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SEC hoops on the rise
Less than two months after sending three teams to the Elite Eight of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, SEC basketball was on the receiving end of more good news this week. Three schools, including Georgia, Alabama and Florida, were given monster boosts for the 2017-18 campaign when Yante Maten, Braxton Key and John Egbunu elected to return to school rather than stay in the NBA Draft after testing the waters.

Maten’s decision to return for his senior season is critical for Mark Fox, who enters his ninth season in Athens most likely needing an NCAA Tournament invite to stick around for a 10th year. Fox has taken UGA to the postseason in four consecutive years, winning 19 games or more each season, but three of those campaigns have ended in the NIT.

Fox is 145-118 (55.1%) overall at Georgia, 70-68 (50.7%) in SEC play. He has taken the Bulldogs to only two NCAA Tournaments. However, this space has had Fox’s back for a long time. The former two-time WAC Coach of the Year during his five-year tenure at Nevada is an outstanding game coach.

He took the Wolf Pack to three NCAA Tournaments and five postseason events, winning four regular-season titles in the process. When Fox was hired by former UGA Athletics Director Damon ‘Red Panties’ Evans, the main question was how long it would take to get his feet underneath him in terms of recruiting in the South. Remember, Fox is from the Midwest and had spent his entire life West of the Mississippi before arriving at UGA.

He’s starting to have more success on the recruiting trail. Fox inked four-star recruit Rayshaun Hammonds in the ’17 class. Hammonds, who chose UGA over Alabama, UConn, Miami, Memphis and Texas, is a 6’8” power forward who should make an impact as a freshman.

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Maten announced his decision on Instagram on Tuesday night: “I’ve had a good experience working out with teams, and it has helped my development out tremendously,” Maten wrote. “But I have talked it over with my family and decided to return to the University of Georgia for my senior year. Go dawgs!!”

The rising senior forward averaged 18.6 points and 6.8 rebounds as a junior. He missed the last four games of the regular season with a knee injury that kept him out for the last 38 minutes of a heartbreaking home loss to Kentucky. If UGA wins that game, it might have heard its named called on Selection Sunday. The Bulldogs also lost overtime games at Florida and at Kentucky, not to mention gut-wrenching road losses decided in the finals seconds at South Carolina and at Texas A&M.

J.J. Frazier is UGA’s only significant loss, but the speedy southpaw was a four-year starter who is one of the greatest players in the program’s history. The Bulldogs, who have 200/1 odds to win the national title at Sportsbook.ag, return four starters along with five reserves that saw plenty of playing time last year. With the addition of Hammonds and Maten coming back, they’ll have an excellent shot at the NCAA Tournament berth that has been so narrowly elusive the last two seasons.

Alabama is a program on the rise under Avery Johnson, who brought in the nation’s sixth-ranked recruiting class in 2017 according to Rivals.com. Then on Tuesday, rising sophomore forward Braxton Key announced that he was returning to school.

As a true freshman, Key played in all 34 of the Crimson Tide’s games while logging 30 starts. The Charlotte native led the team in scoring (12.0 PPG) and minutes played (29.8 MPG). Key also averaged 5.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. He was third on the team in blocked shots (21) and shot at a 33.0 percent clip from 3-point range.

The decorated ’17 freshman class is highlighted by a pair of five-star recruits in Collin Sexton and John Petty. Sexton is currently listed as the No. 6 overall pick in nbadraft.net’s 2018 Mock Draft.

Sexton and Petty are joined by two other freshmen in four-star recruits Herb Jones and Alex Reese. Johnson brings back senior forward Riley Norris and redshirt sophomore point guard Dazon Ingram, while Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens will probably start at center. The 6’10” Giddens averaged 3.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocked shots while playing 18.2 minutes per game as a true freshman in ’15-16 for the Buckeyes. He sat out last year due to transfer rules.

Although it won’t help Alabama this upcoming year, Johnson has also landed Texas transfer Tevin Mack. The former four-star recruit from Columbia, S.C., will sit out 2017-18 and then have two years of eligibility remaining. Mack averaged 14.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game for the Longhorns before being suspended indefinitely in early January for a violation of team rules.

Florida looks poised to make another deep March run in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. This became even more evident this past weekend when Egbunu decided to bypass the NBA Draft. Egbunu went down with an ACL tear in a Valentine’s Day win at Auburn and missed the rest of the season. Therefore, he probably won’t be ready to play until the SEC portion of the schedule starts in January.

Egbunu averaged 7.6 points and 7.8 rebounds in 24 games this past season. He has 84 blocked shots in two seasons with the Gators, who have 22/1 odds to win the 2018 NCAA Tourney at Sportsbook.ag. Those are the 10th-shortest odds on the board.

Mike White’s third team at UF will probably have a starting lineup that consists of Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen in the backcourt. At least until Egbunu gets healthy, junior Kevarrius Hayes will start at center. The forward positions are up in the air, but I expect those starting slots to go to Rice grad transfer Egor Koulechov and Va. Tech transfer Jalen Hudson. If Hudson doesn’t earn the starting nod, it could go to sophomore Keith Stone or prized incoming freshman DeAundrae Ballard.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

-- The 2018 mock at nbadraft.net currently has Maten listed as the No. 40 overall pick in the second round.

-- To the shock of nobody, Kentucky has the top-ranked 2017 recruiting class. Three of those players – Jarred Vanderbilt (#10), Kevin Knox (#11) and Nick Richards (#13) – are listed as high first-round selections in the aforementioned mock at nbadraft.net. UK has the third-shortest odds to win the ’18 national title (11/1). Duke and Michigan State are the 10/1 co-favorites at Sportsbook.ag.

-- Alabama has 65/1 odds to win the 2018 NCAA Tourney.

-- Tennessee returns nearly its entire nucleus after a transition year that was more competitive than most felt it would be. That group of young players will be joined by one of the nation’s top grad transfers in Howard’s James Daniel, a scoring guard that has more than 2,000 career points to his credit. Daniel led the nation in scoring with a 27.1 PPG average in 2015-16. He played only two games last year due to an ankle injury that prompted season-ending surgery.

-- UF is expecting big things from Koulechov, who averaged 18.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per game for the Owls this past year. He shot 3’s at a 47.2 percent clip. Koulechov has plenty of muscle so with Hayes, Egbunu and him, the Gators will probably be the SEC’s most physical team in the lane.

-- Yet another SEC program on the rise is Missouri under new head coach Cuonzo Martin. The Tigers received more great news earlier this week by adding another commitment from 2018 five-star recruit Jontay Porter. Nothing is official yet, but there’s been talk of Porter re-classifying into the ’17 class and skipping his senior year of high school. His older brother, Michael Porter Jr., was the top-ranked player in the ’17 class and joined Missouri after originally being committed to Lorenzo Romar at Washington. When Romar was let go by UW, Porter re-opened his recruitment. The older Porter is The Uno in the 2018 mock at nbadraft.net. But that’s not it for the Tigers, who will also welcome a trio of four-star freshmen in Jeremiah Tilmon, Blake Harris and C.J. Roberts. Another addition for Mizzou is Canisius grad transfer Kassius Robertson, who averaged 16.1 PPG while draining 41.0 percent of his treys this past year.

-- Other key players who recently announced their intentions of returning to school include Gonzaga’s Johanthan Williams III, Xavier’s Trevon Bluiett, West Va.’s Devon Carter, UCLA’s Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday, Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado, Maryland’s Justin Jackson, Texas’s Andrew Jones, Arizona’s Rawle Alkins, Louisville’s Deng Adel, N.C. State’s Omer Yurtseven, Michigan’s Moe Wagner, Clemson’s Donte Grantham, UCF’s Tacko Fall and Texas Tech’s Zach Smith.

-- On the flip side, these players recently stayed in the Draft: UNC’s Tony Bradley, WVU’s Elijah Macon and Michigan’s D.J. Wilson.

-- Watch out for Western Kentucky this season! Rick Stansbury, the former long-time coach at Mississippi State, has done a remarkable job of stockpiling talent for the Hilltoppers. Most recently, he added Virginia grad transfer Darius Thompson, who began his career at Tennessee before serving as a valuable reserve for the Cavaliers over the last two seasons. Thompson logged 20.4 MPG this past year, averaging 6.2 points and 2.2 APG while shooting at a 35.0 percent clip from downtown. Western Ky. has a pair of high-profile freshmen coming in, including Mitchell Robinson. The 6’11” center is listed as the No. 14 overall pick in nbadraft.net’s 2018 mock. The Hilltoppers will also welcome wing Josh Anderson, who is ranked as the nation’s No. 53 freshman at Rivals.com. Also, they’ll have leading returning scorer and rebounder Justin Johnson (14.5 PPG, 9.4 RPG) and Buffalo transfer Lamonte Bearden, who averaged 13.7 points, 4.2 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game for the Bulls in ’15-16. Bearden sat out last season.

-- Two coaches who have had offseasons that couldn’t have been scripted much worse are Tubby Smith at Memphis and Kevin Stallings at Pittsburgh.

-- Former USF head coach and Florida assistant (under Lon Kruger in the ‘90s) Robert McCullum was named the new head coach at Florida A&M earlier this month.


  
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