Vols, Missouri, Florida challenge UK

Vols, Missouri, Florida challenge UK

November 4th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

SEC Southeastern Conference

SEC Southeastern Conference

Two Southeastern Conference basketball teams lost all five starters from a year ago.

One of those, Vanderbilt, is predictably picked to finish 10th in the league's preseason media poll.

The other, defending national champion Kentucky, is picked to repeat its 2011-12 regular-season title.

"Whoever said that needs to be drug-tested," fourth-year UK coach John Calipari cracked last week. "We're not starting from scratch. More like scratch-scratch."

But ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes, a former Wildcats assistant, isn't fooled by Calipari's poor-mouthing.

"I think it's going to take them a while to jell," he said of UK's latest collection of super kittens, which could include four freshman starters. "But by January or February they're going to be very good. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see them make another deep run in March."

Deep runs are what Big Blue's been making ever since Calipari arrived in Lexington, Ky., before the 2009-10 season.

One-hundred-two wins, three No. 1 recruiting classes and a No. 2, two Final Four appearances and one national championship later, it's easy to forget that UK was a third-round NIT loser the year before Calipari arrived from Memphis.

"I think Cal is one of the great misunderstood people in the profession," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said at the league's recent one-day media event. "He doesn't get enough credit for coaching."

Given that Cal has posted eight 30-win seasons in his 20 completed collegiate seasons (one was later vacated) while the league's other 13 coaches have five 30-win seasons total, his coaching probably doesn't get enough credit.

But that doesn't mean the UK coach is opposed to praising his SEC brethren, particularly second-year Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, who not only returns four starters to last year's second-round NIT squad but welcomes back suspended post player Kenny Hall.

"The way they play, you have chances to win championships," the UK coach said of the UT program. "They defend, They take good shots. They play in a way that you win."

The Volunteers won 19 games a year ago with a team the league's media had picked to finish 11th in a 12-team conference at the start of the year. They swept Florida, which reached the Elite Eight, and finished tied for second in the regular-season standings with a 10-6 league mark.

So impressed is Gators coach Billy Donovan with these Vols that he has picked them as the league favorites, noting, "Their whole team is back, and I'm not sure that they weren't playing as good as anybody coming down the stretch last year."

Then there's Missouri, which finished 30-5 a year ago, was ranked in the Top 10 for much of the season and may actually be better this year due to transfers Alex Oriakhi from Connecticut and Keion Bell from Pepperdine.

"We got a Christmas present with Alex," Missouri coach Frank Haith said. "All of these guys will have an impact on our team."

According to the Associated Press preseason poll, Donovan's Gators will have the greatest impact other than Kentucky. Ranked 10th in the preseason to UK's No. 3, Florida returns three starters, including imposing post player Patric Young and leading scorer Kenny Boynton.

"I think Florida, Missouri and Tennessee are all a little ahead of my team right now," Calipari said. "I like what we can become, but we're a long way from that right now."

So what can Kentucky become?

Rollie Massimino -- the 77-year-old coach of Northwood University in West Palm Beach, Fla., who brilliantly guided Villanova to the 1985 NCAA title -- directed his NAIA team against both No. 14 Michigan State and UK last week in exhibition games.

He lost by 28 to MSU and by 31 to the Wildcats, then compared them thusly: "Michigan State is a little more physical; Kentucky shoots the ball better. Kentucky is very big, very strong. Both teams will be heard from come tournament time."

To think otherwise about UK under Calipari would be to risk being drug-tested.