|It could be all smiles for Julius Randle (30) and Kentucky as the Wildcats enter the season as the No. 1 team in the country. (kentucky.com)|
Before playing a game that matters, Kentucky is not only the favorite to win the SEC, but is also the No. 1 team in the country. The Wildcats will have something to prove after last year's experiment ended in a hugely disappointing loss in the NIT to Robert Morris. Like any Kentucky team under John Calipari, the Wildcats will be young, but very talented. This might be the most talented class Cal has assembled. Kentucky brought in five players ranked in the top 11 in Rivals 150 (Julius Randle, No. 2, Andrew Harrison, No. 5, Aaron Harrison, No. 7, Dakari Johnson, No. 9, and James Young, No. 11). Add in returners Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress and this UK team is stacked. The question will be if these young players can mesh together and mature quickly, and if there are enough shots to go around. Still, inexperienced or not, this Kentucky team should be skilled enough to avoid a scenario like last season.
Dark Horse Team To Watch: Alabama
Alabama is coming off a 23-13 season in which it found itself in a three-way tie for second place in the SEC with Ole Miss and Kentucky. Alabama was picked sixth by the media, but Anthony Grant's squad could make a run similar to last season. The big loss for the Crimson Tide is Trevor Lacy, who transferred to North Carolina State after finishing second on the team in scoring (11.7 ppg) last season. Still, Alabama returns another Trevor in senior Trevor Releford, the point guard who led the team with 15.4 ppg last season and was voted Preseason First-Team All-SEC by the media this year. Add in Rodney Cooper and freshman big man Jimmie Taylor, who was No. 69 on the Rivals 150, and the Crimson Tide could compete in the top half of the conference.
Player of the Year: Julius Randle, Kentucky
Randle was the No.2 player in the 2013 recruiting class, only behind Kansas' Andrew Wiggins. The left-handed, 6-9 forward is dangerous from every part of the floor and figures to be a very high pick in next year's draft. There will be a lot of bright spots on this Kentucky team, but Randle should shine the brightest. He will have some big stages to practice on before conference play as Kentucky plays No. 2 Michigan State, No. 25 Baylor, No. 12 North Carolina and No. 3 Louisville all before the new year.
Coach of the Year: John Calipari, Kentucky
It's difficult to pick anyone else when the leader of Big Blue Nation has the No. 1 recruiting class in the country and the No. 1 team in the preseason rankings. The pressure will be on Cal because of Kentucky's disappointment from a year ago, but that might actually help his chances of winning this award this season. If Cal can get his team to play like the national champion from two years ago and not the NIT team from last year, and win the league, the award will probably be his.
Newcomer of the Year: Julius Randle, Kentucky
Randle clearly has the biggest upside of any player in the SEC this year. Randle is a tough matchup with his ability to drive to the basket and post up. The only reason Randle is not either SEC Newcomer of the Year or SEC Player of the Year is because of all the talent around him getting their shots as well. Florida also has a pair of freshmen, Chris Walker (6-10" center, No. 6 Rivals recruit) and Kasey Hill (6-1" guard, No. 10 Rivals recruit), that could make a run at this award.
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