SEC Primer: Deep Gators reign as balance of power tilts heavily East
After losing five NBA draft first-round picks, John Calipari reloaded at Kentucky
Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie give Georgia an extremely potent 1-2 punch
Ole Miss lost a lot, but it still has one of the conference's stars in Chris Warren
Player of the Year: Trey Thompkins, Georgia
There are a lot of possible choices here, depending how large an impact some of Kentucky's freshmen make and how you value different parts for a well-balanced contender. In Thompkins, you should get big numbers and big impact, as he should be the leading man for a rising Bulldogs team that is generating significant buzz as an NCAA tournament hopeful. Last season, Thompkins averaged 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, and in Travis Leslie, he has a sidekick that will prevent opponents from simply focusing on him.
Impact Freshman: Patric Young, Florida
Brandon Knight almost certainly will have better stats and could play a huge part in whether Kentucky is a Final Four threat, but Young is shaping up as the perfect missing piece that will take the Gators from being a good team to a potentially great one. Young's physicality and enthusiasm should help transform a veteran team that was a bit soft at times last season. He may only be on the floor for 15 minutes a night if he can't stay out of foul trouble, but those could be the 15 minutes that decide the game.
Breakout Candidate: Jeffery Taylor, Vanderbilt
He's already broken out in a sense, as people around the SEC know how good he is, but the nation probably is more familiar with his teammate, lights-out perimeter marksman John Jenkins, who was the program's highest-rated recruit ever last season. Taylor did it all as a sophomore last season -- carried the responsibility of high possession usage, scored efficiently, got to the line frequently, rebounded well and was a quality defender. Now he gets the chance to be the team's leading star, and the numbers should follow.
Inside the Numbers: 1-4
That was the record of SEC teams who made the NCAAs last season in nonleague games against RPI Top 50 opponents. The lone win was Tennessee's upset of Kansas in the aftermath of the New Year's Day traffic stop-weapons/drug arrest that left the Vols very shorthanded. There will be opportunities this season to improve that figure, and the league will need that mark to be better, especially if it hopes to get five teams from the SEC East into the field of 68.
1. Florida (East: 1)
All five starters are back and one (or more) of them will be conceding significant minutes, as freshman force Patric Young will bring a healthy and needed dose of rebounding and shotblocking to a frontcourt that also features Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus. The Gators also were statistically unlucky last season, despite Chandler Parsons' heroics, and should find themselves in fewer close games this season, which should marginalize their "luck" factor. If Florida gets sufficient perimeter shooting -- as a freshman, Kenny Boynton was one of three players to take 200 or more threes and make less than 30 percent of them -- it is a legitimate threat to go deep in the NCAAs.
2. Kentucky (East: 2)
Lose five first-round draft picks? Hey, no worries. Let's just reload with another superlative freshman class. Even if Enes Kanter doesn't get eligible, Kentucky fans will have a fine time rooting on highly touted scoring point guard Brandon Knight and smooth forward Terrence Jones, among others. Mix in returnees like Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins, and there's plenty of reason for optimism with John Calipari's bunch, especially by March. If the 'Cats do get Kanter eligible for the stretch run? Look out. This crew may not be quite as talented as last season's, but could possibly end up more well-rounded.
3. Tennessee (East: 3)
Bruce Pearl's had a difficult offseason after the Vols fell a point short of the Final Four, but he has a lot of talent returning to make another march in March. With Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince departed, the veteran burden will fall significantly on Melvin Goins (point guard), Cameron Tatum (shooting guard), Scotty Hopson (wing/defender) and Brian Williams (center). The Vols also add top-10 recruit Tobias Harris at the forward slot and fellow freshman Trae Golden, a gifted shooter. The SEC East is extremely competitive at the top, but Tennessee should be right there.
4. Mississippi State (West: 1)
We'll have to wait until SEC play to really see what the Bulldogs look like, as long awaited big man Renardo Sidney (nine-game suspension) and guard Dee Bost (nine-game suspension following academic ineligibility for the fall semester) have ample time left before they become eligible. Bost's somewhat surprising reinstatement by the NCAA after he botched withdrawing from the 2010 NBA draft makes the Bulldogs the clear choice in a mediocre SEC West. If a slimmed-down Sidney shows the promise he had as a five-star recruit coming out of high school (he sat out last season while trying to clear up eligibility issues), the team's upside could be significantly higher, as returnees Ravern Johnson and Kodi Augustus help form a very capable complementary core.