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Kentucky, Tennessee lead SEC loaded with new talent

By John Zenor
Associated Press
Kentucky's Keion Brooks Jr. (12) dunks over Fairleigh Dickinson's Elyjah Williams (21) in a game last season. The No. 10 Wildcats lost five starters among nine departures from last season, including Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Immanuel Quickley and All-SEC first teamer Nick Richards. That left Brooks, a sophomore forward, as the lone returning regular after starting six of 31 games.

Kentucky has yet another crop of Big Blue-chippers and Tennessee looks poised to prove last season was a blip on an otherwise impressive recent run of success.

When it comes to the rest of the Southeastern Conference it's anybody's guess.

The 10th-ranked Wildcats will rely heavily on the nation's top recruiting class, led by top 10 prospects Brandon Boston Jr. and Terrence Clarke and point guard Devin Askew. They have no choice since coach John Calipari must replace all five starters and nine players total, including SEC Player of the Year Immanuel Quickley.

"We're all together trying to figure everybody out," Calipari said. "But this is every year."

Rick Barnes and No. 12 Tennessee have replenished their talent with a top 5 signing class after a disappointing follow-up to a Sweet 16 run in 2019. Enter five-star guards Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson to help stage a turnaround.

They'll join SEC defensive player of the year Yves Pons, who returned after exploring an NBA move. The Vols went 17-14 last season.

Kentucky and Tennessee were the only SEC teams to crack the preseason AP Top 25. But others have also fortified their NCAA Tournament hopes with key transfers and highly rated freshmen.

LSU, Florida and Alabama  were all among the top vote getters outside the Top 25.

KEY TRANSFERS

A number of teams will be leaning on transfers, with Kentucky and Tennessee among those getting a boost. The Wildcats added 7-footer Olivier Sarr from Wake Forest. The Vols are hoping for instant and needed rebounding help from Sacred Heart grad transfer E.J. Anosike. Ex-Oregon player Victor Bailey Jr. is also available after sitting out last season.

"We weren't very good in that area a year ago, and it's something we've really made a conscious effort on to know that we have to be better there," Barnes said of the rebounding reinforcements. "E.J. will help us and he does a great job in that area. It's not just going to be him though."

Mississippi's additions include Romello White, who was the Pac-12's No. 2 rebounder last season at Arizona State. Alabama nabbed another rebounding force, Jordan Bruner from Yale.  Georgia's Tom Crean added three graduate transfers and three junior college transfers. Florida has four transfers. 

Mississippi State even landed a transfer from a league rival, with forward Javian Davis coming over from Alabama. LSU added 6-foot-10 UCLA transfer Shareef O'Neal, son of former LSU and NBA star Shaquille O'Neal.

Texas A&M added the nation's top rebounder in Quinnipiac graduate transfer Kevin Marfo.

South Carolina's Seventh Woods sat out last season after transferring from North Carolina. Vanderbilt has former Notre Dame guard DJ Harvey.

TOP RECRUITS

The SEC had five of the nation's top 12 recruiting classes according to the 247Sports composite rankings, with Kentucky and Tennessee followed by LSU (No. 6), Auburn (9) and Alabama (12.) Boston was rated the fifth-best prospect and Clarke, No. 8.

Tennessee's Springer was No. 16 and Johnson 19th-best overall. Auburn also landed point guard Sharife Cooper (No. 24) and LSU got shooting guard Cameron Thomas (No. 25).

BIGGEST GAMES

The pandemic wreaked havoc on the nonconference schedules, but there are some solid games still. That includes Tennessee vs. Kansas, Alabama-Oklahoma, Auburn-Baylor and Arkansas State-Oklahoma State.

The Gators face No. 4 Virginia followed by visits to Oklahoma and 21st-ranked Florida State.

But Kentucky has the most big-name opponents: Notre Dame and Texas at home, along with neutral-site matchups against Georgia Tech, Kansas and UCLA plus a visit to Louisville.

AUBURN REBUILDS

The Tigers have won 81 games over the past three seasons, including SEC regular season and tournament titles. Now, coach Bruce Pearl has his youngest team with five freshmen and five sophomores. No scholarship players are left from the Final Four team two seasons ago and Isaac Okoro departed early for the NBA.

"I like our talent," Pearl said. "We've got just a ton of learning, a ton of catching up to do, and we're going to have to get better throughout the season if we're going to be a competitive team this year, (if) we're going to be an NCAA Tournament team this year."

AP Sports Writers Teresa Walker, Mark Long and Gary B. Graves contributed to this report.