SEC Basketball: Power Ranking Dark Horses in the Conference for 2012-13

Matt Overing@@MOveringContributor IIIJune 14, 2012

SEC Basketball: Power Ranking Dark Horses in the Conference for 2012-13

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    Dark horse candidates are always fun to predict. We know Florida and Kentucky will finish near the top of the Southeastern Conference next season. Will any other team be able to end the three-year regular season reign of these two teams?

    Texas A&M and Missouri will enter the conference next year. Missouri was one of the best teams in the country last season, finishing with a 30-5 record. With a new-look, 14-team SEC next year, it will be even more fun to watch the season play out.

    Some teams, however, aren't quite ready to challenge the reign of Kentucky and Florida.

    Vanderbilt will be rebuilding. You can bet on Frank Martin having South Carolina more competitive in the coming seasons. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a great piece to build around in Athens, but he needs a better supporting cast before the Bulldogs are contenders.

    Here are five dark horse candidates in the SEC for 2012-13.

5. Alabama

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    One recruit made this ranking possible: Devonta Pollard.

    After losing JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell, head coach Anthony Grant needed something (in this case, someone) to replace 27.1 points per game.

    While Pollard won't score 27 every night for the Crimson Tide, he'll certainly help. He will be joined by key returners Trevor Releford, Trevor Lacey and Andrew Steele. 

    Alabama will sport a talented young roster for the 2012-13 season.

4. Vanderbilt

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    The reigning SEC tournament champions aren't being treated like one this offseason. That, in large part, is due to the departure of their top six scorers from last season.

    But why doubt Kevin Stallings? Vanderbilt has finished above .500 in all but one year since 2005-06. Stallings knows how to coach, and no one should count out the Commodores while he is at the helm.

    The development of sophomores-to-be Kedren Johnson and Dai-Jon Parker will determine just how fruitful the 2012-13 season will be for Vanderbilt.

3. Auburn

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    Losing Kenny Gabriel hurts, but his shoes may be easy to fill for the Auburn Tigers. 

    Frankie Sullivan, Varez Ward, Chris Denson and Rob Chubb will join one of the better recruiting classes in the conference this fall, highlighted by Jordan Price. 

    So where does that put the Tigers in 2012-13? In the top half of the conference? Why not top five?

    Top five may be a stretch for a team that hasn't finished above .500 in conference play since 2008-09. But with a great batch of incoming talent and retained experience, Auburn may turn some heads in the SEC next season.

2. Missouri

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    Frank Haith wasn't supposed to lead Missouri to a 30-5 record in his first season as head coach. But he did just that.

    With a Villanova-like four-guard offense, the Missouri Tigers were one of the best offensive teams in the nation last season. Their 80.3 points per game was good for sixth in the nation. Efficiency wasn't a problem either, shown by their 50.4 percent shooting from the field (third-best in the country).

    However, with seven graduating seniors, many critics question whether or not Missouri will be able to retain their success from last year. Four transferring players, highlighted by Alex Oriakhi of Connecticut, will join Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon to make up a solid rotation for Haith to fiddle with next year.

    Don't count out Laurence Bowers, either. Bowers sat out last season due to injury and will serve as a key player on the frontcourt next year for Missouri.

    All in all, Haith might be able to string together another surprising year in 2012-13.

1. Tennessee

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    Tennessee surprised us all last season with a 10-6 record in conference play, good for a two-seed in the SEC tournament. No one expected Cuonzo Martin to challenge for SEC Coach of the Year honors, particularly with such a depleted roster.

    That is what made Tennessee the perfect "dark horse" candidate last season. A 10-6 conference record while going 3-1 against Florida and Vanderbilt was simply shocking. 

    This year, the Volunteers may not sneak up on anyone, but they are capable of winning the conference. Kentucky and Florida will be strong as always, and there are no powder-puffs on this list, but Tennessee has plenty of room to improve.

    Jarnell Stokes hasn't played a full year. Cameron Tatum and Renaldo Woolridge will be missed, but those losses are mild compared to the losses that Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt sustained after last season.

    ESPN's Andy Katz has Tennessee in the "Don't sleep on" section of his Revised top 25 for next season, and he's absolutely right.

    Watch out for the Volunteers next season.