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Conference Catchup: Despite NBA exodus, Cal's 'Cats still SEC favorite

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The Calipari Way: Kentucky's coach is playing  on a whole different level. (US Presswire)  
The Calipari Way: Kentucky's coach is playing on a whole different level. (US Presswire)  

Kentucky used a roster full of pros to cruise through the SEC last season and win the national championship. But the Wildcats' top six players are gone. So this season's SEC favorite will be ... Kentucky. Again. And this is pretty much how it's gonna go until John Calipari either retires or returns to the NBA because he reloads like no other.

Yes, Florida will be good this season.

So will Missouri.

But the smart money is on the Wildcats because they're operating at another level.

Offseason headlines

1. UK lost everybody but reloaded admirably: The Wildcats lost the top six players from their national championship team, including certain lottery picks Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The result would be a drastic step backwards for almost every program in America. But Kentucky is different thanks to the recruiting abilities of John Calipari. So the new-look Wildcats -- led by Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin and Ryan Harrow -- should challenge for another national title based on little more than talent alone.

2. The state of Mississippi lost one coach, kept one: In December it looked like Rick Stansbury might get an extension at Mississippi State while Andy Kennedy would be replaced at Ole Miss. But January, February and March changed the fates of both men. The Bulldogs collapsed. The Rebels turned into a bubble team. So Stansbury "retired" and Kennedy returned. And with that, Mississippi State and Ole Miss fans can get back to thinking about football recruiting.

3. Turnover at Vanderbilt: Jeff Taylor, Festus Ezeli, Brad Tinsley, Lance Goulbourne and Steve Tchiengang were seniors, so we always knew that loss to Wisconsin would be their last game in Vanderbilt uniforms. But then John Jenkins followed his teammates out the door by entering the NBA Draft a year early. And then assistant Dan Muller left to become the head coach at Illinois State. So now Kevin Stallings is operating without his top six scorers and best assistant, and that's not easy to do in a league with John Calipari and Billy Donovan.

4. Johnny Jones returns to LSU: My favorite offseason hire was probably LSU's decision to bring Johnny Jones back to Baton Rouge because it just made sense on lots of different levels. He's a quality recruiter and good coach who deserved the chance to coach his alma mater. The guess here is that he'll make LSU relevant again.

Big question that remains

Will Nerlens Noel be eligible at Kentucky?

The New York Times' Pete Thamel has done a nice job in recent months detailing the potential eligibility challenges facing Nerlens Noel -- Kentucky's top-rated recruit who reclassified this year so that he could enroll in college in advance of the 2012-13 season. There's still no definitive answer on whether Noel will be cleared because there are academic issues to be resolved and other questions the NCAA would reportedly like addressed. So I'm expecting this story to live through the summer and carry into the fall. But we'll see.

NBA Draft report

Could've gone and did: Bradley Beal (Florida), Anthony Davis (Kentucky), John Jenkins (Vanderbilt), Terrence Jones (Kentucky), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Kentucky), Doron Lamb (Kentucky), Tony Mitchell (Alabama), Arnett Moultrie (Mississippi State), Renardo Sidney (Mississippi State), Marquis Teague (Kentucky)

Could've gone but stayed: BJ Young (Arkansas), Patric Young (Florida)

Transfers

Coming: Alandise Harris (Houston to Arkansas), Damontre Harris (South Carolina to Florida), Julius Mays (Wright State to Kentucky), Alex Oriakhi (Connecticut to Missouri)

Going: Devonta Abron (Arkansas to TCU), Maurice Aniefiok (Ole Miss), Anthony Gill (South Carolina to Virginia), Kadeem Green (Missouri to Ohio), Charles Hankerson (Alabama to Wyoming), Naji Hibbert (Texas A&M to Gardner-Webb), Rodney Hood (Mississippi State), John Isaac (LSU), Jamal Jones (Ole Miss to Indian Hills), Josh Langford (Auburn), Cedric McAfee (Auburn), Bernard Morena (Auburn to Kennesaw State), Dundrecous Nelson (Ole Miss to Jackson State), Julysses Nobles (Arkansas), Walter Pitchford (Florida to Nebraska), Deville Smith (Mississippi State), Ralston Turner (LSU to North Carolina State), Wes Washpun (Tennessee to Northern Iowa), Renaldo Woolridge (Tennessee to Southern California)

Team commentary in 140 characters or less

Phil Pressey is the motor that drives Frank Haith's Mizzou offense. (US Presswire)  
Phil Pressey is the motor that drives Frank Haith's Mizzou offense. (US Presswire)  
Alabama: The late addition of five-star prospect Devonta Pollard is a reason for Alabama fans to be hopeful about the future of Crimson Tide hoops.

Arkansas: BJ Young's decision to return for his sophomore year made Mike Anderson's rebuilding project easier than it would've otherwise been.

Auburn: Few SEC schools need talent like Auburn needs talent. The additions of Jordan Price and Shaquille Johnson should help close the gap.

Florida: Kenny Boynton and Patric Young are an experienced core that should take Florida to the Big Dance for the 13th time in the past 15 seasons.

Georgia: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had a nice but inconsistent freshman year. He averaged 13 points but was held to single digits in eight SEC games.

Kentucky: Kentucky lost everything (except Kyle Wiltjer). But the Wildcats reloaded admirably and could make a run at another national championship.

LSU: Johnny Jones' transition from North Texas to LSU would've been simpler if he could've brought UNT star Tony Mitchell with him to the SEC.

Mississippi State: Losing Arnett Moultrie was expected and losing Renardo Sidney can't possibly hurt. But losing Rodney Hood to a transfer? Yeah, that's tough.

Missouri: Mizzou will be talented enough to win the SEC in its first year in the league. Phil Pressey, the elite point guard, is the main reason why.

Mississippi: Andy Kennedy has been criticized for zero NCAA tournaments in six years. But he's nearly .500 in the SEC despite mostly miserable resources.

South Carolina: South Carolina's luring of Frank Martin from KSU was the offseason's most notable coaching change. Now let's see if he can win in Columbia.

Tennessee: The inside duo of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon could have Tennessee in the Field of 68 in Cuonzo Martin's second year with the Vols.

Texas A&M: The move to the SEC would've been smoother with Khris Middleton on the roster. But he left school early to possibly go undrafted this month.

Vanderbilt: Kevin Stallings has a rebuilding job in front of him at Vandy. The Commodores lost a lot but didn't add much that can help right away.

Early guess at the top five in the league

1. Kentucky
2. Florida
3. Missouri
4. Tennessee
5. Arkansas

Early guess at the all-conference team

G: Phil Pressey (Missouri)
G: Kenny Boynton (Florida)
G: BJ Young (Arkansas)
F: Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee)
F: Nerlens Noel (Kentucky)

Final thought

Race matters less in 2012 than it did 20 years ago, proof being that the President of the United States is black. But it's still neat to look at the Southeastern Conference and see that half of the league's men's basketball coaches are African-American. There's Anthony Grant at Alabama, Mike Anderson at Arkansas, Tony Barbee at Auburn, Johnny Jones at LSU, Rick Ray at Mississippi State, Frank Haith at Missouri and Cuonzo Martin at Tennessee. No other power conference has that kind of diversity in this sport, and that kind of diversity in any sport is something that shouldn't be taken for granted because things haven't always been this way.


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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