South Carolina basketball beat writer David Cloninger looks at every other team in the SEC as the season approaches
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Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): John Calipari (152-37, sixth season; 555-175, 23rd season)
2013-14 record (SEC finish): 29-11 (12-6)
2013-14 postseason: National runner-up
He’s outta here: Julius Randle (NBA, 15.0 ppg, 10.4 rpg); James Young (NBA, 14.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg); Jon Hood (senior, 1.2 ppg, 0.3 rpg); Jarrod Polson (senior, 1.0 ppg, 0.6 rpg)
He’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-6 G Devin Booker; 5-9 G Tyler Ulis; 6-11 F Karl-Anthony Towns; 6-10 F Trey Lyles
Top returners: 6-6 G Aaron Harrison (13.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg); 6-6 G Andrew Harrison (10.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg); 7-0 F Willie Cauley-Stein (6.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
Calipari may have done his best recruiting job during the last offseason.
Not in getting new players (although he again reeled in a group that was rated second in the country, including preseason All-SEC second-teamer Towns). In convincing most of the players that keyed a stirring run to the national championship game to stick around for another year.
A team that talked of going 40-0 last year stumbled to a 5-5 record in its last 10 games of the regular season and SEC tournament before making a fresh start in the NCAA tournament. There, playing in the toughest regional, Kentucky knocked off Kansas State, undefeated Wichita State, archrival Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin to reach the national title game. The last four games were decided by two points, five, three and one.
The fractured chemistry that had dogged the team through the end of the regular season was gone in the NCAA tournament, and several players decided to turn down the NBA for another shot at the championship that was only a handful of points away last year. The Harrison twins, Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson all decided to come back, and with Calipari’s usual mastery of the recruiting cycle (the pitch: “Want to be in the NBA next year?”) fully intact, Kentucky was an easy consensus No. 1 preseason team.
Nobody’s talking undefeated, but this team is stunningly talented and loaded for anything the schedule might throw at it. Calipari is trying a platoon system to get all of his players some minutes, but this time it’s not freshman-dominated – the team is led by the veterans of last year.
It’s very hard to go wire-to-wire as No. 1, but don’t bet against Kentucky. The Wildcats will be around late in March, carrying the SEC’s banner. We’ll all be watching to see if they take that final step.
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Matthew Mitchell (170-71, eighth year; 200-100, 10th year)
2013-14 record (SEC finish): 26-9 (10-6)
2013-14 postseason: Sweet 16
She’s outta here: Denesha Stallworth (senior, 12.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg); Samarie Walker (senior, 8.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg); Kastine Evans (senior, 8.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg); Bernisha Pinkett (senior, 3.4 ppg, 0.7 rpg); Samantha Drake (forgoing senior year after medical issues, 1.0 ppg, 0.8 rpg)
She’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-6 C Ivana Jakubcova (transfer from Murray State College); 5-11 G Jaycee Coe; 6-2 F/C Alexis Jennings; 6-3 C Alyssa Rice
Top returners: 5-6 G Jennifer O’Neill (12.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg); 5-10 G Bria Goss (10.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg); 5-7 G Janee Thompson (8.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg)
Give Mitchell credit – he’s done what he said he would, which is put Kentucky women’s basketball on par with the men’s team. Now, women’s basketball will never surpass men’s on campus or in the state of Kentucky. But in terms of Kentucky being an elite program in national eyes, there’s no question.
Mitchell’s Wildcats have been to five straight NCAA tournaments and reached the Elite Eight in three of them. His 2012 team won Kentucky’s first SEC regular-season championship since 1982, and just the second overall. His teams have played in four SEC tournament championship games. He’s already won more games than anyone in program history.
He wants more.
The Wildcats are aiming to return to the top of the SEC after finishing fourth last year. Fourth is terrific in a tough conference, but Kentucky had finished either first or second for the previous four years.
O’Neill, the team’s leading scorer despite only starting three games, and Goss return to anchor the offense while Mitchell loaded up on height to replace Stallworth and Walker. Kentucky did take a hit when Jakubcova suffered a stress fracture in her leg (she’s most likely going to redshirt) but Kyvin Goodin-Rogers should be ready to play after being nixed last year due to a pulmonary embolism.
Mitchell is looking for more consistency. The Wildcats’ title hopes were derailed last year when they went 3-3 in the early half of the SEC season. They managed to win nine of their final 12, including an SEC tournament win over South Carolina, which had swept the Wildcats in the regular season. Kentucky also beat Tennessee and Texas A&M during the run. What should help is having the speed and athleticism to run his “40 Minutes of Dread” defense, which he had to back away from last year due to injuries.
Mitchell is also aiming for another record. The Wildcats played Duke in Rupp Arena last season and set an attendance mark for a women’s game not involving Tennessee or Connecticut. (23,706). This year, the Wildcats host Baylor, which eliminated them from the NCAA tournament last year, in Rupp. The Wildcats beat Baylor last year in a four-overtime regular-season game where O’Neill scored 43 points but the Bears paid them back in March.
Usually, Kentucky plays in cozy 8,000-seat Memorial Coliseum. Mitchell has promised that he will sell out Rupp for the third match with Baylor in two years.
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