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Friday, August 28, 2009
Updated: August 31, 9:08 AM ET
SEC ShootAround: Cal's Cats on the prowl with eyes on the SEC … and Indy

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AP Photo/Ed Reinke

In a short time, John Calipari has put the pieces in place to make Kentucky a national contender again.

10 Things To Know From The Offseason

1. Spring Cleaning: What John Calipari did once he landed the Kentucky job with his spring recruiting haul might be unmatched. He pulled together perhaps the best spring batch of recruits ever assembled. Getting John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Darnell Dodson and Eric Bledsoe in the late period just doesn't happen. Of course, Calipari had connections to them while head coach at Memphis, but to orchestrate an entirely new team is quite remarkable.

John Wall

Chris Williams/Icon SMI

John Wall is the crown jewel in John Calipari's impressive recruiting class.

2. Return Of The Pat: Even with the No. 1 recruiting class, Kentucky still needed to keep at least one of its two key players -- Patrick Patterson or Jodie Meeks -- from last season. Getting Patterson to put off the NBA draft for at least one more year was more important because of his ability to dominate in the post. Meeks, despite his prolific scoring, was still more replaceable than Patterson. The Wildcats needed an anchor to board and finish and the rising junior can deliver on both counts.

3. Memphis Vacation: The fact that the NCAA vacated Memphis' Final Four appearance and NCAA-record 38 wins doesn't concern Kentucky directly, but it still has an effect on UK coach John Calipari. He won't let it bother him but the stain is still there as the appeals process unfolds during the season. That means there will continue to be chatter about Calipari's past, even if he isn't directly named, while he embarks on what could be a special season in Lexington.

4. Fearsome Frontcourt: Renardo Sidney was cleared to be admitted academically to Mississippi State (center John Riek was also cleared to play, even though he will have to miss the first nine games). But the case of Sidney's amateur status could drag on for quite some time. The Bulldogs are the favorite to win the SEC West with or without Sidney. But he clearly makes them better with his ability to rebound and ease the burden on Jarvis Varnado, who returned from the NBA draft pool and contributed on the defensive end at the World University Games. He then opted to be a nonscholarship player for the Bulldogs so they could fill the 13 scholarships.

5. Favorable Decision: This was the one conference which benefited the most from players returning to school with Patterson (UK), Tyler Smith (Tennessee), Tasmin Mitchell (LSU), Michael Washington (Arkansas) and Dominique Archie and Devan Downey (South Carolina) all forgoing the draft.

The rep of the league was down, as it would have had only two teams going to the NCAAs last season had Mississippi State not won the conference tournament. But all that should change this season. There is top-seed potential again in Kentucky, and at least four others in the SEC East that could make the tournament and possibly four more from the SEC West. Of course, nine schools will almost certainly not make the Dance, but getting quality players back means the SEC has star power at nearly every school.

6. Euro Trip: Florida's Nick Calathes' Greek passport meant he had the opportunity to be a European player and he opted for a lucrative deal overseas instead of taking chances to see what would happen in the NBA draft. Had Calathes returned, the Gators would be a lock for the Top 25 and a threat to win the SEC East. Instead, the burden of playing the point will fall to returning guard Erving Walker and incoming freshman Kenny Boynton Jr. The versatility of Calathes as a player with point-forward skills will be missed. The Gators will go with more of a traditional smaller lead guard. That doesn't mean they'll fall short of the NCAAs, but the chore got tougher.

7. It's On Me, Guys: Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings wanted to ensure his team had a quality experience during an offseason trip to Australia. He didn't want the Commodores to miss out on the bonding that would occur, the games that would be played and the promise he made to take the squad on a foreign trip. Once the school couldn't find the funds, Stallings stepped up and paid the estimated $100,000 out of his overall salary (bonuses). The move was one of the more genuine ones made in a college hoops offseason that's been dominated by NCAA rule-breaking and poor and unethical behavior by coaches.

8. Gold Standard: Terrico White of Ole Miss converted a pair of key 3s during the medal round for the American under-19 team at the world championships en route to the gold medal in New Zealand. White was a replacement guard once Chris Warren went down in early December with an ACL injury. But no one is going to take White's spot now. He's one of the more electrifying lead guards in the league. He flirted with declaring for the NBA draft, but decided against it hours before the deadline. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy couldn't be more pleased with his potential and hopes White unveils it this season.

9. Thanks, But No Thanks: Tennessee has plenty of guards and talent hasn't been a major issue, so Josh Selby's decommitment wasn't a huge blow. But the national publicity over it brought the issue to the forefront. Players have decommitted for years, but the manner in which this was made so public after an appearance at an earlier summer evaluation event turned it into a major discussion point for coaches. The decommitment took some of the attention away from the accomplishment of Bruce Pearl winning gold for the U.S. at the Maccabiah Games in Israel. Pearl said winning the event was a highlight in his career, especially considering the Americans had to beat the host Israelis.

10. Summer School: New Georgia coach Mark Fox needed some good news this summer, especially as he prepares to navigate a loaded SEC East this season. Seeing Trey Thompkins flourish on the U.S. under-19 gold-medal team should give him plenty of confidence in feeding the rising soph early and often in Athens. Thompkins gives everyone a reason to watch the Bulldogs.

10 Key Players

Eric Bledsoe, Kentucky: The focus is on John Wall and with good reason. But how Bledsoe handles his role will be a major factor in the success of the Wildcats. He would be a starting lead guard on most teams, but will have to share the role and at times back up Wall when John Calipari goes with one lead guard. Calipari implored Wall and Bledsoe to play together throughout the summer to experiment with that lineup. The more Bledsoe can adapt to sharing, the better off the Wildcats will be going forward.

Eric Bledsoe

AJ Mast/Icon SMI

John Wall grabs the headlines, but Eric Bledsoe will be a pivotal piece of Kentucky's backcourt this season.

Dee Bost, Mississippi State: Coach Rick Stansbury doesn't hesitate talking up Bost. He touted him over the summer as one of the top guards in the SEC. The freshman averaged 10.9 points, 4.3 assists and 2.8 turnovers a game last season. He made 71.8 percent of his free throws. If those numbers can be duplicated on a more experienced and talented team, the Bulldogs should be primed for a potential SEC West title.

Chris Warren, Ole Miss: Warren was one of the top freshmen in the SEC in 2008 and expected to have a banner sophomore season -- until an early-season ACL injury shelved him for the rest of the campaign. He was averaging 19.6 points before he went down. The question is whether Warren still has that ability to get by someone to the hoop. If he can, the Rebels should be a force in the West. They'll have the top backcourt on that side of the league.

Courtney Fortson, Arkansas: Fortson was one of the more enigmatic freshmen last season. When he was on, he was on. When he was off, it was a train wreck all around. Fortson's talent isn't a question. How much he's committed to listening is the issue for the Arkansas coaching staff. Fortson has the potential to be an All-SEC player if he focuses on his game.

Jermaine Beal, Vanderbilt: The Commodores have one of the more experienced teams in the league. A lot of that has to do with the play of Beal on the perimeter. He saw his scoring jump from seven to 12 points last season, but he must watch his assist-to-turnover ratio. It went from 158-51 as a sophomore to 99-49 as a junior. If he manages possessions better, the Dores can be a threat in the SEC East.

Scotty Hopson, Tennessee: Hopson was a highly touted recruit who just needed to get into a groove with the Vols. He went through the usual growing pains of being a college freshman. But the school reports he has added 15 pounds of muscle and is showing more balance in his game while playing this summer. He has also lowered the arc on his 3-point shot and made himself into one of the better offensive threats for the Vols.

Bo Spencer, LSU: Spencer averaged 11.4 points a game last season, but he didn't have to do much more than that with Marcus Thornton tossing up 21.1 points a game. But with Thornton gone the onus is on Spencer to produce even more. If he continues to be a scoring guard and plays well as a one-two punch with Tasmin Mitchell then the Tigers should be a pest in the SEC West.

Vernon Macklin, Florida: Macklin was a hyped newcomer for Georgetown but he never could find his footing with a glut of forwards. His transfer to Florida couldn't have come at a better time. The Gators need Macklin to be a force. He has the experience and the knowledge of the game to help a team that needs leadership. But coach Billy Donovan isn't putting too much on his shoulders. He has already said he isn't banking on Macklin being a double-double performer.

JaMychal Green, Alabama: Green was a double-digit scorer (10.3 ppg) as a freshman. He, like every other Tide player, had to deal with a tumultuous season as Mark Gottfried was forced out during the SEC season. Phillip Pearson did a solid job as an interim coach and now new coach Anthony Grant has taken over. Green is the type of anchor inside Grant needs to flourish. He has the skill set to be a 15-and-10 type performer. If Green can deliver early and often, the Tide could surprise.

Lakeem Jackson, South Carolina: The Gamecocks need an infusion of scoring out of their freshman class. They may get it with Jackson, a 6-4 small forward out of Charlotte, N.C. He was billed by our Scouts Inc. crew as a strong, physical wing who is an attacker. If he's as aggressive as the report states, the Gamecocks should have that third option they need on a more consistent basis.

10 Freshmen We Can't Wait To See

Kenny Boynton, Jr.

Doug Murray/Icon SMI

Nick Calathes' absence means Kenny Boynton Jr. will assume more offensive responsibility for Florida.

Tony Mitchell, Alabama: Mitchell has great size and bounce. He finishes above the rim on the break and is at his best when using his length and slashing to the rim. Mitchell provides first-year Tide coach Anthony Grant with an athletic wing who can make plays on both ends of the floor.

Marshawn Powell, Arkansas: This versatile forward can score inside and out. Powell uses his strength and energy to provide consistent production. Powell has range to the arc with time and space and can score through contact with ease. He is a good area rebounder on both ends as well.

John Wall, Kentucky: Wall was the talk of the late signing period. This super athletic guard has great size with matching speed and quickness with the ball. He is an above-the-rim finisher in transition and can get into the lane at will, where he can put the ball on the money to open teammates with flair. It will be interesting to see if he can handle the heat of being the point guard of the Big Blue.

Ty Armstrong, Auburn: Jeff Lebo will love Armstrong's energy. He runs the floor like a deer and is a tireless rebounder and very good shot blocker. His back-to-the-basket post moves are still under construction, although he has shown good touch on his jump hook.

Kenny Boynton Jr., Florida: Boynton is a very confident scorer with deep 3-point range. He attacks the rim off the dribble or hits the midrange jumper when he can't get all the way to the rim. Boynton plays with swagger and don't be surprised if he puts up big numbers right away.

DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky: Cousins can score inside with power and touch and out with shooting range to the arc, where he can hit pick-and-pop or trial jumpers with ease. He rebounds at rim level on both ends and is an excellent passer in or out of the post as well. The keys for Cousins are playing with urgency on a consistent basis and body maintenance.

Renardo Sidney, Mississippi State: Sidney can pass, dribble and knock down perimeter jumpers like a small forward. He has good touch around the basket but must add to his power game and not settle for jumpers. He is a decent area rebounder but his size and skill put him at an elite level. When motivated, Sidney can have some unstoppable stretches in games.

Lakeem Jackson, South Carolina: Jackson is in full attack mode as soon as he steps onto the floor. This ambidextrous wing is a power driver who can finish through contact and is a good ball handler and passer. Jackson is also an aggressive rebounder on both ends. His energy and effort should earn him playing time right away.

Kenny Hall, Tennessee: Hall is an extra long and athletic forward who scores inside with jump hooks and can step out and hit a few 3s as well. He is a rebounding machine because of length and the effort that he uses to pursue the ball. Hall has great upside and could surprise with his production.

John Jenkins, Vanderbilt: This true shooting guard knocks down 3s and is underrated taking the ball to the basket. Jenkins thinks score on every catch, and with his ability to light up the scoreboard, should be an asset right away in the Vandy spread offense.

10 Nonconference Games We Can't Wait To See

Vanderbilt vs. Cincinnati, Nov. 23 (Maui Invitational): This is one of the better opening-round games of any early-season tournament. The Bearcats offer up the national TV debut of Lance Stephenson and are an upstart Big East team. Vandy needs to get off to a roaring start to prove it can be a player in the SEC East. Advancing deeper in the Maui Invitational would suffice.

Jarvis Varnado

AP Photo/Kristen Hines

Jarvis Varnado and Mississippi State will be expected to beat UCLA when the Bulldogs travel to the West Coast.

Florida vs. Michigan State, Nov. 27 (Legends Classic): The Gators have struggled to stand out in nonconference play the past two seasons. That's part of the reason Florida has missed the NCAA tournament each year. Getting Michigan State in Atlantic City is a key early opportunity for the Gators to improve the résumé. These type wins do have legs in March.

North Carolina at Kentucky, Dec. 5: The Carolina game precedes the Louisville showdown by a month and will give the Wildcats even more of a test. UNC's athleticism and length inside will challenge Kentucky's young Cats maybe more than any other game this season.

South Carolina at Clemson, Dec. 6: While the Gamecocks were a win or two away from the NCAA tournament last season, Clemson continues to be the more consistent program in the state. So not only for in-state perception against their archrivals, but more so for a chance to get into the NCAAs, this is the type of nonconference game the Gamecocks need to win.

Florida vs. Syracuse, Dec. 10 (SEC-Big East Invitational): A couple of weeks after playing Sparty, the Gators continue the neutral-site trend by playing Syracuse in Tampa. The importance of winning this game will depend on what happens with Michigan State. If Florida can knock off MSU and Syracuse, only a face-plant in the SEC East would prevent a bid to the Dance.

Mississippi State vs. UCLA, Dec. 12 (Wooden Classic): Under normal circumstances, the Bulldogs shouldn't be expected to go across the country to Anaheim and win this game. But Mississippi State should be the higher-ranked, deeper and tougher-to-score-on team than the Bruins. If the Bulldogs lose against a rebuilding UCLA it might raise more questions about the mental strength of Mississippi State going forward.

Ole Miss at West Virginia, Dec. 23: The Rebels will have the advantage in guard play on the Mountaineers, but not on the wings. Defending Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks will be a chore for the Rebs. If they can figure that out and win a game like this, Ole Miss will have a notch on its résumé that will have plenty of life in March.

Louisville at Kentucky, Jan. 2: The drama for this game continues to build with each day, considering the bizarre behavior going on in Louisville, the unknown of the date for the extortion trial of the woman who had the affair with coach Rick Pitino, and the likelihood that Kentucky by Jan. 2 will be either No. 1 or No. 2 in the country. CBS was smart to put this game on an NFL Sunday because it has the potential to have a playoff atmosphere from the opening tip.

Texas at Arkansas, Jan. 5: The Razorbacks get Texas at Bud Walton Arena for the second year in a row. A season ago, the win was one of the best for the Hogs. Coupled with the victory over Oklahoma, Arkansas looked like it might make a run for an NCAA tourney bid. But Arkansas flopped in the SEC, winning just two games and making the wins over Texas and Oklahoma meaningless. Arkansas gets another shot with a more experienced team to make a win like this matter.

Kansas at Tennessee, Jan. 10: The Vols will catch Kansas after it has already played top-20 teams Michigan and Cal, not to mention Memphis in St. Louis, UCLA in Westwood, Temple in Philly and upstart La Salle in Kansas City. That could be good news for what might be a worn-down squad. Tennessee could really use an elite win like this as a springboard into the rugged SEC East.

A Quick Look Around The League

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

SEC
AlabamaAlabama
New coach Anthony Grant is a winner. He has been his entire career. Bringing in strength coach Andy Weigel was a key move to improve the basketball-specific conditioning. Alabama will need to figure out its identity early in the season, especially at the winnable Old Spice Classic in Orlando. Grant will focus on ensuring this is a defensive-minded team. He was successful in making VCU into a stingy bunch during his tenure.

ArkansasArkansas
There really are no excuses for this squad. The talent is all in place for the Hogs to be a threat in the SEC West. Michael Washington is an All-SEC player. So, too, is Courtney Fortson at the point. Rotnei Clarke is one of the better 3-point shooters (39.3 percent) in the league. The addition of newcomers Marshawn Powell, Delvon Johnson and Glenn Bryant gives Arkansas the size inside that it lacked a season ago. Like Georgia Tech, which also won only two conference games in 2009, the Hogs have a real shot at a major upswing.

AuburnAuburn
The Tigers were the surprise team in the SEC last season with a 10-6 record and a 24-12 finish overall. But they were built for last season. The issue for Auburn this time will be whether JC transfer Kenny Gabriel and incoming freshmen Andre Malone and Earnest Ross can deliver early and often. And if Tay Waller can be an offensive force, the team might not suffer much of a drop-off. The SEC is significantly better now, meaning this isn't the year for a rebuilding team. At least the nonconference schedule isn't daunting, with winnable games against NC State and Virginia before a more challenging one against Florida State.

FloridaFlorida
The strangest thing that happened to the Gators was the transfer and then the return of Alex Tyus. The Gators got their second-leading scorer back from last season -- a must for a team that needs to have experience up front. When Kenny Boynton got cut from the under-19 team heading to New Zealand, it humbled him for the first time in his basketball career. Getting an edge for Boynton should help the Gators flourish early. This is a team that has quality parts, but still needs the fall to find its identity and eventually return to the Big Dance after back-to-back NIT appearances.

GeorgiaGeorgia
Dennis Felton gave the Bulldogs credibility after Jim Harrick torched the place with an NCAA investigation. But the wins were still hard to find consistently, so he was canned. Mark Fox was one of the more surprising hires in the offseason. Fox had been a Big 12 assistant and then created his own coaching identity at Nevada after following his mentor Trent Johnson. Fox has a tougher job because of the division's current state. Having Trey Thompkins back is big, but rising sophomore Dustin Ware is also receiving plenty of praise for his improved play over the summer.

KentuckyKentucky
The talent level isn't in question. John Calipari has as much if not more than any other team in the country, including top-ranked Kansas. But the issue will be how he is able to massage egos, manage minutes and deal with plenty of inexperience and immaturity. The heavy lifting will fall on Patrick Patterson's shoulders and someone like Darius Miller will have to assume more responsibility. But the star will be John Wall. If he's as good as advertised and lives up to his hype of being the top pick in the 2010 draft, then Kentucky should be one of the favorites to get to nearby Indianapolis for the Final Four.

LSULSU
The only thing surprising about last season was the way in which the Tigers were hammered at Utah by 30 points and couldn't win a key nonconference game. LSU was the class of the SEC because of the coaching of Trent Johnson and a veteran team that was finally healthy. But the Tigers lose Marcus Thornton, Chris Johnson, Garrett Temple and Terry Martin. The rebuilding has officially begun for Johnson. At least getting Mitchell to return from the NBA draft gives him a bridge to his future classes.

Ole MissMississippi
The Rebels were one of the unluckiest teams in the country last season. Coach Andy Kennedy lost three key players with knee injuries -- Trevor Gaskins, Eniel Polynice and Chris Warren. And then over the summer Zach Graham had knee surgery. He's expected, like the other three, to return for the season. If the Rebs are healthy, they'll have the deepest, most talented perimeter outside of Kentucky in the league. Terrico White is a star on the squad and if Kennedy can deal with everyone's needs for minutes and find someone who can rebound, Ole Miss will be just fine.

Mississippi StateMississippi State
Starkville isn't exactly Las Vegas or New York, but the Bulldogs seem to generate plenty of news. The eligibility of Renardo Sidney continues to be a major story. Getting 7-2 John Riek eligible after he declared for the draft, went to Cincinnati, had knee surgery and found his way to Starkville was another story. Riek can play, but the big man will have to sit the first nine games. Jarvis Varnado, who declared for the draft, then returned, should easily become the NCAA's all-time leader in blocks. And if the rest of the role players are as good as Rick Stansbury promotes, the Bulldogs should be a top-15 team throughout the season.

South CarolinaSouth Carolina
The Gamecocks appeared to be on the verge of an NCAA berth in Darrin Horn's first season after sweeping Kentucky in the season series. But South Carolina couldn't win key games over the next two weeks. If the Gamecocks are to live up to the expectations of being a Top 25 and NCAA team, Devan Downey and Dominique Archie, who both flirted with the NBA draft, need to be All-SEC performers. Downey has a shot to be the top guard in the league not named Wall. He is a constant threat every time he's on the court. If he can continue that then the Gamecocks will remain a tough out.

TennesseeTennessee
The Vols finished a solid 10-6 in the SEC, 21-13 overall after playing one of the tougher schedules in the country. But Tennessee met its match with a similar team in Oklahoma State in the NCAA tournament. UT lost its identity as a defensive, pressing team throughout last season. If Bruce Pearl's team can reacquire that in the fall and carry it into the winter, Tennessee has a shot to be a thorn for Kentucky. The return of Tyler Smith, J.P. Prince, Scotty Hopson and Bobby Maze means the Vols have no excuses. They return at least 98 percent of every major statistical category.

VanderbiltVanderbilt
Australian center A.J. Ogilvy has beefed up to 260 pounds and is primed for an All-SEC season. He didn't play with the Australian national team this summer, the first time he's failed to do so since arriving at school. That meant he could focus solely on being at Vandy. Having Ogilvy, Jermaine Beal, Jeffery Taylor and Brad Tinsley, the top four scorers a season ago, together on the trip to Australia should be a catalyst for an NCAA-bid season. The Commodores will know if they're for real early on, with a trip to the the Maui Invitational and then games against Missouri, Illinois and Western Kentucky.

2008-09 Standings

SEC East League record Overall record
Tennessee* 10-6 21-13
South Carolina^ 10-6 21-10
Florida^ 9-7 25-11
Vanderbilt 19-12 8-8
Kentucky^ 8-8 22-14
Georgia 3-13 12-20
SEC West League record Overall record
LSU* 13-3 27-8
Auburn^ 10-6 24-12
Mississippi State* 9-7 23-13
Alabama 7-9 18-14
Ole Miss 7-9 16-15
Arkansas 2-14 14-16
* NCAA tournament
^ NIT appearance

For all the SEC news and notes, check out the conference page.

2009-10 Predictions

By Fran Fraschilla
ESPN

It's never too early for predictions. Fran Fraschilla offers up his thoughts on the upcoming season in the SEC:

SEC East

1. Kentucky: It took about four weeks for John Calipari to take a Wildcats program that was reeling and put it in a position to compete for a national championship this season. This Kentucky team is loaded and it starts with Patrick Patterson, the only player in the SEC to rank among the top five in scoring and rebounding. Freshman guard John Wall is perfectly suited for the dribble-drive motion offense. And the confidence of 6-foot-6 soph Darius Miller should skyrocket after a summer with the U.S. under-19 team. Outside shooting may be UK's Achilles' heel, but Calipari had similar issues at Memphis and he did just fine.

2. Tennessee: Five starters return for a Vols team that, quite frankly, underachieved a season ago. The really good news for Bruce Pearl is that if the defense improves and this team matures, Tennessee can make a serious run at the SEC title, because there's loads of talent on this roster. Seniors Tyler Smith and J.P. Prince are the team's heart and soul and sophomore Scotty Hopson has the ability to be one of the SEC's best players. I expect this team to hover around the top 15 all season if the team chemistry is solid.

3. Vanderbilt: Kevin Stallings' team has a great mix of youth and experience. The 6-foot-11 A.J. Ogilvy has been one of the league's most consistent players since he arrived from Australia and senior Jermaine Beal is a high I.Q. player. Sophomores Jeffrey Taylor, a high-flier, and Brad Tinsley should build on double-figure scoring seasons a year ago. Incoming freshman John Jenkins, a Tennessee high school legend, is a scoring machine. A recent trip to Australia should be a great team-builder for a club with top-25 aspirations.

4. Florida: For the third season in a row, the Gators are the league's mystery team and their coach, Billy Donovan, may feel the same way. Kenny Boynton will be one of the nation's top incoming freshmen. He can score at will and provides Florida with a swagger that it hasn't had since the '04s left town. Dan Werner still has the residue of the back-to-back NCAA championship teams, but he needs to have a big senior season. Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin also has Final Four experience and needs to make an immediate impact.

5. South Carolina: Last season, 21 wins and a 10-6 record weren't enough to get the Gamecocks into the Big Dance. Instead, a first-round loss at home to Davidson ended their season. The good news for second-year coach Darrin Horn is that he returns one of the SEC's most exciting players in 5-foot-9 senior Devan Downey, a nightmare on both ends of the court for conference opponents. Freshman Lakeem Jackson, an ESPNU top-100 recruit, is built like a tight end and plays with the same disposition.

6. Georgia: New coach Mark Fox has an uphill climb out of the SEC East basement, but like any new coach, is trying to change his team's culture. He inherits one of the SEC's best young players to build around in 6-foot-9, 247-pound sophomore Trey Tompkins, who averaged almost 13 ppg as a freshman. For a player with a huge frame, he'll have to play closer to the basket as he averaged fewer than three free throw attempts a game.

SEC West

1. Mississippi State: When the discussion begins about who is the best defender in college basketball this season, Jarvis Varnado's name will come up early in the conversation. If his offensive game were at the level of his D, he'd likely be in the NBA right now. Fortunately for Rick Stansbury, Varnado is back, along with four other starters. The X factor for the Bulldogs is the NCAA eligibility of mega-talented freshman Renardo Sidney, who would be a force inside and make the Bulldogs a co-favorite with Kentucky to win the SEC.

2. Ole Miss: A 16-15 record looks like a backward step for Ole Miss after 45 wins in Andy Kennedy's first two years as head coach. But considering the devastating season-ending injuries to three key Rebels and the coach's off-the-court distractions, things could have been worse. The silver lining that comes out of last season was the development of a future NBA player in 6-foot-5 shooting guard Terrico White, who was the SEC Rookie of the Year. If Chris Warren can return from ACL surgery, he'll re-establish himself as one of the league's best point guards.

3. Arkansas: After two surprising early-season wins over Texas and Oklahoma, expectations were raised for John Pelphrey's young team. Then everything fell apart as the Razorbacks won only two SEC games. Now all five starters return, including 6-foot-9 senior forward Michael Washington, a potential NBA first-rounder who has improved every season in Fayetteville and is a major league talent. Pelphrey's young backcourt of Courtney Fortsen and Rotnei Clark suffered through serious growing pains in its first SEC season but should be more consistent in its sophomore season.

4. Alabama: It's a new era for the Crimson Tide as rising coaching star Anthony Grant takes over. He'll get to build around 6-foot-9 JaMychal Green, who is an animal on the glass. Freshman Ben Eblen, out of Sunshine State power Air Academy High, will get a chance to win the point guard spot early because it was an area of weakness the past two seasons, in part because of the injury-prone career of Ronald Steele. Leading scorer Senario Hillman returns, but the junior will have to play with more consistency.

5. LSU: The multitalented Tasmin Mitchell has been around Baton Rouge almost as long as Mike the Tiger and will have to play with the same ferocity as always if LSU is to get even close to last season's 27-win squad. Graduation has wiped out Trent Johnson's team. Point guard Bo Spencer was a revelation a season ago and should be even better this season. Freshman Aaron Dotson, who attended Seattle's famous Rainier Beach High School, should have immediate impact at the shooting guard spot.

6. Auburn: It was a turnaround season for Auburn basketball as the Tigers came excruciatingly close to an NCAA bid. Unfortunately, like LSU, AU has lost much of its depth to graduation. Top scorer DeWayne Reed returns, as does sharpshooter Tay Waller, who connected on 100 3-pointers a season ago. Forward Lucas Hargrove had a solid freshman season and has a chance to develop into a key player for coach Jeff Lebo.

Overheard By One SEC Head Coach

"It's all about John Wall. If he's the guy then Kentucky is for real. They've got everything else."

Early-season tournament preview (Part I)

Early-season tournament preview (Part II)

Final Shots

• Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi State look to be the cream of the crop. But there are high expectations for other SEC teams as well. Here are Andy Katz's Top 25 and Dick Vitale's Top 40

• Last season, only three SEC teams made the NCAA tourney field. There's bound to be more this March, right? Summer Bracketology.

• Which early-season events are SEC teams taking part in? We have a list of the tournaments that will be scattered around the first two months of the college basketball calendar. Schedule