Men's Basketball

John Clay's SEC picks and projections

John Clay
John Clay

With conference play starting Saturday, why wait until season's end when you can get your SEC hoops scoop at the beginning?

East Division Winner: Tennessee

Defensively challenged Vols have taken some pre-conference knocks, but their strength of schedule, ranked 18th best by computer whiz Jeff Sagarin, should serve Bruce Pearl's team well now that UT can concentrate on league matters.

West Division Winner: Louisiana State

The Tigers are still an enigma — where did that 30-point loss at Utah come from? — under new coach Trent Johnson, just as they were under old coach John Brady, but the Tigers still have the best talent in the division.

Coach of the Year: John Pelphrey

Showing it spends too much time studying football, the league media put Arkansas dead last in the SEC West with its pre-season picks. Since then, in the same week, the Razorbacks surprised both No. 4 Texas and No. 7 Oklahoma.

Coach on the Hot Seat: Dennis Felton

Dennis Felton's neck was under the axe at Georgia before the Bulldogs won the SEC Tournament last March. Now things have returned to normal, and Georgia owns losses to Loyola-Chicago, Western Kentucky and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, among others. Matt Stafford and Knowshon Moreno aren't the only two who won't be back in Athens.

Player of the Year: Patrick Patterson

Jodie Meeks is the league's top scorer, but he's not the best player on his own team. Patrick Patterson takes that honor, and he should take Player of the Year honors, as well. South Carolina's Devan Downey and Florida's Nick Calathes won't be far behind.

Most Improved Player: Michael Washington

A year ago, Arkansas' Michael Washington averaged 4.3 points and 3.9 rebounds. This year, the 6-9 junior is averaging 17.8 points and 10.3 rebounds. He'll get the nod over Florida's Alex Tyus, who's shooting 65.1 percent.

Comeback Player: Jodie Meeks

Jodie Meeks will edge out Alabama point guard Ronald Steele. After missing last year with his chronic knee injuries, Steele is rounding back to form. He scored 23 in the Tide's win over Georgia Tech last weekend.

Best Freshman: Courtney Fortson

Arkansas' rookie point guard, Courtney Fortson, is averaging more than 15 points and seven assists. Hard to argue with those numbers.

Best Pre-Conference Win: Arkansas over Oklahoma

Arkansas' win over Oklahoma was impressive (have we mentioned the Razorbacks?). Maybe the Sooners took them lightly. Texas didn't have that excuse, which makes the win over the Horns even more impressive.

Best Early Road Win: South Carolina over Baylor

Darrin Horn picked up his first big win at South Carolina when the Gamecocks knocked off Baylor in Waco.

Team Most Likely to Flop: Florida

Florida is 13-2 and has the terrific Calathes, but the Gators played a relatively weak pre-conference slate and, even with the improved Alex Tyus, they lack a strong frontcourt presence. Billy Donovan's club barely beat North Carolina State in Gainesville.

Worst Luck of the Year: Andy Kennedy

Mississippi's Andy Kennedy might never, ever return to Cincinnati. First, he's involved in an "incident" with a Queen City cab driver. Then the Rebels lose their best player, Chris Warren, to a torn ACL in the final minute of their loss to Louisville at U.S. Bank Arena. Crippling blow.

Team Kentucky needs to beat: Arkansas

Arkansas. It may not be right, it may not be fair, but UK fans have already noticed that John Pelphrey has beaten more top-10 teams in a week than Billy Gillispie has beaten in his UK tenure. And where exactly did John Leslie go to college?