By Jon Rothstein
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FIVE QUESTIONS ENTERING THE SEC
1. WHO WILL LEAD KENTUCKY?
It’s going to be one of the major questions surrounding this team, and it will be one of the keys to the Wildcats potentially winning their second national title in three seasons. Two years ago, Kentucky had three veterans — Doron Lamb, Darius Miller, and Terrence Jones that all had played the season before in the Final Four, and were able to bring a certain level of experience to the table each time they took the floor. This years veterans — Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament last season and were beaten by Robert Morris in the NIT. There’s no questioning this team’s talent and upside. John Calipari has assembled arguably the greatest recruiting class in the history of college basketball, and Poythress and Cauley-Stein are both likely first-round picks in the 2014 NBA Draft. But for the Wildcats to get back to the Final Four and win another national championship, someone other than Calipari has to lead this team each time Kentucky steps in between the lines.
2. HOW WILL PATRIC YOUNG RESPOND TO BEING FEATURED?
A lot of it will depend on how well the Gators shoot the ball from the outside. Billy Donovan again has a roster that’s ready to compete for an SEC title — but gone are last year’s top three scorers —- Mike Rosario, Kenny Boynton, and Erik Murphy who combined to make a total of 204 three-pointers last season. The spacing that comes with that type of shooting is critical for low post players to operate — and Young — who will be the Gators’ focal point offensively this season needs someone other than sharpshooter Michael Frazier to extend the defense. Veteran point guard Scottie Wilbekin — who’s currently suspended indefinitely — shot just under 36% from deep last season, and freshman Kasey Hill will also be counted upon to be an outside threat. If Florida gets someone other than Frazier to become a reliable shooter on the perimeter, and Young keeps his motor turned up to its highest level, there’s a legitimate chance that the Gators will have the best big man in the SEC.
3. WHEN WILL MARSHALL HENDERSON PLAY FOR OLE MISS?
Likely sometime before SEC play begins. Henderson’s on-court demeanor may be a bit immature, and his off the court issues obviously show he’s not taking being a college athlete as seriously as he should. However, one thing we need to remember is that Ole Miss wouldn’t have been on the radar nationally last season without their mercurial shooting guard. Two years ago, Andy Kennedy had an NIT team that lacked a proven outside threat, and Henderson’s arrival gave the Rebels a 20-point scorer plus an edge they didn’t have before he stepped foot in Oxford. He was the main reason why Ole Miss was able to upset Florida to win the SEC Tournament, and then have enough moxie to beat Wisconsin in their first NCAA game. Does Henderson have flaws? Absolutely, but Kennedy and the Rebels wouldn’t have been able to get him if he didn’t. This is the perfect case of a marriage where both sides truly need each other. Without Henderson, the Rebels will face a rebuilding year. With him, they’ve got a punchers chance each time they take the floor.
4. CAN LSU MAKE THE NCAA TOURNAMENT?
It looks that way on paper, but the Tigers still have to prove things on the floor. LSU has the fourth most talented roster in the SEC after Kentucky, Florida, and Tennessee, and Johnny Jones’ team will need to maximize opportunities during the non-conference portion of their schedule. The Tigers play at UMass on 11/12 and then open with Saint Joseph’s in the Old Spice Classic during Thanksgiving weekend. Advancing in that tournament and playing a potential second-round game against Memphis could be critical for LSU’s RPI. This is a veteran team with a blend of talented newcomers that should all for the most part make immediate impacts. Johnny O’Bryant has a chance to be SEC Player of the Year, and the duo of Andre Stringer and Anthony Hickey give the Tigers two veteran guards. Freshman wing Jarell Martin could be this team’s answer at small forward, and fellow first-year players Jordan Mickey and Tim Quarterman should both add athleticism and bounce. The LSU coaching staff is also cautiously optimistic that 7-foot freshman Darcy Malone could find his way onto the floor thanks to his skill level and ability to play the high post. A real key for this team will be sophomore guard Malik Morgan, who could emerge as a candidate to replace some of the perimeter scoring the Tigers lost with Charles Carmouche’s departure.
5. WHO IS THE SLEEPER?
Mississippi State. Now, let me make sure I phrase this the right way. I’m not expecting the Bulldogs to challenge for an NCAA Tournament berth, but given the wide open nature of the SEC after the top four teams in the conference, the Bulldogs have the requisites to make a jump in the league standings. Rick Ray returns his entire core from last year’s squad that only won four league games, and he’ll add two key pieces in red shirt freshman Jacoby Davis and veteran big man Wendell Lewis, who only played eight total games last season. The addition of Davis — who is expected to be Mississippi State’s starting point guard should allow last season’s leading scorer Craig Sword to play mostly off the ball. Veteran guard Jalen Steele is ahead of schedule from last spring’s ACL tear and should be ready for the start of the season. With Steele, Sword, and sophomore guard Fred Thomas, who averaged 9.7 PPG last year as a freshman, Ray has multiple perimeter options offensively that can score the ball. A big key for this team is the continued development of sophomore post player Gavin Ware, who has the ability to become one of the better front court players in the SEC as his career progresses. The Bulldogs are still a ways away from competing with the conference’s top echelon, but it’s clear that they’re heading in the right direction.
SEC PRESEASON POWER RANKINGS
THE SKINNY: There is one theme in Lexington next season: “The Empire Strikes Back”.
THE SKINNY: The Gators will make Patric Young an offensive focal point.
THE SKINNY: Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes give the Vols the SEC’s top front court.
THE SKINNY: Johnny Jones’ recruiting class makes the Tigers a legitimate threat for the field of 68.
THE SKINNY: The Tigers will play plenty of four-guard sets with Earnest Ross at power forward.
6. OLE MISS
THE SKINNY: Expect freshman Sebastian Saiz to be an immediate contributor.
THE SKINNY: Death, taxes, and Anthony Grant’s teams will defend at a high level.
8. TEXAS A & M
THE SKINNY: Florida State transfer Antwan Space will make the Aggies longer defensively.
THE SKINNY: Freshmen Bobby Portis and Moses Kingsley give Mike Anderson some capable size up front.
10. MISSISSIPPI STATE
THE SKINNY: Rick Ray has things on the uptick in Starkville.
THE SKINNY: The Dores will have to regroup after losing both Kedren Johnson and Kevin Bright.
THE SKINNY: Mark Fox’s team will be experienced, but who replaces Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s scoring?
13. SOUTH CAROLINA
THE SKINNY: Frank Martin has a group of guys that will compete on a nightly basis. After last season, that’s a major step in the right direction.
THE SKINNY: PG remains a major question mark for the Tigers.
SEC PRESEASON FIRST TEAM
Jordan McRae, Tennessee
Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss
Julius Randle, Kentucky
Johnny O’Bryant, LSU
Patric Young, Florida
SEC PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Jordan McRae, Tennessee
15 WHO HAVE WAITED AND WILL MAKE A MAJOR IMPACT
Dorian Finney-Smith, Florida (transfer)
Damontre Harris, Florida (transfer)
Jeronne Maymon, Tennessee (red shirt)
Pops Ndiaye, Tennesseee (JUCO)
Jordan Clarkson, Missouri (transfer)
Keanau Post, Missouri (JUCO)
Antwan Space, Texas A & M (transfer)
Jamal Jones, Texas A & M (JUCO)
Eric McClellan, Vanderbilt (transfer)
Ty Johnson, South Carolina (transfer)
KT Harrell, Auburn (transfer)
Marcus Thornton, Georgia (red shirt)
Wendell Lewis, Mississippi State (red shirt)
Jacoby Davis, Mississippi State (red shirt)
Alandise Harris, Arkansas (transfer)
15 IMPACT FRESHMEN
Julius Randle, Kentucky
Andrew Harrison, Kentucky
Aaron Harrison, Kentucky
Dakari Johnson, Kentucky
James Young, Kentucky
Kasey Hill, Florida
Chris Walker, Florida
Bobby Portis, Arkansas
Moses Kingsley, Arkansas
Jarell Martin, LSU
Jordan Mickey, LSU
Jimmie Taylor, Alabama
Robert Hubbs, Tennessee
Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
Wes Clark, Missouri
10 UNDER-THE-RADAR FRESHMEN
Marcus Lee, Kentucky
Tim Quarterman, LSU
Darcy Malone, LSU
Damian Jones, Vanderbilt
Shannon Hale, Alabama
Duane Notice, South Carolina
Demetrius Henry, South Carolina
Darius Thompson, Tennessee
Sebastian Saiz, Ole Miss
Devante Fitzgerald, Texas A & M
10 BREAKOUT PLAYERS
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
Michael Frazier, Florida
Malik Morgan, LSU
Stefan Jankovic, Missouri
Aaron Jones, Ole Miss
Rashad “Ky” Madden, Arkansas
Rod Odom, Vanderbilt
Retin Obasohan, Alabama
Charles Mann, Georgia
Alex Caruso, Texas A & M
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