SEC Basketball Preview
College basketball tipped off for the 2017-2018 season last Friday. The SEC is coming off a year where five teams earned bids and a dominating three advanced to the elite eight. South Carolina was the last team standing, surviving until losing a heartbreak in the Final Four to national runner-up Gonzaga, 77-73. Will the SEC be able to shake the label of being a “football conference” and build upon last year’s success? Yes. I predict the SEC lands seven, yes SEVEN teams in the NCAA Tournament this year, just two years after only producing three teams in 2016. Here’s why:
Alabama’s season started off with an air of uncertainty surrounding their star freshman Collin Sexton. Now that he is eligible to play, though, the Crimson Tide look to be potential contenders in the SEC. Riley Norris will also be a key contributor on both ends of the floor for this squad. The depth of the conference as a whole and the Tide’s youth are keeping them from being a bonafide favorite this season, but the pool of talent paired with a great coaching staff led by head coach Avery Johnson means there is always a chance to sneak away with an upset or two. This team only has two seniors, but signed three top-100 recruits in their 2017 recruiting class. As talented as those freshmen will be, they will have difficulty winning on the road and at neutral site games.
Predicted Record: 18-13 (8-10)
Arkansas enters this season projected to finish sixth in the SEC. Razorback head coach Mike Anderson has exceeded preseason expectations each of the last four seasons. This year’s team is lead by five seniors and young talent both to have an experienced and youthful bunch. With potentially the best backcourt in the SEC in Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon and highly touted freshman forward Daniel Gafford, the Hogs could be in for an even better finish than last year’s round of 32 exit from the NCAA Tournament. Depth is key to Razorback basketball, dubbed the “Fastest 40 Minutes of Basketball,” and Mike Anderson has built this roster with the ability to play upwards of eleven or twelve players without much drop off. The three-point shooting is much improved from recent years as well, aiding in their lack of proven leaders inside. The Hogs can run an outside-in offense and play up-tempo, wearing down most teams they will play against.
Predicted Record: 24-7 (14-4)
Yikes. Ineligible players, coaches indicted under federal investigation, an unstable athletic department, and a school that has not been very successful on the hardwood in recent years isn’t exactly a favorable equation for winning many games. The Tigers’ second-overall leading scorer from last year, Danjel Purifoy, was suspended indefinitely in relation to the FBI probe into the program. Austin Wiley, returning leading post scorer, is also suspended indefinitely, leaving the Tigers without two leadership pieces to their team. It’s going to be a long year for the Tigers unless Bruce Pearl somehow manages to keep this team afloat until those two return. IF they return, that is.
*Predicted Record: 10-19 (3-15)
*Games against opponents TBA were not included
One of the blue bloods of the conference, the Florida Gators hope to continue their success under Mike White. The Gators have yet to reach the same level as under Billy Donovan, but last year was promising for the direction of the program. The Gators tout another talented backcourt that rivals Arkansas for best in the conference. Senior guard Chris Chiozza and junior guard KeVaughn Allen continue the tradition of strong guard play at the University of Florida. They also return big man John Egbunu to take control of the paint. This will be the first year where Mike White’s players will see extensive minutes. Last year’s class was headlined by three forwards, all ranked in the top 150 in the country. Another NCAA Tournament appearance and possible run is likely for the Gators.
Predicted Record: 26-5 (14-4)
Bulldogs head coach Mark Fox has just not been able to get off the proverbial bubble. It seems as if each year his team has won 17-20 games, but has not been consistent. Entering his ninth year as head coach of the Bulldogs, Fox has only made two postseason appearances, but in three of his last four seasons the Bulldogs have won 19 or more games and not received a tournament bid. The exception was the 2014/2015 season when Georgia won 21 games and made it to the tournament. Led by their talent in the frontcourt with big men Yante Maten and Derek Ogbeide, the Bulldogs should be able to control the paint. If senior guard Juwan Parker continues to progress and the team stays healthy, Mark Fox could lead his Bulldogs to his third postseason appearance.
Predicted Record: 20-11 (11-7)
The kings of SEC basketball. Once again they have an entirely new crop of players for the year, and once again all we know about them is their reputations. If I were to base these predictions and analysis strictly on recruiting class ranks and potential, Kentucky would top the list 10/10 times. But, that is not the case. They have a difficult schedule early, a roster full of the best players from high school last year, always bring out their opponents best efforts, and don’t reach their full potential until late in the season. This was the case last year after losing a couple of close regular season games and then beating UCLA in the NCAA Tournament to make it to the Elite Eight. John Calipari is as consistent as they come with these recruits and his amount of wins, and everyone knows this. Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, P.J. Washington, and Nick Richards should be something to watch. They were all rated in the top 20 players in the country out of high school, regardless of position.
Predicted Record: 23-7 (14-4)
Missouri isn’t the only team with a fresh face at the helm this year. LSU lured Will Wade away from VCU after just two seasons with the Rams. After an abysmal 10-21 record last year, Johnny Jones was relieved of his duties. Will there be an immediate turn around at LSU? The pieces are certainly there. The Tigers return their two top scorers from a year ago, as well as welcome a solid class of recruits on campus. It will be interesting to see how successful Will Wade will be in implementing his own system with virtually none of his own players, but LSU has athletes and a lot of them. For the sake of the conference I hope they succeed. They have an experienced group, battle-tested through the terrible ending to the Johnny Jones era, but a new system means a rebuild normally. I just don’t see it this year. The numbers these players put up last year looked good, but they were barely ever close to winning a conference game. It looks good to score 10+ a game, but not so much if you take into account this team was 339th out of 351 teams in points allowed per game and only 134th in points scored per game.
Predicted Record: 9-19 (3-15)
Mississippi State is a young team this year, only having five upperclassmen and one senior. They don’t even have a whole lot of game experience, either, with only two players on the entire roster being two-year letter winners. Freshman guard Nick Weatherspoon, the number one player in the state of Mississippi out of high school, should have a sizable impact early, along with fellow freshman KeyShawn Feazell. I don’t expect much in the way of wins, but Ben Howland is a good coach that can keep them competitive and sneak away with a few wins they shouldn’t have. This year is about exposing the young guys to the college level and building for the future, which is looking very bright in Starkville.
Predicted Record: 17-14 (8-10)
The Tigers had the best offseason of any team in the SEC. According to 247Sports, Missouri had the fourth-ranked recruiting class for 2017, including three top-50 players. In addition to signing five heralded recruits, the Tigers also managed to hire Cuonzo Martin away from Cal. They’re a young team, with up to seven underclassmen expected to see the floor, but the talent is there. Missouri is riding the wave of young talent in the conference, but unlike Mississippi State, Alabama, or other teams with freshmen doing their fair share of contributing, the Tigers have the ability to make a run in March if their freshmen live up to expectations. Will they make that run, though? Not this year. The conference as a whole has progressed and the real separation between the teams at the top and everyone else will be experience. I don’t see Missouri beating Kentucky, Florida, Texas A&M, or Arkansas away from home, and they might only pick up one at home. The Tigers will be drastically improved, will be very competitive, and would not surprise me if they exceed my expectations. After a long hiatus Missouri basketball is back for the first time since Mike Anderson left.
Predicted Record: 18-11 (9-9)
Andy Kennedy is one of the most consistent basketball coaches in the country. He is also one of my favorite basketball coaches in the country, but I think this year will be an average year for Ole Miss. They lost a lot in Sebastian Saiz’s graduation, but return five of their top six leading scorers from a year ago. They return four guards with the ability to score more than ten point a game, but the biggest unknown is their post play. Their guards will carry this team as far as they can, but with no established go-to guy in the post, it’ll be difficult to succeed in a league that is littered with quality forwards, experienced and young. Yante Maten, Tyler Davis, Daniel Gafford, Robert Williams, Michael Porter, Jr., Chris Silva, and many more. Who does Ole Miss have that can match up at both ends of the floor with players of that caliber? I don’t see any.
Predicted Record: 19-11 (9-9)
Frank Martin became a hero in South Carolina after he led the Gamecocks to the Final Four. How does he follow up such great success? He won’t. Not this year at least. Sindarius Thornwell was the heart and soul of the Gamecocks last year, averaging over 21 points and 7 rebounds a game. He graduated, along with other guard Duane Notice, who averaged over 10 points a game. PJ Dozier and Chris Silva will lead the team this year after impressive sophomore efforts, and Kotsar looks to build on a somewhat impressive freshman year, but beyond those player is all uncertainty. Their recruiting class wasn’t flashy, either, which isn’t as big of an issue with a coach like Frank Martin. Sindarius Thornwell was a once in a generation player for a program that hasn’t seen the sort of success as they had last year. This season won’t be a disappointment, it’ll just be more prototypical South Carolina with a great coach that can put them in situations to win games. Chalk it up to a rebuild. Maybe next year, Gamecock fans.
Predicted Record: 15-14 (6-12)
Rick Barnes was a home run hire it seemed like when the Volunteers hired him after being fired from Texas, but he has not lived up to expectations. This year won’t be any different. They lost their leading scorer from their lackluster 16-16 campaign last year, and the next three highest scorers were all freshman. That should mean that the Vols have talented young players with some experience that will be there for the next few years. But Tennessee is a team that doesn’t score a lot of points, and playing against teams like Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, and Texas A&M, that just won’t work. They won’t finish last, though, at least.
Predicted Record: 12-17 (7-11)
Not only will the Aggies make the NCAA Tournament this year, but they will be somewhere between a 1-5 seed. They are that good. This year’s Aggies will be drastically improved despite many familiar faces. The top five leading scorers from last year all return, as well as their two powerful big men Tyler Davis and Robert Williams. DJ Hogg is another forward that can mix it up and be disruptive and productive down on the block. This team is loaded with talent at the forward position, but if they are going to be real contenders they need to step up their guard play. Admon Gilder is a great guard in the SEC, but the season hinges on finding another guard that can help contribute when defenses start keying on him.
Predicted Record: 22-7 (13-5)
A late season surge pushed the Commodores to relevance in the SEC last year. In Bryce Drew’s first season last year, Vanderbilt managed to finish 19-16 (10-8), good enough for 5th in the SEC, but they are missing some pieces. Luke Kornet and Nolan Cressler both graduated, leaving this team entirely to Matthew Fisher-Davis, Riley LaChance, and Jeff Roberson. This time is guard-heavy and have great length in the backcourt, but will be forced to play small ball due to their lack of size. Djery Baptiste will have to step up in his sophomore season if the Commodores have any chance of being competitive on a consistent basis. It is nearly impossible for a team to have success with no post presence in the SEC. JJ Frazier tried his best to will Georgia into the NCAA Tournament last year after Yante Maten was injured, but it didn’t happen. This season rests solely on the shoulders of the Commodore big men.
Predicted Record: 14-16 (8-10)
Projected SEC Standings:
Texas A&M (13-5)
Ole Miss (9-9)
Mississippi State (8-10)
South Carolina (6-12)
SEC Teams in the NCAA Tournament:
Florida- 2 seed
Arkansas- 5 seed
Kentucky- 4 seed
Texas A&M- 5 seed
Georgia- 9 seed
Missouri- 11 seed
Ole Miss- 12 seed
My justification for Ole Miss and Missouri getting in with less than 20 regular season wins is by assuming they each win at least one game in the SEC Tournament. Also, if the other records hold true, the SEC will be the toughest or second toughest conference in basketball, boosting strength of schedule rankings and RPIs, which are both heavy influencers on the selection committee. You could make a case for Alabama sneaking in rather than Ole Miss if they manage to upset a couple teams, which is very possible with Avery Johnson as their coach.
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