NASHVILLE — Having placed three teams in the Elite Eight of last year's NCAA men's basketball tournament — including South Carolina, which reached the Final Four for the first time — the Southeastern Conference figures to be more balanced this season than at any time the past decade.
At least it does everywhere save the top, where Kentucky is the media's preseason pick for the 13th time since the start of the 1998-99 season. And that's with the Wildcats once again replacing the bulk of their roster with a new crop of potential one-and-doners who could declare for the NBA draft after this season.
"Any ranking Kentucky gets is well-deserved," second-year Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said Wednesday morning during the league's Tipoff 18 media event. "They've been so strong for so long."
With the nation's No. 2 recruiting class on board and six players who are 6-foot-9 or taller, the Wildcats should be good again, but they aren't the only SEC team blessed with potential NBA talent.
SEC media preseason picks:
3. Texas A&M
11. South Carolina
12. Mississippi State
From No. 2 pick Florida to No. 3 Texas A&M to No. 4 Alabama to No. 5 Missouri — which could have a top-five draft pick next spring in freshman forward Michael Porter Jr. — the SEC appears to be deep and talented enough to repeat last year's Elite Eight success, as well as potentially land a team or two in the Final Four.
"Start with Kentucky, Florida, Texas A&M and Alabama, maybe Missouri," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. "But right after that, you've got another five or six teams that could easily make the NCAA tournament. This league is as tough from top to bottom as I've ever seen it."
Noted Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who's the dean of league coaches as he enters his 12th season: "You look at A&M with Robert Williams, Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg, that's probably as talented a frontcourt as there is anywhere in the country."
With Tennessee welcoming back power forward Grant Williams, wing Admiral Schofield and guards Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner, one might expect the Volunteers to get more love in the poll than 13th among 14 programs. However, LSU — where former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Will Wade is preparing for his first season leading the Tigers — was the only program voted less likely to succeed than Tennessee.
"When I was in high school, I was one of the guys nobody talked about," said Williams, a sophomore. "I don't think anybody's even mentioned it."
Here's what he did say about the third Tennessee team to be coached by Rick Barnes: "We're much more balanced this year. We have an availability of scorers, not just Robert Hubbs III, like last season. I think we'll surprise some people."
Barnes is still seeking his first NCAA tourney appearance with the Vols after getting there 14 times in 15 seasons with Texas.
"We've got a lot of expectations for this team," the coach said. "We want to get good, then be good every year. We like our guys. We have confidence that we have a system that helps our players get better.
The poll offered few dramatic surprises beyond the experienced Vols' low ranking and an inexperienced Missouri squad — now led by former Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin — sliding in among the top five. Beyond the predicted rankings previously mentioned, Arkansas was sixth, followed by Vanderbilt, Georgia, Auburn, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Mississippi State.
Tennessee also had no players voted to the preseason All-SEC first or second teams. Vanderbilt's Matthew Fisher-Davis was chosen for the second team. The preseason pick for league player of the year was a three-way tie between Georgia's Yante Maten, Missouri's Porter and Texas A&M's Williams.
As for Kentucky, Kennedy showed no surprise concerning the placement of the Wildcats, who are preparing for their ninth season under coach John Calipari.
"Is Cal still there?" Kennedy asked while flashing a grin.
Told yes, he replied, "Then they're going to be good."
It's which other teams could become good enough to reach the NCAA tournament that could make the SEC truly special come March.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.