By BLAIR KERKHOFF
The Kansas City Star
38-2 overall, 16-0 SEC
Another great recruiting class? Yawn. After losing the starting five to the NBA Draft, including top two Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the Wildcats reload with top freshmen Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress. The top returning player is forward Kyle Wiltjer, who averaged five points last season.
• Quote: “We’re not very good right now. I think we’ll be a good team eventually. But right now we’re just very average.” — coach John Calipari
30-5 overall, 14-4 Big 12
Similar talent as last year’s 30-victory team, but presented differently now that transfers like Keion Bell (Pepperdine), Earnest Ross (Auburn), Jabari Brown (Oregon) and Alex Oriakhi (Connecticut) are assuming major rules. But the team’s heart and soul are guards Phil Pressey and Mike Dixon Jr.
• Quote: “We’re motivated to win always. I don’t think that has anything to do with our motivation.” — coach Frank Haith on last year’s early NCAA Tournament exit
(26-11 overall, 10-6 SEC)
Four key players return from an Elite Eight team, led by shooting guard Kenny Boynton and center Patric Young. The program’s biggest strength continues to be coach Billy Donovan, who owns two national championships rings.
• Quote: “As it relates to the academic part and the athletic part it’s a great addition to our conference and hopefully it will be very beneficial for them as well.” — Donovan on the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M
(19-15 overall, 10-6 SEC)
The Volunteers turned in a solid season under first-year coach Cuonzo Martin, going 10-6 in league play and receiving an NIT bid. Four starters return, and forward Jarnell Stokes is the best of them. Stokes joined the team at midseason and averaged 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds.
• Quote: “You have to defend at a high level. I think that is the main thing for us.” — coach Cuonzo Martin
(15-17 overall, 5-11 SEC)
Shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made an impact in his freshman season. He averaged 13.2 points but shot only 30.4 percent from three-point range. That has to improve for the Bulldogs to return to postseason contention.
• Quote: “Growing up in Kansas, I have watched Missouri basketball. Missouri has a great tradition. These programs only make the SEC stronger.” — coach Mark Fox, who is from Garden City, Kan.
(21-12 overall, 9-7 SEC)
Guard Trevor Releford, the brother of Kansas’ Travis Releford, helped the Crimson Tide make the NCAA Tournament last year and is the team’s top returning scorer (12.0). TheTide team must replace its front line and will be counting on 6-8, 265-pound forward Nick Jacobs.
• Quote: “My first task coming in was to try and build a program and obviously try to change the culture. Here in year four, I think we’re on our way.” — coach Anthony Grant
(20-14 overall, 8-8 SEC)
This was a balanced scoring bunch that reached the NIT, and enough firepower returns for the team to feel optimistic about this season. The Rebels welcome last year’s junior-college player of the year, shooting guard Marshall Henderson. Lack of depth hurt this team last year, but that shouldn’t be the case this time.
• Quote: “When you get into January and February and you have a bad weekend, then you can be on the outside looking in. If you have a bad week, then you’re out.” — coach Andy Kennedy on being a bubble team
(18-14 overall, 6-10 SEC)
Mike Anderson’s return home didn’t go as well as hoped, but the Razorbacks figure to improve this season. Guard BJ Young (15.3 ppg) returns, and so does forward Marshawn Powell, who had averaged 19.5 points in Arkansas’ first two games last season before missing the season because of a knee injury.
• Quote: “He just knows how to keep his team going, he has a lot of strength.” — Anderson on Missouri’s Phil Pressey, whom he recruited at Missouri
(25-11 overall, 10-6 SEC)
The Commodores missed an opportunity to make a big splash. The senior-laden team beat Kentucky to win the SEC Tournament but fell in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Wisconsin. Nobody returns who averaged more than a handful of points, and coach Kevin Stallings starts over.
• Quote: “We have a standard that we’ve been able to set and identify in our program that’s worked for us, and hopefully our guys understand very well that we’re not going to compromise or lower our standard even though we’ve had a great deal of turnover.” — Stallings
10. Texas A&M
(14-18 overall, 4-14, Big 12)
Billy Kennedy gets a second chance to make a first impression. He battled illness a year ago at this time, and the Aggies were an injury-plagued team that never got started. The good news is the return of shooting guard Elston Turner (13.8), who had some big games last season.
• Quote: “I was trying to survive the first two weeks last year, and I’m much further along obviously, but you get your priorities checked real quickly when your health is a concern.” — Kennedy
(15-16 overall, 5-11 SEC)
Year No. 3 of the Tony Barbee era begins, and it’s time to get going. The Tigers will try to get it done on the perimeter and could start four guards, led by Frankie Sullivan (12.6 ppg last season). Auburn will lean heavily on center Rob Chubb (8.1 ppg).
• Quote: “When I talk about expectations, I don’t want to talk about the number of wins because whenever I look at our schedule, I don’t see a game we are going to lose. That’s how I look at things.” — Barbee
(18-15 overall, 7-9 SEC)
Trent Johnson took the Tigers to the NIT but left for TCU, and LSU reached to Texas — North Texas — to hire Johnny Jones, a former LSU assistant. It’s an uphill battle as Jones will rely on several newcomers. Junior guard Andre Stringer (10.1) is the top returning player, but LSU needs help in the frontcourt.
• Quote: “With the lack of experience returning from last year’s team, Anthony (Hickey) has had to step up and show some leadership qualities, and he has really embraced that in the short time.” — Jones
13. Mississippi State
(21-12 overall, 8-8 SEC)
Rick Ray takes over the Bulldogs, and there was plenty of attrition during the off season. But the Bulldogs also got some good news when freshman guard Fred Thomas was cleared to play after August surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot.
• Quote: “I think the one thing that I want to make sure I always do is establish a culture of accountability. That’s been the biggest challenge so far.” — Ray
14. South Carolina
(10-21 overall, 2-14 SEC)
Not much is expected from the Gamecocks, but don’t tell Frank Martin, who took Kansas State to the NCAA Tournament in his first season. Of course, he had future NBA players Michael Beasley and Bill Walker then. South Carolina will be a more intense team, taking on the personality of their coach.
• Quote: “There were a lot of similarities with the kind of passion that Kansas State people have.” — Martin on his first impressions of South Carolina fans