Any other year, our SEC preview would have rolled out before games tipped off. Instead, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has upended normal rhythms and given this season a very perceptible ad hoc vibe. We also get to question our own judgment as results come in before some pieces go live.
Last week, Mizzou scheduled two games in a matter of days, played Oregon in Nebraska, and faced a Wichita State program that had just eight players available. Tennessee and Ole Miss haven’t played games at all, with both on pause after COVID burrowed its way into both programs. Kentucky, our preseason favorite, sits at 1-3. The Atlantic 10 also picked off another contender when Saint Louis topped LSU. Oh, and Liberty picked off South Carolina and Mississippi State.
And is anyone confident every SEC program completes their 18-game conference schedule? So, how do you compile a preview that’s in any way reliable? You can’t. Instead, we took stock of rosters at full health and plot out out reasons for optimism and pessimism. Who knows if the prognostications will wind up being in the same ZIP code of reality.
Instead of focusing on exact places in the standings, it’s probably helpful to break the SEC’s pecking order into tiers.
- Potential Protected Seeds: Kentucky and Tennessee
- Likely NCAA tournament teams: Alabama, LSU and Florida
- Bubble Worthy: Arkansas, Auburn, Ole Miss, Missouri and South Carolina
- Muddling Through: Georgia, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt
Neither the Wildcats nor the Volunteers are surefire Final Four contenders, and both sit around No. 20 in KenPom’s ratings. As always, the middle of the standings will likely be a pileup. When this piece goes live, LSU, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Alabama are all wedged between 30 and 47th in the Pomeroy’s ratings, and South Carolina (66th) has a deep enough backcourt to be feisty. On a neutral floor, LSU would only be a six-point favorite over the Gamecocks.
Even in a time of uncertainty, the unpredicability of SEC hoops remains constant. Let’s jump in.
No. 1: Kentucky Wildcats
Rock M Projection: 19-7 (15-3 SEC) | KenPom: 17-10 (12-6 SEC)
- Returning OV%: 5.37
- Returning %Min: 7.62
Quick Take: With coach John Calipari’s crew scuffling early on, sticking with this prediction might seem foolhardy. And yes, outside of Olivier Sarr, depth at the post is a problem. Devin Askew is talented, but he’s still a freshman point guard. B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke are forecasted as lottery picks, but both are inconsistent perimeter shooters. But remember that Calipari has only missed the NCAA tournament once and been a protected seed eight times in his dozen seasons on the job. The Wildcats didn’t have a soft stretch in non-conference to mask their growing pains, but history tells us that Cal figures out way to take his talented parts and turn it into cohesive whole.
No. 2: Tennessee Volunteers
Rock M Projection: 19-6 (13-5 SEC) | KenPom: 17-7 (12-6 SEC)
- Returning OV%: 69.51
- Returning %Min: 68.71
Quick Take: While coach Rick Barnes has elevated the Volunteers’ recruiting, the guts of this team — John Fulkerson and Yves Pons — reflect the culture he instilled early on in Knoxville. Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi each dealt with growing pains, but breakout sophomore campaigns would solidify Tennessee’s core. A pair of blue-chip guards in Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson are also setting foot on campus, while transfers such as wing Victor Bailey Jr., post Uros Plavsic and combo forward E.J. Anosike supply veteran depth to the rotation. That depth, especially inside, and experience is also what the team in front of them lacks.
No. 3: LSU Tigers
Rock M Projection: 18-8 (12-6 SEC) | KenPom: 17-10 (10-8 SEC)
- Returning OV%: 29.43%
- Returning %Min: 38.33%
Quick Take: The Tigers were spared the worst of roster attrition, keeping Trendon Watford, Javonte Smart and Darius Days in Baton Rouge for another season. Losing Skylar Mays hurts, but the arrival Cam Thomas, perhaps the best pure prep scorer in the country, is a soothing balm. There’s also enough size in Josh Gray, Shareef O’Neal and Bryan Penn-Johnson to supply the rim protection that was absent last season. What’s worrisome, outside an NCAA Notice of Allegations, is the Tigers’ perimeter defense. Coach Will Wade’s group will gamble, but even then, they shouldn’t be a sieve. LSU can score at will, but its success hinges on stopping opponents doing it, too.
No. 4: Alabama Crimson Tide
Rock M Projection: 17-10 (11-7 SEC) | KenPom: 14-12 (9-9 SEC)
- Returning OV%: 58.62
- Returning %Min: 52.71
Quick Take: The Tide fit the profile of a program on the upswing. It returns three backcourt starters in Jaden Shackelford, Herbert Jones and John Petty. Former five-star and Villanova transfer Jahvon Quinerly is the heir apparent for Kira Lewis. And Bama added Yale graduate transfer Jordan Bruner to go along with veteran big man Alex Reese. Toss in a top-10 recruiting class, and coach Nate Oats has a potentially potent blend. Whether the Tide excel hinges on how well they defend and balance out Oats’ NBA-inspired scheme built around a fast tempo and launching a ton of 3-pointers.
No. 5: Florida Gators
Rock M Projection: 15-10 (11-7 SEC) | KenPom: 18-8 (11-7 SEC)
- Returning OV%: 62.77
- Returning %Min: 67.98
Quick Take: Talent is the issue in Gainesville. Keyontae Johnson is the figurehead, but Noah Locke, Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis make for an amply stocked backcourt, while Omar Payne can anchor the post. Whether coach Mike White can maximize those assets, especially on offense, is up for debate. White’s never put a mediocre team on the floor. However, he’s never maximized the blue-chip recruits he’s wooed. Is this another year where White’s program underwhelms?
No. 6: Missouri Tigers
Rock M Projection: 15-9 (10-8 SEC) | KenPom: 16-10 (10-8 SEC)
- Returning OV%: 88.05
- Returning %Min: 87.70
Quick Take: Mizzou is running it back, returning the most production of any SEC team. Had the Tigers enjoyed better health last season, they might have picked up a couple more SEC victories, making a sixth-place prediction seem less outlandish. To make it reality, it’s obvious what needs to happen: good health, better shooting, and consistency each night from combo guard Xavier Pinson and post Jeremiah Tilmon. Coach Cuonzo Martin only tweaked his roster at the margins, banking on his blueprint turning out to be a sturdy final product.
No. 7: South Carolina
Rock M Projection: 16-11 (9-9 SEC) | KenPom: 13-11 (8-10 SEC)
- Returning OV%: 69.68
- Returning %Min: 73.91
Quick Take: Every season, we wonder if South Carolin will bottom out, and the Gamecocks wind up over-performing. Now, the frame is reversed. Coach Frank Martin has a slew of athletic guards, headlined by A.J. Lawson, Jermaine Cousinard and Keyshawn Bryant, that are inclined to attack. Carolina’s also moved away from murderball. They still get in your shirt defensively, but in recent seasons, they’re also eager to get in the open floor and blitz the tempo. Martin has the depth to do it this season. Finding a stable presence in the paint and reliable shooting might enable a top-four finish.
Read the South Carolina preview
No. 8 Arkansas Razorbacks
Rock M Projection: 16-10 (9-9 SEC) | KenPom: 18-9 (10-8 SEC)
- Returning OV%: 13.48
- Returning %Min: 18.34
Quick Take: Aside from Kentucky, no other SEC saw as much production exit during the offseason. To be sure, coach Eric Musselman has plenty of talent, fusing transfers like Justin Smith, Jalen Tate and Vance Jackson with quality freshmen in Moses Moody, Devontae Davis and Jaylen Williams. On paper, the Hogs look great, but transfers arrived seeking more minutes and larger roles. Freshmen were likely sold on the possibility of each, too. And with only one returner of significant experience in Desi Sills, how Muss goes about formulating his rotation and creating chemistry will be worth monitoring.
No. 9: Auburn Tigers
Rock M Projection: 14-11 (9-9 SEC) | KenPom: 12-15 (7-11 SEC)
- Returning OV%: 13.16
- Returning %Min: 21.49
Quick Take: Never bet against Bruce Pearl. That guided our thinking. Of course, it also assumed the Tigers would have freshman Sharife Cooper running the point. Instead, the top-30 recruit hasn’t practiced with the team as the NCAA takes a long look at his eligibility. Without him in the mix, the Tigers are banking on the likes of Allen Flanigan, Devan Cambridge and Jamal Johnson seamlessly taking on starting roles. After that, it’s question marks everywhere. If Auburn lacks Cooper’s services, optimism about a tolerable reset season dims.
No. 10: Texas A&M Aggies
Rock M Projection: 14-12 (8-10 SEC) | KenPom: 14-11 (8-10 SEC)
- Returning OV%: 57.25
- Returning %Min: 65.16
Quick Take: The culture change in College Station is slower in unfolding, but the Aggies have enough pieces to sneak up the standings. Wing Savion Flagg needs to bounce back in his senior season, but he has a trio of guards—Quenton Jackson, Emmanuel Miller and Andre Gordon—to collectively ease his workload. Freshmen Hassan Diarra and Jaxson Robinson, a top-50 talent, should have coach Buzz Williams’ backcourt in order. Yet frontcourt depth remains shallow. Sophomore Jonathan Aku gets help from graduate transfer Kevin Marfo, who was one of the best rebounders in Division I last season. The Aggies are going to defend, but their ceiling will be set by how much they improve offensively.
No. 11: Ole Miss Rebels
Rock M Projection: 13-14 (7-11 SEC) | KenPom: 17-8 (11-7 SEC)
- Returning OV%: 62.24
- Returning %Min: 60.74
Quick Take: Are we breaking with conventional wisdom? Indeed. Devontae Shuler is electric at lead guard, and the Rebels tapped the transfer market to for guard Dimencio Vaughn and forward Romello White. There’s also a top-50 talent in wing Matthew Murrell. Senior post Khadim Sy and sophomore wing Austin Crowley will factor into the rotation, too. It’s easy to talk yourself into coach Kermit Davis’ squad as a dark horse. However, the Rebels still need to replace their two leading scorers, a proposition that requires Shuler to be less flaky. They’ll also need transfers to be better producers than they were at their former homes.
No. 12: Georgia Bulldogs
Rock M Projection: 10-15 (4-14 SEC) | KenPom: 12-13 (6-12 SEC)
- Returning OV%: 29.99
- Returning %Min: 36.01
Quick Take: Given how reliant the Bulldogs were on Anthony Edwards, it’s easy to assume there’s a vacuum in his absence. Yet coach Tom Crean has a talented crop of sophomores, headlined by point guard Sahvir Wheeler and Toumani Camara. If a Christian Brown and Jaykwon, a pair of athletic wings, take steps forward, UGA could be poised to surprise. Yet Crean seemingly recruited over his youngsters with a slew of JUCO players and graduate transfers. Maybe he’s merely shoring up depth to play at a fast clip. Or perhaps Crean knows the gains his youngsters require aren’t forthcoming.
No. 13: Mississippi State Bulldogs
Rock M Projection: 9-18 (4-14 SEC) | KenPom: 12-14 (7-11 in Conference)
- Returning OV%: 29.20
- Returning %Min: 37.10
Quick Take: Coach Ben Howland’s roster hemorrhaged talent, and there’s no crew of blue chippers taking the place of Reggie Perry, Robert Woodard, Tyson Carter and Nick Weatherspoon. Freshman Deivon Smith figures to see heavy minutes at point guard, and senior Abdul Ado remains arguably the best post defender in the conference. In basketball, though, you also have to score. A roster filled to the brim with developmental freshmen and a couple of transfers is lacking an answer to that need. Howland did a fine job cleaning up Rick Ray’s mess, but now he faces his own hard reset in Starkville.
Read the Mississippi State preview
No. 14: Vanderbilt Commodores
Rock M Projection: 8-18 (3-15 SEC) | KenPom: 9-16 (4-14 SEC)
- Returning OV%: 54.96
- Returning %Min: 53.55
Quick Take: The Commondores roster requires patience as coach Jerry Stackhouse cultivates adequate depth in Nashville. There’s no obvious star power, but Scotty Pippen Jr., Dylan Disu, Isaac McBride and D.J. Harvey could jell into a nucleus. Given how woeful this program was when Stackhouse took over, a 50-spot improvement in KenPom would still leave them at 119th nationally and in the SEC cellar.
SEC Player of the Year | Keyontae Johnson
Wing | Junior | Florida
When Johnson showed up in Gainesville, his game was open-wheeled: sprinting the floor in transition and attacking gaps in the half-court on straight-line drives. Over three seasons, however, he’s added more nuance.
I’m often skeptical of Mike White’s offensive scheme, but credit him for utilizing Johnson appropriately. Typically, Johnson’s home base is the left slot, and he’s optimized when isolated on slower-footed combo forwards after a switch on a ball screen. Last season, the SEC was filled with youngsters at that position, and Johnson ate them alive. And even if defenders recover, his frame and body control are such that he still punishes opponents around the rim.
That evolution, though, isn’t unexpected. What’s more notable is Johnson’s reliability on catch-and-shoots. It helped that that the Gators constructed their attack around Andrew Nembhard working in pick-and-rolls, which put defenses in rotation and created jumpers for Johnson in a variety of ways: an extra ball reversal to the slot, skip passes, and traditional kickouts when defender stunted to cut off a middle drive.
Johnson’s physical tools lend him flexibility on the defensive end, too. He can switch and check most perimeter threats, but he’s sturdy enough to hold ground against stretch fours trying to post up. That strength also shows up on the glass. Sliding down from the wing enables Florida to put wing Scottie Lewis on the floor without taking off a floor spacer in Noah Locke.
A quick note on the format for the selections. I use lineups as a framework, while coaches and the media tend to make eight selections for each team. I don’t have qualms with that approach. It’s just different from mine.
All-SEC First Team
- Point Guard: Dru Smith, Missouri
- Wing: John Petty, Alabama
- Combo Forward: Trendon Watford, LSU
- Post: John Fulkerson, Tennessee
All-SEC Second Team
- Point Guard: Devontae Shuler, Ole Miss
- Combo Guard: Javonte Smart, LSU
- Wing: Brandon Boston, Kentucky
- Wing: Savion Flagg, Texas A&M
- Post: Jeremiah Tilmon, Missouri
All-SEC Honorable Mentions
Sahvir Wheeler, Georgia; Jaden Shackleford, Alabama; A.J. Lawson, South Carolina; Terrence Clarke, Kentucky; Yves Pons, Tennessee; Scotty Pippen Jr., Vanderbilit; Josiah-Jordan James, Tennessee; Jermaine Cousinard, South Carolina; Olivier Sarr, Kentucky; Abdul Ado, Mississippi State
- Point Guard: Devin Askew, Kentucky
- Wing: Keon Johnson, Tennessee
- Wing: Moses Moody, Arkansas
- Combo Forward: Isaiah Jackson, Kentucky
- Post: Romello White, Ole Miss
Others to Watch: Jaden Springer, Tennessee; Cam Thomas, LSU; Matthew Murrell, Ole Miss; JT Thor, Auburn; Jahvon Quinerly, Alabama; Justin Smith, Arkansas; D.J. Harvey, Vanderbilt; Jordan Bruner, Alabama; Davion Mintz, Kentucky; Justin Kier, Georgia
SEC Coach of the Year
Buzz Williams | Texas A&M
When you survey our projections, we only diverge from the consensus in our assessment of Missouri and Ole Miss. And even then, we’re not at odds with most outlets and analysts. So, we’ll have to wait for a surprise.
But if asked to wager a guess, Buzz Williams fits the profile. Expectations are modest, but the Aggies have a returning star (Savion Flagg), a balanced supporting cast, and infuse a talented freshman in Jaxson Robinson and experienced vet in Kevin Marfo. The Aggies also surprised last season with a patchwork roster, one the ground teams down defensively en route to a 10-8 finish in the SEC.
Texas A&M will still put the clamps on opponents, and a bounce back year from Flagg could help elevate the program’s efficiency at the other end of the floor. The schedule is also friendly, with just six games against teams projected to finish in the top five. They also have home-and-homes with Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, while Georgia comes to College Station. That’s enough balance to exploit any teams who underperform in the middle of the standings.
If the Aggies pick off the likes of Alabama or LSU when they come to Reed Arena, a path opens up to a finish in the upper-half of the standings and a potential spot on the NCAA tournament bubble.