The SEC had one of its best seasons in a while last year, sending seven teams to the NCAA Tournament and four to the Sweet 16. This conference has come a long way from the days of Kentucky and Florida carrying the flag virtually by themselves, and it should again be a gauntlet in 2020 as the SEC should get at least as many teams into the Big Dance as in 2019, if not more.
The Wildcats and Gators are expected to sit atop the SEC this time around, though, as Kentucky should continue its run of elite play and Florida’s returning roster and talented bunch of newcomers have it ranked No. 6 in the preseason AP poll. But there are some other candidates who could sneak up on UK and UF as the SEC could undoubtedly spiral into chaos.
Here is how I see the SEC breaking down as we’re only days away from the start of the season:
National Competitors: Florida, Kentucky, LSU
It wouldn’t be the SEC without Kentucky at the top. Head coach John Calipari should have his Wildcats near the ceiling of the conference with the No. 2 recruiting class in the country, with three five stars – Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks – and two four stars rounding out the incoming freshmen. Nate Sestina grad transferred from Bucknell in the offseason, bringing his 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game with him. And the Wildcats have a good crop of talent returning, with Ashton Hagans, EJ Montgomery, Nick Richards and Immanuel Quickley coming back. This should be another prototypical Kentucky team in style, scheme and capability that college basketball has come to expect.
Florida had a strange season last year, largely not living up to expectations but still pulling off some big wins, particularly down the stretch, to get into the NCAA Tournament off the strength of its defense. This year, the team will be much younger with an offense centered around more efficient players. The resurrection of Florida’s offense should be here, with Virginia Tech grad transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. as the impetus. He was already one of the most versatile and difficult-to-handle big men in the country, and he should be even better with another season of development under him. Otherwise, it’ll be mostly freshmen and sophomores carrying the team, with returners Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson headlining the second-year players. Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann are the five-star commits coming to Gainesville as part of the No. 8 class in the nation, another reason why Florida has such high expectations this season. The sophomore trio will need to take steps forward in their offensive games, but with Blackshear as the focal point, the Gators will score at a higher clip than in 2018-19, and that should have the rest of the SEC concerned.
Baton Rouge became the epicenter of drama last season, with head coach Will Wade earning himself a suspension after getting into a tiff with his athletic director in the wake of violation allegations. That has apparently cleared up somehow, and Wade will be back coaching his program this winter. Tremont Waters, Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams won’t be joining him, though, but Skylar Mays, Javonte Smart, Emmitt Williams, Marlon Taylor and Darius Days are all back from a team that went to the Sweet 16 in 2019. LSU added a couple of JUCO transfers and five-star forward Trendon Watford in the offseason, solidifying their frontcourt in the wake of Bigby-Williams and Reid’s departures. Lots of talent left, but plenty remained and was added, and the Tigers should be right back in the thick of things in the SEC as a result.
NCAA Tournament Hopefuls: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M
Alabama narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament last season, and it cost Avery Johnson his job. Nate Oats left Buffalo to become the next head coach of the Crimson Tide, and he will have a nice selection of returning talent to work with. Kira Lewis Jr. will be his most dynamic scorer, and the 18-year-old should take a sizable step forward now as a sophomore. John Petty and West Virginia transfer James Bolden figure to be the secondary bucket-getters, while Herbert Jones and Galin Smith provide role help. Oats won’t have Donta Hall, Tevin Mack or Dazon Ingram, but he will have the No. 21 class in America at his disposal. The newcomers will need to be ready to contribute immediately off the bench, though, especially after a season-ending knee injury for JUCO transfer James Rojas in September. The Tide have the talent and coaching to finish near the top of the SEC, but players will have to competently step into larger roles for it to happen.
Last season, Ole Miss greatly surpassed preseason expectations, earning a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament and finishing above .500 in a very difficult SEC. This year, the Rebels are more of a known commodity, and a return trip to the Big Dance seems probable. Devontae Shuler and Breein Tyree are back to form one the most underrated guard combos in the country. They won’t have Terence Davis there with them in 2019-20, though, but JUCO transfer Bryce Williams has the ability to fill his shoes to recreate the three-headed backcourt beast head coach Kermit Davis orchestrated last campaign. Some of the same defensive concerns that held Ole Miss back last season could remain this year, but with the guard talent the Rebels will wield, plus the coaching ability of Davis, this team figures to sit in the first half of the SEC come season’s end.
Auburn is coming off of its greatest season ever: the Tigers won the SEC Tournament in impressive fashion, then went on a run to the program’s first-ever Final Four. Head coach Bruce Pearl has lost some of the important talent from that team, though. Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Chuma Okeke, Malik Dunbar and Horace Spencer were all integral to Auburn’s success to varying degrees, and I find it hard to envision the team not taking a step back with their departures. However, Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore, Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick are returning, and the No. 20 recruiting class in the nation should help soften the blow, particularly four-star forward Issac Okoro. But the Tigers will need their youngsters to grow up quickly if this team is going to at all rival the depth it had last season. Another trip to the tournament seems well within its grasp, but I don’t think back-to-back Final Fours are on the horizon for Auburn.
Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield were the two engines that made Tennessee go for two seasons, but the Vols won’t have them in 2019-20. They also won’t have Jordan Bone and Kyle Alexander, meaning a likely step back for Rick Barnes’s program. He will still have Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden, though, two important pieces from a season ago, and five-star guard Josiah-Jordan James enters as immediate backcourt help. Role players Yves Pons and John Fulkerson are back, and it will be crucial that they both took steps forward in their developments over the offseason, especially after the NCAA denied Arizona State transfer and 7-footer Uros Plavsic immediate eligibility for this year. I really like the team’s starting guards, and perhaps diamonds in the rough will be found among the rest of Tennessee’s freshman class, but the rest of this roster does not excite me enough to see the Vols as a threat to compete for the SEC crown. Another Big Dance appearance? More likely yes than no. A memorable one? Nah.
It seems strange to say, but Missouri has experience and depth on its roster. The Tigers lost Jordan Geist and Kevin Puryear from last season, but Mark Smith, Jeremiah Tilmon, Torrence Watson, Javon Pickett and Xavier Pinson are all back. Dru Smith has transferred in from Evansville, along with his 13.7 points, 4.6 assists and 2.0 steals per game, and four-star forward Tray Jackson will enter the fold, too. Assuming Smith and Tilmon continue their progressions, Smith plays like he did at Evansville and the Tigers can find depth scoring, the offense should be improved from where it was in the past. The massive step forward for this program is probably still on the horizon, but this season could be a return to the NCAA Tournament if everything goes according to plan.
Mississippi State appeared in March Madness last season for the first time since 2009, and the Bulldogs could make a repeat performance in 2020. It won’t be as comfortable, though, as the team will be without Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters and Aric Holman, three of head coach Ben Howland’s best shooters from his 2018-19 squad. The Bulldogs will need returning guards Nick Weatherspoon and Tyson Carter to take a major step forward in the deep shooting department, plus any other shooters they can find among their ranks. The team should be stout defensively, though, especially with Abdul Ado and his 1.8 blocks per contest coming back for a junior campaign. Reggie Perry seems poised to average a double-double as he should continue on the path as one of the SEC’s best big men. While lots of the starting lineup will compromise of returning players, the depth of this team is a major question heading into the year. Again, without multiple legitimate shooting threats and enough depth for Howland to work with, Mississippi State could miss the NCAA Tournament, but there is enough there to get back to March.
Tom Crean brings the No. 10 class in the nation to Athens, Georgia, in 2019, including five-star guard Anthony Edwards, the No. 2 overall ranked prospect by 247Sports Composite. Four four-star talents – Christian Brown, Jaykwon Walton, Sahvir Wheeler and Toumani Camara – will join Edwards in a quest to bring Georgia basketball to national relevance. With help from returners Tyree Crump, Rayshaun Hammonds, Amanze Ngumezi and Jordan Harris, plus Northeastern transfer Donnell Gresham Jr., Crean could reasonably have the Bulldogs dancing in March for the first time since 2015, although he will have to do it with relatively little experience against an extremely daunting modern SEC. Regardless, this season should be a step forward for Georgia and one the team can use to build on moving forward.
Arkansas hired Nevada head coach Eric Musselman to replace Mike Anderson in the offseason, and the new man will have a lot of the same roster from last year to open his time in town. Daniel Gafford left to play pro ball, a major loss that shouldn’t be understated, but the Razorbacks otherwise have a lot of their players back. Jalen Harris, Mason Jones, Isaiah Joe and Reggie Chaney lead the list, and they’ll be joined by a trio of transfers: Jimmy Whitt from SMU (12.3 points per game), Jeantal Cylla from UNC Wilmington (13.7 points per game) and Emeka Obukwelu, who comes to Fayetteville from Division II UT-Tyler, where he averaged 20 and 8. It’s only the beginning of the transfer mecca Musselman will turn Arkansas in to, and they should help transition the program into its latest era. The Razorbacks won’t be near the top of the league, but they could find enough momentum with the talent they have to put themselves in NCAA Tournament consideration come Selection Sunday.
South Carolina experienced a bit of a weird go last season. The team struggled mightily in the non-conference portion of the schedule, then proceeded to end 11-7 and tied for fourth in an SEC that sent half of its teams to the Big Dance. The Gamecocks will now have to face a further improved league without Chris Silva, Tre Campbell, Hassani Gravett and Felipe Haase, who elected to transfer to Mercer in the offseason. Head coach Frank Martin will still have Maik Kotsar, the program’s only senior, A.J. Lawson, Keyshawn Bryant, Justin Minaya and Alanzo Frink as his core of returning players, but South Carolina will need its freshman to be ready in a hurry for it to have the depth required to seriously compete in this league this season. Without the team’s best shooters from last year, the Gamecocks will struggle offensively if no one else steps up. There’s upside here, but getting to the Big Dance looks like a stretch.
Texas A&M made a big splash hiring Buzz Williams to replace Billy Kennedy, and in due time, there is no doubt in my mind that it will pay off. However, Year One probably won’t be it. He inherits a team that went 14-18 (6-12) last season and lost some key talent: Christian Mekowulu graduated, and Admon Gilder and Brandon Mahan transferred to Gonzaga and UCF, respectively. But Williams will have TJ Starks, Wendell Mitchell, Savion Flagg, Josh Nebo and Jay Jay Chandler as his veteran core, plus junior college transfer Quenton Jackson. Otherwise, though, it’s all freshmen. Williams signed a massive, seven-commit class in 2019 that hosts all three-star talents. With his coaching pedigree, I am positive Williams will mold some into great players by their upperclassman seasons, but will any of them be able to make an immediate impact in a major way? It’s possible, and probably necessary for A&M to have any realistic shot at the NCAA Tournament. But more than likely, this year is for the Aggies to transition into Williams tenure and grow for next season when everyone except the lone senior (Nebo) figures to be back.
The Fodder: Vanderbilt
Oh, Vanderbilt. You sit alone in my “Fodder” category as the only team from the SEC I give zero chance of playing in March before the season even tips off. The Commodores should be better than last season when they failed to win a single SEC game. Bryce Drew was summarily dismissed after the debacle that was 2018-19 in Nashville, and Jerry Stackhouse will begin his NCAA coaching career as Vandy’s next head coach. The cupboards aren’t totally empty for Stackhouse as Saben Lee and Aaron Nesmith are back, but this is still the core of a team that went 0-18 in the SEC. The focus will be on winning at least one conference game and letting the kids experience to prepare them for the future, especially considering the strength of the SEC this season. It’s possible the Stackhouse hire becomes a home run, but that won’t materialize for a few years at least and certainly not in 2019-20. It’s the basement again for the ‘Dores.