1). Joe Crawford, G Kentucky: An ultra-hyped recruit coming out of Renaissance High School (Detroit), Crawford has shown flashes of his ability, but has lacked the consistency to be labeled a star. He has shown he has the athletic ability and shooting touch to score (40 points in two games against Florida last year), but he also loses confidence quickly when his shot isn’t falling. In order for the ‘Cats to rebound from last year’s disappointing season, they’ll need Crawford to step up his scoring and show more leadership on both ends of the floor.
2). Magnum Rolle, F/C LSU: All Rolle has to do is step into the spot vacated by the high-flying Tyrus Thomas, who went from near-obscurity to NBA lottery pick in the span of eight months. Rolle lacks the through-the-roof jumping ability of Thomas, but should be able to use his height and length to block shots and rebound as well as anyone in the league. If Rolle can provide a defensive presence alongside the offensive tandem of a slimmed down Glen Davis and the emerging Tasmin Mitchell, the Tigers will be tough to beat again.
3). Ramel Bradley, G Kentucky: Rajon Rondo and Patrick Sparks took their share of criticism the past two years while splitting duties at the point for UK. That criticism will fall squarely on the shoulders of Bradley this year as he looks to assume the starting point guard role. Known mostly for his scoring off the bench, he will have to improve his decision-making in order to keep the offense running. With very little depth in the backcourt, the pressure will Bradley to play big minutes until freshman Derrick Jasper adjusts to the college game. He has the size, skills and swagger to succeed in the SEC, but UK’s season could hinge on whether he is able to put it all together.
4). Jordan Howell, G Tennessee: Howell played sparingly last season, averaging less than eight minutes per game, but he will have to get used to more playing time this season as the Vols look to replace point guard C.J. Watson. Howell lacks the athleticism of Watson, but he has the basketball IQ and familiarity with Bruce Pearl’s system to effectively run the team. He will likely split the duties with incoming freshmen Marques Johnson and Ramar Smith, although Howell’s experience may give him the edge early in the season. If Howell proves to be an adequate replacement at the point, Tennessee will again reside near the top of the SEC.
5). Brandon Wallace, F South Carolina: With the surprise selection of Renaldo Balkman in the first round of the NBA draft, the Gamecocks were left with very little depth in the frontcourt. Despite being extremely thin, Wallace has the size and skills to be a game-changer for South Carolina this year if he plays to his potential. Although he will be asked to play more with his back to the basket this year, Wallace has the ability to create mismatches by using his speed against other big men in the league. With the team looking for more scoring out of him, he must improve his free-throw shooting, as it hovered around 50 percent last year. Unless he is able to step up and provide leadership, South Carolina may struggle to get to the postseason.
6). Gary Ervin, G Arkansas: With the loss of All-SEC guard Ronnie Brewer, as well as the departures of senior guards Jonathon Modica, Eric Ferguson and Dontell Jefferson, the Hogs will be looking for Ervin to make an immediate impact. Ervin is familiar with the SEC after playing two years at Mississippi State, and his aggressive style of play makes up for his small stature. With Arkansas looking to break in a fresh crop of guards, Ervin will have to use his leadership and experience to guide the young team, especially early in the season. Arkansas may not challenge LSU or Alabama for SEC West supremacy, but if Ervin can keep the team steady as they break in the newcomers, they could pull some surprises in conference play.
7). Richard Hendrix, F Alabama: Hendrix may be a surprise addition to this list, considering he ended his freshman year with the Tide averaging close to a double-double with nine points and eight rebounds per game. However, with Alabama looking to continue their streak of five consecutive NCAA appearances, Hendrix will have to show he can still put up numbers now that SEC coaches are familiar with him, and can game-plan against him. Hendrix did a remarkable job stepping in for senior forward Chuck Davis when he went down with an injury, and there’s little doubt that he has the ability to become an all-conference player. If Hendrix can keep his momentum from last year, the Tide should again challenge for the SEC crown.