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The March to March Begins: Previewing the SEC

Get ready, basketball fans. Get ready for a year in which SEC basketball will not just be a countdown for SEC football. Get ready for an SEC season in which Kentucky will not be the only competitor. Here’s five questions you’re probably asking about the teams in the SEC as we head into the first official week of the college basketball season.

  1.  Do the Wildcats have another Final Four run in them?

It’s a rule of nature. You can’t lose seven players to the NBA and expect to make a serious run for the national championship. It’s impossible. Then again, Kentucky doesn’t really like to follow the rules of nature. They haven’t in the past seven years that John Calipari has been at the head of their program, and with three appearances in national championship games and 25 players sent to the NBA, their strategy seems to have worked. There’s no rebuilding period in Lexington. Only reloading. Point guard Tyler Ulis is back, and even though he spent most of last year in the shadows of the Harrison twins and Karl-Anthony Towns, he’ll have a larger role on the floor this time. Ulis is one of Kentucky’s best defensive guards, and without the 7-foot shot blockers who have been the backbone of their defense in years past, it’ll be important for him to step up. Kentucky also boasts a trio of superstar freshmen–don’t they always?–in Isaiah Briscoe, Jamal Murray and 6’11” center Skai Labissiere. Some say that Labissiere will be the first pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, but he needs to fine tune his offensive game to get there. The duo of Briscoe and Murray will complete one of the strongest backcourts in the country. In years past I’ve been skeptical of how great Kentucky teams really are, but gosh darnit Calipari, I think you’ve convinced me this time. The odds of returning to the Final Four for the fourth time in five years are in Kentucky’s favor, and for all you Wildcat fans, with games against Kansas, Duke and UCLA on the non-conference schedule, you’ll be seeing blue, but certainly not feeling it.

  1. Can Billy Basketball turn Texas A&M around?

For the record, Billy Kennedy isn’t really called Billy Basketball. I just made that up. The people in College Station may either applaud me or hate me right now for bringing back memories of Johnny Football, but from what we’re expecting, they’ll be doing a lot more of the applauding sort once the basketball season starts. Sports Illustrated projected a second place conference finish for the Aggies, who haven’t finished in the top three of the SEC since the 2010-11 season. Billy Kennedy has received mixed welcomes at A&M, but hey, you try convincing the state of Texas to watch basketball, not just football. Even more so, you try making people care about your 21-12, fifth-place conference finish season when said people are still getting over the loss of one Johnny. That was Kennedy’s scenario last year, but now it’s looking as if the Aggies have a shot at being Kentucky’s main challenger for the conference crown. Senior guard Alex Caruso, who was the conference leader in assists last year (4.5 per game), returns, along with junior guard Danuel House, last season’s team leading scorer. The Aggies picked up two freshmen commits in Tyler Davis and Elijah Thomas, who were the seventh and eighth ranked centers in the Class of 2016, respectively, so their addition will make up for the heavy losses suffered in the offseason. Texas A&M has lost seven players on their roster since last season, and five of those seven transferred. That number implies that things may have gotten a little shaky in the past few months in Texas, but with a light non-conference schedule, the Aggies should be perfectly capable of handling it this season.

  1. What’s Florida without Billy Donovan?

Billy the Kid has graduated. It’s been a rough four years for Florida fans–in that span, they’ve lost Urban Meyer, their reputation as the best football team in the Panhandle State (thanks, Seminoles) and now, their coach who saved their basketball program. Billy Donovan was a special coach. He was able to get a strictly-football school in a strictly-football conference to pay attention to basketball, and for that I think both the Gators and the SEC will be forever grateful. Florida finished last season with a 16-17 record, their first losing record in seventeen years. Sports Illustrated said it best: “No coach in college basketball inherits bigger shoes to fill than Mike White.” In all honesty, White doesn’t have the resources to throw together a team that will finish in the top of the conference. Forward Dorian Finney-Smith is projected to average 12.7 points per game this season, but he can’t carry this team on his own. This will be a rebuilding year for the Gators–there is no doubting that. But White is a talented coach. He won 101 games in four seasons at Louisiana Tech, and his recruiting ability and persona is similar to that of Donovan. White looks like he’s in it for the long haul in Gainesville, so don’t be surprised if in a few years, the Gators are back at the top of the SEC.

  1. Is Ben Simmons really LSU’s savior?
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Here’s the thing: when Shaq says something, we don’t usually question it. People smile and nod when he endorses Chris Christie, Icy Hot and Buick. Some shake their heads when he advertises Soda Shaq–but that’s to be expected when you create your own line of cream sodas. So when the LSU alum called incoming Tiger freshman Ben Simmons the “best player in the world”, people listened. Simmons is listed as a six-foot-ten, 240-pound forward, but in reality he can play almost any position, and that is perhaps his greatest asset. LSU finished 11-5 in SEC play last season, and lost to NC State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The two players who led them to that third-place conference finish, Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, moved onto the NBA, but it looks like Simmons will be able to fill both of their roles. The Tigers return an experienced backcourt, one that includes four guards who played more than 24 minutes per game. Senior Keith Hornsby averaged 13.4 points last season, and proved to be a natural leader on the floor. LSU will kick off its home conference schedule on January 5 against Kentucky in a game that will give a good idea of how legitimate this team’s chances are to make a deep run in March.

  1. Is this the year the SEC finally proves it’s more than just Kentucky and a football conference?

We’ve heard this story before, and we’ve asked the same question for the past five or so years. And every single time, those damn Wildcats answer it. Kentucky has dominated the SEC, and for all intents and purposes, the entire college basketball sphere, ever since John Calipari took over. There have only been two times in the past seven years in which the Wildcats have not won either the SEC Tournament or the SEC regular season title: once, in the 2012-13 season, in which they lost six players from the previous year’s team to the NBA Draft. And second, in 2013-14. But they kind of made up for that one on their own, when they made it to the national championship game. For a while, the Florida Gators reminded us that there was more than just Kentucky in the conference. In recent years, they haven’t been able to do that. But even without a major presence in the top five of the SEC from Florida, it looks as if this might be the year the SEC finally puts itself on the map. You know it as well as I do–when you think of the SEC, you think of football, the South, and more football. If you look at SI’s predictions for the bottom half finishers in the conference this season–Mississippi State, Auburn, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama and Missouri–they all share one commonality. They are all powerhouse schools on the gridiron, but not on the hardcourt. Last season, only two SEC teams (Florida and Kentucky) were in the AP preseason rankings. This year, it’s not just the usual suspects. Kentucky, Vanderbilt and LSU all made the cut, and Texas A&M received 72 votes. If those last three teams can have strong seasons, we could see five SEC programs make appearances in the NCAA Tournament.

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