Last season the SEC was the laughingstock of the college basketball world with only three teams selected to the NCAA Tournament. Three years before that it was Florida, not Kentucky, celebrating back to back championships while Wildcat fans were promised that Billy Gillespie would turn their program around.
Meanwhile Calipari sat at Memphis, dominating Conference USA, reaching Final Fours, and bringing in top recruit after top recruit. The Tigers reached the national championship game against Kansas two seasons ago and led late before free throw shooting gave the Jayhawks a chance, and eventually the national championship. That was the Tigers one chance to change their mid-major label and become a true elite program.
That's why when Kentucky came calling, Calipari answered. Who wouldn't? Well there is Billy Donovan, Florida's head coach who turned down the Wildcats twice in four seasons, but honestly who wouldn't want the Kentucky job?
I don't want you to believe that SEC coaches are coaching harder just because of what Calipari has been able to do at Kentucky, because that's not true. It is true that the rest of the league knows big blue is back, will not go around soon, and is the team to beat in the conference this year. All that without even coaching a game at Kentucky.
Don't expect the rest of the league to just sit back and let Kentucky run through the league though. This year the SEC is back in a big way. There's a quiet murmur among SEC basketball fans discussing just how good this conference will be next season. Three SEC tournament teams this season? No way. Think more like five, at the minimum. On paper there are eight teams that appear to be potential NCAA Tournament teams for the SEC, but in this conference there's always the chance that another "Georgia" Cinderella run could take place in the Georgia Dome (site of the NCAA Tournament) to add another team to the mix.
And if you're looking for stars, look no further than the SEC. Jarvis Varnado, the big man you don't want to see when you get to the basket, Tasmin Mitchell, Patrick Patterson, and Devan Downey are among the players that will make highlight reels every night among the nation.
Here's my SEC preview (be sure to check out my preseason bracketology as well), along with a prediction of whether each team will be playing in March:
SEC East1. Kentucky Wildcats: Let's be honest, Kentucky is loaded. Forget Patrick Patterson for a minute, the Wildcat big man that averaged 17.9 PPG and 9.3 RPG last season. Don't think about Perry Stevenson, the X-factor in a lot of Wildcat wins last season. In marches John Wall, the most anticipated freshman guard since Derrick Rose led Memphis to the national title game two seasons ago. In comes DeMarcus Cousins, the aggressive shot blocker that will join Patterson down low.
Biggest Question: We know that the Wildcats will be the most talented team in the SEC next season, by far. The only question in Kentucky is how the new players gel under Calipari. With Wall, Cousins, and Eric Bledose--all gifted freshman joining one of the nation's most prolific programs--the problem might be that there aren't enough basketballs on the floor at once for all the talent.
Key Non Conference Game: Vs North Carolina (December 5th)
Anytime you host the national champions and you're trying to get back to elite status the game can be used as a measuring tool for how far your team is away. The Tar Heels are less talented than they were less season and as vulnerable as the Tar Heels are ever going to be.
Key Conference Game: At Tennessee (February 27th)
Last year Jodie Meeks torched the Volunteers for 54 in Knoxville. This season Meeks isn't on the Wildcats roster. Tenneesee will have revenge in mind at home against the Wildcats. Make sure you tune in for this one. It could decide the SEC East champion.
Key Player: John Wall
Wall hasn't even played a game but has nearly reached legend status for the Wildcats already. All offseason he's been the talk of college basketball. If he lives up to expectations then Kentucky will be extremely good. From what I've seen of Wall, there's no way he doesn't become a star right away in Lexington.
Postseason: Elite Eight (NCAA Tournament)
2. Tennessee Volunteers: What Bruce Pearl has been able to accomplish in Knoxville is pretty remarkable. This offseason his Volunteers are flying under the radar with a roster flooded with talent due to Calipari's storylines at Big Blue. With J. P. Price, Wayne Chism, Bobby Maze, and Tyler Smith back hopes are very high in Knoxville.
Biggest Question: Last season Tennessee's defense allowed 72.5 points per game. That's the nature of the full court press, but can Pearl's defense force more turnovers and allow less easy baskets this season? If they can then Tennessee will likely get a lot of easy wins, something they didn't have a whole lot of last season.
Key Non Conference Game: Vs Kansas (January 10th)
The preseason number one team in the country against a team that looks, on paper, like a top 15 team. This is what college basketball is all about. While a NCAA Tournament bid is not likely to be on the line, seeding for the tournament will be.
Key Conference Game: At LSU (February 4th)
There's a tough stretch for Tennessee in SEC play, following what looks to be a schedule allowing the Vols to get off to a great start in conference. From January 27th to February 13th the Vols play six games against potential NCAA Tournament teams: Vanderbilt, Florida, LSU, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Kentucky. The game against LSU is sandwiched in the middle of that stretch. Going to Baton Rouge and winning could be the key to avouding a February letdown.
Key Player: Tyler Smith
There's a reason he's mentioned as one of the top players in the SEC.
Postseason: Sweet 16 (NCAA Tournament)
3. Florida Gators: Just two summers ago, Billy Donovan's Florida Gators were the talk of the sports world. They had just completed back to back national championships, a feat almost unheard of in the common era, and looked poised to stay an elite program. Fastforwarding to the current state of Florida basketball starts a barrage of questions. How could a team so dominant two years ago fail to make the NCAA Tournament the last two years? The talent level has fallen off, Nick Calathes is gone, and there are more questions than answers in Gainesville.
Biggest Question: Can Dan Werner actually become a dependable player for Donovan? Werner will be the lone senior for the Gators this season, but most Gator fans cannot wait until he leaves campus for good. That's how bad he's been in his career at Florida.
Key Non Conference Game: Vs Michigan State (November 27th)
If Florida wants to get back to the NCAA Tournament, they've got to get nice wins outside of SEC play. The last two seasons the Gators haven't even given themselves an opportunity to get those wins because they've chosen not to schedule tough teams.
Key Conference Game: At Vanderbilt (January 9th)
The Gators opener against the Commodores will be huge for their season with Kentucky and LSU up next. The last thing Florida needs on their mission to get back to the Big Dance is three straight losses to begin conference play.
Key Player: Kenny Boynton
It seems as if the entire existence of the Gators basketball program is hanging in the balance, and Boynton is really the only player left to give Florida fans hope this year. Everyone is expecting big things from Boynton.
Postseason: First Round (NCAA Tournament)
4. Vanderbilt Commondores: With A. J, Ogilvy back last season, the Commodores were expecting to go dancing. Instead, the SEC turned into the worst BCS conference in basketball by far, and Vanderbilt finished as one of nine teams sitting at home and watching the NCAA Tournament. With only George Drake gone, and notables like Ogilvy and Jermaine Beal back, Vanderbilt is expecting to make a push for the NCAA Tournament again this year.
Biggest Question: Can A. J. Ogilvy get tougher? Ogilvy has been a great player for Vanderbilt during his first two seasons, but he's also been a slight disappointment. Vanderbilt needs him to be tougher inside, grab more rebounds, and even become more of a scoring threat after averaging 15.4 PPG last year. How did Ogilvy respond this summer? Reports are that he spent the offseason working on his strength and conditioning. If he did, Vanderbilt will be a tough out in the SEC East.
Key Non Conference Game: Vs Missouri (December 2nd)
The Commodores need to beat other teams that could potentially be on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. After playing Cincinnati on November 23rd, Vanderbilt gets a large nine day break before taking on Mike Anderson's Tigers. There's no excuse for losing that one, even with Thanksgiving smack in the middle of that break.
Key Conference Game: At Tennessee (January 27th)
When you begin SEC play with Florida, Alabama, South Carolina, and Auburn--four teams that figure to be decent but not overwhelming--then you've got to like your chances of a 3-1 or 4-0 start in conference play. The next two, at Tennessee and at Kentucky, might decide whether Vanderbilt is potentially playing for a higher NCAA Tournament seed in February, still on the bubble, or completely out of the tournament picture.
Key Player: A. J. Ogily
I don't want to pick the best player on every team at this spot, and I refuse to, but it's obvious that Ogilvy is the key to Vanderbilt's season. If he ups his game then Vanderbilt might be able to overachieve the expectations most "experts" have for them.
5. South Carolina Gamecocks: Devan Downey might be the best player in the entire SEC, and he's also the main reason a lot of people think the Gamecocks can make a run at the NCAA Tournament. With his sidekick Dominique Archie back too, and only Zan Fredrick gone, South Carolina is a gigantic sleeper in the SEC. It's hard to rank them in the absolutely loaded SEC East, but at this point I think the Gamecocks overachieved last season and will take a step back this season.
Biggest Question: How big of a role will Brandis Raley-Ross play for the Gamecocks this season? Last season he was the SEC's sixth man of the year. Now he's expected to get an expanded role in the offense while taking Fredrick's place.
Key Non Conference Game: At Clemson (December 6th)
If I told you I was impressed with South Carolina's out of conference schedule then I'd be lying. If the SEC wants to get back to being a conference taken seriously off the gridiron then its teams need to start playing good teams. Clemson, Boston College, and Baylor are the three BCS conference teams the Gamecocks play in the non-conference. All three are expected to be down this season, although the Tigers should still be a NCAA Tournament caliber team. I must also note that playing in the Charleston Classic gives the Gamecocks another chance to play a couple of good teams OOC.
Key Conference Game: At Vanderbilt (March 6th)
It's just a guess, because I could be wrong, but something tells me that the NCAA Tournament picture only has room for either Vanderbilt or South Carolina. Whoever wins this game, the Commodores' final regular season game, will likely stay in the picture. Obviously this is assuming a lot, but I can't see either team being completely out of the picture early in March.
Key Player: Dominique Archie
Archie will be overshadowed by Downey all offeason, and rightfully so. Downey will make the big shots and he will be the guy that helps the Gamecocks get where they go this season, but Archie is the man who will be expected to be the scorer when Downey isn't producing. For the Gamecocks to be tournament bound this year Archie is going to have to up his game to an even higher level than last season (when he averaged 10.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG) with Frederick gone.
6. Georgia Bulldogs: New Georgia coach mark Fox looks up from the cellar of the conference at John Calipari, Bruce Pearl, Billy Donovan, and superstars everywhere. His team has no success to count on in tough moments and absolutely no experience in big games. Yet he expects to win, quickly. Two years ago the Bulldogs made an incredible run to the NCAA Tournament by winning the SEC Tournament, but last season the program fell back off the map with a 3-13 conference record.
Biggest Question: Will Troy Thompkins continue to develop into a dependable big man for the Bulldogs? Last season, a freshman, Thompkins averaged 12.5 PPG and 7.4 PPG. With Terrance Woodbury gone the scoring duty will now be put on Thompkins, Dustin Ware, and Albert Jackson. Thompkins represented the USA in the Under-19 World Championships this summer.
Key Non Conference Game: Vs Illinois (December 19th)
Let's be honest: Nobody sees Georgia making the NCAA Tournament, not even Georgia fans. It doesn't mean it can't happen. That's what is great about college basketball. If it is going to happen (and like I said chances are it won't) the Bulldogs have to find a way to win nice out of conference games. More than likely games like the one vs Illinois and Georgia Tech will probably have an impact on whether Georgia makes the NIT or CBI.
Key Conference Game: At Kentucky (January 9th)
Georgia wants to show the world it's on its way back. What better way to do that than by beating Kentucky, in Lexington, to begin SEC play? Who knows, in this crazy world of college basketball parity it might even mean something come March, should it happen.
Key Player: Troy Thompkins
With Woodbury gone, the scoring output might be more than Thompkins can handle as a sophmore. His experience this summer will help, but without huge performances from him in key games it's very unlikely that Mark Fox's team will be anything more than a spoiler in mid-February.
SEC WEST1. Mississippi State Bulldogs: Last year the Bulldogs won the SEC Tournament and saved the SEC from a great deal of embarrasment. This season the expectations in Starkville are higher than they've been the few seasons. With Jarvis Vanardo, the shot blocker extraordinaire, back along with Ravern Johnson, Bulldog fans want a Sweet 16 run (at the very least). If freshman Renardo Sidney is cleared to play then Mississippi State could be one of the nation's elite teams.
Biggest Question: Outside of Sidney's clearance (which Missisippi State cannot control) the key for the Bulldogs is whether Vanardo can develop offensively. Vanardo has been the best shot blocker in the country (this side of NBA bound Hasheem Thabeet anyways) for years. Now Rick Stansbury and Mississippi State are hoping he do more on the offensive end and produce big numbers on both sides of the floor. If he can then he will likely have NBA scouts salivating.
Key Non Conference Game: At UCLA (December 12th)
Any time you play at UCLA, one of the nation's most storied programs, it's a big deal. As a conference this is a huge game for the SEC in general, but it's also a gigantic test for Mississippi State. A win would likely propel the Bulldogs into a lot of December bracketologies and help them overcome some bad losses that are likely to occur over a long season.
Key Conference Game: Vs Kentucky (February 16th)
What a nice schedule the Bulldogs got from the SEC scheduling crew. They avoid any of the big dogs from the SEC (KY, TN, FLA, SC, VAN) until February. The first major game (not counting LSU January 30th) is when the Wildcats come to Starkville in what could be the best team in the East against the best team in the West.
Key Player: Barry Stewart
Stewart hasn't been mentioned thus far, but he is the leader for the Bulldogs. He scored 12.4 PPG last season and should add to that total a little this season. Ravern Johnson, another good choice for this spot, is hte sharpshooter for Missisippi State and will be trusted to take some big time shots.
Postseason: Second Round (NCAA Tournament)
2. LSU Tigers: Last season I correctly predicted that the Tigers would win the SEC West. This year I think the Tigers will once again be in the running to be the best team on the SEC's "lighter" side. With Tasmin Mitchell back to lead the way this team could be very good, or it could miss Marcus Thornton, Garrett Temple, and Chris Johnson as much as it looks like they will on paper. I feel like LSU will be the surprise of the conference, just like they were last season. While everyone continues to pick exactly what the media picks, I will mix things up since I've never seen a conference finish the way the media believes it will.
Biggest Question: How far can Tasmin Mitchell carry the Tigers? With the talent cellar running dry in LSU due to three of the team's best four players gone, it's going to be all on Mitchell and Bo Spencer offensively. Mitchell has shown us what he can do (16.3 PPG) and has to take his game to the next level (if that's even possible).
Key Non Conference Game: At Washington State (December 22nd)
After not playing any teams of note in their first seven the Tigers finally play a noteworthy opponent. The game against the Cougars begins a three game stretch of games against BCS, non conference foes: Washington State, Xavier, Utah.
Key Conference Game: At Mississippi State (January 30th)
Does the SEC West still go through Baton Rouge? If it does the Tigers will show the rest of the conference by winning in Starkville against the Bulldogs.
Key Player: Bo Spencer
With Thornton, Temple, and Johnson gone Mitchell is going to need some help. Who else is better to spotlight than the only other returning starter from Trent Johnson's squad? Last season he averaged 11.4 PPG, but he might have to take that total up to 15 PPG if the Tigers don't find some scoring help and hope to be competitive.
Postseason: First Round (NCAA Tournament)
3. Mississippi Rebels: Chirs Warren is back after blowing out his knee last season, and he's joined by two other guys with injuries that kept them off the court: Eniel Polynice and Trevor Gaskins. With everyone finally back and healthy, Andy Kennedy is expecting the Rebels to make their first NCAA Tournament since 2002.
Biggest Question: Can Ole Miss stay healthy? I know this is a big question for every team nationwide, but it's a big if for Mississippi. As I mentioned, Warren, Polynice, and Gaskins were all lost by the twelth game last season and it really hampered a Rebels squad that went 7-9 in a down SEC. If Mississippi can keep everyone on the court they will likely leave it with a lot more victories.
Key Non Conference Game: West Virginia (December 23rd)
The Rebels are one of eight SEC teams that look to have a defnitite shot at making the NCAA Tournament. Like I've stated many times in this article the first thing the conference has to do is establish itslef so that its wins will be taken seriously. A win over West Virginia would be great for Mississippi and give them a boost heading into conference play.
Key Conference Game: At Tennessee (January 16th)
Following what should be a sure win in Athens against Georgia, the Rebels get a chance to knock off the Volunteers in Knoxville. Games against South Carolina, LSU, Auburn, Arkansas follow this one, so a great start in conference is likely with a win.
Key Player: Terrice White
While all the talk is focused on Warren and the other injured players returning, the key to Mississippi's season might just be White. Last season he averaged 13.7 PPG and will likely take David Huertas place in the backcourt.
Postseason: NCAA Tournament (First Round)
4. Arkansas Razorbacks: Last season I had the Razorbacks ranked dead last in the SEC West, but quickly made corrections in my bracketology after Arkansas knocked off Texas and Oklahoma early in the season. Then, almost as quickly as it began, Arkansas fell off the map with a 2-14 conference record and became the team most "experts" thought they would be. This year they have to be considered a sleeper due to their big early wins last season and desire to get better.
Biggest Question: Can Courtney Fortson grow up and become one of the SEC's elite talents? Even head coach John Pelphrey said that Fortson was going to have to become an all-league player for the Razorbacks to have success this season. If he does Arkansas could exceed expections and have an outside shot at making the Big Dance.
Key Non Conference Game: At Louisville (November 17th)
Get ready for this early season gem. Not only do we get to see how Rick Pitino's Cardinals deal with a decent BCS league opponent after a turmoil-filled offseason, but we also get to watch Arkansas try to knock off another elite program. If Arkansas can pull off some non-conference upsets like they did last year, the hope in Fayetteville is that they won't go to waste this year.
Key Conference Game: Vs Alabama (January 16th)
It's tough to mark one game for a team with limited expectations. A win in their opener against Alabama would give a team that won only two conference games all of last season a taste of conference success and might propel them into a top three finish in the SEC West. A loss could send them flailing to another under .500 season.
Key Player: Michael Washington
With all five starters back, the Hogs really feel like they can make a big leap this year. While Fortson will get the headlines, Washington (15.5 PPG, 9.8 RBP) is the big man NBA teams want, and will lead the Razorbacks as far as they go. If he takes another step forward this Arkansas team can be very good as long as Fortson takes a step along with him.
5. Auburn Tigers: Last season the Tigers were one of the last teams left out of the NCAA Tournament, but the overall strength of the SEC was the main reason why they weren't invited to the Big Dance. With Korvotney Barber, Quantez Robinson, and Rasheem Barrett gone the Tigers basically have to rebuild the team that took them to the fringe of the tournament last year. The good news is that DeWayne Reed, Tay Walker, and Lucas Hargrove return so the talent is still there.
Biggest Question: Can point guard DeWayne Reed get everyone involved and help the Tigers avoid what looks to be a year where they take a step back? It's not all on Reed, but he's got to be the leader when on the court for Auburn this year. Last season he averaged 13.2 PPG and 3.7 assists but with Barber on the floor his job was easier then it will be this season.
Key Non Conference Game: At Florida State (December 17th)
The Tigers play the worst non conference schedule of any SEC team this year with their biggest games being N. C. State, Florida State, and Virginia. If you're going to play the ACC, at least avoid playing North Carolina and Duke, right?
Key Conference Game: Vs Alabama (January 30th)
With Nick Saban in town and Auburn's football team becoming the state's second best team, Tiger fans will take any win over the Crimson Tide they can get. While this could conceivably be to avoid last place in the SEC West, it's not completely crazy to believe one of the two Alabama teams will compete for the West crown.
Key Player: Frankie Sullivan
With Robertson and Barrett gone in the frontcourt, Auburn will attempt to find a replacement that can score in bunches. Sullivan was one of the top high school players in Alabama two years ago and could break out this year.
6. Alabama Crimson Tide: When I made my SEC preview for last season, I really felt like the Crimson Tide could compete for the West crown and a NCAA Tournament spot. Unfortunately the disappointing, injury-filled career of former star point guard Ronald Steele finally came to an end and left Alabama without anyone to lead the team on the floor. Without Steele, Alabama won only seven games in league play. With new head coach Anthony Grant, the forgotten man behind the scenes when Florida built their championship teams, the Crimson Tide have high hopes. For starters, they'd like to avoid the SEC West basement.
Biggest Question: Who will play point guard for Alabama? After Steele left the team last season, Mikhail Torrance became the main figure at the point. Grant will have to find a floor leader before he can venture into the season. A better question might be: How many dunks will Senario Hillman have on Sportscenter this year? Hillman is a dunker made for television and with the talent-well coming up dry in Tuscaloosa (at least on paper) he might be the single highlight off a bottom-feeding team.
Key Non Conference Game: Vs Purdue (December 12th)
If Alabama wants to compete for a postseason birth then it has to find a way to win some of their bigger out of conference games. The NCAA Tournament may be out of reach on paper, but a win over Purdue (even though it may sound unrealistic) might change expectations in Tuscaloosa quickly. Plus, it might be December 12th before Alabama football fans realize basketball season has started. Seriously.
Key Conference Game: At LSU (January 9th)
When your first conference game is a road game in Baton Rouge, it's best not to look too far ahead. It's not exactly LSU football on a Saturday night, but it is still a tough place to play for SEC opponents. If Alabama wins this one it might be best to blow up my SEC West predictions completely.
Key Player: JaMychal Green
To be honest, a lot of Alabama players are going to have to be a lot better than they were last season if the Crimson Tide expect to compete game in and game out in the SEC. With Alonzo Gee gone and Demetrius Jemison lost for the season, it will be guys like Green, Anthony Brock, Torrance, and Hillman that decide where this program is at the end of the year.