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There were a lot of teams that can be considered "winners" now that we have concluded the early-entry process.
- Maryland gets Greivis Vazquez back, which puts them in the hunt for another NCAA Tournament berth, gives Gary Williams at least two more years at the helm of the Terps, and makes passing on Lance Stephenson not seem like a big deal.
- Notre Dame will slide into the conversation atop the Big East, as they get back Luke Harangody and add transfers Ben Hansbrough and Scott Martin.
- Texas looks like a Final Four team with Dexter Pittman and Damion James both back in Austin.
- Miami and Georgia Tech will be able to contend for NCAA Tournament berths with Dwayne Collins and Gani Lawal, respectively, back on campus.
- Villanova was probably already a top 10-15 team, but with Scottie Reynolds back in the fold, they are the early favorite in the Big East.
- I could even be convinced teams like Kansas (Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich), Iowa State (Craig Brackins), and West Virginia (Da'Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks) were winners simply because the parenthetically mentioned players did not enter the draft in the first place.
But the real winner in all of this?
Last year, the conference was pathetic. Without as much as a top-25 team for most of the season, the SEC sent just three schools to the NCAA tournament, none of them higher than an eight seed (LSU). One of those three teams (Mississippi State) was a 13 seed after clinching a bid by winning the conference tournament.
But things are looking up, as the SEC as a whole lost just two players to early entry (Nick Calathes, who signed with a Greek team, and Jodie Meeks).
Now, there are two ways to look at this. The reason that the SEC got so many people back is that they simply did not have all that much talent in the league last year. Only two guys (Calathes and Patrick Patterson) were even projected as potential first rounders, so it isn't like they are getting a Michael Beasley or a Derrick Rose to stay an extra season.
The other way to look at it is that this means that the SEC is going to be a much better league in 2009-10. Let's take a look at who the winners and losers were in the league:
- Do I even need to address Kentucky? As far as early entries are concerned, Kentucky was a bit of a wash. Patrick Patterson returned, while Jodie Meeks stayed in the draft despite not being a first-round lock. To be honest, I'd almost consider them a loser. Meeks would have been much more valuable, because of his shooting ability, than Patterson, who will lead a loaded frontcourt. But with Coach Cal, John Wall, and everyone else headed to Lexington, the Wildcats will still be loaded next year.
- Tennessee returns basically its entire roster, capped off by the surprise decision of Tyler Smith to return to the Vols. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Tennessee will have some of the same issues they had last season—too many athletes, not enough skilled players/shooters, and only one talented (yet inconsistent) point guard on the roster. The only addition that Tennessee made was Kenny Hall, who definitely helps solidify the Vols frontcourt depth. If Bruce Pearl can get this team to put it all together, they have the talent to be a top-10 team.
- South Carolina caught a couple of breaks, as Dominique Archie and Devan Downey both decided to return to school. Archie had been adamant that he was just going through the motions, and his intent was to head back to school the entire time. Downey, for a while, looked as if he could follow Calathes to Europe, but in the end decided to return to school. A core of Downey, Archie, and big men Mike Holmes and Evaldus Banilius should be enough for the Gamecocks to make a run at the NCAA Tournament.
- Florida is pretty much the only team in the conference that can be considered a loser coming out of the early-entry process after Calathes signed with Greek club Panathiakos. But the Gators did catch a break when Alex Tyus decided not follow Jai Lucas and transfer out of Gainesville. So with the addition of Kenny Boynton, an excellent defender and scorer, to play in the backcourt alongside Erving Walker, combined with the continued maturation of coach Billy Donovan's last two recruiting classes, Florida should find themselves in the conversation for a tournament bid at season's end.
- LSU was one of the bigger surprises in the country last season, but it is pretty safe to say that the Tigers will fall off this season. They lose Marcus Thornton, Chris Johnson, and Garrett Temple, three senior starters that combined to play more than 90 minutes a game. With not much depth last season and without much of a recruiting class coming in, the Tigers looked to be in trouble. But they caught a break when Tasmin Mitchell decided to return to Baton Rouge. With an inside-outside combination of Bo Spencer and Mitchell, LSU should at least be competitive in the SEC.
- The Mississippi State Bulldogs had just about as lucky of an offseason as you can have. First, center and shot-blocker extraordinaire Jarvis Varnado decided to return to school. Then, two talented and unwanted recruits, Renardo Sidney and John Riek, happened to fall into the lap of Rick Stansbury. MSU already had a solid backcourt/perimeter with Dee Bost, Ravern Johnson, Barry Stewart, and Phil Turner coming back. So if Riek can get healthy (question mark) and Sidney can get eligible (bigger question mark), the Bulldogs could be looking at an SEC West title and another trip to the dance.
- Arkansas was terrible last season. They were the last-place team in what was by far the worst major conference in the country. But that doesn't mean there isn't talent on this roster. Courtney Fortson put up great numbers (14.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 5.9 apg) when he wasn't suspended. Rotnei Clarke can light it up from deep with the best of them. And Stefan Welsh is one of the more underrated guards in the league. When Michael Washington decided to return to Fayettesville, it gave Arkansas enough talent to make some noise in the conference. While it may not be enough to get them dancing, it should be enough to get them out of the cellar.
- Can you consider Ole Miss a loser? Sure, leading scorer David Huertas left school to play pro ball in Puerto Rico. But the Rebel's 2009 season ended as poorly as it did because three key players (Chris Warren, Trevor Gaskins, and Eniel Polynice) suffered season-ending knee injuries. With those three back in the mix (especially the speedy Warren), Ole Miss should be much better.
Even the teams that didn't have anyone even declare for the draft are expected to be much better. Vanderbilt returns everyone, including A.J. Ogilvy and Jermaine Beal, while adding a top-20 recruit in John Jenkins. Alabama hired Anthony Grant to replace the fired Mark GotFired...Gottfried, and while they lose Alonzo Gee, the Tide still brings back four starters, including JaMychal Green.
So while the SEC is not going to be the 2009 Big East, expect more than three teams to be dancing in 2010.