The Southeastern Conference is home to the defending national champion, a pair of new teams, and a host of other contenders looking to unseat the Cats in the league and possibly in Atlanta. ESPN writers were asked for their projections for the 2012-13 basketball season in the SEC. They aren’t overly hyped on Kentucky.
— Will another highly touted freshman class lead Kentucky to a third straight Final Four?
No. A few months ago, I had a different perspective since the pieces are clearly there. Nerlens Noel leads another stellar recruiting class that can guide the Wildcats deep into the NCAA tournament. And like last season’s young crew, those freshmen will have plenty of help with North Carolina State transfer Ryan Harrow in the mix and Kyle Wiltjer returning.
But the other contenders (and the veterans that lead them) can’t be ignored. NC State, Michigan, Indiana, UCLA, Louisville and Kansas can joust with the Wildcats. They’re stacked, too. You can’t sleep on Arizona, Duke, Florida or Syracuse, either. Plus, Anthony Davis and his transcendental defense are gone (Noel is not Davis). He was the key to Kentucky’s national title run in March.
These players have a load of pressure on their shoulders unlike any other team in the country. But they are prepared for it — they wouldn’t have signed up to play ball at Kentucky if they weren’t. It’s incredibly hard to predict back-to-back national championships, not to sound pessimistic, but the only place for a defending national champion to go is down.
Since UCLA’s seven-consecutive titles in the late 1960s and early 70s, only two teams have gone back-to-back; Duke in 1991-92 and Florida in 2006-07. But if any other team is capable of doing it, it has to be Kentucky.
— Which team has the best chance of unseating UK atop the SEC?
Most prognosticators will tab Florida as the team most likely to challenge Kentucky for the SEC title, and while the Gators are certainly a reasonable selection, I’ll pick Missouri. You can’t win without high-level guards, and the Tigers have two of the best in the country in Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon. Pressey was a finalist for the Cousy Award last season and could emerge as a top-five point guard as a junior. Combo guard Dixon moves into the starting lineup after earning national sixth man of the year honors a season ago. Not many players are as good in close, late-game situations.
No disrespect to Missouri this season, but ESPN’s justification for picking the Tigers to overtake Kentucky seems a bit iffy. How did that elite platoon of guards work out last season in the first round of the NCAA Tournament? You can run out as many flashy ball-handlers as you want on Kentucky, but elite big men (Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein) won’t allow a guard too many clean looks inside. And with lengthy outside defense face guarding the best shooter (Alex Poythress) it seems like it will take a more dynamic team to dethrone the Cats.
All homer-ness aside, what is your take? Do the Cats have what it takes to run the table in the SEC? To get back to the Final Four in Atlanta? One thing is for sure, it’s going to be another fun ride.