SEC Basketball Preview: Kentucky No Longer Rules the SEC
Remember when the SEC was going to be the next big thing in college hoops? Several years ago, the league and its member schools made a concerted effort to get their hoops on par with their football. Hundreds of millions of dollars went into new training facilities and building upgrades. Dozens of millions went into luring big-name, top-tier coaches. Bruce Pearl returned, Rick Barnes, Frank Martin, Avery Johnson, and Ben Howland bring considerable College/NBA coaching success to the bench, and Bryce Drew and Mike White brought big-time small-school success with their resumes. The SEC Network had massive programming holes to fill, and basketball was going to be the Winter savior.
Last season, we finally saw the beginning of the progress. Three teams played into the Elite Eight and South Carolina made a thrilling run to the Final Four. The league was finally more than Kentucky and the 13 Dwarfs and seemed on the verge of regaining its status as a premier basketball league.
2017-2018 will be a make-or-break season that frankly, could go either way. The conference is deep and balanced. But without a clear behemoth in Kentucky, there’s no obvious National Title or even Final Four contender. The SEC could send seven or eight teams to the Dance. They could send three or four and all bow out early.
Kentucky is still the favorite. I suppose. Old habits die hard…
Here’s how Vegas sees things from a National Title Contender perspective.
- Kentucky +800
- Florida +2200
- Missouri +1600
- Texas A&M +3300
- Alabama +6600
- Auburn +20000
- Arkansas +20000
- South Carolina +30000
- Georgia +30000
- Vanderbilt +50000
- Ole Miss +50000
- LSU +50000
- Mississippi State +50000
- Tennessee +50000
The Perennial Favorite – Kentucky
This season’s favorite status feels more habitual than merit-based. Yes, Kentucky always reloads with top-tier talent and seemingly manages to be in Final Four contention every season. But this recruiting class is a far cry from the Wall/Cousins/Bledsoe class, or the Davis/Kidd-Gilchrest or Karl Anthony Towns. And not only is this team a clear notch below those elite groups, they are also lacking another IMPORTANT ingredient. A single meaningful upperclassman! As in, Coach Cal is playing ALL freshman, and this year it is literally more than figurative. There is no Patrick Patterson or Willie Cauley Stein or Alex Poythress or Terrance Jones to steer the ship. There is only youth in abundance, and if the first two games are any indication; close tussles at Rupp Arena against Utah Valley and Vermont, this could be a frustratingly uneven season for the Wildcat Faithful – perhaps not reminiscent of the “Nerlens Noel got hurt and then we lost to Bobby Mo in the NIT” – but it is also REALLY tough seeing this team as a legitimate Final Four contender, despite their #5 ranking in the country and slim +800 odds to win a National Title.
Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox should form a quite the dynamic duo, but with seven freshmen playing nearly all the minutes and not a knock-down shooter ala Malik Monk or a game manager like Fox, Kentucky will struggle for long stretches both getting quality shots and knocking down open shots when they create them. If teams allow them to run, their athleticism will reign supreme. When good coaches with smart, efficient and talented rosters – not UVU or Vermont, but Florida, A&M, Alabama – and more immediately pressing, Kansas – I think UK will have some real difficulties.
The Real Challengers: Florida and Texas A&M
Florida was a few plays away from the Final Four last season. They graduated some veteran talent like Canyon Barry and lost their frontcourt to graduation and the NBA. But with potential SEC Player of the Year (don’t assume Michael Porter, Jr. is a lock) KeVaughn Allen and scrappy point guard Chris Chiozza leading the offense, the cupboard is far from bare in Gainesville.
The Gators should be able to reload along emerging star Allen quickly, thanks to a Top 20 recruiting class and two transfers in guard Jalen Hudson (Virginia Tech) and guard Egor Koulechov (Rice). Expect both grad transfers to step in and contribute immediately.
I like them even more after watching them simply blow the doors off a good West Virginia team in Germany. Texas A&M has some legit professional talent and solid depth. The Aggies were disappointing last season, winning only 16 games. This season feels more like a Sweet Sixteen type roster.
Their frontcourt of Robert Williams and junior center Tyler Davis is the best in the SEC. Williams is the soon-to-be NBA First Rounder (and potentially even a Lottery Pick) that most people have never heard of. Look for him to be big in his sophomore season – and probably his last in College Station.
Freshman point guard J.J. Caldwell might be the key to the season. If he and Admon Gilder can provide even adequate backcourt play, the dynamite frontcourt and the shooting spark of DJ Hogg could be enough to win the SEC. Either way, of the teams listed in legitimate NCAA Champ wagering positions, Texas A&M is easily my favorite value play.
Melo or Markelle?? – Missouri
There’s not much to say about Missouri other than Michael Porter, Jr. The presumptive #1 pick in the NBA Draft (and I’ll wait to see… there’s still Marvin Bagley, Jr and Deandre Ayton to consider…) has his work cut out for him. Missouri is coming off an 8-24 season, the worst in school history. Yes, Porter is excellent and pro-ready. And yes, his younger brother who reclassified to play with him (and seems physically ready for college at 6’10’’, 240 pounds) will help. But this is still a team that won EIGHT games last year.
The insane number at Bovada is a sucker bet and a half. This team isn’t winning a national title. A better bet would be “will they even make the Tournament?” And if Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons are any indications, a #1 pick in the draft doesn’t guarantee a thing. Even Kevin Durant at a good Texas program could get the Longhorns out of the first week of the NCAA Tournament. Melo won a national title as a freshman, but don’t forget that Syracuse team had Gerry McNamara and Hakim Warrick (along with Hall of Fame Coach, Jim Boeheim).
CONTENDERS: Georgia, Alabama
Georgia has returning double-double machine Yante Maten. That’s a good place to start as Mark Fox looks to get the Bulldogs back to the NCAA Tournament and cool off his own hot seat. Alabama has a swirl of FBI/NCAA rumors and troubles, but simply on the court, has the talent to contend for an NCAA berth. They return 74% of the scoring from a roster that won 19 games last season. Avery Johnson has some incoming freshman talent, including McDonald’s All-American point guard Collin Sexton. Hopefully, for the Tide, he can help lead an improvement over the 31.3% shooting from distance last season, as well as the turnovers that plagued them all season long.
The Big Middle of the Pack: Auburn, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, South Carolina, Ole Miss
Auburn has been expecting big things since the arrival of Bruce Pearl. They may finally have them this season, but unfortunately those “big things” might have more to do with FBI probes and litigation than they do a return to the NCAA Tournament. Sophomore wing Mustapha Heron will lead the Tigers, but the arraignment of assistant coach, and Auburn legend, Chuck Person will loom large all season.
Mississippi State will get some scoring and leadership from Quinndary Weatherspoon, but will there be enough help in Starkville to get the Bulldogs to the postseason? They had a negative rebounding and turnover margin last season. Both will need to improve to compete in the physical SEC West.
Vanderbilt went to the NCAA Tournament last season, somewhat surprisingly, as the roster around Luke Kornet was a little thin. Kornet is gone, but expectations remain high around Bryce Drew’s squad in the former Valpo Coach’s second season in Nashville. They will spread the floor, play smart, and shoot the three. Last year they connected on nearly 38% of their attempts. A similar output this season could spark a similarly surprising run to the Tourney.
Arkansas went 26-10 last season and impressively pushed eventual National Champion North Carolina to a closer-than-the-score 72-65 game in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. However, three key seniors are gone from that squad. Expect the Razorbacks to take a step back this season.
Sindarius Thornwell made himself millions of dollars in the Tournament and earned himself an NBA roster spot. The early departure of PJ Dozier was a tough one, as he could have likely stepped in and kept South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament mix. As it stands, nearly three-quarters of their scoring and half their rebounding from last year will need to be replaced. It stands to reason they will likely be replaced in the Field of 68 as well, though it is generally wise not to completely ignore a Frank Martin-coached squad.
Lastly, Ole Miss seems to always fall into this category, don’t they? Andy Kennedy suffered another near-miss on Selection Sunday last year, but the “seat is getting hotter” coach hasn’t finished under .500 in SEC play since 2012 and always has the Rebels in the mix. They have a dynamite backcourt with Deandre Burnett and Terence Davis, who could be the leading scoring backcourt combo in the conference this season. Add in a few impact transfers Memphis graduate Markel Crawford and Drake’s Dominik Olejniczak, and I like the sleeper value of Ole Miss contending for a Tournament bid.
Not This Year: Tennessee and LSU
Tennessee played a bunch of close games last year, but still finished 16-16 in Rick Barnes’s second season in Knoxville. This season looks like another uphill battle, which makes you wonder how much more time the splashy hire and former Final Four Coach at Texas will be given…
LSU was the Ben Simmons experiment worth it?? The program has been in shambles since (well, it was rough during as well) and this year a basement finish seems very likely. First-year coach Will Wade grabbed a few low-major graduate transfers as stop gaps, but it will be a long season until he can get his first recruiting class and begin the rebuild in earnest in 2018.
This league may not be as top heavy as the Big Ten and ACC, but it is certainly deeper and more balanced than most leagues in the country. Kentucky, Florida and Texas A&M are all Sweet Sixteen capable at the least, with Kentucky and Texas A&M having the most upside. Alabama and Georgia are NCAA-caliber teams, Missouri is at worst a VERY interesting wildcard and a good television appointment to see Michael Porter, and there are six other teams who can harbor dreams of dancing in March with legitimate optimism.
Picking an order of finish is likely a fool’s errand as the glut of 9-9 and 8-10 teams might be settled by a few one-bucket games on some wacky February nights, but I’ll hazard a guess…
- LOCKS: Texas A&M, Florida, Kentucky
- IN FIELD OF 68: Alabama, Georgia
- SURPRISE BUBBLE: Ole Miss, Vanderbilt
- NIT: Missouri, Mississippi State, Auburn