The SEC struggled through its worst overall basketball season in the modern era in 2008-09: only three teams made the NCAA Tournament, and it would've been only two had the Vols gotten the best of Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament finals, where the Bulldogs secured an automatic bid. Regular season champion LSU was the league's highest seed - at an 8 - and was the only SEC team in the final Top 25 poll of the regular season, at #17. The league placed no teams in the tournament's second weekend, and no players in the first round of the 2009 NBA Draft (though Jodie Meeks, Marcus Thornton and Nick Calathes were all taken in the second).
But if it's always darkest before the dawn, prepare for the bounceback in 2009-10.
This time around, the league has three teams in the preseason polls, two in the top ten, and four others receiving votes. Aside from the three names taken in the NBA Draft, almost every major player from last season is back, joined by superstar recruits and a couple of new head coaches you might have heard of. Just one year after being the worst of the major conferences in college basketball, the SEC will have a chance to be one of the best.
A quick preview of Tennessee's competition:
The once and future king of the SEC is back to lead the conversation: Kentucky had the most productive and most celebrated offseason of any team in college basketball, replacing Billy Gillispie with John Calipari. Calipari proceeded to convince Patrick Patterson to stay in school, and then cleaned up on the recruiting front. The Cats pulled in Rivals' #1 recruiting class in 2009 by getting the two best players in the nation - G John Wall and F DeMarcus Cousins - who join additional five-star freshmen Daniel Orton and Eric Bledsoe, plus in-state star Jon Hood and juco transfer Darnell Dodson. Kentucky could put those five freshmen on the floor, and if they're as good as their recruiting rankings suggest, the Cats could be better than most of the nation with their presence alone.
Jodie Meeks may be gone, which is good news for us...but aside from all the newcomers and PatPat, Kentucky also returns all their role players from last year - Perry Stevenson, Darius Miller, Ramon Harris, DeAndre Liggins - meaning there is no more talented team in the conference, or maybe even the nation. The key to UK's season is how quickly Calipari can get this team to play together, how well he develops the talented freshmen and how quickly they stop playing like freshmen, and how well the Dribble-Drive-Motion offense works in the Bluegrass. If you believe the hype surrounding the coach and the freshmen, this team might win it all. And even if you're skeptical...well, it's a good thing Tennessee is talented this season too.
The Cats and Vols look like the clear-cut class of the SEC, which we think will make for a very interesting season as Pearl and Calipari continue their rivalry. Behind those two, there are three other teams in the SEC East that should be improved and are thinking about March right now: Florida hasn't played in the NCAA Tournament since they won it all in 2007, but bolstered by their own freshman in stud guard Kenny Boynton (22 points in Florida's first exhibition game) and the return of Alex Tyus and Erving Walker, Billy Donovan looks to get this team back where it belongs. On the opposite end of Kentucky's spectrum is South Carolina, joining the Vols in fully relying on veterans: Devan Downey and Dominique Archie both elected to return for their senior seasons, and Darrin Horn looks to get Carolina into the dance in his second season. And our old friend Kevin Stallings returns AJ Ogilvy and Jermaine Beal at Vanderbilt, with all three teams receiving votes in the early polls.
Will the SEC East get five teams in the NCAA Tournament? Probably not, meaning if form holds, one of the Florida/Carolina/Vanderbilt group will be left out in the cold. They'll have company there, as Georgia looks like they'll continue to get comfortable in the basement.
In the SEC West, Mississippi State looks like the third best team in the conference, as Rick Stansbury just keeps doing a good job down in Starkville. The Bulldogs are ranked 18th in the preseason AP poll, and while Jarvis Varnado will get most of MSU's publicity, plenty of other veterans like Ravern Johnson and Dee Bost are still around, joined by a solid recruiting class. And the other team in the state may not be far behind: last year, no team faced adversity the way Ole Miss did, between injuries and off-court incidents. This year, Chris Warren and Eniel Polynice are healthy, and last year's SEC Freshman of the Year Terrico White returns. If the SEC gets six or seven teams in the NCAA Tournament, look for the Rebels to be among them.
Rounding out the rest of the West, Alabama welcomes ex-VCU coach Anthony Grant into the fold, and he'll work with Mikhail Torrance, JaMychal Green and pieces from other talented recruiting classes left behind in his first year. No team started faster and finished flatter than Arkansas last season, but they get almost everyone back, including Michael Washington and Courtney Fortson. Defending champs LSU return Tasmin Mitchell but lost a lot, and are not projected to repeat last year's success. Same goes for Auburn, who surprised by coming on strong late last season.
On paper, Kentucky and Tennessee look like locks for the NCAA Tournament, with Mississippi State not far behind. From there, how deep can the SEC go? Six teams is the league's usual average, and if form holds, that should be an attainable goal. And really, the league could go as deep as seven or eight teams.
All in all, this should be an incredibly exciting year for SEC Basketball. The league has the veterans, the rookies, and the coaching personalities to make a huge splash in the national landscape, and hopefully send several teams on deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. There will be few easy nights come January.