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LSU freshman Ben Simmons answers a question during media day for Southeastern Conference men's basketball Wednesday in Charlotte, N.C. SEC media selected Simmons as the league's preseason player of the year.

PRESEASON PICKS

Predictions for the 2015-16 Southeastern Conference men’s basketball season from a panel of SEC and national media members, released Wednesday at the league’s media day in Charlotte, N.C.:

Order of finish

1. Kentucky (406 points)

2. Vanderbilt (357)

3. Texas A&M (344)

4. LSU (333)

5. Georgia (266)

6. Florida (258)

7. South Carolina (204)

8. Mississippi State (203)

9. Ole Miss (184)

10. Auburn (168)

11. Arkansas (118)

12. Tennessee (86)

13. Alabama (85)

14. Missouri (33)

Player of the year

Ben Simmons, LSU

All-SEC first team

Danuel House, Texas A&M

Damian Jones, Vanderbilt

Skal Labissiere, Kentucky

Stefan Moody, Ole Miss

Ben Simmons, LSU

Tyler Ulis, Kentucky

All-SEC second team

Dorian Finney-Smith, Florida

Malik Newman, Mississippi State

Charles Mann, Georgia

Alex Poythress, Kentucky

Tim Quarterman, LSU

Alex Caruso, Texas A&M

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If the preseason media poll is right, the best basketball player in the Southeastern Conference this season will be a freshman from Australia who loves opera music and owns two pet bearded dragons named Zeus and Mutombo.

Just don't make the mistake of assuming LSU freshman Ben Simmons named one of those lizards after former Atlanta Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo.

"I think Dikembe was named after him," the 6-10 Simmons said with a grin as he wrapped up his turn at the SEC's media day for men's basketball Wednesday at The Ballantyne, a resort just south of the Queen City.

But while Kentucky was picked by the media to win the league for the third straight year and the 11th time overall since the 1998-99 season, the fact that nine of the 12 players named to the All-SEC preseason first and second teams weren't Wildcats said much about the perceived overall quality and depth of the conference.

"The league is changing," said Malik Newman, a Mississippi State freshman guard who was named to the second team. "It's not just one team anymore. With the addition of top-tier players and top-tier coaches, the SEC is much more balanced than it has been."

One need only consider the Bulldogs for proof. Long believed headed for Kentucky, Newman opted to stay in his home state after the Bullies hired Ben Howland as coach.

"We recruited Malik for a while," Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. "I guess everybody did. He's a great player. I don't think he would have gone to Mississippi State if the school hadn't hired Howland. You look at the new coaches in this league — when you're hiring Rick Barnes at Tennessee and Howland, who took UCLA to three straight Final Fours — and basketball is clearly becoming a priority."

Folks in the Volunteer State are already aware of Barnes' impressive résumé of 16 NCAA berths in 17 seasons at Texas, including advancing to the Final Four in 2002. Throw in the fact he also guided Providence and Clemson to March Madness and it's easy to see why Texas A&M senior Alex Caruso said, "Coaches like Rick Barnes and Ben Howland and (Alabama's) Avery Johnson make it a more competitive league. They make it more exciting for the fans, because every game is going to be close."

How close is the league getting to routinely having someone other than Kentucky or Florida reach the Final Four?

Georgia twice scared Kentucky last winter, despite the Wildcats' 38-0 start. Battered by injuries, the Bulldogs still reached the NCAA tournament, losing 70-63 to Michigan State after pulling within three points inside the final 30 seconds of the second-round game. The Spartans eventually reached the Final Four.

"If I hadn't broken my foot, I think we would have been in the Final Four," UGA senior guard Kenny Gaines said. "We just had too many injuries."

But now those injuries are healed. Georgia was picked fifth in the preseason poll. If the Bulldogs meet that expectation, they will almost certainly return to the NCAA tournament.

Told his Commodores finished second in the poll behind Kentucky, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings largely dismissed the compliment.

"Maybe if we finished second, but even then I'd want to finish first," he said. "Right now, and I've told our team this, we're seventh, because that's where we finished last year."

But even Stallings would have a hard time selling that assessment to others after he also said of preseason All-SEC 7-foot center Damian Jones: "He might be our most improved player, and he was probably already our best player."

Much of the change in the league — higher-profile recruits such as Newman and Simmons at schools other than Kentucky — is a credit to both retired SEC commissioner Mike Slive and new commissioner Greg Sankey. Improving the league's profile on the court has been a high priority for both, with a hard push for tougher schedules, better coaches and upgraded facilities the strategy for reaching that goal.

"Recruiting is clearly picking up," said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, who previously took Tennessee to the NCAA tournaments in each of the six seasons he roamed the sideline in Knoxville. "Just look at us. We're picked 10th this season. We were picked higher last year, and we've got much more talent this season. But that's a testament to how improved the league is."

Indeed, ask Vanderbilt's Jones about Simmons, whom he ran across this past summer, and he'll gush: "He's a bigger Magic Johnson."

Said LSU teammate Keith Hornsby: "He's a 6-10 point guard who passes the ball relentlessly and has the vision of an eagle."

Of course, Kentucky is still envisioned by many as the league's top team, which often happens when you've reached four of the past five Final Fours, won the national championship in 2012 and find yourself sharing the top spot in the national rankings with North Carolina heading into this season.

"Until someone's good enough to knock them off their perch, they deserve it," Stallings said. "What they've done there is pretty impressive."

Ask Barnes and he will tell you it will only be impressive when "Six (NCAA tournament teams) is the norm (for the SEC). That should be the least we ever get in."

Even then, it's hard to imagine most of the SEC's 14 schools ever supporting basketball with the same fervor they show for football.

Or as A&M's Kennedy — whose Aggies are picked to repeat last season's third-place finish — noted, "I don't know if our fans ever really transition into basketball."

But if Simmons really is a bigger version of Magic Johnson, that might begin to change this winter.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

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