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5 SEConds: A Closely Guarded Preview of the SEC (Part 2)

The SEC preview continues with a look at 5 teams trapped in the middle of the conference. None are so talented as to expect an NCAA Tournament berth, but likely one or two will rise up to get a tournament bid.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Our SEC preview continues with 5 teams who all have both glaring weaknesses and obvious strengths to take them as far as an NCAA bid or leave a couple of coaches looking for employment. None of these teams are ready to contend for an SEC crown, but all are capable of meaningful postseason play.
10.      South Carolina (2013-14 season: 14-20, 5-13)

How Last Season Ended: The Gamecocks opened SEC play 1-9, but went 6-5 down the stretch with wins over Kentucky and Arkansas. The season came to an end with a quarterfinal loss to SEC in the Conference Tournament.

Best Returning Player: Sophomore guard Sindarius Thornwell (13.4 ppg as freshman) is one of the most underrated players in the nation. Forced to play point guard last season, Thornwell should be a true star this season as he is able to spend more time scoring and less time facilitating.

Best Newcomer: Freshman point guard Marcus Stroman will have to emerge as a floor leader for the Gamecocks to make progress in the standings and learn to win on the road in conference (0-9 last season). There are a couple of options at the position, but Stroman has the most talent to allow Thornwell to focus on scoring.

Coach Status: Frank Martin (28-38, 3rd season) has not had the same success in Columbia that he had in Manhattan, Kansas. His pressure defense has been mostly tepid and led him to be more temperamental than successful. He needs to take a step forward this year to restore the promise fans longed for when he arrived in South Carolina.

Pre-Conference Thermometer Game: Baylor is not as talented as recent years, but they come to Columbia on Nov. 18 for a noon tipoff that will first measure if South Carolina is ready to emerge from the SEC basement.

9.        Alabama (2013-14 season: 13-19, 7-11)

How Last Season Ended: A loss to LSU in the first round of the SEC Tournament mercifully ended a season where Alabama failed to win back-to-back SEC games following a disastrous pre-conference performance in a year where Anthony Grant was expected to lead the Tide into the NCAA Tournament.

Best Returning Player: Levi Randolph, Senior Guard, is a lockdown defender who has improved his shooting in each college season. The leading scorer among returning players (9.6 ppg) will look to step out of the shadow of Trevor Releford and lead Alabama back to relevance.

Best Newcomer: Tulane transfer Ricky Tarrant, Junior Point Guard, led the Green Wave to an upset of Alabama in December 2012 and the Tide has never been quite the same since. His ability to distribute the basketball will be equally as important as his scoring.

Coach Status: Anthony Grant (99-71, 6th season) is on the hottest seat among SEC coaches as apathy is trending among the Alabama hoops base. He has a roster with enough depth and talent to make the NCAA tournament and anything less than a March Madness appearance will likely result in a coaching search.

Pre-Conference Thermometer Game: November 24 versus Iowa State (ESPN2 @ 9:30 pm ET)

8.        Texas A&M (2013-14 season: 18-16, 8-10)

How Last Season Ended: The promise of a 6-0 start to the season and a 3-0 start to conference play was relegated to a tepid two-game appearance in the lowly CBI Tournament. A late home loss to Auburn likely cost them an NIT Tournament berth.

Best Returning Player: Senior forward Kourtney Roberson averaged nearly 10 points and 7 rebounds last season for a balance Aggie attack. He will be the leader on both ends of the floor for a deep team in College Station.

Best Newcomer: Freshman point guard Alex Robinson was a huge pickup for the Aggies and could be a 4-year starter. A lot of SEC teams will be relying on freshman point guards this season out of necessity, but Robinson may be the most ready to help immediately of the group.

Coach Status: Billy Kennedy (49-47, 4th season) has slowly built a deep squad even if it lacks elite talent. He is an excellent coach and 2014-15 could be the season that the Aggies break into the upper crust of the SEC. The Aggies are a sleeper NCAA Tournament contender.

Pre-Conference Thermometer Game: The Aggies travel to Waco on December 9 to face Baylor (9:00 PM ET, ESPN2)

7.        LSU (2013-14 season: 20-14, 9-9)

How Last Season Ended: A home loss to Georgia on the last day of conference play ended LSU's chance of securing an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers ended a disappointing season with a second-round loss at SMU.

Best Returning Player: Sophomore forward Jordan Mickey was the less heralded big man recruit last season, but he was a monster alongside NBA-bound Johnny O'Bryant. Expect him to improve on his 13 point, 8 rebound, 3 block averages from last season.

Best Newcomer: Elbert Robinson III is a 7'1, 300-pound freshman center who will join Mickey and Jarell Martin to make up the most intimidating front court in the SEC outside of Lexington.

Coach Status: Johnny Jones (39-26, 3rd Season) had a disappointing season last year given the depth of talent on the roster. While many are aware of the loss of Johnny O'Bryant to the NBA, the transfer of Anthony Hickey may be the biggest challenge for the Tigers this season. The Tigers have top-4 SEC talent, but leadership in the backcourt and a weak schedule will leave them middling in conference play again.

Pre-Conference Thermometer Game: A weak schedule will limit LSU's development as their only reasonable challenge will be a trip to West Virginia on December 4 (6:00 PM ET, ESPN 2) in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

6.        Georgia (2013-14 season: 20-14, 12-6)

How Last Season Ended: After a miserable 1-4 start to the season, no one could of imagined the Bulldogs winning 9 of 11 conference games prior to losing to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. However, the Bulldogs locked in defensively and showed impressive resolve throughout the season and within nearly every game they played. The season came to a formal end in the second round of the NIT Tournament.

Best Returning Player: Junior guard Charles Mann emerged as a leader last season and did a good enough job as a facilitator to give the Bulldogs some stability. Reducing his 3.4 turnovers per game will be more essential to the Bulldogs than increasing his 13.9 points per game.

Best Newcomer: Freshman forward Yante Maten was the "Gatorade Player of the Year" in Michigan. The 6'8, 240 pound two-way weapon looks like a player ready to help immediately and could see time at center in small-ball lineups.

Coach Status: Mark Fox (84-76, 5th season) was hearing disgruntled whispers last season from a weary fan base, but he impressively stitched together an impressive quilt of mismatched pieces into a team that gave cohesive effort. If the Bulldogs get off to a better start in November and can integrate Maten into the rotation early, Georgia should end up on the right side of the NCAA Bubble in March. A lack of height and depth in the front court could be what ultimately and literally leaves them short of a tournament bid.

Pre-Conference Thermometer Game: The Bulldogs take on Gonzaga on Wednesday, November 26 (9:30 PM ET, ESPN2) in pre-conference tournament play.