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April 3, 2012

HURT: SEC not likely to dominate basketball

The NCAA men's college basketball season ended Monday night, in the same building where the college football season ended and in much the same way - with a Southeastern Conference team hoisting the championship trophy.

The SEC has yet to establish its hegemony on the basketball court to quite the extent of its football dominance - at least a team from another conference got to play in the title game. And, given certain differences in football and basketball, it isn't likely that the SEC is going to roll off a string of six straight championships. But the other leagues had better pay attention.

While instant "next year's Top 25 polls" are even less reliable in basketball than they are in football, it is no stretch to believe that the SEC could find itself in the same position when next year's Final Four finishes up in Atlanta. If Patric Young and Bradley Beal return to Florida, the Gators will be contenders. And, of course, there is Kentucky.

It is very possible, of course, that Kentucky could lose all five starters from its championship team to the NBA. In any other sport, such as football, that would mean a guaranteed rebuilding year, perhaps a difficult one.

Imagine, for instance, that Alabama had not only lost 20 of its 22 starters from the BCS championship team, but also that those starters would have to be replaced with true freshmen. No one would be mentioning UA as a possibility to repeat. In football, it would be silly even to consider such a thing.

Yet there are many national observers who expect that Kentucky, with no Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Terrence Jones, could win the 2013 title. Such is the awe in which John Calipari's recruiting prowess, or, of you prefer, his system, is held. Kentucky signed four players in the earlier signing period and may well sign all of the top three remaining players in the late period, including the best shot-blocking center (Nerlens Noel) and the best overall player (Shabazz Muhammad), a duo that would bear a strong resemblance to Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist.

Such ability to instantly replace an entire roster and stay at a championship level is unprecedented even in the UCLA dynasty days. Because of the NBA's currently entry system, though, the very best freshmen are the very best players, and Kentucky seems almost unbeatable at recruiting the very best freshmen.

What might eventually stop the SEC from a long string of championships, though, is the depth of the league, even with the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M. In football, the six-title streak has been forged by four different schools. After Kentucky and Florida, it is hard to think of another SEC school that will be playing national-title caliber basketball in the next couple of years, although the race for the positions below UK and UF should be intriguing. Of the league's other 2012 NCAA teams - and let's include Missouri - two, Vanderbilt and Missouri, have to replace a large core of seniors. Alabama, meanwhile, enters April with an unsettled roster. If UA can sign a blue-chip forward in the late period, and if a Tony Mitchell renaissance unexpectedly occurs, the Crimson Tide will be a strong third-place contender. If not, UA will be part of a large group of mystery teams. Some of the nine teams that missed the NCAA field - especially Tennessee and LSU - have higher hopes for next season. There are new coaches at South Carolina and Mississippi State, and a combination of questions and optimism everywhere else.

At the very top, though, the SEC will be strong again. And if the Wildcats, or Gators, come through, it will suddenly be an SEC streak - and we have all seen where that can lead.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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