Terrence Jones, Kentucky
In some circles, Jones is being overlooked because he's not new and because his numbers tapered off down the stretch last season. In this circle, give me the guy with a year of experience at this level who now is surrounded by significantly more talent than last season's team. This version of the Wildcats still doesn't really have a traditional big man (Eloy Vargas, anyone?), so Jones' rebounding -- especially on the defensive end, where he was statistically elite last season -- will still be crucial. With better players around him, Jones' offensive efficiency should improve, as well, so he's in a good position to put up strong numbers on a great team, the formula for postseason honors.
Brad Beal, Florida
Kentucky may have too many freshmen for any one of them to make an award-winning impact (read: big numbers), but Beal shouldn't have that issue in Gainesville. He's going to play a lot of minutes and should score a lot of points in the guard-heavy Gators attack. Florida's backcourt shot selection and distribution has been questionable the last few seasons, but with the relative lack of a frontcourt, Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton may not have to give up many shots in order for Beal to get more than enough to thrive. In a really strong year for freshmen in the league, you can't go wrong with Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis or Marquis Teague, Ole Miss' Jalen Kendrick, Mississippi State's Rodney Hood, Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and others, either.
Patric Young, Florida
Touted as a crucial piece in last season's equation, Young was decent but didn't have the overall impact anticipated in a deep frontcourt. Now Young is a central piece ofFlorida's frontcourt and his ability to provide defense, rebounding and stay out of foul trouble will be crucial to the Gators' success. He won't need plays run for him to get points. He'll be able to find plenty of opportunities on the offensive glass, if he can get to them. In modest minutes last season, Young's 8.8 percent offensive rebounding rate was far from elite.
While the SEC does not have divisions anymore, the old scheduling format, with "East" and "West" teams playing each other twice and cross-division games happening once, is still intact for this season. Therefore, schedules will be unbalanced and the league standings will be somewhat deceptive for NCAA tournament selection purposes. It also means Alabama was wise in significantly bumping the quality of its nonleague schedule, as the Tide once again faces 10 games against the weaker "half" of the league. It's very possible that only five of Alabama's 16 league games (Mississippi State twice, plus Kentucky, Vandy and Florida once each) will be against NCAA tournament-quality foes.
On paper, the Wildcats have much more talent than last season's Final Four team, importing four elite recruits to join forces with Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. Marquis Teague should star at the point and long-limbed big man Anthony Davis could be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft next season, but neither may have as good a college season as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who even if he's not starting, should pour in plenty of points from the wing. If you really want to nitpick, the Wildcats don't really have a true physical 5 to mimic the role Josh Harrellson capably filled last season, but there's too much talent (and now some experience) to expect anything less than an SEC title and a Final Four appearance.
The Gators will be very small, but they are loaded in the backcourt. Starting guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton return, plus Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario (a 16 points ppg scorer) eligible and incoming freshman Brad Beal, who has a diverse and very highly regarded offensive game, give Florida a ton of talent. And that doesn't even count sophomore Scottie Wilbekin. It's a good thing the Gators have a plenty of backcourt options because their frontcourt was severely weakened. With the departures of Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus, Patric Young is the only established frontcourt presence and will need to do a better job of providing consistent production while staying out of foul trouble. If he and Erik Murphy are contributing and the right guys are taking the perimeter shots, this team could be very good offensively.
This may be the most hyped Commodores team ever, with good reason. So why are they tucked behind a miniature Florida team here? Because you can't assume a team will jump from good to great just because it returns the same guys. Vandy went 9-7 in the SEC last season and suffered a second-straight first-round NCAA loss. KenPom.com had them 35th overall. That's a big gap to leap into the top 10. OK, enough naysaying. John Jenkins is the team's best player and one of the premier shooters in the nation. Jeffery Taylor is a diverse talent who can dominate at times. Festus Ezeli (suspended for the first six games) has become a quality center and could end up as an NBA lottery pick if he continues last season's development. Complementary returnees like forwards Lance Goulbourne and Steve Tchiengang and point guard Brad Tinsley are capable. If Vandy defends better (enter freshmen Kedren Johnson and Dai-Jon Parker) and Taylor channels his inner strength more regularly, the 'Dores could validate the buzz.
This season, 'Bama fans should have something to cheer for after the Tide football team completes whatever BCS bowl it ends up in. Forwards JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell make up one of the league's (and nation's) best frontcourt tandems and guard Trevor Releford is poised to blow up on the national scene after a promising debut season at the point. Despite the exciting individual talent, it was on the defensive end last season that the Tide were elite, and that should hold with the returning personnel. If highly touted freshman wings Trevor Lacey and Levi Randolph adjust well to the college game, 'Bama will become much more difficult to stop on the offensive end and become a team that can make a significant March run. 'Bama was brutal from three-point range last season, making just 29.8 percent as a team despite taking less than 25 percent of all shots from behind the arc (per KenPom.com).
5. Mississippi State
In theory, the Bulldogs should be much improved. They have lead guard Dee Bost and center Renardo Sidney from the start of the season, and are adding solid UTEP transfer big man Arnett Moultrie and heralded local freshman wing Rodney Hood. There is a lot of size and a lot of experience, which usually means good things. In actuality, things lately have seemed more complicated than necessary in Starkville. Last year's season was marred by an ugly teammate brawl in the stands at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. This summer, Sidney didn't travel with the team to Europe, instead staying in Houston to work with John Lucas. He needs to be better than he was last season, when he was a below-average offensive efficiency player and only went to the free throw line four times a game. Nonetheless, the seeds are there for success this season. Like Alabama, the Bulldogs will play 10 times against the former West division. They have finished 9-7 in the league the last three seasons. With the bottom half of the East down, too, that mark would be disappointing this year.
Mike Anderson returns to Fayetteville to try to rekindle the 40 Minutes of Hell attack that led the Hogs to a national title when Anderson was an assistant under Nolan Richardson. Losing gunner Rotnei Clark (transferred to Butler) and itinerant point guard Jeff Peterson (to Florida State) won't help the first-year transition to Anderson's preferred up-tempo attack. The Hogs will have to lean on forward Marshawn Powell and sweet-shooting point guard Julysses Nobles to lead a team that has some experience but not a ton of established scoring. Powell used almost 29 percent of Arkansas' possessions last season when he was on the floor, so a heavy workload shouldn't bother him and Anderson's system may get him more easy baskets than last season. Anderson won't have the depth (or quality) he needs for another year or two, but he has a decent young core to work with and the fans should enjoy the efforts, if not all of the results in Year 1.
The Rebels have gone the longest of any SEC team since their last NCAA tournament appearance, last making the bracket in 2002. Now they lose standout guard Chris Warren (and Zach Graham), but hope is not lost in Oxford. Diminutive guard Dundrecous Nelson is ready to step into the limelight. He'll join athletic big man Terrance Henry and two other returning starters from last season. Also, Memphis castoff and former McDonald's All-American Jelan Kendrick is eligible in December and forward Murphy Holloway has been ruled eligible after leaving for South Carolina and then returning. Still, the losses of Warren and Graham will hurt. They were Ole Miss' two most efficient scorers by a wide margin last season, while also using a significant number of the Rebels' possessions. Some of the youngsters will have to step up and carry a much more significant, efficient load, which is pretty tough to ask.
Mark Fox can't catch a break with NBA early entry. His Nevada teams were regularly undercut by guys leaving for the draft, and now he feels similar pain in Athens, where both Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie left with a year of eligibility remaining. Where does that leave the Bulldogs? Not in great shape, but there's some hope thanks to the backcourt. Guards Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware return to combo-guard it up and they'll be greatly helped by the arrival of much-heralded frosh Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a local scoring sensation. The frontcourt is much more unsettled. Sophomores Marcus Thornton and Donte' Williams will need to carry a much greater minutes burden and provide better production than they did in limited minutes last season.
Things will look a lot different on Rocky Top this season after Bruce Pearl exited following NCAA violations and a lot of the Vols' top talent, including Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris, followed him out the door. Now Cuonzo Martin steps into the job with only guard Cameron Tatum as the only true part of last year's rotation back in the fold. Martin will need guys like forwards Kenny Hall, Jeronne Maymon and Renaldo Woolridge and point guard Trae Golden to really ratchet up production if the Vols are going to survive one of the nation's toughest schedules. These Vols are very small and not very experienced, which could be a difficult combination in this season's SEC East.
Auburn's woes helped distract a bit from how bad the Tigers were last season, but they should be improved. The offense has to get better -- it would be hard for it to get worse -- and that could start in the frontcourt, where 7-foot Iowa State transfer Justin Hamilton and stud freshman Johnny O'Bryant arrive to provide size and skill. They will join up with several complementary returnees to make LSU much more formidable closer to the basket. In turn, better presence inside should help improve the efficiency of leading scorers Ralston Turner and Andre Stringer, both of whom return to spearhead the backcourt effort. Freshman guard Anthony Hickey has had a strong preseason and should also supply some much-needed shooting. Even playing the weaker league schedule for one more season, LSU's not ready to return to the NCAAs, but Trent Johnson's club should be more dangerous.
Last year? Well, the Tigers had a nice new arena. That's about all the positive that came from a season where Auburn was a historically bad major-conference team. The Tigers should be improved this season as guard Frankie Sullivan returns from injury and Texas transfer Varez Ward becomes eligible to join him in the backcourt along with Chris Denson. They'll need that improved firepower, as Auburn was a really poor offensive team last season in practically every area. The frontcourt remains a work in progress, with scrappy Rob Chubb and leading returning scorer Kenny Gabriel helping to show a couple of freshmen the ropes. Tony Barbee still has a ton of work to do, but Auburn should take a step or two forward.
12. South Carolina
Peruse any coaching hot seat list and Darrin Horn's name likely will be on it. Things have not gone as planned in Columbia and this season's version of the Gamecocks is not going to be very good. Leading scorer Bruce Ellington elected to play football this season, so he's not available for the time being. Ole Miss transfer Murphy Holloway returned to Oxford without ever playing for the Gamecocks. South Carolina also lost two other double-digit scorers from last season's 14-16 squad. Freshman Damien Leonard will need to immediately live up to billing for the Gamecocks to think about anything more than fighting their way out of the SEC East cellar.