We are nearing the end of June, life is (hopefully for most of you) returning to a sense of normalcy, and let’s be honest: From strictly a sports perspective, there just really isn’t all that much to talk about. Yet for the lack of content at this exact moment, things are coming quickly. There are right around 75 days to the start of college football season, and after that, basketball won’t be far behind.
Meaning that even though summer technically just began a day or two ago, it’s never too early to look ahead to the start of the 2020-2021 college hoops season.
Yet what’s so wild about looking ahead is that so much still has to be determined. There are something like 70 players still testing the NBA Draft process, with key programs like Gonzaga, Baylor, Tennessee and Arkansas still waiting on final word from key players. The transfer portal still has a few big players who could change teams with their commitments, and many more (cough, Olivier Sarr, cough) are waiting on waivers. Heck, the NBA Draft just randomly decided to change its draft rules over the weekend, which could alter things even more.
So yes, there is a lot to be determined. But still, the show must go on! Which it will today.
With a mere 141 days until the start of the college basketball season, let’s look at what we know about Kentucky’s 2020-2021 opponents right now, and what still needs to be determined.
We went through Kentucky’s out of conference opponents a few weeks ago, which you can read about here. Today, we will look at what we know about Kentucky’s fellow SEC brethren here in late June.
One quick note before we start: Since we don’t know dates for games or what final rosters will look like, I am putting Kentucky’s SEC opponents in alphabetical order below. To be abundantly clear, this is not a power ranking or prediction on where these teams will be come November. Just who they are now, and who they could be by the time the season kicks off.
Let’s take a look at these teams:
Many (myself included) projected Alabama as an NCAA Tournament team prior to the start of the 2019-2020 season. And while that didn’t quite work out, it’s hard to deny that Nate Oats established a “brand” in Year 1 in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide played fast-pace, high-octane, three-point heavy basketball a year ago. On a positive note, it allowed them to finish first in the SEC and third nationally in scoring. Unfortunately, it also led them to finish 333rd nationally and last in the SEC in points allowed.
So yeah, Alabama obviously needs to improve its defense just a tiny bit this season. But assuming they do, the Tide could be a problem in the SEC. Mainly because they might have better personnel to run their system this year than they did a year ago.
Former McDonald’s All-American Jahvon Quinerly will take over at the point guard spot, alongside Top 30 recruit Josh Primo and sophomore Jaden Shackleford in the backcourt. In the front court, the Tide have Herb Jones and Yale grad transfer Jordan Bruner, two rim running big men who perfectly fit this system as well.
Part of the Tide’s ceiling still depends on whether John Petty returns to school for another season or not. But even without him this team has the talent to make a run to the NCAA Tournament. Again, as long as the defense improves.
(To listen to my off-season interview with Nate Oats, click below)
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman came to college hoops from the pro game, and almost treats his program like a pro team, accumulating talent from a variety of sources. I say that to bring up this incredible fact: After taking over the program just last April, there are only two players that he inherited (Desi Sills and Ethan Henderson) who are still on the roster. A third, Isaiah Joe, is currently testing the draft process.
To replace all the graduations and other departures, the Hogs have 10 – count ’em, 10 – guys on this year’s roster who didn’t play for the Hogs last season. It’s a group which includes three transfers who sat out last season, three grad transfers who signed this off-season and four high school players which comprise one of the Top 10 recruiting classes in the country.
The question now, how quickly they come together?
The good news is that Musselman now has a track record of success despite that rapid roster turnover, winning an average of 27 games per year at Nevada, before going 19-12 in Year 1 at Arkansas. It’s worth noting that the Hogs were actually 18-7 overall when they had a fully healthy roster a season ago.
Therefore, it’s probably safe to assume that Arkansas is a tourney caliber team, and the only question becomes how much higher their ceiling is from there. That will largely be determined by how quickly all the new players gel (especially with limited workout time this summer) and whether Joe – currently testing the NBA Draft waters – elects to return to Fayetteville, after averaging 17 points per game last season.
At this point Bruce Pearl has established himself as one of the elite coaches in all of college basketball. Still, we will find out just how elite he is next season. Because looking at this roster, there just isn’t much there.
In total, the Tigers lost their top six scorers off last year’s team, including five seniors, and basically have completely flipped their roster from the school’s Final Four run two seasons ago. In their place is a group whose best returning player (Devan Cambridge) averaged just 4.3 points per game last year, and a recruiting class that – outside Sharife Cooper – just doesn’t bring all that much to the table.
Now in theory this roster could get better between now and the start of the season if Jonathan Kuminga decides to enroll at Auburn. But that’s not likely.
And it will take Pearl’s best coaching job at Auburn to get this particular group back into the NCAA Tournament conversation.
Listen, I could sit here and overanalyze every aspect of Florida’s roster. But it really all does come down to whether Mike White has his team consistently ready to play or not. Over the years the Gators have had plenty of talent, but all too often – especially early in the year- come out flat and unprepared and lose games they shouldn’t. That includes last season when the Gators began the year in the Top 10 nationally, yet limped to a 19-12 finish. Only a late season surge put them into the bubble conversation before the NCAA Tournament was cancelled.
Now beyond White, yes, there is a lot to like with this roster. Even after losing Andrew Nembhard into the transfer portal, they still return leading scorer Keyontae Johnson, and Scottie Lewis could be a breakout star in the SEC. Noah Locke is one of the league’s best shooters, and Tyree Appleby is a transfer the staff raved about last season.
But in the end all the talent in the world doesn’t mean much without the coaching. And in a league with John Calipari, Rick Barnes, Buzz Williams and so many other incredible coaches, we’ll believe it when we see it with Mike White and Florida.
I swear, I don’t come into these articles with the sole, express purpose of bashing Tom Crean. And I promise, I’m not going to do it just for the sake of doing it here (as fun as that might be).
With that said, Georgia went 16-16 overall last year and 5-13 in the SEC… and lost four of their top six scorers off last year’s team. And yes, that includes Anthony Edwards the potential No. 1 pick in the draft. So if Georgia was 5-13 in SEC play with all that talent last year, how can anyone expect things to be better this year? Especially when they are replacing basically their entire starting lineup with three JUCO’s and three grad transfers, only one of which has played college basketball at the high-major level (grad transfer PJ Horne)?
Stranger things have happened. But it’s hard to imagine a world where Georgia is anywhere other than the bottom of the SEC standings this year.
Of every program in the SEC right now, LSU is the hardest to project. The roster will again be loaded, the question now is just how loaded – and what the pieces are – by the start of the season.
That’s because in true Will Wade fashion, LSU has – by technicality – 14 scholarship players on the roster right now. And that doesn’t include Moussa Cisse, the Top 10 prospect nationally who is likely to commit to the school in coming days. But I say “by technicality” because they have 11 players currently on campus, plus three (Javonte Smart, Trendon Watford and Darius Days) testing the draft waters. Meaning that the Tigers are either going to have a few guys go pro who haven’t officially left yet, or there is a player or two who thinks he’ll be on the roster in the fall that has a harsh reality coming to him in the next few months.
Yet even if LSU loses a bunch of guys to the pros, there is still talent. Cameron Thomas should be one of the best scoring freshmen in America, and transfers Shareef O’Neal (UCLA) and Josh LeBlanc (Georgetown) both bring power conference experience to the front court.
Still, the ceiling of this team largely depends on what happens with those NBA Draft decisions.
With those guys all back, LSU is again an SEC title contender and will finish in the top few spots in the league. Without them, there is talent, but major holes, especially at the point guard position.
When Ben Howland arrived at Mississippi State, recruiting hit an all-time uptick. From 2015-2018 the school signed three Top 25 classes, including a Top 10 ranked group nationally in 2016.
Sadly, all the school has to show for it is one NCAA Tournament appearance and zero NCAA Tournament wins. And now, after a major talent drain between graduations, transfers and early departures to the NBA Draft, it’s hard to see the Bulldogs staying in the top half of the SEC.
Overall, the Bulldogs top three scorers have all left school, with the very likely reality that their fourth, Robert Woodard (who is technically testing the NBA Draft process right now) is gone as well. In their place is a recruiting class with one Top 150 prospect, and a few mid-major transfers expected to fill the void.
In the end, Howland is a good coach and I expect this group to play tough for him. But anything more than a bottom five finish in the SEC would be surprising.
Say what you want about Cuonzo Martin, but in (another) season full of injuries, Mizzou was a tougher out than many realize. Yes, they finished 15-16 overall and 7-11 in the SEC. But they also won four of their final seven games and upset Auburn in the final weeks of the season.
While we aren’t exactly talking about “the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats” here, there are real signs for optimism heading into this season. That’s because in addition to the Tigers’ solid finish, they also – barring a truly shocking NBA Draft decision – should return their top seven scorers off last year’s roster. And they also add grad transfer Drew Buggs in the backcourt.
Yup, the talent is there for Missouri to finish in the top half of the SEC. And if they finish in the top half of the league they will almost certaintly, at the very least, be in the bubble conversation.
Still, in a loaded league, where there are no nights off (unless you’re playing Georgia or Vanderbilt) will this team actually get there?
Speaking of “NCAA Tournament” type talent, I present you the Ole Miss Rebels. Like Missouri, Ole Miss struggled last year, finishing 15-17 overall. And like Missouri, they return just about everyone of substance.
In total, the Rebels return four starters off last year’s team, and add three high-profile transfers. That includes former Arizona State big mane Romello White, who averaged 10 and nine for the Sun Devils down low. White will immediately be one of the biggest and strongest physical presences in this league upon his arrival.
So like Missouri the talent is there, and Kermit Davis is a head coach I’m willing to trust in the bigger picture.
Don’t be surprised if this team makes its second NCAA Tournament in three seasons.
The third straight “Well, they have NCAA Tournament talent, buuuuuutt” team of this update… I present you the South Carolina Gamecocks.
South Carolina is basically “Florida with worse PR” at this point, a team that can’t get out of its own way in the out of conference portion of the slate, only to rally, play well in the SEC, and put themselves in position to steal a bubble bid late. Just looking at last year, the Gamecocks were 18-13 overall and 10-8 in the SEC, but also had losses to Stetson (whatever that is) and Boston University out of conference. Win those two games and the Gamecocks are 20-11, have no bad losses and are comfortably in the NCAA Tournament picture. Instead, they went to the SEC Tournament in Nashville needing a couple victories to get into the bubble conversation (you know, had there been a Big Dance).
Therefore, assuming AJ Lawson (who is still testing the draft waters) comes back, this team has more than enough talent to make the NCAA Tournament.
But in a weird twist, their NCAA Tourney hopes will be determined by how they play in November and December. Not January and February.
In Buzz Williams’s first season at Texas A&M, he basically turned water into wine. There, he took a team that went 6-12 in SEC play and lost its best player to transfer, and turned them into a group that went 10-8 in league play and won five of its final seven games heading into the SEC Tournament.
Now it will be fascinating to see what Williams has in store for Year 2 in College Station. The Aggies do lose leading scorer Josh Nebo, but bring back just about everyone else of substance. And like just about every other coach in the SEC, Williams is recruiting at a high level. He landed two Top 100 prospects in his most recent class and added grad transfer Kevin Marfo, who led all of college basketball in rebounding last season at over 13 per game.
I’m not quite ready to throw A&M into “NCAA Tourney lock” status. But it wouldn’t surprise me to see them there either.
Hype for the 2020-2021 Tennessee Vols began pretty much the day the season ended in March and hasn’t really stopped since then. And it’s with good reason.
The Vols return just about everyone of substance off last year’s team, most notably big man John Fulkerson and point guard Santiago Vescovi. Vescovi averaged 11 points per game a year ago, despite not arriving on campus until January. The Vols also bring in a loaded recruiting class that ranked No. 4 nationally behind only Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina. And they also add high-flying transfer Victor Bailey to the mix as well.
At this point, the only real question is the status of Yves Pons. Last year’s SEC Defensive Player of the Year is, by technicality, going through the NBA Draft process as we speak. However I say “by technicality” because he has actually returned to campus with the team for summer workouts in recent weeks, even while going through the draft process. Meaning that while he isn’t 1000 percent committed to returning to college basketball next year (he has until August 3rd to decide) it’s hard to see him leaving campus for the pros. You know, since he’s already there.
Without Pons, this team is still good but probably not “top of the SEC” good. With him, they should compete with Kentucky for the conference regular season title.
There is no doubt that Vanderbilt looked better in Year 1 under Jerry Stackhouse than they had the previous season under Bryce Drew. The Commodores finished with three SEC wins in 2020, which is three more than they had in all of 2019.
There is however one problem: Stackhouse has shown no real knack for recruiting, and to be blunt, no real interest in even really trying. That’s a bad sign just about anywhere, but especially bad when you’re in the SEC, and some of the best recruiters in college basketball are right in your backyard.
Vandy has some nice pieces. But while “nice pieces” may get you some wins in the Pac-12 or AAC, you need difference-makers in the SEC.
The Dores don’t have them.
And it’s hard to see them being much better than they were a season ago.