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SEC Preview: Kentucky is too deep and talented to flop for a second straight year

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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John Calipari (AP)

Yahoo Sports will break down the top 12 leagues for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 12 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 6 league, the Southeastern Conference.

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The most pressing question entering the 2013-14 SEC basketball season may not be whether Kentucky is the league's best team.

Realistically, it's probably how much better are the Wildcats than everybody else?

Though Kentucky flopped as a favorite last season after winning the league two of the previous three years, this year's imposing roster bears only faint resemblance to last year's version. Kentucky has a point guard with the size and athleticism to fit John Calipari's dribble-drive system, a handful of returners hungry to make up for last year's struggles and enough depth to ensure the competition for minutes that was lacking a year ago.

Where Kentucky's depth and talent will be most evident is a frontcourt populated by no fewer than five players with NBA potential.

The competition for playing time at center will be between sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein and decorated freshmen Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. Cauley-Stein showed last year he can both protect the basket and score effectively at the rim, but Calipari has gone out of his way to praise Johnson during the offseason, perhaps in an effort to keep Cauley-Stein motivated. Free throw shooting is one area Cauley-Stein definitely must improve if he wants to be on the floor late in close games.

Forward is also an area of strength for the Wildcats with strong, athletic Julius Randle at power forward, dynamic freshman James Young on the wing and versatile sophomore Alex Poythress able to play either on the paint or the perimeter. Young's ability to shoot consistently from the perimeter will be critical for Kentucky because otherwise this team could be susceptible against a zone the way the John Wall-Demarcus Cousins squad was a few years ago.

The two players who will see the majority of the backcourt minutes are Andrew and Aaron Harrison. Andrew is a long, athletic 6-foot-5 point guard who gets into the paint with ease and looks to set up his teammates, while Aaron is a high-scoring slasher whose ability to finish at the rim is his greatest strength.

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It's hard to imagine that collection of talent floundering the way last year's team did, but the SEC boasts several other quality teams capable of pouncing if chemistry issues or inexperience hamper the Wildcats.

The best of the rest is Florida, which has advanced to three straight Elite Eights and has that caliber of talent once again assuming Billy Donovan's entire arsenal ever becomes available to him.

The question in the backcourt is starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who is serving an indefinite suspension as a result of team rules violations over the offseason. Heralded freshman Kasey Hill can pick up the slack in Wilbekin's absence, but the senior is an efficient scorer, a deft passer and a relentless on-ball defender.

Between returners Patric Young and Will Yeguete and transfers Damontre Harris and Dorian Finney-Smith, Florida has an abundance of frontcourt talent. Nonetheless, the Gators will be a better team in SEC play if bouncy 6-foot-9 McDonald's All-American Chris Walker is able to work through his academic issues and get eligible for the start of winter semester.

There are enough quality teams behind Kentucky and Florida that the SEC should exceed last year's output of three NCAA tournament teams.

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If Tennessee gets consistent point guard play out of Memphis transfer Antonio Barton, the Vols have more than enough talent at wing and in the paint to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the Bruce Pearl era. Missouri too looks like a strong NCAA contender thanks to the arrival of Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson and the return of some talented wings. And don't sleep on improving LSU, defensive-minded Alabama or defending SEC tournament champion Ole Miss either, especially if the Tigers get immediate contributions out of their freshman class, the Tide finds scorers to support Travis Releford or the Rebels get frontcourt scoring to complement Marshall Henderson.

MAKING A LIST

Best shooter: Michael Frazier, Florida. Expected to receive minimal playing time as a freshman, Frazier forced his way onto the court with his outside shooting prowess. He sank 50 of 103 3-pointers last season, an SEC-leading 48.5 percent. With wings Mike Rosario and Kenny Boynton having graduated, Frazier should see his 18 minutes per game increase this season since he'll be the Gators' primary outside shooting threat.
Best playmaker: Scottie Wilbekin, Florida. Even though decorated freshman Kasey Hill is capable of running the team in Wilbekin's absence, Florida will be better when the veteran point guard gets out of Billy Donovan's doghouse and returns from indefinite suspension. Wilbekin not only was one of the SEC's best perimeter defenders last season but also averaged five assists per game compared to only two turnovers, giving him the league's best ratio.
Best defender: Anthony Hickey, LSU. The quick hands of the 5-foot-11 Hickey and the aggressiveness of LSU's pressure defense have been a perfect match. Hickey led the SEC with 3.2 steals per game last season and ranked seventh in the nation by swiping the ball on 5.2 percent of defensive possessions when he was on the floor. The only question for Hickey will be whether new rules cracking down on hand-checking limit his effectiveness pressuring the ball.
Top NBA prospect: Julius Randle, Kentucky. Of the half dozen NBA hopefuls on Kentucky's roster, none is more of a can't-miss prospect than Randle. Not only is he big, extremely strong and ultra-athletic, he has drawn comparisons from John Calipari to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist because both possess the same competitiveness and relentlessly high motor. Randle has the ability to score with his back-to-the-basket, to face up and knock down a mid-range jump shot or attack the offensive glass.
Best backcourt: Missouri. The Harrison twins may make this choice look ridiculous in a few months, but I prefer Missouri's experience and depth. Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson is a former first-team all-Conference USA selection who was Missouri's best player in practice last season. Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross are both wing scorers capable of hitting from the perimeter or getting to the rim. And the Tigers may play some four-guard looks a la 2011-12 if freshman Wes Clark is ready for big minutes at point guard, enabling Clarkson to play off ball.
Best frontcourt: Kentucky. Florida has terrific depth, Tennessee and LSU have two standout starters, but nobody in the nation has a more fearsome frontcourt than the Wildcats At center, McDonald's All-American Dakari Johnson will push returning 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein for minutes. At forward, Julius Randle will start inside with fellow freshman James Young and returning starter Alex Poythress sharing minutes at small forward and backing up Randle at the four. And, oh yeah, just in case a rotation player suffers an injury, yet another highly touted freshman, Marcus Lee, is capable of providing quality minutes.
Best recruiting class: Kentucky. Anytime your recruiting haul is being compared to the Fab Five, you're probably going to have the best class in the conference. Six of Kentucky's freshmen were among Rivals.com's top 20 recruits in the Class of 2013, a group highlighted by Randle, who some believe could rival Andrew Wiggins as the best freshman in the nation.
Coach on the rise: Johnny Jones, LSU. Quietly, Jones has done a really nice job in his year-plus in Baton Rouge. Many believe LSU will emerge as an NCAA tournament team this season thanks to the trio of returning all-SEC forward Johnny O'Bryant and promising freshman forwards Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey. The Tigers are also well set up for the future when Martin and Mickey are joined by four-star center Elbert Robinson in 2014 and by Simmons in 2015 if both are still at LSU by then. Backcourt replacements for Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer will need to emerge by 2014, but the Tigers look to be in solid shape.
Coach on the hot seat: Tony Barbee, Auburn. Even though Barbee didn't create the mess known as Auburn basketball, he also has yet to demonstrate he's the man to fix it. Barbee has gone 35-59 in three seasons at Auburn, a stretch that culminated in last season's disastrous 9-23 record and last-place finish in a memorably bad SEC. Can Barbee make enough progress this winter for athletic director Jay Jacobs not to buy out the remaining three years of his contract? It won't be easy. Auburn lost three starters to graduation and highly touted sophomore Shaq Johnson was dismissed from school in July.

FACTS AND FIGURES

New coaches: None
Regular-season winner last season: Florida
Tourney winner last season: Ole Miss
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2012-13: 8th, 2011-12: 4th ; 2010-11: 6th
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 12 (Florida 3, Kentucky 2, Vanderbilt 2, Tennessee 1, Ole Miss 1, Missouri 1, Georgia 1, Alabama 1)

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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