The sounds of shoulder pads colliding at camp and spirited discussions about who deserves to crack the two-deep should signal that not only is it August in SEC country, but also that basketball season is right around the corner.
It will be fall soon enough, but change is already in the air. Bruce Pearl is long gone. The East-West divisional alignment for basketball is no more. Brandon Knight and Tobias Harris are one-and-done.
What’s left is a league with a couple of teams looking to make runs to the Final Four and some others looking to make a leap. As new Arkansas coach Mike Anderson has described it, the SEC has “kind of been in transition.”
Here’s a quick peek ...
The greater good: Alabama won the SEC West by three games last season and did not receive an NCAA tournament bid, while five teams from the East (Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgia and Tennessee) got the nod.
The imbalance was recognized, and in an effort to correct it so conceivably more teams could go dancing, the coaches decided to do away with divisions going forward. The SEC tournament should be more fairly seeded. The 16-game schedule remains, but in the future the league could go to 18 games or -- in an unlikely scenario -- 22 games to make it a true round-robin.
But does that mean more teams will be in line for bids right away? It’s unclear. Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida are looking to go deep in the NCAA tournament. Georgia and Tennessee lose key players. Alabama and Mississippi State return them and will be in contention. Ole Miss, Arkansas, South Carolina, Auburn and LSU hope the additions of notable talent can make a difference.
Recruiting bonanza: The SEC welcomes the arrival of 13 of ESPNU’s top 50 recruits from the Class of 2011, including seven McDonald’s All-Americans. There are 18 top 100 recruits who will benefit nine of the conference’s teams. (Tennessee would have made it 10, but two Pearl-era signees are headed elsewhere).
All eyes will be on John Calipari’s haul of top-ranked Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer as they’ll help form one of the top teams in the nation going into the preseason. The other McDonald’s All-Americans -- Florida’s Brad Beal, Georgia’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant -- are in position to make an impact as well.
And don’t forget some of the transfers the league has brought in, headlined by the arrival of former McDonald’s All-American guard Jelan Kendrick, who should be eligible in December at Ole Miss after being dismissed from Memphis. Florida’s Mike Rosario (from Rutgers) should help bolster a veteran backcourt. Mississippi State’s frontcourt becomes even more imposing with 6-foot-11 Arnett Moultrie (from UTEP) becoming eligible. Auburn added transfers Varez Ward from Texas and Noel Johnson from Clemson.
Comeback kids: The other big reason there is a considerable amount of buzz about the SEC is that many top players chose not to turn pro.
Kentucky’s Terrence Jones could very well have been a lottery pick but withdrew his name from the draft and is a big reason the Wildcats are in position for a return trip to the Final Four. His versatility at 6-foot-9 allows Calipari to easily stick the 6-foot-10 Davis alongside him to create an imposing frontline.
Wildcats guard Doron Lamb didn’t test the waters, and Calipari is now telling Andy Katz the second-leading returning scorer is the team’s “best basketball player” and ready for a breakout year.
Vanderbilt got a huge lift after top scorers John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli made a joint announcement they would return to school, citing unfinished business coming off a second straight opening-round upset loss in the NCAA tournament.
Mississippi State didn’t lose potential pros in Renardo Sidney and Dee Bost, with Sidney making a curious decision to train in Houston rather than accompany the team to its preseason tour of Europe. Alabama’s JaMychal Green decided to stay, and the 6-foot-8 forward should gain momentum heading into the season after playing in the World University Games for Team USA.
The SEC did take some hits. Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, Georgia’s top two scorers, skipped their senior seasons and were selected in the NBA draft. Scotty Hopson, Tennessee's leading scorer, skipped his senior season and went undrafted.
Kentucky lost Knight and DeAndre Liggins, while Jon Hood could be lost for the season due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Alabama’s Andrew Steele had his career ended due to injuries. Auburn’s top scorer and rebounder, Earnest Ross, transferred. South Carolina’s top scorer, Bruce Ellington, won’t be on the court until midseason because he decided to add football to his plate, while would-be second-leading returning scorer Ramon Galloway transferred.
But for every loss, there comes opportunity. UGA has starting senior guards Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware returning. South Carolina adds top 100 recruits Anthony Gill and Damien Leonard. Florida might have graduated its entire starting frontcourt of Vernon Macklin, SEC Player of the Year Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus, but that just means rising 6-foot-9 sophomore Patric Young gets a chance to shine. “They’ve done the best they could to prepare me for the next season, and it’s my turn to step up and do whatever I can to help our team and take on whatever role and whatever Coach [Billy] Donovan asks me to do,” said Young, who played well for USA’s Under-19 team in the world championships.
New coaches: With Tennessee firing Pearl for lying to NCAA investigators, the school hired Cuonzo Martin after he led Missouri State to its first-ever regular-season title in the Missouri Valley.
At least early on, it could be difficult for Martin. Harris and Hopson turned pro while top 100 recruit Kevin Ware ended up signing with Louisville and Chris Jones took the JC route. But Cameron Tatum and Skylar McBee are back, and Jordan McRae is expected to make a more positive impact after having his freshman season marred by a suspension.
At Arkansas, Mike Anderson returns to the place where he won a national championship as a Razorbacks assistant under Nolan Richardson. The glory days of 40 minutes of hell won’t immediately return, but Anderson arriving from Missouri to take over after the firing of John Pelphrey is a start. Anderson managed to retain a recruiting class that includes Pelphrey signees B.J. Young, Ky Madden and Hunter Mickelson -- who are all are top 100 recruits. That should get the Razorbacks on the right track even as top scorer Rotnei Clarke was among those who transferred.
Anderson said he thinks the SEC as a whole is getting better and better.
“The years I was involved with it, it was one of the better leagues in the country,” Anderson said in June. “I think it will get back to that level. Why I say that is because it’s been a league that’s kind of been in transition.
“You’ve got a lot of young coaches. When you look at the guys who’ve been here the longest, you’re talking about Rick Stansbury and I think Billy Donovan. You’ve had a lot of turnover. Once you get stability, then I think your league really takes off.”
Tough tests: While going to one division might help teams get to the NCAA tournament, it’s how teams perform in nonconference games that should tell the tale. Here are some games to keep an eye on:
Kentucky vs. Kansas, Nov. 15: The first Champions Classic presents an opportunity for Kentucky’s freshmen to have a coming out party at Madison Square Garden against a Kansas team that also lost three players to the NBA draft.
Florida at Ohio State, Nov. 15: Florida has an experienced backcourt with Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, but does it have what it takes to stop big man Jared Sullinger, a National Player of the Year candidate?
Mississippi State vs. Texas A&M, Nov. 17: Sidney gets a chance in the 2K Sports Classic to show his summer spent in Houston paid off in a test against the fabulous frontcourt of Khris Middleton and David Loubeau. The Bulldogs will then face either Arizona or St. John’s at Madison Square Garden.
Georgia vs. Cal, Nov. 21: It’s an early opportunity at the CBE Classic to pick up a win against a top Pac-12 team on a neutral floor in Kansas City before taking on either Missouri or Notre Dame.
Tennessee vs. Duke, Nov. 21: The Volunteers get a difficult draw in the opening round of the Maui Invitational, but it also presents an opportunity get on the national radar for something other than a Pearl-era scandal. They'll face either Michigan or Memphis in the second round of a brutally tough tourney.
Big East/SEC Challenge, Dec. 1-3: The new-and-improved event is coming to school sites and provides many interesting matchups. Florida at Syracuse is the headliner, while Vanderbilt at Louisville should be a good one involving top teams. Arkansas gets a shot against defending national champion Connecticut; St. John’s at Kentucky is a showcase for many of the nation’s top freshmen; and Georgetown at Alabama has a nice ring to it.
North Carolina at Kentucky, Dec. 3: Mark your calendars for when the nation’s top two teams from the preseason collide in a game between big-name coaches and future NBA draft picks. The Tar Heels might be more experienced, but the Wildcats have the benefit of playing in Lexington with the Big Blue Nation behind them.
Louisville at Kentucky, Dec. 31: The last time these bitter rivals played in Rupp Arena, three technical fouls were issued in the first 45 seconds of the game. The winner gets to ring in the new year with bragging rights.