Experience matters for SEC teams looking to topple Kentucky
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By STEVE MEGARGEE
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Kentucky opponents have trouble agreeing on what it takes to topple a program that annually brings in multiple future first-round NBA picks.
Yet a few Southeastern Conference teams may have stumbled across a winning formula the last couple of years. Experience matters against the talented, but young Wildcats.
"I'd take five first-round picks every day of the week, but not all of us get to have five first-round picks on our team," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. "Those of us that don't, we have to depend on experience."
The right kind of experience - that comes with some toughness and talent in its own right - can be Kentucky's kryptonite.
The Wildcats are the preseason favorite to finish first in the SEC after winning at least a share of the league's last three regular-season titles. They're the favorites again despite losing three first-round draft pick from last year's squad: De'Aaron Fox, Marcus Monk and Bam Adebayo.
"Kentucky's No. 1 because they've earned the right to be No. 1 as long as John Calipari is still at the helm," Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said. "People don't even really know who their players are (but) they know they're going to be good and they know he's going to have them ready."
They also know they're going to be young.
Last season's South Carolina squad and the 2015-16 Texas A&M team countered Kentucky's freshman firepower with senior-laden rosters.
SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell led South Carolina to the Final Four last season. Texas A&M tied Kentucky for the 2015-16 SEC regular-season title with a lineup that featured seniors Danuel House, Jalen Jones, Alex Caruso and Anthony Collins.
"Those four seniors were grown men," Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. "We knew what we were going to get every day and every night."
Plenty of SEC programs are hoping their own senior guards can enable them to challenge Kentucky for league supremacy.
Arkansas has six seniors, including the backcourt duo of Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon. Florida's Chris Chiozza, who made one of the most memorable shots of last year's NCAA Tournament with a buzzer beater to defeat Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, is back along with junior preseason all-SEC selection KeVaughn Allen.
Mississippi added Memphis graduate transfer Markel Crawford to join a backcourt already featuring senior Deandre Burnett and junior Terence Davis. Vanderbilt has four-year starter Riley LaChance at point guard.
"I was a lot different as a 22-year-old than as an 18-year-old mentally, physically, emotionally a lot different," Martin said. "There's a difference there - a big, big difference. When you deal with 22-year-olds who have been through it, they handle moments differently than the 18-year-olds."
But experience alone won't get it done.
"If you say, `OK, would you rather have talent or experience,' I want talent," Kennedy said.
Kentucky has plenty of the latter. The Wildcats signed seven of the nation's top 31 prospects in the 2017 class according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports : Hamidou Diallo (No. 10), Kevin Knox (No. 11), Jarred Vanderbilt (No. 12), P.J. Washington (No. 15), Nick Richards (No. 18), Quade Green (No. 26) and Shai Gilgeouos-Alexander (No. 31).
"Growing up, I always liked to be around players that compete and be around the best of the best," Diallo said. "When I found out a couple of the great players in my class were going there, I wanted to join them and wanted to help us all make our goals possible. That's what drove me to Kentucky."
That's why the teams that have challenged Kentucky lately have some potential NBA talent to go along with experience.
Thornwell, a second-round draft pick, is on the Los Angeles Clippers' roster after his standout senior season with South Carolina. Texas A&M's 2015-16 team relied heavily on seniors but also featured Tyler Davis, a former top-35 recruit who was a freshman that year.
Missouri's Cuonzo Martin cites another trait possessed by most conference title contenders.
"For me, one of the biggest things is you got to have a level of toughness," he said. "Of course talent is what it is, but you can kind of gauge talent what fits what you're trying to do. But I think you have to have a level of toughness."
Martin inherits a Missouri program that finished in the SEC basement each of the last three years. He appears to be mimicking the Kentucky approach in trying to help Missouri regain relevance.
Missouri signed a heralded freshman class that includes Michael Porter Jr., ranked second in his class by the 247Sports Composite. Of course, LSU showed two years ago having the nation's top recruit isn't a sure thing when the Tigers failed to reach the NCAA Tournament despite having Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 draft .
Perhaps the person with the best insight on competing with Kentucky in the SEC is Calipari himself. He said any team that wants to win the SEC must have plenty of talent and toughness.
Then he added one more factor.
"You can't be a team that scores 50-60 points a game in this league and do well in this league," Calipari said. "You've got to be a team that scores 70 or more in this league to have a chance to win games, because the other team's going to score that much, whether you're really good defensively or not."
Experience was not on Calipari's list.
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Updated October 18, 2017