The Southeastern Conference athletic directors eliminated the two-division setup in basketball with the hope of improving the league's chance to increase the number of teams getting NCAA Tournament bids. No matter whether they play in a single 12-team division or the six-team Eastern Division, Kentucky's Wildcats are still considered the overwhelming favorite to win this year's league title in a vote of Scout.com's SEC publishers.
Former Eastern Division rival Vanderbilt is expected to be Kentucky's toughest challenger in the league race with Alabama and defending regular-season champion Florida also considered potential title threats.
This time a year ago, Kentucky was reeling from the disappointing news that its top incoming player, Enes Kanter, would likely never play a minute for the Wildcats. Still, the young team managed to come within two points of playing in the national championship game.
Like every year thus far in the John Calipari-era, the Wildcats are again charged to reload with fresh personnel. This season, the Cats must overcome the losses of its leading scorer Brandon Knight and top defensive specialists Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins from last year's Final Four team.
Unlike last season, however, Kentucky returns three double-digit scorers, including its top rebounder, Terrence Jones, and its two leading long-range shooters, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. Jones, a 6-8 enforcer, was a particularly pleasant returning face. A lock as a first-round pick, Jones passed over an opportunity to enter the NBA draft and now joins a powerful blend of veterans and talented newcomers that has fans thinking about a second consecutive Final Four appearance and possibly a national title.
Jones had 11 points, 15 rebounds and four steals in the Wildcats' Final Four loss to Connecticut. He had 12 double-doubles last season and set a freshman scoring record with 35 points against Auburn. He scored in double figures in 32 of UK's 38 games and had 13 double-figure rebound games. He shot 44.2 percent from the field. He blocked 72 shots and had 43 steals.
"Being the No. 1 pick should be every basketball player's goal and dream. I just want to be the best I can be and work as hard as I can to be that," said Jones, who averaged 15.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game as a freshman. "I also told coach Cal (John Calipari) I wanted to come back to try to win a national championship. I wasn't ready to leave Kentucky without winning a national championship that we got close to doing last year."
The Cats bring in four five-star recruits, three of which were ranked by Scout.com as the No. 1 players at their projected positions. Anthony Davis, a 6-9, 200-pounder, will almost assuredly start alongside Jones on the front line. He was Scout.com's No. 1 ranked recruit from the 2011 class. The Chicago product is a formidable shot-blocker and rebounder who has Calipari fans thinking of Marcus Camby.
"A lot of people tell me I am too unselfish," Davis said. " For my team, I could have come down and shot every time and never passed the ball and would not have got in trouble for it. But I am a team guy and want to get other people involved no matter what. Other players are on the team. It was not just Anthony Davis' team. I respected them and want to get them the ball no matter what."
Marquis Teague is the heir apparent to the point guard spot handled by John Wall and Brandon Knight the last two years. Teague, a 6-1 Indiana product, does not want to be labeled as a "point" guard, however. "I feel like I am capable of scoring, passing, rebounding, playing defense - all of those things. I try to work on every aspect of my game. You can't be weak at one aspect. You have to get everything good. I am just a guard. I ike to do it all," Teague said.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a 6-6 wing from New Jersey was Scout.com's No. 6 rated player, and will also make a strong case to start this season,"I would say Michael can guard a point guard, a shooting guard, a three or four (forward) and if he has to a five (center)," Calipari said. "First of all, he's got really long arms, so he may be 6-7, but his arms make him 6-9, 6-10. He's gone from playing post to moving out on the floor each year. He knows how to guard inside. On the outside, he gets down and he can give space, yet put his arms out there. He'll fight a two guard on strings because he's tough. He can guard every position."
The Wildcats are loaded this season and have their sights set on an SEC regular-season championship, an SEC Tournament championship and a second straight trip to the Final Four. With this group, it may be possible. No one believes the road will be easy, but both Kentucky and Calipari have been there before. The Cats have formidable competition in the SEC – the toughest Calipari has seen in his brief UK tenure. Teams like Vandy, Alabama and Florida all have aspirations of their own and aren't afraid of the Big Blue Nation. Yet, Kentucky has to be considered the odds-on favorite to claim the SEC title.