Former Tennessee guard Dane Bradshaw, a starter on Tennessee's 2007 Sweet 16 team, spoke with me this week to help preview the SEC. Here's his scouting report on the league next season:
1. How do you think the addition of a program like Missouri and to a lesser extent Texas A&M impacts SEC basketball?
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DB: SEC basketball has had its share of national champions with Kentucky and Florida in the past 10 years, but I still think the SEC tends to be underrated when you think of the power conferences. Maybe a lot of that has to do with the emphasis of it being such a football conference, but I think with Missouri and Texas A&M coming in, I think it immediately brings in more attention and more respect across the nation. And of course being a former SEC basketball player, I'd love to see the conference get recognized even more so as a basketball powerhouse and get into that discussion with the ACC and the Big East as one of the elite basketball conferences.
2. Last season, it felt like a foregone conclusion that Kentucky was going to win the SEC because of the combination of newcomers and returners. Kentucky's a favorite again, but does it feel a bit more open this year?
DB: I think it does. Kentucky's the favorite because of the talent level, but last year it had a different feel. Last year, it was all coming together for Kentucky under John Calipari. They had senior leadership with Darius Miller, they had incredible first-round freshman talent and they had a couple really good sophomores. It just seemed like it was going to be really hard to knock them off barring any significant injuries to star players. But this year it's more up for grabs, with Kentucky obviously still being one of the teams who can win it. It's going to be a real interesting year.
3. Would Kentucky still be your preseason choice to win the league then? Or do you see a more veteran team like Florida or Missouri having a chance?
DB: Coach Calipari has said that this group of guys hasn't won anything and that they have all these new faces on the team, but you know what, we've also seen the incredible job Coach Cal has done getting these incredible players that are super talented to come together as one unit. So it's not just based on the fact that they have a talented roster as it is Coach Cal's track record of getting guys to work hard and play together. That's a big part of why they're the favorite in my opinion. There are still some teams capable of knocking them off, but you've got to give respect where respect's due.
4. Cuonzo Martin was in a tough spot following Bruce Pearl yet not having the same talent level Tennessee had during Pearl's best seasons. How impressed are you with the job Cuonzo has done so far?
DB: When Coach Martin first got hired, the fan base, the local media and the national media were all on the same page that it was going to take some time to get it back where it was and that we were going to have to be patient with the program. For him to finish tied for second in the SEC in his first year with that team, that was amazing. If you'd have told us he'd finish tied for second in his first four or five years given all he was coming into, I think people would have taken that. He's done a phenomenal job getting the guys to buy in from the get-go. What Coach Pearl accomplished at Tennessee has also helped. I hated the way it ended for Coach Pearl, but he also showed basketball can be a huge success at Tennessee. It's not impossible to think you can compete for a national championship at Tennessee anymore.
5. How good can Tennessee be this season?
DB: I think they can be great. I really do. Trae Golden takes some heat for turnovers and decisions late in games, but I think he can be one of the top point guards in the SEC. To me one of the other keys is can they knock down shots from the perimeter. Tennessee has [Jeronne] Maymon and Jarnell Stokes down low. They're not the same type of players [Al] Horford and [Joakim] Noah were at Florida, but they're still two huge bodies that attract a lot of attention. Florida was so great because they had guys like Lee Humphrey on the perimeter who could make you pay for doubling down low. My point is can guys lie Skylar McBee and Josh Richardson make teams pay for either doubling in the post or sagging off the perimeter to keep it from getting into the post? If they can, it's going to be a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario for opposing defenses. You can almost be assured that defensively they're going to be good because that's emphasized so much, but knocking down the outside shot is critical for these guys.
6. Who's your early favorite for preseason player of the year in the SEC?
DB: I tend to lean toward a guard in this situation. I lean toward Phil Pressey at Missouri. I haven't seen him play a ton, but I like what I've seen. A lot of it has to do with team success. They've got a lot of transfers coming in. They have tons of talent, but if it goes south, he might still be as good a player but the better the team does, the more success you have in individual awards. Early on, one thing that may benefit him is he's going to be able to catch some teams off guard. When I played, I was more familiar with Auburn's eighth man than I was a team outside the SEC's best player who was up for the Naismith Award. These guys in the SEC, they haven't been exposed that much to Missouri basketball. Sometimes it's human nature for these guys to say, 'Well, I'll really respect him when I see it myself.' That can be to Missouri's advantage.
7. As an opposing player, what's the most hostile arena in the SEC?
DB: It's definitely Rupp. At Florida, they're going to say anything and everything to you and they're creative. They might say something about your mom, your sister, whatever, but the students make it personal. Sometimes that gets players distracted. Other times it can get them more ready to play. Teams and players are so friendly with one-another that it's just not as personal as an old-school rivalry. When the fans bring that out of you, it can be a positive. That's how it was for us at Florida. But as far as the toughest to overcome, it's Rupp for sure. You might see a whole section of thousands of people who look like they've been retired for 10 years and you'd never think they can get that loud, but they can. It's unbelievable. You can't hear each other talking, you can't hear the coaches calling out the plays, you can't hear a teammate call out a back pick. He's mad at you for not hearing him. You're mad at him for not saying it loud enough. It can become a disaster.
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