Here are five storylines I look forward to following in the SEC this season:
1. Can John Calipari and Kentucky’s youngsters make another deep NCAA run?
With apologies to John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and the other three first-round draft picks Kentucky sent to the NBA in 2010, this may well be coach John Calipari’s most talented team in Lexington. Given that the Wildcats advanced to the Elite Eight in 2010 and the Final Four a season ago, that’s saying something.
With a freshman class that includes versatile big man Anthony Davis and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, this team has a ton of firepower. The key may be the fifth consecutive freshman point guard to start for a Calipari-coached team, Marquis Teague, who’s got Wall-like athleticism and is a big-time distributor.
2. Can Vanderbilt shake off its first-round NCAA tournament blues?
True, the Commodores have gotten some tough draws in their frustrating string of consecutive first-round ousters (Siena, 2008; Murray State, 2010; Richmond, 2011), but there’s no question they’ve underachieved in their recent Big Dance appearances.
That figures to change this season behind a starting lineup that includes three fourth-year seniors, a fifth-year senior and a preseason All-American in John Jenkins, a junior who may be the best shooter in the country. Senior wing Jeffery Taylor has NBA talent, as does 6-foot-11 Festus Ezeli, who barely knew basketball terminology as a redshirt freshman in 2007 but has developed into a force on both ends of the floor.
And lest anyone think this is the same team that got bounced from the NCAAs by Richmond a season ago, the Commodores have been bolstered by five freshman, including guards Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson, both of whom will quickly join coach Kevin Stallings’ rotation.
3. Can Mississippi State’s Renardo Sidney play up to his potential?
We’ll spare you a recapping of Sidney’s tumultuous first season of eligibility in 2009-10 -- but suffice it to say the big man will be on a short leash this time around, in part because of the presence of 6-11 UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie, who gives the Bulldogs a consistent threat as a post defender and scorer.
If Sidney decides to get with the program, he can be as unstoppable an inside force as there is in the college game, and he’s also got face-up and passing skills. Throw in first-team preseason All-SEC point guard Dee Bost and gifted freshman Rodney Hood, and Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury has a team that could become a postseason heavyweight.
4. Can 40 Minutes of Hell work in the SEC again?
New Arkansas coach Mike Anderson doesn’t buy the coaching adage that pressing teams can’t win championships. Anderson was on the Arkansas staff in 1994 when the Hogs, behind coach Nolan Richardson’s crazed full-court pressure, defeated Duke to win the national championship.
Anderson has put 40 Minutes of Hell to good use in previous head-coaching stops at UAB, which he led to the Sweet 16 in 2004, and Missouri, which he led to the Elite Eight in 2009. But can he take the SEC by storm with it the way Richardson did when the Razorbacks joined the league in 1991?
That doesn’t seem likely, but Anderson is committed to pressing and figures to be able to recruit players to make it work.
5. Can Cuonzo Martin clean up the mess at Tennessee?
Bruce Pearl’s sudden and shocking fall from grace left the program he had built into a perennial NCAA tournament participant in a state of flux, but the Vols may not be as far down as some preseason prognosticators believe.
That’s because Tennessee made a solid decision when it hired Pearl’s replacement, Cuonzo Martin, the former Missouri State coach and proud member of one of college basketball’s most successful coaching family trees. Martin will take the pressure defense, emphasis on rebounding and motion offense he learned from his mentor Gene Keady at Purdue and transform Tennessee into a team that may not be as exciting as it was under Pearl but figures to deliver more consistent effort.
Several formerly heralded recruits who chafed on the bench under Pearl will get their chance to shine this season, notably junior post man Kenny Hall and sophomore guards Trae Golden and Jordan McRae.
Chris Dortch is the editor of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. You can purchase the book here and follow Chris on Twitter: @cdortch.