The SEC may not be as deep as some other NCAA Basketball power conferences, but it is very top heavy with Kentucky being national title contenders and Vanderbilt and Florida also top-10 caliber.
We are now just one week away from the start of the 2011-12 NCAA Basketball season, and we have already previewed four of the six major conferences in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East. That leaves just two more to go, and we now continue our previews with the SEC.
This conference may not be as deep as some of the other major conferences, but it does contain one of the popular NCAA Basketball picks to win the national championship in the Kentucky Wildcats. In fact, not unlike last year, this is a very top-heavy conference with the Vanderbilt Commodores and Florida Gators also worthy of being ranked in the national top 10 but then a huge drop-off in the conference after the Big Three.
It is not surprising that Kentucky is an odds on favorite to win the regular season SEC title at -125, but we think that third choice Vanderbilt (+500) will ultimately pose a greater threat to the Wildcats than second choice Florida, as while the Gators are very well coached, they are probably not quite as good as last season.
Here is our entire 2011-12 SEC Basketball Preview, including the current odds to win the regular season title from The Greek Sports Book.
1 – Kentucky (-125): The Wildcats are the second choice by most experts to win the National Championship behind North Carolina, so needless to say, the rest of the SEC has its work cut out for it. Kentucky had one notable loss in point guard Brandon Knight, who also doubled as the team’s leading scorer. However, the Wildcats do return three double-digit scorers from last year including a legitimate SEC Player of the Year candidate in Terrence Jones, and as has become custom under Coach John Calipari, Kentucky once again has the highest rated recruiting class in the country for the third straight year, landing three of the nation’s top 10 rated recruits in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and Marquis Teague. For good measure, the Cats also added a fourth top-25 recruit in Kyle Wiltjer. Much like last season when Kentucky got better as the season went on, nobody will want to play these guys in March.
2 – Vanderbilt (+500): The Commodores may have a history of early exits in the NCAA Tournament, but that could easily change this season as this is the most experienced team among the top teams in the conference, and that is a key factor why we have them ahead of Florida. This is one of the few teams in the nation that returns its entre starting lineup. Among those is another conference Player of the Year candidate in guard John Jenkins. In fact, it is not a stretch by any means to say that this could be the best basketball team in Vanderbilt school history, as the Commodore have three potential NBA first round draft picks with center Festus Ezeli and guard Jeffery Taylor joining Jenkins.
3 – Florida (+250): It is easy to forget that the Gators were the SEC regular season champions last season before Kentucky won the SEC Tournament, and Florida then advanced all the way to the Elite Eight before falling to Butler 74-71 in overtime. They now lose three starters however including their best all-around player in Chandler Parsons, although they do return their two leading scorers, both of whom are guards (Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton). On top of this, their best recruit is also a guard in Brad Beal, so with that great backcourt, who are they going to distribute the ball to? Well, post players Patric Young and Erik Murphy both showed great potential while coming off the bench last year and you can never underestimate the great coaching of Billy Donavan, so this is another team that should get better as the season goes on.
4 – Mississippi State (+1000): The Bulldogs did lose their leading scorer Ravern Johnson, but starting point guard Dee Bost and center Renardo Sidney do come back, and they have an excellent recruit in Rodney Hood to help replace the departed Johnson. Add in UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie to the front court and Mississippi State looks like the best second-tier team in the conference after the Big Three. Also, Coach Rick Stansbury deserves a lot of credit for keeping this team together after several players brawled in the crowd during an early season tournament in Hawaii. He should get the most out of this talented bunch this year, especially with the ‘bad seeds” now gone.
5 – Alabama (+800): The Crimson Tide reached the Finals of the NIT last season where they lost to Wichita State, which should only make them hungrier for a return to the NCAA Tournament this year. Believe it or not, Alabama finished second in the SEC regular season with a 12-4 conference mark, two games better than Kentucky and three better than Vanderbilt, yet Alabama was not invited to the Big Dance. The Tide finished 25-12 overall and now return their three leading scorers, who all averaged in the double-digits. The biggest weakness in the their game last year was outside shooting, something they hope to have addressed with what is considered to be the second best recruiting class in the conference. This team is still thin on the inside though and it is very young outside of the top three returnees, so there will be some growing pains.
6 – Arkansas (+1500): The Razorbacks fired Coach John Pelphrey after the team missed out on the NCAA Tournament the last three years, and they also lose leading scorer Rotnei Clarke. They return just two starters, but the Hogs do have a stacked recruiting class that they hope will help keep them afloat, so much so that three freshmen may start immediately. This is a team that actually has a bright future, except it will more likely be next season when they will start reaping the benefits for new coach Mike Anderson, who returns to the scene where he was an assistant coach under Nolan Richardson for 17 years.
7 – Mississippi (+1500): The Rebels will have to overcome the loss of Chris Warren, who did everything for the team during his collegiate career, but all hope is not entirely lost. Ole Miss does return three starters and they add a former five-star recruit in forward Jelan Kendrick, who transfers over from Memphis to give the Rebels a potentially strong inside presence. The Achilles Heel is an inexperienced backcourt, but if one of those youngsters can separate himself from the pack and serve as a good enough distributor, this club could surprise a team or two, although finishing in the top half of the conference with Warren gone should be difficult.
8 – South Carolina (+5000): As you can see, the Gamecocks are the longest shot on the board to win the conference, and while they are bad, we honestly do not think these long odds are warranted as we are picking four other teams behind them. They return last season’s leading scorer in point guard Bruce Ellington, although that return will be delayed as he is currently on the football team, and they add a four-star recruit in fellow guard Damien Leonard. With those two running the show on the backside, and with two experienced starters in the frontcourt in Malik Cooke and Lakeem Jackson, this team could exceed some expectations once Ellington joins the team, which should be just in time for the conference season. Then again, that would translate to the team being just bad instead of awful!
9 – Georgia (+2000): The Bulldogs were hit hard by the NBA Draft, losing two of the conferences best players last year from the frontcourt in Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie. Yes, they have an experienced backcourt, but this is a team that will now have trouble scoring points when its outside shots are not falling, and now look fairly easy to defend with the club having basically nothing on the inside, with two other prominent post players Jeremy Price, and Chris Barnes also now gone.
10 – Auburn (+4000): The good news is that Auburn should be improved this season, as the Tigers are experienced and they get veteran guard Frankie Sullivan back after he missed last season with an injury The bad news is that the experience outside of Sullivan is from a team that went 4-12 in the conference last year and finished ranked 214th in the country on the Pomeroy Ratings, the second lowest ranked team among all of the six major conferences (we will get to the lowest in a bit). Yes, they will be a tad better, but does it really matter?
11 – Tennessee (+2500): My how the mighty have fallen! The Volunteers began the year 7-0 last season including wins over Pittsburgh and Villanova, and they also beat Vanderbilt twice and had a nice win over Memphis. The season ended with a 30-point loss to Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and now the Vols have lost Coach Bruce Pearl and four starters, and returns one player that averaged more than 3.0 points per game last year. Did somebody say rebuilding?
12 – LSU (+2000): In case you were wondering, it was the LSU Tigers who were the lowest ranked major-conference school last season, finishing 227th in the final Pomeroy Ratings. This team returns four starters and adds a four-star recruit in Johnny O'Bryant in the paint. So yes, this team will be better, but in this case, “better” means not guaranteed to finish last. We are still picking them there though.