The road for the Kentucky men's basketball team in year two of the John Calipari era has been set.
The UK Athletics Department released the always highly anticipated schedule for the upcoming 2010-11 season Thursday, setting the stage for what should be another wildly entertaining ride. For the second year in a row, Cat Scratches is proud to unveil the complete schedule breakdown, fit with last season's records, RPI, returning starters and what you need to know as a Wildcat fan for each and every game.
Before we dive into each opponent, let's take a look at the schedule as a whole, a slate that includes some of the best teams in the nation.
UK will play 30 regular-season games this year against a pool of 29 teams below (includes all seven teams in the EA Sports Maui Invitational), facing teams that range as far east as Boston and as far west as Hawaii. The Cats have 15 home games, 10 away and five at neutral sites, including Maui and a marquee matchup with Notre Dame in Freedom Hall.
"This year's schedule challenges us from game one and I hope it will prepare our young team for the battles we will face in March," Calipari said. "Great job by John Robic and our athletic department in getting the schedule together. There should be lots for the Big Blue Nation to get excited over."
Much like last year, Calipari made a concerted effort to play as many NCAA Tournament-type games as possible to prepare a freshman-laden UK team for the Big Dance. In molding an NCAA Tournament-ready squad - one worthy of a favorable seed - Calipari took direct aim at the RPI once again. He scheduled teams that are expected to compete for league titles and put UK in as many NCAA tourney scenarios as possible (hence, the emphasis on future neutral site games).
What that translates to is a schedule that consists of some of the nation's best teams from a possibility of 15 conferences. Fourteen of UK's possible opponents this season (factoring in the Maui Invitational) finished in last year's final RPI top 100. Only five teams resided 200 or above in last season's RPI.
And if the RPI isn't your thing, consider this: 16 teams made postseason play of some sort, including nine that made the NCAA Tournament field. Two of those teams - Tennessee and Michigan State - advanced to the Elite Eight, with Michigan State going to the Final Four.
The schedule oozes with diversity and NCAA tourney-like games. The Maui Invitational in November will give the talented but inexperienced incoming class a taste of tournament play. UK will have little time to recover from the sandy beaches of Hawaii as it faces North Carolina, Notre Dame and an improving Indiana team to start December. Potential sleepers exist in East Tennessee State, Penn, Winthrop and Boston, all of whom are expected to compete for their respective conference crowns.
A lot of questions surround the Southeastern Conference Western Division, but the SEC East could be the best it has been in several years. Stars like Georgia's Trey Thompkins, Florida's Kenny Boynton and Tennessee's Scotty Hopson return to make the East the beast of the conference. A number of teams ranging from Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee have been picked in the preseason to compete for the East crown. All four teams - as many as the entire conference got to the NCAA Tournament a year ago - are expected to earn a bid in the 68-team tournament.
The pinnacle of the schedule will come March 6 when UK travels to Tennessee. For the first time since the 1998-99 season, the increasingly heated rivalry between the Wildcats and Volunteers will take place on the final day of the regular season. A lot, including the SEC regular-season crown, could be on the line.
The best part of the schedule is fans will be able to follow UK's journey nearly every step of the way thanks to the second year of the SEC's historic 15-year deal with ESPN and CBS. A total of 21 UK games will be televised on CBS or ESPN's family of networks - three more than last year - in addition to four on the SEC Network. The SEC Network and ESPNU now reach more than 80 million and 73 million homes, respectively. The remaining games not televised could still be picked up by FSN, CSS and the Big Blue Sports Network, which will be announced at a later date.
Also, for the second season in a row, Kentucky will be featured as a part of ESPN's highly popular College GameDay show. On Feb. 5, Rece Davis, Digger Phelps, Jay Bilas, Hubert Davis and the rest of the GameDay crew will head to Gainesville, Fla., to profile all the action.
The only thing that remains now is two months of agonizing waiting until Big Blue Madness on Oct. 15. If that wait seems unbearable, the super-long and extensive team-by-team breakdown of the Cats' 2010-11 opponents below should get you through at least September.
Without further ado, here is this year's men's basketball schedule breakdown:
East Tennessee State (Nov. 12)
Head coach: Murry Bartow (seventh season) Record/Conference Finish: 20-15 (13-7 in Atlantic Sun/fifth) Final RPI: 118 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: NCAA first round Key returnees: Tommy Hubbard (13.9 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Micah Williams (12.7 ppg), Justin Tubbs (12.1 ppg), Mike Smith (9.3 ppg)* Key losses: Jacolby Davis (2.8 ppg, 2.4 apg) Series record: UK leads 3-0 Last meeting: UK won 100-71 on March 18, 2010, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament *Played just four games after suffering a season-ending injury. Was the team's top returning scorer from 2008-09.
The skinny: Sound familiar? The first hurdle in the Cats' Elite Eight run from a year ago, East Tennessee State returns nearly the same team that UK defeated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and then some. Back are the Buccaneers' top six leading scorers from a year ago, including leading scorer and rebounder Tommy Hubbard, a second-team All-Atlantic Sun selection. Guard/forward Mike Smith, who was supposed to be the Bucs' top player last year, returns from a medical redshirt to add yet another piece to the puzzle. When you consider what head coach Murry Bartow was able to do in 2009-10 with the issues ETSU had to go through - losing a player to a fatal car accident and several players to injury and graduation - this could be an extremely dangerous team and a very stiff test for the Cats to open the 2010-11 campaign. Don't expect a result similar to the 2010 NCAA Tournament meeting.
vs. Portland (Nov. 19)
Head coach: Eric Reveno (fifth season) Record/Conference finish: 21-11 (10-4 in West Coast/third) Final RPI: 84 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: CollegeInsider.com first round Key returnees: Jared Stohl (11.5 ppg, 98 3-pointers), Luke Sikma (7.9, 7.5 rpg) Key losses: Nik Raivio (14.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg), T.J. Campbell (13.7 ppg, 5.6 apg, 63 3-pointers), Robin Smeulders (12.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg) Series record: UK leads 1-0 Last meeting: UK won 88-71 on Dec. 22, 1989
The skinny: When this matchup was originally announced, it picked up headlines on the message boards for its homecoming of highly touted UK signee Terrence Jones (Portland, Ore.). In reality, the Portland pit stop at the Rose Garden, home of the Portland Trailblazers, will serve as the perfect warm-up game before the power-packed EA Sports Maui Invitational. The Pilots flirted with the NCAA Tournament in 2009-10 by getting off to a 5-0 start, a top-25 ranking and competing for the West Coast title with Gonzaga. But an injury to leading scorer Nik Raivio led to a disappointing late-season stretch and an invitation to the CollegeInsider.com postseason tourney. Now, Portland will have to find a new identity after losing its top three leading scorers. The Pilots lived by the perimeter shot a season ago and will welcome back leading 3-point shooter Jared Stohl, but the majority of the Pilots' long-range shooting weaponry has departed.
EA Sports Maui Invitational (Nov. 22-24)
Teams: Oklahoma, Washington, Virginia, Wichita State, Connecticut, Chaminade, Michigan State Average final RPI: 60.7 Last meeting: UK went 1-2 in 2006 with a win against DePaul and losses to UCLA and Memphis
The skinny: UK will play Oklahoma on Nov. 22 at 5:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2 in the first round of the tournament, which is hosted by Chaminade University. UK-Oklahoma is the second game of the 12-game tournament, all of which will be televised on ESPN's family of networks (ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU). Wichita State-Connecticut will tip off the tournament Nov. 22 at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN2, followed by UK-Oklahoma at 5:30 p.m. ET, Michigan State-Chaminade at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU and Virginia-Washington at midnight ET. The winner of the UK-Oklahoma game will advance to play the winner of the Virginia-Washington game on Nov. 23 at 9:30 p.m. ET. The losing teams of the UK-Oklahoma matchup and the Virginia-Washington matchup would face each other Nov. 22 at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN2. Kentucky is 2-0 all-time against Oklahoma, the last meeting coming in 1987, a 75-74 UK victory in Rupp Arena. Kentucky owns a 6-3 advantage all-time against Virginia and is 1-0 versus Washington. The Maui Invitational is annually one of the top early season tournaments of the college basketball season. Four teams in the tournament field ranked in last year's final RPI top 50, and the average RPI of the seven Division I teams in the field (host Chaminade is not a Division I school) is 60.7, according to last year's NCAA numbers.
Boston (Nov. 30)
Head coach: Patrick Chambers (second season) Record/Conference finish: 21-14 (11-5 in American East/third) Final RPI: 119 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: CBI semifinals Key returnees: John Holland (19.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Jake O'Brien (13.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg) Key losses: Corey Lowe (15.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.3 apg), Carlos Strong (10.9, 59 3-pointers), Tyler Morris (10.3 ppg) Series record: UK leads 2-0 Last meeting: UK won 90-49 on Dec. 12, 1994
The skinny: Recently speaking, prolific scorers on mid-major teams have stepped up their game when afforded the chance to play in historic Rupp Arena. If the trend continues in 2010-11 with Boston's John Holland, this could be the potential for an early season shocker. Holland set the school record for most points in a season last year after averaging 19.2 points per game. Second-year coach Pat Chambers, formerly Jay Wright's right-hand man at Villanova, will have to replace three double-digit scorers, including the program's third all-time leading scorer in Corey Lowe. Three transfers who had to sit out a season ago will be counted on to fill the voids.
at North Carolina (Dec. 4)
Head coach: Roy Williams (eighth) Record/Conference finish: 20-17 (5-11 in ACC/t-ninth) Final RPI: 64 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: NIT championship game Key returnees: Will Graves (9.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 73 3-pointers), Tyler Zeller (9.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg), Larry Drew II (8.5 ppg, 5.9 apg) Key losses: Deon Thompson (13.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Ed Davis (11.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 2.8 bpg), David and Travis Wear (McDonald's All-Americans), Marcus Ginyard (7.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.8 apg) Series record: UNC leads 21-11 Last meeting: UK won 68-66 on Dec. 5, 2009
The skinny: Even the best programs run into bumps on the road eventually. Kentucky did so in 2008-09, allowing North Carolina to catch up in the race to 2,000 wins. And then, without much warning, the defending national champions suffered a major hiccup last season and faltered in the race to 2K. Now, with an infusion of young talent and some major personnel losses, UNC will try to do what UK did a year ago and return to the national radar in just a year's span. North Carolina won't be billed as frontrunner for much of the season, but the pieces should be in place for a return to the upper echelon of college basketball. The inside-outside duo of center Tyler Zeller and guard Will Graves will have to carry the Tar Heels early on, but the season could hinge on newcomers Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock. Barnes and Bullock, ranked No. 2 and No. 10 overall (Rivals.com), respectively, headline a star-studded 2010 recruiting class. Just as important, point guard Larry Drew II must cut down on turnovers that plagued UNC a season ago. The race to 2K won't be on the line in Chapel Hill, N.C., this year, but the stakes are always high when the two winningest programs in NCAA history meet.
vs. Notre Dame (DirecTV SEC/Big East Invitational) (Dec. 8)
Head coach: Mike Brey (11th season) Record/Conference finish: 23-12 (10-8 in Big East/eighth) Final RPI: 52 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: NCAA first round Key returnees: Tim Abromaitis (16.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 81 3-pointers), Ben Hansbrough (12.0 ppg, 67 3-pointers) Key losses: Luke Harangody (21.8 ppg, 9.1 rpg), Tory Jackson (9.6 ppg, 5.3 apg) Series record: UK leads 41-18 Last meeting: Notre Dame won 77-67 on March 25, 2009
The skinny: Arguably, no player was more productive nationwide over the last three seasons than Notre Dame All-American Luke Harangody. With the Big East bruiser gone and guard Tory Jackson out of eligibility, the Irish must find a new nucleus. The good news for the folks in South Bend, Ind., is they may have started to determine one during Harangody's brief bout with an injury. During his absence, Notre Dame discovered a more efficient identity behind forward Tim Abromaitis and Ben Hansbrough (brother of former UNC Tar Heel Tyler and a Mississippi State transfer). Head coach Mike Brey has a knack for molding unheralded players into stars by the time they are juniors and seniors, and both Abromaitis and Hansbrough seem to fit that billing. Although archrival Louisville has since moved out of its longtime home in Freedom Hall, UK's annual visit to Louisville will again be in the historic arena, which once hosted this hotly contested rivalry for more than two decades.
Indiana (Dec. 11)
Head coach: Tom Crean (third season) Record/Conference finish: 10-21 (4-14 in Big Ten/t-ninth) Final RPI: 222 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: N/A Key returnees: Maurice Creek (16.4 ppg), Verdell Jones III (14.9 ppg, 3.4 apg), Christian Watford (12.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg) Key losses: None Series record: UK leads 30-23 Last meeting: UK won 90-73 on Dec. 12, 2009
The skinny: Year three of the Indiana reclamation project, spearheaded by John Calipari friend and former Marquette coach Tom Crean, will go a long way in determining the near future of the Indiana basketball program. One of the proudest traditions in all of college basketball, the Hoosiers expected two years of humility when it brought on Crean and basically an entirely new roster. Now, Indiana is hoping it's starting to put some of its recent struggles in the rearview mirror. For the first time in Crean's tenure, Indiana will have returning starters with some bona fide talent. Guard Maurice Creek, who torched UK for 31 points last season, will return after missing the final two-thirds of the season with a knee injury. Vendrell Jones III is solid in the supporting role, and a young nucleus of Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls, Derek Elston and Bobby Capobianco are all expected to return and improve. If Indiana can shore up its interior game and improve its defense, this team could be well on its way to returning to national prominence. Either way, don't expect a similar result in this year's annual border-state game.
Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 18)
Head coach: Sean Woods (third season) Record/Conference finish: 9-23 (8-10 in Southwestern Athletic/t-sixth) Final RPI: 324 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: N/A Key returnees: Shannon Behling (11.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg) Key losses: Julius Cheeks (12.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.9 apg) Series record: UK leads 2-0 Last meeting: UK won 88-65 on Dec. 7, 2008
The skinny: After a murderous three-game stretch to start the month, UK will welcome a familiar face in Sean Woods. The former UK player will return to Rupp Arena with a project on his hands, but one that is expected to be improved from the 2009-10 season. Gone is leading scorer Julius Cheeks, but forward Shannon Behling is a young and upcoming player in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The Delta Devils got off to a sluggish 1-13 mark in nonconference before playing pretty solid ball down the stretch in the league. Woods and Co. is hoping that late-season momentum can carry over into the 2010-11 campaign. Should it come through, this game won't be as easy for UK as some might perceive.
Winthrop (Dec. 22)
Head coach: Randy Peele (third season) Record/Conference finish: 19-14 (12-6 in Big South/third) Final RPI: 173 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: NCAA play-in game Key returnees: Reggie Middleton (10.1 ppg, 2.8 apg), Matt Morgan (9.6 ppg) Key losses: Mantoris Robinson (8.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg) Series record: UK leads 1-0 Last meeting: UK won 65-44 on Nov. 21, 2003
The skinny: One could reasonably sum up Winthrop's 2009-10 campaign in two very different ways. One would be a team that overcame a slow start and shooting woes to win the Big South Tournament for the ninth time in 12 years. Another would be a team that, despite having one of the most disciplined defenses, fell short of expectations in the NCAA Tournament because of the aforementioned shooting problems. Going forward into 2010-11, the Eagles will face a similar scenario. Tradition indicates that Winthrop will once again be tough defensively. It's been the calling card behind frequent visits to the Big Dance. But if the Eagles want to build upon their now annually high expectations, they have to find some go-to offensive options. Winthrop's top two scoring options from last year return, including guard Reggie Middleton, who picked up his scoring down the stretch.
Coppin State (Dec. 28)
Head coach: Ron Mitchell (25th season) Record/Conference finish: 8-22 (3-13 in Mid-Eastern Athletic/11th) Final RPI: 337 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: N/A Key returnees: Kareem Brown (10.0 ppg, 57 3-pointers), Michael Harper (9.9 ppg), Lenny Young (9.8 ppg), Vince Goldsberry (8.7 ppg, 3.3 apg), Sam Coleman (7.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) Key losses: None Series record: UK leads 1-0 Last meeting: UK won 77-46 on Nov. 20, 2004
The skinny: Returning virtually an entire team usually spells good things. Coppin State, in that respect, is very much a mystery this year. Once the class of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, head coach Ron Mitchell's club stumbled through perhaps the most difficult year of Mitchell's near-quarter-of-a-century stay at Coppin State. There are signs of optimism, though. Coppin State, despite the record, was often in games until the final minute. There was not a single senior on last year's squad, so Coppin State will welcome back not only an entire roster but much-needed experience and leadership. Keep an eye on Michael Harper when Coppin State visits Rupp. The guard was a prolific 3-point shooter his freshman year but struggled from the floor last year as a sophomore.
at Louisville (Dec. 31)
Head coach: Rick Pitino (10th season) Record/Conference finish: 20-13 (11-7 in Big East/t-fifth) Final RPI: 45 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: NCAA first round Key returnees: Preston Knowles (7.2 ppg), Jared Swopshire (7.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Terrence Jennings (5.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg), Peyton Siva (3.9 ppg, 1.8 apg) Key losses: Samardo Samuels (15.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg), Edgar Sosa (13.1 ppg, 4.5 apg, 67 3-pointers), Jerry Smith (8.3 ppg) Series record: UK leads 27-14 Last meeting: UK won 71-62 on Jan. 2, 2010
The skinny: Louisville was thought to be in rather decent shape heading into the grand opening of the Yum! Center. And then the centerpiece of the Louisville frontcourt left at the last minute for the pros. Now, Rick Pitino, a much-maligned coaching legend, will head into the opening of a brand, spanking new arena with a myriad of questions surrounding the team. Can Jared Swopshire and Terrence Jennings pick up the slack for Samuels? Who will step into Edgar Sosa's leadership position? What type of offense will Pitino run without a primary scoring threat in the post? Swopshire and Jennings will hold huge keys to the season, but the difference makers could be guards Preston Knowles and Peyton Siva. Pitino has hinted that the Cardinals will return to a more athletic, in-your-face style this season, similar to the offense and defense he ran at Kentucky. That means perimeter play will be important. Knowles has shown signs of being a knockdown 3-point shooter, and Siva was groomed last year as the point guard of the future.
Penn (Jan. 3)
Head coach: Jerome Allen (first season) Record/Conference finish: 6-22 (5-9 in Ivy League/t-fifth) Final RPI: 298 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: N/A Key returnees: Zack Rosen (17.7 ppg, 71 3-pointers, 4.4 apg), Jack Eggleston (13.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg), *Tyler Bernardini (13.7 ppg) Key losses: None Series record: UK leads 4-0 Last meeting: UK won 67-50 on Nov. 17, 1999 *Played just two games after suffering a season-ending injury. Penn's leading scorer in 2008-09.
The skinny: The good news for Penn? Things can only go up after an injury-plagued 2009-10 in which everything appeared to go against the Quakers. Expected to contend for the Ivy League title, as Penn did with frequency in the not-so-distant past, the Quakers stumbled out of the gate to a 1-13 start, which abruptly ended coach Glen Miller's tenure seven games into it. The season got moderately better when former Penn star Jerome Allen took over, but a slew of devastating injuries plagued the Quakers throughout the season. Now that Allen is officially the head coach, Penn is hoping the bad-luck run of injuries is over. Forward Tyler Bernardini will return after missing basically all of last year with an injury. When he was healthy in his sophomore year, he averaged a team-high 13.7 points per game. Andreas Schreiber, a 6-foot-9 talent, is also being counted on to return after missing just about all of the last two years. In their absence last year, several players were forced to step up, most notably Zack Rosen and Jack Eggleston. Rosen, who led the Ivy League in scoring last year, will return as one of the best players in the Ivy League. With the return of the injured players and the valuable experience that the replacements received, the Quakers are expected to re-enter conference title contention again in Allen's first full year.
Georgia (Jan. 8 - Athens; Jan. 29 - Lexington)
Head coach: Mark Fox (second season) Record/Conference finish: 14-17 (5-11 in SEC/sixth in East) Final RPI: 109 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: N/A Key returnees: Trey Thompkins (17.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg), Travis Leslie (14.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Dustin Ware (8.2 ppg, 3.4 apg), Jeremy Price (7.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg) Key losses: Ricky McPhee (9.6 ppg, 66 3-pointers) Series record: UK leads 112-24 Last meeting: UK won 80-68 on March 3, 2010
The skinny: Here's something to wrap your mind around: Georgia could be one of the best teams in the SEC. Yes, that same Georgia team that finished in last place in the SEC East last year. But if you watched the Bulldogs during Mark Fox's first year as head coach and saw the dynamic duo of Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, you know the possibility of the Bulldogs competing for an SEC crown isn't so far-fetched. Outside of Kentucky's own John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Thompkins and Leslie were the most exciting duo in the SEC. Thompkins improved exponentially in his sophomore season and will return as one of the top big men in the SEC. Leslie is good for at least one highlight reel play a night and will be the most athletic player in the conference this year, bar none. But the biggest thing going forward for Georgia is the belief Fox instilled in his team a season ago that it could win again in the SEC. After a nightmarish 2008-09, the Bulldogs were in just about every game and truthfully could have won more. That confidence should only grow this year as the Dawgs' two top players and a couple of key transfers return. Georgia will certainly need all the confidence it can get in what should be an ultra-competitive SEC East.
Auburn (Jan. 11)
Head coach: Tony Barbee (first season) Record/Conference finish: 15-17 (6-10 in SEC/t-fourth in West) Final RPI: 151 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: N/A Key returnees: Frankie Sullivan (12.7 ppg, 63 3-pointers) Key losses: DeWayne Reed (16.2 ppg, 4.3 apg), Tay Waller (15.3 ppg, 87 3-pointers), Lucas Hargrove (12.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg), Brandon Knox (8.7 ppg) Series record: UK leads 84-17 Last meeting: UK won 72-67 on Jan. 16, 2010
The skinny: Tony Barbee made a bold assertion upon taking the job at Auburn: "We're going right after Kentucky," Barbee said. "We're going right after coach (John) Calipari." Barbee will have his work cut out for him in his first season as a Tiger. Just about every key piece from last year is gone, minus guard Frankie Sullivan, who scored a career-high 27 points in Auburn's final game. With the season all but lost, several key youngsters received additional playing time, including Earnest Ross. The summer wasn't kind to the Tigers, either. Now Sullivan's status for the 2010-11 season is in question after suffering a knee injury, and forward Luke Cothron, a top-50 recruit, according to Rivals.com, has been ruled ineligible. Faced with the possibility of fielding entirely new starting lineup - and virtually a whole new team - a 2010-11 might be a rebuilding year for Auburn. The season is still expected to be a memorable one as the Tigers open their new $92.5 million arena. The Cats won't visit to the new arena until 2011-12.
LSU (Jan. 15)
Head coach: Trent Johnson (third season) Record/Conference finish: 11-20 (2-14 in SEC/sixth in West) Final RPI: 223 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: N/A Key returnees: Storm Warren (11.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg) Key losses: Tasmin Mitchell (16.8 ppg, 9.4 rpg), Bo Spencer (14.5 ppg, 61 3-pointers) Series record: UK leads 79-24 Last meeting: UK won 81-55 on Feb. 6, 2010
The skinny: Trent Johnson would be the first to tell you that last season was extremely difficult for the Tigers. Anytime you go from champion to cellar dweller, things aren't going to be easy. The Tigers had just three viable scoring options a year ago because of injuries. Now, two of those players - including one of the all-time leading scorers in LSU program history, Tasmin Mitchell - are gone. That could only mean things are going to get worse in 2010-11, right? Not necessarily. While the absences of guard Bo Spencer and Mitchell will be tough to replace, reinforcements are on their way. LSU will welcome a strong recruiting class, led by a pair of four-star recruits (Rivals.com) in forward Matt Derenbecker and Andre Stringer. Forward Storm Warren made vast improvements last year as a scorer and should be the go-to option in the offense. The Tigers likely won't compete for an SEC title, but if they can find leadership to complement the youthful talent, LSU could turn a few heads.
at Alabama (Jan. 18)
Head coach: Anthony Grant (second season) Record/Conference finish: 17-15 (6-10 in SEC/t-fourth in West) Final RPI: 104 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: N/A Key returnees: JaMychal Green (14.1 ppg, 5.2 ppg, 1.7 bpg), Tony Mitchell (9.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Senario Hillman (7.9 ppg) Key losses: Mikhail Torrance (15.6 ppg, 5.1 apg) Series record: UK leads 100-35 Last meeting: UK won 73-67 on March 12, 2010, in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals
The skinny: Just about anyone you talk to in the SEC will tell you that Alabama is only moving forward under the direction of head coach Anthony Grant. Long regarded as one of the top young coaches in the game, the Crimson Tide made impressive strides during Grant's first year on the job. Grant established a defensive mindset that will likely be the calling card of Alabama teams to come. Last year, the Tide allowed an SEC-best 64.5 points per game. Although Alabama loses its most consistent scorer and one of the top SEC point guards in Mikhail Torrance, the bulk of 'Bama's inside game returns in JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell. After sitting out most of last year, Andrew Steele returns as one of Grant's best defenders. If Steele buys into Grant's trapping defensive philosophy and the interior game of Green and Mitchell continue to improve, this could be one of those feisty, hard-working clubs that opposing teams dread to play. Last year's near upset of Kentucky in the SEC Tournament could be a telling indication of what is to come.
South Carolina (Columbia - Jan. 22; Lexington - Feb. 19)
Head coach: Darrin Horn (third season) Record/Conference finish: 15-16 (6-10 in SEC/t-fifth in East) Final RPI: 98 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: N/A Key returnees: Sam Muldrow (10.4 ppg, 6.2 rpgs, 3.1 bpg) Key losses: Devan Downey (22.5 ppg, 3.5 apg, 69 3-pointers), *Dominique Archie (14.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg), Mike Holmes (11.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Brandis Raley-Ross (10.6 ppg, 62 3-pointers) Series record: UK leads 42-9 Last meeting: UK won 82-61 on Feb. 25, 2010 *Played in just five games after suffering a season-ending injury
The skinny: Yes, the Cat killer is gone. If there is one player Kentucky fans are pleased to see gone more than any other, chances are it's guard Devan Downey. The one-man UK heartbreaker has finally run out of eligibility and is gone to greener pastures overseas. And that's fine by UK fans. Without Downey, South Carolina will have several question marks to answer this year. Not only is the SEC's leading scorer out, so is his supporting cast of guards in Dominique Archie and Brandis Raley-Ross. Without the Gamecocks' backcourt, head coach Darrin Horn will have a lot of rebuilding on his hands. Shot blocker Sam Muldrow is back and will be looked to for more offense along with returning starter Lakeem Jackson and reserve Ramon Galloway. But outside of those options, a lot is going to rely on Horn's 2010 signing class, which should be a good one. Horn signed two four-star prospects, according to Rivals.com, in guard Bruce Ellington and forward Damontre Harris. Both will need to step up big for South Carolina not to take a step back in 2010-11.
at Ole Miss (Feb. 1)
Head coach: Andy Kennedy (fourth season) Record/Conference finish: 24-11 (9-7 in SEC/t-first in West) Final RPI: 54 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: NIT semifinals Key returnees: Chris Warren (17.2 ppg, 111 3-pointers, 3.5 apg), Zach Graham (9.2 ppg, 50 3-pointers) Key losses: Terrico White (15.1 ppg, 61 3-pointers, 4.6 rpg), Murphy Holloway (10.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Eniel Polynice (8.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.9 apg) Series record: UK leads 97-13 Last meeting: UK won 85-75 on Feb. 2, 2010
The skinny: Chris Warren might be the best player in the SEC that the average fan doesn't know about. He also might be the player with the most to gain or lose this season. On an up-tempo team fond of shooting 3-pointers last season, Warren was one of handful of guys who could put the ball in the basket. That won't necessarily be the case this year. The departures of Terrico White, Murphy Holloway and Eniel Polynice will be huge holes to fill, putting the pressure on Warren to shoulder a hefty load of the offense in his senior season. The 3-point assassin has shown he's more than capable of scoring, draining a league-high 111 treys last season, but he'll need some help from guard Zach Graham in addition to some supporting role players (Trevor Gaskins and Terrance Henry) who will need to take on bigger roles this season. The Rebels have made great strides under fourth-year head coach Andy Kennedy winning 69 games over his three years (compared to just 41 wins the previous three seasons), but Ole Miss hasn't made the Big Dance since 2002. Will this be the year? Again, a lot is on Warren's shoulders.
Head coach: Billy Donovan (15th season) Record/Conference finish: 21-13 (9-7 in SEC/fourth in East) Final RPI: 59 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: NCAA first round Key returnees: Kenny Boynton (14.0 ppg, 72 3-pointers), Erving Walker (12.6 ppg, 5.0 apg, 72 3-pointers), Chandler Parsons (12.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Alex Tyus (11.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Vernon Macklin (10.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg) Key losses: None Series record: UK leads 88-32 Last meeting: UK won 74-66 on March 7, 2010
The skinny: Florida's two-year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament proved to be an anomaly last season with an NCAA Tournament berth. And now, after a first-round loss in the Big Dance, the Gators are expected to contend for an SEC title and make a run in the NCAA Tournament. After back-to-back years of offseason defections, Florida returns every key offensive piece from a year ago. Kenny Boynton, the Gators' leading scorer as a freshman, will team up with Erving Walker once again to form what should be the top backcourt in the league. Inside, Florida will be just as formidable. Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin make up one the league's best interior games. With a starting lineup as talented as any in the SEC, the key for Florida will be depth. Outside of Ray Shipman, who will Donovan be able to count off the bench? Freshman forward Patric Young, a five-star recruit, according to Rivals.com, has the potential to be one of the top frontcourt players down the road and should see significant minutes in his first season. If the Gators can find a handful of players to complement its talented first five, the Gators will be a favorite to compete not only for the SEC crown but a potential Final Four sleeper to boot. The UK-Florida game on Feb. 5 will be featured on ESPN College GameDay.
Tennessee (Lexington - Feb. 8; Knoxville - March 6)
Head coach: Bruce Pearl (sixth season) Record/Conference finish: 28-9 (11-5 in SEC/third in East) Final RPI: 9 Final ranking: 15/9 Postseason: NCAA Elite Eight Key returnees: Scotty Hopson (12.2 ppg, 52 3-pointers) Key losses: Wayne Chism (12.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg), *Tyler Smith (11.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg), J.P. Prince (9.9 ppg, 3.1 apg), Bobby Maze (9.4 ppg) Series record: UK leads 143-66 Last meeting: UK won 74-45 on March 13, 2010, in SEC Tournament semifinals *Played in only 12 games last year after being dismissed from the team
The skinny: The rivalry between UK and Tennessee is as alive as ever. Whether John Calipari and Bruce Pearl, the border-state recruiting battles, last year's upset of No. 1 UK or the Tennessee shellacking in the SEC Tournament, this rivalry is suddenly challengin Louisville on Kentucky's schedule. It has gotten that heated. When the two teams meet this year, there will be a lot of new faces on both sides. Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince, fixtures of the Tennessee offense and the biggest reasons behind the Volunteers' first Elite Eight appearance last season, are gone. Guard Scotty Hopson emerged last year as a viable second option, but just about all of his teammates have left. Help is on the way in the form of a star-studded recruiting class, headlined by forward Tobias Harris, who ranks No. 7 in the Rivals.com 2010 recruiting class. Harris is expected to come in and contribute immediately, as are four-star shooting guards Trae Golden and Jordan McRae. But experience always goes a long way. Look for one or more of the veterans out of the group of Melvin Goins, Cameron Tatum and Brian Williams to step up the scoring this year. Tennessee will need it if the rivalry is going to be as closely contested this year.
Vanderbilt (Nashville - Feb. 12; Lexington - March 1)
Head coach: Kevin Stallings (11th season) Record/Conference finish: 28-9 (24-9, 12-4 in SEC/second in East) Final RPI: 27 Final ranking: 21/-- Postseason: NCAA first round Key returnees: Jeffery Taylor (13.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg), John Jenkins (11.0 ppg, 72 3-pointers) Key losses: Jermaine Beal (14.6 ppg, 3.1 apg, 72 3-pointers), A.J. Ogilvy (13.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg) Series record: UK leads 133-43 Last meeting: UK won 58-56 on Feb. 25, 2010
The skinny: The staples of Vanderbilt's recent success in the SEC, A.J. Ogilvy and Jermaine Beal, have departed. But does that mean Vandy is in line for a slide? As long as Kevin Stallings is the coach, don't count on it. One of the most underrated coaches in America, Stallings seems to quietly put together contenders year after year. Ogilvy was the face of the program for the last few years, but the Commodores should be able to move on if reserves Festus Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang or incoming 6-foot-11 freshman Josh Henderson can step up. The bigger loss will really be Beal, who was one of the most effective point guards in the conference the last two seasons. Who replaces Beal remains to be seen. Jeffery Taylor is a dynamic player at small forward and John Jenkins is poised for a breakout year as a sophomore, but again, who will get them the ball? If any coach can figure it out, it's Stallings.
Mississippi State (Feb. 15)
Head coach: Rick Stansbury (13th season) Record/Conference finish: 24-12 (9-7 in SEC/t-first in West) Final RPI: 61 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: NIT second round Key returnees: Ravern Johnson (13.2 ppg, 87 3-pointers), Kodi Augustus (8.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg) Key losses: Jarvis Varnado (13.8 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 4.7 bpg), Dee Bost (13.0 ppg, 5.2 apg, 70 3-pointers), Barry Stewart (11.8 ppg, 78 3-pointers) Series record: UK leads 87-19 Last meeting: UK won 75-74 (OT) on March 14, 2010, in 2010 SEC Tournament finals
The skinny: Live by the 3, die by the 3. Ultimately, it cost the Bulldogs in 2009-10. Mississippi State was one of the most productive teams from behind the arc last year, hitting 9.1 treys per game, sixth most in the nation. But at times it became a problem. MSU became so reliant on the 3-ball that when the shots weren't falling, the MSU offense became stagnant. Guard Ravern Johnson will return on the perimeter after hitting 87 3-pointers last year. The nation's all-time blocks leader, Jarvis Varnado, is no longer in MSU maroon, but his replacement has the potential to be an even bigger threat. After sitting all of 2009-10 with NCAA eligibility issues, forward Renardo Sidney is expected to finally suit up. Sidney, a five-star recruit in the 2009 class, doesn't possess the shot-blocking ability of Varnado, but he was an efficient high post and low post scorer in high school. Don't sleep on forward Kodi Augustus having a big year either, and for that matter, don't sleep on MSU - the Bulldogs still have plenty of talent.
at Arkansas (Feb. 23)
Head coach: John Pelphrey (fourth season) Record/Conference finish: 14-18 (7-9 in SEC/third in West) Final RPI: 155 Final ranking: N/A Postseason: N/A Key returnees: Rotnei Clarke (15.1 ppg, 100 3-pointers), Marshawn Powell (14.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg) Key losses: Courtney Fortson (17.9 pp, 5.7 apg), Mike Washington (12.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg) Series record: UK leads 24-7 Last meeting: UK won 101-70 on Jan. 23, 2010
The skinny: Few schools in the SEC can appreciate the tradition and the pressure a program like UK faces on a yearly basis. Arkansas is one of them. As a 1980s, early 1990s power and with a former Kentucky player as coach, John Pelphrey, the Razorbacks know when the heat is on. It's on now. After consecutive subpar years, Arkansas fans are getting restless. Controversy last season clouded what looked to be a solid starting lineup. Now the Razorbacks must deal with losing one of the top point guards in the league, Courtney Fortson, and their workhorse inside, Mike Washington. The good news for Pelphrey and Co. is one of the most prolific 3-point shooter in the league returns in Rotnei Clarke. The 6-foot guard can fill it up with anybody in the country, scoring 51 points in the Razorbacks' season-opening game a year ago. Clarke will likely draw double teams as the go-to-scorer this year, so it will be up to budding star Marshawn Powell to take some pressure off Clarke.