The Southeastern Conference asked about 30 media members to vote for a five-man pre-season All-League team and predict the order of finish this coming season. The results will be announced this week.
Here's my ballot with comments to follow:
Order of finish (note that there's no divisions, although the divisional scheduling will continue in 2011-12):
1. Kentucky; 2. Vanderbilt; 3. Florida; 4. Alabama; 5. Mississippi State; 6. Mississippi; 7. Louisiana State; 8. Auburn; 9. Arkansas; 10. Georgia; 11. Tennessee; 12. South Carolina
Comment: Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Those teams seem clearly the best in the SEC this coming season. There's a reason CBS chose Vandy at UK as a showcase game for near the end of the regular season.
And ESPN's GameDay will originate from Nashville when UK plays at Vandy.
Validation of sorts came last week in the form of the coaches' poll. Kentucky at No. 2 and Vanderbilt at No. 7 had the two best spots for any SEC team. Florida at No. 10 gave the league a third top-10 team.
But in what order should UK and Vandy be placed?
Kentucky boasts more elite players and, compared with the last two seasons, can blend more veteran standouts with its customary No. 1 class of incoming freshmen.
Vandy returns its top seven players from a team that won 23 games (9-7 in the SEC). Coach Kevin Stallings has noted the great expectations for his team. The Commodores are equipped to take either side in the talent-versus-experience debate. Clearly, Vandy has more overall experience than Kentucky.
Florida, Alabama (No. 17 in the coaches' poll) and Mississippi State (the only other SEC team receiving votes in the coaches' poll) fill out what should be the consensus top five in the SEC. Thereafter, it's a bit of a grab bag, with Ole Miss a team that could surprise even with the loss of Chris Warren.
Georgia (Trey Thompkins, Travis Leslie) and Tennessee (Scotty Hopson, Tobias Harris) lost the guts of their teams. South Carolina, another team facing a transitional season, presumably will be without its point guard, Bruce Ellington, until after a bowl game.
All-SEC: Anthony Davis, Kentucky; Festus Ezeli, Vanderbilt; JaMychal Green, Alabama; John Jenkins, Vanderbilt; Terrence Jones, Kentucky
Comment: After John Wall, it's easier to pick a freshman such as Davis to a pre-season All-League team. Jones, Jenkins and Green seemed like obvious picks.
The fifth spot came down to Ezeli or Vandy teammate Jeffery Taylor. How players perform against Kentucky is my tiebreaker. Ezeli averaged a double-double against the Cats last season (18.0 points and 10.0 rebounds). Taylor made seven of 21 shots and committed seven turnovers. So Ezeli got the vote.
Other players considered (in alphabetical order) were Dee Bost of Mississippi State, Kenny Boynton of Florida, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller of Kentucky, Marshawn Powell of Arkansas, Trevor Releford of Alabama and Erving Walker of Florida.
Two other UK freshmen — Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague — could well be All-SEC players. That's one reason there is the more important post-season All-League team.
UK led all schools by nominating seven players for consideration on the five-man pre-season All-SEC team. The seven were Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer.
Florida had the second-most nominations with six: freshman Bradley Beal, plus Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, transfer Mike Rosario, Erving Walker and Patric Young.
Morehead State Coach Donnie Tyndall does not take lightly his vote in the college basketball coaches' poll this coming season.
"I think it's a big deal," he said. "I feel honored, and I feel privileged."
Tyndall, who represents the Ohio Valley Conference in the coaches' poll, acknowledged that guesswork plays a part in pre-season and early-season ballots.
"Pre-season-wise, you don't spend a ton of time (compiling a ballot)," he said.
As the season unfolds, coaches can take more time to vote, Tyndall said.
"I don't want to slight anyone," he said. "I want to base the vote on an educated opinion."
In the pre-season poll released last week, Tyndall voted North Carolina No. 1 and Kentucky No. 2. He was not the lone coach who voted UK No. 1.
As for the Morehead State team, Tyndall said early practices suggest this could be his deepest team. But, first, the newcomers must become accustomed to more intense workouts.
Once settling on the size of the conference, SEC leaders will then have to determine how it will schedule games. A committee has been named to look into scheduling. First, it must wait to see whether the SEC will have 13 teams or 14 or some higher number.
Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, who has experienced Big East expansion and contraction, sees 10 teams as a good number in terms of scheduling.
"Once you get beyond 10, you just don't have the same setups," he said last week. "How many times you play. Who you play. Where you play them. All that stuff comes into effect on who's going to win the championship."
It appears the SEC will dive into those questions with Texas A&M joining next school year and, perhaps, Missouri to follow.
Boeheim does not necessarily favor divisional play or a setup with one league race. In terms of the all-important NCAA Tournament bids, divisional play is irrelevant, as more than one past SEC Western Division champion has learned.
"When they consider teams for the tournament, they don't consider divisions," Boeheim said of the NCAA Selection Committee members. "They just consider the whole league and pick the best teams."
But that doesn't mean that divisions serve no purpose. There is a cosmetic quality to consider.
"What I like about (divisions) is, you're fighting for third place," the Syracuse coach said. "You're not fighting for 10th. ... It's always better to say I finished fifth rather than 10th."
The idea of a "true" champion, one determined by a balanced schedule, has gone the way of the dodo bird. Expanded conferences make a double round-robin impossible.
"We'd all rather play everybody twice," Boeheim said. "But we don't have that anymore."
Dan Margulis, ESPN's director of programming and acquisitions, has an easy way to remember the launching of ESPNU. It began on March 4, 2005, or as Margulis put it, "Three-four-five."
From the perspective of ten-eleven (October 2011), ESPNU has grown almost 20-fold. It began in about four million households. Now it's available in almost 75 million households.
"Not many places you can't get ESPNU," Margulis said, which must come as good news to UK. The Cats' football game against Jacksonville State on Saturday was on ESPNU. The network is also televising two UK basketball games this coming season: Lamar on Dec. 28 and Tennessee on Jan. 31.
Margulis acknowledged the impact the Southeastern Conference has had on ESPNU's growth.
"We help each other a lot," he said. "It's a great partnership."
The SEC gives ESPNU viewer-friendly football and basketball games. ESPNU gives the SEC a national stage for lower-profile sports. For instance, the network began what it calls Thursday Night Baseball in 2010-11.
Fans with good memories might recall when coaches dismissed ESPN2 as a jayvee network. When he was at Arkansas, Nolan Richardson questioned the need to alter a tip-off time for ESPN2.
Of course, ESPNU is further down the remote-control options.
"Our level of production, there was a perception at the beginning it was a subset of ESPN," Margulis said.
He noted a "subtle difference" in announcers and equipment.
Speaking of announcers, Margulis said ESPNU is "a place we give younger talent or new talent more opportunities to perfect the craft."
For instance, former Georgia football player David Pollack and Todd McShay got their TV grounding on ESPNU. Google "Rob Stone" and "hot pepper" to see the adventuresome spirit of the play-by-play man for UK's football game with Jacksonville State.
As for equipment, Margulis said the difference used to be in numbers of cameras available and graphics. "But you really can't tell that much of a difference anymore," he said.
Reader Benny Adams of Pineville sent his objection to UK Coach John Calipari's Tip-Off Luncheon comment that he (Calipari) would be disappointed if the Cats win a national championship but fail to have a player drafted in the NBA Draft later that year.
"That's the most asinine statement that I've ever heard a UK coach make," Adams wrote in an email.
Adams suggested that a national championship without draft picks would enhance Calipari's reputation as a coach.
"Plus," Adams wrote, "if the UK coach's goal is not to win the NCAA championship last year, this year, next year and every year, I missed that memo."
Calipari later clarified his comment to say UK players and coaches concentrate in season on championships, then shift in the off-season to individual aspirations.
Big Orange Madness
With the Carrier Dome as its home court, Syracuse could potentially outdraw Kentucky for a Madness celebration.
That didn't happen. The Orange drew a crowd of about 16,000 for its Madness, Coach Jim Boeheim said.
Syracuse brought back former players, including Carmelo Anthony, for the occasion. The school limited ticket availability.
"I think if we just opened the doors, we'd get 25-, 30,000," Boeheim said. "We try to control it a little bit."
Tickets are available for Monday's charity game pitting a group of former UK players against "Villains." Rex Chapman (UK) and Christian Laettner (Villains) will be the coaches in the game at Rupp Arena.
As of Thursday morning, about 9,000 tickets had been sold, organizer and former UK star Jeff Sheppard said.
Sheppard noted that fans can get upper-level tickets for $15 by using the special code "coal" when ordering on Ticketmaster.com. One of the game's sponsors is a group known as "Coal Mining — Our Future."
Tickets are also available by calling the Rupp Arena box office at (859) 233-3535.
To Dan Issel. The UK program's career scoring leader turns 63 on Tuesday. ... To Bob Knight. The Hall of Fame coach (Army, Indiana, Texas Tech) turns 71 on Tuesday. ... To Bill Curry. The former UK football coach turned 69 on Friday. ... To Stacey Poole. He turns 20 on Monday. ... To Kyle Wiltjer. He turned 19 on Thursday.