Terrence Jones and Kentucky will be the team to beat in the SEC--and maybe the nation.
Following a notoriously "down" year last season--which undoubtedly cost the Crimson Tide a spot in the 2011 NCAA Tournament--SEC basketball looks to be in a stronger position heading into the 2012 season. Conventional wisdom has Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State, LSU and Vanderbilt all looking to have improved squads this year. Florida, Ole Miss and South Carolina meanwhile look to hold steady, while only Georgia and Tennessee are expected to take steps back.
Four teams are ranked in the preseason coaches' top 25, including three in the top 10: #2 Kentucky, #7 Vanderbilt, #10 Florida and #17 Alabama. A fifth team, Mississippi State, is receiving votes just outside the top 25. Clearly, the league is expected to have some strong teams at the top, but that was never really the problem last year. The SEC placed five teams into the NCAA Tournament, and was one missed Florida shot away from having two teams in the Final Four.
The problem last year was the overall weakness of the SEC West (including Alabama) in non-conference play, and especially the catastrophic failure of a season that both Auburn and LSU put together, which dragged the entire league's RPI down, particularly the teams in the West that had to play them twice. The good news, especially for teams like Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi State, all of whom have high hopes of returning to the Big Dance, is that most teams in the conference, including both those at the top and those at the bottom, appear to be in stronger position heading into 2012.
We'll count down each SEC team 1-12 below and offer a quick outlook of their 2012 prospects.
1) Kentucky -- Sure, they lost point guard and leading scorer Brandon Knight to the NBA. But they return their other three other double-digit scorers in Terrence Jones (possible SEC preseason Player of the Year), sharpshooting guardand veteran wing player Darius Miller. Oh, and did we mention they brought in the clear-cut #1 recruiting class for the third straight year? Yeah, about that...Marquis Teague is expected to be good enough to seamlessly fill the shoes of stud freshmen point guards and Brandon Knight. Forward was ranked the #2 high school player in the country and will form a terrifying frontcourt alongside Jones. Wing player Michael Kidd-Gilchrist might be the best freshman in college basketball, and he was UK's third-most-hyped recruit. Yet another freshman, Kyle Wiltjer, was merely a top-25 player nationally. The 'Cats might be my pick to win the national championship. Picking them #1 in the SEC is easy.
2) Vanderbilt -- The Commodores finished 4th in the SEC last season and among the top 20 teams in the nation. They return everyone. Literally everyone. Despite their disturbing penchant to choke in the postseason, you can't not pick the 'Dores 2nd in the league heading into this season with such a well-rounded veteran squad with a proven track record of winning in the league. Guard John Jenkins will be preseason SEC Player of the Year if UK's Jones isn't. Center Festus Ezeli emerged last season as a dominant force in the paint. Savvy point guardand do-everything wing player Jeffrey Taylor also return as double-digit scorers, as do a plethora of surprisingly (for Vandy) athletic role players who have plenty of experience. With Memorial Fortress Magic on their side and their tendency to perform very strongly in the regular season, picking the Dores to win the league title in 2012 would not be a bad pick by any means.
3) Florida -- I'm not sold just yet on Florida as a top 10 team, as the preseason coaches' poll has them. They lost three starters, including their MVP Chandler Parsons and both of the starters in the post. They do return their two leading scorers, point guardand guard , as well as most of the backups from the squad that won the SEC championship in 2011. Super-stud recruit Brad Beal, a guard, was considered one of the top five high school players in the country (yes, that means the SEC got four of the top five with UK's Davis, Kidd-Gilcrist and Teague). Walker, Boynton and Beal will give the Gators a deadly backcourt, but there are a lot of questions about whether young post players and (as well as Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario) can hold things down on the inside with the likes of Kentucky and even Vanderbilt. Many have high hopes for Young and Rosario in particular, but at this point they are unproven in the SEC. Still, the talent in the backcourt is enough to separate the Gators from the rest of the league.
4) Alabama -- The Tide was left out in the March Madness cold last year despite finishing 2nd place in the SEC, the result of an awful first month of the season and some very unfortunate scheduling/RPI phenomena that had little to do with how well the team played during the last three months of the year. All three double-digit performers return and will form the nucleus of the team: All-SEC forward, stat-stuffing wing player and crafty point guard Trevor Releford. Anthony Grant only helped matters by inking the conference's second-best recruiting class (behind Kentucky of course) which will really beef up the Tide's perimeter offense, something that was sorely lacking last year. 5-star guard Trevor Lacey was the most hyped recruit, but 4-star wing players Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper may play just as big if not bigger roles, and 4-star forward Nick Jacobs will be relied on in a very big way. This team has some weaknesses to overcome, namely being very thin on the inside and having probably the youngest playing rotation in the league, but if the Tide can replicate last year's defensive success with the new offensive talent, Bama could compete with anyone in the SEC.
5) Mississippi State -- The Bulldogs lost leading scorer, but they return the other two important cogs of the team that finished 2nd in the West last season despite a year full of turmoil around the program. is an excellent college point guard, and center finally showed at least some flashes last year of why he was such a hyped recruit. UTEP transfer will give the Bullies one of the strongest frontcourts in the league, and 5-star recruit Rodney Hood will help replace Johnson on the wing. The SEC isn't using divisions anymore this season, but the former SEC West teams all play each other twice this year, and among those teams, MSU looks to be above all but maybe Bama, at least from a talent standpoint. If Rick Stansbury can keep his unit together this year and focused on the "team", they have a good shot to re-emerge as a tournament contender.
6) Arkansas -- Mike Anderson will win at Arkansas. I don't think anyone doubts that. However, they are probably a year or two away from really being able to compete with the top of the league. That said, despite losing leading scorer, the Hogs should have enough talent on hand to finish near the top half of the league if the transition to Anderson's style goes smoothly. Forward Marshawn Powell, who was second in scoring last season despite being slow to recover from an injury, returns, as does guard , who emerged last season as a dangerous player. The main focus however will be on the incoming recruiting class, the third-best in the SEC. 5-star point guard B.J. Young will likely be the spark-plug for the new-look Hogs, and 4-star guard Rashad Madden will help solidify the backcourt. 4-star forward Hunter Mickelson and returning senior will help fortify the frontcourt. With a new coach, new system and mostly new players, it's difficult to forecast the year Arkansas will have. I could see it going either way, but with the bottom half of the SEC lacking sure-fire things, I'm willing to roll the dice on Mike Anderson and the Hogs and put them just inside the top half of the league.
7) Georgia -- No squad in the league was hit harder by the NBA draft than the Bulldogs, who lost two of the SEC's most dynamic players in Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie. Like Florida, the Dawgs' losses were heavy in the frontcourt but they look to make up for it with some impressive firepower in the backcourt. Veteran point guardreturns for his senior season, as does high-scoring guard Gerald Robinson. The Dawgs are also expecting big things out of 5-star freshman wing player Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to round out their perimeter. The real questions for the Bulldogs come on the inside, where they lost nearly everyone who mattered. It's hard to see them returning to the Dance with virtually no experience inside, but they should have enough weapons outside to keep them from the bottom third of the league.
8) Auburn -- Some won't want to hear it, but Auburn might be the most improved team in the nation this season. Of course it helps them in this regard that their results, particularly their non-conference results, were so, so bad last season. Probably the best thing about Auburn's season last year from their perspective was that it was so bad that just by appearing on Bama's schedule twice they might have cost the Tide a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Things look to be much different this season as Tony Barbee will at least have some competent pieces to play around with. Lanky wing playeris the only double-digit scorer returning from last season, but dynamic veteran guard returns after missing last year due to injury. The big piece of the rebuilding puzzle however is point guard , a highly-touted transfer from Texas who will immediately make the Tigers competitive in the league. The Tigers are still thin, but those three players on the perimeter along with 4-star freshman forward Willie Kouassi joining the team will at least give Barbee the ability to be dangerous this year. If Barbee makes a run at a tournament berth, I'd be stunned, but they will be at least capable of winning some league games this year and it's not at all out of the question they could finish .500 in the league if things go just right.
9) Ole Miss -- It's hard to imagine the Rebels not dropping off a bit after losing leading scorer Chris Warren, who has been the heart and soul of that team for years now. However, they may not drop as far as some might think. Despite losing Warren and second-leading scorer, the Rebels return most everyone else from a team that made the NIT last year. With the arrival of transfer forward , a 5-star recruit who left Memphis before ever playing a game, the Rebels will be surprisingly strong inside. The question is whether Dundrecus Nelson and a host of inexperienced guards can give them enough scoring in the backcourt as they enter the post-Warren era. I don't see how Ole Miss makes the Dance, or even finishes in the top half of the league, but if a guard or two can step up they can sustain where they've been the past few years under Andy Kennedy, which is just inside the middle third of the league and in contention for an NIT berth.
10) South Carolina -- Like Ole Miss and Andy Kennedy, I keep waiting for South Carolina and Darrin Horn to break through that middle-third-of-the-league-NIT-contender zone and emerge with a team that surpasses that level. I don't see it coming this year. Point guard, who led the team in scoring last season, returns and will form the centerpiece of the team once again. However, the Gamecocks lost their only other major scoring threat on the perimeter, , and also lost their top interior player and one of the best defenders in the league in . 4-star freshman guard Damien Leonard will help, but it's difficult to see the Gamecocks improving beyond the level they've seen the last few years under Horn.
11) LSU -- The Tigers should be better than last season. For the sake of Trent Johnson's job and the rest of the league's RPI, that better be the case. LSU was downright terrible. The good news is that they return their top four scorers from what was clearly the most inexperienced team in the league last season: guardsand , and forwards and Malcolm White. The addition of highly-sought-after 4-star recruit Johnny O'Bryant in the paint combined with the returning players should in and of itself portend significant improvement for the Tigers. Like with the other Tigers, however, significant improvement could mean merely competence in non-conference play. LSU should be competent, more experienced, and slightly more dangerous, but it's difficult to see them passing many teams in the league with mostly the same crew that finished dead last in the league last year.
12) Tennessee -- Things on Rocky Top have hit rock bottom. Bruce Pearl is gone.is gone. is gone. is gone. Brian Williams is gone. And just like that the Tennessee basketball program has come crashing down. Wing player returns as the only player who averaged more than 3.0 points/game last season. New coach Counzo Martin couldn't keep the recruiting class together in any sort of form that well help matters much. It's hard to say just where the "bottom" is for Tennessee. Hopefully it's not as low as Auburn and LSU last season.