BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Kentucky basketball coach Tubby Smith scoffs at the notion that his team is flying under the radar this year.
After all, programs with Kentucky's reputation and name recognition can't sneak up on anyone.
But the Southeastern Conference preseason media poll that came out Thursday illustrated how much this league has changed in the last few years. Kentucky isn't the team to beat anymore.
Only one of the 29 media members selected the Wildcats to win the Eastern Division, and none of them predicted a league title for Kentucky.
The media made defending national champion Florida an overwhelming favorite to win the SEC title. Florida earned 21 of the 29 votes, while LSU received five and Alabama got the other three.
"I don't think you can ever believe you are flying under the radar just because someone else is getting so much attention," Smith had said a day earlier. "Florida and LSU had a lot of success last year, and I couldn't be happier. It means a lot to our conference. But every year they try to beat us, and we try to beat them. Our goals don't change. We want to win the conference and go as deep as we can into the NCAA Tournament."
Kentucky also didn't have anyone chosen as a first-team or second-team preseason all-conference player. The Wildcats lost starting guards Rajon Rondo and Patrick Sparks from a team that went 22-13 and finished third in the Eastern Division last year.
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury considers this a testament to the SEC's growing strength rather than an indictment of Kentucky.
"Those years of Kentucky dominating this league are over," Stansbury said. "That's the perception of Kentucky. Everyone thinks Kentucky is down because they're not dominating. Kentucky is good and will always be good. They just will not go 16-0 in the Southeastern Conference like they used to. It doesn't mean they're not good, though. They're a good team and a good program."
Although LSU received the second-most conference championship votes, Alabama actually was the favorite to win the Western Division. The Crimson Tide received 16 first-place votes in the West, while the Tigers earned the other 13 votes.
The first-team all-SEC selections included LSU forward/center Glen Davis, Alabama guard Ronald Steele, Florida center Joakim Noah, Tennessee guard Chris Lofton and Florida forward Al Horford. Davis was the only unanimous first-team selection, but Noah received the most preseason Player of the Year votes.
Results from th epreseason media voting taken at SEC Media Days. (First-place votes in parentheses.) Eastern Division
1. Florida (28)
2. Kentucky (1)
5. South Carolina
1. Alabama (16)
2. LSU (13)
4. Mississippi State
6. Ole Miss
NCAA VS. NIT
South Carolina coach Dave Odom understands that the Gamecocks' status as back-to-back NIT champions is something of a mixed blessing.
"Nobody wants to finish their coaching career saying, 'Boy, I was a really good NIT coach,' '' Odom said. "I don't think anyone starts out to do that.
But at the same time, when you plan out a season and that's what's left at the end of the conference tournament, you want to attack that with all your might. I believe our team deserves credit for being able to switch gears, refocus and play hard enough to win a second championship."
South Carolina point guard Tre Kelley believes the Gamecocks' absence from the NCAA Tournament the last two years has impacted the national perception of his own performance.
Kelley believes he outplayed Steele in a 67-56 victory over Alabama last season, yet Kelley's name rarely comes up in any conversation about the nation's best point guards. Steele is a preseason All-American.
"You can see how much it affects a team and individuals when you don't get to the NCAA Tournament," Kelley said. "(Steele) is a great player and deserves everything he's getting, but you can see there's a big gap between me and him as far as what people say. He's led his team to two NCAA Tournaments, and I've led my team to two NIT championships. People don't respect the NIT at all."
Vanderbilt swept the regular-season series with Kentucky for the first time in 32 years, but Foster still labeled the 2005-06 campaign a disappointment.
The Commodores blamed their absence from the NCAA Tournament on a lack of chemistry that grew all too obvious down the stretch of close losses.
"The most important trust is the trust from player to player," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "You have to be able to depend on the guy that's out there with you to do the right thing he had been coached to do. When you go back and watch tape, we would have guys do things where we would sit around as an entire team look at each other like, 'You can't be serious.' ''
Foster said he and the other upperclassmen took it upon themselves in the offseason to improve the team chemistry. The Commodores rarely hung out together off the court last season, so they started holding more cookouts and parties to help build unity.
"We're more together this year than we've ever been since I've been here," Foster said.
In a year when so many of the SEC's top underclassmen returned to school, South Carolina's Renaldo Balkman was an exception to the rule.
Balkman decided to turn pro after his junior season in a gamble that paid off when the New York Knicks took him with the 20th overall pick in the NBA Draft. Odom admits the 6-foot-8 forward probably couldn't have improved his draft stock much by remaining in school.
"My counsel to him before the draft was stay another year and you'll end up being a first-round draft pick," Odom said. "He ended up being one anyway."
Odom may have found the ideal replacement for Balkman, who averaged 9.6 points and a team-high 6.3 rebounds per game. Odom believes 6-7 redshirt freshman Dominique Archie plays with a similarly aggressive style.
"He's as close to Renaldo Balkman as you can get," Odom said. "If I had another recruiting season, I couldn't go out and find another (player) who could impersonate Renaldo Balkman like Dominique Archie. They're the same kind of players."
Georgia is making this season a tribute to guard Kevin Brophy, who died July 20 from injuries he sustained in an auto accident after coaching kids at a free basketball clinic.
The Bulldog uniforms will include a commemorative patch with the slogan "Do It For Broph." Employees at Stegeman Coliseum will wear a similar patch.
Georgia also will sell "Do It For Broph" spirit bands to help fund the Kevin Brophy Memorial Scholarship, which has been created by the UGA Athletic Association.
"He was a great motivator on and off the court," said sophomore guard Mike Mercer, who roomed with Brophy. "He never really played that much in actual games, but he always was ready for practice the next day. He gave it 110 percent every time he stepped on the court. We're going to take that with us this season. He's motivating us very much."
BARON OF BLOCKS
Arkansas center Steven Hill is such a defensive specialist that he has almost as many career blocked shots (145) as field-goal attempts (150). The 7-foot junior finished last season with 97
points and 91 blocks.
The Razorbacks want to get Hill more involved in the offense this season, but he also hasn't dropped any of his defensive intensity.
"It was scary watching him in practice two days ago," Arkansas coach Stan Heath said. "It was frightening. (He was) dominating every aspect of the paint. Defensively, offensively. We were going against zones, and it was so simple. He just pulled around behind the zone. (Junior guard) Gary Ervin just lobbed it up in the air, and Steven would catch it and dunk it home. And they were going against some pretty good guys."
Hill is such an effective shot blocker that Heath sometimes worries how it affects Arkanasas' other players in practice.
"Steven can have an effect on your psyche," Heath said. "You're trying to make an offensive move, and your shots keep getting thrown out of the gym.
It's probably a shot that's going to be successful in a normal game, but if you go against Hill all the time, that can shake you up a little bit."
Any team that has four freshmen playing at least 20 minutes per game must endure plenty of growing pains.
That's what happened to Auburn last year.
Sophomore forward Rasheem Barrett admitted the Tigers resembled "scared little kids" at times because they didn't have many upperclassmen to help them through their first season of big-time college basketball.
Barrett is making sure this year's freshman class receives more guidance.
"As sophomores, we take pride in freshmen coming up and asking us questions," Barrett said. "We know what we went through last year. We don't want them to go through that, so we try to be big brothers or whatever they want us to be. We'll sit down, listen to them, go over plays with them and tell them what's going on."