The West is a different story. As it was last season, the West will be far weaker than the East. Mississippi State is the prohibitive favorite to win the division, and while the battle for second place should be a good one, the teams doing battle aren't really that good. In addition, Auburn and LSU will vie to stay out of the division cellar, with the loser owning the moniker of "worst team in the SEC."
Kentucky had five players off last season's team go in the first round of the NBA draft; four of them were freshmen. But coach John Calipari is used to reeling in big-time recruiting classes on an annual basis, and he has reloaded quickly. The jewels of the class are G Brandon Knight and F Enes Kanter. Knight is going to start from day one. Kanter, though, still hasn't been ruled eligible by the NCAA, and if he doesn't play this season, UK will not win the SEC East. If he does play, UK for sure is a Sweet 16 team and would have Elite Eight potential.
Florida, which returned to the NCAA tourney last season after missing out in back-to-back seasons, returns all five starters and adds a solid freshman class. The frontcourt should be excellent, with freshman Patric Young bolstering holdovers Chandler Parsons, Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus. Backcourt depth was a problem last season and will be again. Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker form a nice starting duo, but Walker is just 5 feet 7 and wore down last season.
Georgia has a nice 1-2 punch in F Trey Thompkins and ultra-athletic G Travis Leslie. If Leslie can add a consistent outside game to his repertoire, watch out. Gerald Robinson, a transfer from Tennessee State, will be a welcome addition at point guard. Freshman F Marcus Thornton is a big-timer, and how he adjusts to playing with Leslie and Thompkins will be a big key this season.
Tennessee has been wracked by allegations of NCAA violations, and Bruce Pearl will be coaching under a cloud this season. The Vols are coming off an Elite Eight appearance, but the NCAA probe has led to negativity around the program. Freshman F Tobias Harris should be a big contributor immediately, and Pearl needs junior G Scotty Hopson to be more assertive offensively. The frontcourt has a chance to be a truly good one if senior C Brian Williams can play with some consistency.
Vanderbilt is going to miss PG Jermaine Beal more than passive big man A.J. Ogilvy. But sophomore G John Jenkins is going to get more shots, and that's a good thing; he has great range and can fill it up in a hurry. NBA scouts love junior F Jeffery Taylor, but he doesn't dominate as much as a guy with his talent should. He'll be joined up front by a lot of complementary parts. A big load is going to be placed on G Brad Tinsley, who has to take over the point guard duties.
Without G Devan Downey, F Mike Holmes (who transferred), swingman Dominique Archie and G Brandis Raley-Ross, South Carolina seems destined for the East basement. F Sam Muldrow and G Ramon Galloway need big seasons for coach Darrin Horn.
Mississippi State is counting on big things from sophomore big man Renardo Sidney, who was ineligible last season. He'll be a big-time threat in the low post. PG Dee Bost returns despite missing the pull-out date for the NBA draft; he petitioned the NCAA to restore his eligibility and they complied, though he must miss the first semester. G Ravern Johnson will team with Bost to form a solid backcourt, but coach Rick Stansbury needs some help for Sidney and Kodi Augustus in the frontcourt.
The other West Division teams are even more flawed than Mississippi State.
Alabama has a star in F JaMychal Green, but the backcourt could be an issue. Watch for sophomore swingman Tony Mitchell to emerge as a key player.
Ole Miss has one of the league's best guards in Chris Warren, but the Rebels don't have any other proven scorers. In addition, Murphy Holloway's transfer is a big-time blow to the frontcourt.
At the bottom will be LSU and Auburn. LSU had a good season in 2008-09, coach Trent Johnson's first, but the Tigers took an expected step back -- way back -- last season. Star Tasmin Mitchell is gone, so F Storm Warren and a solid freshman class must produce. As for Auburn, new coach Tony Barbee walked into a bad situation made worse when G Frankie Sullivan, the leading returning scorer, blew out a knee; he will miss the season. A legit goal for the Tigers this season is four league wins.
MAKING A LIST Best frontcourt: Florida. Everybody is back up front for the Gators, and they add Patric Young, a physical freshman who relishes doing the dirty work in the paint. In C Vernon Macklin and Fs Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus, the Gators have a hard-working trio. Parsons has a chance to be an all-league guy, Macklin is a good defender and Tyus can run all day. Freshman swingman Casey Prather adds slashing ability, and sophomore Erik Murphy is crafty around the basket and has a good upside.
Best backcourt: Kentucky. Gee, what's new -- Kentucky coach John Calipari is relying heavily on freshmen guards. The most important one this season is Brandon Knight, a good shooter with excellent passing skills. While he's not as athletic as John Wall, last season's UK wunderkind guard, he's athletic enough. Freshman Doron Lamb likely will be Knight's running mate. Holdovers DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller need to play bigger roles this season. Liggins is known for his defense, Miller his shooting.
Program on the rise: Georgia. Bulldogs stars Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie returned for their junior season, which means the postseason is a possibility this season. There's also a solid group of newcomers, and the coaching staff has made recruiting inroads for the next two years as well. The one problem for Georgia: It's in a tough division to make much of an upward move this season.
Program on the decline: South Carolina. The Gamecocks missed on NCAA invitations the past two seasons with star G Devan Downey. With Downey gone, they seem destined to finish last in the East this season. Coach Darrin Horn's program could be in for some rough times in the next few seasons, too, as other teams in the division seem to be re-stocking at a higher level than the Gamecocks.
Coach on the rise: Georgia's Mark Fox. There were more than a few people scratching their heads when Fox was hired away from Nevada after the 2008-09 season. But Fox did a nice job with a talent-shy roster last season and has a team that should contend for a postseason bid this season. He and his staff also are doing a great job on the recruiting trail, and the future looks bright for Georgia basketball.
Coach on the hot seat: Arkansas' John Pelphrey. The Hogs fell apart late last season despite playing in the less-than-stellar SEC West. He took Arkansas to the NCAA tourney in his first season, but has missed out the past two seasons. His team also has had some off-court issues. Arkansas takes its basketball seriously and Pelphrey is going to feeling a lot of heat by the time this season ends unless the Hogs surprise some folks.
Most underrated player: Arkansas F Marshawn Powell (6-7/220, Soph.). While the program is a bit stagnant, Powell played quite well for the Hogs as a true freshman last season. He averaged 14.9 points and 6.7 rebounds and started all 32 games. He has a nice mid-range game and also knows how to score in the paint. The Hogs will need more offensive production from him this season, and Powell can be expected to deliver.
FACTS AND FIGURES New coach: Tony Barbee at Auburn (had been coach at UTEP)
Regular-season winner last season: Kentucky in the East; Ole Miss and Mississippi State tied in the West
Tourney winner last season: Kentucky
League RPI rank in each of past three seasons: 4th in 2009-10, 6th in 2008-09, 4th in 2007-08
2011 conference tournament: March 10-13, Atlanta