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October 27, 2008Even Mark Gottfried was scratching his head after the media picked Alabama to win the SEC West in the league's preseason poll.
"We're a team that struggled last year and we lost our best player in (Richard) Hendrix to the draft," the Crimson Tide coach said at SEC Media Days last week. "We lost a great perimeter shooter in Mykal Riley, who graduated. We have a lot of questions marks, so I was surprised."
Hendrix was Alabama's leading scorer and rebounder. The Tide's hopes rest on the return of guard Ronald Steele, who Gottfried says finally is healthy and ready to go. Alabama will also be counting on senior guard Alonzo Gee and five-star freshman forward JaMychal Green. For our experts, that requires too much of a leap of faith to pick 'Bama to win the West.
Basketball editor Bob McClellan and staff writer Andrew Skwara prefer the media's other choices to win the West. Here are their selections:
McClellan's pick: LSU
New coach Trent Johnson could care less that the Tigers got just as many first-place votes as Alabama.
He's busy installing his system and instilling his beliefs on John Brady's former charges.
The 2007-08 Tigers endured multiple injuries, and Brady was fired midseason. In comes Johnson, who led Stanford to three NCAA tournament bids in his four seasons there.
Understand this: The Tigers will be a more disciplined team that will play better defense and rebound with tenacity. It's what Johnson preaches, and he will accept nothing less. He will tell you repeatedly that good teams are predicated on defending and rebounding.
"Adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it," Johnson said at SEC Media Days last week. "This team won 13 games (last season) and lost 18. That's not very competitive."
The talent level is good enough to win the West. Guard Marcus Thornton (19.6 ppg) ranked second in the SEC in scoring. Center Chris Johnson ranked second in the SEC in blocked shots (2.6) and has impressed his new coach with his athleticism and desire to improve. Forward Tasmin Mitchell, one of the Tigers' best players in 2006-07, is returning from a stress fracture in his left leg that caused him to miss almost the entire season (he played three games).
With those players and some other pieces - and a coach committed to getting the most out of them - LSU will win the West.
Skwara's pick: Ole Miss
It's not that I don't like LSU. The Tigers have a chance to be one of the most-improved teams in the nation. However, Ole Miss is the safer pick to win the SEC West. That's because the Rebels clearly have the best backcourt in the division, and any coach will tell you guard play wins championships.
Three starting guards return for the Rebels, including dynamic sophomore point Chris Warren, who may be one of the top five players in the SEC. Warren was one of the top freshman in the SEC last season, averaging a team-high 15.8 points and 4.5 assists a game for a team that reached the Final Four of the NIT. Warren nearly willed the Rebels to a huge upset at Tennessee, scoring 24 points in an 85-83 loss.
Inside play is a big question mark. The eligibility of big men Dwayne Curtis and Kenny Williams ? who combined for 19.2 points and 11.9 rebounds a game ? has been used up. There isn't a post player back who averaged double-digit minutes. But that's not to say there isn't talent available down low.
Sophomore power forward Malcolm White was a four-star recruit. The Rebels also signed two more power forwards, highly coveted junior college transfer DeAundre Cranston and four-star high school prospect Terrance Henry, that should help immediately.
With all the firepower on the perimeter, that group doesn't have to be extraordinary, just adequate. I'm confident underrated coach Andy Kennedy, who may be what really separates the Rebels from other SEC West contenders, will find a way to make that happen.
The Rebels have exceeded expectations in both of Kennedy's first two years in Oxford ? they were picked near the bottom of the SEC West in 2006-07 and ended up in a tie for first. I fully expect that to happen again in Year Three of the Kennedy Era, except this time the Rebels will win the division outright.