There’s no other way to put it, we’ve officially reached the doldrums of the college basketball off-season.
Now look, there’s obviously nothing better than what goes on from November until late March and early April. Duh. But at the same time, the college basketball off-season has slowly become an entertaining follow in its own right. Elite recruits are now waiting until late in the spring to make decisions. Transfers have created free agency in college basketball, with the best ones often waiting until early June to make their final choices on where they’ll play the following season. Then from there we get the NBA Draft (or “Graduation Night” as John Calipari calls it) and for the die-hards, even a little Summer League, where “graduation night” meets “class reunion” with so many former college hoops stars in Vegas. Recruiting helps fill our appetites until the end of July.
Then August hits.
And while all of us love football (myself certainly included), the itch to get some college basketball information never really leaves us, as we wander in the hot summer sun, looking, begging for any piece of information or story line to hold us over.
Unfortunately, today is not the day where I have a big story to share – but what I do have is an itch to talk college basketball. So I figured why not do a totally random, mid-summer SEC Basketball Power Poll? I did a ranking in May, but that was before NBA Draft decisions went final. Now that everything is final and rosters set, let’s re-visit, by ranking the 2019-2020 SEC teams season in tiers.
The Favorite: Kentucky
This isn’t going to strike anyone reading this as a surprise, but Kentucky will once again enter the season as the favorite in the league. And while some years Kentucky’s place atop the conference entering the season is up for debate (like last year when Tennessee had a legitimate claim as the top team) this year, it really doesn’t feel like there’s much argument.
In the backcourt Kentucky not only has talent, but for the first time in a long time, experience. After three straight years of having a freshman run the point the Wildcats bring back experience at that position in Ashton Hagans. Immanuel Quickley will be back in the backcourt as well, with and Tyrese Maxey arriving as a McDonald’s All-American. And while Maxey is rightfully earning “best pro prospect on the roster” buzz, don’t sleep on Hagans, who I believe can be an All-SEC type guard and another guy who moves up NBA Draft boards by the end of the season. On the wing, Kahlil Whitney and Johnny Juzang will both add athleticism to go along with Juzang’s shooting, and Keion Brooks will add depth. The front-court isn’t deep, but I personally like the versatility that EJ Montgomery and Nate Sestina bring to the table, with Nick Richards providing some much-needed rim protection. Like Hagans, I believe Montgomery could end up an All-SEC type player as a sophomore.
With all due respect to the other 13 teams in this league, to me, there is no debate. The Wildcats enter the season as the team to beat in this league.
The Clear No. 2: Florida
While I feel like there’s a gap between No. 1 Kentucky and everybody else in the league, I weirdly feel like there is also a reasonably large gap between the No. 2 team Florida, and everyone below them as well.
Now before we go any further, I do wonder if the national hype for the Gators is a bit overblown. To me they are a solid, Top 15-ish type team, but I’m not totally sure I buy the “good enough to compete for a national title” buzz. After all, Florida did lose four of its top six scorers off a squad that just barely snuck into the tournament in 2019. And the player who everyone expects to make a monumental leap (Andrew Nembhard) averaged just eight points a game a season ago. Plus, it’s not like Mike White has a crazy long track record of completely flipping over his roster and having immediate success (like say John Calipari or Coach K do).
At the same time, if those returnees make even a small step forward to go along with the new additions in Gainesville, then again, it feels like you’ve got a pretty clear-cut No. 2 team in this league. Beyond Nembhard and Noah Locke as returnees, the Gators also welcome in Scottie Lewis, who just might be the best freshman in this entire league. Tre Mann was also a McDonald’s All-American. And of course Kerry Blackshear, he of “the most coveted grad transfer on the market” fame is in Gainesville and should be the big, missing piece down low.
Again, I’m not sure Florida is “national title” good. But they are favorites to win the SEC if Kentucky somehow falters. The Gators as legit.
The Sleeper: Alabama
No, I don’t think Alabama is a legitimate SEC title contender. But I also believe that most of the national polls as sleeping on the Crimson Tide entering the season. Heck, they didn’t even make Joe Lunardi’s initial “Bracketology” which came out earlier this week.
To which I say, shame on you Joey Brackets. Shame, shame, shame.
To me the Tide are unquestionably an NCAA Tournament team and one which I believe will end up a Top 3-5 team in the SEC next year. The Tide return arguably the best SEC player no one is talking about, Kira Lewis, a player who averaged 13 points and three assists a season ago, despite being one of the youngest players in college basketball. Incredibly, Lewis didn’t even turn 18-years-old until after last season. Think he’ll be improved as a second-year guy with a year of SEC experience under his belt?
John Petty (remember him?) is also back after averaging double-figures last season and the Tide will welcome in James “Beetle” Bolden (a double remember him?) who played the last few seasons at West Virginia as a transfer. They also brought in three Top 100 prospects and there’s a chance former McDonald’s All-American Jahvon Quinerly could be eligible to play. While it’s not likely, the Villanova transfer is petitioning the NCAA for immediate eligibility.
In the end, this team probably doesn’t have quite enough size to truly be an SEC title contender. But even under first-year head coach Nate Oats, it would be surprising if they didn’t hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
Definite NCAA Tournament Teams: Auburn, LSU
Beyond those three, I believe there are two other teams that feel like all but certain NCAA Tournament locks. The Tigers of Auburn and the Tigers of LSU.
With Auburn, this will be a completely new-look team with the departures of Jared Harper, Bryce Brown and Chuma Okeke, but they actually return more than most folks realize. Samir Doughty and Austin Wiley both played big minutes last year, and Anfernee McLemore and Danjel Purifoy should take a step up after struggling last season. McLemore was returning from injury and Purifoy from a year’s-plus suspension, so both should be more comfortable on the court. J’Von McCormick played big minutes backing up Harper during the Tigers’ Final Four run last year and freshman Isaac Okoro has supposedly been impressive since arriving on campus.
Then there’s LSU, and man, has anyone had a crazier off-season than them? Think about it. I know it’s hard to remember now, but when the season ended we all kind of assumed that LSU was 1) About to get hammered by the NCAA 2) That Will Wade (who was suspended at the time) would never coach another game for the Tigers 3) That under the scope of the NCAA, and with their coach likely fired, most of their best players would leave for the NBA.
Remember all that? It really happened, and not that long ago.
Only instead, nothing came out in the FBI trials, and Wade is back. The players doubled-down and returned as well. Skylar Mays returns after earning All-SEC second-team honors a season ago, and while so much of the conversation around Javonte Smart centered around drama (you know, the whole “big ass offer” thing) keep in mind that when Smart was on the court, he was actually pretty good. Most notably, when Tremont Waters went down with injury he dropped 29 points in a win against Tennessee that helped the Tigers win the SEC title.
Add in Emmitt Williams and Trendon Watford and the Tigers will again be loaded (insert your own
“yeah it’s because they’ve got a bigger payroll than the Charlotte Hornets” comment here). And they’ll be back in the NCAA Tournament come March.
Should Be Tourney Team: Tennessee and Mississippi State
Admittedly I’m a bit higher than most on the Vols, even after they lost the core of the best team in recent program history. Yes, Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone and Grant Williams are gone. But if you watched the Vols last year, you know that Lamonte Turner was an underrated piece for them. Jordan Bowden was – in certain games – the best player on the floor for the Vols. When you add in McDonald’s All-American Josiah Jordan-James that feels like the core of an NCAA Tournament team to me.
It’s much the same at Mississippi State, where the Bulldogs lost program bedrock Quinndary Weatherspoon and second-leading scorer Lamar Peters, but still bring back a bunch of pieces. The most notable is big man Reggie Perry, who declared for the NBA Draft before removing his name, returning to Mississippi State and then going on an absolute tear as a member of Team USA’s U-19 national team this summer. He led them in scoring and rebounding on the way to helping the Americans win a gold medal.
If you’re looking for a dark horse SEC Player of the Year candidate, Perry is it.
Bubble Team: Ole Miss
Quick pop quiz for you: Of the eight players who were named All-SEC first team last season only one returned to school.
Any guesses who it is?
If you said “PJ Washington” well, you’re an idiot. He actually declared for the draft and was a lottery pick.
No, the answer was Ole Miss’s Breein Tyree!
Look, I’m not going to sit here and give you a thorough way too early breakdown of Ole Miss hoops because, well… it’s Ole Miss hoops. But they completely overachieved last year, bring back one of the best players in the league (Tyree averaged 19 points a game last season) and are really well-coached by Kermit Davis.
They did lose other pieces, so it isn’t a home run they’ll make it back to the Big Dance. But they should spend most of the year on the bubble.
Proooooooooobably not on the bubble, but keep an eye on them: Arkansas
You all know I believe in Eric Musselman, but this ranking has nothing to do with Muss. What it does have to do with is this: The Razorbacks lost Daniel Gafford off last year’s team. Buuuuuuuut, they return their next six top scorers from a season ago, and added a couple of nice grad transfers.
Keep in mind that last season the Hogs were right on the bubble, right up until the week of the SEC Tournament.
I’m not betting on them to make the Big Dance. But considering that they bring back most of their key pieces and will be much better coached under Musselman, I don’t think it’s inconceivable either.
The Total Wild Card: Georgia
We all know what this comes down to: If you believe in Georgia, it means that you believe that Anthony Edwards can put this program on his back and lead it to the NCAA Tournament. If you don’t believe in the Bulldogs it’s because, well, you’ve seen Tom Crean in action before.
As someone who loves college basketball, I’ve just seen the “freshman comes in to save the program” narrative fall flat on its face one too many times. I saw it at Washington with Markelle Fultz. At NC State with Dennis Smith Jr. And at LSU with Ben Simmons. There are times where that narrative works (Lonzo Ball’s season at UCLA for example – but even then, UCLA returned a bunch of really good veterans). But more often than not, the highly-touted freshman class crashes and burns.
Therefore, if you believe in Georgia what you believe is two things: One, that Edwards will buck recent history and do something that neither Simmons nor Fultz (who ended up being the No. 1 pick in their respective drafts could do). And two, that Tom Crean will buck recent history as well – we all know that he does his best work with scrappy, veteran teams. Not young ones filled with one and done guys.
Could Georgia make the tournament? Of course. But I’m just not going to be the one to bet on it.
Just Not a Factor At All: Missouri, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt
Missouri returns a bunch of interesting pieces, and of this group, I could see them coming closest to being better than expected and making a run to the middle of the pack in the SEC. But man, there are just a lot of teams that they would have to jump to get into serious NCAA Tournament consideration.
South Carolina returns a sneaky first round NBA Draft pick type talent in A.J. Lawson, just not a ton around him.
Texas A&M just has a whole bunch of dudes, but no real standouts. Buzz Williams will get it figured out, but I’m just not sure it’ll be this season.
And then there is Vanderbilt and well, better luck next year Jerry Stackhouse.
It’s going to a fun season in the SEC.
And remember: While we’re all focused on football, don’t forget basketball season is less than 100 days away!