SEC Primer: Kentucky boasts stacked, Final Four-caliber squad
Experct Florida freshman Brad Beal to get major minutes, score a lot of points
Alabama is likely to have only five games against NCAA tournament-quality teams
Expect an SEC title, Final Four trip from a talented, experienced Kentucky squad
In preparation for the 2011-12 college hoops season, SI.com breaks down the best of the best in each of the six major conferences. Andy Glockner serves up his picks for Player of the Year, breakout candidate and more for the SEC.
Terrence Jones, Kentucky
In some circles, Jones is being overlooked because he's not new and because his numbers tapered off down the stretch last season. In this circle, give me the guy with a year of experience at this level who now is surrounded by significantly more talent than last season's team. This version of the Wildcats still doesn't really have a traditional big man (Eloy Vargas, anyone?), so Jones' rebounding -- especially on the defensive end, where he was statistically elite last season -- will still be crucial. With better players around him, Jones' offensive efficiency should improve, as well, so he's in a good position to put up strong numbers on a great team, the formula for postseason honors.
Brad Beal, Florida
Kentucky may have too many freshmen for any one of them to make an award-winning impact (read: big numbers), but Beal shouldn't have that issue in Gainesville. He's going to play a lot of minutes and should score a lot of points in the guard-heavy Gators attack. Florida's backcourt shot selection and distribution has been questionable the last few seasons, but with the relative lack of a frontcourt, Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton may not have to give up many shots in order for Beal to get more than enough to thrive. In a really strong year for freshmen in the league, you can't go wrong with Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis or Marquis Teague, Ole Miss' Jalen Kendrick, Mississippi State's Rodney Hood, Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and others, either.
Patric Young, Florida
Touted as a crucial piece in last season's equation, Young was decent but didn't have the overall impact anticipated in a deep frontcourt. Now Young is a central piece of Florida's frontcourt and his ability to provide defense, rebounding and stay out of foul trouble will be crucial to the Gators' success. He won't need plays run for him to get points. He'll be able to find plenty of opportunities on the offensive glass, if he can get to them. In modest minutes last season, Young's 8.8 percent offensive rebounding rate was far from elite.
While the SEC does not have divisions anymore, the old scheduling format, with "East" and "West" teams playing each other twice and cross-division games happening once, is still intact for this season. Therefore, schedules will be unbalanced and the league standings will be somewhat deceptive for NCAA tournament selection purposes. It also means Alabama was wise in significantly bumping the quality of its nonleague schedule, as the Tide once again faces 10 games against the weaker "half" of the league. It's very possible that only five of Alabama's 16 league games (Mississippi State twice, plus Kentucky, Vandy and Florida once each) will be against NCAA tournament-quality foes.
On paper, the Wildcats have much more talent than last season's Final Four team, importing four elite recruits to join forces with Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. Marquis Teague should star at the point and long-limbed big man Anthony Davis could be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft next season, but neither may have as good a college season as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who even if he's not starting, should pour in plenty of points from the wing. If you really want to nitpick, the Wildcats don't really have a true physical 5 to mimic the role Josh Harrellson capably filled last season, but there's too much talent (and now some experience) to expect anything less than an SEC title and a Final Four appearance.
The Gators will be very small, but they are loaded in the backcourt. Starting guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton return, plus Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario (a 16 points ppg scorer) eligible and incoming freshman Brad Beal, who has a diverse and very highly regarded offensive game, give Florida a ton of talent. And that doesn't even count sophomore Scottie Wilbekin. It's a good thing the Gators have a plenty of backcourt options because their frontcourt was severely weakened. With the departures of Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus, Patric Young is the only established frontcourt presence and will need to do a better job of providing consistent production while staying out of foul trouble. If he and Erik Murphy are contributing and the right guys are taking the perimeter shots, this team could be very good offensively.
This may be the most hyped Commodores team ever, with good reason. So why are they tucked behind a miniature Florida team here? Because you can't assume a team will jump from good to great just because it returns the same guys. Vandy went 9-7 in the SEC last season and suffered a second-straight first-round NCAA loss. KenPom.com had them 35th overall. That's a big gap to leap into the top 10. OK, enough naysaying. John Jenkins is the team's best player and one of the premier shooters in the nation. Jeffery Taylor is a diverse talent who can dominate at times. Festus Ezeli (suspended for the first six games) has become a quality center and could end up as an NBA lottery pick if he continues last season's development. Complementary returnees like forwards Lance Goulbourne and Steve Tchiengang and point guard Brad Tinsley are capable. If Vandy defends better (enter freshmen Kedren Johnson and Dai-Jon Parker) and Taylor channels his inner strength more regularly, the 'Dores could validate the buzz.
This season, 'Bama fans should have something to cheer for after the Tide football team completes whatever BCS bowl it ends up in. Forwards JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell make up one of the league's (and nation's) best frontcourt tandems and guard Trevor Releford is poised to blow up on the national scene after a promising debut season at the point. Despite the exciting individual talent, it was on the defensive end last season that the Tide were elite, and that should hold with the returning personnel. If highly touted freshman wings Trevor Lacey and Levi Randolph adjust well to the college game, 'Bama will become much more difficult to stop on the offensive end and become a team that can make a significant March run. 'Bama was brutal from three-point range last season, making just 29.8 percent as a team despite taking less than 25 percent of all shots from behind the arc (per KenPom.com).