It is about that time—college basketball season! Once again, all teams of the SEC will descend on Bridgestone Arena for the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament in March, and once again the media have chosen Kentucky as the team to beat.
Purists are tired of the way Kentucky conducts business, an almost entire new roster again, and of the voters’ continually falling lockstep over the hype coming from Lexington over the new crop of talent. Sight unseen at this level, UK has again been anointed. The talent may be statistically impressive on paper, but one cannot possibly reasonably say they are the best team going into the season having not seen them together. Not another year.
No, the best team entering the 2015-16 season is Vanderbilt, picked second at Media Day. This is the finest team Kevin Stallings has had since the 2012 SEC Tournament championship squad that had three of the top-31 picks in the NBA Draft. They are cohesive, experienced, and balanced. They are anchored by Damian Jones, a first-team all-SEC selection, someone at or near the top of any NBA Draft board for 2016.
Wade Baldwin returns to run the point. He really came into his own late in the season last season. Matthew Fisher-Davis was the best player down the stretch for this team, from his shooting, to his defense, to his intensity. Nolan Cressler is now eligible after his transfer from Cornell where he was a 21 PPG scorer for the Big Red. Riley LaChance returns, hopefully with a better understanding of conditioning as he physically wore out towards the end of last season. In addition to Jones, acclaimed freshman Djery Baptiste adds his 6’10,” 235 lb. frame to the frontline. The versatility of Luke Kornet and the grit of Josh Henderson also returns.
Kentucky is headlined by the returning Tyler Ulis, a role player last season; Alex Poythress, returning from an ACL injury; and top recruit Skal Labissiere, who until last week was ineligible to play for Kentucky. Even Coach John Calipari would say there are far more questions than answers at this point. The power of name recognition is strong. They may be the best in the league or the country by April, and they are also preseason #1 nationally in one poll. But they certainly do not start the season as either.
Following Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the Media Poll is Texas A&M led by their outstanding backcourt of Danuel House and Alex Caruso. LSU is voted fourth led by Preseason Player of the Year freshman Ben Simmons. Next comes Georgia led by guard Charles Mann; new-look Florida with new coach Michael White and the returning Dorian Finney-Smith; and South Carolina with the most positive buzz they have had in quite a while.
The bottom half consists of Mississippi State headlined by freshman guard Malik Newman; Ole Miss and guard Stefan Moody; Auburn in year two under Bruce Pearl; Arkansas; Tennessee in year one of Rick Barnes’ rebuild; Alabama in year one under Avery Johnson; and Missouri.
As for the women, South Carolina was voted to repeat as champion followed by Tennessee, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Missouri in the top half. The bottom half was voted as Arkansas, Georgia and LSU tied for ninth; Vanderbilt picked 11th; with Florida, Auburn, and Alabama at the bottom. South Carolina’s Tiffany Mitchell was picked Player of the Year, one of three Carolina players on the first-team. UT star transfer Diamond DeShields was also chosen to the first team.