What I can't wait to see: SEC

October, 26, 2012
10/26/12
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Editor's note: For two weeks, we're rolling out Blue Ribbon previews for every team in the country. We'll also have comprehensive preview coverage of the nation's top 10 conferences. As part of that, we're asking our writers to share what they're most looking forward to in each of those leagues. Today we take a look at the SEC.

These freshmen vs. those freshmen

It’s completely unfair, if not altogether silly, to assume that Kentucky's latest batch of rookies will be as good as last season's. Even John Calipari has said that Nerlens Noel isn't and can't be Anthony Davis -- that Davis was, in fact, a once-in-a-decade player. He's right, but no one is listening. The curse of the blessing of recruiting great talent year in and year out is that one top class is supposed to equate the riches of another. So national championship it is, or so it would seem.

But I'm more curious to see how this group grows into its own identity. The best thing last season's team did, beside shed its individual goals for a team one, was to not try to match anyone else. Those Cats were their own cats, if you will. And Noel, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein have to be themselves and play their own way, ignorant of the inevitable comparisons, if they're going to succeed.

A battle for conference honors

Last season was as much a coronation as it was a conference season. Everyone knew Kentucky was far and away the best team in the SEC. It was just a question of how much better.

Turns out, extremely. UK marched to a perfect 16-0 record in conference play, the program's third perfect run in the league. The Big Blue are picked to win it again, by a pretty wide margin -- 17 first-place votes to runner-up Florida's five -- but the battle ought to be a bit more heated than the pillow fight of 2012. With Patric Young and Kenny Boynton back, Florida should give the Wildcats' newest class of wunderkinds a good fight.

Can anyone else get in the mix?

There's so much change in the SEC this season -- new coaches at South Carolina, LSU and Mississippi State and new members in Missouri and Texas A&M -- it's hard to imagine anyone other than Florida legitimately challenging Kentucky. This would appear to be a two-headed monster of a conference, with little else to put up a fight. But is there an outlier somewhere? A team that could turn the league on its head? There are candidates: Tennessee, if Jarnell Stokes follows up his abbreviated breakout season with a full year of the same; Missouri, if all the pieces come together; or Arkansas, if a more experienced roster can handle Mike Anderson's offensive tempo.

Does Frank Haith have more magic up his sleeve?

The Mizzou coach crafted a master season out of what appeared to be disaster a year ago, taking the Tigers to a 30-5 record (marred by that NCAA tourney upset to Norfolk State) despite losing Laurence Bowers to injury and going small ball. Haith has plenty to work with this season, mostly in the form of Phil Pressey, Michael Dixon and Bowers, but he has to incorporate an army of transfers. Alex Oriakhi, Keion Bell, Earnest Ross and Jabari Brown all sound good on paper, but it's putting those pieces together that could prove tricky. If Haith can manage the chemistry experiment, he could be on to a great debut in the SEC.

How the stare flies in the SEC

That would be Frank Martin's stare, to be exact. Martin, now at South Carolina, was one of the more intriguing hires in a rather ho-hum coaching carousel. He would seem a fish out of water in the genteel state, but Martin wasn't hired to serve tea; he was hired to make South Carolina relevant again. This is something of a mulligan year for Martin. With little left in the cupboard, no one is expecting him to set the world or the Gamecocks on fire this season. But anyone who thinks Martin will be content to sit idly and accept mediocrity doesn't know the man terribly well. Regardless of the win-loss record, I suspect Martin will be a huge shot in the arm for South Carolina and a nice injection into the SEC.

Dana O'Neil | email

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