When March arrived, I didn’t envision plans for a controlled burn across the SEC.
Yet we know fires can rejuvenate growth and ensure long-term survival, which is a generous way to frame four coaching changes — potentially five, if LSU makes a move — and a massive outflow of experienced talent from rosters. The offseason isn’t even a day old, and at least seven programs face the task of replacing 50 percent or more of their statistical production, including five teams who finished in the upper half of the SEC standings.
While we’ve all been fretting our place in bracket pools, a pretty stratified hierarchy suddenly became fluid. Sure, there are still some NBA draft decisions looming, and transfers can be announced at any time, but we already have enough information to start making reasonable projections about the state of play as we turn our attention to next season.
Within an hour of the confetti dropping in Minneapolis after Virginia claimed its first national crown, scores of way-too-early top-25 polls went live. This piece isn’t in the business of prognostication. Instead, the goal to simply take stock of each program and the scope of it work it faces this offseason. (Also, there’s a reason Sam basically spends a month toiling away at season previews that run in October.)
We’ll split the SEC in half and work through in alphabetical order. So, without further ado, let’s get to it.
Note: This piece was updated to reflect the decisions of Auburn point guard Jared Harper, LSU wing Javonte Smart and LSU forward Emmitt Williams to enter the NBA draft.
- Record: 18-16, 8-10 SEC
- KenPom: No. 64
- SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 4 (Avg. Recruit: 94.80)
- Departures: Kira Lewis Jr. (transfer), Donta Hall (graduation), Dazon Ingram (transfer), Riley Norris (graduation), Daniel Giddens (transfer), Avery Johnson Jr. (graduation), Lawson Schaffer (graduation)
Alabama | Returning Production
Outlook: Two weeks ago, gauges in Tuscaloosa spiked and a meltdown appeared imminent. Now? Early Wednesday evening, the klaxon was flipped off. Lewis, who is arguably the SEC’s best returning point guard and was feted by bluebloods, announced he would pull his name from the transfer portal. And after keeping John Petty, who had also explored transferring, Nate Oats’ managed to stave off a mass exodus.
A world where Herbert Jones and Tevin Mack is not one hospitable to a consistent offense, while the Tide’s depth down low takes a hit with Giddens exploring options as a grad-transfer and Hall moving on. At the very least, Petty’s return will supply Oats with a reliable spot-up threat. Holding on to Lewis gives him a maestro conducting his uptempo scheme — one that should help a returning core that averaged 0.846 PPP hum with more efficiency.
Oats’ predecessor also left behind a tidy welcoming gift in the nation’s No. 17 recruiting class. Assuming those signees stick to their pledges, it sets the stage for top in-state target Trendon Watford, the No. 27 player in his class, to add a final infusion. Practically, Watford would an upgrade at combo forward, but the optics also matter. Oats’ roots are buried in the upper Midwest, where he started as a high school coach in Michigan, and it was reasonable to wonder how quickly he could gain traction in a new geographic footprint.
If Oats’ first two weeks are any indication, he’s settling in just fine and giving him the kind of personnel to stock his potent attack.
- Record: 18-16, 8-10 SEC
- KenPom: No. 54
- SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 14 (Avg. Recruit: 86.78)
- Departures: Daniel Gafford (NBA draft), Keyshawn Embery-Simpson (transfer), Jordan Phillips (transfer)
Arkansas | Returning Production
Outlook: We all had fun monitoring the twists and turns in a loopy coaching search that seemed beset by unrealistic expectations. In the end, though, Arkansas wooed Eric Musselman from Nevada, swapping out the Sierra Nevada for the Ozarks and toting broad experience, a modern offense and a penchant for quick roster overhauls. In a state where the talent pipeline can be boom or bust, the last trait could prove indispensable.
Gafford’s absence can’t be discounted, but the Razorbacks’ trio of Isaiah Joe, Mason Jones and Jalen Harris that should be in the conversation as one of the SEC’s better backcourts. Reggie Chaney and Desi Sills were also borderline top-150 prospects who never quite got a toehold in their freshmen seasons. Coaxing improvement from those rising sophomores and getting steady contributions from bully big Adrio Bailey give Musselman the makings of a team that can contend for the bubble. There’s also time for Musselman to do what he does best — scour the transfer market for a plug-and-play post presence.
Don’t lose sight of this fact, either: Mike Anderson’s youth-laden roster ranked fourth in the SEC for defensive efficiency (0.86 PPP), and roster continuity means Musselman will have a group that clamps down. A stingy defense coupled with a backcourt that can bomb away eases the transition to a new regime.
- Record: 30-10, 11-7 SEC
- KenPom: No. 11
- SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 5 (Avg. Recruit: 92.31)
- Departures: Bryce Brown (graduation), Malik Dunbar (graduation), Horace Spencer (graduation), Cole Blackstock (graduation)
- Potential Departures: Chuma Okeke (NBA draft), Austin Wiley (NBA draft)
Auburn | Returning Production
Outlook: On Monday, and coming of its first Final Four, Auburn was still built to contend. Another year of Jared Harper looked like an obvious boon — one that disappeared when the junior announced he was entering the NBA draft and signing with an agent.
Now, Harper can still withdraw and return to the Plains, but for now, Bruce Pearl’s watching arguably the SEC’s best backcourt — and half his made 3-pointers — exit the program. So come on down, J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty. While McCormick is at ease playing fast and primed to attack out of ball screens, we’ll have to see how efficiency scales up with his usage. The same goes for McCormick, who shot 44.4 percent on spot-up looks and can also lead the break.
When the week began, a looming pair of decisions in Auburn’s front court appeared of more pressing concern. A looming pair of decisions will ultimately set expectations on the Plains. Before he went down with a knee injury in the Sweet 16, draftniks projected the Okeke, a sophomore, as a potential first-round pick. While he might not be available until mid-season, a decision to return would be a shot in the arm.
As for Wiley, the junior already lost a season after a suspension for his involvement in a pay-for-play scandal. Might he decide it is best to cash in chips now? If he goes, Anfernee McLemore, an able if undersized rim protector, is the obvious choice to take his minutes and role.
Bring back Okeke and Wiley would stanch the bleeding, but the Tigers’ status as a clear favorite for the SEC crown takes a hit. We know the Tigers will play fast, apply pressure and launch a volley from behind the arc, an attack that will add assertive wing Issac Okoro, a top-40 prospect, to the mix.
- Record: 20-16, 9-9 SEC
- KenPom: No. 26
- SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 2 (Avg. Recruit: 96.25)
- Departures: KeVaughn Allen (graduation), Jalen Hudson (graduation), Kevarrius Hayes (graduation), Keith Stone (transfer), Deaundrae Ballard (transfer), Chase Johnson (transfer), Mike Okauru (transfer), Mak Krause (graduation)
Florida | Returning Production
Outlook: Under Mike White, the Gators’ looks have been deceiving, but perhaps we’ll see closer to what we envisioned during his fifth season on the job. Sure, eight players left Gainesville, but the Gators are plugging in a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans to an already well-stocked backcourt.
The reset comes on the heels of Allen and Hudson wrapping up careers tinged with inconsistency and trying to thrive simultaneously. Hayes and Stone each teased potential breakouts but couldn’t break through. While Florida made a push for an NCAA tournament bid, injuries ravaged the frontcourt, sapping an elite defense of its ability to prop up a plodding, unsteady offense.
When White was hired, we expected a brand of high-pressure, uptempo basketball to be installed. Instead, the Gators spent last season trying to drag teams into the muck of slow-paced wrestling matches.
Moving forward, Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson are the type of personnel that White needs at his disposal, but each faces a crucial offseason. Nembhard can guard and dish the rock, but he needs to curb his turnovers. Locke needs to show some willingness to drive the ball. Meanwhile, Johnson has to become a genuine threat in the half court.
The Gators are again loading up on talent, inking three top-40 prospects in Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann — those aforementioned All-Americans — and Omar Payne. Right now, Florida has the pieces in place for a kinetic backcourt to power them into contention. However, its depth inside remains perilously thin, and White’s group could again be abused in the paint and on the glass. Finally, White still has to shows he’s capable of building an offense that ranks among the top 50 in efficiency. Until, it’s healthy to healthy to leaven rosy predictions with skepticism.
- Record: 11-21, 2-16 SEC
- KenPom: No. 132
- SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 3 (Avg. Recruit: 97.61)
- Departures: Derek Ogbeide (graduation), Teshaun Hightower (transfer), William Jackson II (graduation), E’Torrion Wilridge (graduation), Ignas Sargiunas (transfer), Christian Harrison (graduation), Mike Edwards (graduation)
Georgia | Returning Production
Outlook: It’s only April, but analysts may try to prove their savvy by pegging the Bulldogs for a rapid ascent up the standings. The logic is entirely faulty, either. Coach Tom Crean’s roster did churn, but the turnover occurred mostly at the bottom. It appears likely he held on to Rayshaun Hammonds and Nicolas Claxton — the kind of versatile and mobile big men his complex scheme needs to thrive — and two of his better veteran wins in Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris.
That kind of veteran quartet is optimal for the massive talent infusion set to flow into Athens. Crean locked down the No. 7 class nationally, highlighted in-state product Anthony Edwards, the No. 2 overall prospect in 2019. The Bulldogs also get longer and more athletic with multi-positional prospects Jaykwon Walton (No. 69) and Christian Brown (No. 60). And that’s before you consider UGA is in the thick of the race for combo guard Harlond Beverly.
Last season, the Bulldogs’ lacked the personnel to make defenses extend and guard, or the kinds of players capable of generating offense if a set broke down. Now? Crean has the clay to fit the mold of what he wants. And in a league where the pecking order isn’t clearly defined, betting on raw talent isn’t the worst wager you can make.
- Record: 30-7, 15-3 SEC
- KenPom: No. 8
- SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 1 (Avg. Recruit: 98.25)
- Departures: Reid Travis (graduation), Quade Green (transfer)
- Potential Departures: PJ Washington (NBA draft), Keldon Johnson (NBA draft), Tyler Herro (NBA draft)
Kentucky | Returning Production
Early Outlook: Every April for the last decade, a rite of spring arrives: one crop of blue-chippers leaves Lexington, vacating ample minutes and roles for the next season’s planting. Except coach John Calipari has adapted his model, plucking a top-flight grad transfer to plug into a vital role. Last spring, it was Reid Travis. This year, Nate Sestina, a combo forward from Bucknell, is the chosen one, an addition that might portend a schematic shift to a system that uses four-out as a chassis.
Selectively adding veterans was just one change. While Calipari remains a one-and-done devotee, he’s also targeted prospects who might stick around — if they don’t quickly scale a learning curve. First, it was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. This season, it was Herro. That being said, three members of the 2018 class — Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and EJ Montgomery — are poised to return. Instead of breaking in a new floor general or relying on young bigs, the Wildcats will have a pair of sophomore ball-handlers, while Montgomery, Sestina and Nick Richards are veteran anchors up front.
Oh, and Calipari still has three top-25 recruits to round out a nine-man rotation. Kahlil Whitney’s wiry, athletic and built to thrive in transition, but his jumper is flat and inconsistent. Keion Brooks is a versatile scoring, but at his best operating in the mid-range, whether it’s a pull-up jumper or a floater. Lastly, Tyrese Maxey profiles as a scoring point guard who can be slotted next to Hagans or Quickley.
So there’s no need to wonder when Cal and his program would adapt. Instead, the Cats are positioned — as usual — to thrive.
- Record: 28-7, 16-2 SEC
- KenPom: No. 19
- SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 12 (Avg. Recruit: 85.02)
- Departures: Tremont Waters (NBA draft), Naz Reid (NBA draft), Skylar Mays (NBA draft), Kavell Bigby-Williams (graduation), Daryl Edwards (transfer), Javonte Smart (NBA draft), Emmitt Williams (NBA draft)
LSU | Returning Production
Early Outlook: It took a while, but turbulence finally hit the LSU program. The catalyst: Smart’s decision to test the NBA draft waters, a move that craters the Tigers’ returning production.
Meanwhile, the future of coach Will Wade remains murky, and that’s a mild description. Depending on which national outlet you read, coach Will Wade and his employers are close to reconciling or FBI agents have been poking around Baton Rouge in the wake of his suspension for popping up on wiretap central to the federal prosecutors’ pay-for-play probe. Either way, the uncertainty surrounding Wade’s future — and whether LSU can avoid paying his buyout — created a vacuum sucking talent out of the program.
Normally, Waters and Reid, both of whom are projected as second-round selections, might be inclined to stay, and Mays might keep his name out of the hopper. Instead, all of them have declared and might be keen to stay. Williams’ decision to follow the quickly forming march out of town isn’t surprising, either. The only member of LSU’s highly-touted and now ignominious freshmen class is Darius Days, and is it only a matter of time before he also smashes a palm on the eject button?
Fleeing talent, the specter of NCAA penalties and imperiled athletics leaderships may winnow the pool of potential replacements if Wade gets the heave-ho. Even if that doesn’t come to pass, reinforcements aren’t arriving en masse. A first-to-worst finish might not be in the cards, but LSU seems due to backslide toward the SEC cellar.
On Thursday, we’ll examine the latter half of the SEC, including a look at a Missouri roster that is near the top of the league in returning production.