This is the 10th in a series of 32 college basketball conference previews.
Kentucky has been the class of the Southeastern Conference since John Calipari took over the program prior to the 2009-10 season, but the league experienced a big boom in March with three of its four NCAA Tournament teams reaching the Elite Eight.
The Wildcats were a Luke Maye buzzer-beater away from getting by North Carolina for a possible Final Four appearance, while South Carolina took out conference foe Florida to make the Final Four.
The gap has narrowed between Kentucky and the rest of the conference thanks to the hiring of coaches like Bruce Pearl at Auburn and Mike White at Florida, and Ben Howland should be getting Mississippi State going in the right direction, as well.
With that said, Kentucky remains the team to beat in the conference as Calipari has numerous top recruits entering the program once again.
The team will likely lean on sophomore Wenyen Gabriel for leadership as he’s off a season in which he had 4.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-9 sophomore also has been working on extending his shooting range, which could make him lethal. Aside from Gabriel, there are no returning players who will receive significant playing time barring injury or something unforeseen.
Seven of the Wildcats’ eight incoming freshmen are ranked in ESPN’s top 100 and the other is Hamidou Diallo, who is a five-star prospect, but played at an academy last year so he did not qualify for that top 100 list.
Kevin Knox is probably the biggest gem of the class as he can guard multiple guys with his 6-foot-9 height and has a great burst to the bucket. His outside shooting is still inconsistent, but his defense and shot blocking will make him a major asset for the team.
P.J. Washington figures to start alongside Gabriel in the post and provides a 7-foot-3 wingspan with his 6-foot-8, 235-pound frame. Unlike Knox, his defense is not quite as strong at this point, but he has great post moves, tremendous strength, and is a better passer than advertised.
Six-foot-11 center Nick Richards and 6-foot-8 Jarred Vanderbilt should help make their rotation of big men essentially a four-man platoon at the four and five spots with Knox playing mostly as a wing. Vanderbilt is more of a rebounding and defensive specialist, while Richards is a shot-blocking specialist who has outstanding agility for a 240-pound center.
Though the forwards Calipari have brought in are a bit better than the guards, he found a heck of a point guard in Quade Green. He is a taller Tyler Ulys as he is a great ball-handler who plays tough defense and can make big shots when called upon.
Diallo is the best guard on the team. He is one of the quickest 6-foot-5 guards you will see and has a 6-10 wingspan. He needs to work on his 3-point shooting, which could be Kentucky’s weakness.
The Wildcats have loads of size and talent, but could find themselves in trouble when they play a good 3-point shooting team. They do not have that one guy who can hit 3s and bail them out like in past years when Malik Monk and Jamaal Murray were able to hit big shots. Kentucky should be a top 10 team all season, but could be prone to an early exit in the NCAA Tournament.
Florida was one win away from the Final Four and hopes its mix of upperclassmen and young guns can push this team over the top.
Leading scorer KeVaughn Allen is back after shooting 37 percent from 3 and pouring in 14 points per game. With guards Canyon Barry and Kasey Hill no longer with the team, the squad will lean on Allen to be a bit more of a well-rounded player.
Florida welcomes one of the best graduate transfers in the country to fill that void in 6-foot-5 Egor Koulechov. He was a stretch forward for Rice last year and figures to be a wing this year. He had 18.2 points per game while converting 47.4 percent of the 4.9 threes per game he took and also pulled down 8.9 rebounds.
The team also welcomes back Chris Chiozza, who backed up Kasey Hill last year. He had averages of 7.2 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists off the bench. Also of note, he hit the overtime 3 in the team’s Sweet 16 contest against Wisconsin to propel the Gators to the Elite Eight.
Gators coach Mike White also has forwards Devin Robinson, John Egbunu and Kevarrius Hayes back in the saddle. Egbunu missed the final 12 games of last season due to injury, but is back at practice and appears to be at the form he was when healthy last year. The 6-foot-11 center started 19 games and averaged 7.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. Hayes was an off-and-on starter, seeing most of his minutes when Egbunu was injured. He contributed 6.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game as well as a team-high 1.7 blocks per game as a sophomore last year. Robinson was the top scorer of the big men, getting 11.1 points and 6.1 rebounds while stretching the floor with his 39.1 percent 3-point shooting.
White is also bolstering the rotation with two 6-foot-8 freshmen who were ranked in the top 100 of ESPN’s class of 2017 recruiting rankings. Isaiah Stokes is more of a traditional big man while Chase Johnson has a chance to spread the floor a bit more.
Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson is likely going to be the team’s sixth man this year after sitting the full 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard had 8.4 points and 2.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore in the 2015-16 season, shooting 34.6 percent from 3.
Florida does not boast the raw talent that Kentucky does, but has the best stable of guards of any team in the conference and has been together longer than Calipari’s bunch.
South Carolina rode the red-hot Sindarius Thornwell all the way to the Final Four after being a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now, coach Frank Martin will miss Thornwell and backcourt helpers P.J. Dozier and Duane Notice.
The team will need to rely on its interior players more than last year with those departures, as 6-foot-9 Chris Silva is the only returning player who averaged more than six points per game. ESPN-rated four-star prospect Ibrahim Doumbia and three-star freshman Felipe Haase should play big minutes this year.
At best, South Carolina has bubble team written all over it. Making the Final Four last year takes the Gamecocks from being the hunters to the hunted.
Arkansas made the NCAA Tournament last year despite forward Moses Kingsley not quite living up the preseason SEC Player of the Year hype. The team was a bit streaky last year, starting 11-1 before hitting a midseason slump.
Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson returns Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford, who combined for 26.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. The team will be a bit thin this year without Kingsley, whose departure leaves 6-foot-7 Dustin Thomas to carry the stable of forwards.
ESPN-rated top 100 recruit Dan Gafford brings hope with his 6-foot-10, 220-pound frame. He should be an immediate starter for Anderson as he is one of the most outstanding rebounders and shot blockers in the 2017 class.
It will be difficult for Arkansas to make it back to the NCAA Tournament, but this is the best recruiting class Arkansas has coming in since Bobby Portis and Kinglsey entered the program in 2013. Much like South Carolina, Arkansas could be a bubble team.
Mississippi went a bit under the radar with a 22-14 record last year, but a record of 3-13 against opponents in the RPI top 100 in the regular season relegated the Rebels to the NIT.
The team hung its hat on free-throw shooting last year, topping the country in total made free throws and was second in attempted free throws. All of their top six scorers made over 70 percent of their free throws. Deandre Burnett Burnett was a big part of that as he made 88.1 percent of his 6.6 free throws per game. He led the squad with 16.5 points and 3.3 assists while making 37.6 percent of his 3s.
Bruce Stevens, a 6-foot-8, 260-pound junior-college transfer enters the fold after averaging 16.2 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. He was rated by 247Sports as the sixth-best JUCO transfer in the 2017 class and he can also hit 3s, making 45 of them a season ago.
Terence Davis and Markel Crawford should start in what will likely be a small -ball lineup. Crawford enters the program as a graduate transfer after averaging 12.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game as a starter for Memphis. The Rebels have a shot to be an NCAA Tournament team.
Texas A&M went from being a No. 3 seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament to being 16-15 for the 2016-17 campaign. Billy Kennedy lost the core of that tournament bunch, and all of his four double-digit scorers last year were underclassmen.
With Robert Williams turning down the NBA and likely being a lottery pick, Texas A&M is loaded for bear and poised to be in contention to return to the NCAA field. Williams, Tyler Davis, DJ Hogg and Tonny Trocha-Morelos have a chance to match up toe-to-toe with Kentucky in the post.
Williams was the Aggies’ top interior defender, registering 11.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game as a freshmen. His 6-foot-9, 240-pound frame is ideal and makes him one of the strongest low post players in a conference filled with solid forwards.
Texas A&M is a contender to be one of the SEC's top four teams. The Aggies have the backcourt depth of an NIT team and the frontcourt of a top 15 club.
Many people feel Missouri has what it takes to go to the NCAA Tournament, despite finishing in a tie for last in the conference with a 2-16 record, thanks to the changes that occurred in the offseason. Tigers coach Kim Anderson was fired after he had a record of 0-30 in road games and was 27-68 overall in three seasons.
Former California coach Cuonzo Martin has been summoned to revitalize the program and brings with him one of the most highly touted prospects this decade in Michael Porter Jr. The 6-foot-10 Porter has been called by some a poor man's Kevin Durant as he can play nearly any position on the court. He's a bit slender at 215 pounds but is a very good rebounder, can drive, has a 7-foot wingspan and is a capable 3-point shooter.
His brother, 6-foot-10 Jontay Porter, is following him and is expected to start a the power forward position with his 240-pound frame. With the Porters at the three and four spots, ESPN-rated four-star center prospect Jeremiah Tilmon is expected to join them in the starting lineup. He is an outstanding defender who can block loads of shots with his 6-foot-11 size and 7-2 wingspan.
As for the guards, ESPN-rated four-star freshmen Blake Harris and C.J. Roberts will battle graduate transfer Kassius Robertson for playing time. Robertson was a starter for Canisius last year, averaging 16.1 points and hitting 41 percent of his 3s.
With all of the fresh blood coming into the program with the coaching change, the team's top three scorers from last year — Kevin Puryear, Terrence Phillips and Jordan Barnett — also are back.
Missouri has the perhaps the widest separation between its ceiling and floor of any team in college basketball. It would not be stunning to see this team end up being a big fat disappointment like Washington was last year and LSU was two years ago despite having the eventual top pick in the NBA Draft on the roster. This team also could unite nicely and make a deep run in the tournament. We will know more once this team plays a few nonconference games. As for now, it's hard to see Missouri falling short of the NCAA Tournament, though the Tigers are not on Kentucky and Florida's level.
Vanderbilt became the first team in the history of the NCAA Tournament to get an at-large bid with 15 losses. Though the team does not have any freshmen coming in that will make much of an impact aside from center Ejike Obinna, the losses from last year's team are also minimal, with 7-foot Luke Kornet being the only major exit.
His departure means 6-foot-5 Matthew Fisher-Davis, who was last seen intentionally fouling Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh in the NCAA Tournament with Vanderbilt up a point in the closing seconds of the game, will have to pick himself up off the mat and be a leader. He had 13.9 points and 3.2 rebounds per game last year and made 37.2 percent of his 3s.
Riley LaChance is also back in the guard rotation after he was lights-out from 3, making 48.6 percent of his shots from deep. He had 10.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game as a junior. Also of note, the team was 10th in the country in free-throw shooting last year, as LaChance led the way by making 87.2 percent of his attempts as the team knocked down 77.7 percent.
Senior Jeff Roberson is a surprisingly good 3-point shooter, making 33.9 percent of his attempts while leading the team with seven rebounds per game. The 6-foot-6 forward will need to anchor the frontcourt with Kornet out of eligibility.
Commodores coach Brcye Drew might not have enough to compete with Kentucky or Florida for the SEC title, but Vanderbilt should make the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season.
Georgia went 19-15 a year ago with 3-point shooting being the team's unraveling. The Bulldogs ranked 332nd in the country in made 3s per game and 290th in 3-point shooting percentage.
Yante Maten, a 6-foot-8 forward, was the most efficient 3-point shooter, making 48.8 percent. That was far from his main focus on the court as he had 18.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. Given his unique skill set, he should be a candidate for the all-conference team.
He was aided by 6-foot-8 junior Derek Ogbeide, who started alongside him in the post. He led the team with 7.6 rebounds per game to go with 7.1 points and 1.1 blocks.
With poor guard play, and the middle of the SEC getting better, Georgia might be in danger of not only missing out on the big dance or NIT but even getting to .500 this season.
Alabama played far from a beautiful style last year but got its record to 19-15 and returns nearly all of its important contributors for coach Avery Johnson.
The Crimson Tide ranked 318th in the nation in 3-point shooting, converting 31.7 percent of their 3s, and scored just 68.5 points per game. They made up for it with the 28th-best defense in D-I basketball with foes scoring just 64.7 points per game.
The future is bright with point guard Dazon Ingram and stretch-four Braxton Key leading the team in scoring as freshmen. Johnson is bringing in two ESPN-rated five-star guard recruits in Collin Sexton and John Petty. Former Ohio State recruit Daniel Giddens will become an immediate starter for this team after sitting out the 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules.
Alabama should make the tournament and should find a way to stay in the Top 25.
Auburn posted a winning record last year for the first time since the 2008-09 season with an 18-14 mark and did it with its three top scorers being freshmen.
Mustapha Heron did it all for coach Bruce Pearl, leading the team with 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds while making 42.3 percent of his 3s. He was joined in the backcourt by Jared Harper, who ran the point as a freshman and registered 11.4 points.
Though the FBI sting and the arrest of assistant coach Chuck Person has affected recruiting for future years with this program, Pearl still has two ESPN top-100 recruits for this year.
The team has another weapon in DeSean Murray, who is eligible after sitting out the 2016-17 season after transferring from Presbyterian. As a sophomore in 2015-16, the 6-foot-5 undersized post player had 20.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.
Auburn has too much talent to not rack up 20 wins and should land on the NCAA Tournament bubble, much like so many teams in the SEC.
Mississippi State had a young team last season. Sophomore Quinndary Weatherspoon led the charge for coach Ben Howland by averaging 16.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.7 steals. His 37.3 percent 3-point shooting was also one of the best rates of anyone on the team.
His brother Nick Weatherspoon was maybe the biggest em of their 2017 recruiting haul. He may not start the season with the team because of a DUI charge in August but figures to start at the point guard as soon as any possible suspension expires.
With the vast majority of their young roster back from last year, Mississippi State is a sleeper team that could explode for an unexpected monster year. The Bulldogs also could also fail to mesh and remain a mediocre bunch. The answer is likely somewhere in the middle.
Tennessee got off to a promising start in the second season of the Rick Barnes era, beginning the year 13-9 with a big home victory over Kentucky. The Volunteers ended the year by losing seven of their last 10 and closed out the season with a mark of 16-16.
Help for the backcourt comes in the form of 6-foot-1 junior-college transfer Chris Darrington, who had an eye-popping 20.7 points, 4.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game while making 43.3 percent of his 3s.
Barnes went after size in the incoming recruiting class, but Tennessee does not have a player who can be a prolific scorer. This is doomed to be another long year for Barnes.
Louisiana State went just 2-14 last year in SEC play and 10-21 overall with Johnny Jones unbelievably being allowed to coach the 2016-17 season after failing to make the big dance with Ben Simmons the prior season.
Jones was ousted and the new man in charge is former VCU coach Will Wade.
He takes over a program that was 339th in the country in points allowed. As a matter of fact, LSU was outdone by its opponents in every offensive, defensive and shot percent metric involved with basketball aside from offensive rebounds, and that was due to having more many misses than its foes.
On the bright side, Wade is recruiting well, and Southern Utah graduate transfer Randy Onwuasor should deliver a massive spark and start somewhere in the backcourt. He was a big scorer in the Big Sky.
The SEC has two clear favorites in Kentucky and Florida and a solid No. 3 in Alabama. The other 11 teams are either NCAA Tournament bubble teams or candidates to fail to break .500.
Greg Peterson’s Southeastern Conference forecast:
3. Texas A&M
8. Mississippi State
11. South Carolina
14. Louisiana State
Musselman-led Nevada still best in Mountain West: https://www.vsin.com/musselman-led-nevada-still-best-in-mountain-west/
College basketball conference preview page: https://www.vsin.com/news/latest-college-basketball-headlines/