There are a lot of possible choices here, depending how large an impact some of Kentucky's freshmen make and how you value different parts for a well-balanced contender. In Thompkins, you should get big numbers and big impact, as he should be the leading man for a rising Bulldogs team that is generating significant buzz as an NCAA tournament hopeful. Last season, Thompkins averaged 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, and in Travis Leslie, he has a sidekick that will prevent opponents from simply focusing on him.
Brandon Knight almost certainly will have better stats and could play a huge part in whether Kentucky is a Final Four threat, but Young is shaping up as the perfect missing piece that will take the Gators from being a good team to a potentially great one. Young's physicality and enthusiasm should help transform a veteran team that was a bit soft at times last season. He may only be on the floor for 15 minutes a night if he can't stay out of foul trouble, but those could be the 15 minutes that decide the game.
He's already broken out in a sense, as people around the SEC know how good he is, but the nation probably is more familiar with his teammate, lights-out perimeter marksman John Jenkins, who was the program's highest-rated recruit ever last season. Taylor did it all as a sophomore last season -- carried the responsibility of high possession usage, scored efficiently, got to the line frequently, rebounded well and was a quality defender. Now he gets the chance to be the team's leading star, and the numbers should follow.
That was the record of SEC teams who made the NCAAs last season in nonleague games against RPI Top 50 opponents. The lone win was Tennessee's upset of Kansas in the aftermath of the New Year's Day traffic stop-weapons/drug arrest that left the Vols very shorthanded. There will be opportunities this season to improve that figure, and the league will need that mark to be better, especially if it hopes to get five teams from the SEC East into the field of 68.
All five starters are back and one (or more) of them will be conceding significant minutes, as freshman force Patric Young will bring a healthy and needed dose of rebounding and shotblocking to a frontcourt that also features Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus. The Gators also were
Lose five first-round draft picks? Hey, no worries. Let's just reload with another superlative freshman class. Even if Enes Kanter doesn't get eligible, Kentucky fans will have a fine time rooting on highly touted scoring point guard Brandon Knight and smooth forward Terrence Jones, among others. Mix in returnees like Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins, and there's plenty of reason for optimism with John Calipari's bunch, especially by March. If the 'Cats do get Kanter eligible for the stretch run? Look out. This crew may not be quite as talented as last season's, but could possibly end up more well-rounded.
Bruce Pearl's had a difficult offseason after the Vols fell a point short of the Final Four, but he has a lot of talent returning to make another march in March. With Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince departed, the veteran burden will fall significantly on Melvin Goins (point guard), Cameron Tatum (shooting guard), Scotty Hopson (wing/defender) and Brian Williams (center). The Vols also add top-10 recruit Tobias Harris at the forward slot and fellow freshman Trae Golden, a gifted shooter. The SEC East is extremely competitive at the top, but Tennessee should be right there.
We'll have to wait until SEC play to really see what the Bulldogs look like, as long awaited big man Renardo Sidney (nine-game suspension) and guard Dee Bost (nine-game suspension following academic ineligibility for the fall semester) have ample time left before they become eligible. Bost's somewhat surprising reinstatement by the NCAA after he botched withdrawing from the 2010 NBA draft makes the Bulldogs the clear choice in a mediocre SEC West. If a slimmed-down Sidney shows the promise he had as a five-star recruit coming out of high school (he sat out last season while trying to clear up eligibility issues), the team's upside could be significantly higher, as returnees Ravern Johnson and Kodi Augustus help form a very capable complementary core.
In a league loaded with elite programs and precocious talents, it says a great deal that the preseason SEC Player of the Year is on Georgia, but that's how good Trey Thompkins was last season. The league's leading returning scorer and rebounder pairs with guard Travis Leslie to give the Bulldogs an extremely potent 1-2 punch. Throw in explosive Tennessee State transfer Gerald Robinson and Georgia's Mr. Basketball Marcus Thornton, and head coach Mark Fox quickly (and somewhat quietly) has crafted a team that could make the NCAAs.
If this is the fifth-best team in the SEC East, that's a brutal division. With jack-of-all-trades wing Jeffery Taylor, sweet-shooting guard John Jenkins, pure point guard Brad Tinsley and exciting freshmen like guard Kyle Fuller and forward Rod Odom, it's staggering that the 'Dores could be picked this low. Coach Kevin Stallings, who annually does a fantastic job in Nashville, will probably miss guard Jermaine Beal and Aussie big man A.J. Ogilvy -- for a little while, anyway. Come league season, though, the 'Dores could be superior to multiple teams listed above.
Some team is going to surprise in the fairly wide-open West. Could it be the Tide? Start with standout forward JaMychal Green, the team's leading returning scorer (14.1 ppg) and rebounder (7.2 rpg). Tony Mitchell should have a strong sophomore season, and Senario Hillman provides some defensive bite on the perimeter. Green used almost 30 percent of Alabama's possessions last season and now that highly efficient scorer (and fellow high-usage guy) Mikhail Torrance has moved on, someone is going to need to really step up and provide primary scoring to support Green.
The Razorbacks have elite three-point threat Rotnei Clarke in the backcourt and rebounding powerhouse Marshawn Powell up front, but they will have to fill around them with mediocre returnees and/or new faces. The loss of Courtney Fortson seems like a mixed blessing -- while he had the ability to put points on the board, his 14-game suspension last season was a huge distraction and his constant turnover issues really hurt the team. The tussle between the Tide, Hogs and Rebels (below) could go any which way, but the second-place team in this division still probably has a pretty modest shot at making the dance.
In a land of flux, it's never a bad thing to have the best player on the floor many nights, and Ole Miss has that with standout guard Chris Warren. Beyond that, the Rebels will need someone to step up. Losing Terrico White's 15 points a game was somewhat expected (he left early for the NBA draft), but the transfers of Murphy Holloway (South Carolina) and Eniel Polynice (Seton Hall) really thin out the depth behind Warren. Zach Graham will have to step up and then the Rebels will need to find additional pop from forward Terrance Henry, guard Nick Williams and some freshmen, notably guard Dundrecous Nelson and big man Demarco Cox.
This is a particularly bad year to be the worst team in the East Division. The Gamecocks are looking at 10 extremely formidable league games before even accounting for road trips to Mississippi State and Alabama. That doesn't mean South Carolina will lack talent, even after the departure of do-everything guard Devan Downey. It will just be really young, as one of the best incoming classes in program history will get a baptism by fire. Things could start in the backcourt with newcomers Bruce Ellington and Eric Smith.
Losing Tasmin Mitchell's 17 points and 10 rebounds per game definitely hurts. Losing guard Bo Spencer to academic issues may end up being addition by subtraction for the rebuilding Tigers. Spencer was one of three players in the nation last season to shoot under 30 percent from the arc while taking over 200 threes (Florida's Kenny Boynton and Hofstra's Cornelius Vines were the others). Now those shots will be spread out to more efficient scorers like forward Storm Warren and can be used to blood some of the solid incoming freshmen frontcourt members. LSU will be really young, but could be a lot better come league play.
In time, new coach Tony Barbee will infuse some of his Memphis/UTEP magic, but it won't be this season, as the Tigers are really young and lacking in SEC-caliber talent, especially after a summer knee injury may cost Frankie Sullivan this season. Sullivan was the only contributing returnee. For now, the opening of the beautiful new Auburn Arena will have to be the highlight. Tigers fans will likely spend the winter hoping freshman forward Josh Langford develops and rooting for diminutive walk-on point guard Josh Wallace.