October 19, 2017 10:09:49 AM
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Kentucky opponents have trouble agreeing on what it takes to topple a program that annually brings in multiple future first-round NBA picks.
Yet a few Southeastern Conference teams may have stumbled across a winning formula the last couple of years. Experience matters against the talented, but young Wildcats.
"I'd take five first-round picks every day of the week, but not all of us get to have five first-round picks on our team," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. "Those of us that don't, we have to depend on experience."
The right kind of experience -- that comes with some toughness and talent in its own right -- can be Kentucky's kryptonite.
The Wildcats are the preseason favorite to finish first in the SEC after winning at least a share of the league's last three regular-season titles. They're the favorites again despite losing three first-round draft pick from last year's squad: De'Aaron Fox, Marcus Monk, and Bam Adebayo.
"Kentucky's No. 1 because they've earned the right to be No. 1 as long as John Calipari is still at the helm," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "People don't even really know who their players are (but) they know they're going to be good and they know he's going to have them ready."
Georgia senior forward Yante Maten, Missouri freshman forward Michael Porter Jr., and Texas A&M sophomore forward Robert Williams were named the favorites for SEC Player of the Year honors. Alabama's Collin Sexton, Florida's KeVaughn Allen, Kentucky's Hamidou Diallo, and Mississippi State's Quinndary Weatherspoon also received votes in the Player of the Year voting.
Allen, Maten, Diallo, Porter, and Williams were first-team All-SEC selections. Sexton and Weatherspoon were second-team picks along with Kentucky's Kevin Knox, Ole Miss' Terence Davis and Deandre Burnett, Texas A&M's Tyler Davis, and Vanderbilt's Matthew Fisher-Davis.
Last season's South Carolina squad and the 2015-16 Texas A&M team countered Kentucky's freshman firepower with senior-laden rosters.
SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell led South Carolina to the Final Four last season. Texas A&M tied Kentucky for the 2015-16 SEC regular-season title with a lineup that featured seniors Danuel House, Jalen Jones, Alex Caruso, and Anthony Collins.
"Those four seniors were grown men," Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. "We knew what we were going to get every day and every night."
Plenty of SEC programs are hoping their own senior guards can enable them to challenge Kentucky for league supremacy.
Arkansas has six seniors, including the backcourt duo of Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon. Florida's Chris Chiozza, who made one of the most memorable shots of last year's NCAA tournament with a buzzer beater to defeat Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, is back along with junior preseason All-SEC selection KeVaughn Allen.
Ole Miss added Memphis graduate transfer Markel Crawford to join a backcourt already featuring senior Deandre Burnett and junior Terence Davis. Vanderbilt has four-year starter Riley LaChance at point guard.
"I was a lot different as a 22-year-old than as an 18-year-old mentally, physically, emotionally a lot different," Martin said. "There's a difference there - a big, big difference. When you deal with 22-year-olds who have been through it, they handle moments differently than the 18-year-olds."
But experience alone won't get it done.
"If you say, 'OK, would you rather have talent or experience,' I want talent," Kennedy said.
Kentucky has plenty of the latter. The Wildcats signed seven of the nation's top 31 prospects in the 2017 class according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports: Hamidou Diallo (No. 10), Kevin Knox (No. 11), Jarred Vanderbilt (No. 12), P.J. Washington (No. 15), Nick Richards (No. 18), Quade Green (No. 26), and Shai Gilgeouos-Alexander (No. 31).
"Growing up, I always liked to be around players that compete and be around the best of the best," Diallo said. "When I found out a couple of the great players in my class were going there, I wanted to join them and wanted to help us all make our goals possible. That's what drove me to Kentucky."
That's why the teams that have challenged Kentucky lately have some potential NBA talent to go along with experience.
Thornwell, a second-round draft pick, is on the Los Angeles Clippers' roster after his standout senior season with South Carolina. Texas A&M's 2015-16 team relied heavily on seniors but also featured Tyler Davis, a former top-35 recruit who was a freshman that year.
Missouri's Cuonzo Martin cites another trait possessed by most conference title contenders.
"For me, one of the biggest things is you got to have a level of toughness," he said. "Of course talent is what it is, but you can kind of gauge talent what fits what you're trying to do. But I think you have to have a level of toughness."
Martin inherits a Missouri program that finished in the SEC basement each of the last three years. He appears to be mimicking the Kentucky approach in trying to help Missouri regain relevance.
Missouri signed a heralded freshman class that includes Porter Jr., ranked second in his class by the 247Sports Composite. Of course, LSU showed two years ago having the nation's top recruit isn't a sure thing when the Tigers failed to reach the NCAA tournament despite having Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft .
Perhaps the person with the best insight on competing with Kentucky in the SEC is Calipari himself. He said any team that wants to win the SEC must have plenty of talent and toughness.
Then he added one more factor.
"You can't be a team that scores 50-60 points a game in this league and do well in this league," Calipari said. "You've got to be a team that scores 70 or more in this league to have a chance to win games, because the other team's going to score that much, whether you're really good defensively or not."
This is the third year in a row Weatherspoon has been recognized. This honor comes one day after he named to the Jerry West Shooting Guard of the Year watch list.
"There is a lot of talent in this league," said Weatherspoon, a junior from Canton. "We all bring out the best in each other. But I also know people remember the awards you get at the end of the season more than they do at the beginning."
Last season, Weatherspoon paced MSU in scoring (16.5 points per game) and steals (50 steals). As a team, MSU was picked to finish 12th.
Burnett and Davis helped Ole Miss earn the distinction of being one of only three SEC teams to have multiple players on the All-SEC lists. Both Rebels earned preseason All-SEC distinction for the first time in their careers.
Averaging a combined 31.4 points per game last season, Burnett and Davis return as the highest scoring duo in the SEC, and the 13th-highest scoring tandem in the country.
After sitting out a year due to transferring from Miami (Fla.), Burnett made an immediate impact in 2016-17, averaging a team-high 16.5 ppg.
Davis burst onto the scene as a sophomore, averaging 14.9 ppg. after scoring 1.8 ppg. as a freshman. It was the largest increase in scoring among any returning player in the conference.
The Rebels were also picked 10th in the poll despite returning four starters and being one of only two teams to finish .500 or better in SEC play in each of the last six seasons.
Alabama was picked to finish fourth. It returns four starters and seven of the team's top eight scorers from last season's 19-15 team that reached the National Invitation Tournament.
The Crimson Tide will return approximately 73 percent of its total scoring output, 58 percent of its rebounding and 77 percent of its assist totals from a year ago.
In addition to the returnees, coach Avery Johnson brought it the nation's seventh-ranked recruiting class, according to Rivals.com. Sexton (No. 8) and John Petty (No. 28) were rated two of the top-30 players in the country.
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