Although I am tempted to just write “KENTUCKY” and make that single word my entire SEC preview, there are actually a few other subjects in the conference worth discussing. For instance, there are Florida’s seniors, who have made three straight Elite Eights but have yet to make a Final Four. Is this the year they finally get there? There’s also Kentucky’s fresh— oh, right. Um, well, there’s Marshall Henderson. Whether you hate him or extremely dislike him, you gotta admit he’s great television, right? Well, there’s more where that came from because the SEC also features the greatest recruiting class of all time at Kentuc— damn it. Let’s see … um … I bet you didn’t know LSU brought in a McDonald’s All American in local product Jarell Martin. That’s pretty cool, right? Speaking of McDonald’s All Americans, a record was shattered when six of them from this year’s class committed to Kent— SONOFABITCH.
OK, fine. Kentucky is the story in the SEC. There are other relevant teams and players, but if the SEC were a recipe, it would call for a gallon of Kentucky, a few cups of Florida, a teaspoon of Tennessee, and a pinch of Henderson and Frank Haith to give it some zest.
Top Three Teams
The trash talk surrounding Kentucky already has me nauseated, and the season hasn’t started yet. Kentucky fans are wondering why we’re even having a season this year, seeing as how Kentucky will obviously win the national title and there’s about a 95 percent chance the Cats go 40-0. Meanwhile, fans of every other team are plugging their ears, closing their eyes, and yelling “ROBERT MORRIS! NIT! CALIPARI CHEATS!” over and over. It’s gotten to the point that I’m trying to avoid Kentucky fans online. That’s not to say I hate Kentucky fans, even though UK is turning into the Miami Heat of college basketball. It’s just that every argument involving a Kentucky fan follows the same script. I feel like I’m watching Carlos Mencia leading a brainstorming session for those Smack Apparel shirts. I can only read “More like KenSUCKy” followed by “You’re just jealous of our grEIGHTness and that we’re in line for NINE!” so many times before I want to set my face on fire.
Debates about college basketball during the preseason are more meaningless than the clause in Charlie Weis’s contract that gives him a bonus if Kansas wins a football national championship. But since so many people insist on arguing about Kentucky, allow me to chime in. To every non-Kentucky fan: As much as it pains me to say it, Kentucky will almost certainly be the team to beat in March. You can hold on to your Robert Morris and NIT insults if it’ll make you feel warm at night, but I’d bet my middle nut that Kentucky will come as close to making the NIT this season as Grambling State.
So many of Kentucky’s problems last season were a result of two things. First, even though they brought in a great recruiting class, the Cats lost their top six scorers from the 2012 national champion team, leaving Kyle Wiltjer, a guy who couldn’t have fit in less with the rest of the guys on the team, to assume a leadership position that he wasn’t qualified for and didn’t want. This season, Kentucky actually brings back some leadership in Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, who both could’ve gone to the NBA but decided to return for their sophomore years to wash last season’s bad taste out of their mouths. The other problem Kentucky had in 2013 was the team’s lack of a solid point guard. North Carolina State transfer Ryan Harrow was supposed to be the next great Kentucky point guard, but personal off-court issues seemed to get the best of him and he never really panned out. That meant Jarrod Polson, a walk-on who averaged two minutes per game before last season, and Archie Goodwin, a turnover-prone shooting guard with a score-first mentality, had to take over at point guard far too often. Well, there won’t be any similar problems this year, because freshman Andrew Harrison is not only a true point guard, but he also might be the most talented point guard in America. So, yeah, Kentucky has leadership, a real floor general, and a recruiting class that’s a million times better than last year’s. Get your Kentucky jabs in now because the trash-talking opportunities will be few and far between once the season begins.
That said, I wouldn’t be shocked if Kentucky didn’t win the national championship. In fact, I wouldn’t even call the Cats a lock to win the SEC. They will definitely be the most talented team in America, but there will always be question marks anytime a team has that many freshmen playing big roles. For the first time in their lives, a majority of Kentucky’s players will have to deal with scouting reports, traveling, hostile crowds, not being the best player on their team, and all sorts of other things that make being a freshman in big-time college athletics so difficult. Don’t get me wrong — I’d rather have talent than experience every day of the week. But that doesn’t mean Kentucky’s inexperience should be played down.
This is especially true when considering that Florida has a ton of experience as well as plenty of talent. The Gators lost their top three scorers from last year, but they have something Kentucky won’t have for the foreseeable future — four senior (potential) starters in Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Will Yeguete, and Casey Prather. To go along with the senior quartet and sophomore guard Michael Frazier, the Gators bring in two McDonald’s All Americans in Chris Walker and Kasey Hill, as well as three transfers — Dorian Finney-Smith, Damontre Harris, and Eli Carter — who could all end up playing significant roles.
But don’t expect Florida to bust out of the gates to start the season, because the status of seemingly every player on its team remains in doubt. Walker is ineligible for academic reasons and won’t be able to play until December at the earliest. Wilbekin was suspended in June for breaking team rules, and while he has since returned to practice, nobody knows when he’ll suit up for games. Yeguete had microfracture surgery on his knee in the offseason and is expected back this season, although there doesn’t seem to be a timetable for his return. Carter is recovering from a broken leg that is now fully healed, but he still has to work his way back into game shape. And if all that weren’t enough, on Thursday Florida announced that Finney-Smith and Harris have been suspended indefinitely for violating team rules, although my guess is they’ll return before too long. In other words, Florida will likely be a late bloomer this season, so don’t let its slow start fool you.1 If they can get themselves straightened out in time for conference play, the Gators have what it takes to keep their spot atop the SEC throne.
Tennessee is a step below Florida and Kentucky. They don’t project as national title contenders, but the Vols are definitely the third-best team in the SEC and should easily make the NCAA tournament. I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that both reside in the same state, but Tennessee will be like the Memphis Grizzlies of college this season. They play hard-nosed defense, they don’t have a knock-down shooter, and the real strength of their team will come from their big guys. Not only that, but those big guys — Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon — play below the rim, create matchup problems, and are uncomfortably physical. Also, it won’t surprise me at all if one or both of these guys starts a Zach Randolph–Blake Griffin feud with Kentucky’s Julius Randle, just because Randle is a hyped-up freshman who will get all sorts of attention before becoming a top-five pick in the NBA draft, and Stokes and Maymon strike me as guys who don’t care about recruiting rankings or mock drafts and would love to put Randle in his place.
Best College Player — Alex Poythress (Kentucky)
The truth is that Poythress won’t even be the best player on his own team, let alone the best in the whole SEC. But since the five best players in the conference will probably all end up being Kentucky Wildcats, and since enough attention will be paid to UK’s freshmen, I want to give some love to a guy who came back for a second year. Poythress was pretty inconsistent last season, which is something that could be said of every Kentucky player, really. But when he was on — man, was he good. Nerlens Noel was the big name in Lexington before he tore his ACL, and Archie Goodwin finished the season as the leading scorer, but there were plenty of times last year when I was convinced that Poythress was the best of the bunch. One of those times was against Duke, when he put up 20 points and eight boards on a top-10 team in just the second game of his career.
As a 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward who can put the ball on the deck a little bit and is a capable shooter, there’s a lot to love about Poythress’s game. He was a little careless with the ball at times as a freshman, probably because he was overthinking things, and he needs to work on giving a consistent effort every night. But considering that he was a first-year player in the midst of a train wreck of a season for his team, it’s no wonder he struggled in two areas that trouble most freshmen. Now that he doesn’t have an enormous amount of pressure on him, he’s surrounded by a ton of talent (which will help take some of the workload off him while also giving him motivation to play well since so many guys are eager to take his minutes), and he has had his first full offseason with college coaches to work on the nuances of his game, look for Poythress’s name to climb up the mock draft boards as the season progresses.
Best Pro Prospect — Julius Randle (Kentucky)
Randle is about to rock the socks off the college basketball world and I’m not sure enough people realize it. Somehow, a player who some believe could challenge Andrew Wiggins as the top pick in June’s NBA draft is flying slightly under the radar. At some point during the last calendar year, I’ve heard both Jabari Parker and Wiggins referred to as “the best high school player since LeBron.” Most agree that Wiggins is a little better than Parker, but the point is that when you think of Kansas and Duke this year, you immediately think Wiggins and Parker. Yet when you think Kentucky, Randle’s name doesn’t automatically come to mind. Instead, you probably just think Kentucky has another great recruiting class and you’ll bother learning all the names after you see them play a few times. Well, I’m here to tell you that you need to know who Julius Randle is right now. And just so we’re clear, you need to know his name because he’s the best player on what could end up being the most talented college basketball team ever assembled.
Since I showed an Aaron Gordon YouTube mixtape in my Pac-12 preview, it only seems fitting that I show off Randle’s highlights for my SEC preview. That way you fully understand the beast we’re talking about here. As you watch, keep in mind that that’s 6 feet 9 inches and 250 pounds of muscle moving so fluidly.
Most Underrated Player — Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee)
I get the feeling that most fans don’t know a lot about Tennessee, so when they hear that the Vols are going to be good this year, they’ll look at the roster, notice that last season’s leading scorer, Jordan McRae, is back for his senior year, and just assume that McRae is the best player. Don’t fall into this trap. The truth is that while McRae is good and he might lead Tennessee in scoring again, Stokes is Tennessee’s top guy. Remember watching Tennessee almost upset eventual national champion Kentucky at home in 2012 and hearing the commentators talk about a kid who had just enrolled at UT3 and was playing in the first game of his career just a few days after his 18th birthday? Remember how that kid scored nine points and pulled down four rebounds in 17 minutes and those same commentators talked about how he was going to be a star for Tennessee? You might even remember him going for 16 and 12 against defending national champion UConn two games later. Spoiler alert: That was Stokes.
Knowing this, you may be wondering why you haven’t heard more about Stokes since then. Well, this has a lot to do with Tennessee underperforming last season because Jeronne Maymon, its best returning interior player, sat out the entire year with a knee injury. With Maymon out, little was expected from the Vols and they rarely figured in the college basketball discussion. But even though few were paying attention, Stokes remained a double-double machine and was really the only serviceable big man Tennessee had. With Maymon healthy, McRae back, and Antonio Barton and top recruit Robert Hubbs coming in, Stokes’s stats might dip this season because he’ll have to share the ball a little more and Maymon will help out with rebounding. I don’t expect this to happen, because Stokes should play a few more minutes per game, but even if it does, his role on the team won’t be diminished. For Tennessee to have any chance of challenging Kentucky and Florida or making a deep NCAA tournament run, Stokes will need to be the monster in the paint that I expect him to be.
Best Senior With a Slim Chance at an NBA Career — Patric Young (Florida)
Speaking of monsters in the paint, Young is 6 feet 9 inches and 240 pounds of pure nightmare. I remember sitting courtside when Florida played at Ohio State in November 2011 and feeling uncomfortable that I was so close to Young. He’s so overwhelmingly strong that you have to come up with new ways to describe his physique. His muscles have muscles. Muscles come out of his hair follicles and flow through his veins. He exhales muscles instead of carbon dioxide. That sort of thing.
For Young to have any shot at an NBA career, he’s basically going to have to become Ben Wallace 2.0. My concern with him, though, is that given how imposing he looks, I’d like to see him play with a little more tenacity. He needs to get three fouls a game going through people to get rebounds. He needs to accidentally hurt everybody on the court: “I have the ball and the ball must go through the basket. You can make this easy by getting out of my way, or you can die. The choice is yours.” If he can turn up his aggressiveness and become the rebounding machine that his body wants him to be, the NBA isn’t out of the question. He doesn’t have too many skills, but he plays great defense and finishes well enough around the rim that some team will probably take a chance on him in the second round and hope they can convince him that every rebound is worth $1,000. And if he never finds his inner beast, I won’t be too disappointed, because the thought of him and Titus O’Neil forming a Florida-themed tag team called the “Gator Boyz” that wrestles in gator-skin boots and has a live alligator sidekick is just too perfect.
Player Who Best Fits the Label “Loose Cannon” — Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss)
College basketball’s greatest villain is back for one more year and I couldn’t be happier. That’s right — I’ve changed my mind about Henderson. A year ago, I hated him so much that I didn’t even want to acknowledge him. Typically when I hate an athlete, it’s because he’s the best at what he does and I’m just bitter that he doesn’t do it for my team. Henderson, though, was a unique case in that it was everything but his on-court abilities that made me hate him. I hated him for being a cocky little shit who isn’t half as good as he thinks he is. I hated him for going Super Saiyan every time he made a shot. I hated him because he was a repeat-offender criminal who had been given way too many chances. In short, I hated him because I thought everything about him was terrible for college basketball.
But then I watched this interview with Andy Katz, and something clicked. I’m going to miss Marshall Henderson so damn much. Don’t get me wrong — I still hate him and would ask Ohio State for a refund on my diploma if Thad Matta ever had a guy like that leading his team. But I hate him in the same way I hate Joffrey on Game of Thrones — I’m going to blare Kool & the Gang and dance around my house when he eventually gets his comeuppance, but my life feels a bit empty without him. Just watch that interview and try not to fall out of your chair laughing when, after explaining how he didn’t know counterfeiting money was a felony, and that he doesn’t understand why he can’t party and do cocaine during the offseason, and that he apparently checks in for drug testing every single day, Henderson still believes that his teammates “have no reason not to trust” him. He’s like Rob Gronkowski with a criminal history, twice the ego, and none of the charisma. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that college basketball needs a guy like Henderson, but he certainly brings something that nobody in the history of the sport has ever added. Speaking of which, make no mistake about it: Christian Laettner may have won Grantland’s Most Hated College Basketball Player of the Last 30 Years title in a landslide, but if Henderson were entering his fourth year at Kentucky or Duke instead of this being his fourth school in five years, nobody would even care about Laettner.
Most Intriguing New
Coach Player — Dorian Finney-Smith (Florida)
There aren’t any new coaches in the SEC this season, so I’m going to use this section to discuss a transfer at Florida whose last name you will probably mishear as “50 Cent” at least once. Finney-Smith transferred from Virginia Tech after Seth Greenberg got fired in 2012, following a freshman year in which he averaged 6.3 points and 7.0 rebounds. Whenever the 6-foot-8 sophomore rejoins the team after a suspension, he’ll be able to play the 3 or the 4 on offense, and he can conceivably guard every position on defense if necessary. If the names Mike Miller, Matt Bonner, Corey Brewer, Chandler Parsons, or Erik Murphy bring up bad memories for you because one or more of those guys torched your team, I’ve got some bad news: Finney-Smith is almost certainly going to be the next to graduate with honors from the Billy Donovan school of mismatches. He’s probably not as good of a shooter as most of the guys on that list were, but he’s certainly capable from deep — he shot 37 percent from behind the arc in his one year at Virginia Tech. Given Florida’s problems keeping guys healthy and/or eligible, Finney-Smith might be asked to contribute in a lot of different ways for the Gators early in the season, and his role might shift from game to game. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles this.
Coach on the Hot Seat — Frank Haith (Missouri)
Other than “Do you and Evan Turner really not like each other?” the one question people most often ask me is “Why do you hate Frank Haith so much?” I never get the chance to fully explain the story because I usually get asked on Twitter and have only 140 characters. Let’s address it now. First, however, let me make it clear that I have nothing personal against Haith, and “hate” is way too strong of a word. He’s probably a decent enough guy and I’m sure in another life he and I would get together on the weekends to watch football and eat pizza rolls or something.
Anyway, here’s what happened: At some point during Haith’s first season at Missouri, when the Tigers finished 30-5 and Haith was named national coach of the year, I realized that every time he was shown onscreen he looked like he was having an internal debate over what Nickelodeon slime tasted like. I wasn’t criticizing his coaching at that point. I was just noting that he always looked like he was staring off into space. But then I started paying more and more attention to Missouri’s games and realized far too many of Haith’s players were undisciplined in big spots, especially when they blew a 19-point second-half lead at Kansas. I figured this had to do with Haith’s coaching, but I still wasn’t completely sold that it was his fault. Then Missouri lost to Norfolk State in the first round of the NCAA tournament and everything became clear.
Most of the national media applauded Haith for a 30-win season and blamed the Norfolk State loss on Mizzou’s players, bad luck, and Norfolk State preparing well for the game (while also noting that Coach K and Duke also lost to a 15-seed, so it couldn’t be the coach’s fault). The consensus was that Haith would build off the success and continue to do well in Columbia. I took a different lesson from this game: Frank Haith just isn’t a good coach. Every time I mentioned that Missouri made a hiring mistake,4 Mizzou fans defended Haith and wondered why I was criticizing the national coach of the year. Then I was vindicated when Missouri capped off an underwhelming 2012-13 season with a 12-point loss to Colorado State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Following that loss, I admittedly spiked the ball and said “I told you so” so many times that if you type “Frank Haith Mark Titu” into Google’s search bar, “Frank Haith Mark Titus” comes up as a suggestion.
For what it’s worth, I’d love to be wrong and see Haith prove that he’s been a good coach all along and that he’s just had a run of bad luck. Lord knows Missouri fans have been through enough over the years, and the last thing they need to add to their never-ending torture is an incompetent coach. Unfortunately, considering that Haith’s successor at Miami, Jim Larranaga, won more NCAA tournament games last season than Haith has won in his career, I’m not getting my hopes up.
Most Compelling Story Line — Freshmen
If you’re one of those real-life frat guy types who are the antagonists in every college movie and refer to freshmen as “fresh meat,” you’re going to hate watching SEC basketball this season. That’s because the conference is crawling with talented freshmen who are poised to be stars. Kentucky’s historic recruiting class is getting all the attention, but Kentucky is far from the only SEC school bringing in big recruits. Of the top 12 recruits in the country according to ESPN, eight are headed to Kentucky, Florida, and LSU. Plus, with Bobby Portis at Arkansas, Robert Hubbs at Tennessee, Sindarius Thornwell at South Carolina, Johnathan Williams at Missouri, Jimmie Taylor at Alabama, and Damian Jones at Vanderbilt, nine SEC schools have recruits from ESPN’s top 81. Overall, 20 of ESPN’s top 100 freshmen will play in the SEC this season, which is the most of any conference. Not bad for a football conference.
Water Cooler Comment That Will Make You Sound Like You Really Know What You’re Talking About
“You know, Billy Donovan doesn’t get enough credit for having the best basketball program at a football school ever. I mean, there really isn’t even another coach who comes close to taking that title from him.”
(For bonus points, add “Well, except for Rick Barnes” and then laugh maniacally until you start coughing up blood.)