Previewing SEC basketball

The 2019-20 season was subpar for the Southeastern Conference. Before COVID-19 hit, the SEC was likely to have only four teams in the NCAA tournament. The conference had no teams in the KenPom top 25, and regular-season champion Kentucky was the only team projected to have a protected seed (No. 4). However, the SEC could see a bit of a resurgence this year because the conference encompasses six of the top-12 recruiting classes for 2020, according to 247 Sports — No. 1 Kentucky, No. 4 Tennessee, No. 6 LSU, No. 8 Arkansas, No. 9 Auburn and No. 12 Alabama.  It is no surprise that Kentucky is one of the conference favorites. Yes, the Wildcats lost all five starters, but the cupboard is never bare. John Calipari will always side with talent no matter the level of experience, but Tennessee looks to have both the talent and the experience to match the Wildcats. With two five-star commits plus two returning senior starters, Rick Barnes could have his best team in his six years in Knoxville. Will Wade and LSU still have potential NCAA sanctions hanging over the program, but three double-figure scorers return. Florida was arguably the most disappointing team in the conference last season, going only 8-4 at home behind a plodding offense that rated 326th in tempo. But the Gators return six of their eight top scorers. In Nate Oats’ first year, Alabama was anything but a plodding offense, ranking sixth in average length of possession at 15.2 seconds and launching 957 3-pointers, fourth in the nation. Arkansas’ Isaiah Joe opted to enter the NBA draft, but Eric Musselman put together a strong recruiting class and brings in a multitude of transfers, just like he did at Nevada. Auburn lost all five starters and should slide a bit after winning 25 or more games each of the last three seasons, but Bruce Pearl did sign a top-10 national class. Ole Miss was the SEC’s 2018-19 surprise but slipped to just 15 wins last season. South Carolina has failed to make the NCAA tournament since reaching the 2017 Final Four but does have three of its top four scorers returning. Texas A&M and Vanderbilt return most of their production under coaches in their second seasons. Georgia begins life without potential No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards. Missouri might be the conference’s most experienced team but won only 15 games last season. Mississippi State continues to play old-school ball in a new-school era by scoring in the paint and crashing the boards. 

 

Top 10 Players

 

Keyontae Johnson, Junior, PF, Florida

 

John Fulkerson, Senior, PF, Tennessee

 

BJ Boston, Freshman, SG, Kentucky

 

Trendon Watford, Sophomore, SF, LSU

 

John Petty, Senior, SG, Alabama

 

Olivier Sarr, Senior, C, Kentucky

 

AJ Lawson, Junior, SF, South Carolina

 

Yves Pons, Senior, SF, Tennessee

 

Javonte Smart, Junior, PG, LSU

 

Dru Smith, Senior, PG, Missouri

 

  1. Tennessee

The Volunteers return four of their top five scorers, including seniors John Fulkerson and Yves Pons. They also add an impact graduate transfer in E.J. Anosike from Sacred Heart, plus two potential one-and-done freshmen in Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer. This is a big leap for a 17-14 club that likely needed to win the SEC tournament last year to receive an NCAA bid, but infusing the experience with young talent gives Rick Barnes his best team in Knoxville and a realistic chance for the Vols to make their first Final Four.

 

2.              Kentucky

The Wildcats bring in six freshman recruits, including five-star guards BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke. The players in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class aren’t the only new faces in Lexington. John Calipari has worked the transfer market in recent years and has added three new ones: center Olivier Sarr from Wake Forest, point guard Davion Mintz from Creighton and forward Jacob Toppin from Rhode Island. Nonetheless, Kentucky will rely on first-year players even more than usual and could be slow out of the gate with almost an entirely new roster. But the Wildcats will likely be playing their best ball in March.

 

3.              LSU

The 2019 FBI scandal surrounding college basketball still looms over the Tigers program with the potential of NCAA sanctions coming down. But as of now Will Wade has a talented core of double-figure scorers returning with Javonte Smart, Trendon Watford and Darius Days. Two transfers — Josh LeBlanc of Georgetown and Shareef O’Neal of UCLA, who is the son of LSU legend Shaquille O’Neal — become eligible in mid-December. LSU also added five-star guard Cameron Thomas out of legendary Oak Hill Academy. Eight newcomers join the program, but LSU has enough firepower to lead the way early in the season.

 

4.              Florida

Six of the Gators’ eight leading scorers return, including SEC Preseason Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson. Point guard Andrew Nembhard (11.2 ppg, 5.6 apg) led the team in minutes at 33.2 but transferred to Gonzaga, so sophomore five-star guards Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann will need to pick up the slack. Florida started last season ranked No. 6 but was perhaps the biggest disappointment in the conference with a 19-12 record. The pieces did not seem to fit last season, but coach Mike White believes this to be the most athletic team he has had in his sixth season in Gainesville. 

 

5.              Alabama

Nate Oats brings back four of his top six scorers, including John Petty Jr. and Jaden Shackelford, who combined for about 30 ppg and 11 rpg. The Crimson Tide went 16-15 in Oats’ first season, but the style of play immediately changed with a faster tempo, more 3-pointers and pressure defense. The roster has had some turnover, and NBA lottery pick Kira Lewis will need to be replaced at the point. Enter Jahvon Quinerly, a Villanova transfer who was not granted his NCAA waiver for eligibility last year. Quinerly and Yale graduate transfer Jordan Bruner should provide more weaponry to an already potent offense.

 

6.              Arkansas

The Razorbacks likely would have been projected in the top four in the conference had Isaiah Joe not entered the NBA draft. Now Arkansas has lost six of its top seven scorers. However, never underestimate Eric Musselman’s ability to rebuild and retool a roster expeditiously. He has brought in a top-10 national recruiting class, including freshmen Khalen Robinson and Moses Moody. But as usual with Musselman, transfers will play a heavy role. Justin Smith of Indiana, Vance Jackson of New Mexico and Jaylen Tate of Northern Kentucky were double-figure scorers in their previous stops. 

 

7.              Auburn

The Tigers began last season 15-0 and ended up winning 25 games for a third straight season. However, Bruce Pearl must replace all five starters, including likely NBA lottery pick Isaac Okoro. Auburn will have talent up and down its roster, but the top-10 national class will have to produce immediately. Five-star point guard Sharife Cooper spurned Kentucky to play at Auburn. The Tigers also got a late addition as forward JT Thor reclassified a year early, and Auburn will definitely need him to produce for a frontcourt that lacks depth.

 

8.              Ole Miss

The Rebels struggled to score and fell off from a 20-win season the year before to a 12th-place finish in the SEC. Kermit Davis’ club blew double-digit second-half leads in four SEC games. Ole Miss returns three starters, including senior point guard Devontae Shuler and junior forward KJ Buffen. But the Rebels will need graduate transfers Romello White of Arizona State and Dimencio Vaughn of Rider to produce early and often. Both were double-figure scorers in their previous stops. Despite the loss of All-SEC guard Breein Tyree, Ole Miss should have a more talented and deeper team. 

 

9.              South Carolina

Frank Martin had an up-and-down offseason, undergoing knee-replacement surgery and testing positive for COVID-19. And his top lieutenant, Perry Clark, elected to retire. However, the Gamecocks got some good news when AJ Lawson pulled out of the NBA draft. Lawson, combined with North Carolina transfer Seventh Woods, should provide enough offensive firepower in the backcourt to get South Carolina back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in four seasons. South Carolina will always be defense-minded under Martin but did rate No. 17 in the nation in tempo last season.

 

10.           Texas A&M

Buzz Williams took over a team with a lot of roster turnover but produced a 10-8 record in SEC play and won conference coach-of-the-year honors. Five of the Aggies’ top seven scorers return, including all-SEC candidate Savion Flagg. Kevin Marfo averaged a double-double at Quinnipiac last season and joins the Aggies as a graduate transfer. However, if Texas A&M is going to progress even more than in Williams’ first season, it will have to shoot better and turn the ball over less frequently. The Aggies ranked 331st in the nation in 3-point shooting at 29.3% and 263rd in turnovers at 14.1 per game.

 

11.           Georgia

Potential No. 1 NBA pick Anthony Edwards is gone, but the Bulldogs were only 16-16 overall and 5-13 in the SEC with him. Tom Crean has proven he can get players, but it usually takes him a while to move a program to a higher level. This project in Athens is no exception. Crean loves his teams to shoot a lot of 3s, but he would also prefer more to be made. Georgia ranked 322nd in 3-point shooting at 30% last season. This club doesn’t have an elite talent on the roster like Edwards, but it could shoot more accurately from the perimeter and run better in transition.

 

12.           Mississippi State

The Bulldogs look to be rebuilding with their top four scorers gone, including likely first-round pick forward Reggie Perry. Mississippi State has plenty of size with four players 6-foot-10 or taller. Ben Howland is a throwback in that he likes size and likes his big guys to play like big guys. His club scored 56% of its baskets from 2-point range, which was 35th in the nation, and was No. 4 in offensive rebound percentage at 37%. Transfer Javian Davis did not fit the up-and-down style at Alabama but should blend in here. Freshman point guard Deivon Smith has high long-term potential.

 

13.           Missouri 

The Tigers return their top seven scorers from last season’s 15-16 club. They are an experienced bunch but also a frequently injured bunch. Guard Mark Smith and center Jeremiah Tillmon missed 21 starts between them last season. These two will need to be senior leaders for a club that sputtered offensively. Mizzou ranked 326th nationally in 3-point percentage at 29.7%, 302nd in turnover percentage at 20.9% and 287th in effective FG percentage at 47%. With better health, the Tigers should be improved — and they will have to be in a league that looks to be deeper from top to bottom than last year.

 

14.           Vanderbilt

The Commodores had nowhere to go but up after a winless 2018-19 SEC season. And last year they broke a 28-game conference losing streak and won three games in league play. However, Jerry Stackhouse’s team finished 3-15 in the SEC, and that was at the bottom of the conference by two games. Scotty Pippen Jr. returns at point guard, and transfer DJ Harvey, who redshirted last season after averaging 10.8 ppg and 4.2 rpg at Notre Dame in 2018-19, is another solid player. But Vanderbilt still lacks talent and must improve defensively, ranking 305th in effective FG percentage at 52.7%.

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