The Southeastern Conference's top players used to treat college basketball as little more than a one- or two-year apprenticeship for the NBA.
The SEC welcomes back most of its best underclassmen after sending two teams to the Final Four and producing an NIT champion last year.
Florida returns all five starters from last year's national championship team. Reigning SEC player of the year Glen Davis came back to school after leading LSU to the Final Four. Alabama brings back a pair of All-America candidates in point guard Ronald Steele and post player Jermareo Davidson.
All that experienced talent gives the SEC reason to believe it enters the 2006-07 season as the nation's toughest conference.
"You look at last year,'' said South Carolina coach Dave Odom, whose team won its second consecutive NIT title last year. "Florida wins the national championship. LSU is right there to win it. We were close to getting to the NCAA, didn't and went on to do pretty well in that other tournament. You tell me a league that's done better than that."
The SEC will try to deliver an encore performance this season by relying on the nation's best collection of frontcourt players.
"There are some outstanding forwards in this league this year," LSU coach John Brady said. "It should be fun to see the game within six or eight feet of the goal.''
The league features so much talent this year that Kentucky ? typically a near-unanimous pick as the preseason favorite ? enters this season as a virtual afterthought. Florida, Alabama and LSU instead enter the season as the SEC's highest-ranked teams.
Kentucky struggled through a 9-7 record in conference play last year while Florida and LSU advanced to the Final Four. Kentucky coach Tubby Smith acknowledges the Wildcats are using the success of their rivals as incentive.
"I think it motivates everyone that you better get your act together and better get better," Smith said. "Certainly the run that LSU and Florida got on is special for the SEC, special for their programs. It
sends a message that if we can play with those teams and win, then that could be something that could happen for us.''
Nearly every team in the conference enters the season with equally high expectations.
Rivals.com 2006-07 SEC preview
Team on the rise: Mississippi State. The Bulldogs ended a string of four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances by going 15-15 last year, but they should start a new streak this season. Mississippi State will get a boost from the return of four starters, including 6-foot-8 star forward Charles Rhodes - who averaged 13.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game last year. Jamont Gordon led the SEC in turnovers last year as a freshman starter, but the versatile point guard should settle down his game this season while continuing to showcase his extraordinary athleticism.
Team on the decline: Arkansas. There frankly aren't many teams on the decline in this talent-laden conference, but Arkansas could struggle to repeat last year's 22-10 campaign. The Razorbacks are loaded in the frontcourt with shot-blocking specialist Steven Hill and Charles Thomas, but they must find a way to replace guards Ronnie Brewer, Jonathon Modica and Eric Ferguson. That trio combined to score 42.6 points per game last year. The Razorbacks are counting on Mississippi State transfer Gary Ervin, junior college transfer Sonny Weems and true freshman Patrick Beverley to pick up the slack.
Coach on the rise: Tennessee's Bruce Pearl. All Pearl did in his first year at Tennessee is win the Eastern Division title with a team that was picked to finish next-to-last. He also ended the Volunteers' four-year NCAA Tournament drought. Pearl developed into the SEC's biggest regular-season story last year as his pressure defenses kept league foes off balance all season. Pearl has a tough job this season trying to win again with a guard-oriented team in a conference dominated by big men. If he pulls it off, you can expect to hear plenty more from the quotable Pearl in years to come.
Coach on the hot seat: Kentucky's Tubby Smith. The Wildcats' 9-7 SEC record last season was their worst mark in conference play since 1988-89, the last year of the Eddie Sutton era. Kentucky fans then had to watch two SEC rivals make the Final Four while their team exited the NCAA Tournament in the opening weekend. That only turns up the pressure on Smith, who
hasn't led the Wildcats to the Final Four since winning a national title his first year at Kentucky in 1998-99.
Best offensive player: LSU F/C Glen Davis. The reigning SEC player of the year was just the fifth conference player since 1965 to lead the league in scoring and rebounding. After averaging 18.6 points and 9.7 rebounds per game a year ago, Davis will try to lead the Tigers to a second consecutive Final Four appearance. Now that he has shed nearly 60 pounds in the offseason, the 289-pound Davis should offer plenty of more moves around the basket.
Best 3-point shooter: Tennessee guard Chris Lofton. He set an SEC freshman record two years ago by sinking 93 shots from 3-point range. Lofton followed that up by making 114 more treys last season to lead the SEC in 3-pointers per game. He is shooting 44.9 percent from 3-point range in his career. Lofton also has developed a reputation as an outstanding clutch shooter. His fadeaway jumper from just inside the 3-point line to beat Winthrop was one of the most memorable shots from last year's NCAA Tournament.
Best defensive player: Florida F/C Joakim Noah. The son of former French Open champion Yannick Noah turned last year's NCAA Tournament into his own personal block party. Noah set an NCAA Tournament record with 29 blocked shots and shattered an NCAA championship game mark by rejecting six shots against UCLA. Noah's ability to run the floor and outleap
anybody makes him a matchup nightmare for every frontcourt player.
Best player you don't know yet: LSU G Dameon Mason. Actually, you might already know this guy if you follow college basketball outside the Southeast. Mason averaged 11.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per game at Marquette two years ago before transferring to LSU. He could fit right into the starting lineup in his first season with the Tigers.
Deepest bench: Florida. Whenever a national champion returns all five of its starters, it has to win this honor. Chris Richard and Walter Hodge give the Gators two of the league's top reserves. Florida also should benefit from the arrival of four-star prospects Jon Mitchell, Marreese Speights and Dan Werner. The one concern for Florida is the lack of a pure point guard on the bench if starter Taurean Green gets hurt. Kentucky also could have a large rotation, while Georgia may have a deeper backcourt than anyone in the conference.
Impact newcomer: Tennessee G Ramar Smith. The departure of C.J. Watson leaves Smith and freshman classmate Marques Johnson competing to become the Volunteers' new starting point guard. We're betting the job goes to Smith, who was rated by Rivals.com as the nation's No. 20 overall prospect in the 2006 recruiting class. The 6-foot-2 Smith averaged 23.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 2.0 steals per game his senior year at Martin Luther King High School in Detroit.
Freshman sleeper: South Carolina F Dominique Archie. This former three-star prospect was redshirted last season and now steps in to fill the void created by Renaldo Balkman's early departure to the NBA. South Carolina coach Dave Odom marveled in the preseason about how much Archie's style reminds him of Balkman, a physical player who frustrated SEC foes with his tenacity.
News and notes: Last year the SEC became the fourth conference to win the NCAA and NIT titles. The first three were the Big Ten in 1979, the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1992 and the Big East in 2003. ? Every SEC team has made at least one NCAA Tournament appearance since 2002. ? The SEC has five teams ranked in the USA Today/ESPN preseason poll, including three in the top 12. The ranked SEC teams include No. 1 Florida, No. 7 LSU, No. 12 Alabama, No. 22 Kentucky and No. 24 Tennessee. ? Georgia F Rashaad Singleton has gained about 25 pounds as he tries to add some beef to a guard-oriented Bulldog team. ? Georgia's uniforms will include patches with the motto "Do It For Broph," in honor of former point guard Kevin Brophy, who died last summer from injuries sustained in a car wreck. ? Arkansas C Steven Hill had almost as many blocked shots (91) as points (97) last season. ? Alabama had just seven scholarship players at the end of last season, but the arrival of seven freshmen and one junior-college transfer should give the Crimson Tide much more depth this year. ? New Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who coached at Cincinnati last year, is a Mississippi native and a former Mississippi high school player of the year. He scored 28 points in a state championship victory his freshman year at Louisville (Miss.) High.