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October 27, 2009

League preview: Southeastern Conference

Today, we continue our conference countdown. We're working backward, from our No. 31 league to the top league in the nation.

We started with the low-major leagues, unveiling three per day, and the mid-major leagues, unveiling two per day. Each of the top 12 leagues gets a day to itself.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
PRESEASON PICKS
First team
C Jarvis Varnado, 6-9/230, Sr., Mississippi State
F Patrick Patterson, 6-9/235, Jr., Kentucky
F Tyler Smith, 6-7/215, Sr., Tennessee
G Devan Downey, 5-9/175, Sr., South Carolina
G John Wall, 6-4/195, Fr., Kentucky
Second team
C A.J. Ogilvy, 6-11/250, Jr., Vanderbilt
F Wayne Chism, 6-9/246, Sr., Tennessee
F Tasmin Mitchell, 6-7/235, Sr., LSU
G Courtney Fortson, 5-11/180, Soph., Arkansas
G Terrico White, 6-5/211, Soph., Ole Miss
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
G John Wall, 6-4/195, Fr., Kentucky
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR
G John Wall, 6-4/195, Fr., Kentucky
AT A GLANCE
Regular-season winner last season: South Carolina and Tennessee in the East, LSU in the West.
2010 conference tournament: Mississippi State (lost in first round of NCAA tournament to Washington as a No. 13 seed).
New coaches: John Calipari, Kentucky, Mark Fox, Georgia and Anthony Grant, Alabama.
Best frontcourt: Kentucky.
Best backcourt: Ole Miss.
Coach on the rise: Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss.
Last NCAA title team: Florida, 2007.
Last NCAA runner-up: Florida, 2000.
Last Final Four appearance: Florida, 2007.
Last time league received multiple NCAA bids: 2009.

Southeastern Conference fans love to brag each January about their favorite league's football supremacy. They have good reason this season to hoot and holler more than ever in hopes it would take people's minds off the conference's woeful basketball performance last season.

The SEC landed just three NCAA tournament bids, its lowest total since 1990. The SEC would have earned only two invitations if Mississippi State hadn't played its way into the field by winning the SEC tournament. No team was seeded higher than eighth, which marked the first time since 1990 that the SEC didn't have at least one school earn a top-four seed. No SEC teams advanced beyond the second round. And no SEC players were selected in the first round of the most recent NBA draft.

"It was a league that was dominated by underclassmen and young players," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said.

But the conference followed up a forgettable season with an offseason to remember.

Kentucky hired former Memphis coach John Calipari, who then brought the nation's top-ranked recruiting class to Lexington. Kentucky, an NIT team last season, opens this season in the top five.

And most of the players who ranked among the league leaders last year are back. Kentucky's Patrick Patterson, LSU's Tasmin Mitchell, Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado, South Carolina's Devan Downey and Tennessee's Tyler Smith were first-team All-SEC players who entered their names into NBA draft consideration and later decided to stay in school.

No wonder conventional wisdom suggests the SEC will be the nation's most improved conference.

"I would be hard-pressed to find a tougher league top to bottom and maybe a tougher division [than the East] in the country," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said.

It might be a stretch to call the SEC the nation's best conference. But it's hard to argue the league will be a whole lot better.

TEAM ON THE RISE Kentucky: The Wildcats followed up a disappointing season with the best offseason of any team in the nation. Kentucky hired John Calipari away from Memphis to replace the fired Billy Gillispie, whose two-year tenure produced no NCAA tournament wins. Calipari proceeded to sign the nation's top two recruits in 6-foot-4 guard John Wall and 6-9 forward DeMarcus Cousins. Kentucky got more good news when Patrick Patterson decided not to enter the NBA draft, though the Wildcats did lose All-SEC guard Jodie Meeks to the pro ranks. Kentucky shouldn't have to worry about returning to the NIT this season. The Wildcats instead seem poised for a Final Four run.

TEAM ON THE DECLINE Florida: The Gators won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and '07, but they haven't been back to the tournament since. Florida now faces the realistic possibility of getting left out for a third consecutive season. Nick Calathes' decision to sign with Panathinaikos, a Greek professional team, leaves the Gators woefully thin at point guard. The return of Alex Tyus and the arrival of five-star prospect Kenny Boynton should keep the Gators competitive, but they could have a tough time finishing in the top half of a vastly improved Eastern Division.

COACH ON THE HOT SEAT John Pelphrey, Arkansas: Pelphrey has been at Arkansas for only two seasons, so he's probably not in any danger of losing his job at the end of the season. But there are indications he might not live up to the promise that accompanied his arrival at Arkansas. The Razorbacks pulled off stunning early season victories over Oklahoma and Texas last season, but they followed that up by going 2-14 in conference play. With all five starters back this season, the Razorbacks must show major improvement to restore confidence in Pelphrey's program.

BIGGEST SNEAKERS TO FILL Guard Nick Calathes, Florida: Calathes' decision to turn pro after his sophomore season leaves sophomore Erving Walker as the only true point guard on Florida's roster. True freshman Kenny Boynton is a former-five star prospect who can help replace Calathes' scoring production, but he's more of a shooting guard than a point guard. The Gators need someone to handle the ball. If Walker struggles, the Gators don't have many other options

MOST OVERRATED PLAYER Guard Courtney Fortson, Arkansas: Maybe it's a stretch to call Fortson overrated since he didn't earn first- or second-team All-SEC honors last season. But it is fair to say he's not yet as good as his gaudy numbers suggest. Fortson's impressive statistics (14.8 ppg, 5.9 apg, 5.5 rpg) make it look as though he was as versatile and explosive as any guard in the SEC last season. The problem was he often tried to do too much on his own. He averaged 4.4 turnovers per game, which was one turnover per game more than anyone else in the SEC. If Fortson takes better care of the ball this season, he should mature into an All-SEC performer. As of right now, though, he's still a work in progress.

MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER Guard Terrico White, Ole Miss: Even after being named the SEC freshman of the year last season, White remains relatively unknown outside the Deep South. That should change this season. White kept Ole Miss competitive last season when he took over as the starting point guard after injuries ravaged the Rebels' backcourt. Now that Chris Warren and Eniel Polynice have returned from injuries, Ole Miss should have one of the best backcourts in the SEC.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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