The 2015 NCAA Tournament Final Four game between Kentucky and Wisconsin seemed over-determined from the outset. There were the Wildcats, blue-chipped and five-starred to the teeth, a presumptive lock to dominate every positional matchup Wisconsin might muster. The Badgers, for their part, under the generalship of Frank Kaminsky, had surfed through the tournament abreast rhythm, cohesion, and execution. That Wisconsin prevailed, 71-64, in hindsight feels natural enough today, but Kentucky's stunned disbelief last April resonated out for everyone who had watched Willie Cauley-Stein run roughshod over mere mortals during the regular season.
Kentucky basketball begins 2015 with more question marks than this time last year. Gone is Cauley-Stein to Sacramento, much to the delight of postmen around the country. Gone are Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison. Gone is first overall draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns. Gone are Trey Lyles and Devin Booker and Dakari Johnson. A full seven players from last year's team -- essentially a platoon and a half of bench space -- are pro ballers now, but don't be fooled: John Calipari's talent well is deep and dense.
All of which is to say: barring an act of God in the greater Lexington area, the Wildcats appear well-equipped to repeat an undefeated regular season and NCAA Tournament run this year. Who, then, among the SEC's other 13 hopefuls will fall in behind them?
The East: Vanderbilt and Georgia
And also Kentucky. But other than Kentucky, the Commodores and Bulldogs sit quietly ready to steal a mid-to-low rung in tournament brackets this season. Georgia did so last year with a No. 10 seed, only to lose in the first round to No. 7 Michigan State, who danced their way off to a Final Four tango with Duke. Georgia plays the nothing-fancy style of ball that Mark Fox loves and -- like Ole Miss -- requires much field-marshaling from the guards. Suffice to say, the loss of Nemanja Djurisic and Marcus Thornton probably won't hurt the Bulldogs too much down the stretch, since old codgers Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines return for their senior years. The preseason calculators like UGA to go 10-8 in SEC play.
Vanderbilt, on the other hand, proved less competent last season, dealing as they were with youth across the roster and a minor conniption from head coach Kevin Stallings. But oftentimes it's seasons such as that which evince hard pedagogy and maturation, and anyway Stallings took the 'Dores to an SEC Tournament victory and No. 5 March Madness seed as recently as 2012. Vandy loses just three players from last year's roster -- only James Siakam's absence will be really missed -- and that core of sophomores and juniors could surprise people come spring. Frontman Damian Jones declined a likely first-round drafting to return this season, and snipers Riley LaChance and Matthew Fisher-Davis are back, following a year in which they accounted for just over 50 percent of the team's three pointers. A projected 12-6 conference record isn't too far-fetched for the Commodores, nor should one be surprised if they rip off 14 SEC wins.
The remaining SEC East teams could end the season anywhere. Florida begins a new era without Billy Donovan, Missouri is still rebuilding under Kim Anderson, and Tennessee remains the basketball equivalent of 12 clowns in a Volkswagon.
The West: LSU and Mississippi State
The 2015-16 season welcomes four new coaches to the SEC: Mike White at Florida, Rick Barnes at Tennessee, Avery Johnson at Alabama, and Ben Howland at Mississippi State. All of these are lucrative statement hires, with perhaps MSU carrying out the largest coup of them all. Barnes is a relatively known quantity, having coached perennially under-achieving Texas for the better part of a century, and it'll be interesting to see how he adapts to a new recruiting base just a few doors down from chez Calipari.
To return to Howland, though. In his 10 seasons at UCLA, he turned in a .685 winning percentage (233-107) with seven Big Dance appearances and four Pac-12 championships. Upon arriving in Starkville, he targeted and signed Mississippi's best basketballer in decades, Malik Newman, only to bring in blue-chipper Schnider Herard a few months later. If it feels like Howland is mustering a young, fast, and talented army, that's because he is, and he's doing so right in the conference's backyard, having set up shop for less than a year. There's little doubt that #CLANGA will be well coached this season, but just how steady can Howland render the ship in one year? Whatever the case, a projected 10-8 SEC record feels about right for these Bulldogs, who will certainly improve in every game they play this season.
LSU played remarkable basketball last season, especially late into their SEC schedule, and it was frankly surprising when they, as a No. 9 seed, lost 66-65 in the Dance's first round to NC State. Jarrell Martin was an absolute wrecking ball underneath the basket but could also compose poetry on the open floor. Certainly losing him to the NBA Draft (25th pick to Memphis) hamstrings the Tigers, as does the departure of all-purpose handyman Jordan Mickey. Martin and Mickey combined for about 20 percent of LSU's offensive production last season, but they leave a squad chock-full of talent and experience. Junior Tim Quarterman in particular is easily a first round draft pick for next year, lest you forget that time he burned off an 18-10-10 triple double against Ole Miss last season. The Tigers' backcourt remains stable with Keith Hornsby steering the ship and splashing down three pointers he has no business firing off in the first place, and Junior Brian Bridgewater jumps up from last season's sixth man role. And we haven't even mentioned five-star super freshman Ben Simmons, who may well be the best college hoops player in the country. All told, a 13-5 conference prognosis seems pessimistic for this year's LSU team, who have probably the highest ceiling in the division.
With so many new coaching faces across the league, the 2015-16 basketball season is shaping up to feature chaos and havoc. Nor should you forget about the new pace of play and fouling rules inscribed this summer, which should hopefully work to Ole Miss' undersized advantage.