Kentucky basketball is the clear favorite in next year’s SEC, but conference play always has a few surprises lurking. How ready the Wildcats are to stay focused against some of their less-heralded foes could make all the difference in their quest to match the unbeaten record Florida posted as last year's league champion.
Here’s a look at some of the teams and players that could surprise the ‘Cats if they have a big game at the right (or wrong, from UK’s perspective) time:
If Anthony Hickey hadn’t transferred to Oklahoma State, or if Johnny O'Bryant III hadn't jumped early to the NBA, the Tigers would have had a case for cracking the preseason Top 25. Their sophomore frontcourt pairing of Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey is one of the country’s more impressive offense/defense combos.
Even without experience (or much talent) on the perimeter, LSU has enough size to keep from being overrun by towering Kentucky. That's thanks in part to the addition of 6’11”, 270-pound freshman Elbert Robinson, who should be a respectable substitute for O'Bryant at center. If Mickey—who had five blocks against the Wildcats in Baton Rouge last year—gets some help in the scoring column, Kentucky could be in for its second straight road loss to Johnny Jones’ team.
Antoine Mason, Auburn
The SEC’s most impressive transfer addition didn’t join one of the league's power programs but rather opted to head up new coach Bruce Pearl’s rebuilding effort at Auburn. It’s a project that will be a lot easier (at least for the immediate future) with Niagara transfer Antoine Mason leading the offense.
The nation’s top returning scorer at 25.6 points per game, Mason—with the 2015 NBA draft in his sights—is looking to prove himself against top-level competition. At 6’3”, he relies primarily on beating opponents off the dribble, so he’ll be a particularly rigorous test of what John Calipari hopes is a much-improved perimeter defense.
Alabama Crimson Tide
With just one NCAA tournament win in the last decade, a once-dangerous ‘Bama program has fallen on tough times. However, Anthony Grant’s team always plays stout defense, and next year’s offense isn’t looking quite as toothless as some recent Tide squads.
Grant’s freshman class may not be up to Coach Cal’s standards, but all of Justin Coleman, Riley Norris and Devin Mitchell show promise as scorers. Coleman, meanwhile, will also be the best distributor the Tide have seen at point guard since Mikhail Torrance graduated in 2010. He and his classmates should be able to provide a welcome boost even in the absence of one-man show Trevor Releford (who didn't make much of an impact against Kentucky anyway).