SEC men’s basketball preview: Can anyone take down Kentucky? _lowres

Associated Press photo by Rogelio V. Solis -- LSU forward Jarell Martin

With nonconference games out of the way, the Southeastern Conference men’s basketball race gets underway Tuesday night with four games on the opening-night schedule.

Of course, the big question is whether it’ll be a race at all, with unanimous preseason favorite Kentucky off and running with a 13-0 record that has made the Wildcats a fashionable pick to win the NCAA title.

But there are some questions: Can Big Blue match Florida’s feat of a year ago and go 18-0 in league play? Can the SEC get more than three teams in the Big Dance? Will Florida wake up after some unexpected losses in the early going? Can LSU continue its solid early-season play and make it to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009? Will Arkansas and Georgia take another step, like each did a year ago?

Stay tuned.

How we see it: The Advocate’s predicted order of finish in the SEC race

1. Kentucky: Is there any evidence to show they won’t be sitting here come mid-March?

2. Arkansas: They lead the SEC in scoring by a wide margin and should be tough to beat.

3. LSU: Like Arkansas, they have the firepower to make run at an NCAA bid.

4. Florida: The nonconference record may not show it, but they’ll be a factor.

5. Georgia: The Bulldogs had a wonderful season a year ago, but can they back it up?

6. Ole Miss: After winning 19 games a year ago, they have four quality starters returning.

7. Vanderbilt: The Commodores are trying to rebound after a rare losing season last year.

8. Missouri: After losing their coach and top three scorers, they have much work to do.

9. Auburn: They have talent, but it must come together in a hurry for Bruce Pearl.

10. Texas A&M: They’re still trying to find their way with some experienced players back.

11. Alabama: They stumbled mightily a year ago and may struggle again this season.

12. South Carolina: The Gamecocks may improve on their 13th-place finish from 2014, but not by much.

13. Tennessee: The Vols lost four starters and their coach from last year’s NCAA tourney team.

14. Mississippi State: They appear to be destined for a second straight last-place finish.


The Haves

Kentucky (13-0)

2013-14 RECORD: 29-11, 12-6 SEC

COACH: John Calipari (6th season)

KEY PLAYERS: G Aaron Harrison, F Willie Cauley-Stein, F Karl-Anthony Towns

BRIEFLY: Having already flexed their muscles with big wins over three top-10 foes — Louisville, Kansas and Texas — the Cats will try to not get too bored in SEC play before the NCAA tournament rolls around.

Arkansas (11-2)

2013-14 RECORD: 22-12, 10-8 SEC

COACH: Mike Anderson (4th season)

KEY PLAYERS: F Bobby Portis, G Michael Qualls, G Athlon Bell

BRIEFLY: The Razorbacks have shown a lot of improvement under fourth-year coach Mike Anderson, especially with a high-powered offense. Can they do enough on defense to make the Big Dance?

LSU (11-2)

2013-14 RECORD: 20-14, 9-9 SEC

COACH: Johnny Jones (3rd season)

KEY PLAYERS: F Jarell Martin, F Jordan Mickey, G Josh Gray

BRIEFLY: LSU has the talent and length up front to give a lot of people trouble, and it has quickness in the backcourt. That should be enough to improve on back-to-back 9-9 seasons in the league.

Florida (7-6)

2013-14 RECORD: 36-3, 18-0 SEC

COACH: Billy Donovan (19th season)

KEY PLAYERS: G Michael Frazier II, F Dorian Finney-Smith, C Jon Horford

BRIEFLY: After reaching the Final Four a year ago, the Gators were hit hard by graduation. Playing a tough nonconference schedule hasn’t helped their record, but they’ll get their act together in SEC play.

Georgia (9-3)

2013-14 RECORD: 20-14, 12-6 SEC

COACH: Mark Fox (6th season)

KEY PLAYERS: G Charles Mann, F Marcus Thornton, F Nemanja Djurisic

BRIEFLY: Georgia is among the league leaders in scoring (third), field-goal percentage (fifth) and rebounding (third) — which is a pretty good recipe for success. Can the Bulldogs keep it up?

Ole Miss (9-4)

2013-14 RECORD: 19-14, 9-9 SEC

COACH: Andy Kennedy (9th season)

KEY PLAYERS: G Jarvis Summers, G Stefan Moody, G LaDarius White

BRIEFLY: After winning the SEC tournament in 2013, the Rebs stumbled a little a year ago. Wins at Oregon and against No. 23 Creighton indicate they could be back in business this season.

Vanderbilt (10-3)

2013-14 RECORD: 15-16, 7-11 SEC

COACH: Kevin Stallings (16th season)

KEY PLAYERS: C Damian Jones, G Riley LaChance, F James Siakam

BRIEFLY: The Commodores had a rare losing season under Kevin Stallings last season but could be a surprise team this year — and they’re shooting better than 51 percent from the field.

Missouri (6-7)

2013-14 RECORD: 23-12, 9-9 SEC

COACH: Kim Anderson (1st season)

KEY PLAYERS: F Johnathan Williams III, G Montaque Gill-Caesar, F Jakeenan Gant

BRIEFLY: After winning 22 games a year ago, the Tigers lost their top three scorers and are in rebuilding mode. They rank near the bottom of the league in scoring and scoring defense, which isn’t good.

Auburn (8-5)

2013-14 RECORD: 14-16, 6-12 SEC

COACH: Bruce Pearl (1st season)

KEY PLAYERS: G KT Harrell, G Antoine Mason, F Cinmeon Bowers

BRIEFLY: As of Monday, Pearl had the SEC’s leading scorer (Harrell) and rebounder (Bowers) and a solid transfer in Mason. But it’ll probably take time for him to get it turned around.

Texas A&M (9-3)

2013-14 RECORD: 18-16, 8-10 SEC

COACH: Billy Kennedy (4th season)

KEY PLAYERS: F Jalen Jones, G Danuel House, G Alex Caruso

BRIEFLY: Kennedy has a solid nucleus with Jones, House and Caruso, and the Aggies can shoot the ball. But they may not have enough quality depth to move into the upper half of the standings.

Alabama (10-3)

2013-14 RECORD: 13-19, 7-11 SEC

COACH: Anthony Grant (6th season)

KEY PLAYERS: G Levi Randolph, G Ricky Tarrant, G Rodney Cooper

BRIEFLY: Coming off a bad season a year ago, the Crimson Tide has a couple of solid players in Randolph and Tarrant, a transfer from Tulane. But they have too many holes to fill.

South Carolina (9-3)

2013-14 RECORD: 14-20, 5-13 SEC

COACH: Frank Martin (3rd season)

KEY PLAYERS: G Duane Notice, G Sindarius Thornwell, F Laimonas Chatkevicius

BRIEFLY: The Gamecocks haven’t lit up the league since Martin arrived, finishing 12th in his first season and 13th last year. Even with Saturday’s upset of No. 9 Iowa State, the prospects of his team turning it around aren’t great.

Tennessee (8-4)

2013-14 RECORD: 24-13, 11-7 SEC

COACH: Donnie Tyndall (1st season)

KEY PLAYERS: G Josh Richardson, G Kevin Punter, F Armani Moore

BRIEFLY: Tennessee reached the NCAA tournament a year ago, but coach Cuonzo Martin got out of Dodge with four seniors leaving the program. Tyndall, a former LSU assistant, will need time.

Mississippi State (7-6)

2013-14 RECORD: 14-19, 3-15 SEC

COACH: Ricky Ray (3rd season)

KEY PLAYERS: F Roquez Johnson, G Fred Thomas, F Gavin Ware

BRIEFLY: State won four conference games two years ago and three last season, and the prospects for climbing out of the cellar this year don’t look too promising.