BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The Kentucky Wildcats no longer preside quite so comfortably over the Southeastern Conference, which is simply harder to do these days.
Instead, it is preseason No. 9 Tennessee that is favored to win it, and No. 24 Alabama was the champion and the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed last year. No. 15 Texas A&M has the league’s best returning player in Wade Taylor IV. No. 14 Arkansas has made the Sweet 16 three years running.
So yes, the Wildcats are as always right in the mix, but they have plenty of company at the top of a deep league. They are leaning heavily on the nation’s top freshman class, other contenders need multiple transfers to deliver, and teams like the Volunteers and Aggies have their top players back.
“It’s so hard right now to project,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose team is ranked 16th and picked fourth in the league. “It’s never been this hard. So, you can project anybody you want.”
That’s a nod to both the league’s depth and the heavy roster turnover that includes replacing six first-round NBA draft picks.
The coaches made their annual hard pitch Wednesday at the SEC’s media day that it is the best, or among the top two, hoops leagues in the college ranks and just maybe better than ever. It’s certainly more balanced with programs that aren’t traditional powers getting plenty of preseason and postseason love alongside Kentucky.
A record-tying eight SEC teams made the NCAA Tournament last season, winning nine games. Five are ranked, and four of the 14 teams are receiving Top 25 votes going into the season.
“It makes every game a hard game,” Calipari said. “I mean, arenas are packed. Players are getting drafted, and it’s not just our players. Now you’ve got other schools having draft picks. So it’s an exciting time in the SEC.”
The Tide and Razorbacks both have to replace a pair of first-round draft picks. Alabama lost No. 2 pick Brandon Miller and 21st selection Noah Clowney after their freshman seasons.
Arkansas must replace freshmen Anthony Black (No. 6) and Nick Smith Jr. (27th).
But despite the league’s sizable presence in the NCAA fields, no SEC team has made the Final Four since Auburn in 2019 and only two since 2016, so there is definitely room to grow whatever the coaches say in the optimistic glow leading up to the season.
The Razorbacks have made the biggest postseason runs in recent years under coach Eric Musselman. They have made the Elite Eight in 2021 and 2022 and advanced again to the second weekend last season.
Arkansas guard Davonte Davis, the only player back from the last two tourney runs, is determined to make the logical next step and end the SEC’s mini-drought in the Final Four. He thinks the Razorbacks have the team to do it.
“I think about the Final Four every day,” Davis said. “I wake up like, we gotta make it. That’s the next step.”
The SEC as a whole could say the same.
Even if the preseason picks are just best guesses, the Wildcats are deriving motivation from the (relatively speaking) underdog status.
“I feel like people are sleeping on us,” said guard Antonio Reeves, who is entering his fifth season. “We’re going to overcome that and show the world what we can do.”
Coaches are certainly touting their own teams and the league as a whole with the season still a few weeks way. It’s as much an October ritual as those preseason predictions.
“I think this will be the best year in the history of the league, and we might be saying the same thing here next year,” Georgia coach Mike White said. “We probably will be. The depth of this league is incredible right now.”
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl started his SEC tenure in Tennessee in 2005 when football was not only king but there was no close second.
“Kentucky was the dominant program and Billy Donovan had Florida right there,” said Pearl, entering his 10th season with the Tigers. “And then everybody else was just everybody else.”
Times have changed.
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