one that allowed less than a point per possession in-conference last year. Under the Tom Izzo-influenced Heath, the Razorbacks didn't go for steals. They instead stayed resolutely in position and defended shots, and did so very well, as SEC opponents fared miserably from the field against the Hogs. So if Pelphrey follows through on his press conference sound bites, the situation could be summed as follows: the Arkansas D ain't broke but the new coach has promised to fix it. And that is what might be called a gamble. Given a defense that's already the best in the conference and a roster with six seniors, many coaches might wait a year before installing the new system. The gamble will pay off, though, if this year's D is in the neighborhood of last year's but judged more entertaining. Stay tuned.

What really needs fixing with the Hogs is the offense. Arkansas hemorrhaged turnovers last year, coughing the ball up to SEC opponents on fully 23 percent of their trips, the worst mark in the conference. Pelphrey having a sit-down with Gary Ervin and Sonny Weems (suggested opener: "Guys, please stop giving the ball away") could pay nice dividends for an experienced team that already plays good defense. Or maybe Pelphrey can install a "father-in-law" offense, one that's zealously protective of its most cherished possession: the ball.

What's in store for 2008: One player Pelphrey doesn't need to tutor on valuing the ball is 6-1 sophomore guard Patrick Beverley. Though he was thrust into absorbing a large number of possessions in the SEC as a tender freshman, Beverley actually did an excellent job taking care of the ball. That and a free throw percentage north of 80 may be the most impressive traits of the reigning SEC "newcomer of the year."

Illinois rather famously passed on Chicago product Beverley, though, in defense of the Illini, at the time they were registering their non-interest they did think Eric Gordon would be coming to Champaign. (Not to mention there was a time when even Beverley apparently doubted Beverley; he initially committed to Toledo.) In any event, that lack of interest might have been a mistake for Illinois. Beverley's numbers last year weren't necessarily mind-blowing but, seen in context, they were certainly promising: as a freshman playing 86 percent of the possible minutes, he was the most efficient offensive option for an SEC team that (barely) made the tournament. Keep an eye on him.

Like Beverley, 6-6 senior wing Sonny Weems and 6-0 senior guard Gary Ervin each played more than 75 percent of the available minutes last year; no other Razorback was on the floor more than 60 percent of the time. All three are almost identical in terms of shooting from the field, though, as noted above, Weems and Ervin turn the ball over and Beverley does not. Ervin and Beverley more or less shared point guard duties last year but Pelphrey has said this season he might look at giving minutes at the point to 6-2 sophomore Stefan Welsh and/or 6-2 freshman Marcus Britt. Freshmen Nate Rakestraw and Levan Patsatsia, both shooting guards, will be available off the bench.

Beyond the Beverley-Weems-Ervin nucleus and a point guard to be named later, there are big guys. Seven-footer Steven Hill was named SEC defensive POY in 2007 and he was certainly highly visible: like Greg Oden, Hill blocked about 13 percent of opponents' twos during his minutes last year. And in Hill and 6-10 Darian Townes, Arkansas had two of the nation's 30 best shot-blockers last year. As a result, the Hogs' interior defense was far and away the class of the SEC, as conference opponents made only 45 percent of their twos. If Pelphrey's on the level, though, and Arkansas really does go up-tempo, Townes might be better suited to the new style than Hill. Townes does things besides blocking shots (he gets defensive boards, teammates don't fear giving him the ball on offense, etc.) while Hill, by stark contrast, is a true shot-blocking specialist who also struggles mightily to stay out of foul trouble. The Hogs' other proven defensive rebounder, in addition to Townes, is 6-8 senior Charles Thomas, a frequent but inaccurate shooter. Behind Hill, Townes, and Thomas are 6-10 sophomore Michael Washington, 6-10 senior Vincent Hunter, and 6-8 freshman Michael Sanchez. (Although Washington began seeing quality time around the second week in February--and actually started the game against USC in the tournament--his minutes were still too scarce for any predictions to be hazarded.) That's a lot of length: four players 6-10 or taller. If a couple of them can get up and down the floor, 40 minutes of Pel may indeed be hellish for opponents.

AUBURN
What Auburn did well: Hit the accelerator.

Coaches often talk in October, of course, about how their team's going to go up-tempo in the coming year. But it's much rarer to see a team actually do so in January and February. But Auburn did so last year. The Tigers went from a being a hair slower than the SEC average in conference games in 2006 to being, along with Tennessee, one of the two fastest teams in the conference in 2007. Coach Jeff Lebo apparently told his young undersized team to run the floor, and his players responded. The Tigers' turnovers declined dramatically, even as the pace increased; Lebo's offense improved significantly from year-to-year, as AU went a respectable 7-9 in the SEC West. Indeed, if not for a disastrous mid-season 23-point loss at home to Ole Miss (an exception to the 2007 rule: Lebo's team gave the ball away 25 times in a 75-possession game), the Tigers could have been .500 in-conference for the first time since 2003.

What we learned in 2007: A faster pace can actually mean fewer turnovers--for both teams.

Conference games played by Auburn two seasons ago in 2006 featured more total turnovers from both teams than just about any other major-conference games in recent memory. That year, the Tigers coughed the ball up on a notably horrific 26 percent of their possessions, while opponents in those same games gave the rock away on no fewer than 24 percent of their trips. And these games, mind you, were slightly slower than the SEC average that season. (Yes, these were ugly games.)

In 2007, by contrast, the Tigers pushed the pace and, perhaps counter-intuitively, both held on to the ball and gathered in far fewer turnovers from their conference foes. (Opponent turnovers actually fell off even more than Auburn's TOs.) As a result, both offenses on the floor improved last year: Auburn's by quite a lot, but also the opponent's by a little.

Where the Tiger D really got hurt in 2007, though, was outside the arc. SEC opponents made about 39 percent of their threes, and that was the ugliest number for a defense that was one flight of stairs down from the average. Doubtless, part of this was poor perimeter defense but, given that conference opponents made just 36 percent of their threes against similar (and less experienced) personnel in 2006, a larger part appears to have been simply bad luck. Indeed, Auburn was admirably symmetrical last year: their offense and their defense were each almost equally substandard. It's just that their weak point on D--opponents' threes--may prove more amenable to improvement than their failings on offense (namely two-point shooting and turnovers).

What's in store for 2008: Watch for slight improvement from the Tigers this year as opponents make fewer threes and the defense gets a little stingier. And while the offense doesn't figure to shatter any records, keep in mind the core of this team will be playing its third season together; every starter and every key reserve is back this year. Lebo's veterans should at least be able to score points at a rate commensurate with the SEC average.

The shortest distance between Auburn's offense last year and a better one this year would be a straight line through fewer misses from Rasheem Barrett and fewer turnovers from Quantez Robertson. The Tigers missed their share of shots in 2007 and the player behind many of those misses was Barrett. After a promising freshman year in 2006, the 6-5 guard rather ignominiously came in under the perimeter shooting Mendoza line, as it were, with a 29.7 3FG percentage last year. (Barrett fell out of the starting lineup in mid-February and missed all seven of his threes in the Tigers' season-ending loss to Georgia in the SEC tournament.) A career 72 percent FT shooter, Barrett's a better perimeter shooter than he showed last year--his improvement this season (albeit improvement to mere normalcy) will help an offense that badly needs to make opposing defenses respect the perimeter.

Auburn's most efficient starter on offense last year was the player who, by far, shot the least: 6-3 point guard Quantez Robertson. Now a junior, Robertson poses little threat from the perimeter and his turnovers are too plentiful. Nevertheless, his ability to set his teammates up for scores and some good shot selection inside the arc (meaning he didn't take many shots) made Robertson a relative bright spot in an underperforming offense. If he can merely hold on to the ball this season, he will have done a good deal to make this team better.

As the third member of the starting backcourt, Frank Tolbert offset some of Barrett's many misses last year, hitting 38 percent of his threes and 54 percent of his twos. The 6-3 senior guard also manages to get himself to the line with regularity. Beyond Barrett, Robertson, and Tolbert, Lebo will have some experienced depth in the backcourt this season. Sophomore guard DeWayne Reed broke a bone in his foot in August during the Tigers' three-game exhibition tour in Mexico but is expected to be ready in time for the season. Per individual possession, the 6-1 Reed was Lebo's best source of assists (by a hair over Robertson) and was also excellent at swiping the ball away from opposing teams. When not engaged in either of those two activities, however, Reed's presence on the floor was a traumatic experience for Auburn fans last year, as the freshman gave the ball away with astonishing frequency and failed to find the range from inside the arc or out. Archie Miaway, a 6-4 senior, will be still another option for minutes out top.

Lebo's starting frontcourt will be comprised of two 6-7 juniors: Korvotney Barber and Josh Dollard. Barber, as much as any player in D-I, presents opponents with a patently obvious tactical mandate: if he gets the ball, foul him. Given that he makes 61 percent of his twos but just 44 percent of his free throws, fouling him is beyond debate. Opposing coaches certainly don't need yours truly to enlighten them on something so plain and so Barber is indeed hacked silly-and will continue to be until he shows he can hit some free throws. (A fair shot-blocker, Barber is on the floor primarily to provide interior defense for a dangerously small team. At least, that's been the case to date.) Dollard on the other hand is easily the Tigers' best defensive rebounder and can even step out and hit an occasional three. Available off the bench will be 6-8 senior Quan Prowell (a good perimeter shooter) and freshman Boubacar Sylla, a seven-footer from France by way of Stoneridge Prep in California. Auburn's height exists in inverse correlation to its experience.

FLORIDA
What Florida did well: Become the first team in 15 years to repeat as national champion.

Enough said, surely.

What we learned in 2007: Even repeat national champions aren't dominant all the time.

The Florida national championship teams of 2006 and 2007 were each, in their own way, a little more surprising than is generally acknowledged in retrospect.

As for the 2006 team, let's recall what's now too easily forgotten: in late March of that year, the Gators weren't even expected to get to the Final Four, much less win the national championship….

2006 Sweet 16: 
Vegas odds on winning national title 
-------------------------------
Connecticut                 2-1
Duke                        5-1
Villanova                   7-1
Memphis & UCLA              8-1
Florida                    11-1
Texas & Boston College     12-1
Gonzaga                    15-1
Georgetown & LSU           25-1
West Virginia              30-1
Washington                 35-1
Wichita State              75-1
Bradley & George Mason    100-1
 

The odds turned out to be wrong, of course, even moreso with regard to George Mason and LSU than with Florida. But it was a widely shared error--one that could even be understood, to an extent, in light of subsequent events. For instance, that 2006 Connecticut team was judged by the ensuing NBA draft to be the most talented college team in the modern era: five Huskies were selected in the first 40 picks of that draft. Poor scrappy little Florida, conversely, had to struggle along with just one McDonald's All-American (no, not Horford--it was Corey Brewer), one less than you'd find in many one-on-one drills in Durham, Chapel Hill, or Lawrence. So the Gators winning it all that year was indeed a mild surprise, though one that paled beside the shock and awe furnished that March by Jim Larranaga's Patriots.

Of course draft picks and, especially, high school All-American teams merely reflect what we think a player's about to accomplish. Final scores, on the other hand, tell us what teams already have accomplished. Which brings us to the 2007 Gators, a team whose final scores paint a portrait of a surprisingly nondominant repeat national champion. In a year when the SEC was comparatively unthreatening (the conference's second-best team, Tennessee, was given a 5-seed in the NCAA tournament), the defending national champion, which had returned all five starters, closed out the conference season going 2-3 (albeit after a perfect 11-0 start). Moreover, the Gators outscored their conference opponents by a smaller margin, per possession, than did Kansas, North Carolina, Georgetown, Ohio State, Texas A&M, UCLA, or Wisconsin within their respective conferences.

In other words, Florida really was the best team in the country last year. Just not in February:

Florida 2006-07 
W-L by month 
----------------
November     7-1
December     5-1
January      8-0
February     5-3
March        9-0
April        1-0
----------------
Overall     35-5

It's hard to escape the conclusion that Billy Donovan's team simply decided to take a couple weeks off before turning it on, NBA-style, when the time came. And, hey, it worked. The Gators have the trophy case to prove it. Now Donovan, after a June flirtation with the Orlando Magic, is back for another year.

What's in store for 2008: No one in a Gator uniform this year has ever averaged more than six points a game in D-I. So one rough precursor for Florida 2008 might be North Carolina 2006, another defending national champion that donated pretty much its entire roster to the NBA and then backfilled with highly-touted but unproven youngsters. The Heels that year secured a 3-seed in the tournament but were sent home in the second round by those aforementioned children of destiny from George Mason, ending the season at 23-8. Seen from the hazy ridge of the preseason, that's as plausible a ceiling as any for this year's youthful Florida team.

Donovan's most experienced player is now Walter Hodge, a 6-0 junior guard who shot a couple threes per game and made half of them on the periphery of all that talent last year. (Whether a 64 percent FT shooter like Hodge can continue that kind of perimeter shooting remains to be seen.) Another returnee will be Marreese Speights, a 6-10 sophomore who's already demonstrated that he can block shots. That will come in handy: this year's team won't be able to forego D and simply outscore opponents, as did last year's Gators (particularly in the tournament). Donovan will also have a pair of 6-7 sophomores available this year: Dan Werner, who struggled with his perimeter shot last year, and Jonathan Mitchell.

The most heralded newcomers in Gainesville this season are Nick Calathes, a 6-6 wing, and Jai Lucas, a 5-11 point guard (Lucas is the son of former NBA player and coach John Lucas, as well as the brother of John Lucas Jr., who started for Oklahoma State's Final Four team in 2004). Both are McDonald's All-Americans and will be joined at Florida by a high school teammate of Calathes, Chandler Parsons, a 6-9 forward. Other new arrivals include Adam Allen, a 6-8 wing from Milton, Florida, and Alex Tyus, a 6-8 forward from St. Louis. With the exception of Hodge, every player on this roster's either a freshman or a sophomore. This is a very young team walking in some very illustrious footsteps.

GEORGIA
What Georgia did well: Grow into a legitimate SEC offense.

The 2007 season marked year four in coach Dennis Felton's rebuilding effort at Georgia. And while it may seem like it's been a rather slow climb toward respectability for the Bulldogs (a program at last recovering from revelations about Jim Harrick Jr.'s "test," "how many points is a three-point field goal worth?" etc.), the jump that the UGA offense took in Athens last year is definitely a good sign. In the space of a single year Georgia went from having the SEC's worst offense (an honor the Dawgs shared, granted, with Auburn and Ole Miss in 2006) to having one that defined the very essence of "conference average" in 2007. (Bear in mind "conference average" actually sums to a rather desirable adjective when the noun under discussion is an SEC offense or a Big Ten defense.)

The improvement on offense was a team effort to be sure (see below), but if there was a single catalyst behind the transformation it was 6-8 forward Takais Brown. A product of Flint, Michigan, Brown arrived in Athens last year as a junior college transfer and gave the offense a huge lift. Among SEC players, only Alabama's Richard Hendrix was better on the offensive glass in 2007.

With Brown in the paint hauling in his teammates' misses and hitting 57 percent of his twos, the Dawgs were free to fire away from the perimeter. Georgia in 2007 shot a lot more threes than in 2006 and their accuracy improved dramatically. (Meaning their perimeter shooting went from awful to average.) More threes and way more offensive boards: that was the recipe for a resurgent offense and an 8-8 conference record in Athens last year.

What we learned in 2007: Apparently Mike Mercer's an excellent defender--or at least an important one.

Mercer missed the last five games of the conference season in 2007 after suffering a torn ACL at South Carolina on February 10. The first thing to note here is that Mercer's absence had precisely zero impact on Georgia's offense. Indeed, the 6-4 Mercer was a wash on that side of the ball last year as a sophomore. Yes, he took excellent care of the ball and dished assists. Then again, he also shot with remarkable frequency for a player who--not to put too fine a point on it--doesn't shoot very well.

But, interestingly, the UGA defense appeared to take a significant hit in his absence. With Mercer out of the lineup, opponents went nuts from outside, jacking up a lot of threes (fully 43 percent of opponents' shots came from outside the arc) and hitting 42 percent of them. And if that weren't bad enough the Bulldogs' defensive rebounding also declined sharply without Mercer on the floor. As a result, Georgia's SEC foes were able to slice and dice the Dawgs to the tune of 1.11 points per possession after February 10.

What's in store for 2008: On October 11, Georgia announced that Mercer and Brown have been suspended for violating the university's class-attendance policy for athletes. Mercer will miss 15 games and Brown will miss nine. In theory, that would mean Mercer will return in time for all but two SEC games. And it's important for Felton's defense that Mercer return at full speed from what appears to have been a nasty injury (he both tore the ACL and sprained the MCL in his right knee). Of course, Mercer's health or lack thereof is out of his coach's hands. But the good news is there's one change Felton can make this year that's within his control and that would definitely improve the Bulldogs…

Assuming he's able to return from both his suspension and his injury, Mercer needs to shoot much less, at least until he shows he can hit some shots. Mercer was far and away his team's worst shooter and far and away its most frequent shooter. Not a good combination, that. Mercer's misses were a drag on this team: subtract all those clangs, whether through better or simply less frequent shooting from Mercer, and watch the efficiency of this offense improve.

(Mercer's struggles from the field, by the way, didn't signal an instance where a middling team's lone offensive threat is being forced to take "the tough shots." Colorado's Richard Roby in 2007 is perhaps the locus classicus there and he would have given his eye teeth last year to have three teammates, as did Mercer, who hit more than 40 percent of their threes. Mercer's simply a 25 percent three-point shooter who attempted four threes per game.)

Another improvement that might not be too impractical would be better footwork on defense from 6-7 junior wing Terrance Woodbury. The perception that Woodbury represents a defensive liability is so widespread that it's been repeated even by Woodbury himself. ("I'm not a great defensive player.") That may well be true. Then again, a critical part of any defense is ending your opponent's possession after the first shot--and the fact is Woodbury was better on the defensive glass in 2007 than any other Bulldog except sparingly-used big man Dave Bliss. And given that Woodbury hit 41 percent of his threes last year, his defense has to be really bad for him to be anything but a net positive for this team. Anything at or above Adam Morrison-level D, then, should earn him more minutes. (Not to mention Woodbury is a reasonable one-player facsimile of the Dawgs' defense. Pulling down opponents' misses was the strength of a D that wasn't very good at defending shots or creating turnovers last year. In fact Georgia was the best defensive rebounding team in SEC play last year, better even than Florida.)

Felton faces no such either/or conflicts with Sundiata Gaines. The 6-1 senior's remade himself into a decent perimeter shooter ("decent" being the likely ceiling for a 61 percent FT shooter). Plus he dishes assists, gets defensive boards, and records steals at a higher rate than any other player in the SEC. Also available in the backcourt is Billy Humphrey, a 6-2 junior who, like Woodbury, made 41 percent of his threes last year and is probably this team's best pure shooter. Also like Woodbury, however, Humphrey to date has been something of a defensive liability.

The aforementioned Takais Brown was pure (and badly needed) offense last year--once he's back in action, anything he offers on D will be an added bonus. For defense in the paint, Felton has relied on a couple of role players who average about 12 minutes a game: Bliss, a 6-10 senior, hits the defensive glass; Rashaad Singleton, a 7-0 junior, blocks shots. They'll be joined this year by freshmen Jeremy Price (6-9 power forward from Decatur, GA) and Jeremy Jacobs (6-7 wing from Baton Rouge). The Dawgs aren't big but boards haven't been an issue. Opponents' threes have been.

KENTUCKY
What Kentucky did well: Shoot.

A lot's happened since Kentucky lost to Kansas by 12 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Billy Gillispie is being hailed as a savior in Lexington, blue chippers are suddenly falling from the sky, and Tubby Smith's somewhere (way) up north.

But write this in stone: Gillispie's Wildcats won't shoot as well in 2008 as did Smith's in 2007.

That's no mark against Gillispie--it's just that UK couldn't miss from in close last year. Georgetown was the only major-conference team in the country in 2007 that shot better on their twos in-conference than did Kentucky. Put another way: the Wildcats were even more accurate on their twos in SEC play than Florida. And while the Gators were achieving their results with first-rounders manning the 3, 4, and 5 spots on the floor, UK was getting the ball in the hoop mostly without the benefit of NBA-ready talent. (And whether Randolph Morris will be judged ready for minutes there remains to be seen. See below.)

So Kentucky made two-point shots in 2007. And yet they went just 9-7 in the SEC. Fact is, the Wildcats caught their share of tough bounces last year. Outscoring your conference opponents by 84 points over 16 games customarily yields better results than a mere 9-7. Notre Dame, for example, outscored their Big East opponents last year by the exact same margin as did the Wildcats, per possession, and the Irish parlayed that level of performance into an 11-5 record. If Gillispie merely coaches this year's team into performing exactly as well as last year's, then, the odds are good that their record will be better. Not a bad situation for the new coach.

What we learned in 2007: Everyone was always waiting for Randolph Morris to "arrive." Maybe he did.

Morris's career in Lexington was of course marred by eligibility issues arising from a premature and ill-advised stab at the NBA. Then when he finally did get on the court the general sentiment seemed to be that he wasn't as good as he was supposed to be. He wasn't the solution to his team's "problems." Now consigned to languishing on the Knicks' bench for the foreseeable future (and having entered a guilty plea to a reckless driving charge), Morris will likely be remembered merely as a vaguely disappointing player from a mostly disappointing epoch of UK basketball.

For a program with Kentucky's lineage, the recent past has indeed been uneven (though hardly disastrous). And I'm not saying Morris is a diamond in the rough who's going to emerge as the new Tim Duncan anytime soon.

But the fact of the matter is Morris's numbers last year were at least within shouting distance of Al Horford's (ultimate compliment for a big-Horford had a season for the ages) and were clearly superior to those of Glen Davis, whose selection to the media's five-man All-SEC first team was novel, to say the very least, in a conference graced not only with Morris but also Joakim Noah and Richard Hendrix. Morris not only blocked shots better than any other dual-purpose (offense and defense) big man in the SEC, he also recorded better numbers on the defensive glass than anyone in the conference outside of Florida's twin freaks of defensive rebounding--all while making 59 percent of his twos. (Davis made 50 percent, playing almost exactly as prominent a role in his team's offense as Morris did in his.)

Morris never had what you'd call a fiery persona on the court and may indeed have been something of an enigma. He was, however, a productive enigma.

What's in store for 2008: Gillispie's first Kentucky team will have a veteran backcourt, courtesy of seniors Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford. At 6-2, Bradley posted the best perimeter shooting of his career in 2007, hitting 37 percent of his threes. Still, for an 82 percent FT shooter--as was Bradley last year--there's room for further improvement outside. The 6-5 Crawford, by contrast, is better inside the arc. The two seniors' respective virtues (Bradley dishes assists, Crawford takes good care of the ball) and vices (Bradley commits the occasional turnover, Crawford shoots just 64 percent from the line) mean they each net out to about the same level of offensive efficiency, though through very different means. (Note also that Crawford underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in late September.)

The veterans will be joined by 6-4 sophomore Jodie Meeks. Like Bradley, Meeks gives hints of being a pure shooter (he shot 90 percent from the line last year) who's yet to attain his potential from outside the arc (he hit 36 percent of his threes his freshman year). Depth will be provided by highly-touted 6-4 freshman Alex Legion and, if he can return from offseason knee surgery, 6-6 sophomore Derrick Jasper (a pass-first point whose turnovers last year were astoundingly frequent).

Gillispie's first coup at his new job came in May, when he landed 6-9 freshman Patrick Patterson, a McDonald's All-American from Huntington, West Virginia. Patterson is expected to be an immediate starter and is billed in advance as being long, athletic, and SEC-ready. If he can hang on to the ball and grab some of the defensive boards that Morris used to haul in, the freshman will make his new coach very happy. Patterson will join another 6-9 Wildcat, sophomore Perry Stevenson, who's yet to develop a profile beyond that of being a shot-blocker. Then again, a shot-blocker can come in handy--and Stevenson, who suffered a broken nose the first week of practice this year, swatted away twos last year at a rate that was slightly higher than that posted by the taller Morris. And as for 7-2 junior Jared Carter, it's yet to be seen whether he'll be able to return as an effective contributor after having off-season shoulder surgery. If not, it'll mean a rotation with no one taller than 6-9 and could free up some minutes for A.J. Stewart, a 6-8 freshman from Jacksonville, Florida.

One change from the recent past that has hurt the Wildcats: unlike former Kentucky guard Rajon Rondo, no current Wildcat records steals with any regularity. In fact, UK turned the ball over more often (on 21 percent of their possessions) than their conference opponents did last year (19 percent). It was the weak point of a team that shot much better from the field than their opponents. Gillispie's team at Texas A&M last year, conversely, turned the ball over just 17 percent of the time in conference play. So watch for fewer turnovers in Lexington this season. More shot attempts will help offset--and could even, Butler-style, cancel out entirely--the inevitable drop off in shooting accuracy.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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