First Look: Kentucky and Florida should battle for SEC supremacy again
For the SEC and the nation, it was all about Kentucky to start the 2013-14 college basketball season. Then it was all about Florida during an unbeaten run through conference play. Then during the postseason, it was about both, and then about Kentucky again at the end.
In the SEC, those two teams should be on top again next season. The Wildcats will be overloaded with talent – nine former McDonald's All-Americans on next season's roster – and again will be expected to contend for a national title. The Gators won't have quite the base of experience and talent they did on a senior-laden team that reached the Final Four, but there is enough talent to contend. And everyone else will be chasing.
Here's an early look at what's in store for the SEC:
State of the champion
For a large portion of 2013-14, Florida was arguably the best club in the country. The Gators pushed through the tournament as the No. 1 all seed until stalling in the Final Four against eventual champion Connecticut. Florida did all this on the backs of seniors who had accomplished much but still managed to feel they had something to prove, even after an 18-0 regular season in the SEC, even after an SEC tournament title. That core – led by conference player of the year Scottie Wilbekin, leading scorer Casey Prather and emotional leader Patric Young – is gone. Their collective strengths should be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate.
But there is talent on hand. Michael Frazier II (12.4 points per game) was the third-leading scorer as a sophomore, and Kasey Hill averaged 22 minutes a game backing up Wilbekin. Dorian Finney-Smith (8.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) was the SEC's sixth man of the year and should earn an expanded role. The largest X-factor is Chris Walker, the former five-star recruit who drew Kevin Garnett comparisons but wasn't eligible to play until February. He averaged just 4.8 minutes in 18 games, but a full offseason of on-and-off-court training – Walker came in at 6-foot-10 but barely more than 200 pounds – could bring out the lottery-pick potential most saw in him. The incoming freshman class should help as well: Devin Robinson is the nation's No. 20 recruit, per Rivals. At 6-8 and 180 pounds, Robinson needs to add muscle before getting big minutes, but at minimum he can provide offensive punch and deft ball distribution off the pine. Point guard Chris Chiozza and shooting guard Brandone Francis are both four-star, top- 50 prospects who can slide in as backcourt understudies and develop without pressure. Florida will enter next season with less certainty than a year ago, but it has the parts to grow.
For anyone wondering what Kentucky will look like if the NBA raises its age minimum – mandating that players stay in college two seasons – here is your sneak preview. And it is something to behold. The Wildcats lost potential lottery picks Julius Randle and James Young, their top two scorers from the team that revived in March and thundered to the national title game ... but lost nothing else. They return a backcourt in Aaron and Andrew Harrison that combined for 24.6 points per game and logged a combined 2,570 minutes. Andrew recalibrated his play late in the season to become a distributor, and Aaron dropped game-winning shots against Michigan and Wisconsin en route to the NCAA tournament championship game. They'll be backed up by five-star freshman point guard Tyler Ulis and four-star freshman shooting guard Devin Booker. The frontline, meanwhile, will blot out the sun. Kentucky could start a pair of 7-footers in Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson and bring 6-11 Karl Towns and 6-10 Trey Lyles off the bench – both of whom are consensus top 15 recruits in the Class of 2014. And that's if Lyles or Towns doesn't start over the returning 6-8 Alex Poythress, who returns for his junior season. The Wildcats began last season as the nation's preseason No. 1. They might be right back there this fall.
Tyler Ulis, Kentucky. Between them, Kentucky and Florida will welcome six of the top 35 prospects in Rivals' Class of 2014 rankings. Odds are the best newcomer in the league will come from one of these two rosters. And yet none of the freshmen will be expected to take dominant, leading roles, which makes it difficult to identify which one will emerge as the best of the bunch. So we'll go the most intriguing one: Kentucky's Ulis, a 5-9, 150-pound pure point guard who can help push the pace while perhaps pushing Andrew Harrison to a higher level. Ulis can come off the bench and change the game defensively by jumping the opposing point guard, and he can facilitate at the other end selflessly. He may be a point guard the likes of which John Calipari hasn't had during his tenure in Lexington. The great Kentucky “tweak” of 2013-14 revolved around Andrew Harrison becoming more of a distributor. The good news for Wildcats fans is that he shouldn't soon forget those lessons, not with Ulis pressing in a backup role.
Ian Chiles, Tennessee. When Cuonzo Martin left for Cal and Donnie Tyndall arrived to take over on the Volunteers' sideline, the musical chairs routine began for Tennessee's roster. Tyndall wound up with five scholarship players held over for 2014-15 after various decommitments and transfers, and then he started piling up his own additions, from the junior college ranks (Kevin Punter, Devon Baulkman) and Class of 2014 late signees (Willie Carmichael, Jabari McGhee). But it's Chiles, a grad transfer from IUPUI, who may be the key to stability. He averaged 15.8 points per game last season for the Jaguars. While his numbers don't suggest he's terrific at setting up everyone else, too -- (just 1.8 assists per game) -- Tyndall mostly needed to find reliable points. In the 6-1 Chiles, Tennessee hopes to have a player with a good track record who's motivated to prove himself at a higher level.
Coach on the hot seat
Anthony Grant, Alabama. Before last season, Grant had run off three straight seasons of 21 or more wins with the Crimson Tide, but his tenure has featured just one NCAA tournament berth, in 2012. Then came a 13-19 nosedive in 2013-14 that could put him in a tenuous position entering this season. He'll return no one who scored in double digits last season, and his top newcomers are transfer forward Michael Kessens, the Big South freshman of the year in 2012-13, and 5-10 four-star point guard Justin Coleman, the No. 90 player in Rivals' Class of 2014 rankings. Both can help, but neither appears to be an instant program-changer. NCAA tournament invites, not 20-win seasons, are the dominant currency in college basketball. Grant doesn't have enough of those to feel comfortable. Mississippi State may also be quickly running out of patience with Rick Ray, who enters just his third season but whose teams have compiled a 7-29 record in SEC play.