Kentucky fans are as concerned as Coach Cal.
Last season the SEC sent four teams to the NCAA tournament, two of which (Kentucky and Tennessee) made it to the Elite Eight. All four teams came from the East.
This season's version could be similar. Kentucky will return, no question, with or without Kanter. But how good can they be with him?
In either scenario, the SEC East will be very competitive. As many as five teams from the group have legitimate NCAA aspirations, while the West in once again wide open. Mississippi State would get a huge boost if an NCAA decision goes their way while others try to regroup from graduations and adjusting to new coaches.
Mississippi State (Prediction - First)
Renardo Sidney, Ravern Johnson, Phil Turner are back along with John Riek, with whom the jury is still out. Sidney will need some time to get rid of the rust before we see what impact he will have.
The Dee Bost situation remains unclear, although he has enrolled at MSU. This will be an interesting decision made by the NCAA, and one which could eventually lead to a change in the date for underclassmen declaring for the NBA draft.
Bost really has no excuse but the bottom line is, he made a mistake. We have seen coaches sign with other teams (Altman, Donovan) only to recant within days of their decisions, I don’t see this situation being much different. Then again, it’s the NCAA.
The Bulldogs will be big up front but lacking in the backcourt if Bost does not return. Swingman Kodi Augustus returns as well and he can cause some match-up issues on the perimeter because of his size.
Rick Stansbury usually finds a way to have his teams in the hunt for the West title and an NCAA bid. Guard play will determine how far the Bulldogs go this season.
Alabama (Prediction - Second)
Despite losing Mikhail Torrance and Justin Knox (now at North Carolina), the Tide appears to be in good shape.
Six players who played significant minutes last season return led by JaMychal Green, Tony Mitchell and Senario Hillman. Jason Carter, Trevor Releford and Charles Hankerson are part of a solid recruiting class for head man Anthony Grant. He has reshaped this team quickly into a solid, athletic group, similar to teams he coached at VCU.
Consistency will be the key this year. Bama was competitive but turnover-prone last year and need to be better in this area to reverse those close losses.
The Tide may be able to get to .500 and beyond in conference play this year and with the West being wide open, who knows?
Mississippi (Prediction - Third)
Point guard Chris Warren is back which is good news for coach Andy Kennedy. Zach Graham returns in the backcourt as well. Terrico White (NBA), Murphy Holloway (personal) and Eniel Polynice (declared for NBA but undrafted) do not return.
Nick Williams transfers in from Indiana while Demarco Cox and Dundrecous Nelson lead a recruiting class augmented by two JUCO transfers Steadman Short and Donald Williams.
Mississippi is a very small, guard-oriented team that needs; Terrance Henry, Reginald Bucknor or DeAundre Cranston to step up and be more than a defensive presence in the front court.
Last year, the Rebels finished atop the West at 9-7 and were arguably one of the teams considered for the last few spots in the NCAA tourney before ultimately missing out. Nine wins this season doesn’t seem likely.
LSU (Prediction - Fourth)
Top scorer and rebounder Tasmin Mitchell is gone. Second leading scorer Bo Spencer was ineligible then transferred to Nebraska recently, leaving sophomore Storm Warren as the only returning double-digit scorer. This, on a team that had trouble (diplomatically speaking) scoring last season.
Transfer Malcolm White is in from Mississippi (7.0 ppg, 5.0 rbg) to supply some front court scoring but the silver lining is in the recruiting class led by Matt Derenbecker, Andre Stringer and Ralston Turner. If they can step in and contribute immediately, and they essentially have to, the Tigers could surprise some folks.
The Tigers should get more than two conference wins but may need a year of seasoning to make a substantial move forward.
Arkansas (Prediction - Fifth)
The good news: Courtney Fortson will no longer be the migraine in coach John Pelphrey’s temple. The bad news: outstanding sophomore Marshawn Powell broke his foot and is out indefinitely, leaving the Hogs dangerously thin up front should he be out for an extended period.
Rotnei Clark returns to give the Razorbacks some outside punch. He is an exceptional long-distance shooter (43 percent from behind the arc) and he shoots a lot, averaging almost eight threes attempted per game. Jemal Farmer needs to step up and give Arkansas another scoring option.
Jeff Peterson is in from Iowa while Rickey Scott and Mardracus Wade were the top recruits in a very small class.
Maybe with the distractions gone the Razorbacks can get some consistency and continuity, something they haven't had for some time. And although in the West anything is possible, I don’t see them reaching their 7-9 conference mark from last season.
Auburn (Prediction - Sixth)
New coach Tony Barbee recruited well but he’s at Auburn so the snakes are already out and they're hungry. Luke Cothron and Shawn Kemp Jr. didn’t qualify academically (Kemp is now 2-for-2 after the same situation at Alabama) and will not suit up for the Tigers.
Starter Frankie Sullivan is gone with a knee injury as is potential starter Ty Armstrong, which means their top returning scorer averaged just under three points per game.
Barbee will get the job done but if there are any Tigers basketball fans, they need to be patient this season—very patient.
Varez Ward has committed verbally (transfer from Texas) but won’t be eligible until next season.
Kentucky (Prediction - First)
Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight, Enes Kanter, Doron Lamb, Stacy Poole, and Eloy Vargas—where to begin?
Let’s begin with Kanter and Vargas, who are not cleared to play yet. Very little has been said about Kanter’s eligibility. The question remains whether or not he was paid as a professional or merely received expenses, similar to prep players in the U.S. Apparently, the Turkish federation is being less than cooperative at this point.
Knight was dominating in an exhibition stint in Windsor earlier this month. Ross is an impact player as well so the Cats will have other weapons.
Deandre Liggins and Darius Miller (both juniors) will assume some of the leadership roles but once again the focus will be on the freshmen. Rarely is optimism so high when the turnover is so huge, but that’s what this type of recruiting class does.
This team seems to be more suited to the type of offense Coach Cal likes to run, however, if Kanter and Vargas can’t play, the Cats will be limited up front. My guess is that Kanter may have to sit for a bit but will play eventually. With him, Kentucky wins the division. Without him, it may be a little dicey.
Tennessee (Prediction - Second)
Tobias Harris was the big recruiting catch but Trae Golden, Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon (transfer from Marquette and eligible in the second semester) were top recruits as well.
Scotty Hopson returns and is poised to have a big year after showing big improvement last year, particularly after the dismissal of Tyler Smith. Streaky Cameron Tatum returns as does big man Brian Williams, whose role shouldn’t change much with the addition of Harris. Melvin Goins returns in the back court along with Josh Bone, a role player who is a decent long-range shooter and a good defender.
This will be a talented team and Bruce Pearl showed last season that he knows more than one style. Tennessee was two points away from the Final Four despite the chaos last season. The Vols will play with anyone in the East.
Florida (Prediction - Third)
Buoyed by the return of Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin up front, and Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker and Chandler Parsons in the back court, the Gators look to contend with Kentucky and Tennessee in the East.
The holdovers are joined by power forward Patric Young, a top-25 recruit according to most rankings, giving Florida one of the best frontcourts in the league. Tyus has to be more consistent though. After a string of 13 consecutive games scoring in double figures, Tyus scored more than nine in just four of the team’s last 12, coinciding with the Gators’ fade at the end of the season. Included was a two-point loss to Georgia in which he was skunked.
It was rather generous that the committee invited Florida to the tournament last year. A big win against Michigan State early could have been offset with a home loss to South Alabama. With better decision-making from their guards, the Gators will be better, ensuring another trip to the NCAA tourney this year.
Georgia (Prediction - Fourth)
Trey Thompkins, one of the pre-season favourites, if not THE favourite, for player-of-the-year honours leads the upstart Bulldogs.
Thompkins can do it all. And, he has some help. Starters Travis Leslie and point guard Dustin Ware, both of whom improved tremendously last season, are back, as are forwards Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes. Gerald Robinson, who sat out last season after transferring from Tennessee State is a gifted scorer, averaging nearly 18 points per game in his last season with TSU.
Georgia was competitive last year but couldn’t get over the hump in close games, losing seven conference contests by four points or less.
A tough non-conference schedule includes Notre Dame and either Temple or California in the Old Spice Classic, and Xavier and St. Louis, both considered to be contenders in the Atlantic 10. As well, the in-state rivalry game with Georgia Tech is on the slate. We’ll know more after this stretch of games but don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs make some noise early.
Vanderbilt (Prediction - Fifth)
The top two scorers, Jermaine Beal and A.J. Ogilvy are gone but the Commodores return emerging stars Jeffrey Taylor and sharpshooter John Jenkins, one of the best three-point shooters in the country. Starters Brad Tinsley and Andre Walker are also back. Freshman Rod Odom will compete for minutes in the front court with holdovers Festis Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang.
Replacing Ogilvy won’t be easy but he wasn’t nearly as dominating as he might have been, particularly because he averaged only 23 minutes per game. I say “only” because that is considerably less than most starters.
They will score but may be questionable down low, especially offensively.
Always a tough out at home, the Commodores hope to get back to the Big Dance and erase the memory of last year’s disappointing loss to Murray State. Opportunities for big wins will be available in conference play.
South Carolina (Prediction - Sixth)
Coach Darrin Horn had a successful recruiting campaign, landing big men R.J. Slawson and Damontre Harris as well as point guard Bruce Ellington, who according to some, will be one of the quickest players in the conference.
He will step in for the departed Devan Downey, who at times won games almost singlehandedly, but too often tried to do just that. Malik Cooke joins the team from Nevada while Sam Muldrow, Mike Holmes, Ramon Galloway and Lakeem Jackson, all of whom played significant minutes last season are back as well.
However, not only is the leading scorer (Downey) gone but Dominique Archie and Brandis Raley-Ross (the number two and three scorers) are gone as well. Raley-Ross graduated and Archie was denied a sixth year of eligibility despite playing in only five games last year.
The Gamecocks will go through some growing pains early as the new players adjust, and will have all they can handle in the tough East division.