SEC basketball opens conference play this week, and there have been plenty of surprises in the non-league portion of the schedule. Some teams have jumped out to unanticipated fast starts, while other would-be contenders have struggled mightily to meet expectations.
Foremost among the latter group, of course, are the unranked Kentucky Wildcats. John Calipari’s young team has shown gargantuan potential, but will it start turning those possibilities into reality in time to contend for the league title?
Read on for more on the talent-laden Wildcats and the rest of the teams in the new-look SEC, presented in order of their predicted finish in the standings. In addition, we’ll provide some projections for the winners of other races: the conference’s Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year awards, as well as the SEC Tournament champs.
Quality Wins: None
Worst Losses: Vs. Alabama A&M, At Troy
Key Players to Watch: PF Roquez Johnson, PF Gavin Ware
Bottom Line: Only 20 of the 347 Division I teams are getting fewer assists per game than the Bulldogs. The young front line has shown some potential, but anything other than a last-place finish this season will be a surprise for novice head coach Rick Ray.
Quality Wins: None
Worst Losses: Vs. Youngstown State, Vs. Iona
Key Players to Watch: SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Bottom Line: Caldwell-Pope is a genuine superstar, but he’s getting no help at all. In a conference where even the also-rans have depth to burn, KCP’s one-man show won’t get him (or his Bulldogs) very far.
Quality Wins: At Xavier
Worst Losses: Vs. Marist (neutral site), Vs. Villanova
Key Players to Watch: SG Kedren Johnson, SG Kyle Fuller
Bottom Line: The rebuilding Commodores have found some promising backcourt scorers, but length and talent up front are in short supply. Add in the extreme lack of experience on this roster, and Vandy will have a tough time with bigger, stronger SEC foes.
Quality Wins: At Texas Tech
Worst Losses: Vs. Mercer, Vs. Tulane
Key Players to Watch: SG Trevor Releford, PG Trevor Lacey
Bottom Line: Junior Releford carries this team on both ends of the floor, but his 6’0”, 195-lb frame will leave him looking up at most SEC 2-guards. The frontcourt has more length than productivity right now, leaving the Tide vulnerable against physical opponents.
Quality Wins: Vs. Florida State
Worst Losses: Vs. Winthrop, Vs. Rhode Island
Key Players to Watch: PG Frankie Sullivan, C Rob Chubb
Bottom Line: Sullivan and the guards put up gaudy offensive numbers while Chubb provides the muscle inside. The Tigers have played a much tougher nonconference slate than most of the SEC, so don’t be surprised if they go on a run in the soft latter part of their schedule.
Quality Wins: None
Worst Losses: Vs. Elon
Key Players to Watch: PF Lakeem Jackson, PG Eric Smith
Bottom Line: New coach Frank Martin has worked wonders with these frequent bottom-feeders, but a soft schedule means that those 10 wins are largely a mirage. Jackson leads a beefy frontcourt that will play enough defense to keep the Gamecocks in most games.
Quality Wins: Vs. Seton Hall
Worst Losses: At Boise State
Key Players to Watch: PG Anthony Hickey, SF Shavon Coleman
Bottom Line: Hickey is one of the country’s best defenders, while the undersized Coleman puts up a power forward’s stats. All the pieces are here for a dangerous spoiler, but the Tigers haven’t been tested much yet—especially away from Baton Rouge.
Quality Wins: At Houston
Worst Losses: Vs. San Diego
Key Players to Watch: SG Elston Turner, PF Ray Turner
Bottom Line: No longer the world-beating defense of Mark Turgeon’s best teams, the Aggies are still tough to score on. They don’t put up too many points themselves, though, so a lot depends on whether sniper Elston Turner and his .429 three-point accuracy get room to shoot.
Quality Wins: At Loyola Marymount, At Hawaii
Worst Losses: Vs. Indiana State (neutral site)
Key Players to Watch: PF Murphy Holloway, SG Marshall Henderson,
Bottom Line: Holloway, a 6’7”, 240-lb brick wall, ranks 11th in the nation in rebounding, while three-point gunner Henderson provides the offensive fireworks. If the Rebels don’t crumble under a tough January schedule, they’ll be a real threat in the conference standings.
Quality Wins: Vs. Oklahoma
Worst Losses: Vs. Arizona State (neutral site)
Key Players to Watch: SG B.J. Young, PF Marshawn Powell
Bottom Line: Young might be the best guard in the country who doesn’t have a three-point shot, and the agile Powell adds another first-rate scorer. The Razorbacks will often be at a size disadvantage, but they have the quickness and defensive aggressiveness to compensate pretty well.
Quality Wins: Vs. Wichita State, Vs. Xavier
Worst Losses: At Virginia
Key Players to Watch: PG Trae Golden, PF Jarnell Stokes
Bottom Line: The offense has been wildly erratic, not least because star distributor Golden has misplaced the three-point shot that served him so well a year ago (.258, down from .388). Even so, Stokes leads a daunting front line, and Golden has made the offense just good enough.
Quality Wins: Vs. Maryland (neutral site)
Worst Losses: Vs. Baylor
Key Players to Watch: C Nerlens Noel, SG Archie Goodwin
Bottom Line: Yes, the turnover-heavy offense stalls often against elite opposition, but Kentucky is still going to be a threat. The Wildcats have size (nearly as much as last year, thanks to 6’10” sixth man Kyle Wiltjer) and jaw-dropping athleticism, and they’re only getting better as the year goes on.
Quality Wins: Vs. Illinois (neutral site), Vs. Virginia Commonwealth (neutral site)
Worst Losses: At UCLA
Key Players to Watch: PG Phil Pressey, PF Laurence Bowers
Bottom Line: A team renowned for its lack of big men has gone, in one year, to the No. 1 rebounding squad in the nation. Pressey has turned a patchwork group into a solid offense, but the defense hasn't been anything special.
Quality Wins: Vs. Wisconsin, Vs. Marquette, At Florida State
Worst Losses: Vs Kansas State (neutral site)
Key Players to Watch: SG Kenny Boynton, C Patric Young
Bottom Line: The fourth-best scoring defense in college hoops gives the Gators an edge no SEC foe can match. Their individual stats haven’t been any too impressive, but there isn’t a group in the SEC that’s playing better as a team this season.
As is becoming the norm, this award will essentially be an in-house honor for the top freshman in Lexington.
Although several first-year Wildcats have been putting in impressive performances, Noel’s preseason hype will stand him in good stead in the postseason voting.
It doesn’t hurt that the 6’10” center is the best individual defender in a conference with plenty of talent on that end of the floor.
His 3.5 blocks and 2.6 steals per game will make up for his lack of scoring and let him edge out Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress for the top spot.
The preseason pick for this award still looks like a good call, as Phil Pressey is averaging a league-high 7.2 assists per game (tied for ninth-best nationally). As a point guard, he’ll also get an extra boost from what’s sure to be a strong finish by Missouri in the standings.
If Kenny Boynton picks up his scoring during SEC play, he’ll also make a push for this prize. Otherwise, defensive whiz Nerlens Noel and Pressey’s teammate, Laurence Bowers, seem the likeliest runners-up.
That being the case, Noel’s lack of scoring and Bowers’ unremarkable rebounding numbers leave Pressey (who also averages 1.7 steals per game) in the driver’s seat here.
It’s rarely a good idea to bet against a great defense in postseason play. Florida, whatever its other problems, has been the SEC’s best defense all season long.
Missouri and Kentucky will both pose threats, but both will need a fair amount of luck to upend the Gators. The Tigers’ offense, though more prolific than Florida’s, doesn't have enough go-to scorers to outplay elite defenses with regularity.
The still-green Wildcats, meanwhile, have yet to show the kind of consistency on either end of the floor that suggests they can hang with Billy Donovan’s veteran squad.