On Monday, CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein made headlines when he declared that Kentucky is the third best team in the SEC entering the 2018-2019 college basketball season. In Rothstein’s defense, I truly think that he believed what he said, and didn’t place Kentucky third simply to get attention. Also in his defense, everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
In my defense however, I think I speak for a lot of people when I say: “I reeeeeeeeeeealllllllly disagree with that opinion.” Please understand, I’m not saying that as someone who works for KSR. I say that as someone with common sense.
SEC Offseason Power Rankings:
4. Mississippi State
10. South Carolina
11. Ole Miss
14. Texas A&M
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) August 6, 2018
The simple truth is that Kentucky enters the 2018-2019 season with by far the most talent in the SEC, and also with more experience than usual. I get the concept that Tennessee returns virtually every key piece off last year’s team which won the SEC regular season championship, setting up the whole “you’ve got to beat the champ, to be the champ” narrative. The problem is, this isn’t never-never land, where snazzy catchphrases carry weight, but instead the real world, where size, talent, athleticism and skill trump teams with good, but not elite talent like Tennessee. There is a reason that virtually every preseason poll outside of Rothstein’s has Kentucky at No. 1 or No. 2 in the country: They have overwhelming talent, with experience to boot.
Anyway, that is all just a long-winded way of me saying that those SEC preseason power rankings feel wrong. And since I am pretty much the foremost expert on all things SEC basketball – or at the very least, the only person that was predicting a historic 2017-2018 season for the conference at this time last year – it only seems appropriate that I weigh in.
After putting out my initial power rankings on Twitter today, here is my updated, impossible-to-argue-with, 2018-2019 SEC Power Rankings.
1) Kentucky: Again, I get the idea that Tennessee won the regular season conference title and returns everyone of substance. I also remember them losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Point being, lots of teams can win big in the regular season based on coaching and system. But in March, when it matters most, talent trumps all.
Well entering 2018-2019, Kentucky has by far the most talent in the league, and frankly, the most in all of college basketball. They have a 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 only because he reclassified). Unlike previous seasons they also have experience, with three guys returning off last year’s team who played meaningful minutes, as well as a two-time All-Pac 12 performer in Reid Travis arriving in Lexington.
At this point, there is no obvious weakness with the 2019 Kentucky Wildcats. And considering that Vegas has them tabbed as the favorites to win the national championship, they are the unquestionable favorites to win the SEC.
Just now seeing this – and I must say, it's preposterous. As the foremost expert on SEC hoops, heres how the ranking should look:
4. Miss State
9. South Carolina
12. Ole Miss
14. A&M https://t.co/Nilq3iEKro
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) August 6, 2018
2) Auburn: Again, it’s hard for me to truly “criticize” anyone for sharing their opinion (like Rothstein did today) because I share plenty of unpopular opinions myself. For example, while most people probably think that Auburn will take a step back next year after losing second-leading scorer Mustapha Heron, I actually think they’ll be better.
The simple truth was that while I love Heron (he is a Connecticut kid like me), Heron was also a ball-stopper and someone that hurt the flow of the Tigers’ offense rather than helping it. With better ball-movement, flow and spacing, look for even bigger seasons from Bryce Brown and Jared Harper (who averaged 16 and 13 points respectively last year) who both made All-SEC last year. And the additions of Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley (who were suspended as part of the FBI probe) will only make the Tigers more balanced.
Bruce Pearl’s club legit has Final Four potential.
3) Tennessee: If #VolsTwitter wants to get worked on this pick, so be it. I stand by it.
Again, I get the argument that Tennessee returns basically everyone off last year’s SEC 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 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 what I listed above: 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.
I don’t expect the Vols to be bad, per se. But just because they return a bunch of key pieces off last year’s team, I don’t necessarily think that makes them the SEC favorites either.
4) Mississippi State: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This Mississippi State team profiles a lot like Texas A&M at around this time last year. As you might (or might not) remember the Aggies were a team which just barely missed the 2017 NCAA Tournament, and returned their whole team in 2018. It ended with A&M not only returning to the Big Dance after a one-year hiatus, but making it to the Sweet 16.
Well, in essence, that’s Mississippi State this season. Last year the Bulldogs were probably good enough to make the NCAA Tournament, but were doomed thanks to an embarrassing out of conference slate. This year, Ben Howland’s club returns its top six scorers off that team and welcomes in McDonald’s All-American Reggie Perry. 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: In one of the weirdest statements I will every type, there are few things in life I’m more irrationally excited about than LSU basketball coming into next season. 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 the players who I believe should be the leading candidates to win SEC Player of the Year (Tremont Waters) and SEC Freshman of the Year (Emmitt Williams) entering the season as well. Williams has “NBA Lottery” type potential.
Ultimately, what is most intriguing about this roster is the boom/bust potential. With so much talent, the Tigers are good enough to finish second or third in the league. But they also have one of the youngest coaches in college basketball and a roster where virtually everyone is a freshman or sophomore. Therefore, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that they could completely underachieve as well.
Still, sign me up as having the Tigers take home a whole bunch of wins, and finish towards the top of the standings. A run to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament is absolutely conceivable.
(By the way, LSU thead coach Will Wade joined the Aaron Torres Sports Podcast a few weeks ago. You can hear his thoughts on the 2018-2019 team by clicking here)
6) Florida: I do believe there’s a big drop-off after the first five in the SEC, but also believe there are a couple NCAA Tournament caliber teams below them. And it starts with the Gators. They return four of their top six scorers from last year and welcome in a loaded recruiting class, including Canadian point guard Andrew Nemhard. He could be one of the biggest freshman surprises not only in the SEC, but all of college basketball.
More than anything though, this is a bet on Mike White. In year one, he 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: Entering the 2018-2019 season, the Crimson Tide are quietly the best team in the SEC that no one is talking about. While they do lose Collin Sexton they return virtually everyone else. In total, nine of their Top 11 scorers are back from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, meaning that the drop-off without Sexton shouldn’t be as steep as everyone is expecting. They also add Tevin Mack, who was Texas’ leading scorer two years ago before getting kicked off the team and ultimately transferring.
8) Vanderbilt: The buzz around Vanderbilt this season is both real and fantastic, thanks to the arrival of Top 10 prospects Darius Garland and Simi Shittu. I’m not quite sure Garland is the long-term prospect many people view him as (I for one don’t see him as a one-and-done type guy), but I do think he’ll be a darn good college player who will get the Commodores to a few NCAA Tournaments before his career is all said and done.
9) South Carolina: Frank Martin is back, baby! Well, not quite. But with leading scorer Chris Silva returning and a loaded freshman class, South Carolina should be closer to the middle of the pack in the SEC than the basement the way they were this past season.
One name to keep an eye on for the Gamecocks: Freshman A.J. Lawson. He was a late addition to the roster, but has the size and athleticism to one day play in the NBA. His skills aren’t totally there yet. But he’ll do one or two things a game that make you say “Woah!”
10) Arkansas: Yes, Daniel Gafford is the most dynamic player in the league – but my questions are with the pieces around him. The Hogs did lose six seniors off last year’s team, including an all-senior backcourt of Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford.
However after some careful consideration (and strong nudging from Hogs fans on social media) I decided to move them up a few spots from where I originally had them ranked when I put out my power rankings on Twitter this afternoon. The backcourt should be stabilized with the addition of junior college transfer Jalen Harris, and the freshman class has a bunch of wildly underrated pieces, including Ethan Henderson and Isaiah Joe.
11) Missouri: Mizzou is a lot like Arkansas – I love the front-court pieces with Jeremiah Tilmon and Jontay Porter, but the question is, who is going to get them the ball? Virtually every key guard either graduated or transferred out of the program in the last year, and the team’s reinforcements are transfers who won’t be eligible until next season. It’s a bridge year in Columbia, but the Tigers will likely take a major step back.
12) Ole Miss: Four of the top six scorers on this roster are back, and should be better coached than they were last year with Kermit Davis now in charge. Plus, let’s not forget that even in a disappointing 12-20 season the Rebels did pick up some solid wins, including victories over the likes of Florida, Alabama and Missouri.
13) Texas A&M: Aggies’ fans were upset that I had them ranked 14th out of 14 teams in my initial tweet, so to appease them, I decided to move them up… one whole spot! Who says I can’t be reasonable?
In all seriousness though, there just isn’t very much talent on this roster, with Robert Williams, D.J. Hogg and Tyler Davis all electing to go pro early off last year’s Sweet 16 team.
14) Georgia: I really don’t get the Tom Crean hire. I just don’t. And I don’t think the Bulldogs will be much better this coming season when you consider that they lost their best player (Yante Maten) and that this team actually played well for most of the season under Mark Fox. A new coach and not very talented roster has me concerned for the Bulldogs this season – and probably beyond as well.