SEC basketball media day is today, a moment to look at what’s ahead, while celebrating all that the league accomplished last season.
And if we’re being perfectly honest, boy did that league accomplish a lot last season. By any tangible measurement, 2018 was the single greatest season in the history of SEC basketball, with a record eight teams making the NCAA Tournament, and an argument could also be made – at least by me, anyway – that on a night-in, night-out basis it was the single toughest conference in the sport. While the league didn’t produce a true national title contender (although you could argue that with the way that Villanova blitzed through the tournament there were no true “contender” other than Nova) every team was competitive, every single night. As an example, Ole Miss – which finished in last place – beat three different teams which ended up in the Big Dance. No conference in America could claim depth anywhere close to that.
Still, as good as the SEC was in 2018, the best just might be yet to come in 2019.
The league probably won’t have the top-to-bottom depth like it did a year ago, but unlike last season (where only two teams made the second weekend of the Big Dance) there are true national title contenders at the top of the league. Kentucky, Auburn and Tennessee have the goods to make it all the way to the Final Four (and beyond), and Mississippi State, LSU and Florida also have second weekend NCAA Tournament potential as well. Alabama and Vanderbilt also should compete for NCAA Tournament berths, and Missouri and Arkansas should be tough outs.
So with media day about to kick off, it’s only fair that I put out my preseason predictions. Here they are:
All-SEC First Team:
Tremont Waters, G, LSU
Bryce Brown, G, Auburn
Grant Williams, F, Tennessee
P.J. Washington, F, Kentucky
Daniel Gafford, C, Arkansas
All-SEC Freshman Team:
Darius Garland, G, Vanderbilt
Tyler Herro, G, Kentucky
Keldon Johnson, F, Kentucky
Emmitt Williams, F, LSU
Reggie Perry, F, Mississippi State
SEC Player of the Year: Tremont Waters, G, LSU
SEC Freshman of the Year: Keldon Johnson, Kentucky
1) Kentucky Wildcats
Key Returnees: Quade Green, P.J. Washington, Nick Richards, Jemarl Baker
Key Departures: Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Wenyen Gabriel, Jarred Vanderbilt
Key Additions: Immanuel Quickley, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, E.J. Montgomery, Ashton Hagans, Reid Travis (transfer)
Many would make the argument that Tennessee should begin the season atop the SEC preseason rankings – and believe me, I get it. The Vols were SEC regular season co-champs and return basically their entire team. Still, as good as the Vols were last season (and project to be in 2018-2019) they aren’t in the same stratosphere as Kentucky on paper right now.
Entering 2018-2019, Kentucky has by far the most talent in the league, and frankly, the most talent in all of college basketball. They have an absurd 10-man rotation that includes nine Top 40 recruits and basically eight McDonald’s All-Americans (by technicality, Ashton Hagans wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, but would have been if he hadn’t reclassified). And unlike previous seasons, they also have experience, with three key players returning off last year’s team. They also have Reid Travis, a two-time Pac-12 All-First Team performer, who will also set college basketball’s unofficial record for number of times being called “a grown man” by announcers this season. We’re at 348 references (rough estimate) and the season hasn’t started yet.
Still, what I like most about this Kentucky team however is their competitive fire. During their trip to the Bahamas, they not only beat teams but took their will to compete, something that I think this team will need considering they get everyone’s best shot every night.
Between the mental toughness that P.J Washington and Keldon Johnson bring (not to mention the physical skill), the physical toughness of Reid Travis, the scoring of Tyler Herro, and an improved Quade Green and Nick Richards, this feels like a team which is not only the SEC favorite, but one that should be a favorite to win the national championship as well.
2) Auburn Tigers
Key Returnees: Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Anfernee McLemore
Key Departures: Mustapha Heron (transfer)
Key Additions: Austin Wiley (suspended last season), Danjel Purifoy (suspended last season)
Reflecting back on a season ago, what Bruce Pearl did at Auburn borderline incredible. The Tigers lost two key players to season-long suspensions in the FBI probe (Wiley and Purifoy), lost Anfernee McLemore to a season-ending injury and saw Bryce Brown battle a shoulder injury all season long… and they still managed to end up as SEC regular season co-champs along with Tennessee. As I said throughout most of the season, Pearl was absolutely deserving of National Coach of the Year consideration (even if some of the Tigers’ problems were admittedly self-inflicted).
That’s also why, despite losing leading scorer Mustapha Heron (who elected to transfer to St. John’s to be with a sick family member) Auburn could in theory, be better. The simple truth is that while Heron put up solid numbers, he was also a ball-stopper and someone that hurt the flow of the Tigers’ offense rather than helping it. And if you don’t believe me, Pearl essentially confirmed the same thing this summer.
Bruce Pearl tells me that this year's Auburn team is better offensively than last season's group that won the SEC regular season title. Tigers averaged 82 PPG in 17-18.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) September 24, 2018
With better ball-movement, flow and spacing, look for even bigger seasons from Brown and Jared Harper, which is saying something considering they averaged 16 and 13 points respectively and both earned All-SEC honors. And with the returns of Purifoy and Wiley from suspension and McLemore from injury, this team will have more depth and balance as well.
Bruce Pearl’s club legit has Final Four potential.
3) Tennessee Volunteers
Key Returnees: Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowen, Jordan Bone, Kyle Alexander
Key Departures: James Daniel
Key Additions: None
Look, I get the argument that Tennessee should be the SEC favorite coming into the season. Again, they return basically every single notable player off the league’s regular season co-champs. But in getting smoked by Kentucky in the SEC title game and then losing early in the NCAA Tournament to Loyola (IL), it also kind of proves that maybe they overachieved a bit in the regular season, and that when the games mattered more, their lack of pure talent showed through.
More importantly, my bigger concern about Tennessee is this: How much better can they really get? The Vols have a bunch of third and fourth-year players who weren’t very highly-ranked recruits, and credit goes to the Tennessee coaching staff for developing the heck out of them. However, at a certain point there’s only so much developing you can do, and talent kind of taps out. I wonder if we’re about to see that this year with Tennessee.
Understand, the Vols aren’t going to be “bad,” per se. But just because they return a bunch of key pieces off last year’s team, it doesn’t necessarily make them the SEC favorites either. This will be a really good team, capable of earning as high as a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament, which is incredible for Tennessee hoops. With the right breaks they can also reach the Final Four.
But I also think they will be a step behind Kentucky and Auburn. They’re certainly good enough to repeat as SEC regular season champs. I’m just not sure they will.
4) Mississippi State Bulldogs
Key Returnees: Lamar Peters, Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Aric Holman, Abdul Ado
Key Departures: None
Key Additions: Reggie Perry, Robert Woodard
Looking at things in the big picture, this Mississippi State team really does profile a lot like Texas A&M at around this time last year. As you may (or may not) remember, the Aggies just barely missed the 2017 NCAA Tournament, but returned their whole team last fall. It resulted in a balanced and experienced club which ended up in the Top 10 in the polls early in the season, before making a run to the Sweet 16 in March.
Fast-forward to 2018-2019 and it’s hard not to look at Mississippi State the same way. Last year the Bulldogs were probably one the 68 “best” teams in college basketball – and had it not been for a miserable out of conference slate, probably would have gotten into the field of 68. Well this year Ben Howland returns his top six scorers off a 25-win team and adds McDonald’s All-American Reggie Perry to the mix as well. Quinndary Weatherspoon is a legitimate First Team All-SEC type player, and his brother Nick Weatherspoon could potentially make a leap as a sophomore after averaging just under 11 points per game last year. Forward Aric Holman is a player NBA teams have their eyes on.
Point being, Mississippi State has a whole of talent entering the season. Barring something catastrophic, the Bulldogs will make the NCAA Tournament. The bigger question is how far they’ll go once they get there.
5) LSU Tigers
Key Returnees: Tremont Waters, Skylar Mays
Key Departures: Duop Reath, Aaron Epps
Key Additions: Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams, Javonte Smart, Darius Days, Aundre Hyatt, Kavell Bigby-Williams (transfer)
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that LSU is one of the single most intriguing teams in the country entering the 2018-2019 college basketball season. Yes, LSU basketball. Thanks to a Top 3 recruiting class nationally, the Tigers will have the second most talented roster in the SEC behind only Kentucky. They also have players who are capable of winning the SEC Player of the Year (Tremont Waters) and SEC Freshman of the Year (Emmitt Williams) entering the season as well. And I haven’t even mentioned Naz Reid – a McDonald’s All-American and Top 15 recruit – who might have the best long-term NBA talent out of everyone on the roster.
Again, the Tigers are loaded.
What makes them especially interesting though is the boom/bust potential of it all. Yes they have the talent of a Top 15 team nationally, but with one of the youngest coaches in college basketball (Will Wade is just 35-years-old) and one of the youngest rosters in the country (virtually every key player will be a freshman or sophomore), it means that the Tigers’ long-term potential falls anywhere from “good enough to make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament” to “wildly disappointing, fringe tourney team.”
Still, to Wade’s credit, he was able to take the smoldering heap of garbage that Johnny Jones left behind last season and turn them into a competitive SEC team. Remember, the Tigers were picked to finish dead last in the league last year but managed an 8-10 record overall in conference games. And if Wade could do all that with no talent (other than Waters) I genuinely believe he can work wonders with real, NBA caliber players on his roster.
The Tigers are good enough to make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament and maybe even a surprise run to the Final Four. At the very least, they will be one of the most entertaining teams in college basketball on a night-in, night-out basis.
6) Florida Gators
Key Returnees: Jalen Hudson, KeVaughn Allen, Kevarrius Hayes, Keith Stone
Key Departures: Chris Chiozza, Egor Koulechov
Key Additions: Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, Keyontae Johnson
On paper, it feels like there’s a big drop-off after the first five in the SEC, but make no mistake, there are still NCAA Tournament caliber teams in the next tier as well. And it starts with the Gators. They return four of their top six scorers from last year and welcome in a loaded freshman class with three Top 100 recruits. The breakout star might be Canadian Andrew Nembhard, who could replace Chris Chiozza and start at point guard from Day 1.
More than anything though, this is a bet on Mike White. In his first second year in Gainesville, White took the Gators to the Elite Eight, and last year Florida was a play or two from the second weekend of the tournament as well. Is there anyone in college basketball who gets more out of his players, while also receiving less acclaim than White?
7) Alabama Crimson Tide
Key Returnees: John Petty, Donta Hall, Dazon Ingram, Avery Johnson Jr., Daniel Giddens, Herb Jones
Key Departures: Collin Sexton, Braxton Key
Key Additions: Tevin Mack (transfer)
Entering the 2018-2019 season, the Crimson Tide are quietly the best team in the SEC that no one is talking about.
While Alabama does lose Collin Sexton they return virtually everyone else, with nine of their Top 11 scorers back from last year’s NCAA Tournament team. That includes John Petty, a former Top 25 recruit who could be a breakout star after averaging just over 10 points per game last year. Oh by the way, Petty also set a school-record with 10 three-pointers made in a game against Alabama A&M last November. TEN!! So yes, this dude can ball. Down low, Herbert Jones and Donta Hall are both players on the NBA’s radar, and Tevin Mack could be a lights out transfer after leading Texas in scoring two seasons ago before transferring.
Ultimately there is no replacing Sexton. But the drop-off shouldn’t be as steep as some expect. For the first time in over two decades, the Crimson Tide should make back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.
8) Vanderbilt Commodores
Key Returnees: Saben Lee, Payton Willis
Key Departures: Jeff Roberson, Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis
Key Additions: Darius Garland, Simi Shittu
How you feel about Vanderbilt entering the season really does depend on how you feel about a few different things. On the one hand, they probably weren’t as bad as their 12-20 record and second to last place finish in the SEC indicates, when you factor in that they played the toughest schedule in college basketball. I mean seriously, look at their schedule. The Commodores lost to Virginia, Kansas State, Seton Hall and Arizona State in the out of conference slate (all NCAA Tournament teams) as well as USC and Middle Tennessee State, arguably the two best teams to miss the Big Dance. Oh, and there was that whole “The SEC was better than ever” thing last year as well. So yeah, you can probably see where the losses here would start to add up.
And when you factor in that the Commodores lost their three leading scorers off that 13th place team, you’d think there’d be little optimism in Nashville.
You my friend, would be wrong.
That’s because despite losing the three best players off that team, the Commodores also welcome in the single best recruiting class in school history. It’s headlined by Darius Garland, a player that some consider to the best point guard in high school basketball last year. While many see him as a potential one-and-done guy, I don’t, but think he should do enough to elevate this program into the thick of the tourney discussion this year. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had a Tremont Waters-at-LSU type impact with the Dores in 2019. Simi Shittu is another Top 15 recruit who should have an immediate success, while guard Saben Lee is this team’s top returning player after averaging just under 11 points per game last season.
I’m not sold that Vandy is a surefire, can’t miss tourney team. But they will be a tough out. And should be on the brink of the NCAA Tournament discussion by the end of the season.
9) Arkansas Razorbacks
Key Returnees: Daniel Gafford
Key Departures: Daryl Macon, Jaylen Barford, Anton Beard, C.J. Jones, Darious Hall
Key Additions: Ethan Henderson, Isaiah Joe, Reggie Chaney, Jalen Harris (transfer)
The Razorbacks are loaded with talent. The problem is all of that talent is insanely young. Daniel Gafford might be the most skilled player in the league, and will likely end up as a Top 10 draft selection in 2019. But will he have any guards to get him the ball after last year’s starting backcourt of Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford departed? That duo was part of a group of six seniors who graduated off last year’s team.
SEC basketball media day is tomorrow, which means I'm doing preview/prep work today. It also gave me an excuse to find old clips of Daniel Gafford – and GOOD LORD I forgot how awesome this guy is pic.twitter.com/38niiITMBI
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) October 16, 2018
Therefore, what the entire 2018-2019 season comes down to is how quickly the new additions develop, specifically New Mexico transfer Jalen Harris, who will take over the point guard duties. You could argue that relative to his team’s success, Harris might be the single most important player in this league. Can he run this offense? And can he create enough opportunities for others besides Gafford so that this team can have success? The pieces are there down low, where freshmen Reggie Chaney and Ethan Henderson should have immediate impact.
In the end, this Arkansas team will be young, interesting and fun to watch. Unfortunately, it feels like everyone other than Gafford is a year away from competing at the SEC level – which is bad news, since this will almost certainly be Gafford’s final season in Fayetteville. It will almost certainly end without an NCAA Tournament appearance.
10) South Carolina Gamecocks
Key Returnees: Chris Silva, Malik Kotsar, Justin Minaya, Hassani Gravett
Key Departures: Brian Bowen, Frank Booker, David Beatty
Key Additions: A.J. Lawson, T.J. Moss, Tre Campbell (transfer)
The Gamecocks fell hard and fast after their 2017 Final Four run two years ago – but should be back towards the middle of the standings this year in the SEC.
Put simply, South Carolina returns one of the most underrated players in the SEC in forward Chris Silva, who averaged 14 points per game last season – despite being the focal point of opposing team’s defenses. And he should have an easier time getting open looks this season, since opposing teams won’t be able to clog the low post and double-team him. Transfer Tre Campbell should drastically improve this team’s point guard play, which will allow last year’s primary point guard Hassani Gravett to move off the ball. Also, don’t sleep on freshman guard A.J. Lawson’s ability to put the ball in the basket. The uber-athletic Canadian doesn’t have the buzz that other freshmen like Keldon Johnson, Naz Reid or Darius Garland have entering this season, but NBA scouts believe he has a future in the league.
This is another team that’s hard to see in the NCAA Tournament picture. But again, they should be much more competitive than they were a season ago.
11) Missouri Tigers
Key Returnees: Jontay Porter, Jeremiah Tilmon, Jordan Geist, Kevin Puryear
Key Departures: Michael Porter Jr., Kassius Robertson, Jordan Barnett
Key Additions: Torrance Watson
If we’re going to give Bruce Pearl credit for battling a litany of injuries and suspensions to make Auburn competitive last season, then we should probably build Cuonzo Martin a damn statue for what he did in Year 1 at Missouri. Despite losing Michael Porter Jr. for all but a couple minutes of the entire season, despite losing two key freshmen to transfer, and despite senior Terrence Phillips getting suspended for most of the second half the year, the Tigers still managed a way to find their way into the NCAA Tournament. Again, what Martin did last season cannot be understated. He practically turned water into wine on the Missouri sideline.
At the same time, it’s hard to see him duplicating that success this year. And if there’s one team in this conference I expect to fall below expectations, it’s the Tigers.
The simple truth is this year the puzzle pieces simply don’t seem to match up well. The Tigers two best players are Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon, who are both incredibly skilled low-post players, but who basically have the same skill-set. Because of that, the loss of Kassius Robertson – a floor-spacing, three-point shooter – will be felt even more severely, with no obvious replacement on the roster. Jordan Geist is a good point guard, but hardly elite in a league with the likes of Tremont Waters, Darius Garland and others.
Again, what Cuonzo Martin did last year to get the Tigers into the NCAA Tournament shouldn’t be forgotten. It’d also be a minor miracle if he can duplicate those results this year.
12) Texas A&M Aggies
Key Returnees: Admon Gilder, Jay Jay Chandler, Savion Flagg, T.J. Starks
Key Departures: Robert Williams III, D.J. Hogg, Tyler Davis,
Key Additions: None
The Aggies had a wild up-and-down year in 2018. They started the season by crushing West Virginia and got all the way into the Top 10 of the polls… before completely falling off and playing themselves onto the NCAA Tournament bubble… then making it to the Big Dance, stunning North Carolina and advancing to the Sweet 16. If that all sounds crazy on paper, it was even wilder in person. It was a season filled with suspensions, injuries and frustration, that somehow ended with just the school’s third Sweet 16 appearance in the last 35 years.
What a time to be alive, huh?
The good news is that a lot of the headaches from the 2018 team are gone, but the bad news is, so is a lot of the talent. First round pick Robert Williams and a pair of key juniors (D.J. Hogg and Tyler Davis) have departed, and in their place is a smaller, quicker team, led by a handful of returning guards. Admon Gilder and T.J. Starks should lead what will be a much different looking Aggies squad this season.
Still, while Texas A&M won’t be as combustible off the court as it was last season, it’s hard to imagine them reaching the heights that they did on the court either. They simply don’t have the talent, especially down low, to compete with the best teams in the SEC.
Like a handful of teams in this league they seem to be a year away from being back in the NCAA Tournament picture.
13) Ole Miss Rebels
Key Returnees: Terrence Davis, Breein Tyree, Bruce Stevens, Devontae Shuler
Key Departures: DeAndre Burnett, Markel Crawford
Key Additions: Blake Hinson
Although there was nothing inherently “sexy” about bringing in Kermit Davis as this program’s head coach, credit the Ole Miss administration. He’s the man they need, the program-builder who can hopefully slowly create a contender in the tough SEC.
Unfortunately, it just doesn’t look like it’ll happen this season.
While Ole Miss does return four of its top six scorers, those players have been – for the most part – disappointing throughout their careers. Terrence Davis averaged just under 14 points per game last year, but shot just 31 percent from three-point land, and Bruce Stevens is the closest thing to a low-post threat after averaging 10 points and five rebounds last season.
Look for Ole Miss to improve throughout the season and knock off a few of the “better” teams in this league throughout the year. But it’s still hard to see them finishing anywhere other than the bottom of the standings when it’s all said and done.
Key Returnees: William Jackson, Rayshaun Hammonds, Derek Ogbeide
Key Departures: Yante Maten, Juwan Parker
Key Additions: Amanze Ngumezi, Ignas Sargiunas
Go ahead and read any preview from any major media outlet, and you’d think that Tom Crean is some combination of John Wooden, Phil Jackson and Norman Dale, descending from the heavens to revive Georgia basketball. To me, it speaks more of Crean’s ability to manipulate and create relationships with the media in his one year away from coaching than it does his actual basketball acumen. I mean, am I the only one who remembers those up-and-down years at Indiana, where the only thing consistent about the Crean era was inconsistency?
Now go ahead and take a coach who has been overrated by the media, put him together with one of the league’s worst rosters and what do you have? A team that is the clear front-runner to finish in last place as far as I’m concerned. The program’s best player – by a mile – Yante Maten is gone, and in total, the Bulldogs don’t return a single player who averaged more than eight points per game last season. Rayshaun Hammonds, a formerly highly-rated recruit could emerge, but outside him, there are no obvious guys who can compete night-in and night-out in the SEC. There also aren’t any impact recruits to hang your hat on either.
Point being, I just don’t see any reason to believe that Georgia will be anything other than the worst team in the SEC. There’s no other way to put it: It’s going to be a long year in Athens.