Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
OUTLOOK: The top-heavy SEC had some elite showings in 2013-14, as the conference saw three of its teams advance to at least the Sweet 16, yet no other squad even qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
It's likely to be a similar story in 2014-15, with Kentucky and Florida ranked inside the preseason top-10 and everyone else fighting to prove their worth.
For the second straight season, Kentucky enters the year as the No. 1 team in the nation, and while last year's squad suffered some growing pains during the regular season, it began to gel at the perfect time as it made an improbable run all the way to the National Championship Game. The Wildcats' reputation of bringing aboard several of the country's most talented freshmen has given them high hopes in years past, as the incoming crop will be paired with an experienced crew that grew together last March, led by Preseason SEC Player of the Year Aaron Harrison. Not having to lean on the freshmen from day one will likely allow UK to get off to a faster start and act as one of the nation's favorites all season long.
Florida, the No. 7 team in the preseason poll, has earned a reputation in nearly two decades under the tutelage of head coach Billy Donovan as one of the best programs in the country, as it has qualified for 14 of the last 16 NCAA Tournaments, including last year's Final Four run (its fourth in that time frame). The Gators lost a lot of senior leadership in the offseason but hope that turning to former reserves and newcomers in bigger roles won't result in too much of a drop off.
Nearly a half-dozen teams can make a strong case as the league's third-best team, but the program most likely to shine through this season is the Arkansas Razorbacks, a high-scoring squad that welcomes back plenty of experienced talent. Georgia, last season's surprise third-place finisher in the regular season, isn't a very flashy squad but has a knack for pulling out close games. LSU won 20 games in Johnny Jones' second season as head coach and, despite losing a handful of its best players, has developed a strong corps of veterans and newcomers to ensure another impressive run this time around. Ole Miss took a step backwards a season ago after winning the SEC Tournament in 2013, although a return to glory isn't out of the question for Andy Kennedy's squad. Missouri looks as though it'll be in for a rebuilding year after losing its stop three scorers, but the future could be now for the Tigers with the addition of a couple of high-impact freshmen.
Auburn is a team to watch with one of the most intriguing transfers in the country - Niagara's Antoine Mason, who led the nation in scoring a season ago (25.6) and will be eligible to play right away - although he isn't expected to help its defensive woes. Texas A&M, Alabama and Vanderbilt were all underachievers a season ago and aren't expected to improve too much in the new campaign.
South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi State will likely round out the bottom of the standings. Tennessee made a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 last March but will endure a large roster turnover under a first-year head coach. The Gamecocks and the Bulldogs, meanwhile, have been cellar dwellers for the past several seasons and will have a hard time breaking that trend.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Kentucky
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Kentucky, 2. Florida, 3. Arkansas, 4. Georgia, 5. LSU, 6. Ole Miss, 7. Missouri, 8. Auburn, 9. Texas A&M, 10. Alabama, 11. Vanderbilt, 12. South Carolina, 13. Tennessee, 14. Mississippi State
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
KENTUCKY: By the Wildcats' lofty standards, their 2013-14 regular season was rather modest. They finished second in the SEC at 12-6, and after losing to Florida in the conference tournament championship game (61-60), they were 24-10 overall, which was good enough for a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. UK is no stranger to great postseasons with 16 Final Fours and eight championships, but the 2014 run was arguably their most improbable, as it upset a No. 1 seed, a No. 4 seed and two No. 2 seeds on its way to the title bout before falling just short of championship glory against Connecticut (60-54). The Wildcats have been known for their elite recruiting classes under John Calipari, and this season's freshman class is as strong as year's past with the top recruits Trey Lyles (6-10, 255), Karl-Anthony Towns (6-11, 235), Devin Booker (6-5, 185), and Tyler Ulis (5-9, 155) all coming aboard. What makes this UK team different, however, is the continuity. Julius Randle (15.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg) and James Young (14.3 ppg) were one-and-done as freshmen, but Aaron Harrison (13.7 ppg), Andrew Harrison (10.9 ppg, 4.0 apg), Willie-Cauley Stein (6.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.9 bpg), Alex Poythress (5.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Dakari Johnson (5.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg) all return, giving the squad the deepest well of elite talent in the nation.
FLORIDA: The Gators have not only been neck-and-neck with Kentucky for SEC supremacy during Billy Donovan's reign as head coach, but they have been one of the nation's most consistently outstanding programs, and the 2013-14 campaign was the team's best since winning back-to-back NCAA Championships in 2006 and 2007. Florida dominated league play by becoming the first SEC team to ever finish 18-0 in the league. It won three games en route to an SEC Tournament Championship (its fourth since 2005) and advanced all the way to the Final Four before losing to eventual-champion UConn. It was an incredible 36-3 season for the Gators, but continuing such dominance will be difficult now that senior leaders Casey Prather (13.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg), Scottie Wilbekin (13.1 ppg) and Patric Young (11.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg) have moved on. There's still plenty talent left for a team that boasted a +12.2 scoring margin and ranked third in the nation in scoring defense (57.8 ppg). Michael Frazier (12.4 ppg) hopes to take the next step into an elite scorer. Dorian Finney-Smith (8.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Kasey Hill (5.5 ppg) are expected to join the starting lineup, and Eli Carter, who scored 14.9 ppg with Rutgers in 2012-13, will be a factor after redshirting last season. Chris Chiozza (6-0, 160), Devin Robinson (6-8, 178), and Brandone Francis (6-5, 205) are all highly-touted freshmen.
ARKANSAS: The Razorbacks have seen improvement in each of the last two seasons under head coach Mike Anderson, with the 2013-14 campaign their best since 2007-08 in going 22-12 overall and 10-8 in league action. Although their early exit from the SEC Tournament prevented an NCAA Tournament bid, they still reached the postseason with an NIT berth, even defeating Indiana State in the first round (91-71). Arkansas was an outstanding offensive squad a season ago (80.1 ppg) and was one of the nation's best in terms of turnover margin (+5.5). With the return of five of its top six scorers, it could actually build upon last season's success this time around. Rashad Madden (12.7 ppg) and Michael Qualls (11.6 ppg) are dangerous on the perimeter, combining for 92 3-pointers a season ago. Bobby Portis (12.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg) is a great defender with more than a block and a steal per game. Alandise Harris (9.0 ppg) and Anthlon Bell (7.2 ppg) are integral pieces to the deep squad. Freshman point guard Anton Beard (6-0, 195) should also see work in the rotation.
GEORGIA: After being situated near the bottom of the SEC standings in each of the previous two seasons, the Bulldogs emerged as arguably the conference's biggest surprise last year by placing tied for second in the league (12-6) and going 20-14 overall. They earned their first postseason bid since qualifying for the 2011 NCAA Tournament, as they were invited to the NIT, where they won a first-round matchup to Vermont (63-56) before falling to Louisiana Tech (79-71). Mark Fox's squad flourished in close games last year, as it owned just a +2.1 scoring margin, and it'll benefit from the return of most of its high-impact players from last season. Charles Mann led the way in scoring (13.9 ppg), assists (2.9 apg) and steals (35), while Kenny Gaines (13.0 ppg) drained 57 3-pointers at a 37.5 percent clip. Nemanja Djurisic (8.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and Marcus Thornton (8.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg) bring valuable experience to the frontcourt. A pair of freshmen, Osahen Iduwe (6-10, 235) and Yante Maten (6-8, 240), have imposing size and could see immediate minutes in the frontcourt.
LSU: The Tigers continued to show improvement in Johnny Jones' second season as head coach. LSU finished 9-9 in league play and won 20 games overall (20-14) for the first time since the 2008-09 campaign. The successful season ended in an NIT bid, where the team defeated San Francisco in the first round (71-63) before getting bounced in the second by SMU (80-67). LSU, which scored 74.7 ppg and allowed 71.3 ppg a season ago, will need to move on in 2014-15 without several of its top playmakers, including Johnny O'Bryant III (15.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg), Andre Stringer (11.8 ppg), Shavon Coleman (9.1 ppg) and Anthony Hickey (8.4 ppg, 3.7 apg). Of the remaining talent from last year's team, only Jordan Mickey (12.7 ppg, 7.9 rpg), Jarell Martin (10.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Tim Quarterman (2.5 ppg) averaged more than 10 minutes per game. The large roster turnover will allow an opportunity for touted freshman Elbert Robinson (7-1, 270) to make his mark in the frontcourt. Keith Hornsby (6-4, 210) regains his eligibility this season after transferring from UNC-Asheville (15.0 ppg, 3.1 apg in 2012-13).
OLE MISS: The Rebels have been one of the SEC's best in eight seasons under head coach Adam Kennedy, but after an improbable run to a conference tournament championship in 2013, they fell back to just 19-14 overall (9-9 SEC) during the 2013-14 campaign, marking just the second time they've won less than 20 games under Kennedy. The squad's disappointing follow up to its 2013 title run concluded without a postseason bid for the first time since 2009. Ole Miss will have to acclimate to life without leading scorer Marshall Henderson (19.0 ppg), who ranked third in the country with 129 3-pointers, but the team might be better off without his poor shot selection (.353 FG percentage). All four other starters return, including Jarvis Summers (17.3 ppg, 3.8 apg), who was a much more efficient shooter than Henderson (.486). Aaron Jones is a mainstay in the paint with 6.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg and 2.1 blocks per contest. LaDarius White (7.1 ppg) and Anthony Perez (7.1 ppg) will get more opportunities to score with Henderson gone, as will Tennessee-Martin transfer Terence Smith (14.6 ppg).
MISSOURI: By the standards they set for themselves in recent seasons, the Tigers were a disappointment during the 2013-14 campaign. Although they finished an impressive 23-12 overall, they only went 9-9 in the SEC and could not build up a strong enough resume to earn their sixth straight NCAA Tournament bid. Instead they settled for the NIT, where they endured a second- round exit at the hands of Southern Miss (71-63). With Frank Haith leaving to coach Tulsa, former assistant Kim Anderson will take over after spending the past 12 seasons coaching Division II Central Missouri (274-94 record). The program has also experienced a large roster turnover, with leading producers Jabari Brown (19.9 ppg), Jordan Clarkson (17.5 ppg) and Earnest Ross (14.0 ppg) having all moved on. Johnathan Williams (5.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Ryan Rosburg (4.8 ppg) and Wes Clark (4.1 ppg) will go from role players to focal points this season. Although there are expected to be plenty of growing pains for Missouri, it will benefit from having the top recruiting class in the SEC outside of Kentucky and Florida, with Montaque Gill-Ceasar (6-6, 215) and JaKeenan Gant (6-8, 207) expected to make an immediate impact.
AUBURN: With another disappointing campaign in 2013-14 (14-16, 6-12 SEC), the Tigers fired head coach Tony Barbee, who finished below .500 in all four seasons at the helm. Auburn has been an afterthought in the SEC since making the NCAA Tournament in three out of five years from 1999-2003, and it hopes to turn its fortunes around with one of the nation's most high-profile offseason coaching acquisitions. Bruce Pearl has a proven track record of success in the SEC, having collected a 145-61 record with Tennessee from 2005-2011, making the NCAA Tournament in each of his six seasons. However, the first-year coach will have his hands full with this squad early on. Starters Chris Denson (19.1 ppg), Allen Payne (7.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Asauhn Dixon-Tatum (6.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg) are all gone, although there is still some talent to work with. KT Harrell (18.3 ppg) brings explosion to the backcourt, as does Antoine Mason, who led the nation in scoring last season with Niagara (25.6 ppg) and will be eligible to play immediately. Tahj Shamsid-Deen (9.5 ppg) will also be heavily involved, and freshman Trayvon Reed (7-1, 240) plans to join the team in December after finishing his academic requirements.
TEXAS A&M: The Aggies stabilized in their second season in the SEC and third under head coach Billy Kennedy, finishing with the same win total as they did in 2012-13 (18-16, 8-10 SEC), although they stumbled down the stretch with losses in three of their last four regular-season contests prior to a second- round exit in the SEC Tournament. Texas A&M's campaign was good enough for a bid to the College Basketball Invitational, where it beat Wyoming in the first round (59-43) before losing in the quarterfinals to Illinois State (62-55). Although the squad lost its leading scorer Jamal Jones (13.4 ppg), it is fortunate enough to return four starters, anchored by a senior leader at forward in Kourtney Robinson (9.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg). Alex Caruso (9.0 ppg) was one of the league leaders in assists with 5.0 per game. Jordan Green (6.9 ppg), Antwan Space (6.4 ppg) and Davonte Fitzgerald (7.3 ppg) all bring valuable experience to the table. Highly-touted freshman point guard Alex Robinson (6-1, 174) is projected to crack the starting lineup, as is SMU transfer forward Jalen Jones (14.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg in 2012-13).
ALABAMA: The Crimson Tide are fresh off their worst season in more than a decade. After registering 13 consecutive winning campaigns (including eight with 20 or more wins), they fell flat in 2013-14 by going a mere 13-19 overall and 7-11 in league play, missing the postseason for the first time since Anthony Grant's first season as head coach in 2009-10. Alabama only had one player, Trevor Releford (18.5 ppg), average in double figures last season, and his departure has left a big hole in the backcourt. The good news for the squad is that it returns plenty of depth with four starters back. Levi Randolph (9.6 ppg), Retin Obasohan (9.5 ppg) and Rodney Cooper (7.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg) anchor the guard-heavy group, while Shannon Hale (8.8 ppg) is solid in the frontcourt. The Tide has reinforcements on the way to try and secure an improved season. Ricky Tarrant (15.7 ppg, 3.6 in 2012-13) sat out last season after transferring from Tulane and has regained eligibility. Justin Coleman (5-10, 160) and Riley Norris (6-7, 207) highlight a promising freshman class.
VANDERBILT: For the second straight season, the Commodores finished below .500 both in the SEC (7-11) and overall (15-16). They closed out the campaign with five consecutive losses, including to Mississippi State (82-68) in the first round of the SEC Tournament, and missed the postseason for just the fifth time in head coach Kevin Stallings' 15 seasons. Vanderbilt, which scored fewer points (64.6 ppg) than it allowed (65.5 ppg) a season ago, has to move on from three of its top four producers -- Eric McClellan (14.3 ppg, 3.2 apg), Rob Odom (13.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Kyle Fuller (11.0 ppg). The team's strength comes in the frontcourt, where Damian Jones (11.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.4 bpg) and James Siakam (7.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.3 bpg) both do a good job protecting the rim. Of the six incoming freshman, Riley LaChance (6-2, 194) appears most prepared to step into regular playing time.
SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks have not endured the type of turnaround they had hoped for when they brought on Frank Martin as head coach prior to the 2012-13 season. After finishing 12th in the SEC in Martin's first season, the squad regressed in 2013-14 to place 13th (5-13) while going just 14-20 overall, a far cry from the five consecutive 20-win seasons Martin put together with Kansas State from 2007-12. Although emerging this time around to become one of the league's best is highly unlikely, South Carolina can at least hope for improvement thanks to the return of four starters. Sindarius Thornwell (13.4 ppg) is the top returning scorer, although he shot a mere 38.6 percent from the field while finishing with more turnovers (106) than assists (101). Tyrone Johnson (11.2 ppg), Michael Carrera (6.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Mindaugas Kacinas (5.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg) are also back in the fray.
TENNESSEE: The Volunteers showed improvement in each of their three seasons under Cuonzo Martin, with the 2013-14 campaign the program's best since 2009-10 (28-9). They finished fourth in the SEC with an 11-7 league record, and thanks in part to a five-game winning streak from late February to early March, they landed a spot in the NCAA Tournament as an No. 11 seed, playing the part of Cinderella by winning three games over Iowa (78-65 in OT), Massachusetts (86-67) and Mercer (83-63) before losing in the Sweet 16 to Michigan (73-71). Martin's 24-13 record with the Vols allowed him to get poached away by Cal in the offseason. Donnie Tyndall, who has registered five 20-win campaigns in the past six seasons with Southern Miss and Morehead State, was named the new head coach. Tyndall takes over a team that outscored opponents by 10.5 ppg but will have to move on from four starters - Jordan McRae (18.7 ppg), Jarnell Stokes (15.1 ppg, 10.6 rpg), Jeronne Maymon (9.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Antonio Barton (7.5 ppg). Josh Richardson (10.3 ppg) is the lone experienced player left. Graduate transfer Ian Chiles scored 15.8 ppg for IUPUI last season. Dominic Woodson (6-10, 280), a transfer from Memphis, was ruled eligible to play right away.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: The Bulldogs showed a four-win improvement last season over the 2012-13 campaign in Rick Ray's second season as head coach, but even so they finished up a mere 14-19 overall, including a last-place finish in the SEC at a meager 3-15. Although the team concluded last season in the red in terms of scoring (-3.6) and rebounding (-2.3) margin, while shooting a woeful 30.7 percent from 3-point range, there's hope for a turnaround with the return of most of 2013-14's key contributors. Craig Sword led the team in scoring with 13.7 ppg, and Gavin Ware anchored the frontcourt with 10.0 ppg and 7.2 rpg. Roquez Johnson (9.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg), Fred Thomas (9.3 ppg), Trivante Bloodman (6.5 ppg) and I.J. Ready (5.9 ppg) were also regular contributors for a deep team. Junior college transfer Travis Daniels (6-8, 215) expects to be in the mix at forward after averaging 11.9 ppg and 7.2 rpg last season at Shelton State.