SEC Primer: Kentucky, Missouri ready to make noise this season
Who will likely take SEC player of the year honors: Look no further than BJ Young
Kentucky's freshman class isn't as strong as last year, but don't underestimate it
Kenny Boynton, Patric Young made strides, but will need to continue to improve
In preparation for the 2012-13 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.
BJ Young is one of the best players in the country you've never heard of. As a freshman, he came off the bench for the Razorback despite the fact that he was the team's leading scorer and easily their most dynamic player. An athletic and lanky 6-foot-3 scorer, Young's a perfect fit for Mike Anderson's "40 Minutes of Hell" system because he not only can attack the basket and finish around the rim, but because he's also a 41.3 percent shooter from long range. NBA scouts have noticed as well; Young probably would have been a first-round pick had he not withdrawn his name from last year's draft. Draft Express currently has him pegged in the top 10 of their 2013 mock draft.
Stokes had some high school eligibility issues, meaning that he wasn't allowed to play his final season. Instead of sitting out the entire year, Stokes graduated early, enrolling at Tennessee in January and playing the first game of his college career against Kentucky on Jan. 14, finishing with nine points and four boards. A week later, he had 16 points and 12 boards in a win over Andre Drummond and UConn. When the season was all said and done, Stokes finished with averages of 9.6 points and 7.4 boards, helping the Vols to a second-place finish in the SEC while he was supposed to be helping plan a senior prank. What happens when he has a full offseason of work within the program and begins the season with the team?
Do any other freshmen even matter? I'm not talking about just the SEC, either. I'm talking about nationally. The irony, however, is that this year's group probably won't end up being as good as the team that won the national title last season and almost certainly won't be as good as the group that Coach Cal will have coming in for the 2013-14 season. But that doesn't mean Kentucky doesn't have a slew of future first-round picks entering this season. Nerlens Noel isn't Anthony Davis, but the defensive presence he provides will make him a force this season, especially when he teams up with Willie Cauley-Stein up front. Alex Poythress has added some muscle to his frame and is expected to have a huge season for the 'Cats. Archie Goodwin is one of the most aggressive wing-scorers in the class. Big Blue Nation will have plenty to cheer for.
That's how many road wins Mike Anderson has in conference play in his last two seasons as a head coach. In 2010-11, as the head coach of Missouri, Anderson went just 1-7 away from home in Big 12 play. That one win came over an Iowa State team that went 3-13 that year. This past season at Arkansas, Anderson was once again 1-7 on the road in league play, with his only SEC win away from Fayetteville coming against Auburn, who was 4-12 in the SEC. Arkansas has always been a team that plays much better in the not-so-friendly confines of Bud Walton Arena. The Razorbacks have a chance to make some noise this year, but they'll have to win some road games if they want to avoid being a .500 team again.
There may not be a more anticipated game this season. Let's ignore, for a second, the fact that these two in-state programs make up the most-heated rivalry in the country. Let's also ignore the fact that there is absolutely no love-lost between Rick Pitino and John Calipari or that Kentucky is coming off of a sweep of Louisville from last season, including a game in the Final Four. These are two of the top three teams in the country. And they hate each other. It will be awesome.
It's a really bad sign for a head coach when the three things that stick out the most about his tenure at a school are off-the-court incidents. For Kennedy, that's the case. There was the time that Kennedy got in a fight with a cab-driver in Cincinnati, there was the time that his leading scorer was busted for pot when he opened the door for the pizza delivery guy, and there was the time his McDonald's All-American walked off the court of a game with serious tournament implications during warmups and watched from the stands.
The top two teams in the SEC -- Kentucky and Missouri -- are legitimate Final Four contenders. The next two teams -- Tennessee and Florida -- should be NCAA tournament teams this season. Everyone else? Well, it's tough to tell. Can Arkansas figure out a way to win on the road? Will Alabama keep their best players on the court for the duration of the season? How good is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? Will LSU improve under Johnny Jones? A four-bid SEC is a very real possibility.
1. Kentucky: This will get said a thousand times over from now until the Wildcats tip-off against Maryland on Nov. 9 at the Barclays Center, but this is not the same group that cut down the nets in New Orleans just over six months ago? Can they get there again? No question. Nerlens Noel is just as much of a defensive presence as Anthony Davis was a year ago, and he'll have another big, tall, athletic center playing along side him in the form of Willie Cauley-Stein. Alex Poythress has transformed his body and turned himself into a powerful and athletic forward that has drawn rave reviews from those that have seen him play early on this season. Archie Goodwin is a future lottery pick on the wing, and when those four share the floor with Ryan Harrow, the Wildcats are going to be a very, very difficult team to score against. Their issues are going to come on the offensive end of the floor. Will Cauley-Stein and Noel be able to play together? How can Kyle Wiltjer fit in with this group if he's a liability defensively? Will anyone step up as a shooter in the backcourt rotation? Can Harrow accept the fact that he may be Kentucky's point guard but that he's not Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans or John Wall? Coach Cal has a knack for being able to work these kind of issues out, but he'll have his work cut out for him this season.
2. Missouri: I think that the Tigers are being criminally undervalued heading into the season. They have one of the best backcourts in the country in Phil Pressey and Mike Dixon, one that can score (Dixon), create (Pressey) and wreak havoc defensively (both). Frank Haith has a number of versatile options at the wing and power forward spots -- Keion Bell and Jabari Brown can score, Laurence Bowers is the best athlete and defender, and Earnest Ross is the more physical, blue-collar workhorse -- and the addition of UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi's defensive presence in the middle brings it all together. Missouri's strength will be on the defensive end of the floor this year, but that doesn't mean they'll struggle offensively. The key will be how Haith brings together a group that's made up of four transfers, two returners from last season and one guy coming off of ACL surgery.
3. Tennessee: The rugged physicality that Cuonzo Martin learned playing under Gene Keady at Purdue has rubbed off on his Tennessee team, and it's going to be quite effective this season. It starts up front for the Vols, where they'll have arguably the 'burliest' frontline in the country with Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes manning the paint. Trae Golden is one of the better point guards in the SEC, but he needs to cut down on his turnovers, something that should come naturally if Stokes has the kind of breakout season offensively he's expected to. The issue for Tennessee is going to be on the wings. Can Jordan McRae, Skylar McBee and company provide enough of a scoring punch -- and shoot consistently enough from beyond the arc -- to keep the floor spread and create space in the lane for Golden, Maymon and Stokes?