In Part 2 of my projected look ahead at the SEC race this season, here’s my predicted order of finish in the East. The balance of power in the conference will definitely remain in the East this season. I anticipate as competitive an SEC East race as there has been since the conference was split up into the two divisions. Ironically, however, Alabama could very well win the regular season championship outright by virtue of the fact that the SEC East teams will be beating each other up throughout the season.
1. Tennessee (11-5)
Bruce Pearl’s Vols have won the SEC East championship three of the four years Pearl has been the coach and I see no reason to go against Tennessee this season, although it will be a close race. The Vols seem to have stabilized their point guard situation with the addition of backup Melvin Goins. Scotty Hopson will have to have a big year, and I expect he will. And Tyler Smith will need to be much more consistent in SEC play than he was last season, and I think he will in this his senior season.
2. Kentucky/Vanderbilt/Florida tie (10-6)
Kentucky fans will be insulted at the notion that their beloved Wildcats won’t win the SEC East or the SEC going away this season, what with John Calipari and an influx of top-ranked recruits now on the roster. But this isn’t Conference USA or the Atlantic 10. And I’m not convinced that the dribble-drive offense will be effective night after night in the SEC. Fundamentally, it’s not a sound offense, and Kentucky has always been strong on fundamentals, like them or not. The Wildcats may have more talent than they’ve had, but are they better coached?
It’s hard to believe you say that the two-time defending NCAA Champions two years removed could be overlooked by many this year, but it appears to me that’s the case. The Gators seem to have trimmed some of the dead wood on their roster from the past two seasons, and Billy Donovan seems to have recovered from the Orlando Magic hangover. Florida will have a strong year.
The Commodores may have the best combination of talent and experience in the league this season, but Kevin Stallings in 10 seasons at Vanderbilt has never won an SEC East title so I’ll go with the odds that he won’t again this season. For whatever reason, the ‘Dores can’t seem to sustain consistently solid play once the conference portion of the schedule begins.
South Carolina (8-8)
The Gamecocks may very well be improved over last season when they won 10 games in the SEC East and finished second to Tennessee head-to-head. But I don’t think South Carolina has improved as much as the three teams above them, and I’m not convinced that South Carolina, under Darrin Horn is a very good defensive team.
I actually like the hire of Mark Fox, but the Dawgs have got a ways to go become competitive with their SEC East brethren. I do look for Georgia to improve as the season goes along and have some say about who wins the East come late February.
I think Tennessee and Kentucky are in. It used to be that 10 regular season conference wins got you into the tournament automatically, but that changed after last year and the perception that the SEC was a down league. I don’t see that perception changing much this season, so I see Vandy and Florida on the bubble. Florida may get the edge over Vanderbilt by virtue of its recent history in NCAA tournament play.