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OUTLOOK: The Southeastern Conference has historically been dominated by Kentucky, with the Wildcats winning 27 conference tournament titles, but an uncharacteristically poor season in Lexington allowed for a change in the conference dynamic in 2012-13.
Overall, it was a disappointing campaign for the SEC, with only three teams earning invites in the NCAA Tournament. Ole Miss secured its spot by claiming an improbable tournament championship. Florida, the regular-season champion, had another outstanding season, and Missouri was the league's lone bubble team to make the field. While the SEC may not be as dominant as it used to be, the balance of power should be greater in 2013-14.
Last season already feels like a distant memory for Kentucky, which secured the nation's top recruiting class once again, and the 2012 national champions come into this season as an overwhelming favorite, earning the No. 1 ranking in the preseason polls.
Florida has made a habit of punching its ticket to the Big Dance under Billy Donovan, doing so in 13 of the last 15 seasons, and the Gators boast an incredibly talented roster once again. A bubble team last season, Tennessee appears to have the goods to take the next step. Missouri's transition from the Big 12 to the SEC last season went smoothly, and it should find itself in position for a sixth straight NCAA Tournament berth.
LSU has a great opportunity to make a splash after returning several key players from a strong 2012-13 team, on top of landing a handful of top recruits. Alabama has made a name for itself as a top-notch defensive squad, which will give it a chance to defeat even the elite teams it will face. Things came together perfectly for Ole Miss last season on its way to the SEC title, but while it returns the league's top scorer in Marshall Henderson, it didn't do enough to replenish the rest of the squad for the club to be considered a serious contender to repeat.
Arkansas enjoyed a strong campaign last season, but the loss of several key components will hinder the Hogs from taking the next step. Similarly, Texas A&M and Georgia were also trending in the right direction before the departure of its top scorers.
South Carolina is fortunate to have a proven head coach in Frank Martin, but simply doesn't have the talent yet to compete with the SEC's best. Mississippi State struggled but will welcome back the majority of its roster from a season ago. Auburn, fresh off its worst showing in school history, appears to be in for another long season.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Kentucky
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Kentucky, 2. Florida, 3. Tennessee, 4. Missouri, 5. LSU, 6. Alabama, 7. Ole Miss, 8. Arkansas, 9. Vanderbilt, 10. Texas A&M, 11. Georgia, 12. South Carolina, 13. Mississippi State, 14. Auburn
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
KENTUCKY: To call the Wildcats' 2012-13 campaign a disappointment would be putting it mildly. A year after winning the a national championship, Kentucky finished just 21-12 and missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time in John Calipari's tenure, and for only the second time since 1992. Last season is long gone, however, and the squad is out to prove that it was the exception rather than the rule. Thanks to a few key returnees and an outstanding recruiting class, UK is ranked No. 1 in the AP preseason poll for the first time since 1995-96. The incoming crop of rookies is headlined by Julius Randle, the consensus top forward recruit in the nation after posting insane numbers (32.5 ppg, 22.5 rpg) as a senior at Prestonwood Christian. The loaded class is rounded out by Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, James Young, Marcus Lee and Daraki Johnson, all of whom were named to the 2013 McDonald's High School All-American Team. Coming back for their sophomore campaigns are Willie Cauley-Stein (8.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Alex Poythress (11.2 ppg, 6.0) who opted to stay in Lexington as opposed to Archie Goodwin (14.1 ppg) and Nerlens Noel (10.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg), who bolted for the NBA.
FLORIDA: Under Donovan for the past 17 seasons, the Gators have consistently been one of the nation's top teams, and the story was much of the same in 2012-13. Florida finished the season at 29-8 overall, and at 14-4 in the SEC, won the regular-season title for the fifth time under Donovan, and while the Gators lost to Ole Miss in the conference tournament championship game (66-63), they regained their momentum in the NCAA Tournament with their third straight Elite Eight appearance. While Florida lost its top three scorers (Mike Rosario, Erik Murphy, Kenny Boynton), the cupboard is far from bare. Patric Young (10.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.7 bpg) and Will Yeguete (5.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) are solid frontcourt performers, while Scottie Wilbekin (9.1 ppg) is a valued floor general, dishing out 5.0 assists per game a season ago. Also expected to figure in the mix are a pair of five-star recruits in point guard Kasey Hill (6-foot, 170 pounds) and forward Chris Walker (6-foot-10, 195 pounds), as well as transfer Eli Carter, who has been cleared to play this season after averaging 14.9 points per game in his final season at Rutgers.
TENNESSEE: The Volunteers continued to show improvement in head coach Cuonzo Martin's second season, going 20-13 overall and 11-7 in the SEC, although after a quarterfinal-round loss to Alabama in the conference tournament (58-48), their NCAA Tournament bubble was burst and instead had to settle for an NIT berth for the second straight season. Things are looking up for 2013-14, as the squad welcomes back building blocks at both guard and forward. Jordan McRae (15.7 ppg) emerged as one of the SEC's most potent scorers down the stretch last season, and Jarnell Stokes (12.4 ppg, 9.6 rpg) is a bona fide big man, strong enough to go toe-to-toe with anyone in the paint. Also joining the fold is Jeronne Maymon, who averaged 12.7 ppg at Marquette in 2011-12 and was named to the Preseason All-SEC Second Team. Antonio Barton, a transfer from Memphis, is a sharp-shooter, and Robert Hubbs III is expected to see plenty of minutes in the backcourt as a freshman.
MISSOURI: The Tigers continued their impressive play in 2012-13, going 23-11 overall with a 11-7 record in the SEC, a resume' good enough to land them in the NCAA Tournament field for the fifth consecutive year, although they were ousted in the second round for a third straight time. Frank Haith's third season at the helm for Mizzou will be a retooling one of sorts, as four players who averaged double figures last season (Laurence Bowers, Phil Pressey, Alex Oriakhi, Keion Bell) have all moved on. There's still enough talent on the roster for the Tigers to remain competitive, however. Jabari Brown (13.7 ppg) bring a dynamic element to the backcourt, and Earnest Ross (10.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg) will assume a larger role after starting just 10 games a season ago. Jordan Clarkson will play a prominent role in his first season after averaging 14.2 ppg in his two-year career at Tulsa. Johnathan Williams III (6-9, 208) and Wes Clark (6-0, 171) are both highly-touted rookies.
LSU: In Johnny Jones' first season as the Tigers' head coach, the squad finished 19-12 overall and waded in mediocrity in the SEC with a 9-9 league mark, but things are looking in up in Baton Rouge thanks to arguably the most cohesive returning unit in the conference. Johnny O'Bryant III (13.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg) provides a sturdy foundation to the frontcourt and is a double-double threat on any given night. Anthony Hickey (11.2 ppg, 3.8 apg) is one of the nation's best perimeter defenders, logging nearly three steals per contest in 2012-13. Shavon Coleman (10.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Andre Stringer (10.4 ppg) also bring starting experience to the backcourt. Adding to LSU's case is the best recruiting class in the SEC outside of Kentucky and Florida. Jarell Martin (6-9, 241) is a five-star forward prospect who averaged 26.3 points, 14.8 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per game as a senior at Madison Prep, and Jordan Mickey (6-8, 220) and Tim Quarterman (6-6, 173) are also expected to garner immediate playing time.
ALABAMA: After earning a berth to the NCAA Tournament following the 2011-12 season, the Crimson Tide actually improved in 2012-13, going 23-13 with a 12-6 mark in conference play, but following a quarterfinal-round exit in the SEC Tournament, their bubble was burst and they had to settle for a bid to the NIT. Anthony Grant's fifth season at the helm will see the return of three starters, including First Team All-SEC selection Trevor Releford (14.9 ppg), who, in addition to being the team's top scoring option, is also an elite defender (2.1 spg). Rodney Cooper (10.2 ppg) and Levi Randolph (8.1 ppg) provide Alabama with plenty of experience and depth in the backcourt. The Tide hope they have addressed their deficiencies down low with a pair of talented recruits in Jimmie Taylor (6-foot-9, 240 pounds) and Shannon Hale (6-foot-8, 220 pounds).
OLE MISS: The Rebels enjoyed one of the most successful seasons in school history in 2012-13, shocking many by defeating Missouri, Vanderbilt and Florida on their way to their first SEC Tournament Championship since 1981, and in their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2002, they upset fifth- seeded Wisconsin in the second round before their magical run ended with a third-round defeat to La Salle. Although an improvement on a 27-9 (12-6 SEC) record appears unlikely, there's still room for optimism in Andy Kennedy's eighth season as head coach. Marshall Henderson (20.1 ppg) is back after leading the SEC in scoring, although he is suspended three games -- the season opener and the first two SEC games in January -- for violating team rules. Jarvis Summer (9.1 ppg, 3.8 apg) and LaDarius White (6.4 ppg) bring experience to the Ole Miss backcourt. Dwight Coleby (6-9, 236) was one of the top high school players in Mississippi last season and he will get his chance to be an anchor down low.
ARKANSAS: The Razorbacks exceeded expectations in Mike Anderson's second season as head coach in 2012-13, going 19-13 overall while finishing above .500 in the SEC (10-8) for the first time since 2007-08, although an uphill climb appears to be in store after they lost two of the league's most reliable players in BJ Young (15.2 ppg, 3.4 apg) and Marshawn Powell (14.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg). Of the remaining players from last year's squad, only Coty Clarke (7.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg) and Mardracus Wade (6.5 ppg) can be relied upon for any sort of consistent offensive production. There's plenty of opportunity for newcomers to make a impact on this roster, and luckily Arkansas made a big recruiting splash by bringing in a pair of 6-foot-10 freshmen in Bobby Portis and Moses Kingsley, the former being a McDonald's All-American and a consensus five-star prospect, while the latter, who is originally from Nigeria, is a defensive specialist.
VANDERBILT: Only a year removed from a their first SEC Tournament championship in 50 years, the Commodores endured a setback in 2012-13 by going just 16-17 overall and missing out on their third consecutive trip to the Big Dance. It was just Kevin Stallings' second losing season since taking over at Vandy in 1999, and if he wants to bring his team back to relevancy, he'll need to do it without last season's top scorer Kedren Johnson (13.5 ppg, 3.6 apg). A pair of senior leaders will be expected to shoulder the load in 2013-14, with Rod Odom (10.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg) patrolling the paint and Kyle Fuller (8.7 ppg) doing his best work out on the perimeter. Sophomore Eric McClellan, who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules, averaged 8.5 points per game for Tulsa in 2011-12, and will be a welcomed addition for a squad in desperate need of scoring punch.
TEXAS A&M: In the Aggies' first season in the SEC, and second under head coach Billy Kennedy, they showed a three-game improvement from 2011-12 by going 17-14 overall, but the league schedule proved to be their downfall, finishing only 7-11 in conference. Texas A&M, which made the NCAA Tournament field every season from 2006-11, will have its work cut out for it this season, as it lost two of its top performers to graduation in Elston Turner (17.5 ppg) and Ray Turner (9.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg). Expected to pick up the scoring slack is Fabyon Harris, who poured in 12.0 points per game as the second option last season. Also returning to the starting lineup are guards J-Mychal Reese (6.2 ppg) and Alex Caruso (5.5 ppg, 3.4 apg), as well as forward Kourtney Roberson (6.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg). Of the six newcomers, 6-foot-11 Dylan Jones appears to be in line for the most playing time, at least at the outset.
GEORGIA: For the second straight season, the Bulldogs had a lackluster 15-17 overall record, but after going just 5-11 in the SEC in 2011-12, they improved to 9-9 against conference foes. Expecting another leap in the standings in 2013-14 would be unwise, however, considering Georgia lost SEC Player of the Year Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (18.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.0 spg), who was the eighth pick in the 2013 NBA Draft (Detroit Pistons). No other player averaged double figures last season, meaning Nemanja Djurisic (7.9 ppg), Charles Mann (6.7 ppg, 2.9 apg), Donte' Williams (5.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Brandon Morris (4.1 ppg) will all need to up their level of production.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Frank Martin's tenure as the Gamecocks' head coach got off to a flying start last season, as the team went 10-3 out of the gate, but it was ultimately outmatched by its league rivals (4-14) and finished a disappointing 14-18 overall. Martin, who led Kansas State to four NCAA Tournament berths in five seasons prior to taking the South Carolina job, still has a long way to go to make the Gamecocks a force in the SEC. The bad news is that they lost four players in the offseason that averaged at least 20 minutes per game last year, but there's still some talent left on the roster, led by sophomore forward Michael Carrera (9.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg). Brenton Williams (11.0 ppg) and Bruce Ellington (9.9 ppg) are valuable pieces to the backcourt puzzle, as is freshman Sindarius Thornwell (6-5, 206), who was the state of South Carolina's top-rated high school player a year ago.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: The Bulldogs had been one of the most consistent teams in the SEC under Rick Stansbury, winning 20 or more games nine times in the new millennium, but with his retirement after the 2011-12 season, came one of the worst seasons in recent memory as they went just 10-22 (4-14 SEC). Hopefully the return of the top six scorers will help head coach Rick Ray improve in his second season. Craig Sword led the way last year with 10.5 ppg, but he shot just 19.4 percent from 3-point range and had a bad assist-to-turnover (75-127) ratio. Jalen Steele (10.1 ppg) played only 18 games, and the team will certainly be better off if he can stay healthy all season. Fred Thomas (9.7 ppg) and Gavin Ware (8.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg) were both impressive as rookies, and Colin Borchert (9.0 ppg) and Roquez Johnson (8.8 ppg) were also steady sources of offensive production.
AUBURN: The Tigers have yet to record a winning record in three season under Tony Barbee, and the 2012-13 campaign was the worst yet. At 9-23 overall, they finished with the most losses in single-season school history, and to make matters worse they finished last in the conference at 3-15. Auburn will need to make up for the loss of its top scorer Frankie Sullivan (14.5 ppg), although the absence of his lackluster field goal percentage (.367) may actually help the team moving forward. Chris Denson (11.9 ppg) missed 12 games last season and should be the team's top scoring option if he can stay on the court. The only other returning player who logged significant minutes last season is Allen Payne (7.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg). Asauhn Dixon-Tatum (3.7 ppg), a 7- foot center, will receive increased playing time after making just one start a year ago. Virginia transfer KT Harrell will have a big opportunity as well after redshirting in 2012-13.