BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Kentucky is the favorite to win its 50th Southeastern Conference regular-season championship.
The Wildcats, who open the season ranked fourth, were followed by Arkansas, Tennessee, Auburn and Alabama in voting by a panel of SEC and national media members. The results, without vote totals, were released Wedesday at the league's media day.
Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe, the reigning national player of the year, was picked to win the honor again. The other first-team picks were Arkansas freshman Nick Smith Jr., Florida's Colin Castleton, Kentucky's Sahvir Wheeler and Tennessee's Santiago Vescovi.
“We have more veterans than I’ve had in a long time, and those veterans are speeding up practice,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said. “Like, we’re doing more than we normally would do in the first couple weeks because we’ve been there, plus the Bahamas, that trip (over the summer) helped us.”
The Wildcats' last regular-season title came in 2020, when the postseason wasn't held because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
LSU and Tennessee are tied for a distant second-place with 11 SEC regular-season championships.
Six SEC programs turned to new coaches during the offseason, most of them arriving with terrific track records at lower levels. The exception: Mike White went from Florida to Georgia.
The Gators replaced him with 37-year-old Todd Golden, fresh from leading San Francisco to its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1998. LSU hired Matt McMahon from Murray State, Missouri turned to Dennis Gates (Cleveland State), Mississippi State hired Chris Jans from New Mexico State and South Carolina brought in Lamont Paris from Chattanooga.
“I think you see the rise of the SEC as a basketball league,” McMahon said. “Obviously, for me that was very appealing. As a competitor, you want the opportunity to go and compete against the best every night, and you’re certainly going to get that opportunity here in the SEC.”
Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams called Gates “an absolute star.”
“I think he'll do great at Missouri,” Williams said. "I think he's an absolute star, always have."
Paris has a head start with the program’s highest-rated recruit. GG Jackson, a former North Carolina commitment, was the No. 6-rated prospect in the 247Sports composite rankings.
“Well, it doesn’t hurt the rebuild process,” Paris said. "I can say that with 100% certainty.”
Jackson had high praise for his coach, too. “He’s the smoothest, cleanest and good-smelling coach that I know so far. He’s always going to have on some good type of fragrance. He’s the perfect balance between a hard-headed coach and also a compassionate coach that can talk to you on all different type of levels."
Jackson has played with or against some of the other top freshmen entering the league. But he's already had one intense run-in with one of Kentucky's five-star recruits, Chris Livingston.
Apparently, Livingston's coach had said that Jackson had been trash-talking him.
“Coach (Steve) Smith at Oak Hill told him before the game that I was talking trash, which I wasn’t,” the South Carolina freshman said. “He came out before tip-off. He said something to me and I was like, ‘What?’ From that point on, we were just going back and forth.”
He said Livingston's teammate and current Duke freshman Christian Reeves later informed Jackson: “Coach told him that you said some nasty things about him.”
SEC teams landed eight of the top 20 prospects in the country, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. Headlining that group were: Smith (No. 3), Kentucky's Cason Wallace (8), Livingston (12), Tennessee's Julian Phillips (13) and Alabama's Brandon Miller (15).
Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said Smith, a projected NBA draft lottery pick, has an “incredible bright future.”
“I think he’s used to playing with expectations,” Musselman said. “Throughout his high school career he’s had high expectations. He’s a player that kind of moves on the floor effortless, almost like he’s on skates.”
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