#22 Texas A&M by Mike Rutherford

Photo: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Since John Calipari arrived in Lexington before the start of the 2009-10 season, critics of the SEC have openly mocked the conference for being little more than "Kentucky and everyone else." It's a denunciation that isn't without merit, as the Wildcats have claimed a combined eight conference regular season and tournament titles in the Coach Cal era.

Four of the other titles over that span belong to Florida, the program that over the course of the last 15 years had emerged to become UK's primary league rival. The departure of Billy Donovan for the NBA changed all that, as the Gators, who have missed the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two seasons, currently find themselves in a state of college basketball limbo.

The only SEC team that currently appears equipped to challenge Kentucky in 2016-17 is the one which shared the regular season title with the Wildcats a year ago. Texas A&M advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in nearly a decade last season, thanks in large part to the play of veterans Alex Caruso, Anthony Collins, Danuel House and Jalen Jones. All four of those players are gone now, but Billy Kennedy should still have enough returning and new talent to at least flirt with the national ranking for the duration of the season, and remain squarely on Calipari's radar.

How Texas A&M can succeed: Build around a talented frontcourt

Texas A&M returns just one starter and one double-figure scorer from its 2015-16 team. The good news is that the player in question figures to be one of the best big men in the SEC this season.

Tyler Davis came to College Station as a consensus top-30 player in the class of 2015, and his college hoops debut did not disappoint. The 6'10, 265-pound big man was the Aggies' second-leading rebounder (6.2 rpg) and third-leading scorer (11.3 ppg). Davis was one of the most effective post-up scorers in the country last season, and if he can improve his 62.5 percent average from the free throw line, he should be a player who scores 15 or more points per game as a sophomore.

Despite some gaudy numbers for a freshman, Davis only averaged 22.8 minutes per game last season. The biggest reason for that was fellow center Tonny Trocha-Morelos (7.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg), who is back for his junior year. Trocha-Morelos weighs about 45 pounds less than Davis, but is strong in the areas where his counterpart is weak, namely passing and being able to knock down the outside shot with consistency. It'll be interesting to see if Kennedy at least flirts with the idea of utilizing a lineup where both of his talented bigs are on the court at the same time.

If that idea doesn't come to fruition, it'll be on either senior Tavario Miller or true freshman Robert Williams to get the job done at power forward. Miller has been a career reserve who will finally get an opportunity to step into the spotlight in his final season of college ball. If he doesn't embrace the opportunity, then Williams, a four-star prospect out of Houston who Scout rated as the 48th-best player in the 2016 class, will be asked to produce right out of the gate.

How the Aggies can go home early: Too much youth

There is a very real chance that when Texas A&M opens its season on Nov. 11 against Northwestern State, Billy Kennedy will be starting no juniors and no seniors. That's not necessarily a recipe for disaster, but it's certainly opening the door to the possibility of at least a couple of these freshmen or sophomores not living up to their preseason billing.

The Aggies were already dealt a tough blow earlier this month when freshman small forward Deshawn Corprew was ruled a non-qualifier by the NCAA, meaning he'll have to sit out the 2015-17 season. Corprew would have served as the primary backup to former top 40 recruit DJ Hogg, who was expected to do things in his first season at A&M, but had a bit of an up-and-down freshman campaign. Hogg, who showed flashes of his potential but ultimately averaged just 6.2 ppg as a freshman, will need to shoulder a significant chunk of the lost scoring load from last season if the Aggies want to have any hope of making it back to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Youth is also a question mark at the ever-important position of point guard, where true freshman J.J. Caldwell will likely be asked to come in and immediately run the show. Caldwell, another four-star product out of Houston, figures to play alongside sophomore Admon Gilder (7.0 ppg). Gilder handles the ball well enough to play the point if the situation demands it, but his skill set still translates the best as a two.

If the three key sophomores take dramatic leaps forward and the two key freshmen aren't phased by the adjustment to the college game, then Texas A&M ought to be fine without its four starters from last year. If those two things don't happen, then the Aggies will be just another member of the "everybody else" contingent behind Kentucky.