SEC Summer Roundup: Can Kentucky thrive after NBA exodus?
SEC scheduling changes this summer will be a major storyline heading into March
Don't expect John Calipari-led Kentucky to have the 16-0 season it had last year
Missouri's infusion of transfer talent should mean plenty of scoring, better defense
Feel like you're out of the college hoops loop? No problem. SI.com recaps everything you need to know as summer recruiting season winds to a close and a new crop of college players get ready to take the floor. Today Andy Glockner takes a look at the SEC.
A league in transition is getting a jolt from the Midwest.
There are several big storylines that will impact the 2012-13 season, but none is bigger that the import of Missouri and Texas A&M from the Big 12. The SEC is now a 14-team league (with the accompanying scheduling headaches) and both teams should be solid additions in the short- and long-terms. In terms of this season, the Tigers could be major party crashers (see below).
Speaking of that schedule, it's now 18 games and comes with each team having a "constant rival" and four other teams it plays home-and-home. The other eight league foes are faced once apiece. There was additional drama injected this summer when the league, without consulting coaches after everyone believed scheduling had been settled in the league's June meetings, changed up the pairings. This could be impactful because teams set their nonconference schedules based in part on expected league schedules. Expect this to be a discussion for SEC bubble teams in March.
There also was significant personnel movement, both on the court and on the bench. The big coaching news was Frank Martin moving from Kansas State to a rebuilding project at South Carolina. Wonder if he'll get any advance scouting calls from teams who are less familiar with Missouri's and A&M's players? LSU (former North Texas head coach Johnny Jones) and Mississippi State (former Clemson assistant Rick Ray) also got new coaches.
From a player turnover standpoint, Kentucky's annual talent exodus was more pronounced than usual, with practically everyone from its national championship rotation moving on. There's still plenty of talent in Lexington, but the Cats will not be as dominant as last season. Several other regular contenders (notably Florida and Vanderbilt) suffered significant personnel losses. The Gators should still be pretty strong. The Commodores? Not so much. SEC hoops control of the Volunteer State should move back to the Volunteers this season. Elsewhere, the bottom of the league continues to improve.
As long as John Calipari remains at Kentucky, the recruiting story in the league will begin in Lexington. Calipari brought in another bountiful class centered (figuratively and literally) around shot-swatter Nerlens Noel, very arguably the nation's top recruit. Throw in small forward Alex Poythress and shooting guard Archie Goodwin to go with some returning talent and a couple of potential impact transfers and the Cats will once again be formidable.
Florida reloaded its backcourt after losing both Erving Walker and Brad Beal (early entry), with point guard Braxton Ogbueze considered the best of the bunch. Alabama adds stud small forward Devonta Pollard to a promising returning core. The league is also getting deeper as teams like Auburn and Georgia continue to add regional talent. There are a lot of guards coming into programs all over the league, which could make the SEC a fun watch over the next few seasons.
How vulnerable is Kentucky?: It's fairly safe to say the Wildcats aren't going 16-0 in the league again this season. It also would be a surprise if they struggled to 10-6 like the 2010-11 team that still ended up in the Final Four. How close they'll be to either end of that range will depend on the development of the freshmen (obviously) but maybe more so on transfers Ryan Harrow (NC State), who is expected to start at the point, and Julius Mays (Wright State after two seasons in Raleigh), who will add experienced backcourt depth. With sophomore Kyle Wiltjer back, too, no one will be feeling sorry for Calipari's talent level, but expect the Cats to be more mortal.
Can anyone take the title from the Cats?: Kansas fans will snicker, but the best hope may be Missouri. The Tigers only draw Kentucky once, though, and that game is in Lexington, so they have a head-to-head disadvantage. That said, with the return of Laurence Bowers and numerous impact transfers of their own, Mizzou should be very formidable in their league debut season. Florida should be pretty good with Patric Young, Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy back along with some good freshmen. Tennessee, building off its success after Jarnell Stokes arrived last season, could also be a threat. Alabama has four (after Tony Mitchell's departure) starters back and adds a stud freshman; could the Tide threaten? It feels like Kentucky's race to lose. We'll see.
How many NCAA bids will the league get?: Four looks like a near certainty and five very possible, given what Alabama has. All of those teams could be wearing white in the "second" round, too, as top-eight seeds. Can another team emerge from the presumed second division? There are a lot of wins to be had in the bottom half of the league, so someone unexpected could have an impressive number of league wins. How they weigh up on deeper inspection will be another story.
1. Kentucky: Calipari has proven this model works and each season he and his staff have a better idea of how to groom the new batch of Cats. It won't be a runaway, but too much talent, too much Rupp magic.
2. Missouri: The Tigers are high-beta with the upside of Alex Oriahki (from UConn), Earnest Ross (Auburn), Keion Bell (Pepperdine) and Jabari Brown (Oregon) as replacements for departed stalwarts Ricardo Ratliffe, Kim English and Marcus Denmon. If all the personalities mesh, they should have plenty of scoring and much better defensively inside and on the glass than they were last season.
3. Tennessee: The Vols won eight of their last nine SEC regular-season games last season and return almost everyone from that core. They look set to take the next step back toward the heights achieved in the Bruce Pearl era. In a league with a lot of transition, betting on Cuonzo's crew seems a reasonable gamble. They also swept Florida last year and host the Gators in the only meeting this season, so in comparison to the Gators for this spot, they may have the edge.