Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
Talent trumps all, say SEC coaches
Little Rock Hall graduate Bobby Portis is one of the 10 McDonald's High School All-Americans that signed to play in the SEC next season.
FAYETTEVILLE - SEC men’s basketball is getting ready for a super-sized talent influx of McDonald’s High School All-Americans.
It couldn’t come at a better time, considering the SEC had just three teams in the NCAA Tournament last season - Florida, Ole Miss and newcomer Missouri - despite the conference expanding from 12 to 14 schools.
The 2013 McDonald’s game featured 10 SEC signees among its 25 players, the most of any conference, surpassing six signees for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“Good players make good coaches,” Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson said Monday during the SEC coaches summer teleconference. “ Hopefully, it means our league will get that talent and possibly can put more teams in the NCAA Tournament.”
Ten McDonald’s All-American signees are an SEC record since McDonald’s began sponsoring teams in 1977. The previous high for the SEC was seven All-Americans in 2011.
Kentucky leads the SEC with six freshmen who were McDonald’s All-Americans, but there’s also Arkansas forward Bobby Portis from Little Rock Hall, Florida guard Kasey Hill and forward Chris Walker and LSU forward Jarell Martin.
“It’s not just us,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. “It’s other guys, too.
“They’re not afraid to go after those level of players, because that’s the first thing. You can’t be afraid to hear ‘no’ every once in a while. I mean, if everybody thinks we get everybody we want, you’re out of your mind. We hear ‘no’ a lot, and so you’ve just got to be able to accept ‘no’ sometimes and find out who does want to play and move on.”
Kentucky lost a first-round NIT game at Robert Morris last season after winning the 2012 NCAA championship, both with teams led by freshmen.
“Any time you’re adding talent, there’s hope,” Calipari said. “Talent doesn’t guarantee you’re going to win, but bad players are going to guarantee you’re losing. That’s just how it is.
“If you tell me there’s a guy out there that wants to say,’I like to coach ’em up’ - well, you go coach ’em up and let me go get talented guys. Then I’ll figure out my challenge, which is, how do I get them to play together?”
Portis has been going through summer workouts with the Razorbacks.
“I think he’s doing well,” Anderson said. “I think he’s a lot taller than we anticipated. I mean, he’s 6 10 1/2, and he’s put on a couple of pounds since he’s been here.He weighs almost 230.
“The key is getting acclimated to his teammates. Obviously, we can see with the individual workouts we’re having that he’s going to have a chance to have an impact on this team - just the fundamentals that he brings to the table in terms of catching the ball, passing the ball … and he can really run the floor.
“He has a big-time motor. I think he fits well with this group right now.”
Other SEC coaches said they were impressed by Portis after watching him in high school and during summer tournaments.
“He’s a legit 6-10 with good length and can run and jump, and the way Mike plays, I think he’s going to be able to come right in there and show his skill set from day one,” Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy said.
“He’s a guy that will be a difficult match up for any team night in and night out with his size, athletic ability and skill level to be able to do things inside and out,” Auburn Coach Tony Barbee said.
Mississippi State Coach Rick Ray said he loves a player like Portis who can “create mismatches with his ability to shoot and drive.”
Kentucky’s freshmen All-Americans are twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Marcus Lee, Dakari Johnson, Julius Randle and James Young.
“I hear all the comments about our incoming freshmen, but at the end of the day, if you want to do something special, you’ve got to be a terrific team,” Calipari said. “I think we’ve got a talented group, but how good we’re going to be all depends on how they come together, how hard they’re willing to work for each other and how much leadership we get from within the team and some of the returning players.”
While Hill is enrolled at Florida, Walker is still working to gain his academic eligibility. According to the Gainesville Sun, he’s taking three online courses to complete the NCAA’s core requirements.
Gators assistant coach Matt McCall said Walker is working hard to gain his eligibility.
“The one thing I will say about Chris is he’s committed to the process,” McCall said. “He has really done an unbelievable job, so he’s continuing to work hard, and we should know something more later on in the summer.”
Martin, from Madison Prep in Baton Rouge, will give LSU a strong inside presence along with junior center Johnny O’Bryant, a 2011 McDonald’s All-American.
“Jerell’s very versatile,” LSU Coach Johnny Jones said. “He’s a guy that can play on the perimeter or inside. He can put the ball on the floor, he’s a really good passer. He can shoot the ball from the outside as well as post up.
“He’s obviously going to have to continue to work, because it’s going to be a transition from high school to college, but you’re talking about a guy with a great deal of potential that’s very capable of making that transition and really making an impact.”
McCall said having so many high school All-Americans joining SEC teams means the conference is ready to bounce back from last season.
‘It just goes to show you that this league is not down, and kids still want to come to this league, highly rated kids,” McCall said. “Now we’ve got to do a great job developing the talent.”
Sports, Pages 15 on 06/25/2013