With the start of the 2012-13 college basketball season fast approaching, ESPN Insider is looking at the five burning questions facing each of the major conferences. In this edition, Jay Bilas looks at the SEC.
Can there be a conversation in the SEC that doesn't start with Kentucky?
Clearly not, because we just started ours that way. Kentucky is the most compelling team and program in the country, and that is a good thing. The SEC needs Kentucky to be great, and to have that standard-bearer to raise the level of competition leaguewide. But it comes with a spotlight. Few are on the fence about the Wildcats, seeing UK as the evil empire winning with one-year mercenaries that are "anathema" to the "collegiate model" or simply doing what everyone else strives to do, but UK is just doing it better. I am in the latter camp.
Kentucky and John Calipari have done things that are unprecedented in college basketball history. The Wildcats are not only going young, they are winning young and playing with an unusual togetherness, toughness and unselfishness. Critics can point to talent, but that is not carrying the day. Kentucky played as hard as any team in the country last year, and was as unselfish as any team in the country. That doesn't just happen. Calipari is far beyond just a great recruiter. He is a great coach. In three years at Kentucky, Calipari is 102-14 and has had 11 players taken in the first round of the NBA draft. This year, he has an outstanding crop of talent, but perhaps not as powerful as last year's group. Kentucky can be beaten, and can be challenged. But can this team answer the challenges and make another Elite Eight run or beyond? I wouldn't bet against it.
Who will be SEC Player of the Year?
Kentucky has the best collection of talent and the best team, but scoring usually decides POY awards. Calipari's talent has played so unselfishly over the past few years that such an award can go to a scorer on a lesser team. Last year's award was won by the unusual defensive ability and incredible efficiency of Anthony Davis rather than scoring.
Looking beyond the Kentucky roster, watch out for Arkansas' sophomore guard BJ Young, who had a terrific freshman year and even declared for the NBA draft. He has a scorer's mentality and has the ability to get into the lane and draw contact. The best scorers get to the foul line, and Young has that ability, but he needs to get there more. Young has great speed in the open floor and his length and athleticism combined with increased maturity should lead this talented sophomore to the next level as a player. His competition can come from a teammate, the Razorbacks' Marshawn Powell, or Florida's Kenny Boynton, Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kentucky's Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel, Missouri's Phil Pressey and Tennessee's Jeronne Maymon.
Which team could surprise?
Missouri has the chance to be very good in its first season in the SEC. Despite the poor showing in the NCAA tournament and a defense that didn't match its offensive energy last season, the Tigers have talent.
Phil Pressey is among the top five point guards in the nation, Michael Dixon is an underrated guard, Laurence Bowers returns as a versatile defender and glue guy, and transfers Alex Oriakhi, Keion Bell, Earnest Ross and Jabari Brown all have experience and chips on their shoulders. Frank Haith has to blend a lot of new talent together, but he had to do that last year, too. If this team guards people, it will win.
Who will be the SEC's top newcomer?
Kentucky's Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress will be major impact players in the SEC. Noel is an unusually good shot-blocker who can change the game on the defensive end. It would not be fair to compare him to Anthony Davis, but it is inevitable. Noel is different, and doesn't have the same incredible defensive range that Davis had, but he is a big-time defensive presence. Poythress is a man-child who rebounds and scores around the goal and drives it to the rim. He's not Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but he is going to be really good.
How many bids will the SEC secure, and who's on the bubble?
The SEC will secure at least six bids, with Kentucky, Florida, Missouri, Alabama and Tennessee looking like legitimate locks in the preseason. Arkansas, Ole Miss and Georgia should be in the committee's conversation. The SEC will be very good again, with Georgia, Arkansas and Ole Miss rising a bit, but Vanderbilt and Mississippi State rebuilding after heavy personnel losses.