John Calipari hopes to put disappointing NIT loss behind him with roster that has realistic chance of leading Kentucky to potential 40-0 season. (Photo courtesy of the University of Kentucky)
Our "32 In 32" series rolls into the stretch run tonight with the first of two previews centered around a national championship contender, as we look further into the Southeastern Conference.
After an uncharacteristic swoon through February following the season-ending ACL injury to Nerlens Noel, Kentucky was relegated to a National Invitation Tournament appearance, one in which they lost on the road to Robert Morris to provide the Colonials with the biggest victory in the history of the Northeast Conference, let alone the program. This year, John Calipari has turned the page, reloading in Lexington with yet another recruiting class that ranks among the best in the nation as he attempts to turn the Wildcats into the first undefeated team in Division I since Bob Knight's 1976 national championship-winning Indiana squad. Needless to say, Kentucky slots in among the favorites in the SEC, and you can see our complete order of finish below:
1) Kentucky - The Wildcats actually retain two integral pieces from last season's team in big man Willie Cauley-Stein and sophomore power forward Alex Poythress, but other than that, Rupp Arena will see a major personnel overhaul once again. Twin guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison are the centerpieces of the new backcourt, which also includes Michigan native James Young and Kentuckian Dominique Hawkins. Up front, Cauley-Stein and Poythress will be challenged right away by the new crop coming in, a group that is led by one of Calipari's best recruits in Julius Randle, not to mention seven-footer Dakari Johnson and freakishly long 6-9 forward Marcus Lee. Simply put, the horses have gone to the post in the Bluegrass State, and now the run for the roses begins.
2) Florida - Not to be outdone, Billy Donovan is once again taking his best shot at Calipari and Kentucky, bringing a national championship contender back to Gainesville despite losing each of his top three scorers. The NCAA's decision to allow Eli Carter to play immediately after his transfer from Rutgers amid the Mike Rice debacle gives Donovan a combo guard who can play both on and off the ball, and Carter will be a solid replacement for Mike Rosario, also an ex-Scarlet Knight. The Gator backcourt currently lacks Scottie Wilbekin, who was suspended indefinitely earlier in the offseason, but if the senior point guard returns, Florida regains one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation. Up front, senior big man Patric Young picks up the services of Virginia Tech expatriate Dorian Finney-Smith, who joins Casey Prather to form a trio of underrated big men that will allow Will Yeguete to do what he does best and be a game-changing X-factor whose contributions will make everyone around him better.
3) Tennessee - Trae Golden transferred to Georgia Tech in the offseason, but Cuonzo Martin was able to get a graduate transfer into Knoxville to replace him, as Antonio Barton arrives from Memphis to run the point for the Vols. Tennessee also gets Jeronne Maymon eligible after he was forced to sit out last year, and the burgeoning big man will join Jarnell Stokes to form a pair of some of the most bruising forwards you will find anywhere in the nation. Senior guard Jordan McRae, the Vols' leading scorer last year, joins Barton in the backcourt while junior swingman Josh Richardson reprises his role as Martin's "glue guy."
4) Alabama - Point guard Trevor Lacey has departed for North Carolina State, but Anthony Grant retains leading scorer and sharpshooter Trevor Releford for one more year as the Crimson Tide seek a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Junior guard Levi Randolph looks like the heir apparent to Lacey at the point based on his stats last season, with Nick Jacobs stepping into the starting lineup to replace Moussa Gueye after he transferred to Valparaiso. Swingman Rodney Cooper should enjoy a breakout season as he enters his junior campaign.
5) LSU - This season should be the best showing in Baton Rouge since John Brady took Tyrus Thomas and Glen Davis to the Final Four in 2006, as Johnny Jones is on the precipice of returning the Tigers to their status among the SEC's best. If you haven't heard of junior power forward Johnny O'Bryant yet, you will soon; as the 6-9 junior averaged nearly fourteen points and nine rebounds per game last season, and should eclipse double figures in both stats this time around. Despite both standing under six feet tall, point guard Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer can score seemingly at will, with the two accounting for 127 of LSU's 234 three-pointers a year ago. On the wing, Shavon Coleman and Malik Morgan will be able to alter shots and facilitate plays enough to where the Tigers will be a tough out down the stretch, and perhaps an even better team next season, when UNC Asheville transfer Keith Hornsby is eligible.
6) Mississippi - If the Rebels do not have lightning rod superstar Marshall Henderson, who; like Scottie Wilbekin, was suspended indefinitely in the offseason, Ole Miss will be significantly compromised. However, that is not to suggest Andy Kennedy does not have a competitive roster, and junior guard Jarvis Summers will be the center of attention with or without Henderson. LaDarius White and Derrick Millinghaus add to the guard depth, but the biggest concern for the Rebels will be their frontcourt in the absence of Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner. Look for Spanish freshman Sebastian Saiz to see significant minutes, as well as Venezuelan import Anthony Perez.
7) Missouri - Four of five starters have left Columbia, forcing Frank Haith to rebuild around junior shooting guard Jabari Brown and senior swingman Earnest Ross. Power forward Tony Criswell, who averaged five points and nearly just as many rebounds per game, could see his numbers double by virtue of his being the most experienced option in the Tigers' frontcourt.
8) Arkansas - The Razorbacks are slowly improving under Mike Anderson, but the loss of BJ Young and Marshawn Powell will force senior big man Coty Clarke to be more of a force inside while Mardracus Wade and Rickey Scott anchor the backcourt during their final seasons. Sophomore shooter Anthlon Bell will likely join Wade and Scott in a three-guard set, and could be on the verge of a breakout second season, as can swingman Michael Qualls.
9) South Carolina - If any school can make a jump from the bottom half of the SEC into the middle of the conference, it is the Gamecocks, now in their second season of the Frank Martin era after a 14-18 debut that showed several signs of life. South Carolina's front line is still relatively young with a pair of Lithuanian sophomores leading the charge in Mindaugas Kacinas and Laimonas Chatkevicius, but Martin has beefed up the talent, reaching back to his Miami roots to sign 6-9 freshman Demetrius Henry, while also adding burgeoning big man Desmond Ringer and swingman Reggie Theus Jr. In the backcourt, Villanova transfer Tyrone Johnson joins shooting guard and top returning scorer Brenton Williams, as well as two-sport star Bruce Ellington, who will join the Gamecocks once football season ends. However, with all of the aforementioned players on Martin's roster, remember this name: Michael Carrera. Only a sophomore, the Venezuelan swingman played well beyond his years early and often last season, averaging ten points and over seven rebounds per game as a freshman. His mounds of talent and sky-high potential should land him firmly in consideration for all-SEC honors at season's end.
10) Texas A&M - Four of Billy Kennedy's top six scorers return to College Station, but Elston and Ray Turner (no relation) will not be easy to replace. Senior shooting guard Fabyon Harris, who made an astounding 45 percent of his three-pointers for the Aggies last season, will be the focal point in the backcourt alongside sophomore point guard Alex Caruso. Caruso's fellow sophomore, J'Mychal Reese, should also have a breakout season, but junior power forward Kourtney Roberson will be relied upon heavily up front.
11) Mississippi State - Last season, Rick Ray played an eight-man rotation in his first year at the helm of the Bulldogs mostly out of necessity. Seven of those eight return for the Bulldogs this year, led by sophomore guards Craig Sword and Fred Thomas, both of whom averaged close to two steals per game in their freshman seasons to prove their status as some of the better defenders in the SEC. Up front, senior Colin Borchart teams with burgeoning sophomore big man Gavin Ware to form a physically imposing interior presence that also returns fifth-year senior Wendell Lewis, whose knee injury last season limited him to only eight games.
12) Vanderbilt - Losing two members of his starting backcourt in Kedren Johnson and Kevin Bright will prove to be difficult for Kevin Stallings to replace, but he keeps an inside/outside scoring duo of senior forward Rod Odom and junior combo guard Dai-Jon Parker intact to join senior Kyle Fuller as the Californian replaces Johnson at the point guard position for the Commodores. Forwards Shelby Moats and James Siakam, the latter of whom hails from Cameroon, will help mentor an inexperienced Vandy bench.
13) Georgia - Junior forward Nemanja Djurisic, an import from Montenegro, should have a significant impact for Mark Fox this season as the Bulldogs struggle to replace the productivity and offensive efficiency of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, selected eighth overall by the Detroit Pistons in this past June's NBA Draft. Senior Donte' Williams and sophomore Brandon Morris will join junior Marcus Thornton as key pieces on Georgia's front line, with sophomore Charles Mann anchoring a young backcourt.
14) Auburn - Senior guard Chris Denson is the hub of the wheel for Tony Barbee this season, as the former UTEP coach enters a precarious position with the Tigers. After senior forward Allen Payne, the next highest source of production on the front line comes from seven-footer Asauhn Dixon-Tatum, who blocked 44 shots a year ago, and will help mentor Auburn's quartet of freshmen up front.