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Conference Catch-up: SEC

Headlined by Julius Randle, Kentucky's incoming freshman class has been hailed as the best in college hoops history. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images) Headlined by Julius Randle, Kentucky's incoming freshman class has been hailed as the best in college hoops history. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The SEC has not had a good couple of seasons, culminating in only three teams -- Florida, Mississippi and Missouri -- making it into the NCAA tournament. While there has been some success at the top of the league, with Kentucky winning the 2012 national championship and Florida having made three consecutive Elite Eights, there has been a significant dropoff behind those two annual powers (with even Kentucky falling into the NIT last season, in part because of Nerlens Noel’s knee injury). The lack of NCAA bids prompted the league to engage former NCAA tournament honcho Greg Shaheen to assist on nonconference scheduling practices. On paper, the quality of the league this season doesn’t look like it will be a ton better, though.

Game Changer

Kentucky bringing in the best recruiting class in college hoops history has been a major national talking point from the moment the buzzer sounded on the Wildcats’ humbling first-round NIT loss at Robert Morris in March. Even missing out on Andrew Wiggins, the Cats signed five of the nation’s top nine players, according to ESPN’s final rankings. When you include guys coming back from last season’s team, it’s possible Kentucky could have as many as seven first-round picks in the 2014 draft. The potential level of talent is extraordinary, but like every season at Kentucky, it will be a process of grooming a bunch of freshmen to acclimate to the college game and be willing to put the team before personal glory. The 2012 national champs wouldn’t have reached their apex without big contributions from non-freshmen, either, so the chemistry experiment will be worth watching in Lexington. It’s one of the most fascinating stories in years, though.

Player to Watch

Kentucky’s Julius Randle would be the consensus projected No. 1 overall in practically every season but this one, and many folks wouldn’t be shocked if there’s an eventual debate next spring about him vs. Andrew Wiggins. Even in Kentucky’s loaded freshman class, Randle is a level above the rest of the prospects. That’s how much promise the athletic 6-foot-9 power forward has.

If you want to look elsewhere, freshman point guard Kasey Hill could be a huge key to the Gators’ potential upside, and the Marshall Henderson situation at Mississippi will bear continued watching, both in terms of whether he gets back on the floor for the Rebels and how he handles it if he does. Also, if Tennessee’s Jeronne Maymon is fully back from injury, he and Jarnell Stokes will create problems for the rest of the conference.

Current Favorite

Right now, it has to be Kentucky even though I’m very bullish on Florida’s prospects for this season and it wouldn’t shock me if the Gators managed at least a share of the conference crown.

Presumed Challenger(s)

Florida is the only team with a realistic chance of finishing ahead of Kentucky over 18 league games. The Gators’ frontcourt, when everyone (hopefully) is available come January, will be very deep and physical. If they can get good enough point guard play from Scottie Wilbekin and/or Hill and guys like Michael Frazier step up and knock down some perimeter shots, a fourth straight Elite Eight (or better) is certainly within reach. This is a good Florida team that could be really good come NCAA tournament time, and the Gators can’t possibly be as poor in (relatively) close games as they were last season.

Potential Darkhorse(s)

I’m not sure anyone really qualifies in terms of winning the league, but Tennessee should be the third-best team in the conference. If one-year Memphis transfer Antonio Barton or a freshman option steps up as a capable floor leader, this is a clear NCAA tournament team with upside. After that? Take your pick. A lot of people are talking up LSU as the team that will make the leap this season. The Tigers have a nice nucleus back in Johnny O’Bryant, Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer, and bring in a heralded big man prospect in Jarell Martin. Can Alabama put a run together? Missouri? The middle of the league is populated by teams that have some decent parts coming back but also have multiple holes to fill. Someone will emerge as “SEC Team No. 4,” but it’s hard to say who.

Three Big Questions

1) Can we kill the 40-0 talk for Kentucky?

Mostly a fabricated national media talking point, it’s still a silly conversation to have. Going 40-0 in the men’s game is virtually impossible, especially when you consider the adjustment period needed for some freshmen, the number of “losable” games Kentucky will play this season, and the absurd spotlight that will be on the program the deeper it goes into the season without a loss. There’s nothing wrong with having lofty goals, and if that helps Kentucky become the best team it can be, great, but the concept is so outlandish that it’s almost unfair to discuss it. If they make it to 19-0 heading into a road stretch in league play, we can start discussing the chances. UK very well could be favored in every game this season, but that’s a long ways from saying they should win them all.

2) Will the national champ come from the SEC?

This is a more reasonable question. With both Kentucky and Florida, the SEC will have two of the eight or 10 best teams in the country entering March. The NCAA tournament isn’t the fairest device in the world, but more often than not, the eventual national champ is one of the small handful of the best teams entering the tournament. It’s not farfetched to think that both the Cats and Gators will be top-2 seeds in the eventual bracket. If you had to pick a conference to provide the eventual national champion, how many would you take over the SEC? There’s the ACC (Syracuse, Duke, North Carolina), Big Ten (Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, etc) or Big 12 (Kansas, Oklahoma State). It’s hard to take the American Athletic (Louisville) or Pac-12 (Arizona and ??) when the SEC gives you Florida, too.

3) How many NCAA bids for the league?

Kentucky and Florida are absolute no-brainers. Tennessee should have more than enough to make it into the field of 68 unless something(s) go very wrong. After that, it will be up to how well the league does in nonconference play and how much separation one or two teams can find in the league standings. The SEC has sorely lacked top-50 win opportunities in conference play, so for the league’s sake, the November-December stretch is crucial, especially the bottom part of the league holding up its own end of the bargain. The landscape has changed, with the Big East separating, and the Big 12 doesn’t look particularly great, either, so there should be bids available. I’m just not sure you should pencil in any more than four from this conference without a surprise auto-bid winner.

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