CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider

Conference Countdown: No. 3 -- SEC

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Doron Lamb, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones give UK a team that can match UNC. (US Presswire)  
Doron Lamb, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones give UK a team that can match UNC. (US Presswire)  

Anthony Davis is uniquely talented and a strong possibility to be the top overall pick in next June's NBA Draft. But John Calipari keeps insisting that Terrence Jones is Kentucky's best player, and since a coach should know his players better than any writer ever could, I went ahead and made Jones the CBSSports.com Preseason SEC Player of the Year despite tweeting earlier in the week that I would probably go with Davis.

In fairness, I made that comment before Jones got 52 in a scrimmage.

So cut me some slack.

2012 Tournament:
March 8-11 -- New Orleans
Quick facts
Defending regular-season champion:
Florida
Defending tournament champion:
Kentucky
Top returning scorer:
John Jenkins (Vanderbilt), 19.5 ppg
Top returning rebounder:
Terrence Jones (Kentucky), 8.9 rpg
Accolades
First team
G - Marquis Teague, Kentucky
G - John Jenkins, Vanderbilt
G - Brad Beal, Florida
F - Terrence Jones, Kentucky
F - Anthony Davis, Kentucky
Second team
G - Dee Bost, Mississippi State
G - Doron Lamb, Kentucky
F - Jeffery Taylor, Vanderbilt
F - JaMychal Green, Alabama
F - Festus Ezeli, Vanderbilt
Player of the year
Terrence Jones, Kentucky
Newcomer of the year
Anthony Davis, Kentucky
Breakthrough player
Renardo Sidney, Mississippi State
Coach on the hot seat
Trent Johnson, LSU
Click here for more
conference previews

I would rather be right than stubborn, look smart than dumb. And Jones is probably the safer pick anyway. Regardless, watch out if Jones and Davis ever get to clicking at the same time. That's the type of thing that could give John Calipari his first national championship.

(Schools listed in predicted order of finish.)

1. Kentucky: John Calipari has reloaded with a star-studded freshman class, and this one might be his best to date. He enrolled a great point guard (Marquis Teague), two pro forwards (Michael Gilchrist-Kidd and Anthony Davis) and a terrific shooter (Kyle Wiltjer). Combined with veterans Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, they give Kentucky a team that can arguably match North Carolina in terms of talent. Yes, they are young. And they don't have a real center. And they only have one true point guard. But talent has a way of rising to the top in this sport, and, again, these Wildcats are talented.

2. Vanderbilt: You can tell from a recent column I wrote that I love this Vanderbilt team, and I'm now invested in them. I need them to be good so I don't look stupid, which is why Festus Ezeli's knee injury suffered Friday wasn't welcome news. He'll be out six to eight weeks. That's significant. But the veteran center should return in time for league play, and the Commodores will then use him to first make and then advance in the NCAA tournament (as long as John Jenkins doesn't forget how to shoot and Jeffery Taylor doesn't forget how to dunk).

3. Florida: The Gators' roster is as unique as Kentucky's -- just in a different way -- because their best four players might be guards. Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton are back from last season's Elite Eight team. Brad Beal is a freshman. Mike Rosario is a transfer from Rutgers. So the challenge for Billy Donovan will be trying to get them all adequate minutes and finding a combination that works. Patric Young emerging as a dominant big would be nice, too.

4. Alabama: This should be Anthony Grant's best team because it has a nice mixture of veterans (JaMychal Green, Tony Mitchell, Trevor Releford) and newcomers (Trevor Lacey and Levi Randolph). If the SEC still used divisions, the Crimson Tide would be the pick in the West. They're probably a level below the top three from the East but obviously good enough to make the NCAA tournament and advance -- especially if Green performs like the SEC Player of the Year candidate Grant believes he can become.

5. Mississippi State: Chemistry and Renardo Sidney's focus are the only concerns in Starkville, and those two things are probably connected. Pencil the Bulldogs into the Field of 68 if the teenage-prodigy-turned-troubled-collegian turns his life and career around. But if he's more of a distraction than an asset, it'll be hard for Dee Bost and Arnett Moultrie to lead Mississippi State to the place its roster suggests it should be.

6. Mississippi: Andy Kennedy has been this close to breaking through in his five seasons at Ole Miss, but it just hasn't happened. Is this the year? Maybe. But the Rebels need Reginald Buckner to have a breakthrough season and Jelan Kendrick to play like the McDonald's All-American he was labeled in high school.

7. Georgia: John Calipari got Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb to return to school. Kevin Stallings got Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor to do the same. Mark Fox wasn't as lucky. The third-year Georgia coach lost Travis Leslie and Trey Thompkins early. (Why the rush to be a second-round pick before an NBA lockout?) Gerald Robinson and Dustin Ware are the only veterans who averaged more than 13 minutes last season. Georgia needs freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to be good right from the start.

8. Arkansas: Mike Anderson got UAB rolling, then Missouri. And he'll get Arkansas rolling, too. But leading scorer Rotnei Clarke transferred to Butler this past offseason, and most of Anderson's best players are freshmen. So Arkansas fans need to be patient and give their coach time to rebuild.

9. Auburn: A healthy Frankie Sullivan and two transfers (Varez Ward from Texas, Noel Johnson from Clemson) should allow the Tigers to score a little more than they did last season. But the loss of Earnest Ross hurts. He transferred to Missouri. Making the NCAA tournament or NIT will be a challenge.

10. LSU: Trent Johnson is a respected coach, but he has lost nearly twice as many games as he has won the past two seasons, and that's not good. That this season's team doesn't appear to be notably better on paper is a concern. But the Tigers have to make progress or else the fan base might start screaming about a coaching change. Remember, this is the same school that fired John Brady two years after a Final Four.

11. Tennessee: Cuonzo Martin inherited a mess of a program with a lackluster roster and a schedule featuring at least 10 games against teams ranked in the top 10 of the CBSSports.com Preseason Top 25 (and one). That just seems ... cruel.

12. South Carolina: Life in the same league as John Calipari, Billy Donovan, Kevin Stallings and Bruce Pearl has been tough for Darrin Horn the past two seasons. The good news for him is that Pearl is out of the league. The bad news is that Calipari, Donovan and Stallings aren't, and that Horn has to play those guys twice each with a roster that isn't built to play those guys twice each.

2011-12 Season Preview
DateFeatureDateFeature
Oct. 13Preseason Top 25 (and one) Nov. 1Top freshmen
 Projected NCAA tournament field Nov. 2Top transfers
 Goodman and Parrish bracket picks Nov. 3Under the radar players
Oct. 14Team profiles: 'Cuse | UConn | UK | UNC Nov. 4Breakout players
Oct. 17Preseason All-Americans Nov. 5Best shooters
Oct. 18Top 100 players Nov. 6Best defensive players
Oct. 19Positional rankings: Point guards Nov. 768 things ...
Oct. 20Positional rankings: Wing men Nov. 8Ranking the preseason tourneys
Oct. 21Positional rankings: Big men Nov. 950 can't miss games
   Nov. 10Coaches on the Hot Seat

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.
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