By Jon Rothstein
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FIVE QUESTIONS ENTERING THE SEC
1. WILL A LACK OF EXPERIENCE AFFECT KENTUCKY?
Maybe in the first month of the season, but it shouldn't be a real factor in February and March. Unlike last year when the Wildcats had three grizzled veterans in Darius Miller, Terrence Jones, and Doron Lamb, this year's Kentucky team doesn't have one single player that logged significant time during last year's run to the national championship. With that said, Kyle Wiltjer did play spot minutes for John Calipari's team a season ago and NC State transfer Ryan Harrow started for the Wolfpack two years ago. Another key piece is Wright State transfer Julius Mays, who averaged 14.1 points per game last season in the Horizon League. With Wiltjer, Harrow, and Mays, Kentucky has three players from different backgrounds that now they come together in Lexington with the same goal --- getting the Wildcats back to the Final Four.
2. JUST HOW GOOD IS THIS CROP OF KENTUCKY FRESHMEN?
They're outstanding but they're probably not as hyped as the last few recruiting classes. 6-10 center Nerlens Noel was the number one prospect in the Class of 2012 and Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin are two dynamic wings that can score ball at will. Unlike the past few years where Calipari has brought in a dynamic lead guard, there is no true floor general in this year's crop of incoming Wildcats. The real sleeper of this group according to several people in Lexington is Willie Cauley, a 6-10 big man who should be ready to play immediately.
3. HOW WILL MISSOURI MESH?
It all comes down to how they share. The Tigers return a terrific back court with Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon and add four impact transfers in Alex Oriakhi (UCONN), Earnest Ross (Auburn), Keion Bell (Pepperdine), and Jabari Brown (Oregon). Missouri also welcomes back power forward Laurence Bowers who missed last season with a knee injury. Frank Haith managed last year's team superbly and only really played two reserves because the Tigers didn't have much depth --- something that won't be a problem this season. More players means more options and that ultimately means more people that want to play major minutes. If guys like Bell, Brown, and Ross are willing to sacrifice shot attempts for wins, this team can compete for an SEC title in their first year in the conference. Top to bottom, this could be the league's most talented team.
4. WILL THE LIGHT GO ON FOR PATRIC YOUNG?
If it does, the rest of the SEC is in trouble. Young is our pick for SEC Player of the Year and even though he was solid as a sophomore, we're thinking he's going to spectacular as a junior. Last season, Young averaged 10.2 points and 6.4 rebounds a game. With Bradley Beal and Erving Walker no longer around to command a plethora of shots in the Gators' offense, the 6-9 Young will become more of a focal point for Billy Donovan's team, who again should be right in the mix for a conference title and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
5. WHO IS THE SLEEPER?
Without question it's Arkansas. Mike Anderson has a deep, talented team that should have a real chance to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in only his second season as head coach in Fayetteville. BJ Young is as good of a guard as there is in the SEC and Ky Madden, Rickey Scott, and Mardracus Wade are all capable ancillary perimeter pieces. The real X-Factor for this team could be JUCO transfer Coty Clarke. Just like when Anderson coached DeMarre Carroll when he was at Missouri, Clarke is an active athlete that can rebound and run the floor. That coupled with the return of a healthy Marshawn Powell and an improved Hunter Mickelson leads us to believe that the Razorbacks have the balance, talent, and depth to challenge the elite teams in the SEC.
SEC PRESEASON POWER RANKINGS
THE SKINNY: John Calipari again has the Wildcats positioned for another banner season.
THE SKINNY: Billy Donovan may have the nation's best front court with Patric Young, Will Yeguete, and Erik Murphy.
THE SKINNY: A bevy of transfers has Frank Haith's squad in the mix for an SEC title in their first year in the conference.
THE SKINNY: Jarnell Stokes will make a major jump as a sophomore.
THE SKINNY: JUCO transfer Coty Clarke is a player.
THE SKINNY: Freshman Devonta Pollard has to be a factor for Anthony Grant's team to reach the NCAA Tournament.
7. OLE MISS
THE SKINNY: If you don't know Rebels guard Jarvis Summers, you will after the upcoming season.
THE SKINNY: Tony Barbee has drastically upgraded the Tigers roster with a terrific recruiting class.
THE SKINNY: There isn't one basketball fan in America that wouldn't pay top dollar to watch Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
10. TEXAS A & M
THE SKINNY: Billy Kennedy has a revamped roster in the Aggies' first year in the SEC.
THE SKINNY: This will be a transitional year for Kevin Stallings.
THE SKINNY: Johnny Jones has an underrated team that could jump a few spots in this poll before the year is done.
13. SOUTH CAROLINA
THE SKINNY: It's not going to happen overnight for Frank Martin in Columbia --- but he'll get the Gamecocks to guard.
14. MISSISSIPPI STATE
THE SKINNY: A long, long road is in front of first year head coach Rick Ray.
SEC PRESEASON FIRST TEAM
BJ Young, Arkansas
Kenny Boynton, Florida
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Georgia
Alex Oriakhi, Missouri
Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
SEC PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Patric Young, Florida
TEN THAT HAVE WAITED AND WILL MAKE A MAJOR IMPACT
1. Ryan Harrow, Kentucky (transfer)
2. Coty Clarke, Arkansas (JUCO)
3. Marshawn Powell, Arkansas (red shirt)
4. Earnest Ross, Missouri (transfer)
5. Keion Bell, Missouri (transfer)
6. Jabari Brown, Missouri (transfer)
7. Tony Criswell, Missouri (JUCO)
8. Laurence Bowers, Missouri (injury)
9. Fabyon Harris, Texas A & M (JUCO)
10. Asauhn Tatum, Auburn (JUCO)
TEN BREAKOUT PLAYERS
1. Kyle Wiltjer, Kentucky
2. Trevor Lacey, Alabama
3. Elston Turner, Texas A & M
4. Scottie Wilbekin, Florida
5. Mike Rosario, Florida
6. Hunter Mickelson, Arkansas
7. Rod Odom, Vanderbilt
8. Kedren Johnson, Vanderbilt
9. Jarvis Summers, Ole Miss
10. Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee
TEN FRESHMEN TO WATCH
1. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
2. Archie Goodwin, Kentucky
3. Alex Poythress, Kentucky
4. Willie Cauley, Kentucky
5. Devonta Pollard, Alabama
6. Braxton Ogbueze, Florida
7. Jordan Price, Auburn
8. Shaquille Johnson, Auburn
9. J-Mychal Reese, Texas A & M
10. Alex Caruso, Texas A & M
FIVE UNDER THE RADAR FRESHMEN
1. Michael Frazier, Florida
2. Brian Greene, Auburn
3. Jordon Granger, Auburn
4. Shawn Smith, Texas A & M
5. Michael Qualls, Arkansas
Which team from the SEC will make the biggest tourney splash? Be heard in the comments below...
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