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Returning Talent Will Make SEC Even Better This Season

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Kentucky and Tennessee will both be preseason top 10 teams in a loaded SEC. (Vicky Graff Photo) Kentucky and Tennessee will both be preseason top 10 teams in a loaded SEC. (Vicky Graff Photo)

By LARRY VAUGHT

Kentucky likely will be ranked No. 1 in most preseason college basketball polls, but the first three Southeastern Conference players being projected to be picked in the 2019 NBA Draft come from other teams.

Arkansas sophomore Daniel Gifford, Vanderbilt freshman Darius Garland and Missouri sophomore Jontay Porter are the top three picks in ESPN’s early 2019 mock draft. Kentucky has two players — No. 13 Keldon Johnson and No. 20 P.J. Washington — in the top 20 with Johnson projected in the lottery.

Mississippi State coach Ben Howland thinks the bevy of SEC players who pulled their name out of the NBA draft to return to college could “be a very good pro team.” Those players  would include Auburn’s Austin Wiley, Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield, and Florida’s Jalen Hudson along with Washington, Gifford and Porter. Mississippi State had four players — brothers Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon, Aric Holman and Lamar Peters — make that same move.

The SEC sent a record eight teams to the NCAA Tournament last year and has Kentucky, Tennessee and Auburn as likely top 10 preseason teams with LSU, Mississippi State and Florida all potential top 25 teams. Vanderbilt had perhaps its best recruiting class ever.

“Top to bottom, the league was the best I’ve ever seen it last year. There truly wasn’t a night off,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said on last week’s SEC teleconference. “Next year, I think the top is going to be even stronger than it was last year. This is going to be the most competitive year that I can remember in SEC basketball because the quality at the top of the league is going to be even stronger.

“You look at Mississippi State and LSU, what those teams have brought in and Vanderbilt, how much they’re improved. Tennessee’s got everybody back. We’ve got a lot of guys back. Alabama’s got a lot of guys back that have a lot more experience.”

Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said players that elected to return to college have “proven themselves to be some of the better freshmen in the SEC.” He says they have to develop physically now because the SEC is one of the “better conferences” in the country and they know more about what to expect going into a second season.

“Experience is going to be your greatest teacher,” Anderson said. 

Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew says so many players turning down a chance to play in the NBA to stay in school only makes the SEC “more powerful” this season, especially with so many talented freshmen also coming into the league.

“It’s a great compliment to our league (the players coming back) because they know the league will be better next year and they will be playing against draft picks on a nightly basis,” Drew said.

Florida coach Mike White said Hudson, who led the Gators in scoring last year, will benefit from the NBA feedback he got just like Washington will at UK.

“He hears it from his coaches but it hits home when he hears it from the highest level. He’s got to play with more of an edge. Be better on defense and rebounding. He’s got to dig a little deeper,” White said — a pitch most SEC coaches will be making to their teams this year because of the uptick in overall talent in the league.

Kentucky also benefits immensely from the addition of Stanford transfer Reid Travis, a fifth-year senior and two-time all-conference pick. 

"A real load for everybody in our league to contend with .... great pickup for Kentucky,” Howland, a former coach at UCLA, said. 

“Kentucky is loaded again, like they’ve always been, but with a little bit of experience. I think Washington coming back was huge. I’m a big fan of him and his toughness,” Pearl said. "John (Calipari) likes this team, and he likes them in June. That's scary for the rest of us. He usually doesn't like them till March.”

Calipari admits he’ll have a “lot of weapons” at Kentucky and more experience than normal with sophomores Quade Green, Nick Richards and P.J. Washington all back after playing significant minutes last year along with the addition of Travis to go with another banner group of freshmen.

“I’d like to have six or seven guys in double-figures scoring. There’s no one who is going to average 25 a game. You might get 25 in a game, but we don’t play through two guys,” Calipari said. “Everybody here is treated the same way. If you don’t deserve to play, you won’t play. If you do deserve to play, I’ll figure it out.”

And in the SEC this year, there’s going to be a lot for most coaches to figure out because of the quality of elite players in the league.

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