All attention is on SEC football right now as LSU and Arkansas kick off, but let’s not overlook SEC basketball. This league may be completely inverted—all the schools we’re talking about right now disappear from the landscape once hoops takes over, but there’s still two legitimate basketball national title contenders in America’s top football conference.
Kentucky reached the Final Four last year under John Calipari and even though they had the usual one-and-done departure from guard Brandin Knight, they also have the usual incoming jewels that Calipari recruits. Post man Anthony Davis and guard Marquis Teague are part of the nation’s top-ranked class and are set to start immediately. There’s also a good blend of experience on this team, with forward Terrence Jones and the backcourt tandem of Darius Miller and Doron Lamb. There’s really very little the Wildcats can’t do—presuming Davis falls in line with other top Kentucky frosh under Calipari, Kentucky will be able to score down low, play the half-court offense, run the court and hit the three.
Vanderbilt has been a solid, steady program for several years and it’s time for Kevin Stallings’ team to take the next step—either beat out Kentucky for the SEC title or make the Final Four—or even better, do both. They’ve got the talent to do it, with the lineup headlined by center Festus Ezeli. He gets help down low from Jeffrey Taylor, and the backcourt is very good, with John Jenkins and Brad Tinsley effective running the floor and shooting it from downtown. If the Commodores can get 6’8” forward Lance Goldbourne to step it up they’ll be a team with no weaknesses.
The Wildcats and Commodores look like the class of the conference, but let’s not overlook the program that actually won the SEC title a year ago and has a pair of recent national titles to its credit. Billy Donovan’s Florida team had an outstanding year in 2011 and was only a double-overtime loss to Butler from joining Kentucky in the Final Four. The Gators lose their entire frontcourt, so they can’t be put on a level with the two favorites right now, but the guard play will still be excellent. Ervin Walker and Kenny Boynton will each be in their third year as starters, and Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario will be eligible to play. Rosario was an explosive scorer against Big East defenses and can certainly shred the softer SEC teams (the use of that comparison is as sure a sign there is that basketball is around the corner while football winds down).
There’s a pretty big drop-off in the conference after this. But these teams can make noise and at least push to the bubble of the NCAA Tournament…
*Alabama is easily the best of the weak SEC West. Forward JaMychal Green can score on the blocks and Tony Mitchell provides another frontline scorer. Pair them up with guards Trevor Releford and you have the makings of a decent team. The Tide will rely on freshman guards Rodney Cooper and Levi Randolph to contribute right away and if they do, ‘Bama can join the SEC’s Big Three in March Madness.
*Mississippi State’s guard-forward tandem of Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney make them a threat in any one single game. It’s depth that the Bulldogs lack and solving that problem will decide whether they can make it into NCAA discussion.
*Georgia made the NCAA Tournament a year ago, but also lost a top power forward, Trey Thompkins in this case, along with guard Travis Leslie, both of whom were chosen in the NBA draft. The Dawgs rebuild around guard Gerald Robinson and incoming freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who plays on the wing.
And there are the teams for whom the NIT would be a major victory…
*Arkansas made a coaching change after former Kentucky guard John Pelphrey couldn’t get it done. New coach Mike Anderson worked under Hog legend Nolan Richardson and has a big rebuilding project ahead of him as forward Marshawn Powell has graduated.
*LSU and South Carolina each have exciting little point guards in Andre Stringer and Bruce Ellington respectively, but nothing else.
*Ole Miss doesn’t even have that, as their own good point guard in Chris Warren is gone and nothing is left in the cupboard in Oxford.
*Auburn’s got the best shot of making something happen out of this group. They bring back everybody from last year and even though they didn’t play well, the experience has to make the Tigers at least NIT-worthy. Forward Kenny Gabriel has the best chance of a breakout year.
*No program has fallen harder than Tennessee, which chased Bruce Pearl in the middle of last season, played inconsistent basketball throughout and lost to Michigan in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament. Every contributor to that team is gone and new coach Cuonzo Martin, a key player on one of Purdue’s best teams in 1994 and successful coaching at the midmajor level, is now in charge. He needs time.