SEC basketball preview: Kentucky leads a loaded conference hoping to avoid another NCAA flameout

The 2022-23 college basketball season is three days away. Come back each day this week as we break down the biggest conferences, teams and more leading up to the season. Check out our conference previews on the Big 12, ACC, Big Ten, ACC and Big East.

The SEC made a strong showing last season, producing six NCAA men's tournament teams all seeded sixth or higher.

Once they got to March they didn't produce. Arkansas advanced to the Elite Eight as a No. 4 seed, but no other SEC team made it past the tournament's first weekend.

Kentucky, Alabama and LSU all lost in the first round, while Tennessee and Auburn suffered second-round upsets. It all prompted Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl to bemoan that SEC teams "beat each other up all year" ahead of their early tournament exits.

Well, there's bad news for Pearl. The SEC looks like a grind again this season with five teams ranked in the preseason top 25. No. 4 Kentucky leads the way. Can the conference maintain its high standing and follow through this time in March?

Ranked SEC teams:

For the full Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll, click here.

No. 4. Kentucky

No. 10. Arkansas

No. 11. Tennessee

No. 15. Auburn

No. 20. Alabama

Receiving votes: Texas A&M (112), Florida (3)

Preseason media poll:

1. Kentucky

2. Arkansas

3. Tennessee

4. Auburn

5. Alabama

6. Texas A&M

7. Florida

8. LSU

9. Mississippi

10. Mississippi State

11. Missouri

12. Vanderbilt

13. Georgia

14. South Carolina

Notable national championship odds, via BetMGM (as of 11/3)

North Carolina and Gonzaga are preseason co-favorites at +900.

Kentucky +1000

Arkansas +1400

Tennessee +1400

Alabama +4000

Auburn +5000

Will Kentucky end Final Four drought?

In his first six seasons at Kentucky, head coach John Calipari delivered four Final Fours and the program's first national championship (2012) since 1998. The seven seasons since qualify as a drought by Kentucky standards.

The Wildcats haven't made a Final Four since 2015. They haven't won an NCAA tournament game since 2019. They missed the tournament entirely in 2021 after going 9-16, and — perhaps worse — they were on the wrong end of one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history last season in a first-round loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter's.

Oscar Tshiebwe is back for another run at Kentucky, a big SEC favorite this year, after last season's disappointing first-round NCAA exit.
Oscar Tshiebwe is back for another run at Kentucky, a big SEC favorite this season, after last March's disappointing/shocking first-round NCAA exit. (Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

The pressure is on Calipari as much as it can be this season, and he can lean on the constant that has defined his coaching career — a boatload of talent. This year's team isn't packed with NBA lottery picks, but it's deep and boasts multiple projected pro players, including returning consensus National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe. The 6-foot-9 center was college basketball's most dominant post presence last season while averaging 17.4 points, 15.2 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.6 blocks per game.

Tshiebwe is joined by the SEC's returning assist leader and fellow preseason All-SEC player Sahvir Wheeler in a starting lineup that atypically features five upperclassmen. Calipari will have the luxury of incorporating five-star freshmen Carson Wallace and Chris Livingston off the bench.

The goal for this team is clear: Final Four or bust.

New-look Arkansas oozing with upside

These are not your 2021-22 Razorbacks.

While Kentucky brings experience, Arkansas comes armed with a Calipari-esque recruiting class ranked second in the nation and headlined by five-star freshmen Jordan Walsh, Nick Smith and Anthony Black. Smith and Black project as NBA lottery picks and will anchor one of the nation's most talented backcourts.

The Razorbacks were likewise busy in the transfer portal, with four players leaving and five joining the program over the summer. It adds up to a net positive for Arkansas as ex-Missouri forward Trevon Brazile and ex-Arizona State forward Jalen Graham project as starters. None of the players who transferred out averaged more than 3.9 points per game last season. Davonte Davis is the lone rotation player remaining from last season's team.

Fourth-year head coach Eric Musselman is redefining team-building in the transfer portal era. He has revived the program with back-to-back Elite Eight runs and has a team poised to again go deep into March in 2023.

Veteran Vols look to improve on disappointing NCAA exit

Tennessee boasts one of the SEC's best backcourts and returns five rotation players from a team that won the SEC tournament and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament last season.

Three of those players are among the 17 preseason All-SEC team members — senior guards Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James, and sophomore point guard Zakai Zeigler. Five-star small forward Julian Phillips anchors a top-15 recruiting class and projects as a first-round NBA draft pick.

The Vols disappointed in the NCAA tournament last season with a second-round exit to No. 11 seed Michigan. They have depth, experience and talent this season to advance to the tournament's second weekend or beyond for the second time in Rick Barnes' nine-year tenure as head coach.

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl will attempt to lead the Tigers to another run this March.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl will attempt to lead the Tigers to another run this March. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

Alabama, Auburn lead rest of SEC contenders

Alabama and Auburn also suffered early exits in last season's NCAA tournament. The Crimson Tide fell in the first round as a No. 6 seed to No. 11 Notre Dame. A second-seeded Auburn team headlined by first-round NBA draft picks Jabari Smith Jr. and Walker Kessler fell to No. 10 seed Miami in the second round. Both are built to take another run at March in 2023.

Auburn lost its front line to the NBA, but returns starting guards Zep Jasper and K.D. Johnson alongside sixth-man Wendell Green Jr., who was voted preseason All-SEC despite his bench role. Also back is starting wing Allen Flanigan, who projects to have a bigger role after being hampered by an Achilles injury last season. A top-20 recruiting class headlined by 6-foot-11 five-star forward Yohan Traore rounds out a roster that should compete for another high NCAA tournament seed.

Alabama's success will hinge partly on a pair of key players returning from injury. Senior point guard Jahvon Quinerly is back at practice after tearing an ACL in the NCAA tournament. His timeline remains unclear, but SEC media felt confident enough to vote him first-team All-SEC. McDonald's All-American Nimari Burnett missed all of last season with an ACL tear after transferring as a sophomore from Texas Tech. He could emerge as a key player in the backcourt alongside Quinerly. Projected lottery pick Brandon Miller headlines the nation's fourth-ranked recruiting class and should anchor the Tide's front line.

Notable early games:

No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Gonzaga* | Nov. 20

No. 4 Kentucky vs. No. 22 Michigan* | Dec. 4

No. 15 Alabama at No. 3 Houston | Dec. 10

No. 11 Tennessee at No. 17 Arizona | Dec. 17

No. 4. Kentucky vs. No. 8 UCLA* | Dec. 17

No. 2 Gonzaga vs. No. 15 Alabama* | Dec. 17

*Neutral Court