The Southeastern Conference has a reputation of being a powerhouse in football, but it has been gaining ground in regards to its basketball programs as well. The SEC sent a record eight teams to the NCAA Tournament last season and will look to do it again in 2019. The SEC might not be quite as strong with the departure of some key players, but it should be a realistic expectation to see five or six SEC teams in the tourney next March.
Here is where I see the standings shaking out by the end of the season, barring any major injuries of course. These standings can also be broken down into tiers, which you will see below.
1. Kentucky – The Wildcats not only bring in one of the best freshman recruiting classes from 2018, but they also have possibly the biggest transfer in recent history. John Calipari was able to land Stanford graduate transfer and big man Reid Travis, who will give them the upperclassman experience they’ve been lacking in recent seasons.
The Wildcats also return key players in big man Nick Richards, forward P.J. Washington and point guard Quade Green. He’ll have to work in some supreme talent like guard Tyler Herro, forward E.J. Montgomery, point guard Ashton Hagans, shooting guard Keldon Johnson and point guard Immanuel Quickley.
This might be the first time in several years the Wildcats will have a good outside shooting team as well. Hagans, Herro, Johnson and Green will be tough to guard on the perimeter as they all bring a completely different aspect to the backcourt. Herro is a superb shooter while Green is an adequate enough shooter, but also a strong floor general. Hagans has the potential to be an explosive point guard off the bench while Johnson is also a high level shooter and is a bit of a creative ball handler as well.
It’s always a juggling act with the amount of five-star players on the roster, yet Calipari finds a way to make it work every season. From everything that’s been said by and about this team, it sounds like Cal might have his best group of gym rats and hardest working cadre of players he’s seen in a long time. That promises a long season for every other SEC team and possibly the most fruitful one for the Wildcats since their 2012 title run.
2. Tennessee – The Volunteers surprised everyone last year by taking a share of the regular season conference crown despite being predicted to finish in the bottom half of the league. The biggest difference this season will be getting used to being the hunted rather than the hunter. How they handle that pressure will likely decide how well they finish this season.
Fortunately, Tennessee didn’t lose anyone that it couldn’t afford to this season and brought in only one recruit for 2018. They keep huge contributors like Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, Jordan Bone and Kyle Alexander. Turner, Schofield and Williams all averaged more than 10 points a game last season and there’s a chance there could be a fourth player in the mix for that with another year under Rick Barnes.
Despite being a pretty average-sized team, these Vols are relentless on the boards and are excellent on the defensive end. They were ranked sixth in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom’s rankings. Their offense is a bit of the antithesis of SEC basketball in that they like to slow down at that end and make teams play defense. Usually SEC teams like to get up and down the floor and create as many possessions as possible. If Tennessee gets caught up in the speed of the game, they could see more losses than they might like this season.
3. Auburn – The Tigers were another surprise contender in the conference last season and hope to get back on top this year. They lose two key starters in Mustapha Heron — their leading scorer — and DeSean Murray. However, they are getting back Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley after they spent a year on the pine thanks to the FBI investigation that left a dark cloud over college basketball.
While Tennessee might have been one of the slowest teams in the conference, the Tigers were easily the fastest and the most efficient offensively in the conference. They strongly believe in the new testament of basketball — “pace and space” — and they want to get off as many shots as possible. However, they were also quite good on defense last season. They had a high turnover rate, with versatile switchers on screens and will perhaps have the deepest frontcourt in the conference, if not the country.
However, losing Heron and Murray will hurt their versatility on defense and may set them back a bit to start the season. Auburn has great talent and the right amount of experience to get past Kentucky this season and be a real contender in the conference. However, the two returners from suspension will likely need some time to gel with the team again and they will have to figure out how to play defense without Murray and Heron.
4. LSU – The Tigers have been on an absolute tear on the recruiting trail and coach Will Wade nabbed four top-100 recruits in the 2018 class as well as having transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams available this season. He brought in two 5-star recruits in big man Nazreon Reid and forward Emmitt Williams. Point guard Javonte Smart will look to get some early playing time behind potential SEC Player of the Year Tremont Waters.
Freshman forward Darius Days could see some time as well. Coach Wade has also brought in JUCO transfers Danya Kingsby and Marlon Taylor, so there is plenty of basketball experience to go around on the this team. While the Tigers lost a few key players from last season, the talent in the 2018 recruiting class will be more than enough to make up for it.
It cannot be overstated how great of a job Will Wade has done with this program, either. He was given a total dumpster fire thanks to Johnny Jones and he turned it around well enough to get to the NIT last year and expectations are going to be huge for the program this year.
So long as the Tigers win more than half their SEC games and win the majority of their out of conference slate, they should meet those expectations. The Tigers should be a fun team to watch thanks in large part to Waters, but also the fluidity and surprisingly good handles the 6-foot-10 Reid has on him too. They could be a powerful 1-2 punch in the league and should definitely get up and down the court with the best of them.
While the freshmen joining the fray are going to be tremendous to watch, it will be Tremont Waters who shoulders the load for this team. He was second in the conference in assists and third in points. Those numbers could get even better with a lot more options on the receiving end of those assists this season and should LSU get to the NCAA Tournament, it will be the first time since 2015 and only the second time since 2009.
5. Florida – The Gators are definitely going to be an intriguing team to watch this season. They lose a key starter in Chris Chiozza and do-everything guard and forward in Egor Koulechov. However, they return just about everyone else and bring in three top-100 recruits in guards Noah Locke and Andrew Nembhard, as well as forward Keyontae Johnson. Nembhard could push incumbent point guard Mike Okauru for starting duties, but no official decision has been made in that regard.
With Kevarrius Hayes, Jalen Hudson, KeVaughn Allen, Keith Stone and some bench mobbers returning, the Gators will have plenty of experience on their side. This season, it will be a matter of putting all of that experience together and getting their point guard up to speed, whoever ends up winning the job. The Gators won’t have quite the size you might like from a Power 6 team, but they do have the athleticism and shooting they’ll need to be competitive in this league.
What could really make or break the season for the Gators will be how their bench plays and if they can give the starters a legitimate reprieve. Guys like forward Deaundre Ballard, forward Dontay Bassett, forward Chase Johnson, center Gorjok Gak and big man Isaiah Stokes will have to know their roles and play them very well for the Gators to get deeper than the round of 32.
6. Mississippi State – The Bulldogs are riding a bit under the radar in the SEC this season, but under Ben Howland they are ready to ride and make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.
Last season, they ended up in the NIT and made it to the semifinals, so they’ve certainly got some momentum to build on coming into the 2018-19 season. Mississippi State was one of the least experienced teams in the country last year and they bring back almost everyone from that team. You can imagine they won’t want to take those same bumps and bruises again this season.
The Dawgs’ only real loss is Xavian Stapleton, but they bring back some excellent talent in Aric Holman, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters, Nick Weatherspoon, Tyson Carter and Abdul Ado. They have also brought in four recruits, two of which are in the top-100 in Reggie Perry and Robert Woodard II. Perry should see some early playing time, but the starters will pretty much be the same as last year with the previously mentioned returners taking their familiar spots (with Carter coming off the bench).
The Dawgs will have to prove that they can shoot the ball from deep though, as that was easily their biggest weakness and the guys they brought in may not necessarily be a real help there. If either of the Weatherspoons or Peters had an off game last season, then the Dawgs struggled mightily to win and they will have to find ways around that this season if they hope to break out like everyone is expecting.
7. Alabama – Coach Avery Johnson has the Crimson Tide on the right path and got them to the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2012. He had the help of superb players like one-and-done sensation Collin Sexton and Braxton Key who ended up transferring to Virginia.
Johnson only brought in three players for the 2018 class and one of them was four-star guard Kira Lewis with the other two being of the three-star variety. The Tide will get former Ohio State Buckeye Daniel Giddens eligible this year, which should be a bit of a boon as well. Granted, Johnson could very well squeeze out every last ounce of talent from them, but that’s unlikely this season.
The Crimson Tide do get guard Tevin Mack from Texas eligible this year, which will be a help on the perimeter. Returning starters Herb Jones, Donta Hall and John Petty should be fun to watch at the very least and should keep the team defensively competitive. Hall and Jones are the best paint and perimeter defenders, respectively, that they have and helped them become the best team in the SEC when it came to defensive efficiency (top 30 defense in the country). The offense is where the team will likely struggle with the loss of Sexton; and Johnson not being too keen on that side of the ball.
Dazon Ingram will likely take back point guard duties — Sexton took over for the junior when he arrived on campus — but he’s had turnover and shooting problems. While the Crimson Tide will be efficient on the defensive side, the offense will likely be the opposite. Petty and Jones will have to shoulder a bigger offensive load this season and get to the free throw line like Ingram likes to do, but outside of Petty, there are no real deep shooting threats — something worth keeping an eye on this season.
8. Vanderbilt – The Commodores have some excitement going into this season with the addition of five-star recruit Darius Garland and Simi Shittu. They’ve also got Notre Dame transfer Matt Ryan becoming eligible and four-star freshman guard Aaron Nesmith coming in as backup. Not to mention, Vanderbilt will bring back a few good starters in Ejike Obinna, Saben Lee and Joe Toye as well as a solid man off the bench in Clevon Brown.
The Commodores, with Garland and Shittu, could be a fun team and should be solid on offense, but with the loss of so much upperclassmen leadership this team shouldn’t be expected to finish near the top of the conference. They’ll be competitive and likely sneak in a few wins they shouldn’t. Heck, the offense will even look great.
Bryce Drew is an excellent offensive mind as proven by his efficiency ranking last year despite the record. Vandy had a top-30 offense in efficiency despite a sub-.500 record, which made them the fourth team since 2002 to accomplish such a feat. Drew will need to coach up his players on the defensive side though, as they were ranked dead last in the conference when it came to efficiency last season.
Drew will have a lot of new pieces needing to gel with each other after losing five players to graduation or transfer this offseason. He will be relying heavily on his freshman trio to carry the team into the NCAA Tournament and hopefully to a much better record than last season’s 12-20 showing. It is possible, but it may not be very pretty if the defense doesn’t step up its game this year.
9 South Carolina – The Gamecocks bring back five players in guard Chris Silva, guard Hassani Gravett, forward Maik Kotsar, forward Justin Minaya and forward Felipe Haase. They will also get the eligibility of Tre Campbell, who transferred from Georgetown in 2017. They did bring in five recruits for the 2018 recruiting class, but they are not likely to make a huge impact this season. That being said, there will be plenty of minutes to go around and two or three of them should get the chance to break into the lineup and get on the court immediately.
The East Coast USC will get a chance to be a real sleeper in the conference, though as no one expects much from them, but they’ll likely steal a couple wins here and there from some of the better teams in the conference. South Carolina surely play a physical brand of basketball, as that’s Frank Martin’s calling card. Brutalizing other teams will undoubtedly make those teams uncomfortable and result in some nice wins for the Gamecocks.
What might cost USC some games will likely be the offense. Silva and Kotsar will be the focus of that offense to start the season until someone (hopefully) emerges for the Gamecocks. When it comes down to it, this team will likely be banking on offensive rebounding and second chance opportunities to score buckets. It’s always been a case of elite defense and poor-to-mediocre offense for this team and this season will likely be no different.
10. Missouri – These Tigers were expected to be pretty decent this year, but those hopes were dashed the minute it was confirmed that sophomore forward Jontay Porter would be out for the season with a rather nasty injury. And that’s why they’ve moved down a tier in these rankings as well.
Missouri sophomore forward Jontay Porter will miss the season with torn ACL & MCL in his right knee. Team plans to announce shortly.
— Dave Matter (@Dave_Matter) October 21, 2018
Now this team will have to pick up the pieces under coach Cuonzo Martin, who showed a penchant for rallying his team under dire circumstances last season. His star one-and-done forward Michael Porter Jr. (yes, the brother of Jontay) was out for the season with back issues and the Tigers still managed to lead them to a 20-13 record and get to the NCAA Tournament. Martin is hoping to do it so nice that it happens twice — or at least the second year in a row.
The Tigers lose their two best perimeter scorers in Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson. Replacing them will be a tall task as Mizzou has heavily relied on their three-point shooting under Martin so far. Incoming freshmen Torrence Watson and Xavier Pinson will get a chance at some minutes early with Watson a likely starter as well. The team has three seniors to lead and also has two guys that will be eligible this season in KJ Santos (UIC) and Ronnie Suggs (Bradley).
The defense should be there and should be alright as Martin likes his teams tough and playing physical ball. However, if they want to really thrive it will mean big man Jeremiah Tilmon has to stay on the floor and stay out of foul trouble. He was a hacking machine, averaging 7.5 fouls per 40 minutes of play — though, that problem will be eliminated real quick if he wants to prove how great of a player he can be this season.
11. Arkansas – The Razorbacks are losing a ton of experience with the departures of Daryl Macon, Jaylen Barford, Anton Beard, Darious Hall, CJ Jones, Trey Thompson, Dustin Thomas and Arlando Cook. However, they have one bright spot on the team in Daniel Gafford, who definitely could have gone pro after last season. He made a surprise return after testing the NBA Draft waters and deciding he needed one more year with coach Mike Anderson.
While there were a lot of losses, Anderson did go out and seemingly offered dang near everyone a scholarship as he brought in another six freshmen and two JUCO transfers for this season.
The Hogs have always believed in “40 minutes of hell” and this season should prove no different. They will get up and down the court, pressure full court in hopes of creating turnovers and get a ton of shots in transition. Last season, the Razorbacks were ranked 28th in the country when it came to the percentage of their shots taken in transition. That number is due for a downturn as the Hogs will likely see themselves playing offense in the half-court a little more often, with the ball being force-fed to Gafford as he is THE key cog for this team.
It’s going to be a tough year for Arkansas and they’ll take plenty of lumps throughout the season. There probably won’t be a whole lot of “Pig Suey!” yells going on, but at least they have Gafford to watch in what will likely be some bad routs this year.
12. Texas A&M – The Aggies had a pretty subpar last season, and that was with guys like Robert Williams (a first round pick in this year’s NBA Draft), DJ Hogg, Duane Wilson, Tyler Davis and Tonny Trocha-Morelos who are all now gone. Not only are all those key contributors gone, but coach Billy Kennedy didn’t go out and recruit any freshmen to replace them.
His entire recruiting class is made up of two JUCO transfers and two other D1 transfers becoming eligible this season. That’s less than ideal if the Aggies were hoping to replicate their 22-13 season that started off with an 11-1 record before conference play.
Kennedy is likely going to have to change his style of play this season with a dearth of big men he can trust to rotate into the lineup and not drop off too much. He’s stated in interviews leading up to the season he may look to utilize a four-guard lineup and try to get up and down the floor more than they did last season. In fact, Kennedy may have a starting lineup featuring no one taller than 6-foot-8, while there are only three players taller than that on his bench and none have starting experience in a Power 6 conference.
Frankly put, if the Aggies make the NCAA Tournament, it will be a miracle. In fact, it will be one of Kennedy’s best coaching jobs while he’s been in College Station.
13. Georgia – Dawg fans know this season is going to be a throwaway year. Mark Fox is gone after nine years of mediocrity and subpar in-state recruiting. The administration went out and got recruiter extraordinaire Tom Crean to rejuvenate the program. He’ll need a couple years to get his recruits in, but he does have a lot of returning players this season that can help him in William Jackson II, Rayshaun Hammonds, Derek Ogbeide, Nicolas Claxton, Tyree Crump, Jordan Harris, Teshaun Hightower and E’Torrion Wilridge.
Of course, they’ll have to deal with the loss of their best player in Yante Maten as well as Juwan Parker and that will set them back far enough.
None of the returning players averaged even nine points a game, though. In turn, there will be plenty of opportunity for guys to step up and become a star for Crean in his first year. Jackson will likely become the starting point guard and everything after that is probably a toss-up. This team is a true mystery and it’s not the good kind of my Scooby-Doo and Shaggy used to solve in the cartoons. It’s more like the live-action version with Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar with terrible CGI. Just don’t watch it.
Crean does have a reputation for rebuilding programs like Marquette — there was that Dwyane Wade fella in the Final Four— and Indiana after Kelvin Sampson almost sunk the program. He should be able to get UGA on track with all of the talent available in-state now with Atlanta becoming a hot bed for basketball talent..
14 . Ole Miss – The Rebels were at the very bottom of the conference last season and while they aren’t going to be setting the world on fire, they should be better off this season.
They return three key starters in Breein Tyree, Terence Davis and Bruce Stevens, as well as bench mobbers Dominik Olejniczak (good luck pronouncing that name) and Devontae Shuler. They lost a double-digit scorer in Deaundre Burnett as well as a starter in Markel Crawford. They do get some key experience to add to their team in JUCO transfers Zach Naylor and Brian Halums, so that will bode well this season.
This is the first year under new head coach Kermit Davis — who came from MTSU — as Ole Miss finally realized and decided Andy Kennedy was just not good enough for them. While his record on the surface looks good, he only got the Rebels to the NCAA Tournament twice in his 12-year tenure. Now Davis has come in to clean up the mess and it will likely take a few years to get this program back on track.
While the Rebels have some solid tools to work with in their JUCO guys and returners, their depth is quite lacking and will likely cost them some games this season. They should have some strong perimeter play and their starting big men will be fine, but they will struggle to play for as many minutes as they’ll be needed this season and that could lead to poor play down the stretch of games.
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