CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Florida and Kentucky are both coming off Final Four seasons.
The two heavyweights are expected to contend for a Southeastern Conference title again this season. The question remains: Can the rest of the league close the gap in talent and performance?
“I believe that you will see five or six teams from the SEC in the NCAA Tournament this season,” first-year Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.
Last year, the SEC only qualified three teams for the NCAA Tournament, with all three having success. In addition to Florida’s run to the Final Four and Kentucky’s ascent to the NCAA title game, Tennessee reached the Sweet 16.
Kentucky, with three starters returning from its national championship team, was picked to finish first in the SEC in the preseason media poll. And for good reason.
Kentucky returns 12 players (including walk-ons) from a team that went 29-11 overall and 12-6 in SEC play. The current roster includes nine former McDonald’s All-Americans.
For Kentucky, the preseason No. 1 team in USA Today poll, the season will be about managing expectations.
“We can’t really listen to it,” said Kentucky sophomore guard Aaron Harrison, who was named SEC preseason player of the year. “We just have to go out there and play. And no matter what anyone says about us or how good they think our team is, we don’t really know how good we are.”
But Kentucky was able to get a sneak peak of its talent level during a 10-day trip to the Bahamas in August that included scrimmages against professional teams.
Calipari said he intends to play two five-man units during the course of the season in an effort to utilize all of the talent on the roster.
“These kids have bought in,” Calipari said. “They’re fine. These kids are all within five percent of each other. When we go in and practice, there are no blowouts.”
Florida went 36-3 last season, winning a school-record 30 straight games before losing to Connecticut in the Final Four.
The Gators, picked to finish second in the SEC in this year’s preseason media poll, were the first team in SEC history to finish an 18-game regular-season schedule unbeaten and went on to win the SEC Tournament.
Florida coach Billy Donovan is concerned that the success from last season could create unrealistic expectations for his returning players that are stepping into new roles to replace four former senior starters.
“I’ve been coaching a long time and I’ve never been a part of a team that won 30 straight games and went 125 straight days without losing a game,” Donovan said. “It’s so far removed from reality and I have to help them stay in reality.”
The Gators’ lone starter returning, junior guard Michael Frazier II, was named to the All-SEC first team. Frazier shot an SEC-best 44.7 percent from 3-point range last season.
The Gators also return SEC sixth man of the year Dorian Finney-Smith, a 6-8 forward, and McDonald’s All-American sophomores Kasey Hill, a 6-1 guard, and Chris Walker, a 6-10 forward-center.
Hill will likely start at point guard and Walker in the frontcourt.
“We can learn from last year’s team,” Frazier said. “But we can’t duplicate it.”
— New Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said he’s grateful for a second chance in coaching after leading Tennessee to six straight NCAA Tournament appearances before being fired in 2011 because of NCAA recruiting violations. His three-year show cause from the NCAA expired in August.
“I’m accountable for what I did, but I’m really proud of our record,” Pearl said. “And I’m not talking wins or losses. I would put our record for graduating student-athletes, for service in the community, up against anyone. So it’s really not about any redemption in that regard.”
On the court, Pearl hinted that he could play as many as four guards at the same time with the addition of Niagara transfer guard Antoine Mason, who led Division I in scoring last season at 25.6 points per game.
— Georgia coach Mark Fox said expectations should be higher for the Bulldogs this season.
The Bulldogs were picked to finish fifth in the SEC in the preseason media poll.
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