NASHVILLE, Tenn. — You’ll never believe this: Kentucky basketball was picked to win the SEC again on Wednesday at the league’s annual media day.
“Kentucky is No. 1 because they’ve earned the right to be No. 1,” said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, whose team was picked to finish 10th. “As long as John Calipari is still at the helm, 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.”
To that end, even with the Wildcats completely remaking their roster again — eight freshmen, three sophomores, zero juniors and seniors — Calipari got his second dose of encouragement in the span of a week on Monday.
“It was our best practice. We scrimmaged and I left thinking, ‘I love this. We’re going to be alright.’ But I’m also anxious about individual players,” he said, making his new favorite joke about taking his hand off (but keeping both feet on) the panic button, which he keeps “under my desk, so if you hear my knees hitting the bottom, that’s me jamming down on the panic button. What I’m trying to get these guys to do and what’s so important: I walked out of the gym and knew we got better and it was one of our better days and individual players got better.
“We gotta grab and live with that, that day, and not worry about the team we play on Nov. 10, Nov. 13, whatever it is, because that anxiety, there’s no need for it. Let’s just try to get better. So I’m trying to lead that way, where they know I’m staying in today.”
With eight former 5-star recruits on his roster, Calipari isn’t getting any sympathy from league coaches about his expected growing pains. Alabama coach Avery Johnson, who just signed an elite class of his own and whose team was picked to finish fourth in the league, remembers recruiting UK redshirt freshman Hamidou Diallo.
“I know a lot about him and I think he’s really talented. That’s why he entered his name into the NBA draft,” Johnson said. “And I was hoping he stayed in the draft. I know how explosive he is. [5-star UK freshman forward] Kevin Knox is a kid that’s outstanding. So a lot of those kids, we recruited … a lot of those kids are talented.
“They’re just unfinished products. They’re like houses that are under construction. They’ve got a long way to go.”
The rest of the conference, however, has already made major strides. A punchline for years, SEC basketball has earned a measure of respect with a recent commitment to facilities, top-notch coaching hires, an uptick in recruiting and last season’s five NCAA Tournament teams, three Elite Eight squads and an unlikely South Carolina run to the Final Four.
“Our league is as good as it’s been since I’ve been a part of the league at 18 years old. That’s 22 years,” said Florida coach Mike White, whose team reached the the Elite Eight in his second season and is picked No. 2 in the SEC this year. “I don’t think the SEC has been, from top to bottom, any stronger than it is right now in basketball. If you just study the rosters and the talent level … I’m just not sure you’ve had this many capable teams.
“You look at No. 13, who I believe was Tennessee — they’re going to be good in my estimation. If you’ve got a Rick Barnes-coached team picked 13th, it’s a pretty good league. And I’m not sure they’ll finish 13th.”
For all the improvement of teams not named Kentucky or Florida at the top, many coaches agree the league’s reputation is rising in part because of a better bottom.
“The biggest difference this year is the team that typically play on Wednesday night in the SEC Tournament — meaning the bottom four — have all improved,” Kennedy said. “I think top to bottom the league might be as good as it’s been in my 12 years, and that’s not coachspeak. I think the national narrative is going to change.”
This is all, of course, bad news for a Kentucky team that will wobble early. The last time the Wildcats even close to this inexperienced was 2013-14, and they lost 10 games before an unlikely run to the NCAA title game.
So how is Calipari’s team favored again to win this surging conference?
“He has a great way of molding these guys,” said UT’s Barnes, a longtime friend. “He’s willing to adjust and change some things that fit each one of his teams. There’s certain things he believes in that he’s not going to waver on, but the fact is his teams always get better and are normally at their best at the end of the year.”