Three teams in the Field of 68. Two teams in the Round of 64. One team in the Sweet 16. And no teams left after that. That was the fate of the Southeastern Conference last season as 11-seed Vanderbilt was eliminated in the First Four, 4-seed Kentucky was knocked out by Indiana in the Round of 32, and 3-seed Texas A&M fell to Oklahoma in the Sweet 16. Although the conference did place four teams in the NIT (Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama), none of them advanced to the final rounds in New York City. In all, it was a forgettable season in the SEC. Given the conference’s commitment to upgrading its basketball and the coaching talent that has come into the league in the past few years, we may look back at seasons like last one as an aberration. Unfortunately for the league, early signs heading into the 2016-17 season don’t point to doing too much better than three bids again.
One team that will definitely be good – very good – this season is (of course) Kentucky. The Wildcats have once again reloaded with some of the top freshman talent in the nation who may all be household names by March. Coach John Calipari should once again have his team contending for a top seed and the national championship. It is beyond Kentucky that the questions arise. Can teams like Georgia and Florida improve enough to make it to the Big Dance? How will Bryce Drew do in his first season taking over at Vanderbilt? Is this the year Bruce Pearl puts Auburn back on the college hoops map? Can Frank Martin finally get South Carolina into the Field? Will Texas A&M be able to keep up their momentum despite losing several key pieces from last year’s team? Will Ben Howland (Mississippi State) and Rick Barnes (Tennessee) make some noise? Will LSU find a way to develop even a drop of team chemistry? Will Kim Anderson (Missouri) be employed this time next year? There is talent throughout the SEC, it just remains to be seen which teams will come together and, even if they won’t challenge Kentucky for the top of the standings, be able to put enough together to claim an at-large bid.
Predicted Order of Finish
1. Kentucky – With Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis, Alex Poythress, Skal Labissiere and Marcus Lee all gone thing in Lexington should be . . . just fine. Coach John Calipari has brought in five top recruits featuring guards De’Aaron Fox and Mailk Monk, big men Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killyea-Jones, and forward Edrice “Bam” Adebayo may end up being the best of the bunch. Oh, and don’t forget about the players that do return from last year, like Isaac Humphries and Derek Willis. The Wildcats should be the class of the SEC and a serious Final Four contender.
2. Georgia – The inside-outside combination of J.J. Frazier at guard and Yante Maten at forward will make the Bulldogs dangerous. Keep an eye on a now healthy Juwan Parker in the backcourt and junior college transfer Pape Diatta in the frontcourt.
3. Florida – The Gators may be without Dorian Finney-Smith, but with KeVaughn Allen and John Egbunu back, plus the additions of College of Charleston transfer Canyon Barry (Rik Barry’s son) and redshirt freshman Keith Stone, they could be better than last year. The Gators do desperately need to find a way to improve their free throw and three-point shooting percentages.
4. Arkansas – The Razorbacks have a chance to finish near the top of the league standings with Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley back, plus the addition of three of the five highest rated junior college transfers in the nation: guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon and forward Arlando Cook.
5. Auburn – Despite 20 losses last season, the Tigers have a ton of talent, both new and old. Keep an eye on senior T.J. Dunans, freshman Mustapha Heron and Houston transfer Ronnie Johnson in the backcourt. Up front, red shirt freshman Danjel Purifoy and Bethune-Cookman transfer LaRon Smith both figure to be key contributors.
6. Vanderbilt – Head coach Bruce Drew has a few really good pieces, led by center Luke Kornet, forward Jeff Roberson and swingman Matthew Fisher-Davis. If Riley LaChance can regain his form from two years ago, it will be a huge help, but depth will be a serious question.
7. Texas A&M – The Aggies have a ton of size available down low with Tonny Trocha-Morelos and Tyler Davis, but they need to find a way to replace their lost scoring from last season. Lipscomb transfer J.C. Hampton could help a lot if he proves he can play against higher level competition.
8. South Carolina – A trio of guards (Sindarious Thornwell, Duane Notice and P.J. Dozier) will keep the Gamecocks competitive, but a lack of depth and size down low may prove to be serious issues.
9. Alabama – Three starters are gone, but point guard Dazon Ingram is back and healthy again. The Crimson Tide don’t have much in terms of true star power, but Avery Johnson proved last season that he can coach at the college level and his team should not be overlooked.
10. Mississippi State – Sophomores Quinndary Waetherspoon and I.J. Ready will form the backcourt, but will also provide the majority of the Division I experience for the entire roster. Head coach Ben Howland did bring in a Top 10 rated recruiting class nationally, but the team is probably a year away from making any serious noise.
11. LSU – Antonio Blakeney in the backcourt and Craig Victor II in the frontcourt give the Tigers some hope, but there is not much else here beyond those two for a team that proved to have almost no chemistry whatsoever last season.
12. Ole Miss – A pair of transfer will lead the backcourt with Deandre Burnett coming over from Miami and Cullen Neal coming from New Mexico. Sebastian Saiz is a double-double threat down low, but the team has a lack of depth and probably will not be able to make up for the loss of Stefan Moody.
13. Tennessee – The top two players are gone from a team that lost 19 games, but a roster featuring a dozen freshmen and sophomores should help Rick Barnes as he continues to build the program back up. Just don’t expect much this season.
14. Missouri – The talent just does not appear to be here to stay with the other 13 teams in the conference. Barring what would be a shocking rise in the standings, this could be the end of the Kim Anderson era at Mizzou.