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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

SEC Preview: Kentucky reloads for another title run, but there are potential challengers lurking

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Nerlens Noel hopes to help lead Kentucky to another SEC championship (US Presswire)

Yahoo! Sports is breaking down each league for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 31 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 5 league, the SEC.

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They won 38 games, captured the national title and produced the top two picks in the NBA draft last season. They're assembling a recruiting class so formidable there's already talk of making a run at an undefeated season two years from now.

Yes, John Calipari has certainly reestablished Kentucky as college basketball's juggernaut, but if SEC teams are ever going to challenge the Wildcats, this is probably the year.

With 93.3 percent of last year's scoring and 87.3 percent of last year's rebounding having moved on to the NBA, Kentucky returns only sweet-shooting forward Kyle Wiltjer from last year's seven-man rotation. Another top-rated recruiting class highlighted by center Nerlens Noel and forward Alex Poythress will help replenish the roster, as will transfers Ryan Harrow from NC State and Julius Mays from Wright State.

Kentucky has enough talent to win the SEC, return to the Final Four and even capture a second straight national title, but the path the Wildcats would take to Atlanta is more likely to resemble the bumpy 2010-11 season than last year's smooth 38-2 ride. Calipari has already acknowledged this week his team is "not very good right now," coach speak meant to motivate his team to be sure but also a product of so much youth.

The strength of the Wildcats will probably be their frontcourt thanks to the shot-blocking of Noel and the size and strength of Willie Cauley-Stein, the most pleasant surprise of the newcomers so far. Wiltjer's outside shooting will be a weapon and a matchup problem for opposing forwards, as will 6-foot-8 forward Alex Poythress' length, athleticism and ability to attack the rim in transition or via half-court sets.

Goodwin is a gifted scorer at off guard, but perhaps the biggest question mark surrounding this year's Wildcats is whether Harrow can evolve into the next great Calipari point guard. He's not as talented as Derrick Rose or John Wall or even Marquis Teague, but he's quick, he finishes well at the rim and he has one advantage over all his predecessors: A year in the program under his belt already.

If Kentucky proves uncharacteristically vulnerable, the SEC is strong enough at the top to take advantage this season.

Florida returns all-conference candidate Kenny Boynton and its entire frontcourt from a team that was a late basket or two away from the Final Four last March. Tennessee gets a full season of talented power forward Jarnell Stokes and returns a handful of other key members of last year's surprising team that finished tied for second in the SEC and came within a win or two of the NCAA tournament.

And then there's newcomer Missouri, probably the SEC's most talented team besides Kentucky but a wildcard as a result of four transfers who will be joining the rotation.

Efficient point guard Phil Pressey highlights a backcourt that also has plenty of firepower with last year's sixth man Michael Dixon and transfers Keion Bell (Pepperdine), Earnest Ross (Auburn) and Jabari Brown (Oregon). In the frontcourt, the Tigers will rely heavily on UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi and forward Laurence Bowers, now healthy after missing all of last season with a knee injury.

MAKING A LIST
Best shooter: Mardracus Wade, Arkansas. Since Wade sank just 9 of 44 three-point shots as a freshman, he wasn't exactly an obvious choice last year to replace the outside shooting of guard Rotnei Clarke. Surprisingly enough, Wade hit 47.6 percent of his threes last season, easily good enough to best the likes of John Jenkins and Kenny Boynton for best in the SEC

College Hoops Countdown, No. 5: SEC

SEC Capsule Preview: Kentucky reloads for another title run, but there are potential challengers lurking
Ranking the SEC's 15 most intriguing non-league games
• Saturday: An ex-SEC player projects the league this season
• Sunday: World's Strongest Man-style workouts helped prepare Florida for the new season

For more news on the SEC, visit Rivals.com

Top playmaker: Phil Pressey, Missouri. Even if Dee Bost, Marquis Teague and the rest of the SEC's top playmakers last season hadn't left school, this honor would still easily go to Pressey. The 5-11 Missouri junior averaged 10.2 points, 6.4 assists and 2.4 turnovers, all while feeding Marcus Denmon and Kim English with the passes that helped the former emerge as a all-Big 12 scorer and the latter become an NBA draft pick.
Best defender: Nerlens Noel, Kentucky. Take a good look at that video of a teammate dunking on Noel during Big Blue Madness. Chances are it won't happen often during the regular season. Noel may not be the complete player Anthony Davis was by the latter half of his freshman year, but many think he is a more advanced shot blocker at the same stage than Davis was. 
Top NBA prospect:
Nerlens Noel, Kentucky. Between his athleticism, wingspan, shot-blocking and ability to run the floor, Noel has many of the attributes of a top NBA big man even if his post moves and perimeter shooting is still raw at this point. If he makes progress on offense this season, he has every chance to be the third No. 1 pick for Kentucky in four years, joining John Wall and Anthony Davis.
Best backcourt: Missouri. For a team that lost both seniors Marcus Denmon and Kim English, Missouri is in amazingly good shape in the backcourt. Pressey had the most steals and the highest assist-to-turnover ratio in the Big 12 last season, combo guard Michael Dixon led the nation's reserves in scoring at 13.4 ppg a year ago and transfers Earnest Ross and Keion Bell averaged 13.1 and 16.4 points at Auburn and Pepperdine, respectively. Even better, former five-star recruit Jabari Brown will be eligible in December to bring some much-needed size to the backcourt.
Best frontcourt: Kentucky. Between the shot blocking of Noel, the outside shooting of forward Kyle Wiltjer and the chiseled frame of small forward Alex Poythress, Kentucky already had a frontcourt trio that could rival any nationally. Throw in the fact freshman Willie Cauley-Stein has been the most pleasant surprise in practice and workouts so far, and it's safe to say this group will cause some problems for opposing teams.
Best recruiting class: Vanderb ... just kidding ... of course it's Kentucky — and it's not even close. The four-man freshman class will also be joined by NC State transfer Ryan Harrow at point guard and Wright State transfer Julius Mays at wing.
Coach on the rise: Frank Haith, Missouri. Aside from the stunning NCAA tournament loss to Norfolk State last March, Haith's first 18 months on the job could not have gone much better. He took a roster that underachieved under Mike Anderson and led it to 30 wins and a Big 12 tournament title last season. In the meantime, he prepared for the loss of five key seniors by replenishing his roster with talented transfers.
Coach on the hot seat: Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss. In his six seasons coaching Ole Miss, Kennedy has won 20 or more games five times, made five postseason appearances and won seven or more SEC games all six years. So why would his job be in jeopardy? Well, because not one of those postseason appearances has been the NCAA tournament. The Rebels have been remarkably consistent, but one of these years they'll have to finish strong and secure an NCAA bid or the fan base is going to become very restless.

FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: Frank Martin, South Carolina (Had been coach at Kansas State), Johnny Jones, LSU (Had been coach at North Texas), Rick Ray, Mississippi State (Had been assistant coach at Clemson)
Regular-season winner last season: Kentucky
Tourney winner last season: Vanderbilt
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 4th ; 2010-11: 6th, 2009-10: 4th
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 13 (Kentucky 3, Florida 3, Vanderbilt 3, Tennessee 2, Georgia, Alabama)

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