While most of the summer has been focused on the NBA, college basketball will be starting up again in a few weeks. As a basketball team manager at Vanderbilt, the SEC is my specialty, and while Kentucky is loaded with All-American freshmen again, experience still counts in this league. Here are the returning players most important to their team’s success this season:
Darius Miller (Kentucky) — With Darnell Dodson having been ruled academically ineligible and no longer with the team, Miller becomes the most important returning player almost by default. On a freshmen-heavy team, the junior Miller (6.5 ppg) will likely start at small forward and will be counted on for leadership.
Brian Williams (Tennessee) — While wing Scotty Hopson is the most talented player for the Vols, I have to go with Williams as the most valuable. Williams is absolutely huge at 6-10, 280 pounds, and in the NCAA tournament turned into a defensive and rebounding monster. Assuming he doesn’t get into any more trouble with the law, Williams will play a big role in helping the Vols overcome the loss of Wayne Chism to graduation.
Trey Thompkins (Georgia) — The sweet-shooting and skilled power forward’s return makes Georgia a solid SEC contender for the first time in years. (Their miraculous 2008 NCAA Tournament run led by Sundiata Gaines was out of nowhere.) Thompkins averaged 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds last year, and after being picked for the USA Select Team to scrimmage the U.S. senior national squad this summer, is almost guaranteed a spot on the All-SEC team. Thompkins’ game should also continue to be helped by athletic freak Travis Leslie demanding attention at the two.
Kenny Boynton (Florida) — The Gators have their entire starting five returning, but Boynton is the most important of that group. Boynton was an All-SEC freshman last year who plays solid defense and has an ability to score in bunches for the Gators, as evidenced by his 27-point eruption in Florida’s first-round NCAA tourney loss to BYU. Billy Donovan expects Boynton to shoot much more efficiently this year, as Florida will be much deeper, allowing him time to stay fresh throughout the season.
John Jenkins (Vanderbilt) — While Jeffery Taylor is considered the team’s top player right now, Jenkins is the most critical to Vandy’s success. Jenkins worked his way into the starting lineup at the end of last season as a freshman, and led the Commodores in scoring in their tourney game versus Murray State. With starting point guard Jermaine Beal lost to graduation, Jenkins will be a starter for the entire year, and he should explode onto the scene. A gifted shooter who knocked down 48.3 percent from three-point range, and 47 percent overall, Jenkins will need to play a huge role this season if Vandy is to overcome the loss of Beal and center AJ Ogilvy.
Sam Muldrow (South Carolina) — Muldrow was selected to the SEC All-Defensive Team last year, and brings toughness and energy to the Gamecocks. Muldrow averaged 10.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, and over 3 blocks per game, and if SC is going to be competitive this year after losing leading scorer Devan Downey, Muldrow will need to become the leader of coach Darrin Horn’s squad.
Marshawn Powell (Arkansas) — With point guard Courtney Fortson’s surprising decision to leave for the NBA, Powell becomes the No. 2 guy for Arkansas. Shooting guard Rotnei Clarke returns as the leading scorer, but he is going to need some help, and Powell’s continued development after his All-SEC freshman campaign will make him the Razorbacks’ most feared player next season.
Chris Warren (Ole Miss) — Warren was the Rebels’ leading scorer last season, averaging over 17 points per game, but with the departure of star shooting guard Terrico White to the NBA, Warren will become even more of a focal point this season. As a senior who stands only 5-10, Warren’s ability to control the game and ability to shoot the three (42.7 percent last season) make him a dangerous weapon for Ole Miss.
Renardo Sidney (Mississippi State) — Despite not playing a minute for the Bulldogs last season, Sidney’s return to the program is big. The massive power forward (6-9, 275) was held out while the NCAA investigated his eligibility, and now that he’s been cleared, will be counted on to lessen the blow of losing shot-blocking extraordinaire Jarvis Varnado. When he was a high school superstar, Sidney was compared to the likes of Chris Webber, Lamar Odom and Derrick Coleman. If he can be even half the prospect he’s projected to be, he will be one of the SEC’s top players.
Storm Warren (LSU) — With starting point guard Bo Spencer ruled academically ineligible for the first semester, and last year’s top scorer Tasmin Mitchell gone to graduation, Warren will need to carry the load for LSU. Coming off a season in which they were the worst team in the SEC, if the Tigers have any hope of being competitive this year Warren must be rock-solid down low.
Frankie Sullivan (Auburn) — With their top three scorers all graduating, including star point guard DeWayne Reed, and a new head coach, Sullivan will need to be a leader this season. After averaging over 12 points a game and almost 2 steals last year, the junior point guard will be the man for the Tigers this year and most likely play around 35 minutes a game.
JaMychal Green (Alabama) — Green is a beast down low who has steadily improved in each of his first two seasons with the Crimson Tide. Green will get the ball even more with the graduation of Mikhail Torrance, who was the centerpiece of the ‘Bama offense last season, and the transfer of forward Justin Knox. If Green bulks up, and gets the touches he is expected to, he could help Alabama compete for the title in a weak SEC West.