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November 1, 2006

Stars aligned in the SEC

Preseason Top 25
SEC Preview
The College Basketball Wire

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SEC Preview | Rivals.com Preseason All-SEC Team

Rivals.com selected the top 25 storylines for the upcoming 2006-07 college basketball season and will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 7 storyline centers around the rise of the SEC and how it became the most talent-laden conference in the nation.

The talk in most conferences right now centers around who is gone and how - and if - they can be replaced. But in the SEC, it's all about who is coming back.

Leading the way is the reigning SEC Player of the Year, Glen Davis - the only player of the year from the six major conferences who returns.

There's also Florida center Joakim Noah, the Most Outstanding Player from the 2006 Final Four.

The Gators still have all their starters, including Noah's frontcourt mates Al Horford and Corey Brewer. The three juniors played key roles in Florida's run to its first basketball national title.

Alabama features one of the nation's top inside-outside duos in point guard Ronald Steele and power forward Jermareo Davidson.

Chris Lofton gives Tennessee, the defending Eastern Division champs, one of the nation's top 3-point shooters.

Other than Lofton, each of those players would have probably been first-round picks in the last NBA Draft. That represents a dramatic change in events from the previous year, when most of the SEC's top players turned pro early.

"You look at the preseason all-conference teams and you compare it with two or three of the other premier leagues in the country, and there's no comparison this year," South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. "This league this year is top-heavy in terms of stars, which means the teams are going to be top-heavy."

The USA Today coaches' preseason poll backs up Odom's claim. Florida was nearly a unanimous top pick, receiving 30 of 31 first-place votes. LSU, which is coming off its first Final Four run in 20 years, starts at No. 7. Alabama came in at No. 12.

Kentucky and Tennessee are No. 22 and No. 24, giving the SEC five top 25 teams, tying the 16-team Big East for the most of any conference.

It all represents a much different landscape than when Odom entered the SEC six years ago. Kentucky was a near virtual lock for the league title back then. At that time, it also seemed the former Wake Forest coach was taking a step down by making the move from the ACC.

"When I came in here people told me it's an athlete's league. Wrong. It's an athlete's league with skill," he said. "You just say it's an athlete's league it's a run and jump league. They can't shoot, they can't pass, they can't handle. This league can run, jump, handle, pass and now it has transcended to a league of thinkers. I think the coaches now coach to the point where they want their teams to think in addition to play. Florida's a thinking team. They don't just run and jump. They can shoot and they can think. They're a smart team. Alabama's a smart team. Kentucky's a smart team.

"I'll tell you a team that's a smart team and will never get credit for it is LSU. They're well coached. I can go through the whole league. I think that's the biggest difference in the SEC today and when I got here."

Another big difference is the depth, which was certainly evident last season.

South Carolina, which beat Florida twice and reached the final of the SEC Tournament, is coming off back-to-back NIT titles.

Vanderbilt swept Kentucky for the first time since 1974 last season and got its first win in Rupp Arena.

"It doesn't matter how many top 20 teams we have in the preseason, someone's going to emerge," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "You're going to have three or four teams emerge. In the past it's been seven, eight or nine teams beating up on each other.

"Some leagues have three or four teams at the top and you go maybe eight teams on the bottom, and it's a little easier to go on the road and get wins. There are no easy road games in this conference. Anyone's capable of beating if you don't show up and play."

Mississippi State looks poised to emerge as the next dark horse. Four starters are back from a young team that won three of the last their last five regular-season games, including a 71-58 win over Alabama.

Even Georgia, which was picked to finish in last place again in the East, looks dangerous. The Bulldogs return all their starters. They have one of the top young players in the league in guard Mike Mercer, and have finally added a much needed big man - junior college transfer Takais Brown.

It all points to what may be the best and most exciting season ever for SEC basketball.

SEC Preview | Rivals.com Preseason All-SEC Team

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