SEC: Challengers for Kentucky lining up

In College Basketball, SEC by Ken Cross

John Calipari and the one-and-done factor has made Kentucky an overwhelming favorite during his UK tenure.  Calipari won’t mince his words though.  He doesn’t agree with the theory, but if that’s the rules that college basketball operates by he is on board.  He also intimates, tongue in cheek, that he is worried about this year’s squad.   Several SEC teams are looking like challengers, going forward, and with the influx of new coaches, the Wildcats ability to dominate has been lessened.  However, Kentucky will shade LSU for the SEC basketball crown in 2015-16.

John Calipari. The University of Kentucky men's basketball team beat Texas A&M 70-64 in double OT at Reed Arena in College Station, TX. Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

John Calipari still recruits the nation’s best, but the gap may be closing between the Wildcats and the field in the SEC
(Photo by Chet White UK Athletics)

  1. Kentucky – The Wildcats may have lost five starters off a team that finished 38-1, but Calipari restocked well with once again, the nation’s top recruiting class.  Sophomore Tyler Ulis will be the leader of another youthful group from the point.  Juniors Marcus Lee and Dominique Hawkins should be able to pick up their games and have an impact as Alex Poythress returns from a knee injury.  Eight newcomers and six freshmen enter as center Skai Labissiere and guard Isaiah Briscoe will be immediate hits with the locals.
  2. LSU – Losing Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin to the NBA could have been devastating to coach Johnny Jones if he hadn’t signed the nation’s No. 1 player in Ben Simmons and the No. 15 player in Antonio Blakeney.  Brandon Sampson, No. 39 in ESPN’s Top 100, is another high-level recruit, who will be a key behind the three-point line.  Keith Hornsby and Tim Quarterman will be the team’s leaders in the backcourt.
  3. Texas A&M – The Aggies had a stellar recruiting class as well in picking up three Top 50 players in D.J. Hogg, Elijah Thomas, and Tyler Davis.  They join a trio of seniors sharp-shooting Danuel House, Alex Caruso, and Jalen Jones.  The Aggies’ chemistry could form for them to make a deep run in March.  The key is to up-tempo the offense as they averaged only 67.8 points a year ago.
  4. Vanderbilt – Kevin Stallings may be ready for another run similar to 2012 as he says this is his best team since the Commodores knocked off Anthony Davis-led Kentucky in the finals of the SEC Tournament.  The key for Vandy was Damion Jones’ return to the interior after his flirtation with the NBA Draft.  Jones will be a tough cover inside while guards Riley Lachance and Matthew Fisher-Davis.  Stallings has eight 20-win seasons in his 12 years and looks to put the Commodores back on top.
  5. Georgia – Kenny Gaines is back with Charles Mann inside as the Bulldogs should be able to put together two NCAA appearances in a row.  The key is going to be who emerges in the front court.  Watch 6-8 sophomore Yante Maten, an athletic big-man with length inside.  Mark Fox has done an excellent job in his tenure in imposing his style of play on opponents.  Georgia looks for it’s third consecutive20-win season under Fox.
  6. Auburn – Bruce Pearl made waves in his first season with Auburn’s first three-win SEC Tournament in 30 years and then signed two of the Top 100 players in the nation in Horace Spencer and Danjel Purifoy. Pearl is going to show case a team that is probably improved in nearly every facet of the game.  JUCO player of the year T.J. Dunans should step up on the perimeter with Tyler Harris, the younger brother of Tobias Harris, and Marshal transfer Kareem Canty.  All of this talent will surround big-man Cinmeon Bowers, who Pearl says has gotten more explosive and faster in the off-season and has dropped 30 pounds.
  7. South Carolina – Frank Martin finally has the pieces in place to make a run as it has taken him three years to get the pieces in place to possibly get the Gamecocks back into the NCAA Tournament.  Sindarius Thornwell should break out and have a sensational year for Martin, with the hard-nosed Michael carrera and junior guard Duane Notice as complementary players. Two four-star big men in newcomers Carlos Silva and Eric Cobb will make a difference.
  8. Mississippi State – Ben Howland comes back to the college game after a three-year hiatus and inherits a Mississippi State Bulldogs squad that returns four starters, led by guard Craig Sword and forward Gavin Ware.  The shot in the arm for the program is Howland’s signing of Mississippi-native Malik Newman, the No. 10 player in the nation to add to some quality depth that returns.  The emergence of 6-10 freshman center Aric Holman could be huge as well as the Bulldogs add depth to the league.
  9. Ole Miss – Andy Kennedy may have the one player who can dominate a game single-handedly in the backcourt in guard Stefan Moody, who was named preseason first team all-SEC.  Moody led the Rebels in scoring at 16.6 points per game and then post Sebastian Saiz shot 57.8 percent from the floor, so the inside-outside game can emerge with Martavius Newby, another senior, joining him in the backcourt.
  10. Florida – The Gators hit the ground hard last season after four straight Elite Eight appearances.  Then, coach Billy Donovan was off to Oklahoma City of the NBA and Michael White was hired from Louisiana Tech to try to restructure the Gators program.  Florida could ascend as it’s chemistry comes together as Dorian Finney-Smith and Kasey Hill will provide a one-two punch until then.
  11. Arkansas – Losing Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls could have cost coach Mike Anderson a deep run into the NCAA Tournament.  The Razorbacks come off a 27-win season and will look to Anthlon Bell as a leader in the backcourt and then Moses Kingsley and Kennesaw State transfer Willy Kouassi inside.  Texas Tech transfer Dusty Hannahs brings Anderson an immediate three-ball threat on the perimeter.
  12. Tennessee – Rick Barnes says he was looking for a job and Tennessee was looking for a coach.  AD Dave Hart hopes Barnes will bring stability to the programs as several players have had three different coaches during their Vols careers. Barnes will bring a fast-breaking up-tempo offense to Knoxville as senior point guard Kevin Punter sees that as one of his strengths.  Watch senior Armani Moore inside as the Vols roster has eight new faces.
  13. Alabama –  New coach Avery Johnson will use the up-tempo game as a selling point as well.  He noted that now we are only six seconds away from the college game being like the NBA game, in essence.  Bama has struggled to score the last few years, so the players are excited about the change.  It is a major rebuild though as Shannon Hale is the leading returning scorer at 8.2 points per game.
  14. Mizzou – Kim Anderson hopes things bottomed out last season; however,  seven newcomers join six returnees on a roster that will have to grow up fast to be a factor. Missouri actually returns only 44.8 percent of it’s points and 39.5 percent of it’s rebounds this season.  Junior Wes Clark led the team at 10.1 points per game a year ago.

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