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SEC Exit Survey, Part 2: Is it moving season for Missouri?

The Tigers aren’t showing up in way-too-early top-25 polls or projected brackets, but they bring back enough production to climb the conference ladder.

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NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Tennessee vs Auburn Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back, friends.

On Tuesday, we started assessing where each SEC program stands as they embark on the offseason. Now we’ll take a look at the latter half of the conference, including where Missouri — enjoying newfound stability — fits into the picture.

Here we go.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Mississippi vs Oklahoma Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss Rebels

  • Record: 20-13, 10-8 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 50
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 10 (Avg. Recruit: 85.38)
  • Departures: Breein Tyree (NBA draft), Terence Davis (graduation), Bruce Stevens (graduation), D.C. Davis (graduation), Dominik Olejniczak (transfer), Brian Halums (transfer), Zach Naylor (transfer)

Ole Miss | Returning Production

11 40.42% 33.85% 37.13% 33.44% 40.25% 39.80% 36.70% 33.56% 44.40% 33.05%

Early Outlook: For Kermit Davis, the comedown from being named SEC Coach of the Year has a steep descent over the past month. To wit, here is the series of events Ole Miss encountered:

No doubt, a lot went right in Oxford, but now the hard, tedious work of elevating a historically moribund program has arrived. Three starters and one of the SEC’s better bench players are gone. There’s a promising trio Devontae Shuler, Blake Hinson and K.J. Buffen. However, no freshman set to arrive this summer rate higher than No. 200 in 247Sports’ composite index.

Scrounging for a bit of optimism turns up a nugget in that Ole Miss’ returners averaged 0.925 points per possession last season — trailing only Auburn and Tennessee. Of course, that same group also ranks 12th in defensive efficiency, and we don’t know if the offense will be as dynamic when Shuler, Hinson and Buffen scale up their usage.

Shuler becomes the focal point by default, but the 6-foot-2 combo guard is a more than suitable building block. His repertoire is defined by its diversity. The rising junior can stretch defenses (40.2 3FG%), use pick-and-rolls to set up mid-range jumpers and convert at the rim on the run. At the other end, he’s a more than capable on-ball defender.

How much support Hinson and Buffen can lend him looms large. Hinson bolted from the gates, but his outside shooting tapered off in SEC play and he only hit 48.9 percent of two-point attempts. Buffen, meanwhile, filled in the margins. Posting a 48.6 effective-field-goal percentage on just 17.6 percent usage raises questions about what he can offer with more touches.

Then it’s a black hole in terms of a supporting cast.

Olejniczak’s decision to move on leaves a bruise because it saps the Rebs of a big man who can lean on opponents defensively. Rebounding is another issue. JUCO standout Bryce Williams should be in line for early minutes, and perhaps Antavion Collum (No. 210), who stock tumbled last summer, will utilize the physical tools that earned him invites to prestigious camps. But is it reasonable to expect Rodney Howard (No. 201) and Sammy Hunter (No. 404) to make a mark?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Liberty vs Mississippi State Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State Bulldogs

  • Record: 23-11, 10-8 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 21
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 9 (Avg. Recruit: 89.17)
  • Departures: Quinndary Weatherspoon (graduation), Aric Holman (graduation), Reggie Perry (NBA draft)

Mississippi State | Returning Production

7 59.09% 54.64% 61.98% 51.18% 45.37% 67.01% 54.65% 55.36% 61.32% 48.26%

Early Outlook: It’s probably too much to say Perry’s decision to stay in the NBA draft is the linchpin of the Bulldogs offseason. Still, the hope has to be this foray is a fact-finding mission that includes a return to Starkville. If so, the forecast for coach Ben Howland’s group will likely brighten.

Quinndary Weatherspoon’s exit robs the backcourt of a wing who added a sharpened shooting stroke to a proven ability to play off the bounce. In aggregate, though, State can withstand the loss with a proven lead guard in Lamar Peters, a microwave scorer in Tyson Carter and a flexible combo guard in Nick Weatherspoon all slated to return. At the same time, freshman Robert Woodard, a 6-foot-6 wing, showed signs down the stretch of being a natural heir to Quinndary’s role as a sturdy perimeter threat.

This is where Perry’s future comes into play.

Holman won’t be back to step out to the 3-point arc offensively and swat shots on the other end of the floor. Abdul Ado is slated to return, but he’s a traditional big in every sense that classification is meant to convey — including a slight proclivity to run into foul trouble. If Perry opts to stay in the draft, the Bulldogs not only lose a potential cornerstone moving forward, but there is no ready-made replacement waiting in the wings.

The state of affairs at The Hump is just stable enough to keep State’s core in the middle of the SEC’s hierarchy, but there’s the potential to contend for a top-four finish if luck breaks their way. For now, we won’t talk about the game-to-game inconsistency that Howland likely needs to exorcize, too.

NCAA Basketball: Morehead State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri Tigers

  • Record: 15-17, 5-13 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 68
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 8 (Avg. Recruit: 94.55)
  • Departures: Jordan Geist (graduation), Kevin Puryear (graduation), Christian Guess (transfer), Adam Wolf (graduation) K.J. Santos (transfer)
  • Potential Departures: Jontay Porter (NBA draft)

Missouri | Returning Production

3 67.81% 66.96% 68.04% 66.19% 62.61% 60.18% 70.20% 66.31% 66.31% 96.23%

Early Outlook: It’s been quiet around Columbia. Given the last decade, that’s, well, weird. Instead of scrambling to turn over its roster, Mizzou’s enjoying a modicum of continuity. Meanwhile, coach Cuonzo Martin’s shown signs in his first two years of an evolving offensive philosophy.

On paper, the Tigers return the third-most production in the SEC. They’re plugging roster holes with a top-100 combo forward (Tray Jackson), a top-150 combo guard (Mario McKinney Jr.,) and finally have Evansville transfer Dru Smith available to run the point. And all while the rest of the conference turns itself inside out.

So everything is copacetic? Not entirely. Not all production is made equal.

Right now, Martin’s core ranks 12th in offensive efficiency (0.851 PPP) and 10th (0.916 PPP) at the other end of the floor. As deftly as Martin and his staff have handled the early stages of a rebuild, this is the first load test on the frame they’ve installed.

Still, you can craft a solid case that Tigers are on the cusp of scaling the standings.

Start with Mark Smith, who should be healed after an ankle injury stole 13 games from his sophomore season. Right now, Smith would be among the most efficient scorers (1.091 PPP) sticking around the SEC. The season-ending spurt by Torrence Watson was also heartening. If his shooting stroke has finally been dialed in, the Tigers have a guard duo that can maximize MU’s floor spacing. And it helps that both offered evidence of being plus-defenders. Meanwhile, reports out the practice facility hinted that Dru Smith was sometimes the best player on the floor.

Down low, Jeremiah Tilmon’s ability to set aside his foul woes is crucial. If he can, Martin has a big who can thrive rolling to the rim, abuse defenders on the block and fire passes out of double-teams to open shooters. Last year, combo forward was a black hole. Adding Jackson, a prospect who finally seemed to live up to his immense ceiling last spring, eases some of the worry. His comfort playing on the perimeter also comes with the ability to defend the paint — stocking the Tigers with frontcourt pairing capable of pulling defenders out of the lane at one end while remaining stout defensively,

Depth-wise, the Tigers have plenty of bodies, and its backcourt should be positioned to carry a large chunk of the offensive load. MU also has the parts to assemble a sturdy bench unit out of McKinney, Xavier Pinson, Javon Pickett, Mitchell Smith and Reed Nikko.

So far, Martin’s shown a knack for adapting on the fly when adversity hits and for extracting every ounce of potential from the players he has on hand. Now, he has a group that could wind up fighting for an at-large bid.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

South Carolina Gamecocks

  • Record: 16-16, 11-7 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 70
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 7 (Avg. Recruit: 86.84)
  • Departures: Chris Silva (graduation), Hassani Gravett (graduation), Tre Campbell (graduation), Jason Cudd (transfer)

South Carolina | Returning Production

6 57.88% 57.25% 42.98% 53.62% 59.15% 53.03% 60.84% 56.46% 57.42% 64.88%

Early Outlook: As we look back at the Gamecocks’ Final Four run three years ago, the feat only grows more miraculous.

We should all know better than to doubt Frank Martin, but his body of work at a historically mediocre program deserves appreciation. Three top-four SEC finishes in the last four seasons is impressive enough. Still, peril is never far off.

Over the past four years, Martin’s classes haven’t been rated better than 43rd nationally, while his best signee in Sedee Keita — No. 111 in 2016 — transferred out. When a roster construction relies heavily on long-term prospects, you can become prone to massive swings and clear rebuilds. Yet Martin has managed to avoid going bust — even as the talent level at other SEC schools has dramatically improved.

This season might test that theory.

Seeing nearly half your statistical output vanish with the graduation of three starters illustrate how thin the margin is in Columbia. While A.J. Lawson and Keyshawn Bryant showed flashes and steady improvement, what the rest of this roster can offer is opaque.

Injuries are a significant reason why. T.J. Moss was lost to an ankle injury, followed by sophomore swingman Justin Minaya, who tried to come back from a knee injury before being shelved. Even if both those wings are healthy, Martin’s backcourt will tilt heavily toward underclassmen who need multiple seasons to develop. In contrast, Maik Kotsar, Felipe Haase and Alonzo Frink are all known quantities, but none of the three is a natural fit for what Silva — an SEC Defensive Player of the Year — brought to the table.

This season, fortune favored Martin’s group, which finished fourth in the standings but the equivalent of 11th in KenPom. While their lost production is modest compared to their peers, Martin’s modest recruiting methods could compound the issue and send the Gamecocks sliding toward the mean.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Iowa vs Tennessee Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee Volunteers

  • Record: 31-6, 15-3 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 10
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 6 (Avg. Recruit: 92:43)
  • Departures: Admiral Schofield (graduation), Jordan Bone (NBA draft), Kyle Alexander (graduation), Brad Woodson (graduation), Lucas Campbell (graduation)
  • Potential departures: Grant Williams (NBA draft)

Tennessee | Returning Production

13 40.46% 32.54% 44.66% 31.21% 32.12% 35.10% 33.25% 32.72% 45.72% 29.65%

Early Outlook: A tortuous 48 hours nearly left the Vols oscillating wildly. Over the weekend, reports surfaced that UCLA had targeted coach Rick Barnes as its replacement for Steve Alford. By the next morning, we learned of Barnes has struggled to deepen the reservoir of money to pay assistants, going so far as to pay for one’s raise out of his own pocket. Meanwhile, athletic director Phillip Fulmer rarely showed up to Thompson-Boling Arena in a season where the program was near its apex.

Late Monday night, though, Barnes rebuffed the Bruins’ reported offer of $5 million annually — a salary that would be a $1.2 million pay cut after accounting for the astronomical cost of living out in Los Angeles. No, the dalliance didn’t lead to estrangement. Instead it underscored how fragile success can be.

Oh, and Barnes’ program also just so happens to be second in the SEC for lost production.

While Williams left open the possibility of returning to Rocky Top, it’s likely he decides his chances at going in the first round warrant staying in the draft. That decision means four of Barnes’ starters will have cycled out, leaving Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden and Yves Pons as the core for next season. Adding Josiah James, the No. 17 recruit in 2019, to the mix can’t be understated, either.

Entering the weekend, UT looked poised for a modest step backward. Returning members of the roster posted a collective 0.972 points per possession and a net rating of 11.0 — both tops in the conference. Maybe the Vols wouldn’t be a potential Final Four team, but a return to the NCAA tournament should be the bar.

But what if the 64-year-old Barnes had flown the coup? UT has been home his reinvention. But if his bosses won’t throw their full weight behind the program, it risks imploding the foundation he’s poured.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Virginia Tech vs Duke Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Texas A&M Aggies

  • Record: 14-18, 6-12 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 91
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 13 (Avg. Recruit: 88.06)
  • Departures: Christian Mekowulu (graduation), Isiah Jasey (transfer), Chris Collins (graduation), Frank Byers (graduation), Admon Gilder (transfer)

Texas A&M | Returning Production

1 82.77% 87.08% 97.55% 86.65% 77.62% 88.29% 89.93% 88.69% 88.37% 74.12%

Early Outlook: The coaching carousel is still spinning, but the Aggies are a clear winner after luring Buzz Williams back to College Station, where he served as an assistant back in the day. If you can reach a Sweet 16 at Virginia Tech, a coach of Williams’ pedigree is going to max out the money coursing through Texas A&M’s alumni base and the proximity to oodles of talent an hour away in Houston.

The Aggies hand-me-downs aren’t tattered, either.

T.J. Starks has all the tantalizing tools you need in a point guard. Savion Flagg quietly put together a stellar sophomore campaign, one where he averaged 13.9 points and 7.7 rebounds. Combo guard Wendell Mitchell also backed up his status as a JUCO who provide an immediate infusion. In the paint, Josh Nebo’s production largely equaled the numbers posted by Mekowulu in every category but blocked shots.

Sure, Williams could use more depth in his frontcourt, but there are enough pieces to work with on the perimeter. The Aggies’ recruiting class is another matter. Once Billy Kennedy was let go, all four of the program’s signees, including three top-150 prospects, asked to be released. How Williams navigates that situation may determine just how flexibility he has in his debut.

The more important variable is likely the cultural shift Williams arrival brings to College Station. It’s not a knock to say Kennedy was an upstanding human being but note that his program perpetually dealt with discipline issues and inconsistency. And if you were asked to sum Texas A&M as a program, how would you reply? Now Williams is being paid handsomely to add an elite patina.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt Commodores

  • Record: 9-23, 0-18 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 155
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 11 (Avg. Recruit: 90.93)
  • Departures: Darius Garland (NBA draft), Simi Shittu (NBA draft), Joe Toye (graduation), Matt Ryan (transfer), Yanni Wetzell (transfer)

Vanderbilt | Returning Production

8 52.11% 48.91% 50.01% 50.54% 49.46% 64.43% 48.75% 49.37% 51.29% 62.69%

Early Outlook: What’s set to unfold in Nashville might be the most interesting experiment in the conference. The decision to tap Jerry Stackhouse as Bryce Drew’s replacement fits with a recent movement to see how coaches with NBA pedigrees translate at the college level.

Looking over Stackhouse’s resume, it’s clear he has the diversity and depth of experience you might want on the sidelines. But what sort of staff will he assemble? How will he adjust to recruiting? And will he pass up interviews for NBA gigs if the going gets tough with the ‘Dores?

Frankly, this season is likely a wash. Point guard Saben Lee’s shown promise at times, while sophomore wing Aaron Nesmith still has the pedigree of a top-100 prospect. Then the list of assets quickly shrinks. Small forward Dylan Disu (No. 103) and wing Scotty Pippen Jr. (No. 329) have stuck with their pledges, but wing Austin Crowley (No. 121) sought a release. Given the attrition that welcomed Stackhouse, Disu and Pippen could be in line for heavier minutes.

While Stackhouse laid out an early vision for how he’ll stock his roster, he’s working with a short clock in the spring period.

New athletic director Malcolm Turner arrived from running the G-League, where Stackhouse was named Coach of the Year in 2017. He’s betting that the 44-year-old’s success as molding developmental pro prospects will pay off on the floor and entice elite recruits who are looking to make a quick ascent to professional ranks.

Only time will tell how shrewd the play turns out to be.