We’re still only in the first full week of May, over 200 players have declared for the NBA Draft with many set to return to school, and recruiting decisions are still being made, but we are looking on finding out where to get the best players and I think the place to look is HOOPSBEAST they are great at the job of training players for basketball.
Thankfully, I’m not just anyone in the media – and I won’t be deterred by a simple thing like “hundreds of kids still deciding whether or not they’ll come back to college or not.” Instead, I’m going to give you what America wants… what they need, dammit, a Way Too Early 2019-2020 SEC basketball preview.
Now again, to be clear, this is a Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay Too Early look at the season ahead. Virtually every single program in the conference has at least one player who is currently “testing” the NBA Draft waters and may eventually return (May 29th is the deadline to withdraw). And there are still several high school basketball stars that have yet to make college decisions. Many could end up at SEC schools like Johnny Juzang (Kentucky), RJ Hampton (Kentucky) and Trendon Watford (LSU).
Still, below our best look at a Way (WAY) Too Early SEC Power Ranking for the 2019-2020 season. Please note, that any player with an asterisk (*) next to their names are players that are currently testing the NBA Draft waters. We did our best to speculate who will come back (like say, Kentucky’s E.J. Montgomery) and who will stay in the draft (Jared Harper, Grant Williams, Tremont Waters) etc. but again, these are speculations. However, if it feels like a guy will stay in the draft (think “Jared Harper”) then I have left them off next year’s roster. I’ve also included recruits who are projected to go to SEC schools but haven’t yet committed as part of next year’s projections as well. That includes Juzang at Kentucky and Watford at LSU.
Ok, enough fluff, let’s get to our Wayyyyy Too Early SEC Power Ranking:
1) Kentucky Wildcats
Key Returnees: Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, E.J. Montgomery*, Nick Richards*
Key Departures: PJ Washington, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro
Key Additions: Tyrese Maxey, Kalil Whitney, Keion Brooks, Dontaie Allen, Johnny Juzang*, Nate Sestina (grad transfer)
With E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards still testing the draft process, it’s impossible to know exactly what the Wildcats will look like next season. But even if both stay in the draft (which isn’t expected) Kentucky will still have the most talent in the SEC. Ashton Hagans has a chance to emerge as a true, All-SEC type point guard, and Immanuel Quickley is going to get buckets for the Wildcats – whether it’s off the bench or in the starting rotation. Tyrese Maxey and Kalil Whitney should both have an immediate impact for the Wildcats, and so too will Juzang, who I am projecting will eventually end up in Lexington.
Still, the goal in Lexington isn’t to be “good in the SEC” but to “compete for national championships” and that’s where both Montgomery and Richards come in. Should they return, Montgomery has a chance to a First-Team All-SEC type guy, and Richards will play a crucial role as rim-protector and shot blocker.
Since both are projected to come back, I am putting them here. And Kentucky will be a heavy favorite going into the SEC next season.
2) Auburn Tigers
Key Returnees: Samir Doughty, Austin Wiley, Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore, J’Von McCormick
Key Departures: Bryce Brown, Horace Spencer, Malik Dunbar, Jared Harper*, Chuma Okeke*
Key Additions: Isaac Okoro, Tyrell Jones, Jaylin Williams
To reiterate what I said up top, Jared Harper has declared for the draft, and told everyone willing to listen that he plans on staying in. His loss is obviously devastating for the Tigers, as he and Bryce Brown (who graduated) were the heart and soul of that team last season. It also goes without saying that it would completely change Auburn’s entire 2019-2020 projection if he returns. But right now, there is no reason to think he will.
However, even with Harper gone, the top of the SEC isn’t quite as good as it was this past year. And with a couple key returnees, the Tigers have a chance to again be among the favorites in the league.
At point guard, look for J’Von McCormick to replace some of Harper’s production, after he emerged down the stretch late for the Tigers. Samir Doughty is back as a semi-go-to scorer in the backcourt, Danjel Purifoy played well after returning from injury and Anfernee McLemore and Austin Wiley will be back in the post.
Outside of Harper, the big question is the status of Chuma Okeke. Okeke played his way into consideration as a first round NBA Draft pick before his NCAA Tournament injury, and now has a tough decision to make. We’re projecting him to stay in the draft, but if he comes back, he becomes a versatile piece and probably the Tigers’ best player when he does eventually return from injury.
3) Alabama Crimson Tide
Key Returnees: Kira Lewis, John Petty, Tevin Mack*
Key Departures: Dazon Ingram, Riley Norris, Donta Hall, Daniel Giddens
Key Additions: Juwan Gary, Jaylen Forbes, Jaden Shackleford, Raymond Hawkins, James “Beetle” Bolden (transfer)
This may seem insanely high for Alabama, a team which didn’t make the NCAA Tournament last year and also lost its coach in the off-season. But hear me out, because I do think the Crimson Tide will be really good in 2019-2020.
For starters, the Crimson Tide were a bubble team that nearly played its way into the NCAA Tournament a season ago, so even an incrementally better step gets them into the NCAA Tournament. And I think they’ll be better coached with the arrival of Nate Oats from Buffalo (after all, you don’t get Buffalo into the Top 25 nationally all season long by accident).
More importantly, no coach in the SEC had a bigger April than Oats. He convinced the Tide’s two best players – Kira Lewis and John Petty – to return after both considered transferring, giving the Tide one of the best starting backcourts in the entire conference. He has also kept Johnson’s entire recruiting class intact, which includes three Top 100 prospects. The icing on the top might be the arrival of West Virginia transfer James “Beetle” Bolden, who averaged double figures with the Mountaineers last season and is eligible right away.
That’s not to say that there won’t be a learning curve for Oats and his team. But few teams can combine returning talent and a solid recruiting class like the Crimson Tide can.
4) Florida Gators
Key Returnees: Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, Keyontae Johnson
Key Departures: KeyVaughn Allen, Kevarrius Hayes, Jalen Hudson, Keith Stone (transfer)
Key Additions: Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann, Omar Payne
Florida had some growing pains last season, but when it clicked, it clicked for the Gators, who eventually made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament after knocking off Nevada.
Now, that excitement turns to optimism heading into 2019-2020. The Gators return a couple key pieces in the backcourt in Andrew Nembhard and Noah Locke, after each emerged late last season. They also add a loaded recruiting class that includes Scottie Lewis, one of the most ready-made high school players in the country. Don’t be surprised if he ends up as SEC Freshman of the Year next season. Tre Mann was ranked as a Top 15 prospect in 247 Sports’ final rankings as well.
Still, the one hold-up is down low, where the Gators are woefully thin. If they can somehow convince Kerry Blackshear Jr. to bypass the NBA Draft and bypass other college options (most notably Kentucky and Texas A&M), the Gators are the for-sure second best team in the SEC next season. If they can’t (and right now I’m not projecting Blackshear to Florida), Florida is plenty talented, but also lacking big bodies down low to compete with the best teams in this league, let alone the best nationally.
5) Tennessee Volunteers
Key Returnees: Jordan Bowden, Lamonte Turner, Jon Fulkerson, Yves Pons
Key Departures: Admiral Schofield, Kyle Alexander, Grant Williams*, Jordan Bone*
Key Additions: Josiah James
The Vols are quite possibly the hardest team in the SEC to project at this exact moment. We know that Admiral Schofield is gone to graduation, and both Grant Williams and Jordan Bone are testing the waters. In an ironic twist, Williams – the two-time reigning SEC Player of the Year – seems more likely to come back than Bone, even though Williams is projected to go higher. Bone seems intent on staying in the draft, even though he isn’t projected to get drafted at all by some outlets.
Therefore, for the purposes of this article, I’ll assume that both stay in the draft (if Williams is getting first round feedback it just doesn’t seem likely he’ll return to school). And if they do, it leaves the Vols with some nice pieces, but not necessarily “SEC championship” caliber type roster. Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden will lead the way, and to their credit, both can be really good Tennessee next year. Heck, there were nights this past season where both were the best player on the floor for Tennessee. The Vols also have the anticipated arrival of Josiah James, a McDonald’s All-American. The problem is that there just isn’t all that much depth behind them.
Still, it all comes down to the decisions of Williams and Bone. Return both and the Vols are a legit Top 5 team nationally coming into next season and the co-favorites along with Kentucky in the SEC. If one returns, they’re still in the mix at the top of the SEC, and probably the second-best team. Without them – where we currently project the Vols – Tennessee is a solid, top-end of the SEC squad. But they aren’t elite.
6) Mississippi State Bulldogs
Key Returnees: Tyson Carter, Nick Weatherspoon, Robert Woodard, Abdul Abo, Reggie Perry*
Key Departures: Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters, Aric Holman
Key Additions: Elias King, Prince Oduro (transfer)
Coming into the off-season we knew the Bulldogs would lose do-everything point guard Quinndary Weatherspoon, and shortly after the season ended, Ben Howland announced that the team’s second-leading scorer, Lamar Peters will declare for, and stay in the draft as well. It leaves the Bulldogs with a lot of interesting pieces, and now it’s up to Howland to mold them together.
It starts in the backcourt, where it looks like Nick Weatherspoon will be back to run the offense after a late-season suspension, and Tyson Carter is back too after averaging 10 points per game last season. Robert Woodard and Abdul Abo are both guys who played big minutes this year and could make a leap next season.
Still, the key piece here is Reggie Perry. The former McDonald’s All-American emerged into a real threat down low late for the Bulldogs, averaging 10 points and seven rebounds per game. He isn’t projected to be drafted by most mocks, and because of it, I’m projecting him to return. With him, the Bulldogs would have a legit 6-7 man rotation that can hang with anyone in the SEC, and a potential All-SEC First-Team type player down low in Perry. If Perry doesn’t return, expect Mississippi State to tumble a few spots.
7) Ole Miss Rebels
Key Returnees: Devontae Shuler, Blake Hinson, K.J. Buffen, Dominik Olejniczak, Breein Tyree*
Key Departures: Terence Davis, Bruce Stevens, D.C. Davis
Key Additions: Austin Crowley
It was a stunningly successful first season for Kermit Davis in Oxford, as the Rebels went from last place in the SEC in 2018 to an NCAA Tournament berth in 2019. And depending on how a couple things play out over the next few months, it certainly seems feasible that they could make a return appearance to the Big Dance in 2020.
The Rebels do lose two of their top three scorers (Terence Davis and Bruce Stevens) but return a couple key pieces, including Devontae Shuler, who had a breakout sophomore campaign after averaging 10 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. Blake Hinson and K.J. Buffen both played well as freshmen and could make the leap next season.
Still, everything hinges on Breein Tyree, who was the team’s leading scorer at 18 points per game last season. Unlike a few guys on this list, Tyree isn’t expected to be drafted, so he should return. Assuming he does, he could compete for SEC Player of the Year honors, and the Rebels should make back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time since 2002.
8) Arkansas Razorbacks
Key Returnees: Isaiah Joe, Jalen Harris, Mason Jones, Adrio Bailey, Reggie Chaney, Gabe Osabuohien, Desi Sills
Key Departures: Daniel Gafford, Keyshawn Embery-Simpson
Key Additions: Jeantal Cylla (grad transfer)
So I saw another “Way Too Early” SEC Power Ranking that had Arkansas sitting at the bottom of the conference, and I honestly just don’t get it. It’s early, but I see no reason that the Hogs won’t be able to compete with just about everyone in the league (excluding maybe the top team or two) and potentially play themselves into NCAA Tournament consideration late.
Let’s just think about it. While Arkansas does lose its best player (Daniel Gafford), they return just about everyone else from a team that finished 18-16, 8-10 in SEC play and was in bubble consideration until early March. That includes sharp-shooting Isaiah Joe (who averaged 13 points per game last season) and point guard Jalen Harris who averaged seven points and six assists a year ago. The Hogs have also added Jeantal Cylla, a grad transfer from UNC-Wilmington, and with Eric Musselman’s track record, you can be sure he’ll add another impact transfer or two before the cycle is over.
So take a team that was a fringe bubble team until late in the season, give them a core that’s a year older, and a coach that will push them harder than the previous staff (and as someone who has sat in Musselman’s practices, I can promise you he will), this to me feels a team that could surprise some people in the SEC next season.
9) LSU Tigers
Key Returnees: Darius Days, Marlon Taylor, Aundre Hyatt, Courtese Cooper
Key Departures: Tremont Waters*, Skylar Mays*, Naz Reid*, Emmitt Williams*, Javonte Smart*, Kavell Bigby-Williams*
Key Additions: Charles Manning, Trendon Watford*
You know how I said earlier that Tennessee was “the hardest team to predict right now in the SEC?” Yeah, I was wrong. It’s LSU. The Tigers could legitimately finish anywhere from the top 2-3 in the league to the bottom 2-3 in the league depending on how things go these next few months.
Even if we put aside’s Will Wade’s status (and considering that information could emerge that leads to his firing at literally any point, it’s kind of hard to do that), LSU still has five players who’ve declared for the draft. But while it’s realistic that only one (Naz Reid) could drafted, it’s also realistic that the other four could all choose to play professional basketball next year. Seriously, does LSU even want them back with a pending NCAA investigation looming? The answer is probably not.
Therefore, while it’s possible that a couple of them could return, and that LSU could be back in the mix at the top of the SEC, we have to assume that none will. And if none of them do come back it means that Marlon Taylor (who averaged 6.7 points per game last season) will be LSU’s leading returning scorer. Darius Days is the only other returnee who got any serious minutes besides Taylor. To Wade’s credit, he also had two well-respected recruits (Aundre Hyatt and Courtese Cooper) redshirting this past season, and it also seems like LSU will be the eventual landing spot for McDonald’s All-American Trendon Watford as well.
So the Tigers won’t be terrible, and there is one more thing to consider: For all the questions that people continue to ask about how Wade put together last year’s roster (justifiably, I might add), I don’t think we gave him enough credit for how well he coached that team last season. While it’s fair to question Will Wade “the dude” based on what we know, we need to accept that “Will Wade the coach” knows what he’s doing. Because of it, even with a short-handed roster, I believe the Tigers will be better than many realize next season.
10) Georgia Bulldogs
Key Returnees: Rayshaun Hammonds, Tyree Crump, Jordan Harris, Teshaun Hightower
Key Departures: Nic Claxton*, Derek Ogbeide
Key Additions: Anthony Edwards, Christian Brown, Jaykwon Walton, Toumani Camara
I guarantee that this will be lower than virtually anyone else has Georgia in preseason SEC rankings coming into next year, and you know what? I don’t care. I try to always be honest with people who read my work (or listen to my podcasts and radio shows) and here’s the honest truth: Even with one of the top recruiting classes in the country, and a possible All-American in Anthony Edwards, I’m just not sold the Bulldogs will be super-successful next season.
There are a few reasons why.
One, as good as the freshmen are, the Bulldogs could lose their best returning player, Nic Claxton. Claxton led the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots last season and is quietly garnering buzz as a late first round draft prospect. I’d expect him to stay in the draft.
And assuming Claxton does stay in the draft, what reason do we have to believe that Tom Crean is the guy to maximize the abilities of a bunch of talented freshmen? We see year-in and year-out that teams led by freshmen struggle, and Crean is known as a guy who has had better success developing 3-4 year players who were under-recruited (like Dwyane Wade and Victor Oladipo) than getting a bunch of big-time freshmen, and letting them ball out. So what makes anyone think that will change next season?
Look, I’ll readily admit that Anthony Edwards is going to be a star for the Bulldogs. And I’ll be happy to move the Bulldogs up a spot or two if Claxton returns. Otherwise, I just don’t feel like they’re an NCAA Tournament caliber team next season.
11) Missouri Tigers
Key Returnees: Mark Smith, Javon Pickett, Torrance Watson, Xavier Pinson, Reed Niko, Mitchell Smith, Jeremiah Tilmon*
Key Departures: Jordan Geist, Kevin Puryear, Jontay Porter, Jeremiah Tilmon*
Key Additions: Tray Jackson, Dru Smith (transfer)
Like so many teams on this list, Missouri’s hopes next season hinge on the return of a player testing the draft waters. That player is Jeremiah Tilmon, who averaged 10 points and six rebounds per game last season. Those numbers might not jump out, but Tilmon is basically the only low-post player with experience expected to return next year.
Yes, the perimeter is loaded, and Mark Smith is a guy who could emerge as a star in this league. Javon Pickett and Torrance Watson both could make a leap as well, and Dru Smith gets eligible after sitting out last season after transferring from Evansville.
But still, it all hinges on Tilmon. With him, Missouri probably plays itself into the NCAA Tournament conversation next season. Without him, they’re a good, guard-oriented team that will be fun to watch, but probably not a tourney threat.
12) Texas A&M Aggies
Key Returnees: TJ Starks, Wendell Mitchell, Jay Jay Chandler, Josh Nebo, Savion Flagg*
Key Departures: Admon Gilder, Christian Mekowulu
Key Additions: Quenton Jackson, Cashius McNeilly, Andre Gordon
Hot take: I don’t think that Buzz Williams first year at Texas A&M will be a total disaster. Much like Arkansas and Eric Musselman, the Aggies return a lot of key pieces including Wendell Mitchell and T.J. Starks, who both played big roles last season. It also feels likely that Savion Flagg, the team’s leading returning scorer and rebounder returns, as he is currently testing the NBA Draft process. And to his credit, Williams has also hit the recruiting trail hard and picked up the commitments of four players since he arrived, most notably Cashius McNeilly, a four-star recruit in the class of 2020, who is expected to eventually reclassify to 2019.
So yeah, things won’t be perfect for Williams next season in College Station. But with a few nice returning pieces, a solid recruiting class, and improved coaching, they will likely be a little bit better than expected as well.
13) South Carolina Gamecocks
Key Returnees: Keyshawn Bryant, Maik Kotsar, Jair Bolden, Justin Minaya, Alanzo Frink, AJ Lawson*
Key Departures: Chris Silva, Hassani Gravett, Tre Campbell, Felipe Haase,
Key Additions: Jalyn McCreary
The Gamecocks lost leading scorer and rebounder Chris Silva and guard Hassani Gravett to graduation so it’s already going to be an uphill battle for Frank Martin’s club. It also means that – like so many teams in this conference – the success and failure of 2019-2020 will largely hinge on the “stay or go” decision of a player currently testing the draft waters.
That player is A.J. Lawson, who was sneaky good as a freshman, after averaging 13 points per game and earning All-SEC Freshmen honors. Unlike so many who are testing the waters, he also has a legitimately tough decision to make. Lawson is a most-definite NBA prospect and someone who could get drafted this year – or could return and be a potential first round pick by the time the 2020 draft rolls around if he improves.
The Gamecocks have some nice pieces returning (Keyshawn Bryant, Jair Bolden) but so much of their success hinges on whether or not Lawson is back.
14) Vanderbilt Commodores
Key Returnees: Saben Lee, Aaron Nesmith, Max Evans
Key Departures: Darius Garland, Simi Shittu*, Matt Ryan, Joe Toye, Yanni Wetzel
Key Additions: Dylan Disu, Scotty Pippen Jr., Kenyon Martin Jr.
On the one hand, when you go 0-18 in SEC play and lose your two best players to the NBA Draft (Darius Garland and Simi Shittu) it’s hard to get too excited about the season ahead for Vanderbilt. On the flip side, while I didn’t agree with firing Bryce Drew, I will say that Jerry Stackhouse has done just about everything he can to turn things around, during his one month in Nashville.
To Stackhouse’s credit he convinced most of the key pieces who could leave Vanderbilt to stay, with Saben Lee (12.7 points per game last year) and Aaron Nesmith (11 ppg) both announcing their return. And Stackhouse has also successfully re-recruited Drew’s two best recruits, Dylan Disu and Scotty Pippen Jr. They also added Kenyon Martin Jr. over the past weekend.
In the end, this will still be a team that lacks depth and size. But as bad as things got last year, they should be at least a little bit better in 2019-2020.