NCAA BK

Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt lead top-heavy SEC

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HOOVER, Ala. (AP)

(Eds: Updates with Florida quotes. With AP Photos.)By JOHN ZENORAP Sports Writer

Kevin Stallings will withhold his assessment of the Kentucky Wildcats until, say, February.

The Vanderbilt coach is plenty familiar with star forward Terrence Jones and probably knows a good bit about Doron Lamb and Darius Miller, too. No assessment of John Calipari's Wildcats is ever complete without taking the full measure of those ballyhooed freshmen that annually parade into Lexington and often become instant stars before turning into NBA millionaires.

''I don't know anything about his team, they're all freshmen,'' Stallings said Thursday at Southeastern Conference media day. ''Or a lot of them are freshmen. I know Terrence Jones is good. All those guys coming back from his team a year ago are good. The other guys, I don't want to know about them yet. I'll know about them when we have to start preparing for them.''

Those could be quite the showdowns Feb. 11 and Feb. 25 if preseason projections pan out. Kentucky is favored to win the SEC title after making a Final Four run last season. The Commodores and Florida also might just find themselves in the top 10, and teams such as Alabama and Mississippi State figure to be pretty good, too.

However, the Wildcats are no longer what qualify as ''underdogs'' in Lexington. The Gators lived up to their top billing in winning last season's title and were among the final eight teams standing in the NCAA tournament.

Now, Kentucky opens as the team to beat.

''This is its own team. Last year's team, we had a whole different role than we have this year,'' said Jones, who averaged 15.7 points and a league-high 8.8 rebounds as a freshman. ''Last year, us being more of an underdog, (we had to) go out and prove what we had to do every game and tournament.

''I think this year's team will be one of the top dog teams and are expected to win, and go out there and get it. It's going to be two different teams with two different situations, but we'll have to go out there and get the wins the same way.''

That formula includes, of course, a hotshot point guard recruit in Marquis Teague, a much-hyped big man in Anthony Davis - the nation's consensus top prospect - and other top recruits Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kyle Wiltjer.

Calipari is once again bringing along the youngsters with his knack for nurturing and maybe even humbling. He had three seniors on one team in Wednesday night's preseason scrimmage, and three freshmen on the other.

Jones had 52 points and 16 rebounds. Calipari said the 6-foot-9 Jones and the 6-10 Davis have yet to share the court on the same side in what might be a fearsome frontcourt pairing.

''I'm trying to keep them playing against each other to compete,'' Calipari said. ''The reason Darius Miller has improved so much is he's going every day against Michael Gilchrist. If you don't show up for practice, you'll get dunked on, and so will Michael.''

Calipari said Jones, the preseason player of the year, has packed on 15 pounds of muscle and is displaying ''viciousness'' and maturity in the post. Jones opted to return to the team while freshman point guard Brandon Knight, the NBA draft's No. 8 pick by the Detroit Pistons, and junior second-rounder DeAndre Liggins turned pro.

Jones withdrew his name from draft consideration on deadline day to return to school and evidently came back determined to get even better.

''He's in the best shape of his life,'' Calipari said. ''He's in the best shape of anybody on my team. He's the first one out to practice; last year he was the last one out to practice. If you try to play on his left hand now, he will take you right and try to dunk on you. He finishes first on every run. He finished last on every run a year ago.''

Stallings will field a different kind of team than the Wildcats. The Commodores return all five starters, including three who opted to postpone NBA careers and return for their senior seasons.

John Jenkins is back after leading the SEC in scoring (19.5 points per game) and 3-pointers made (100).

''He's got NBA-level players on that team and they're seniors, too,'' Calipari said of Stallings. ''It's unusual. Not only does he have good players, he's a terrific coach and they're veterans.''

Stallings said having five seniors could be a downside if they're focusing on the NBA or careers outside of basketball. He doesn't have that concern for his team.

''I just don't think our guys were made up that way,'' he said. ''Our team really gets it. This team gets it as much as any team that I've ever coached. They get it on the floor, they get it off the floor. They bust their butts in practice every day, and they're poised to do things that we've not done yet.

''They deserve to have that happen for them because of their character and because of their work ethic.''

The Gators present a contrast in style to the Wildcats' imposing frontcourt. They have returning guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton joined by touted freshman Brad Beal and transfer Mike Rosario, who averaged 16.2 and 16.7 points in two seasons at Rutgers.

That could mean a different look for the Gators. They lost big men Vernon Macklin, Alex Tyus and SEC player of the year Chandler Parsons- along with their combined 32 points and 19.4 rebounds.

''As a fast paced team, we want to create a lot of havoc for people,'' Walker said. ''I think this is a Coach Donovan-style team. Get up and press, run, shoot, you know, and just be a good passing team and have fun playing with each other.''

Donovan said the Gators shoot the 3-pointer ''really, really well.''

''Much, much better than we have the last couple of years,'' he said.

Tagged: Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Florida, Darius Miller, John Jenkins, Terrence Jones

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