published Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

University of Kentucky Wildcats elite but not alone

On Terrence Jones' official recruiting visit to the University of Kentucky, the 6-foot-9 Oregonian wanted to leave his seat in Rupp Arena to grab a soft drink.

"The people hosting us asked me to wait, that I needed security," said Jones, now a UK sophomore. "I was thinking, 'I need security to get a Coke?'

"Then we headed to the concession stand. People were shouting my name, asking for autographs, wanting to take a picture with me. It was crazy. There's nothing quite like Kentucky basketball."

Throughout the Bluegrass State they hope there will be nothing like the 2011-12 basketball season for their beloved Wildcats.

No. 2 in both preseason polls, possessing the No. 1 recruiting class in this season's four freshmen, the Southeastern Conference preseason player of the year in Jones and last spring's SEC tourney MVP in senior Darius Miller, Kentucky is being tabbed as all but certain to reach its second straight Final Four.

Nor is Jones necessarily downplaying those expectations.

"That's why I came back," said the lefty who averaged 15.7 points and a league-high 8.8 rebounds a game last season. "Losing [to Connecticut] in the Final Four left a bad taste in my mouth. I wanted to come back and help us win a national championship."

But what if Big Blue isn't even the best team in its own league? What if Vanderbilt, Florida and possibly Alabama are all better? All three beat UK on their home courts a year ago. All three also seem to be improved.

In fact, Vanderbilt is seventh in the first Associated Press poll, followed by Florida at No. 8 and Alabama at No. 19. Mississippi State received votes in the USA Today coaches' poll.

"[The SEC] should be getting six or seven teams in the NCAA tournament," Kentucky coach John Calipari said last month. "I think we're that good from top to bottom this year."

The league certainly will be as experienced as it has been in years as the regular season begins Wednesday with Akron at Mississippi State. There are 10 Friday games, including UNC Greensboro at Tennessee, Oregon at Vanderbilt, North Florida at Alabama and Marist at Kentucky.

Vandy could start four seniors and a junior. Florida should start a senior, two juniors, a sophomore and a freshman. Mississippi State could start a senior, three juniors and a sophomore. Alabama could start a senior, a junior, two sophomores and a freshman.

Then there's UK, which could start a senior, a sophomore and three freshmen.

Or as Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said of the Wildcats, "I know Terrence Jones is very good. The other guys I don't know much about yet."

What Stallings thinks he knows a lot about as he begins his 13th season with the Commodores is both the expectations and frustrations of their program and fans after three straight opening-round NCAA tourney losses.

"Obviously, there has been a lot of fixation by some on our early exits from the last couple of NCAA tournaments," he said at the SEC's media event. "But if this team can stay healthy, we've got a chance to have the best team we've ever had."

That's certainly the players' goal, though esteemed senior center Festus Ezeli already has injured his right knee and isn't expected back until just before conference play begins.

"We didn't come here to stay for three years and leave," said junior guard John Jenkins, the league's leading returning scorer at 19.5 points per game. "We wanted to have our team on a banner and win championships, and that hasn't happened yet."

Florida won another SEC East regular-season banner last season, and the additions of freshman guard Bradley Beal and Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario figure to make the Gators a tough defender of that crown.

Said Florida coach Billy Donovan of returning backcourt starters Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, plus Beal and Rosario: "I don't know if we have the best backcourt in the country or not, but I think we have some very, very gifted players."

Then there's the supremely gifted returning post player at Alabama, 6-8 senior Mychal Green, who starred on the United States' World University Games team last summer after averaging 15.5 points and 7.5 rebounds during the Crimson Tide's run to the NIT final.

"We're a football and a basketball school now," Green said with a grin during the SEC media event. "I think we're going to be a great pressing team this year, a great defensive team. Defense will always be our identity as long as Coach [Anthony] Grant is here."

And where does Green expect that defensive identity to take the Tide?

"The NIT was great," he said, "but we want to go to the [NCAA] Sweet 16, maybe even the Elite Eight or Final Four."

But only Kentucky can make a second straight trip Final Four appearance from the SEC.

Looking ahead to a loaded SEC and nonconference games against North Carolina, Kansas, Indiana and Louisville, Calipari said, "It's going to be tough to beat those guys with four freshmen."

If he can, there may never be a crazier place than the Bluegrass State come April. If not, UK may struggle to finish second or third in the SEC, much less the nation.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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