SEC preview: Kentucky unchallenged in one-horse race

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

How bad was Southeastern Conference basketball last season?
Bad enough that in July commissioner Mike Slive briefly interrupted the league's unofficial three-day holiday - football media days - to address the urgent state of hoops.
Just because SEC powers Kentucky and Florida have combined to win three of the past eight NCAA Tournaments, he said, that "does not offset the fact that last year men's basketball did not meet our high expectations."
So concerned is Slive, he appointed a new associate commissioner whose sole focus is men's basketball.
Eight SEC teams had an RPI of 80th or worse - three ranked in the 200s - and just three teams made the NCAA Tournament, with only the Gators winning more than one game. The league has earned five-plus tournament invites just once in five years.
But a major talent surge might change that this season. Ten McDonald's All-Americans are entering the league - guard Kasey Hill and forward Chris Walker (Florida); guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, forwards James Young, Julius Randle and Marcus Lee, and center Dakari Johnson (Kentucky); forward Jarell Martin (LSU) and forward Bobby Portis Jr. (Arkansas).
ACC teams signed half as many McDonald's All-Americans. John Calipari's Wildcats signed as many as the Pac-12 and Big 12 combined.
"It's a big number. Not just us," Calipari said. "It's going to be some exciting stuff. Any time you're adding talent, there's hope."
Kentucky, Florida and LSU all signed Top-10 recruiting classes per, and Missouri, Arkansas and South Carolina's 2013 hauls ranked among the top 30.
And while five NBA Draft picks left the league after last season, six All-SEC picks return: Tennessee's Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes, Florida's Patric Young, Alabama's Trevor Releford, LSU's Johnny O'Bryant III and Ole Miss' Marshall Henderson. Seven All-Freshman selections and four All-Defensive Team picks are back, too.
"Adding good players will help the quality of basketball in this league," Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "And I think there will be a lot of teams that are a little bit more mature than they were a year ago. So I anticipate that it'll be a very good SEC."
Slive is counting on it. In this conference, anything but total domination does not compute.

1. Kentucky
Good News: Two veterans - likely NBA first-rounders - are joined by arguably the greatest recruiting class ever.

Bad News: John Calipari is once again relying heavily on youth. Worked out great in 2012, not so much last season.
Our Call: Anything but a Final Four would be a colossal disappointment. These might be Cal's best Cats.

2. Florida
Good News: A strong nucleus returns and two burger boys arrive, as do three talented transfers.
Bad News: They lost a trio of guys who averaged a dozen points apiece and will have a freshman at point guard.
Our Call: Good enough to challenge for SEC title and make a run at a fourth straight Elite Eight.

3. Tennessee
Good News: Jarnell Stokes returned to school, Jeronne Maymon is healthy and Jordan McRae can be a star.
Bad News: Point guard Trae Golden left the program and his replacement is a freshman.
Our Call: After coming agonizingly close in first two years, coach Cuonzo Martin gets UT an NCAA invite.

4. LSU
Good News: Three double-digit scorers are back and a Top-10 recruiting class.
Bad News: There's not much. The Tigers are trending up since coach Johnny Jones came to town.
Our Call: The program's first NCAA Tournament berth since 2009 seems feasible.

5. Missouri
Good News: Double-digit scorers Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross welcome a top-20 recruiting class.
Bad News: Four starters are gone, including star Phil Pressey and post presence Alex Oriakhi.
Our Call: Probably not enough to contend for an SEC title but the Tigers should be dancing.

6. Ole Miss
Good News: Marshall Henderson came back to school after he led them to SEC Tournament title, and NCAA Round of 32.
Bad News: Henderson brought his antics with him. All-SEC big men Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway are gone.
Our Call: It'll be a struggle to repeat last season's success, but Henderson gives the Rebels a chance.

7. Alabama
Good News: First-team All-SEC point guard Trever Releford returns to join two top-100 recruits.
Bad News: Trevor Lacey (transfer) and Devonta Pollard (dismissal) are gone, as is center Moussa Gueye (transfer).
Our Call: Anthony Grant, with one NCAA Tournament in four seasons, needs to deliver.

8. Arkansas
Good News: McDonald's All-American Bobby Portis Jr. is a potential program-changer.
Bad News: Marshawn Powell and B.J. Young entered the (un)draft(ed), while Hunter Mickelson transferred.
Our Call: Influx of talent might not offset having just two players back who averaged more than five points a game.

9. Georgia
Good News: Decent nucleus returns (Charles Mann, Kenny Gaines), JC transfer Cameron Forte is on board.
Bad News: NBA lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is impossible to replace.
Our Call: Coach Mark Fox will be on the hot seat if this isn't a get-over-the-hump year.

10. Texas A&M
Good News: Billy Kennedy has increased the talent level, adding five four-star recruits and a JC All-American.
Bad News: Losing the Turners takes a big bite out of the Aggies' scoring.
Our Call: They still rely heavily on youngsters but there's enough ability to finish in the SEC top half.

11. Vanderbilt
Good News: The baby-faced Commodores closed out a rebuilding year on a high, winning six of eight games.
Bad News: Sheldon Jeter, Kevin Bright and Kedren Johnson are gone. Various reasons. Don't ask.
Our Call: Kevin Stallings had an offseason from hell and will now need to work a miracle.

12. South Carolina
Good News: SEC All-Freshman pick Michael Carrera is back and Frank Martin landed a top-30 recruiting class.
Bad News: Martin is basically starting from scratch for a second straight season.
Our Call: The fire-breathing coach has more to work with now, but he also still has his work cut out for him.

13. Mississippi State
Good News: Almost everyone is back from last year's team, plus four incoming freshmen.
Bad News: Almost everyone is back from a team that went 10-22 last season, 4-14 in SEC play.
Our Call: Second-year coach Rick Ray seems to be digging the Bulldogs out, but the hole was pretty deep.

14. Auburn
Good News: Chris Denson and Virginia transfer KT Harrell are building blocks.
Bad News: Rob Chubb isn't walking through that door. Also: point shaving.
Our Call: Tony Barbee is a good coach who probably should've held out for a better gig.

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