It's the SEC's turn in the preview spotlight. Here are five things I can't wait to see in the conference this season:
1. Florida's rebirth
Bill Simmons, some other guy that writes for ESPN.com, has a rule: "After your team wins a championship, they immediately get a five-year grace period: You can't complain about anything that happens with your team (trades, draft picks, salary-cap cuts, coaching moves) for five years. There are no exceptions." There's nothing particularly wrong with that rule, but success breeds the desire for more success, so it's hard for a fan base -- even as it basks in the glory of back-to-back titles -- to just sit a half-decade out. In other words, spoiled as they might have been by Florida's back-to-back national title brilliance in 2005-06 and 2006-07, you can forgive Gators fans for maybe being just a little bit impatient. Billy Donovan's program took a steep nose dive into NIT mediocrity for two years following his career-making national titles. Some Florida fans even questioned if Donovan merely caught lightning in a five-man batch, that the glory days at Florida were already over.
As we know now, Donovan has been patiently and quietly performing a classic rebuilding project in Gainesville. That project started to pay dividends last season, when a young Gators team got back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the program cut down the nets. In 2010-11, the project should really pay off. Florida returns all five starters from last season's team. That group includes a trio of seniors led by forward Chandler Parsons, and a still-developing sophomore talent in Kenny Boynton. More talent arrives this fall, too, in the form of 6-foot-9 forward Patric Young, the No. 13-ranked player in the class of 2010. That combination of veteran experience and precocious talent led the SEC media to overwhelmingly select Florida as the favorite in this season's SEC, and if Young is ready to contribute immediately, the Gators could be a top-10-type team for much of the season.
Which is to say that while they still have a ways to go -- and this season's team will have plenty of last season's flaws baked in -- Donovan's Gators are back on top of the SEC. And guess what? It didn't even take five years.
2. Kentucky's young stars
That group may or may not include Enes Kanter, the Turkish forward whose eligibility case remains at a standstill at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. But no matter: John Calipari's latest No. 1 recruiting class should still have plenty to offer in entertainment value. There's guard Brandon Knight, the No. 2-ranked point guard in the 2010 class, who gave UK fans the vapors in a trio of impressive summer exhibition performances. There's Terrence Jones, the No. 2 small forward in the class, who put on a Washington hat at a press conference before finally settling on Big Blue. There's Doron Lamb, another McDonald's All-American, who could play Eric Bledsoe to Knight's John Wall. This team will have interior issues if Kanter can't get eligible; the only other players taller than 6-foot-8 on the 2010-11 roster are junior college transfer Eloy Vargas and little-used backup Josh Harrelson. Meanwhile, Calipari is promising a return to his up-tempo dribble-drive system after last season's more post-oriented pro-style offense. We might not know how good this Kentucky team can be -- anything is on the table -- but we do know that those freshmen should be awfully entertaining.
3. Trey Thompkins' turn in the spotlight
If you took an informal poll of 100 casual college basketball fans, I bet 65 wouldn't be able to tell you where Trey Thompkins played his basketball. Learn now, folks: Mr. Thompkins just might be your SEC Player of the Year by the time March rolls around. That honor will have to do with Georgia's performance, of course. The Bulldogs played their conference foes as tough as anyone last season, and second-year coach Mark Fox has a couple of talented players in hyperathletic guard Travis Leslie and prized in-state recruit Marcus Thornton, and Georgia should be more competitive and consistent in 2010-11. But the real draw is Thompkins. Versatile at 6-foot-10 and 247 pounds, Thompkins is an effective rebounder, a tough interior scorer, a shot-blocker, and the rare college big man capable of working his game from anywhere on the court. In 2009-10, he averaged 17.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game, all the while shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc. There's no reason to expect any less this season. The only difference this time around is a few people outside the SEC might actually notice.
4. The debut of Renardo Sidney
Few players come with so much baggage, and so much talent, as Mississippi State forward Renardo Sidney. Ineligible for his entire freshman season thanks to a handful of shaky recruiting issues, Sidney languished on the sidelines in 2009-10 wondering when it would be his turn. This season, after all that waiting, Sidney's turn has finally come. (After a nine-game suspension and a repayment of around $11,000. Naturally.) Sidney was one of the most highly touted big men in the 2009 class, and in the wake of the graduation of Jarvis Varnado, the NCAA's all-time leading shotblocker, Sidney's effectiveness on the low block will be immediately needed. Will his long-awaited arrival live up to the hype? We'll eagerly wait nine games to find out.
5. The ongoing Tennessee mess
It's never easy to predict how off-court drama will affect on-court performance. Last season, when Tennessee was missing four players (including top big man Tyler Smith) thanks to their involvement in a New Year's Day arrest, the team's season was supposed to be over. Instead, without Smith, the Volunteers went on to upset Kansas at home and eventually make an appearance in the Elite Eight. In other words, it'd be foolish to write off Bruce Pearl's 2010-11 Volunteers. Pearl's situation keeps getting worse. While the successful coach wouldn't lose his job thanks to on-court performance, he has already had his contract terminated, has been caught in at least one big lie, and will be facing the same questions all year long. It's impossible to predict just how much of a distraction the nonsense swirling around Tennessee's program could be, but one thing is for sure: Pearl's position is tenuous. There is little he can do on the court in 2010-11 to improve it.