THREE BIGGEST STORYLINES
1. Catching Kentucky
Kentucky's SEC dominance during the John Calipari era has been...well pretty much the same as it's been in just about every other era. In three years under Calipari, UK has won four of six possible SEC regular season and tournament titles on their way to a pair of trips to the Final Four and a national championship.
For the first time since Coach Cal arrived, however, the Cats appear to be vulnerable...in the absolute loosest sense of the word. Replacing a group of talented youngsters off to the NBA with a No. 1 recruiting class has become a sunrise/sunset situation in Lexington. That said, this is the first group of Calipari Cats that won't boast a proven Big Blue veteran like Patrick Patterson, DeAndre Liggins or Darius Miller.
It's not exactly a Death Star-esque weakness (seriously, just forcefield up that hole and you're unstoppable), but with a 2013 recruiting class that's veering towards "greatest of all-time" conversations, the rest of the league will take what it can get while it can get it.
2. Restoring Reputation
Once your reputation as the weakest of the 'big six" conferences has been established, it's awfully difficult to shift public perception. Big East football feels your pain, SEC basketball. So does Judd Apatow repertoire member Funny People.
Despite the fact that the Pac-12 has spent the past two seasons flirting with sending just one team to the NCAA Tournament, it's the SEC that has still found itself being a more consistent punchline. With eight teams capable of crashing the big dance and three that could compete for a national title, Twitter comedians are going to have a difficult time coming up with new material over the next five months.
3. New Members
It goes without saying that basketball was at the forefront of the minds of the powers that be who were responsible for bringing both Missouri and Texas A&M into the league. I'm kidding, 85% of Auburn fans are about to find out for the first time that A&M has a basketball team. Of course that's the same percentage of Auburn fans that won't be able to name three members of the Tigers' starting five come mid-February.
FINAL 2011-12 CONFERENCE STANDINGS
CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT CHAMPION
(3) Vanderbilt defeated (1) Kentucky (71-64)
NCAA TOURNAMENT RESULTS
Round of 64
(1) Kentucky defeated (16) Western Kentucky (81-66)
(5) Vanderbilt defeated (12) Harvard (79-70)
(7) Florida defeated (10) Virginia (71-45)
(9) Alabama lost to (8) Creighton (58-57)
Round of 32
(1) Kentucky defeated (8) Iowa State (87-71)
(5) Vanderbilt lost to (4) Wisconsin (60-57)
(7) Florida defeated (15) Norfolk State (84-50)
(1) Kentucky defeated (4) Indiana (102-90)
(7) Florida defeated (3) Marquette (68-58)
(1) Kentucky defeated (3) Baylor (82-70)
(7) Florida lost to (4) Louisville (72-68)
(1) Kentucky defeated (4) Louisville (69-61)
(1) Kentucky defeated (2) Kansas (67-59)
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
This is going to be the worst Kentucky team that John Calipari has coached to date. It's also going to be a team - thanks in large part to yet another No. 1 recruiting class - that's fully capable of winning both an SEC championship and a second consecutive national title.
The Wildcats are going to be fine inside. Nerlens Noel, the No. 1 player in the class of 2012 and a preseason first team All-SEC member, isn't the offensive threat that Anthony Davis was, and that's probably going to keep him from earning some of the individual awards Davis did. SEC Defensive Player of the Year, though? He's got a beat on that.
The more apt 2012-to-2013 comparison lies with Alex Poythress, who is going to pick up right where Michael Kidd-Gilchrist left off. His MKG-esque blend of talent, size and athleticism make Poythress the perfect do-everything forward in Calipari's system. Fellow freshman Wille Cauley-Stein also warrants mention after looking tremendous in the few glimpses of him the public has gotten thus far.
Things get less certain for UK in the backcourt, where NC State transfer Ryan Harrow becomes the guy in charge of making the now vaunted "dribble drive" offense go. Turnovers were a consistent issue during Harrow's only collegiate season to date, one which saw him average 9.3 points and 3.3 assists. The other major concern for Harrow is going to be coping with the pressure that comes with running the point in Lexington. Handling the expectations of Big Blue Nation is difficult for just about any player, but being constantly compared to the likes of John Wall, Marquis Teague and Brandon Knight can take things to a completely different level.
The good news for Harrow is that he's going to have guys all around him who can put the ball in the basket. Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer is the lone returning contributor from last year's team and is among the deadliest shooters in the country when given ample space. Freshman Archie Goodwin can hurt defenders off the bounce or from the outside, and has the skill set to potentially lead this team in scoring.
While Kentucky dominating the SEC the way they did a season ago seems highly improbable, the Cats claiming yet another conference title does not.
Lack of familiarity with opposing players, styles of play, home arenas, etc. makes life hard for teams learning their way around a new conference, and that's the only reason Missouri finds itself behind Kentucky in these rankings. Even though they're not picked to win the league here, the Tigers still appear (to me) to be the SEC's most capable Final Four candidate.
Mizzou will begin the season ranked 15th by the Associated Press and 17th by the coaches. You wonder how different those rankings would look had they not become just the fourth No. 2 seed to lose to a 15 when they were stunned by Norfolk State last March. It's almost as if their 30 wins and Big 12 Tournament title - which had more than a few folks saying the Tigers, and not Michigan State, deserved to be the big dance's fourth No. 1 seed - were wiped away because of one disastrous stretch of 40 minutes.
Though reigning National Coach of the Year Frank Haith has to replace his top three scorers from last season, he returns the guy who makes his up-tempo offense go. SEC preseason Player of the Year Phil Pressey is back to run the show in Columbia after averaging 10.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists in 2011-12. One of the country's most dynamic playmakers will be joined in the backcourt by the team's leading returning scorer, Michael Dixon (13.5 ppg). Or at least that was the plan, as last week Haith announced that Dixon has been suspended indefinitely for an unspecified violation of team rules.
Assuming the Dixon situation is ultimately resolved, Missouri's real intrigue lies in the four elite transfers that Haith was able to pull in for this season. Alex Oriakhi was a starter on UConn's 2010 national championship team and fills the massive void in the middle that hurt the Tigers at times last season. Keion Bell was an elite scorer for three seasons at Pepperdine, and I think he's going to be one of the surprise stars on the national level this season. Earnest Ross will likely be Missouri's top on-ball defender, and won't have the pressure of carrying the scoring load the way he did at Auburn. Eligible for the second semester will be Jabari Brown, a former five-star recruit who left Oregon after just two games last season. If that weren't enough, Haith also gets forward Laurence Bowers back after he missed all of last season with an ACL tear. Bowers averaged 11.6 points and 6.1 rebounds in 2010-11
Chemistry is obviously a major concern here, but recent years have seen teams with huge freshman classes have extreme success, so why can't it work when the bulk of the newcomers are talented upperclassmen?
Partially erasing what many considered to be a disappointing regular season, Florida was just three or four minutes of decent basketball away from beating Louisville and advancing to the Final Four last season. The squandered opportunity was eerily reminiscent of the Gators' Elite 8 loss to Butler the season before. Despite losing stars Erving Walker and Bradley Beal to graduation and the NBA, respectively, Billy Donovan's team has a tremendous shot to finally get over the fourth game hump and back into the Final Four for the first time since 2007.
One of Florida's major issues last season was having too many players who wanted to do the same thing: score from the outside. In that regard, the loss of two of its three leading scorers may wind up being a blessing in disguise for the Gators. Chiefs, indians, cooks, kitchen; pick your cliche.
Any talk of the 2012-13 Gators must start with Kenny Boynton, who returns for his senior season after leading UF in scoring at 15.9 ppg last season. The shooting guard currently sits just 502 points away from becoming Florida's all-time leading scorer. Equally important to the Gators' success will be fellow senior Erik Murphy, who many considered to be Donovan's most valuable player down the stretch last year. Redshirt senior Mike Rosario, a score-first guard who transferred from Rutgers two years ago, will also see his role increase dramatically this year.
The most intriguing player in Gainesville remains center Patric Young. The junior has an NBA (or NFL) physique, but was inexplicably ignored for long stretches of time last season by teammates content to let shots fly early and often from the outside. Still, Young managed to post averages of 10.2 points and 6.4 rebounds, and would have heard his name called in last June's draft had he elected to leave school early.
The biggest question for Donovan is at the point, where Scottie Wilbekin will look to step into the large shoes left behind by Walker. If Wilbekin can consistently and effectively get the ball into the hands of the playmakers around him, then there's not going to be a team in the country that Florida can't beat.
Cuonzo Martin exceeded just about everyone's expectations in Knoxville last season when he led the Volunteers to a 19-15 overall record and the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament. Now, as tends to happen after any "pleasant surprise" takes place, people are expecting more.
Tennessee returns six of its top seven leading scorers, including point guard Trae Golden (13.6 ppg/4.5 apg) and talented post player Jeronne Maymon (12.7 ppg/8.1 rpg). Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism, however, lies with the fact that UT wil have the servies of sophomore Jarnell Stokes for an entire season. Stokes joined the team just days after graduating from high school last December and had an immediate impact despite clearly (and understandably) not having a full grasp of Martin's system. He finished the season with averages of 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds over 17 games.
This mix of proven veterans combined with talented newcomers like Armani Moore, Quinton Chievous and juco transfer D'Montre Edwards could result in the Vols making a surprise push for a conference championship. And even if they don't, Skylar McBee's mustache is still going to be around to cheer everyone up.
Anthony Grant continued to build upon his reputation as one of the hottest coaching names in the country by guiding the Tide to 21 wins and an NCAA Tournament appearance las season. Even with leading scorers JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell now in the NBA, Grant has the personnel to match the feat in 2012-13.
Helping ease the losses of Green and Mitchell will be the addition of Grant's biggest recruit to date, 6'8 McDonald's All-American forward Devonta Pollard. Pollard should gel nicely with an experienced core of returning players, six of which started at least 10 games last season. Leading that group is junior guard Trevor Releford, the team's leading returning scorer at 12.0 ppg.
Guards Trevor Lacey, Levi Randolph and Andrew Steele need to emerge as more consistent outside threats, as 'Bama ranked last in the SEC in 3-point shooting a season ago.
The Razorbacks showed flashes of brilliance during Mike Anderson's first season in Fayetteville, but a 6-10 SEC record ultimately left them out of the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight season. The good news is the Hogs figure to be much deeper and far better equipped to execute Anderson's up-tempo style in year two.
B.J. Young was the league's best freshman who didn't call Lexington home last season, averaging 15.3 ppg before flirting with an early entry into the NBA Draft. He'll be joined in the backcourt by one of the conference's best shooters in Madracus Wade (47.6% from three in 2011-12) as well as rock steady junior Rickey Scott.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for this team will be whether or not junior forward Marshawn Powell can return to form. Powell, an All-SEC honoree, averaged double figures in each of his first two seasons at Arkansas, and averaged 19.5 points and 6.0 rebounds in two games before tearing his ACL last year.
It's no secret that the Hogs are going to get up and down the floor and attack opponents with speed and athleticism, but you still have to wonder how much having just one player taller than 6'8 is going to bite them.
A legitimate case can be made that Andy Kennedy is the best coach in the history of college basketball to never take a team to the NCAA Tournament. The story started in 2005-06 when he was the interim head coach at Cincinnati and guided the Bearcats to a surprising 21-13 record. UC was beaten at the buzzer in the Big East Tournament by Gerry McNamara and Syracuse, and wound up being a somewhat shocking omission from the NCAA Tournament field.
The trend has continued at Ole Miss, where Kennedy has taken the Rebels to the postseason five times, won 20 or more games five times, and won at least seven SEC games in all six years. All he has to show for those accomplishments is one of college basketball's hottest seats.
On the plus side for Kennedy, this looks like it has the potential to be his best Rebel team to date. The primary reason for that is senior forward Murphy Holloway, who nearly averaged a double double last season in his first year since transferring from South Carolina...where he transferred to after leaving Ole Miss...where he's back playing now. Holloway will have significant frontcourt help in the form of Reginald Buckner, who is already the school's all-time leader in blocked shots with 228. That number also ranks sixth all-time in the SEC.
After hitting barely better than 30% of their 3-point attempts last season, Ole Miss hopes to get more from its guards. Nick Williams (10.1 ppg) and Jarvis Summers (10.4 ppg, 3.4 apg) both boast plenty of experience, but freshmen Derrick Millinghaus and Martavious Newby as well as junior college transfer Marshall Henderson all expect to push for playing time.
A year after crashing the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in nine years, a young Georgia team stumbled to a 15-17 record and missed out on the postseason altogether last season. Four starters return from that team, headlined by immensely talented sophomore guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (13.2 ppg). Starting forwards Marcus Thornton, Donte Williams and Nemanja Djurisic also return.
Caldwell-Pope played mostly small forward last season and point guard during the team's trip to Italy in August, but Mark Fox knows his star is best equipped to play the two guard. That leaves an opening at the point, where the team desperately needs either senior Vincent Williams or gifted freshman Charles Mann to step up big.
This is a Georgia team that would have been good enough to finish in the top five of the league standings in most recent years, Fox just picked the wrong time to have a squad this deep and talented.
9. Texas A&M
Here's where the drop-off begins.
Texas A&M was one of the few programs in the country that had been to six straight NCAA Tournaments before a disastrous 2011-12 campaign saw the Aggies finish 14-18. It's not going to get much easier for Billy Kennedy, who lost Khris Middleton to the NBA and fellow starters David Loubeau and Dash Harris to graduation.
Leading scorer Elston Turner (13.8 ppg) is back for his senior season, as is unrelated 6'9 forward Ray Turner (9.3 ppg/5.6 rpg), who was one of the top sixth men in the Big 12 last season. How those two gel with talented freshmen J'Mychal Reese and Alex Caruso will go a long way in determining how successful A&M is in its first SEC season.
First-year head coach Johnny Jones has brought a lot of enthusiasm with him from North Texas to Baton Rouge, but that's not going to be enough to turn the Tiger program around in one season.
Jones has three returning starters in point guard Anthony Hickey (8.9 ppg), shooting guard Andre Stringer (10.1 ppg) and power forward Johnny O'Bryant (8.5 ppg/6.7 rpg), but fellow starters Justin Hamilton and Ralston Turner chose to leave the program after former coach trent Johnson bolted for TCU. The Tigers should be able to do their fair share of damage from the outside, but the 6'9 O'Bryant is the only frontcourt player on the roster with any significant game experience.
Seeing Vanderbilt this low has probably resulted in a double-take or 50, but the reputation of the program and head coach Kevin Stallings are pretty much the only reasons the 'Dores aren't picked even lower.
The Commodores won the SEC Tournament and finally got past their first game in the big dance last season, but lost a Kentucky-esque chunk of that squad. Stars John Jenkins (19.9 ppg), Jeffery Taylor (16.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Festus Ezeli (10.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Brad Tinsley (9.0 ppg, 4.1 apg) and Lance Goulbourne (8.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg) are all gone. This would be fine if Stallings recruited like John Calipari or loaded up on transfers like Frank Haith. He did not. Instead, Vandy's 2012 class of newcomers is comprised of two three-star freshmen guards and a two-star freshman forward.
In order to have any success this season, the Commodores are going to need the mildly experienced duo of Kedren Johnson, Rod Odom to play like seasoned veterans right out of the gate. That group would have been a trio had Dai-Jon Parker not just been suspended indefinitely by Stallings.
12. South Carolina
Frank Martin's arrival from Kansas State guarantees that the Gamecocks will be worth paying attention to this season, but probably not for anything they're going to do on the court.
The ever-entertaining Martin inherits a Carolina team that returns just one double figurer scorer - junior guard Bruce Ellington (11.0 ppg) - from last season's 10-21 (2-14) squad. Southern Miss transfer LaShay Page (11.2 ppg) should bolster the backcourt immediately, and is reportedly already providing some much-needed leadership.
The Tigers improved by four wins and won five SEC games in Tony Barbee's second season. Less positive news came after the season, however, when Barbee dismissed Josh Langford and Cedrick McAfee from the team, and freshmen Billy Kouassi and Bernard Morena both elected to transfer.
Still, for the first time since 2009 there appears to be a decent foundation in place at Auburn. Senior guard Frankie Sullivan is one of the league's most underrated players and will be looked upon to both lead and shoulder much of the scoring load. Big man Rob Chubb is highly experienced, but needs to establish himself as more of a consistent scoring threat.
Where the real enthusiasm lies for AU fans, however, is with Barbee's six-player freshman class, which is highlighted by top 100 recruits Jordan Price and Shaquille Johnson.
14. Mississippi State
Rick Ray won't inherit much from the "retired" Rick Stansbury's last team at Mississippi State. Arnett Moultrie (16.4 ppg, 10.5 rpg) and Renardo Sidney (9.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) both declared for the NBA draft, Dee Bost (15.8 ppg, 5.5 apg) graduated, and last year's headline recruit, Rodney Hood (10.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg), transferred to Duke. That leaves Ray facing the season with just two players - Jalen Steele (8.7 ppg) and Wendell Lewis (3.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg) - who have logged respectable minutes for the Bulldogs.
PREDICTED ALL-SEC TEAM
G Phil Pressey, Missouri
G Kenny Boynton, Florida
G Keion Bell, Missouri
F Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee
F Alex Poythress, Kenucky
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR: Alex Poythress, Kentucky
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Phil Pressey, Missouri