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40-0. The Kentucky Wildcats came ever so close last year to having the elusive “perfect season”. However, this is college basketball, where March Madness reigns supreme, and one game can send the best team home. For Kentucky, it came in the national semifinal when Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin Badgers pulled out a 71-64 victory, though the signs that UK would not just cruise to the title had been there in the Midwest Regional Final when they barely got by Notre Dame, 68-66. Of course, the offseason has now come and gone in Lexington the way it seems to every year. Seven players from last year’s Final Four team left for the NBA Draft and Coach Calipari just went out and replaced them with another stellar crop of recruits, landing the Wildcats right back in both the SEC and national championship discussions.
In addition to top-seeded Kentucky, the SEC placed four other teams in the NCAA tournament last year. Arkansas, a 5 seed, advanced to the Round of 32 while 9-seed LSU, 10-seed Georgia and 11-seed Ole Miss fell in the Round of 64 (though Ole Miss did pick up a victory in the First Four before being eliminated). Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and Alabama also made postseason appearances, playing in the NIT. Five tournament bids last season shows that the rest of the SEC (beyond perennial contenders Kentucky and Florida) is starting to catch up, and even bigger things could be in store this year. LSU, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Georgia, Mississippi State and Auburn are all teams that could be seriously in the hunt for tournament bids, though Ole Miss and Arkansas look like they may take a step back this year. Florida, which advanced to at least the Elite Eight in 2012, 2013 and 2014, might make it two straight years without a bid as the Gators begin the post-Billy Donovan era.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Kentucky – Who else? Losing seven players to the NBA Draft is business as usual, and the ‘cats should be among the national championship contenders with Tyler Ullis and Alex Poythress back plus super-freshmen such as Jamal Murray, Isaiah Briscoe and Skal Labissiere — just to name a few.
2. LSU – Head coach Johnny Jones’ team has a chance to be among the nation’s elite with the addition of Ben Simmons, ranked by many as the top prospect in the entire country. Simmons is not the only stellar newcomer here, as Jones also added freshmen Brandon Sampson and Antonio Blakeney, plus Arizona transfer Craig Victor. And by the way, there is a solid corps of returning players, including the veteran backcourt duo of Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby.
3. Vanderbilt – The Commodores are a deep team that now has experience as well with most of the key pieces from last season’s 21-win squad back. Damian Jones is the key for the team down low, but watch out for Luke Kornet — over 7 feet tall and shoots 40% from beyond the arc!
4. Texas A&M – The Aggies have three veteran standouts in Danuel House, Alex Caruso and Jalen Jones. On top of that, head coach Billy Kennedy has added a top recruiting class highlighted by big men Tyler Davis and Elijah Thomas, plus wing D.J. Hogg.
5. Auburn – Picking the Tigers this high in the standings may be a surprise, especially with the majority of the team gone from last season, other than Cinmeon Bowers. However, Burce Pearl has brought in another talented group of newcomers including junior college Player of the Year T.J. Dunans and Marshall transfer Kareem Canty. Pearl also adds in a strong freshman recruiting class. The Tigers may struggle early in the season as they gel and try to overcome some preseason injury setbacks, but will be a dangerous foe come February and March.
6. Mississippi State – Another sign of how the SEC is trying to establish itself as more than a football league, the Bulldogs brought in one of the top available coaches in the country by signing Ben Howland. There is no reason why this team will not see significant improvement in Howland’s first season as senior Craig Sword and top recruit Malik Newman will lead a strong group of guards while Gavin Ware has a chance to be dominant down low.
7. Georgia – Mark Fox’s team should be solid in the backcourt with Charles Mann, Kenny Gaines, J.J. Frazier and freshman William “Turtle” Jackson II. However, there are some question marks down low with Marcus Thornton gone. Freshman Derek Ogbeide may need to mature quickly for the Bulldogs to earn a return trip to the NCAAs.
8. Florida – Michael White takes over for Billy Donovan, and it may take him some time to install his style of play. However, Dorian Finney-Smith does return for his senior season and White was able to convince top recruit KeVaughn Allen to remain with the program, so a postseason bid is not out of the picture by any means.
9. South Carolina – The Gamecocks did land a top recruit in PJ Dozier, who will be joined in the backcourt by Sindarious Thornwell and Duane Notice. However, there are question marks with the team’s depth and in its frontcourt, and an NIT bid may be the team’s limit.
10. Ole Miss – The Rebels were one of the last four at-large teams to earn a bid to the Big Dance last season. This year, with six players gone from that squad, another dance invitation seems unlikely. Ole Miss does have Stefan Moody back at least, and he should score even more than his 16.6 points per game average from last year.
11. Tennessee – Three head coaches in three years is not the way to build a consistently strong program. The good news is that the Vols have (hopefully) finally gotten the right man for the job in Rick Barnes. Tennessee will need Kevin Punter and Robert Hubbs III to shine in the backcourt and Armani Moore to get help from newcomers down low if they want to succeed this year. However, the loss of Josh Richardson may prove to be too much.
12. Alabama – The Crimson Tide have some potential under new head coach Avery Johnson. Retin Obasohan will be solid at the point while three veterans down low (Michael Kessens, Jimmie Taylor and Shannon Hale) will all contribute. If the newcomers can add some help, the Tide may surprise this season despite having lost three double-digit scorers off of last year’s squad.
13. Missouri – This looks like another long season for the Tigers as they continue to attempt to rebuild. With only two juniors and one senior on the roster, there should hopefully be brighter days ahead.
14. Arkansas – The Razorbacks won 27 games last year. Their losses could easily be over 20 this season as almost everyone from that team is gone. Head Coach Mike Anderson needs to rebuild this team and needs to start right now.