Conference Preview: SEC

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It has been ten years since the SEC placed more than five teams in the NCAA Tournament, and four times during that stretch the conference only had three teams receive bids.  The conference has made a commitment over the past few years to upgrading its basketball, and the results are starting to show.  Last season, five teams made to field with three of them advancing to the Elite Eight and South Carolina making an amazing Cinderella run to the Final Four.  This year, the SEC looks even stronger and six or more bids is very realistic.

Leading the way, once again, will likely be Kentucky, though the Wildcats’ roster is so lacking in veteran leadership (moreso than normal) that it will be fascinating to see how John Calipari gets his kids to play together and learn how to win as a team.  Should they falter, Texas A&M, Florida and Georgia all have rosters good enough to compete for the league crown.  Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Missouri, and Mississippi State all have legitimate NCAA aspirations, but it would not be a complete shock to see any team (other than maybe LSU) in the bubble picture this March.

Predicted Order of Finish

  1. Kentucky – The top seven players from last season are gone.  The top returning scorer averaged less than 5 points per game.  There are almost 350 programs in the nation that would have data like that mean a long rebuilding year with next to no postseason aspirations.  Luckily for Wildcats fans, their team is one of a very, very small group (read: Kentucky, Duke and no one else) that can actually contend for the Final Four in that type of case.  Freshmen Kevin Knox, P.J. Washington, Nick Richards and Jarred Vanderbilt (assuming a healthy return from foot surgery in a couple months) will join sophomore returnees Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wayne Gabriel in the frontcourt, while Quade Green, Hamidou Diallo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jermari Baker could form one of the nation’s most dangerous backcourts.  In other words, the talent in UK’s cup is practically boiling over, and if John Calipari can get them to play together as a team despite only the tiniest amount of experience, this squad could once again be looking at 30+ wins and a deep NCAA Tournament run.
  2. Texas A&M – This has a chance to be a very special season for the Aggies, as it is hard to find any significant holes in the team.  In the backcourt, Admon Gilder  is joined by several talented freshmen, including Jay Jay Chandler, T.J. Starks and J.J. Caldwell, along with Marquette transfer Duane Wilson.  The frontcourt is even stronger, led by D.J. Hogg, Tyler Davis and Robert Williams.  If Kentucky’s youth proves to be an issue, the Aggies could easily find themselves atop the SEC at the end of the day.
  3. Florida – The Gators made a run to the Elite Eight last season, and did so without center John Egbunu, who tore his ACL in February.  Egbunu should be close to 100% by the time conference play starts, as will freshman forward Isaiah Stokes (another ACL tear victim).  Once the frontcourt is healthy, this team will be very dangerous, especially with KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza in the backcourt joined by Rice transfer Egor Koulechov who averaged 18.2 point and 8.9 rebounds per game for the Owls last season.  Also, keep an eye on Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson on the wing, as he could be yet another big scorer for Mike White’s team.
  4. Georgia – 19-15 overall and 9-9 in SEC play was a major disappointment for the Georgia Bulldogs last season.  With everyone of note other than J.J. Frazier back, and the addition of freshman standout Rayshaun Hammonds to the frontcourt, there are no excuses left for this team if they fail to make the Big Dance again.  Hammonds will be joining Yante Maten up front, who flirted with the NBA before deciding to bring his 18+ points and almost 7 boards per game back to Athens.  The key may be whether or not Juwan Parker can stay healthy and up his production — if he does, this team may even be able to contend for the league crown.
  5. Alabama – Head coach Avery Johnson is in his third season in Tuscaloosa, and this should be the year he breaks through and gets the Tide into the Big Dance.  He has a young, talented roster led by sophomores Braxton Key and Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens in the frontcourt, plus freshmen Collin Sexton and John Petty joining sophomore Dazon Ingram and senior Riley Norris in the backcourt.  This team has the depth and talent to put Alabama in the NCAAs for the first time since 2006.  (UPDATE 11/7/2017: Sexton is being held out of games for possible recruiting violations and Key is about to undergo surgery — those two losses will hurt bad).
  6. Arkansas – Despite losing a pair of double-digit scorers from last year’s team, the Razorbacks should be right back in the hunt for a Dance Ticket as they feature a great combination of four seniors, led by guards Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, plus a strong group of freshmen newcomers, led by forwards Darious Hall and Daniel Gafford.  There should be enough depth here to continue to run the high-octane “Fastest 40” attack that makes this team so dangerous to play and so much fun to watch.
  7. Auburn – The Tigers got a ton of experience for freshmen Mustapha Heron, Jared Harper, Daniel Purifoy and Austin Wiley last year.  This season, they are all sophomores, and a few more pieces are being added including Desean Murray, a transfer from Presbyterian who led the Big South in scoring two years ago.  There appear to be the pieces here to put Bruce Pearl’s team in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003; however, assistant coach Chuck Person was indicted as part of the recent FBI investigation, and the team will need to find a way to keep the off-court issues from affecting the on-court play. (UPDATE 11/2/2017: Due to the FBI investigation, Daniel Purifoy and Austin Wiley are being held out of competition indefinitely)
  8. Missouri – Mizzou went 8-24 last season, Kim Anderson’s last as head coach.  Cuonzo Martin is on the bench now, and the roster looks a lot different.  Leading the way is arguably the best freshman in the nation, Michael Porter, Jr.  Freshmen Jeremiah Tilmon, Blake Harris and Jontay Porter (Michael’s brother) could all be factors as well, along with Canisius graduate transfer Kassius Robertson.  The problem is going to be getting all these new players to blend with the new head coach and a handful of returnees.  Things will be a lot more exciting in Columbia than they have been for a few years, but it may be premature to declare this an NCAA Tournament caliber team.
  9. Mississippi State – The Bulldogs will be strong in the backcourt, led by star Quinndary Weatherspoon (who averaged over 16 points per game last year despite playing most of the season with a wrist injury), his freshman point guard brother Nick, and sophomore Lamar Peters.  The problems are down low, where they struggled defensively last season and need to get tougher if they want to have a shot at a dance ticket.
  10. South Carolina – The majority of the scoring and rebounding from last season’s Final our team are gone, including all-everything Sindarius Thornwell.  Having Chris Silva back will help some, as should the addition of Delaware transfer Kory Holden.  However, this is nowhere near last season’s magical roster, and just making the NCAA Tournament would be a major accomplishment.
  11. Vanderbilt – The Commodores suffered heartbreak in the NCAA Tournament last season when Matthew Fisher-Davis mistakenly thought his team was trailing and committed a foul, giving Northwestern a pair of what proved to be game-winning free throws.  Fisher-Davis will be looked upon to redeem himself and try to lead his team to another postseason berth, but that may prove difficult without any real replacement for star center Luke Kornet.
  12. Ole Miss – The Rebels will get a ton of offense out of their backcourt again this season, led by Deandre Burnett, Terence Davis and Memphis transfer Markel Crawford.  The frontcourt may be a problem, however, with no true heir-apparent to the departed Sebastian Saiz available.
  13. Tennessee – Rick Barnes’ team is undersized for the SEC, but that does not mean they will not be competitive.  A repeat of last year’s 8 conference wins may not happen, but it will only be because the rest of the league got better.  Two players to keep an eye on this year will be sophomore Grant Williams and Howard transfer James Daniel III.  Daniel will be particularly interesting to watch as he led the nation in scoring two years ago (27.1 points per game), but is coming off of ankle surgery.
  14. LSU – The Tigers may be picked in last place this year, but it could be a long time before they end up picked this low again as Will Wade has proven he has the ability to recruit, build a program and win games.  He will have a few solid pieces this year, including North Texas graduate transfer Jeremy Combs, who averaged a double-double two years ago before suffering through injuries last season.
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