1. Mississippi State*
6. Ole Miss
The worm has turned in the SEC.
Perhaps it was blinded by an orange sport coat.
Tennessee is the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC East, garnering a unanimous vote from media that covers the league at the conference's media day in Birmingham, Ala., last week. Bruce Pearl's Vols remain loaded after a Sweet 16 run, having lost only one starter (Dane Bradshaw) from last season's team while adding high-profile transfers Tyler Smith and J.P. Prince (about whom you'll read more later).
Florida, meanwhile, figures to take a bit of time to gain its bearings after losing the top six scorers from last season's national championship team. Four of them left early for the NBA. Yes, Billy Donovan welcomes the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, but it's not headlined by an Oden/Durant type. It's a deep class with a great upside, not unlike the 2004 class that included guys named Horford, Noah, Green and Brewer. They'll be good this season, and even better in years to come.
Kentucky is eager for the first year of Billy Ball, though it's not the Billy who first was targeted. When the Wildcats couldn't lure Donovan from Gainesville, they eventually turned to Billy Gillispie, who engineered remarkable turnarounds at UTEP and Texas A&M. He inherits some talent from the Tubby Smith era, and he'll mix in a couple of top-notch late recruits.
In the West, new coach John Pelphrey gets to wear the hat as the favorite, according to SEC media preseason voting. He takes over at Arkansas, where all five starters return from a team that won 21 games and made the NCAA Tournament. Four Razorbacks made the coaches' preseason All-SEC teams.
Arkansas' top challenger figures to be Mississippi State. Led by point guard Jamont Gordon and forward Charles Rhodes, the Bulldogs won 21 games last season and reached the NIT final.
Here is Rivals.com's preview of the SEC season:
Bob McClellan's SEC breakdown
Team on the rise
Tennessee. When Pearl isn't grabbing headlines with body paint or garish blazers, he's stockpiling talent and teaching it how to score buckets in buckets. The Vols have one of the deepest and most talented teams in the country. They lost only one significant contributor from last season's Sweet 16 team, Dane Bradshaw, but they bring in big-time transfers Smith (14.9 points per game last season at Iowa) and Prince (Arizona). Six of the top nine players are underclassmen. UT is the highest-ranked SEC team in the preseason polls, and it looks as if Pearl will be keeping them there for a long time to come.
Team on the decline
Georgia. Pity Dennis Felton. Not much has gone right for the coach since he left Western Kentucky for Georgia. He knew when he signed on that NCAA sanctions were coming because of the misdeeds of the previous regime. Scholarship limitations kept him hamstrung. A couple of big-time recruits opted for the NBA rather than time in college when that still was an option. Now, Felton has taken another blow. The coach has kicked leading scorer Takais Brown (14.2 points per game) off the team for a violation of team policy. Brown already was serving a suspension for the first nine games of the season for new school student-athlete policies regarding class and academic-counseling attendance. Mike Mercer, the second-leading scorer (13.6 points per game), is suspended for the first 15 games for violating the same policies. Third-leading scorer Levi Stukes (12.5 points per game) finished his eligibility. It could be a long season in Athens.
Coach on the rise
Gillispie (East), Pelphrey (West). They've done a great job building programs at other places, but now the spotlight is much brighter. Look for both to respond well. Pelphrey inherits more talent and a team that will contend in the West. Gillispie's team is a clear underdog to Tennessee, but at least the Wildcats should contend for second place with Florida having lost nearly every significant contributor to its title runs of the past two seasons.
Coach on the hot seat
Dave Odom (East), John Brady (West). Odom is entering his seventh season in Columbia and has just one NCAA appearance (2004). His record in the East the past two seasons is 4-16. He has a revamped roster full of transfers, and they must deliver. At LSU, Brady went 5-11 in the conference last year and missed the postseason with a team that was ranked No. 5 in the nation in the preseason. Glen Davis left early for the NBA and two players transferred. In a strong and balanced West, it could be a long season for the Tigers.
Best offensive player
Jamont Gordon, Mississippi State. He sits atop the Rivals.com Power Rankings at point guard because he's one of the best all-around players in the country. He ranked in the top 10 in the SEC in scoring (16.0 points per game), rebounding (7.1) and assists (5.3), but if you had to pick one of those three upon which to rely, it would be his scoring. He's bigger and stronger than most college point guards, yet he still can take most of them off the dribble, too. He's at his best when going to the basket, where he'll find a way to get the ball on the rim, get fouled or drop it off to an open teammate.
Best 3-point shooter
Chris Lofton, Tennessee. Soon enough, he'll be the SEC's career leader in 3-pointers. Just when Pearl thinks maybe that 26-footer on the left wing wasn't the best choice, the opposition is getting it out of the bottom of the net. Lofton has knocked down more than 100 3-pointers in each of the past two seasons, and he's a career 43.8-percent shooter from beyond the arc. He had 11 games last season in which he made at least four 3-pointers. If his feet are set, the ball is going in the hole.
Best defensive player
Steven Hill, Arkansas. Hill, the reigning league defensive player of the year, is an easy pick. The 7-footer led the SEC in blocks (3.0 per game), and he uses his size and strength to muscle other post players off the block. He also finished fourth on the team in steals with 31, a good total for a big man. A sample of Hill's defense: He shut down Alabama's Jermareo Davidson last season. Davidson averaged 8.5 points in the teams' two meetings and shot a combined 5-of-18 (27.8 percent). For the season, Davidson averaged 14.0 points per game.
Best player you don't know yet
Dwayne Curtis, Ole Miss. It's not easy to get noticed when you're playing basketball in Oxford. Curtis, a 6-8 center, averaged 12.2 points and 8.3 rebounds per game last season. His rebounding average was sixth in the conference. He missed the first seven games last season with a broken left foot, and he broke the same foot this summer. But he says he has recovered, and he has been fitted with a special orthotic that goes in his left shoe to help him land easier and better distribute his weight. The Rebels will need him at full strength, and when he is, he's a real force.
Tennessee. The Vols return four starters, and they have four more players who averaged at least 15 minutes per game last season. They also add transfers Smith and Prince. Smith averaged 14.9 points last season for Iowa, and Prince averaged 2.2 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists in just 12.4 mpg two seasons ago for Arizona. Smith received a waiver from the NCAA making him eligible immediately. Prince is eligible at the end of the first semester.
Nick Calathes, Florida. Calathes is a Florida high school product with nice size (6-6) and a very high basketball IQ. Rivals.com ranked him the No. 3 point guard in the class of 2007, and the No. 1 player in Florida. He has excellent handle and makes great decisions. He also has great range on his jumper and a quick release. He'll play both guard spots for the Gators, and he'll get plenty of minutes.
Jeremy Price, Georgia. There's no time for Price to serve as an apprentice. With Brown - the Bulldogs' leading scorer and second-leading rebounder - dismissed from the team, Price will be a key up front for the Bulldogs. Price, a 6-7 power forward, was ranked No. 19 at his position and No. 75 overall in the country by Rivals.com. He's a strong, physical player who can score in the low post and will have to sooner rather than later.
News and notes
The league has two new coaches, Gillispie at Kentucky and Pelphrey at Arkansas. Both have teams picked to finish high in their respective divisions. … Florida's second consecutive NCAA title helped the SEC become the first league ever to hold the men's title, the women's basketball title (Tennessee) and the football title (Florida) at the same time. … A league-record eight SEC teams won at least 20 games last season. … SEC commissioner Mike Slive will chair the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee in 2008-09. … Vanderbilt's Shan Foster needs 527 points to become the school's leading career scorer. Matt Freije currently holds the mark. … Foster was the only SEC player to make the U.S. team for the Pan Am Games. Other SEC players who tried out were Lofton, Alabama's Alonzo Gee and Richard Hendrix of Alabama, and LSU's Tasmin Mitchell. Foster finished second on the team in scoring. … Lofton should become the sixth player in Tennessee history to top the career 2,000-point mark. … Lofton is 54 3-pointers from supplanting Arkansas' Pat Bradley as the SEC's career leader. … The SEC, especially Florida, lost several key players to early entry to the NBA Draft. Florida lost starters Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green. But the league also welcomes some key transfers who are expected to be major contributors, including Smith at Tennessee (from Iowa) and Devan Downey at South Carolina (from Cincinnati). … No Kentucky player made the preseason All-SEC teams as chosen by the media. Wildcats point guard Ramel Bradley made the preseason coaches' first team, and swingman Joe Crawford made the second team. It should be noted the media had a five-man first team and a five-man second team. The coaches had an eight-man first team and a 10-man second team.