College Basketball Preview: Kentucky Is Once Again Head and Shoulders Above the SEC
John Calipari is one of the few constants in Lexington, but the annual turnover experienced by the Kentucky Wildcats does little to buoy the hopes of their SEC competition.
To no one's surprise, Coach Cal has done it again, loading up his Wildcats roster with a slew of extremely-talented, highly-scouted NBA Draft prospects. Given the strength of Duke's recruiting class, Kentucky's freshmen will have to share the national spotlight a bit this season, but no matter how quickly they develop, they should be a factor in the national title discussion.
Behind Kentucky in the SEC are programs in various stages of transition, most needing to outperform expectations in order to reach the Big Dance this season. Though it's a "power" conference, the SEC placed just three teams in the NCAA Tournament field last season, and ESPN's Joe Lunardi currently doesn't expect them to top that mark in 2017.
Uncertainty can breed opportunity, and the SEC has plenty of schools who would love to take advantage and earn a long-awaited return to the national spotlight.
Team to Beat: Kentucky Wildcats
Seemingly a no-brainer here, as it would be a major shock to analysts and pollsters if either Kentucky or Kansas failed to win their conferences this year. Kentucky's recruiting class boasts five five-star recruits, per the ESPN100 prospect list, three of whom, in particular, are expected to be impact stars this season.
Point guard De'Aaron Fox and shooting guard Malik Monk are expected to step right in and replace 2016 NBA Draft picks Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray. Fox, already receiving comparisons to John Wall, brings a ton of athleticism and quickness to an offense that could be devastating in transition.
Monk is a sharpshooter who wasted no time making his presence felt on the collegiate stage, sinking seven three-pointers in Kentucky's early win over Michigan State.
These two will be joined by sophomore Isaiah Briscoe, who averaged just under 10 points a game last season and has emerged as Kentucky's leading scorer in the first three games of the regular season.
The frontcourt should be much improved this year, as that unit looks to catch up to Kentucky's loaded group of guards. The front line is headlined by freshman Bam Adebayo, a 6'9" power forward who promises to be a versatile scorer and glass cleaner inside. He's joined by returnees Derek Willis and Isaac Humphries and fellow five-star freshmen Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel.
On the Rise: Florida Gators
Since going undefeated in the SEC and reaching the Final Four in 2014, the Gators have taken a two-year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament, while also watching longtime coach Billy Donovan leave Gainesville for the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder.
Second-year coach Michael White seems to be in much better position to return Florida to prominence this season, as KenPom currently projects them as the 15th-best team in the country, per its Adjusted Efficiency metric.
Despite missing the NCAA Tournament last year, the Gators were a top-15 team in KenPom's Defensive Efficiency rankings and return many of the players who could make for a repeat of that in 2017. Florida is hoping for offensive growth out of sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen and redshirt junior John Egbunu, while hoping that senior College of Charleston transfer Canyon Barry (19.7 points per game last season) can replicate his high-scoring ways in the SEC.
On the Decline: Vanderbilt Commodores
While Vanderbilt fans may not have been too sad to see coach Kevin Stallings leave to coach Pittsburgh, there's no doubt the Commodores will miss the impact of their two 2016 NBA Draft selections. Gone are Vandy's only two double-digit scorers, Wade Baldwin IV and Damian Jones, who combined to score 28 points per game last season.
Vanderbilt will be led by veterans Luke Kornet, Matthew Fisher-Davis, and Jeff Roberson, but does not have any recruits coming in who can promise to match the productivity of Baldwin or Jones. New coach Bryce Drew was a strong hire after winning 58 games combined in his last two seasons at his alma mater, Valparaiso, but Vandy likely needs to restock the cupboard before they can emerge from the middle of the pack in the SEC.
Player to Watch: Bam Adebayo
Kentucky's got plenty of standouts to choose from, but the key to their title hopes could be Adebayo, arguably the top frontcourt freshman this season. The Wildcats struggled to protect the rim and get production down low last year, as Skal Labissiere could not consistently stay on the floor and contribute in his freshman season (though that didn't stop him from getting selected in the first round of the NBA Draft).
Indiana's Thomas Bryant put himself on the map nationally by pushing Kentucky around down low in the Hoosiers' Second Round win over the Wildcats last year. To get past a team like that this year, Adebayo will need to emerge as a star down low to complement Fox, Monk, and Briscoe with some muscle in the paint.