Kentucky has ruled the Southeastern Conference since John Calipari strolled into Lexington.
While the Wildcats have lived near the top of the Top 25 and been a national title contender in most of Calipari’s seven seasons, the rest of the SEC has searched for consistency. Only three SEC teams made the NCAA tournament last season.
Just look at the best SEC records over the last seven seasons:
The Wildcats have won four regular season crowns, four tournament titles and a national championship in that span.
Florida, the only other SEC program to reach a Final Four (2014), was actually tied with Kentucky in the Calipari Era conference standings until the last two seasons when it went 17-19 in conference.
On paper, this season, appears to be more of the same. The Wildcats are loaded yet again. What are the storylines to follow in the SEC this year?
Kentucky is a national championship contender - again
By their lofty standards, last season was a disappointing one for the Wildcat Nation. Despite sharing the regular season crown with Texas A&M (13-5) and beating the Aggies in the SEC tournament finals, Kentucky failed to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for only the second time under Calipari.
Don’t expect a repeat. The Wildcats reloaded with another stellar batch of freshmen. De’Andre Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe will form one of the nation’s best backcourts.
And, freshman Bam Adebayo gives Kentucky the athletic, physical frontcourt presence it lacked last season, and there is tremendous depth behind him. The Wildcats should be much better on the defensive end (53rd in the nation in adjusted efficiency last season) and anything shy of playing on the final weekend in Phoenix will be considered a disappointment.
That’s the standard for a program with eight national championships and 17 Final Four appearances.
Georgia should have enough offensive firepower to challenge
The Bulldogs won 20 games for the third consecutive season but sputtered against top competition due to a sluggish offense. Georgia was 13th in the SEC in turnover percentage and last in effective field-goal percentage, crippled by poor shot selection. According to hoop-math.com, 41 percent of the Bulldogs’ field-goal attempts were 2-point jump shots. Of the eight teams in the nation who took more, only North Carolina made the NCAA tournament.
Freshman guards Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris had promising moments on the team’s summer trip to Spain, and the Bulldogs have adequate frontcourt depth.
They’ll hope it produces a more potent lineup to improve on last season’s 6-10 record against top-75 teams in the Pomeroy Ratings and 3-8 record on the road.
Florida aims to get back on track
Michael White took the Gators to the NIT in his first season as legendary coach Billy Donovan’s replacement. But, expectations are higher in Gainesville, even if the Gators won’t spend time there early in the season. Florida plays its first 11 games away from the O’Connell Center, which is being renovated. It returns home on Dec. 21 to play Arkansas-Little Rock.
By then, graduate transfer Canyon Barry should have settled in with the Gators. The youngest son of NBA legend Rick Barry averaged 19 points per game for College of Charleston last season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in the Colonial Athletic Association opener. He’s a 6-6 small forward with terrific instincts and a smooth mid-range game.
Florida hopes he can help behind the 3-point line. The Gators shot 31.9 percent beyond-the-arc last season, enduring too many nights like their 7-of-24 effort in the NIT semifinal loss to George Washington.
Mississippi needs its new backcourt to make an immediate impact
Under coach Andy Kennedy, the Rebels have had explosive guards (Marshall Henderson, Stefan Moody), consistent success (eight 20-win seasons out of 10) and hung around the .500 mark in the SEC - living atop the NCAA tournament bubble most seasons.
Cullen Neal, a 6-5 point guard, joins the Rebels after two inconsistent seasons playing for his dad at New Mexico. DeAndre Burnett flashed scoring ability during his lone season at Miami (Fla.). If both can generate 14 to 16 points per game, Ole Miss will have one of the SEC’s stronger backcourts.
There has to be a sleeper, right?
Texas A&M needed a last minute miracle to knock off Northern Iowa in double overtime in the second round in perhaps the wildest NCAA tournament game ever. The Aggies should be strong on defense again (12th in adjusted efficiency) and 6-10, 260 pound sophomore Tyler Davis has the size and touch (66 percent shooting) to become a star.
Vanderbilt has a new coach, Bryce Drew, and must replace two first round NBA draft picks - point guard Wade Baldwin and forward Damian Jones. The Commodores will lean on Matthew Fisher-Davis (45 percent on 3s) and skilled seven-footer Luke Kornet.
Mississippi State, in coach Ben Howland’s second year, welcomes eight freshmen, and they’ll try to make the free-throw line a bigger piece of the offense. In SEC play, the Bulldogs scored only 17 percent of their points at the stripe, which was worst in the conference.