Attempting to predict the order of finish for this year's SEC basketball teams is a most difficult task (as it is most years), and I have no illusions that I know more about league teams than do the learned sports writers who cover the conference for a living. Today, though, we're going to examine the top four hardwood contenders (based on the media's vote) for title of the SEC's best team, with the UK roundup an abbreviated one, for the 'Cats will be poked, prodded, scrutinized, and then thoroughly examined as we lead up to the start of the season.
2012 record - 38-2 overall, 16-0 in SEC.
2012 result - As the overall No. 1 NCAA tourney seed, won national title with 67-59 win over Kansas.
With so many new players donning UK blue this season comes an incredible amount of uncertainty when evaluating UK's chances of winning the SEC regular season for the third time in four years. But, one has to believe, based on his history in Lexington, that UK coach John Calipari will find a way to massage his squad of highly ranked high school super-stars into a cohesive unit bent on winning games and cutting down nets.
As we will see as we begin our look at UK's SEC competition, there are at least three SEC teams talented and deep enough to challenge the 'Cats for league supremacy, and slice into Kentucky's 2012 six game advantage over conference competition.
2012 record - 26-11 overall, 10-6 SEC.
2012 result - As a No. 7 seed in NCAA tourney, lost in Elite Eight to Louisville, 72-68.
Coach Billy Donovan loses guard and leading rebounder Bradley Beal (14.8 points per game, 6.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists) to the NBA after one season, as well as point guard Erving Walker to graduation (12.1 ppg, 4.6 apg), but
Eddie Munster Billy the Kid brings back All-SEC player Kenny Boynton (15.2 ppg, 2.7 apg, 40.7 percent from long-range), the Gators leading scorer last year. Additionally, Scottie Wilbekin (2.6 ppg) and Mike Rosario (6.6 ppg), who struggled at times last season after transferring from Rutgers, will see a significant increase in floor time.
Donovan's front court boasts an All-SEC type of player, along with a few experienced and talented support players, which should bring a more balanced offensive attack to Gainesville, which in turn will augment the Gators' perimeter oriented offense of the last few years.
Patrolling the front line for Florida will be 6-foot-9 Patric Young (10.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg), a highly skilled junior who will be relied on to supply not only score double-digit points, but also be a defensive presence in the paint. Six-foot-ten Erik Murphy (10.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg), who greatly improved his offensive production last season, will be an important piece of Florida's front court puzzle as he brings physicality to the Gator lineup, something that has been lacking in the UF attack the last few years.
Six-foot-seven defensive dynamo Will Yeguete (4.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg), and swing player, 6-foot-6 Casey Prather (2.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg), round out Donovan's returning paint players who will make contributions to the 2013 Gators.
Selecting the Gators to challenge UK for the SEC title makes good sense. Florida is well-coached, experienced and long in the front court, and has a roster talented and deep enough to give the youthful 'Cats a serious run for their money.
2012 record - 30-5 overall, 14-4 Big 12.
2012 result - As a No. 2 seed, lost to Norfolk State in the Round of 64, 86-84.
New league member Missouri, led by former Miami Hurricanes' coach Frank Haith, brings in four impact transfers (yeah, you read that right) to aid and abet SEC preseason Player of the Year, 5-foot-11 point guard Phil Pressey, in their attempt to knock the 'Cats off their championship game. After losing Marcus Denmon, Kim English, and Ricardo Ratliffe, and their combined 46 points, 17 rebounds and nearly 3.5 steals per game, Haith will need the guile, experience, and pure talent his four transfers bring to the Tiger program.
First though, comes Pressey, who averaged 10.3 ppg and a team-high 6.4 assists (2.4 turnovers per game) in the Tigers fast-paced offense. The diminutive Pressey presents a very real challenge to defenders with his quickness off the bounce and ability to thread passes accurately to open teammates. He alone can change the complexion of a contest with his speed and ability to make his teammates better.
Bell, an uber-athletic 6-foot-4 guard, averaged 18.9 ppg last season in the West Coast Conference, and has amassed over 1,300 points scored in his three-year career; Brown, who decided to transfer from Oregon after playing only two games of the 2011 season (the first two games of the season, games he started), was a five-star recruit considered the jewel of new Oregon coach Dana Altman's initial recruiting class; Ross, a 6-foot-5 swing, averaged 13.1 points and 6.6 rebounds for the Tigers in the 2011 season, and will add depth to the already talented Missouri back court; 6-foot-9 forward/center Oriakhi, who won a national championship with UConn, will bring a high basketball IQ to the Tigers roster, as well steady defense, with limited scoring.
Returning 2-guard guard Michael Dixon, Jr. (13.5 ppg, 3.3 apg), the team's sixth man last year (and a projected starter going into this season), was recently suspended by Haith for an unannounced length of time.
I have no real issue with Missouri being picked to place third in the SEC, although a talented Tennessee Vols team is clipping at the Tigers' heels.
2012 record - 19-15 overall, 10-6 SEC.
2012 result - Lost in second round of the NIT to Middle Tennessee, 71-64.
Second-year UT coach Cuonzo Martin returns to Knoxville nearly all of the difference-making cogs which propelled the Volunteers to the title, 2012 surprise SEC team. Losing only long-time contributor, six-foot-7 guard Cameron Tatum (8.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.6 apg), and front court role player Renaldo Woolridge (4.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg) from the rotation, the Vols will build their team around 6-foot-7 senior Jeronne Maymon and the highly skilled 6-foot-8, 270 pound sophomore Jarnell Stokes.
Stokes, who graduated a semester early from high school in Memphis, signed with the Vols on December 23, 2011 and played in 17 of UT's final 18 games, becoming a physical presence in the paint almost immediately. Stokes' versatility -- he is able to take his man off the dribble despite his size -- and rugged competitiveness help elevate Tennessee to an elite SEC squad. Selected as a preseason First Team All-SEC player after making the all-frosh squad last year, Stokes will more than likely improve significantly on his 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game he posted as a rookie in 2012.
Maymonn, UT's second leading scorer and rebounder last season (12.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg), will not only provide Martin with senior leadership, but also terrific post defense and the ability to guard away from the basket. While neither Stokes nor Maymonn are strong outside shooters, both make over 50.0 percent of their 2-point shots and take up an enormous amount of space in the paint. Martin will rely on both big men for scoring, and with a new emphasis on defense in Knoxville, the Martin/Maymonn duo will cause havoc for most opponents interior players.
Kenny Hall (6.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg), a 6-foot-9 senior forward will supply coach Martin with front court depth.
Running the Volunteer offense will be 6-foot-1 junior Trae Golden, who led Tennessee's balanced scoring attack last year with 13.6 points per game, while making nearly 39 percent of his shots from distance (50-129). Golden is also adept at getting his teammates involved, as the former Billy Gillispie target dished out 4.5 dimes per game.
Six-foot-five, 2-guard Jordan McRae (8.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg) will see his minutes increase from his 21.7 average in 2013, as he and fellow guard Skylar McBee (6.6 ppg on 39.1 percent shooting from 3-pt range), a senior sharp-shooter, will vie to compensate for the loss of Cameron Tatum, a steady, senior-guard presence on last year's youthful Volunteer squad.
Tennessee is intriguing. Blessed with both size and talented guards, as well as depth, the Vols figure to make major noise in league play in 2013, and very possibly improve on last season's 10 conference wins.
So there we have it, the top of the SEC as the writers see it. In the coming days we'll take a look at the remainder of the league and determine if there are any candidates out of the (presumed) top four capable of testing the league's (presumed) top teams.
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Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!