South Carolina basketball beat writer David Cloninger looks at every other team in the SEC as the season approaches
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Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Bruce Pearl (First season; 462-145, 20th season)
2013-14 record (SEC finish): 14-16 (6-12)
2013-14 postseason: None
He’s outta here: Coach Tony Barbee; Chris Denson (senior, 19.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg); Allen Payne (senior, 7.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg); Asauhn Dixon-Tatum (senior, 6.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg); Dion Wade (transferred to Miami (Ohio), 3.0 ppg, 1.3 rpg); Benas Griciunas (transferred to Charlotte, 2.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg); Alex Thompson (leave of absence, 1.0 ppg, 1.5 rpg); Ronald Delph (leave of absence, redshirted last season)
He’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): Pearl; 6-7 F Cinmeon Bowers (transfer from Chipola (Fla.) Junior College); 6-0 G Kareem Canty (transfer from Marshall, will sit out this year); 6-0 G K.C. Ross-Miller (transfer from New Mexico State); 6-1 G Antoine Mason (transfer from Niagara); 6-7 G T.J. Lang; 6-8 F Jack Purchase; 7-1 C Trayvon Reed (transfer from Maryland, eligible in December)
Top returners: 6-4 G K.T. Harrell (18.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg); 5-9 G Tahj Shamsid-Dean (9.5 ppg, 1.5 rpg); 6-3 G Malcolm Canada (2.8 ppg, 1.7 rpg)
Bruce Pearl looked the same as he did when he was leading Tennessee to superb heights, except not decked out in orange (or orange body paint). You can tell how enthusiastic he is to be back in the game and back in the SEC, and how enthusiastic the league is to have him back. It may not be the immediate success it was with the Volunteers, but Pearl has already injected a new energy into a program that desperately needed it.
“There’s not enough paint in Auburn to paint this body right now,” Pearl joked. “The reception’s been terrific. I think it helped that I had been in the SEC before and the fan base and the SEC marketplace, the footprint, had seen what we were doing at Tennessee.”
They did see that – the numerous tournament appearances, the wins over Florida and Kentucky, the upset of No. 1 Kansas. Tennessee fans made no bones about how badly they wanted Pearl back, but it was Auburn that won the Pearl Sweepstakes.
At SEC Media Days, Pearl talked about Tennessee because he had to. It’s a major part of his life. He pointed out that he will always love Thompson-Boling Arena, from seeing two of his kids graduate there to remembering every step of the hallway to his former office.
But it’s a part of his past, not his present and future.
“I’m blessed to be at Auburn. I am an Auburn man,” Pearl said. “I will do the best I can to represent Auburn, but in some ways, I’ll still be a Vol for life.”
Barbee (who has been added to Kentucky’s staff as a special assistant) never got the Tigers off the ground. He had four losing seasons and his program was rocked by massive player attrition. With Pearl available during the last offseason (although any school would have to present a show-cause reason to the NCAA on why it wanted him), athletic director Jay Jacobs acted swiftly. Barbee was fired barely after the horn finished sounding in an SEC tournament loss to South Carolina.
The agreement was quickly reached and Pearl was on the Plains. Although he couldn’t recruit until the show-cause penalty expired, his staff was able to wrangle several key transfers – Mason, the son of former NBA veteran Anthony Mason, is the country’s leading returning scorer and Reed will be eligible for the SEC season.
The Tigers don’t have a lot of returning talent outside the explosive Harrell, but Auburn was picked to finish eighth at SEC Media Days. Why? Pearl.
The thought is that Pearl will find some way to win some games he shouldn’t, and really kick-start the reclamation project. He does have a game against his old team, Milwaukee- Wisconsin, and plays at Colorado, vs. Tulsa and Oklahoma State/Oregon in Las Vegas, at Texas Tech, at Clemson, and hosts Coastal Carolina and Xavier. But, of the first half of SEC play, there’s only one difficult game – at Florida. The rest are all very winnable, especially the game everyone wants to see – at Tennessee on Jan. 31. The spotlight will be bright but the Vols aren’t expected to have a very good year. Auburn gets through that stretch 6-3 or better, it’s set up to make a run at a top-half finish.
I believe most want Pearl to do well. He was justly fired from Tennessee for misleading the NCAA, but compared to many violations in the sport, he didn’t do anything that terrible. His main crime was lying to the NCAA when they knew he was lying, causing them to hammer him perhaps more harshly than they normally would have.
The guy is great for a league that tries very hard to prove it is more than Kentucky and a couple of other good teams every season. He’ll win. It just may not be right away.
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Terri Williams-Flournoy (38-30, third year; 181-138, 10th year)
2013-14 record (SEC finish): 19-15 (7-9)
2013-14 postseason: Third round, WNIT
She’s outta here: Tyrese Tanner (senior, 17.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg); Peyton Davis (senior, 6.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg); Meagan Tucker (transferred to Furman, 3.2 ppg, 1.0 rpg); Keonna Farmer (transferred to UAB, 0.8 ppg, 0.8 rpg); Melinda Brimfield (undisclosed, 7.0 ppg, 1.0 rpg);
She’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 5-8 G Bria Johnson; 6-2 F Jazmine Jones; 6-2 F Jessica Jones; 5-8 G Neydja Petithomme; 6-4 F Asia Robeson
Top returners: 5-10 G Brandy Montgomery (11.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg); 6-3 F/C Tra’Cee Tanner (10.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg); 6-1 G Hasina Muhammad (9.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg)
After two 19-15 seasons and WNIT berths, Williams-Flournoy is guiding a program that may be one of the surprises of a very deep league this year.
Auburn lost its best player in Tyrese Tanner, but returns its top three scorers after her and added a very solid recruiting class. Robeson, the No. 5 forward and No. 22 overall player in the country, headlined a group featuring the 6-foot-2 Jones sisters and Petithomme, the No. 19 guard in the nation.
“Coach Flo” is steadily putting her touch on Auburn, much like Dawn Staley did at South Carolina after a strong run at Temple. The recruiting is starting to pick up, and the home arena is proving difficult – the Tigers only lost five games at Auburn Arena last season, and only one (Missouri) was shocking. The others were to Vanderbilt, USC, Kentucky and Texas A&M, the latter three ranked in the Top 20 at the time.
It may be a struggle this year as the freshmen get acclimated, but Montgomery and Tra’Cee Tanner are a solid nucleus to build around. Mississippi State may be the best bet for a sleeper pick in the league, but Auburn may challenge it.
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