Skip to main content

SEC Primer: Kentucky, Missouri ready to make noise this season

BJ Young is one of the best players in the country you've never heard of. As a freshman, he came off the bench for the Razorback despite the fact that he was the team's leading scorer and easily their most dynamic player. An athletic and lanky 6-foot-3 scorer, Young's a perfect fit for Mike Anderson's "40 Minutes of Hell" system because he not only can attack the basket and finish around the rim, but because he's also a 41.3 percent shooter from long range. NBA scouts have noticed as well; Young probably would have been a first-round pick had he not withdrawn his name from last year's draft. Draft Express currently has him pegged in the top 10 of their 2013 mock draft.

Stokes had some high school eligibility issues, meaning that he wasn't allowed to play his final season. Instead of sitting out the entire year, Stokes graduated early, enrolling at Tennessee in January and playing the first game of his college career against Kentucky on Jan. 14, finishing with nine points and four boards. A week later, he had 16 points and 12 boards in a win over Andre Drummond and UConn. When the season was all said and done, Stokes finished with averages of 9.6 points and 7.4 boards, helping the Vols to a second-place finish in the SEC while he was supposed to be helping plan a senior prank. What happens when he has a full offseason of work within the program and begins the season with the team?

Do any other freshmen even matter? I'm not talking about just the SEC, either. I'm talking about nationally. The irony, however, is that this year's group probably won't end up being as good as the team that won the national title last season and almost certainly won't be as good as the group that Coach Cal will have coming in for the 2013-14 season. But that doesn't mean Kentucky doesn't have a slew of future first-round picks entering this season. Nerlens Noel isn't Anthony Davis, but the defensive presence he provides will make him a force this season, especially when he teams up with Willie Cauley-Stein up front. Alex Poythress has added some muscle to his frame and is expected to have a huge season for the 'Cats. Archie Goodwin is one of the most aggressive wing-scorers in the class. Big Blue Nation will have plenty to cheer for.

That's how many road wins Mike Anderson has in conference play in his last two seasons as a head coach. In 2010-11, as the head coach of Missouri, Anderson went just 1-7 away from home in Big 12 play. That one win came over an Iowa State team that went 3-13 that year. This past season at Arkansas, Anderson was once again 1-7 on the road in league play, with his only SEC win away from Fayetteville coming against Auburn, who was 4-12 in the SEC. Arkansas has always been a team that plays much better in the not-so-friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena. The Razorbacks have a chance to make some noise this year, but they'll have to win some road games if they want to avoid being a .500 team again.

There may not be a more anticipated game this season. Let's ignore, for a second, the fact that these two in-state programs make up the most-heated rivalry in the country. Let's also ignore the fact that there is absolutely no love-lost between Rick Pitino and John Calipari or that Kentucky is coming off of a sweep of Louisville from last season, including a game in the Final Four. These are two of the top three teams in the country. And they hate each other. It will be awesome.

It's a really bad sign for a head coach when the three things that stick out the most about his tenure at a school are off-the-court incidents. For Kennedy, that's the case. There was the time that Kennedy got in a fight with a cab-driver in Cincinnati, there was the time that his leading scorer was busted for pot when he opened the door for the pizza delivery guy, and there was the time his McDonald's All-American walked off the court of a game with serious tournament implications during warmups and watched from the stands.

The top two teams in the SEC -- Kentucky and Missouri -- are legitimate Final Four contenders. The next two teams -- Tennessee and Florida -- should be NCAA tournament teams this season. Everyone else? Well, it's tough to tell. Can Arkansas figure out a way to win on the road? Will Alabama keep their best players on the court for the duration of the season? How good is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? Will LSU improve under Johnny Jones? A four-bid SEC is a very real possibility.

1. Kentucky: This will get said a thousand times over from now until the Wildcats tip-off against Maryland on Nov. 9 at the Barclays Center, but this is not the same group that cut down the nets in New Orleans just over six months ago? Can they get there again? No question. Nerlens Noel is just as much of a defensive presence as Anthony Davis was a year ago, and he'll have another big, tall, athletic center playing along side him in the form of Willie Cauley-Stein. Alex Poythress has transformed his body and turned himself into a powerful and athletic forward that has drawn rave reviews from those that have seen him play early on this season. Archie Goodwin is a future lottery pick on the wing, and when those four share the floor with Ryan Harrow, the Wildcats are going to be a very, very difficult team to score against. Their issues are going to come on the offensive end of the floor. Will Cauley-Stein and Noel be able to play together? How can Kyle Wiltjer fit in with this group if he's a liability defensively? Will anyone step up as a shooter in the backcourt rotation? Can Harrow accept the fact that he may be Kentucky's point guard but that he's not Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans or John Wall? Coach Cal has a knack for being able to work these kind of issues out, but he'll have his work cut out for him this season.

2. Missouri: I think that the Tigers are being criminally undervalued heading into the season. They have one of the best backcourts in the country in Phil Pressey and Mike Dixon, one that can score (Dixon), create (Pressey) and wreak havoc defensively (both). Frank Haith has a number of versatile options at the wing and power forward spots -- Keion Bell and Jabari Brown can score, Laurence Bowers is the best athlete and defender, and Earnest Ross is the more physical, blue-collar workhorse -- and the addition of UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi's defensive presence in the middle brings it all together. Missouri's strength will be on the defensive end of the floor this year, but that doesn't mean they'll struggle offensively. The key will be how Haith brings together a group that's made up of four transfers, two returners from last season and one guy coming off of ACL surgery.

3. Tennessee: The rugged physicality that Cuonzo Martin learned playing under Gene Keady at Purdue has rubbed off on his Tennessee team, and it's going to be quite effective this season. It starts up front for the Vols, where they'll have arguably the 'burliest' frontline in the country with Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes manning the paint. Trae Golden is one of the better point guards in the SEC, but he needs to cut down on his turnovers, something that should come naturally if Stokes has the kind of breakout season offensively he's expected to. The issue for Tennessee is going to be on the wings. Can Jordan McRae, Skylar McBee and company provide enough of a scoring punch -- and shoot consistently enough from beyond the arc -- to keep the floor spread and create space in the lane for Golden, Maymon and Stokes?

SI Recommends

4. Florida: I want to like what the Gators bring to the table this season, but I'm simply not convinced that Billy Donovan's club will be able to effectively replace Erving Walker and Bradley Beal. It's important to note that both Kenny Boynton and Patric Young made significant strides last season, but if the Gators are to compete for the SEC title, both players are going to have to continue to improve this season. Young is an athletic freak, but he's still learning how to turn his wrestler's physique and leaping ability into on-court production. Boynton became a more efficient scorer as a junior, proving that he can be a consistently knock down jumpers from the perimeter, but he'll acquire more of the playmaking load this year especially if he wants to prove to NBA scouts he's more than just an undersized shooter. Mike Rosario is going to have to have a big year handling the ball for the Gators, because I'm simply not sold on Scottie Wilbekin being anything more than a possession point guard, as will power forward Erik Murphy. It should be noted that energy-guy Will Yeguete should be healthy after breaking his foot last season.

5. Arkansas: There is a real reason to be excited in Fayetteville this season, as the Hogs look like they have a team talented enough to make a run at the NCAA tournament. It starts with BJ Young who, presumably, will be starting this season after leading the Razorbacks in scoring a year ago. In addition to Young's return, Marshawn Powell will be back after tearing his ACL just two games into his junior season. Powell was a revelation as a freshman, but has dealt with injuries the past two seasons. In total, the Razorbacks return four of their top five scorers from a season ago -- and that's before you factor in Powell -- all of whom were either freshmen or sophomores. Add in another talented recruiting class this season, and it's obvious why there is hype surrounding this program. The problem? Road wins. If Arkansas can't win games away from home, they're going to forever be a middle-of-the-pack team.

6. Alabama: Last year, a season that started out so promising for the Crimson Tide, ended in disaster as it seemed like Anthony Grant was suspending key pieces on a weekly basis. Despite losing Tony Mitchell for the season and a number of other key players for a handful of games, Grant was able to lead that group to the NCAA tournament -- they lost in the opening round. This year's club will look very different. The Tide will have a solid group in their backcourt, with point guard Trevor Releford being flanked by Trevor Lacey and Levi Randolph. But if Grant's team is going to make a run back to the NCAA tournament, they are going to need a Herculean performance out of highly-touted freshman Devonta Pollard and sophomore Nick Jacobs in the paint.

7. Texas A&M: I want to be the first one on record saying this: No way does Texas A&M struggle as much as it did last season. Khris Middleton and David Loubeau may be gone, but the core of this team returns with a year's worth of experience with Billy Kennedy under its belt, which is even more significant given the health issues that Kennedy was dealing with last fall. Ray Turner and Kourtney Roberson are both healthy heading into the season, giving the Aggies one of the better frontlines in the SEC. Elston Turner, last season's leading scorer, is back to anchor the backcourt, as is the uber-athletic Jordan Green. They'll be joined on the wings by freshmen Alex Caruso and Shawn Smith, but the key for this group may end up being J-Mychal Reese, a top 75 point guard recruit from Texas who will slide into the starting role right away.

8. Ole Miss: The Rebels could end up being the sleeper in the SEC this season. Dundrecous Nelson and Jelan Kendrick are both gone, but both may actually be addition by subtraction. Outside of that, the only player that Andy Kennedy loses from his rotation is senior Terrance Henry. Murphy Holloway, Reginald Buckner and Demarco Cox provide an experienced and big frontline. Anthony Perez and Martavious Newby will provide some pop on the perimeter to a group that already includes Jarvis Summers, Ladarius White and Nick Williams. And don't forget about Marshall Henderson, who spent last season as one of the best JuCo players in the country. If everything comes together for this group, an NCAA tournament trip isn't out of the question.

9. Vanderbilt: Last year was the year for Vandy to actually make some noise in the postseason. Kevin Stallings had a veteran group on his hands, one that had three NBA prospects on it. The problem? Five of his top six scorers were seniors, and the one that wasn't left school for the NBA. What that leaves is a team that returns just three players from last season's rotation, none of who played more than 15 minutes per game and who averaged a combined 7.2 points. The good news is that those three players -- guards Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson and forward Rod Odom -- were probably good enough that they could have been more productive had more playing time been available. The bad news? They weren't good enough to force Kevin Stallings to make playing time available. It may be a while before Vandy is relevant again.

10. Georgia: How good is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? That's the biggest question that needs to be answered when talking about this Georgia team. He was a top 15 recruit coming out of high school and played like one of the best freshman in the country last season despite being forced out of his natural shooting guard spot. Mark Fox also brings back three other players -- forwards Marcus Thornton, Donte' Williams and Nemanja Djurisic -- who averaged more than 20 minutes last season, but unless Caldwell-Pope can play his way into being an all-american, it's unlikely that the Bulldogs will come close to deserving the votes they were given in the preseason coaches poll. The other issue Fox has? The point guard spot. Who will be playing it? Freshman Charles Mann? Senior Vincent Williams? Hopefully, he figures that out quickly.

11. LSU: New Tiger head coach Johnny Jones has a solid core to build around. Top 50 big man Johnny O'Bryant didn't turn out to be a one-and-done prospect like he wanted to be, but he did manage to put together a respectable freshman campaign. O'Bryant wasn't even the most impressive freshman on the roster, however, as diminutive point guard Anthony Hickey was a revelation on both sides of the ball. With Andre Stringer back for his junior season and Memphis-transfer Charles Carmouche immediately eligible, Jones has enough on his roster to avoid being embarrassed this season. What must be frustrating, however, is that if Ralston Turner hadn't transferred to NC State and Justin Hamilton hadn't gone pro, we might be talking about LSU as a potential bubble team. Seriously.

12. Auburn: Now in his third season with the Tigers, head coach Tony Barbee should be beginning to see his influence on the program. Unfortunately for him, the Tigers are still bad. Coming off of a season in which they once again finished below .500, Barbee loses his best player (Kenny Gabriel) at the same time that his third-leading scorer (Varez Ward) gets caught up in a point-shaving scandal. Frankie Sullivan is back to lead the way, and Chris Denson, Noel Johnson and Rob Chubb are all upperclassmen that have paid their dues at the collegiate level, but there's nothing on this roster that suggest the Tigers will be competitive, even as a bubble team. Barbee does bring in a good recruiting class, however, highlighted by Shaquille Johnson, who is worth watching just in case he does something like this.

13. South Carolina: The good news for the Gamecocks? They hired Frank Martin, which means that, at some point down the road, the South Carolina basketball program will start winning more games than it loses. And based on the way that Martin has started off his tenure on the recruiting trail, that date may come sooner rather than later. The bad news? It's certainly not going to be starting this season. South Carolina lost three of its top four scorers from last season, with lone returnee Bruce Ellington, who is as much a football player as he is a basketball player these days. LaShay Page, a Southern Miss transfer, should provide an immediate boost and Damien Leonard did some promising things as a freshman, but all in all, it will be a long season down in Columbia.

14. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs are in all kinds of trouble this year. We'll start with the obvious, first: Everyone who was any good off of last year's talented-but-disappointing roster is gone. Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney went pro. Dee Bost graduated. Rodney Hood transferred to Duke, and Deville Smith left school. Head coach Rick Stansbury is gone as well, with Rick Ray taking over for him. And my, does Ray have a work in progress on his hands. Not only did starting point guard Jacoby Davis tear an ACL, but freshman guard Fred Thomas needed surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot. Jalen Steele and Wendell Lewis are the only two players on the roster that have seen major minutes at the SEC level. That's not a good sign, even for a top heavy league.