The SEC has two new members (Missouri and Texas A&M) and a defending national champion (Kentucky), along with legitimate league title contenders (Florida, Tennessee) and plenty of potential sleepers. We asked our writers to share their thoughts on the conference in 2012-13:
Will another highly touted freshman class lead Kentucky to a third straight Final Four?
Myron Medcalf: No. A few months ago, I had a different perspective since the pieces are clearly there. Nerlens Noel leads another stellar recruiting class that can guide the Wildcats deep into the NCAA tournament. And like last season’s young crew, those freshmen will have plenty of help with North Carolina State transfer Ryan Harrow in the mix and Kyle Wiltjer returning.
But the other contenders (and the veterans that lead them) can’t be ignored. NC State, Michigan, Indiana, UCLA, Louisville and Kansas can joust with the Wildcats. They’re stacked, too. You can’t sleep on Arizona, Duke, Florida or Syracuse, either. Plus, Anthony Davis and his transcendental defense are gone (Noel is not Davis). He was the key to Kentucky’s national title run in March. Not taking anything away from the 2011 squad that cracked the Final Four, but that year’s field wasn’t nearly as strong as I think the 2013 bracket will be. Right now, I expect that gauntlet to trip up this season’s here-today-gone-tomorrow crew of UK youngsters prior to the Final Four in Atlanta.
Which team has the best chance of unseating UK atop the SEC?
Jason King: Most prognosticators will tab Florida as the team most likely to challenge Kentucky for the SEC title, and while the Gators are certainly a reasonable selection, I’ll pick Missouri. You can’t win without high-level guards, and the Tigers have two of the best in the country in Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon. Pressey was a finalist for the Cousy Award last season and could emerge as a top-five point guard as a junior. Combo guard Dixon moves into the starting lineup after earning national sixth man of the year honors a season ago. Not many players are as good in close, late-game situations.
Mizzou’s backcourt will also be bolstered by transfers Earnest Ross, Keion Bell and Jabari Brown. Ross (Auburn) and Bell (Pepperdine) both posted double-digit scoring averages at their previous schools. Brown was a consensus top-20 recruit before leaving Oregon just a few weeks after the start of last season.
The Tigers won’t have incredible depth in the paint -- they didn’t last year, either, and it hardly mattered -- but they’ll certainly be talented. Connecticut transfer Alex Oriakhi was a starter and key piece of the Huskies’ 2011 national championship squad. Laurence Bowers, a threat on both ends of the court, returns after missing last season with a knee injury. He was a starter in 2010-11.
The biggest question mark surrounding the Tigers is chemistry. How quickly will the plethora of transfers gel with returnees such as Dixon and Pressey? And how will Frank Haith divvy up playing time in a talented but crowded backcourt? Haith did a masterful job in his first season with the Tigers, winning well-deserved national coach of the year honors from the Associated Press. There’s no reason to believe he won’t be able to handle the task that lies before him.
What player in the SEC is ready to break out in 2012-13?
Dana O'Neil: Jarnell Stokes opened eyes and turned heads when he hopped into the college game midway through the season, fresh out of graduating high school a semester early. I can only begin to imagine what the Tennessee big will do now, with an entire offseason of conditioning plus the experience with USA Basketball to build on. The word "scary" comes to mind.
In his limited SEC engagement, the freshman averaged 9.4 points and 4.7 rebounds over 12 games. In the summer, he picked up where he left off, finishing second on the U-18 team in scoring (14.0) and rebounding (5.6) to help the Americans to the gold medal. Most figured Cuonzo Martin would need a little time to revamp the Volunteers after Bruce Pearl was fired. Not with Stokes he won’t. The player who introduced himself to the SEC last season is poised to say hello to the college basketball world this season.
Who do you see as the sleeper team in the SEC?
Andy Katz: Arkansas coach Mike Anderson was thrilled with his team's summer tour to Europe. He sees this team closer to his ideal of pushing the basketball and pushing it more. The Razorbacks have a healthy Marshawn Powell and a hidden gem in B.J. Young. The key will be how quickly the six newcomers adjust. If the Hogs get rolling, they once again should have one of the toughest home courts in the country, a rekindling of the glory days. If they can play the way Anderson wants, this team will become a tough out. The SEC could be top heavy with Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee and Missouri leading the charge. Ole Miss could also be a sleeper, but the rest of the SEC is more than manageable for a team like Arkansas to rise up quickly and snag an NCAA tournament bid.
How many NCAA bids does the SEC get this season?
Eamonn Brennan: I'll go with five. Kentucky is a lock. So is Florida. Missouri will be a fascinating team, with so much turnover and so many transfers coming in, but the Tigers seem far too talented to do anything crazy like missing the March festivities. From there, it gets a little bit shakier, but I think Tennessee is a strong, emerging pick under Cuonzo Martin. When Jarnell Stokes joined the Volunteers mid-season, that became a totally different team -- one that finished 10-6 in the SEC, no less.
I also like Arkansas, a similarly young team with a similarly talented player in guard B.J. Young and a group that should only improve in Mike Anderson's second season. Ole Miss has a little bit of early buzz as a fringe bubble team (see Joey Brackets' first edition for the placement), but I'm not buying it just yet. It's early to be talking about tournament inclusion for any team, come to think of it. But hey, you asked.