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What’s the state of play for SEC hoops?

After a season of regression, the conference should see more veterans stick around, improved recruiting and crowded race at the top of the standings.

SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

So, we’ve put the inventory off for long enough.

The abrupt end to the college basketball season has been followed by an offseason of uncertainty. Only one high-major coaching job came open. With the dead period lasting through June, transfer prospects couldn’t visit campus, meaning the market for their services operated in fits and starts. Meanwhile, the NBA draft process is in full upheaval. At the moment, the withdrawal deadline is uncertain. Franchises aren’t hosting players for workouts. And who knows when the draft will actually take place.

Usually, we assess the state of SEC rosters at three junctures: the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft, after the withdrawal cut-off and in the preseason. Instead, we’ve waited for clarity on the draft front. But we can’t wait forever.

While there are stragglers, most programs know which players are exploring professional options, transferring out, or returning to the fold. For our purposes, it offers a snapshot of each program’s worst-case scenario.

We also avoid ranking programs at this point in the offseason, too. Why? Obviously, rosters are in flux. On top of that uncertainty, none of us know what each SEC program’s conference schedule will look like. Who you have and whom you play matters. What can we glean from all this?

  • Continuity: Which programs project stability and retained key rotational pieces?
  • Key Decisions: Which programs are sweating as a key returner explores the draft process?
  • Roster Construction: How are SEC coaches building their programs?

More broadly, we get a sense of the SEC’s overall health. Last season was arguably the conference’s weakest performance since 2013, according to KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, though. Four programs changed coaches, and half of the conference’s pool of players cycled out. Meanwhile, recruiting took a dip in a class that was arguably weaker than in recent years.

A year later, the SEC’s checkup is brighter. Three rebuilds at Alabama, Arkansas and Texas A&M went smoothly in their first year. The conference has six programs with recruiting classes rated in the top 20 nationally, including four among the top 10, per 247 Sports. And even if player who declared for the draft keeps their name in the hopper, the SEC is set to return 15 more veterans than it did a year ago.

The league won’t be completely bereft of talent, and while we’re waiting on draft decisions from high-profile veterans, enough roster moves have taken place for us to take stock.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama Crimson Tide

  • Record: 16-15, 8-10 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 60
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 7 (Avg. Recruit: 92.98)
  • Departures: Kira Lewis Jr. (draft), John Petty Jr. (draft), Herbert Jones (draft), James Bolden (graduation), Jaylen Forbes (transfer), Raymond Hawkins (transfer), Galin Smith (transfer)
  • Additions: Jahvon Quinerly (transfer), Jordan Bruner (graduate transfer), James Rojas (redshirt), Josh Primo, Keon Ambrose-Hylton, Darius Miles, Keon Ellis
  • Returners: Jaden Shackelford, Alex Reese, Javian Davis, Tyler Barnes, Britton Johnson, Adam Cottrell, Sam Okauru

Alabama | Returning Production — April 2020

10 33.86% 36.04% 41.32% 36.50% 36.62% 20.64% 28.45% 34.58% 25.00% 36.76%

Outlook: New coach, brisk tempo and a barrage of 3-pointers produced similar results in Tuscaloosa. In replacing Avery Johnson, Nate Oats installed a contemporary pace-and-space attack after inheriting an amply-stocked backcourt. Offensively, the plan worked perfectly, with the Crimson Tide finishing 37th in adjusted efficiency, per KenPom. Just one problem: Bama backslid 56 spots at the other end of the floor.

Now comes a bit of churn. Kira Lewis, Jr. is pot committed and projected as a first-round pick. As for John Petty, the rising senior might be the linchpin decision. Petty’s shooting stroke (44.0 3FG%) recovered, and he has enough length to become a 3-and-D wing at the next level. Holding on to Petty and pairing him with All-SEC freshman Jaden Shackelford, who averaged 15.0 points and 4.8 rebounds, secures the Tide one of the better guard duos in the SEC.

In Lewis’ place comes Jahvon Quinerly, a former McDonald’s All-American and Villanova transfer. And should Petty opt to collect a paycheck, Josh Primo, a top international prospect and projected first-round pick in 2021, will gladly take on his role. Regardless, adding Primo and returning Herbert Jones, who is exploring his pro stock, would supply Oats the optimal personnel.

Meanwhile, Jaylen Forbes, Raymond Hawkins, and Galin Smith all packed their bags to find minutes elsewhere. Forbes, a former top-120 prospect, struggled mightily and never cracked a crowded rotation. The writing was on the wall for Hawkins and Smith once Oats reeled Keon Ambrose-Hylton, the No. 115 prospect in 2020, and former Yale big man Jordan Bruner, who adds some scoring pop and deft passing.

IMG Academy v Montverde Academy Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Arkansas Razorbacks

  • Record: 20-12, 7-11 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 47
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 4 (Avg. Recruit: 97.00)
  • Departures: Isaiah Joe (draft), Mason Jones (draft), Jimmy Whitt Jr. (graduation), Jalen Harris (transfer), Jeantal Cylla (graduation)
  • Additions: Connor Vanover (transfer), JD Notae (transfer), Jalen Tate (graduate transfer), Vance Jackson (graduate transfer), Moses Moody, KK Robinson, Jaylin Williams, Davonte Davis
  • Returners: Desi Sills, Abayomi Iyiola, Ethan Henderson, Reggie Chaney, Emeka Obukwelu

Arkansas | Returning Production — April 2020

9 36.17% 28.99% 25.52% 28.48% 41.37% 21.26% 31.20% 27.03% 35.97% 68.54%

Outlook: A year ago, we expressed skepticism about whether Eric Musselman’s rubric would work in Fayetteville. His first recruiting class, however, served as an explicit rebuttal. The Razorbacks lured Moses Moody, whose ability to shoot off the catch, smooth handle, and defensive length made him a top-50 prospect, back to the Natural State (he’s a North Little Rock Native) from Montverde Academy,. Alongside Moody are two more in-state prospects in combo forward Jaylin Williams (No. 71) and point guard Davonte Davis (No. 97) in a top-10 class.

The infusion offsets the outflow of perimeter talent, which includes co-SEC Player of the Year Mason Jones, who is committed to pursuing professional options. There’s a chance Isaiah Joe decides to stick around, a decision that could elevate Arkansas from an NCAA tournament team to a bonafide contender for its first SEC crown since 1994.

While Muss still taps into the transfer portal, the intent behind them has flipped. They’re less building blocks and more supplemental pieces now. Jalen Tate, who averaged 13.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists, is a 6-foot-6 combo guard. Vance Jackson, who arrives from New Mexico by way of UConn, shores up depth at the four spot. Center Connor Vanover, an Arkansas native and Cal transfer, supplies the rim protection Arkansas sorely lacked a year ago. And finally, Jacksonville transfer J.D. Notae, who posted 15.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists, adds scoring pop.

City Of Palms Classic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Auburn Tigers

  • Record: 25-6, 12-6 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 33
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 5 (Avg. Recruit: 94.75)
  • Departures: Samir Doughty (graduation), J’Von McCormick (graduation), Isaac Okoro (draft), Danjel Purifoy (graduation), Austin Wiley (graduation), Anfernee McLemore (graduation)
  • Additions: Sharife Cooper, JT Thor, Chris Moore, Justin Powell, Dylan Cardwell
  • Returners: Allen Flanigan, Devan Cambridge, Jamal Johnson, Jaylin Williams, Tyrell Jones, Babatunde Akingbola, Javon Franklin, Preston Cook, Myles Parker, Lior Berman

Auburn | Returning Reproduction — April 2020

13 21.49% 18.31% 24.20% 15.89% 20.21% 10.59% 19.01% 27.61% 19.59% 17.88%

Outlook: Doubt Bruce Pearl at your own peril.

That’s become an abiding lesson over the past three seasons. Last season, Auburn’s momentum hinged on reserves from a Final Four squad blossoming as starters. By and large, that’s what transpired. Now, Pearl is facing a more significant overhaul, as the Tigers cycle out their top-six scorers. The most experienced vet? Sophomore Allen Flanigan.

A top-10 recruiting class soothes some concern, but the Tigers’ roster will feature 10 underclassmen, half of them being little-used role players as freshmen. And while Pearl’s upgraded recruiting on the plains, only Sharife Cooper (No. 10) and JT Thor (No. 49) are elite prospects. Auburn’s been an active player in the transfer market, but (so far) have come up empty-handed.

The truth of the matter is the program will need Tyrell Jones, Jaylin Williams, and Chris Moore — all top-150 prospects — to grow into quality starters after a year as understudies. There will also be ample opportunities for newcomers in the frontcourt — Thor, Dylan Cardwell, and Justin Powell — to scrap for minutes.

It’s a tall order to keep the momentum going with this much youth. Still, even if Auburn slips toward bubble territory, Pearl might nurture a group that will be a handful down the line.

LSU v Florida Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Florida Gators

  • Record: 19-12, 11-7 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 32
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 9 (Avg. Recruit: 92.87)
  • Departures: Andrew Nembhard (draft), Kerry Blackshear, Jr. (graduation), Tre Mann (draft), Dontay Bassett (transfer), Gorjok Gak (transfer)
  • Additions: Anthony Duruji (transfer), Tyree Appleby (transfer), Samson Ruzhenstev, Niels Lane, Osayi Osifo
  • Returners: Keyontae Johnson, Noah Locke, Scottie Lewis, Omar Payne, Ques Glover, Jason Jitoboh

Florida | Returning Production — April 2020

6 59.74% 57.72% 64.26% 58.72% 58.25% 31.77% 49.99% 54.71% 60.11% 74.39%

Outlook: The hype surrounding Florida last season always seemed a tad too loud.

Andrew Nembhard remained a competent set-up man, but his efficiency remained static. Meanwhile, Tre Mann, who profiles as a scorer at lead guard, saw a path to playing time bottled up. The Gators needed Noah Locke’s shooting to space out the floor. Still, Scottie Lewis — a stubborn and tough defender — only cracked double-figures six times in SEC action. That nudged Keyontae Johnson, who had a stellar sophomore campaign, down to the four-spot.

Put another way: The Gators’ didn’t lack talent, but their fit was disjointed.

Typically, losing Nembhard, who seems inclined to keep his name in the draft, and Kerry Blackshear Jr., would be cause for worry. Instead, coach Mike White might have a rotation that makes more sense.

Assuming Mann returns, the Gators’ backcourt hinges on whether you give more minutes to Lewis or Johnson on the wing. Cleveland State transfer Tyree Appleby is a microwave scorer, and Samson Ruzhenstev possesses sneaky athleticism to go with technical polish. Down low, Omar Payne’s transition should be seamless, while Louisiana Tech transfer Anthony Duruji serves a hyper-athletic combo forward.

White can now slot pieces into clear roles while retaining the flexibility to go big or small. The question, however, is consistency. In aggregate, the Gators’ analytic profile is the picture of competence, yet the Gators only garnered a No. 10 seed in 2019. They were tracking toward similar territory after starting the season in the top-10 nationally.

Entering his sixth season in Gainesville, White needs to demonstrate he can convert elite recruiting into tangible results. Perhaps this is the mix to help him shore up faith.

Auburn v Georgia Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Georgia Bulldogs

  • Record: 16-16, 5-13 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 96
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 8 (Avg. Recruit: 90.19)
  • Departures: Anthony Edwards (draft), Rayshaun Hammonds (draft), Donnell Gresham Jr. (graduation), Tyree Crump (graduation), Jordan Harris (graduation), Rodney Howard (transfer), Amanze Ngumezi (transfer)
  • Additions: Justin Kier (graduate transfer), Andrew Garcia (graduate transfer), K.D. Johnson, Josh Taylor, Mikal Starks, Jonathan Ned, Tyron McMillan
  • Returners: Sahvir Wheeler, Toumani Camara, Tye Fagan, Christian Brown, Mike Peake, Jaykwon Walton, Jaxton Etter, Stan Turnier

Georgia | Returning Production — April 2020

8 39.34% 31.08% 15.60% 32.87% 33.51% 42.93% 43.27% 33.05% 34.65% 39.42%

Outlook: This is now a complete Tom Crean Production in Athens — one that needs to pan out.

Few people grasp just how stark the overhaul has been, either. Under Mark Fox, the Bulldogs played at one of the slowest tempos in the country. They utilized a pair of traditional bigs. They ground through long offense possessions. And while Fox occasionally landed top talent — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rayshaun Hammonds — his recruiting approach skewed toward mining and developing undervalued assets.

With Crean in charge, Georgia’s ramped up its pace, playing in transition as much as any team in America and using a pro-style half-court system that asks players to attack downhill. Defensively, the Bulldogs have been a sieve, but that’s not atypical. Crean’s best defensive units are usually older groups, and turning over Fox’s roster required a youth movement.

It’s fair to point out how UGA underwhelmed with a lottery pick (Anthony Edwards) and another likely pro (Hammonds) in the fold. But in Crean’s defense, his veterans weren’t an ideal fit. For all of Hammonds’ talent, he never entirely became a consistent producer. That’s how you wind up pumping almost 30 percent of your possessions through Edwards, who needs driving lanes and room to attack.

Last season, though, point guard Sahvir Wheeler and combo forward Toumani Camara showed promise as freshmen. Tye Fagan is a Fox holdover and a reliable combo guard. On the wing, though, Crean hunted the transfer market for experience, landing a pair of quality veterans in Justin Kier and Andrew Garcia. Meanwhile, sophomores Christian Brown and Jaykwon Walton can flex between the wing and combo forward spot, where minutes are available.

No doubt, Crean’s amassed enough raw talent, but it needs floor time to blend. His bosses are patient, though, and Crean’s a proven program-builder. With the pieces in place, now is the time to start ascending the standings.

Terrence Clarke Announces Attendance at University of Kentucky Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Kentucky Wildcats

  • Record: 25-6, 15-3 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 29
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 1 (Avg. Recruit: 98.95)
  • Departures: Tyrese Maxey (draft), Ashton Hagans (draft), Immanuel Quickley (draft), Nick Richards (draft), EJ Montgomery (draft), Kahlil Whitney (draft), Nate Sestina (graduation), Johnny Juzang (transfer)
  • Additions: Davion Mintz (graduate transfer), Terrence Clarke, BJ Boston, Devin Askew, Isaiah Jackson, Lance Ware, Cam’Ron Fletcher
  • Returners: Keion Brooks Jr., Ben Jordan, Riley Welch, Brennan Canada

Kentucky | Returning Production — April 2020

14 7.72% 7.26% 3.82% 6.99% 9.36% 1.45% 6.99% 6.14% 8.01% 8.50%

Outlook: It’s a clean break in Lexington.

Once E.J. Montgomery signed with an agent, the Wildcats knew for sure almost 94 percent of its statistical output was headed out the door. Only Keion Brooks, Jr. decided to stick around, but coach John Calipari won’t fret. Ironically, the only certainty for UK is that each season brings a total overhaul.

The Wildcats also remain a recruiting juggernaut. The intrigue remains seeing how Calipari takes raw talent and sculpts it into an SEC contender. If you’re going to quibble with his approach, a modest critique is the recent trend of elite prep big men turning down his overtures, which is especially odd given how Calipari developed P.J. Washington and Nick Richards. Calipari offset those misses by plucking quality veterans such as Reid Travis and Nate Sestina from the transfer portal — a trend that could continue if Wake Forest’s Olivier Sarr receives immediate eligibility.

While Kentucky snagged Creighton graduate transfer Davion Mintz, I’d expect Devin Askew to man the point next season (Mintz could slide in at combo guard, too). The real intrigue, though, is sorting that pile-up on the wing. Based on ranking alone, Terrence Clarke and BJ Boston would be the likely choices, but Brooks will have an offseason of development. The odd man out might be Cam’Ron Fletcher, a top-50 prospect with raw athleticism to spare, but needs a reliable jumper.

Assuming Sarr can suit up, the former All-ACC selection will anchor the back line. For my money, Isaiah Jackson would be an ideal choice for the four-spot. He’s an eraser at the rim, devastating catching lobs as a roll man, and eats up ground sprinting the floor in transition. Paired with Boston and Clarke, the Wildcats won’t have a problem switching ball-screens and deflecting passes.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 29 Texas A&M at LSU Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

LSU Tigers

  • Record: 21-10, 12-6 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 37
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 3 (Avg. Recruit: 93.65)
  • Departures: Skylar Mays (graduation), Trendon Watford (draft), Javonte Smart (draft), Emmitt Williams (draft), Darius Days (draft), Marlon Taylor (graduation), Marshall Graves (graduation), James Bishop (transfer)
  • Additions: Shareef O’Neal (mid-year transfer), Josh LeBlanc (mid-year transfer), Cam Thomas, Eric Gaines, Mwani Wilkinson, Jalen Cook, Bradley Ezewiro, Josh Gray.
  • Returners: Charles Manning, Jr., Aundre Hyatt, Courtese Cooper

LSU | Returning Production — April 2020

11 29.35% 28.56% 33.65% 25.26% 21.56% 39.18% 27.33% 28.23% 27.69% 35.54%

Outlook: Three decisions dictate expectations next season in Baton Rouge. Well, one choice weights a little more heavily than the others.

Trendon Watford fits the parameters of a modern combo forward. At 6-foot-9, the former top-20 recruit snatches rebounds and ignites fastbreaks. He can spot-up on the wing or attack a closeout. And at a minimum, he can still bury a smaller defender in the post.

Tantalizing as that potential may be, Watford struggled to bury catch-and-shoot jumpers and only averaged 0.66 points per possession as a driver out of spot-ups. And defensively, his lateral agility didn’t exactly translate to guarding consistently on the perimeter. Still, Watford averaged 13.6 points and 7.2 rebounds last season, and if he sticks around, coach Will Wade has a focal point for his offense.

Darius Days is also testing the NBA draft waters, but an erratic jumper and lack of chances to create off the dribble put a cap on his stock. Defensively, he lends Wade some flexibility, but it’s hard to imagine an undersized four with limited shot-creation boosting his stock without ample opportunities to work out. Along with Watford, LSU’s front-court will have the experience to offset a potential overhaul in the backcourt.

Skylar Mays and Marlon Taylor have graduated, and sophomore combo guard Ja’vonte Smart hasn’t pulled his name out of the draft. If all three are gone, Wade’s starting lineup might feature a trio of freshmen. Unsurprisingly, Wade amassed another bumper crop of talent.

Combo guard Cam Thomas, a five-star prospect out of Oak Hill Academy, might possess the best scoring instincts in the country. By contrast, wing Mwani Wilkinson is billed as the best defensive prospect in this class. Ideally, Thomas and Wilkinson would be slotted with Smart, Days, and Watford, while late-blooming point guard Eric Gaines gets a year to add weight to a slender frame.

Mississippi v Wichita State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Ole Miss Rebels

  • Record: 15-17, 6-12 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 102
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 12 (Avg. Recruit: 92.66)
  • Departures: Breein Tyree (graduation), Franco Miller, Jr. (transfer), Carlos Curry (transfer)
  • Additions: Dimencio Vaughn (graduate transfer), Romello White (graduate transfer), Jarkel Joiner (transfer), Matthew Murrell, Marcus Niblack
  • Returners: Devontae Shuler, KJ Buffen, Blake Hinson, Khadim Sy, Austin Crowley, Bryce Williams, Sammy Hunter, Antavion Collum, Luis Rodriguez, John McBride, Connor McKay

Ole Miss | Returning Production — April 2020

1 80.01% 71.97% 66.15% 71.56% 84.91% 79.18% 77.73% 70.84% 80.78% 93.40%

Outlook: A modest amount of roster churn unfolded in Oxford, but if it’s a player of Breein Tyree’s importance, that’s still a bit of heft.

As Kermit Davis gears up for his third season, his plan is straightforward: run it back and hope two graduate transfers — Rider’s Dimencio Vaughn and Arizona State’s Romello White — plug a statistical gap.

At 6-foot-5, 220-pounds, Vaughn is a sturdy wing who averaged 14.8 points and 6.6 points for Rider last season. In theory, Vaughn’s minutes shouldn’t see a significant dip, but we tend to see up-transfers take a hit in the scoring column. The pressure on Vaughn to fill it up eases if sophomore Austin Crowley takes a step forward, which would bode well for Davis’ longer-term plans.

Meanwhile, White, who averaged 10.2 points and 8.8 rebounds last season, comes with a proven track record of production in a high-major conference. Junior combo forward Blake Hinson’s game skews towards the perimeter, and while K.J. Buffen is a grinder, White’s more active on the glass and offers rim protection. No, White’s not a game-changer, but playing him alongside Khadim Sy lends a bit more brawn to Ole Miss’ frontcourt.

And once you factor in Shuler, experience shouldn’t be a problem for Davis.

While the Rebels’ recruiting ranking appears modest, Matthew Murrell, who ranks as the nation’s No. 44 prospect, is in the fold. His build is college-ready, and he’s athletic enough to be a high-level finisher. Toss in transfer Jarkel Joiner, who sat out last season after averaging 18.6 points at Cal State Bakersfield, and Ole Miss made the most of the few open slots it had.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Mississippi State Bulldogs

  • Record: 20-11, 11-7 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 48
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 10 (Avg. Recruit: 90.85)
  • Departures: Robert Woodard II (draft), Reggie Perry (draft), Abdul Ado (draft), Nick Weatherspoon (draft), Tyson Carter (graduation), KeyShawn Feazell (transfer), Prince Oduro (transfer), Elias King (transfer), Devin Butts (transfer)
  • Additions: Galen Smith (transfer), Jalen Johnson (graduate transfer), Deivon Smith, Keondre Montgomery, Cameron Matthews, Andersson Garcia
  • Returners: DJ Stewart Jr., Iverson Molinar, Quinten Post, Andrew Jenkins, Tate Clayton

Mississippi State | Returning Production — April 2020

12 23.07% 20.72% 24.85% 27.86% 11.50% 21.69% 18.72% 21.99% 22.43% 8.23%

Outlook: Ben Howland faces a reset that might be a tad harder than he anticipated in Starkville. Tyson Carter’s graduation was foreseeable, along with Reggie Perry leaping to the NBA. It’s unlikely though that Howland expected to lose the enigmatic Nick Weatherspoon and Robert Woodard in the same offseason.

Now, Woodard could still theoretically return, but he’s a bigger wing with some shooting ability and defensive quickness. Follow enough draftniks, and Woodard’s name appears in forecasts for the end of the first round. If that’s the case, it’s reasonable to expect him to keep his name in the hopper.

The only player likely to return is Abdul Ado. That’s little consolation, though. Ado, who stands 6-foot-10, provides rim protection and rebounding, but he’s never been a large component at the offensive end. Meanwhile. Meanwhile, four players decided to transfer out, the most notable among them Elias King, who might have been the best option to plug in for Woodard.

On paper, D.J. Stewart, who averaged 8.5 points and 2.5 rebounds, is the Bulldogs’ best scoring option still in the program. After him, guard Iverson Molinar chipped in 5.9 points per game last season. Even if point guard Deivon Smith, who is rated the 55th-best recruit nationally, gains early traction, who will he be setting up? Howland scrambled on the transfer market and landed Jalen Johnson, who averaged 15.5 points and 6.6 rebounds last season for Louisiana Lafayette, but the Bulldogs’ depth is still threadbare.

Missouri v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Missouri Tigers

  • Record: 15-16, 7-11 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 97
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 14 (Avg. Recruit: 84.22)
  • Departures: Jeremiah Tilmon (draft), Mitchell Smith (draft), Reed Nikko (graduation), Tray Jackson (transfer), Mario McKinney, Jr. (transfer)
  • Additions: Drew Buggs (graduate transfer), Ed Chang, Jordan Wilmore
  • Returners: Xavier Pinson, Dru Smith, Mark Smith, Javon Pickett, Torrence Watson, Kobe Brown, Parker Braun, Axel Okongo, Evan Yerkes, Brooks Ford

Missouri | Returning Production — April 2020

2 72.09% 76.69% 86.33% 75.21% 61.67% 85.79% 75.64% 79.05% 69.38% 47.48%

Outlook: Remember when continuity was Mizzou’s chief asset? In the wake of a season defined by poor shooting, injuries, and inconsistency, how much value does it hold as Cuonzo Martin gears up for his fourth season? And what happens if those traits persist?

Indeed, these are the kinds of existential questions you thought might be put to rest at this stage of Martin’s rebuild. Now, the answers may determine how much longer the project lasts.

Assuming Jeremiah Tilmon and Mitchell Smith return, MU will tout the most returning production in the SEC. How they go about generating that output, though, seems likely to change. Over the season’s final nine games, Martin tweaked his scheme to a Euro-inspired system built around ball-screens for Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson. And through the early stages of this offseason, his roster moves imply it might be a more durable decision.

First, Martin plucked Hawaii point guard Drew Buggs from the transfer market, adding a pure point guard who will allow Pinson to move off the ball. Pinson’s flashed dynamic passing skills, but he’s better suited as a predator hunting for favorable switches. The addition also means easing usage on Dru Smith.

While the offense won’t hinge as much on banging in 3-balls, the Tigers will still need Torrence Watson, Mark Smith, and Kobe Brown to elevate their shooting percentages — posing a threat that keeps defenses from shrinking the floor. And ramping up pick-and-rolls might allow Jeremiah Tilmon to get touches that don’t involve jostling on the block and fighting through double-teams.

If those changes don’t pan out, Martin’s options off the bench are modest. Mitchell Smith evolved into a flexible defender but posed little threat at the other end. Parker Braun is a viable rotation player against small-ball teams, but there’s a ceiling on that utility. And if Tilmon gets in foul trouble, Axel Okongo’s size is his chief asset, while freshman Jordan Wilmore is raw.

For better or worse, this is the nucleus Martin’s put together. In the best-case scenario, last season’s putrid perimeter shooting proves to be an outlier, and the Tigers finally catch a break when it comes to injuries. A redux, though, would be ominous, given that Martin faces turning over half the roster next season.

South Carolina v Auburn Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

South Carolina Gamecocks

  • Record: 18-13, 10-8 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 69
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 13 (Avg. Recruit: 86.89)
  • Departures: Maik Kotsar (graduation), Michaiah Henry (graduation), Jair Bolden (transfer)
  • Additions: Seventh Woods (transfer), Patrick Iriel, Ja’Von Benson, Devin Carter
  • Returners: A.J. Lawson, Jermaine Couisnard, Justin Minaya, Keyshawn Bryant, Alanzo Frink, T.J. Moss, Trae Hannibal, Jalyn McCreary, Wildens Leveque

South Carolina | Returning Production — April 2020

3 73.73% 72.32% 72.99% 73.50% 73.52% 74.17% 81.63% 74.71% 69.16% 72.39%

Outlook: A bit of advice comes in handy when gauging the Gamecocks — ignore non-conference play. Over the past two seasons, Frank Martin’s program owns a .500 win percentage outside the SEC. In conference play, though, they’ve recorded double-digit wins and made late cases for inclusion on the bubble.

Roster stability might be the antidote this season.

Of course, that assumes A.J. Lawson (13.4 points and 3.7 rebounds) is back and paired up with Jermaine Couisnard. Keyshawn Bryant might not become a dead-eye shooter, but he’s a terror sprinting the floor in transition. At the same time, Justin Minaya hopefully finds the consistency that was absent last season. Toss in North Carolina transfer Seventh Woods, a former top-50 recruit who sat out last season, and Martin’s backcourt will have the proper blend of talent, experience, and depth.

What Martin lacks is a proven interior anchor. Alanzo Frink is undersized and skilled in bully-ball, but he lacks the sneaky diversity of Maik Kotsar. Over four years, Kotsar flashed a face-up game and paired it with rim slow-rolling rim attacks from the elbow. Moving Kotsar around offensively and using him as a backline enforcer helped Martin pull off a sneaky shift to a higher tempo without sacrificing physicality. It remains to be seen how Wildens Leveque transitions to a larger role.

The upside in Columbia East, though, isn’t hard to see. The Gamecocks ranked 325th nationally in experience last season, per KenPom, and recovered from ugly non-conference losses to Boston University and Stetson to finish sixth in the SEC. Maybe Carolina doesn’t challenge for the conference crown, but ending a three-year absence from the NCAA tournament might be in the offing.

Tennessee v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Tennessee Volunteers

  • Record: 17-14, 9-9 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 68
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 2 (Avg. Recruit: 96.82)
  • Departures: Jordan Bowden (graduation), Yves Pons (draft), Jalen Johnson (transfer), Lamonte Turner (transfer), Zach Kent (transfer)
  • Additions: Victor Bailey Jr., E.J. Anosike (graduate transfer), Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson, Corey Walker
  • Returners: John Fulkerson, Josiah James, Santiago Vescovi, Olivier Nkamhoua, Davonte Gaines, Drew Pember, Uros Plavsic, Jacon Fleschman, Brock Jancek

Tennessee | Returning Production — April 2020

7 51.87% 48.43% 39.59% 51.67% 59.48% 49.55% 60.82% 50.50% 59.14% 43.68%

Outlook: Over the past two recruiting cycles, Rick Barnes’ success, which included an SEC title, translated into a noticeable recruiting bump. Landing elite talent is the kind of infusion any program gladly embraces. Tennessee’s success this season may hinge on an unlikely member of the roster: Yves Pons.

Throughout his time in Knoxville, Pons’ switchability and rim protection helped him become the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year. Last season, Pons also flashed a steady jumper, a facet that makes him a flexible option offensively. Returning Pons and pairing him with John Fulkerson, who averaged 13.7 points and 5.9 rebounds, supplies Barnes with a pair of productive vets steeped in the program’s culture.

Meanwhile, Corey Walker, the No 72 prospect nationally, supplies Barnes a versatile combo forward who is comfortable on the wing but strong enough to exploit mismatches inside. Oh, and Barnes grabbed Sacred Heart’s E.J. Anosike, one of the best options on the graduate-transfer market.

On the perimeter, Tennessee is well-positioned for life after Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner.

Josiah-Jordan James is one of those former five-start talents, one who led the Vols in 3-point percentage (36.7) and can operate the point. The mid-season addition of Santiago Vescovia, who posted 10.7 points and 3.7 assists, solidified the future at lead guard. Tennessee is set to bolster that duo with Jaden Springer, a top-20 talent and rugged driver, and Oregon transfer Victor Bailey Jr., who brings jump-shooting and lock-tight defense.

Texas A&M v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Texas A&M Aggies

  • Record: 16-14, 10-8 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 131
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 6 (Avg. Recruit: 92.62)
  • Departures: Josh Nebo (graduation), Wendell Mitchell (graduation), Mark French (graduation), Yavuz Gultekin (transfer)
  • Additions: Kevin Marfo (graduate transfer), Jaxson Robinson, Hassan Diarra, Hayden Hefner, LaDamian Bradford
  • Returners: Savion Flagg, Emanuel Miller, Quenton Jackson, Andre Gordon, Jay Jay Chandler, Jonathan Aku, Zach Walker, Luke McGhee, Everett Vaughn

Texas A&M | Returning Production — April 2020

5 65.30% 64.07% 66.14% 60.55% 71.81% 68.46% 68.28% 64.35% 67.87% 30.24%

Outlook: Yes, I’m writing these words: ignore KenPom.

Texas A&M finished 131st in the analytic guru’s index, but after a woeful 3-5 start, coach Buzz Williams spurred the Aggies to a 13-9 record, including a 10-8 mark in the SEC. Without a horrific four-game stretch in late November, one capped by a loss to lowly Fairfield, Williams’ first season in College Station may have ended with an NIT bid.

Two of his top three pieces — post Josh Nebo and combo guard Wendell Mitchell — graduated, but keeping wing Savion Flagg (10.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists) around for a senior season should offset those departures. The rest of his returners lack glitz, but they bought into Williams’ culture built on defensive tenacity. Crucially, Quenton Jackson, Emanuel Miller, Andre Gordon and Jay Jay Chandler combined for 27.6 points and 13.2 rebounds per game — or roughly 40 percent of the Aggies returning production.

So Williams might lack a ton of star power, but he has five returners to act as the foundation for his rotation.

On the recruiting trail, he reeled in top-100 freshman Hassan Diarra, a 6-2 point guard who is the future floor general the Aggies need. Earlier this month, the Aggies got another boost when wing Jaxson Robinson, the No. 70 recruit in 20201, reclassified to arrive on campus a year early. And finally, Williams shored up his front court with Quinnipiac transfer, Kevin Marfo, a glass-cleaner who led the NCAA with 13.3 rebounds last season.

Admittedly, the Aggies might be a year away from truly contending, but they won’t creep up on many opponents next season.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 05 LSU at Vanderbilt Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Vanderbilt Commodores

  • Record: 11-21, 3-15 SEC
  • KenPom: No. 169
  • SEC Recruiting Rank: No. 11 (Avg. Recruit: 88.88)
  • Departures: Saben Lee (draft), Aaron Nesmith (draft), Matthew Moyer (transfer), Oton Jankovic (transfer)
  • Additions: D.J. Harvey (transfer), Myles Stute, Tyrin Lawrence, Akeem Odusipe
  • Returners: Scotty Pippen, Jr., Maxwell Evans, Dylan Disu, Ekjike Obinna, Jordan Wright, Braelee Albert, Cleveon Brown, Isaiah Rice, Drew Weikert, Trace Arbuckle

Vanderbilt | Returning Production — April 2020

4 68.37% 60.70% 59.16% 57.23% 72.56% 57.27% 64.05% 58.96% 61.95% 68.28%

Outlook: When Jerry Stackhouse accepted the gig in Nashville, no one at Vanderbilt harbored delusions of grandeur.

Bluntly, the program faced a gut job, one that would several recruiting cycles to shore up. However, Stackhouse inherited a pair of quality assets: Saban Lee and Aaron Nesmith. If Lee could improve his efficiency as a distributor, the Commodores had a perfect set-up man for Nesmith, whose shooting stroke and size on the wing enticed NBA scouts. Sure enough, Stackhouse built an offense that balanced Lee playing out of ball screens and letting Nesmith, who was averaging 23 points per game, launch after coming off movement.

Any fragile optimism shattered, though, when Nesmith suffered a stress fracture in his foot during Vandy’s conference opener. For a second consecutive season, the ‘Dores lost a lodestar to a season-ending injury, setting off a tailspin into the SEC basement.

Now, Lee and Nesmith have signed with agents, closing their careers at Memorial Coliseum. On paper, Stackhouse returns ample production, but there isn’t a glitzy recruiting class infusing young talent. Instead, he’ll hope D.J. Harvey, a former top-50 talent, makes good on his talent after transferring from Notre Dame. He’ll also hope Scotty Pippen, Jr. and Dylan Disu turn their flashes of potential into steady production during their sophomore campaigns.

The allure of Stackhouse’s resume was his track record of player development in the G- League and as an NBA assistant coach. Ideally, that would prove enticing to top-flight recruits, yet the results in his first full cycle didn’t bear that out. There’s no doubt he can mold talent and build a system to maximize it, but at some point, Stackhouse will need to upgrade the caliber of players he’s trying to sculpt.