- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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The SEC finally did away with the divisional format and was on the verge of getting away from East-West scheduling to create more balance in an unbalanced schedule.
And then the league added Texas A&M and Missouri for 2012-13.
So this is the final season as a 12-team league. And don't expect much to change since John Calipari arrived in Lexington three years ago, as Kentucky will be the team to chase again.
With conference play starting up Saturday, let's take a closer look at the SEC:
The favorite: Kentucky simply has the most talent of any SEC team. The Wildcats are extremely difficult to match up against because of their length, size and versatility.
Kentucky is seemingly unbeatable in Rupp Arena. Of course, there are road games that will prove to be tough for the Wildcats, including at Florida, at Vanderbilt and at Mississippi State. And there could be another tough matchup that's not expected.
The play at the point with Marquis Teague hasn't been up to the level that Calipari has had in the past four seasons. And Terrence Jones hasn't been 100 percent healthy and doesn't always appear motivated.
But Anthony Davis on the back line and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's ability to get to the basket and the shooting of Doron Lamb make this team extremely difficult to play. The Wildcats are just a missed free throw and a close out on a 3-point shot from being undefeated.
I just don't envision UK losing the SEC title. No other team has shown any kind of consistency. The Cats can board, score in bunches, share the basketball and shoot at a high percentage. How the Big Blue handle some raucous home courts in the SEC will be their toughest challenge. How they deal with Calipari getting in their grills if they don't do as instructed will be another sign of maturity.
Other contenders: There are three.
Mississippi State has the best pair of big men in the conference with Arnett Moultrie and the enigmatic Renardo Sidney. The guards, Dee Bost and Rodney Hood, can compete with any other starting perimeter combo in the league. The Bulldogs will get Kentucky at home in the unbalanced schedule, so that's a huge lift for this team's chances.
The question for MSU is whether its bench can handle late-game situations if the foul problems persist. How tough can this team be on the road -- especially in games that it should win? Maybe it is a natural skepticism with this crew, but it hasn't delivered on a consistent enough basis to feel otherwise. The Bulldogs were in the hunt in the SEC, and of course the SEC West, even during last season's turbulent season. Is this the season they win the conference against teams with supposedly more talent? Maybe. But that talent gap isn't really that wide anymore.
Outside of Vanderbilt, Florida is the most experienced perimeter team. But the guards, Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, still have moments when they can shoot this team out of games. The Gators also have a thin frontcourt. Patric Young can show flashes of brilliance then fade into the background. Erik Murphy can be a difference-maker when he's making shots.
The Gators had the toughest road nonconference schedule, as they visited three difficult campus arenas at Ohio State, Syracuse and Rutgers. Florida lost all three games. The potential is certainly there, but it's hard to get on board for an SEC title based on its inability to knock off any of the above-mentioned teams on the road, including failing to close out the struggling Scarlet Knights in double overtime.
Vanderbilt has the most experienced starting five in the country. The excuse of Festus Ezeli being ineligible/hurt earlier in the season is no longer an issue. Coach Kevin Stallings said that the Commodores will be heard from in March. Well, if the recent blowout win at Marquette is any indication, the Dores might not have to wait that long.
Vandy has the experience in John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, Brad Tinsley and Ezeli to hang with any group in the league. But can this team get over its propensity for failing to finish key games? Can it avoid duds like losses to Cleveland State and Indiana State at home? That's still to be determined.
Player of the year (so far): This race is wide open. My hunch is that it will be someone from Kentucky, possibly Kidd-Gilchrist or Davis. Kidd-Gilchrist is a game-changing offensive talent. Davis can alter the back line better than most.
But don't rule out Mississippi State's Moultrie or even Jenkins from Vanderbilt. Moultrie wins this if the Bulldogs claim the SEC title. The same is true for Jenkins. I'm not sold on anyone from Florida.
Freshman of the year (so far): Once again, this is too close to call. Davis has been a dominant defensive player. Kidd-Gilchrist is just starting to scratch the surface on how effective he can be. Neither one has raced ahead of the other. But there is a strong chance that Kentucky sweeps the freshman and player of the year honors.
Wins to brag about: Kentucky over North Carolina, Kansas and Louisville; Mississippi State over West Virginia, Arizona and Texas A&M; Florida over Arizona and Texas A&M; LSU over Marquette; Vanderbilt over Marquette; Alabama over Purdue.
Losses that sting: Florida to Rutgers; Mississippi State to Akron; Vanderbilt to Cleveland State and Indiana State; LSU to Coastal Carolina and South Alabama; South Carolina to Elon and Tennessee State; Tennessee to Austin Peay and Oakland.
Pleasant surprises: Despite the early-season losses, LSU has been the surprise so far. The Tigers' turnaround isn't complete but they should be more than competitive in the SEC with a chance to be a top-half team. Sidney hasn't imploded the Bulldogs. Alabama got Andrew Steele back from concussion symptoms. The entire Kentucky freshmen class is living up to its hype -- save for maybe Teague. The Gators' Beal could turn out to be the team's most talented player.
Biggest disappointments: Teague. Perhaps there was too much pressure on him at the point and the recent track record of Calipari point guards was too high a standard to match. Still, he hasn't been the elite freshman point guard Kentucky has expected. Florida and Vanderbilt's inability to close out certain games. Ole Miss has one of the most talented frontcourts under Andy Kennedy, yet the Rebels continue to lack consistency in the nonconference, setting up must-win situations in the league. And on Thursday, things got even worse when Ole Miss dismissed leading scorer Dundrecous Nelson for multiple failed drug tests.
Three questions going forward
How legitimate is Alabama?
The Tide have had a difficult schedule. They haven't been completely healthy, either. And remember this was an NIT team a season ago. Still, they missed out on a few opportunities after winning the Puerto Rico Shootout. There were difficult games such as Georgetown at home and Kansas State in Kansas City. But the potential is still there for Alabama to be a major factor in the race for a top-three finish. An 11-3 record heading into the weekend isn't exactly shameful.
Will Mississippi State-Kentucky be the game of the season?
The two teams play one time in the SEC, and the game is in Starkville. The Bulldogs have the front line to match up with Kentucky. But for this game to matter as much as it could on Feb. 21, the Bulldogs will have to handle their business in the other winnable games and steal some road wins along the way. But this contest could potentially stand in the path of UK blitzing through the SEC.
What's the realistic number of NCAA bids?
The SEC starts the conference season with the potential for six bids -- half the league. You can pencil in, barring some sort of collapse, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Florida. Vanderbilt should be fine, too. That means Alabama has to avoid a free fall. The team that could still make a run is LSU. The Tigers missed a chance in losing to Virginia at home. But what if they upset Kentucky in Baton Rouge?
1. Kentucky: Too much talent and the best home court in the SEC.
2. Mississippi State: A bit of an upset pick here, but the play of Moultrie and Bost could be the difference.
3. Florida: The Gators have the experience on the perimeter and have played a tough road slate to get them prepared.
4. Vanderbilt: The Commodores are hard to trust, but a top-four finish is more than palatable.
5. Alabama: The Tide will be a tough out in Tuscaloosa and will start to defend even better going on the road.
6. LSU: Trent Johnson could be the coach of the year in the SEC if he grabs a top-six finish in the league.
7. Georgia: The Bulldogs have slowly put together a team that is capable of competing for an upper-half finish. Georgia has played a difficult slate on the road.
8. Arkansas: Mike Anderson has dealt with injuries, but he is familiar with getting a team ready for a conference sprint.
9. Ole Miss: The dismissal of leading scorer Dundrecous Nelson and reserve Jamal Jones pushes the Rebels down to the bottom third.
10. Tennessee: The Vols have a talent depletion, but this team plays too hard to fall to the cellar. Especially with freshman Jarnell Stokes coming on board.
11. South Carolina: The length up front can be a problem for opponents. Don't be surprised if the Gamecocks win a game or two they're not supposed to.
12. Auburn: The Tigers are slowly beginning the rebuilding project under Tony Barbee. This is Step 1.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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