You Gotta See This: SEC
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season — from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Kentucky. Obviously.
It is always tempting, writing a series like this, to intentionally eschew the obvious. It is especially tempting in the 2013-14 SEC.
Last week's media days in Birmingham, Ala., revealed a league, and a press corp, doing some understandable introspection. Last season, the SEC sent just three teams to the NCAA tournament. Florida was its lone national title contender. Kentucky was down. The league as a whole contained much mediocre dross even among its tourney-bid hopefuls, to say nothing of its cellar. It was probably the seventh-best league in the country — which not only stood in stark contrast to ESS EEE SEE FOOTBALL WOOO, but, for a putative member of the "power six," was just plain awkward. For a hoops nerd who spends most of his January, February and March thinking about scheduling, the ensuing questions — Would the SEC's collective scheduling push help? When is a down year just a down year? — were fascinating.
So are many of its least-obvious teams. At full strength, Florida is national title-talented, but the Gators don't remotely resemble "full strength." Missouri, full of fresh faces, is led by a coach who just narrowly escaped potentially career-ending NCAA trouble. Ole Miss has Marshall Henderson; maybe you've heard of him. LSU, already much improved in 2012-13, adds one of the most exciting freshman in the country. Tennessee should (repeat: should) be really good.
There are stories here, in other words. But to spend this space on them would mean to ignore the gigantic royal blue elephant in the room, and hey, guess what? Giant blue elephants are obvious.
Let's just be real: The one thing you've got to see in the SEC this season is Kentucky.
This is frequently true, especially since John Calipari arrived in Lexington. But at the risk of digging myself into an end-of-history fallacy, Calipari's entire tenure has been building toward 2013-14. How so? Over five years, Coach Cal has managed to mold the rational self-interest of constantly feted 18-year-old stars into system-level buy-in, and he's messaged the whole thing so well that the cycle — recruit top kids, get them drafted, win along the way, recruit more top kids — is practically self-sustaining. This season, Calipari didn't just land top players at every position (ho-hum). He managed to convince players who would compete against each other (and Kentucky's returners) to sign up anyway. Calipari's always been a good recruiter, but this is something else.
The upshot, in 2013-14, was the greatest recruiting haul of all-time. Five of the top nine players in the stacked 2013 class committed to Kentucky. With power forward Marcus Lee accounted for, make that six of the Top 25. Julius Randle, UK's star freshman power forward, has already been named preseason SEC player of the year; he might be the best candidate to unseat Andrew Wiggins at the top of the 2014 NBA draft. NBA scouts are likewise raving about small forward James Young. The Harrison Twins are a devastating backcourt combo. The whole thing is just … I mean, it's crazy.
Back at SEC media day, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said Kentucky would be the "best team he's ever coached against." And he hasn't even played them yet. Such are the stakes for this Kentucky group: Not just an SEC title but a dominant one, not just a national title but a 40-0 campaign. Meanwhile, 2012-13 reminded us that Calipari's cycle is far from infallible. Nothing feels guaranteed.
Which is how we go from first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris to open talk of an undefeated season. It's how Calipari can vacillate from humility to "We don't play college basketball — we are college basketball" at Big Blue Madness. Kentucky has a chance to be one of the best college basketball teams ever assembled. It may fall short, and maybe drastically so. Either way, you're buying a ticket on that ride.