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The 2021-22 SEC Basketball Preview

We took our annual look at every team, and here’s how we think the league shakes out.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Texas A&M vs Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not just Kentucky anymore.

Gone are the days when we blindly penciled the Wildcats atop the SEC preseason poll. Over the past five seasons, its peers have seen their hardwood investments reap dividends, while coach John Calipari’s one-and-done model required some tweaking, especially after a 9-16 finish last season. While UK’s roster refresh proved successful this spring, blending top-end transfers with another top-five crop of freshmen, there’s still a quartet of squads — Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Auburn — hanging just off the Wildcats’ shoulder.

Like the rest of the sport, the SEC wasn’t left unscathed by unprecedented player movement brought on by the NCAA’s adoption of a one-transfer exception. In most statistical categories, programs only return an average of 40 percent of their production from last season. Nevertheless, the transfer market radically reshaped rosters, and the conference coaches are importing as many newcomers from the portal as freshmen. That’s dimmed the SEC’s star-power a bit and dented continuity, but it still appears to have enough talent stockpiled to claim six or seven bids when the NCAA tournament arrives.

You’d think so much turnover might make it hard to reach a consensus on sorting SEC programs, but you’d be wrong. Whether it’s beat reporters, national writers, analytic wonks, or bloggers, there’s uncommon unanimity over how to sort teams into tiers.

  • Potential Protected Seeds: Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee
  • Likely NCAA Tournament Teams: Auburn and Florida
  • Bubble Worthy: LSU, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss
  • Muddling Through: Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, and Missouri
  • Bringing Up the Rear: South Carolina and Georgia

As we close in on Nov. 9, no SEC team sits higher than 13th in Ken Pomeroy’s preseason ratings, but there are 5 between that slot and 25th — hinting at depth, a competitive race, and the potential for a coupe of elite teams to emerge. There’s also intrigue in the middle of the table. How will LSU cope with a season-ending injury to combo guard Adam Miller? Can Mississippi State, fortified by three high-quality transfers, make a push up the standings? And will Ole Miss, which added a McDonald’s All-American at point guard and returns two key backcourt pieces, find its way into the dance?

Further down, five coaches find themselves at critical junctures. Texas A&M’s Buzz Williams rebuild, built up slowly, tottered this spring. Vanderbilt has a star in Scotty Pippen Jr., but do the ‘Dores have the depth to escape the cellar? Fresh off an NCAA tournament bid, Missouri saw 80 percent of its production depart and welcomes nine newcomers in a reset season. Meanwhile, has the time come for South Carolina and Georgia to look for new coaches to lead their respective programs?

Let’s take a look.

No. 1: Kentucky Wildcats

Rock M Projection: 24-7, 14-4 SEC | KenPom: 22-9, 11-7 SEC

  • Returning %OV: 33.42
  • Returning %Min: 41.12

Quick Take: Are you happy with yourselves? Sure, you had fun at Kentucky’s expense. You joined the chorus, wondering if John Calipari lost his touch. Indeed, the one-and-done model looked a little rickety. So, how did Cal respond? He turned over his entire coaching staff. He took in West Virginia big man Oscar Tshiebwe at mid-year and then added top-end facilitator (Sahvir Wheeler), plucked a sniper from Iowa (C.J. Fredrick), and an A-10 Player of the Year candidate (Kellan Grady) from the portal. The Wildcats also landed TyTy Washington, a top-15 prospect who can play all three guard positions. Meanwhile, Bryce Hopkins might be the multifunctional combo forward the Cats’ need to give Big Oscar operating room — assuming it’s not Keion Brooks. He’s one of four veterans that stuck around Lexington. And unlike last season, Cal got a typical offseason to work with this group. We’ll see who’s chuckling when SEC play arrives.

Read the Kentucky preview

No. 2: Alabama Crimson Tide

Rock M Projection: 22-8, 13-5 SEC | KenPom: 20-9, 12-6 SEC

  • Returning OV%: 46.32
  • Returning %Min: 46.58

Quick Take: Two NBA draft decisions loomed large this spring in the SEC, and one of them was Jaden Shackelford’s choice to remain in Tuscaloosa. Over his first two seasons, his stellar offensive toolkit was obscured a bit by the presence of Kira Lewis, John Petty, and Herb Jones. Now, he should be the Tide’s focal point and pairs well with Jahvon Quinerly or five-star freshman J.D. Davison. Coach Nate Oats also returns proven role players. Juwan Gary defends and does little things to keep the half-court offense flowing. Keon Ellis can attack in transition, space in the half-court, and maxes out his touches. There’s enough perimeter depth to withstand the loss of Texas Tech transfer Nimari Burnett to a knee injury, but the front-court rotation is where the intrigue rests. Alex Tchikou is back from an achilles tear, but the Tide brought in Furman transfer Noah Gurley and top-40 recruit Charles Bediako. How Oats sets that part of the rotation will be worth monitoring, but once again, there’s the right blend of experience, high-end recruits, and useful transfers to make the Tide a threat to repeat as SEC champions.

Read the Alabama preview

No. 3: Arkansas Razorbacks

Rock M Projection: 22-9, 12-6 SEC | KenPom: 23-7, 12-6

  • Returning OV%: 37.40
  • Returning %Min: 37.51

Quick Take: Full disclosure: the Razorbacks are in this spot because of a forecasted tiebreaker over Tennessee. I bring that up because the team behind Eric Musselman’s crew might have more talent on its roster. Not that Arkansas is in a bad spot. Rising sophomores Davonte Davis and Jaylin Williams emerged late last season as rotational stalwarts. J.D. Notae is also still around from an Elite Eight run. And Muss, unsurprisingly, made deft moves in the transfer market, adding a quality two-way guard in Au’Diese Toney, a high-upside point guard in Chris Lykes, and a jack-of-all-trades in Stanley Umude. However, none of Arkansas pieces look comparable to wing Moses Moody, who had a compelling case for SEC Player of the Year before going in the NBA Draft lottery, or combo forward Justin Smith. With that pair off the floor, Muss’ crew remained tough defensively but saw its offensive efficiency plummet by 27 points per 100 possessions. There’s proven production filtering in, but it’s coming from Pitt, Miami, and South Dakota — programs that struggled at times. However, Muss has earned the benefit of the doubt.

Read the Arkansas preview

No. 4: Tennessee Volunteers

Rock M Projection: 21-10, 12-6 SEC | KenPom: 21-9, 12-6 SEC

  • Returning OV%: 55.49
  • Returning %Min: 56.09

Quick Take: The formula for the Volunteers wasn’t complicated last season: defend hard and hope one of Keon Johnson or Jaden Springer could overcome an offense with poor spacing and prone to turnovers. In other words, offset the lack of a true lead guard. That shouldn’t be an issue this season. Freshman Kennedy Chandler might be a tad small, but he’s stellar at organizing an offense. That moves Victor Bailey Jr. and Santiago Vescovi off the ball to serve as floor-spacers and secondary creators. Josiah-Jordan James is still looking to make the jump offensively, but is a stellar wing defender. And in the post, John Fulkerson is back for a sixth season. The linchpin might be at the four spot and replacing Yves Pons, but fortunately, Barnes landed Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and Jonas Aidoo, a pair of top-40 recruits. The last couple of seasons revived grumbles about whether Barnes could maximize elite talent, but on paper, this iteration of the Vols should be deep in the mix for an SEC title.

Read the Tennessee preview

No. 5: Auburn Tigers

Rock M Projection: 21-9, 11-7 SEC | KenPom: 20-9, 11-7 SEC

  • Returning OV%: 56.22
  • Returning %Min: 59.82

Quick Take: Well, this roster is a change. Several years ago, coach Bruce Pearl’s run of success was powered by outstanding guard play, and last season, the Tigers were the best version of themselves during Sharife Cooper’s (brief) time on the Plains. This season, however, the focus turns inward. Auburn brings in forward Jabari Smith, a potential top-five pick in the NBA Draft, along with North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler, a former five-star recruit. Assuming combo guard Allen Flanigan hadn’t injured his achilles, this group might have been a few places higher. Instead, Pearl might roll out a backcourt featuring College of Charleston transfer Zep Jasper and Georgia transfer K.D. Johnson, while Eastern Kentucky transfer Wendell Green sits in reserve. Jasper can go on scoring jags, while Green was one of the nation’s best pick-and-roll passers as a freshman. There’s quality here, but it might not be quite comparable to Cooper, Flanigan, Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Chuma Okeke, Issac Okoro, or Samir Doughty. But if anyone coach has earned equity, it’s Pearl.

Read the Auburn preview

No. 6: Florida Gators

Rock M Projection: 20-11, 11-7 SEC | KenPom: 21-9, 11-7 SEC

  • Returning OV%: 46.36
  • Returning %Min: 41.67

Quick Take: What is Florida basketball under coach Mike White? Since reaching the Elite Eight, the Gators have won roughly 59.5 percent of their games and averaged 10 wins in SEC play. Yet they haven’t finished better than fourth or advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Most fanbases would be content with that, but most aren’t trying to replace Billy Donovan. Meanwhile, White’s also landed nine top-100 recruits over that span. So, is he underachieving? Or is this merely what stability looks like? The Gators return All-SEC center Colin Castleton this season and a cast of reliable veterans like Tyree Appleby and Anthony Duruji. White also mined the transfer portal for proven high-major contributors like Boston College forward C.J. Felder and Penn State point guard Myreon Jones. Keyontae Johnson bypassed the NBA Draft, but the wing, who collapsed on the floor last season, is still mulling his options. For now, it’s safe to hedge bets and place the Gators here.

Read the Florida preview

No. 7: LSU Tigers

Rock M Projection: 19-12, 9-9 SEC | KenPom: 18-12, 9-9 SEC

  • Returning OV%: 25.40
  • Returning %Min: 30.37

Quick Take: On the same day that Oklahoma State saw a ridiculous postseason ban upheld, it’s fitting that we also got word that LSU coach Will Wade sat for a friendly chat with NCAA enforcement staff. This season will be nothing if not interesting in Baton Rouge. First, the Tigers turned to the transfer portal to land Adam Miller, Xavier Pinson, and Tari Eason in a bid to replace three critical pieces of their rotation quickly. Five-star center Efton Reid is in the mix. And the underrated Darius Days is back. Then Miller suffered a knee injury, and it’s worth wondering whether it throws off a delicate equilibrium. We’ve seen what Pinson looks like with 30 percent usage, and it’s a mixed bag. Will either Alex Fudge or Justice Williams emerge as a scorer? And can LSU endure another season without rim protection or any semblance of defense? All while a Notice of Allegations might drop on its head? There’s no shortage of raw talent, but it’s a matter of Wade getting the chemistry right as his future comes into question.

Read the LSU preview

No. 8: Mississippi State Bulldogs

Rock M Projection: 18-13, 7-11 SEC | KenPom: 17-13, 8-10 SEC

  • Returning OV%: 51.22
  • Returning %Min: 47.65

Quick Take: Last season, the crew in Starkville beat out expectations after post Tolu Smith and a pair of combo guards in Iverson Molinar and D.J. Stewart all took noticeable steps forward. Along the way, coach Ben Howland scrapped a twin-post setup, swapping in Derek Fountain for Abdul Ado at the four and opening up the floor. While Stewart and Ado are gone, the Bulldogs kept Molinar, a possible All-SEC pick, and Smith around. But that’s not why they’re a trendy dark horse pick. Howland’s staff hauled in three transfers — Michigan State combo guard Rocket Watts, Memphis wing D.J. Jeffries, and North Carolina forward Garrison Brooks — to fill the void. Watts is primed to score and a natural replacement for Stewart. Jeffries couldn’t quite put his offensive game together in the Bluff City, but he profiles as a viable 3-and-D wing. Oh, and Brooks was named ACC Player of the Year as a sophomore. There’s talent here, but it’s in Starkville for a reason. As for Howland, will he adapt his style to suit it?

Read the Mississippi State preview

No. 9: Ole Miss Rebels

Rock M Projection: 18-12, 8-10 SEC | KenPom: 18-11, 9-9 SEC

  • Returning OV%: 45.35
  • Returning %Min: 54.21

Quick Take: The most intriguing roster might be in Oxford. Compared to other SEC programs, coach Kermit Davis has something approaching a veteran core in Jarkel Joiner, Luis Rodriguez, Robert Allen, and Matthew Murrell. Now, he’s adding the Rebels’ first McDonald’s All-American in point guard Daeshun Ruffin, along with three quality transfers in Tye Fagan, Nysier Brooks, and Jaemyn Brakefield. Ruffin figures to slot in alongside Joiner, while Murrell, a former top-40 talent, aims to break out as a sophomore. Brakefield got buried at Duke, but the top-75 recruit brings a diverse dimension to the four spot. All the while, Brooks, a grad transfer from Miami, will try to reprise Romello White’s role. Toss in Fagan, Allen, and Rodriguez as reserves, and you can craft a case for the Rebels as a sleeper. Now, t falls on Davis to help it and a rhythm earlier than midway through conference action.

Read the Ole Miss preview

No. 10: Vanderbilt Commodores

Rock M Projection: 16-14, 7-11 SEC | KenPom: 15-14, 7-11 SEC

  • Returning OV%: 57.25
  • Returning %Min: 65.16

Quick Take: Scotty Pippen Jr.’s decision to withdraw from the NBA Draft might have been among the most important developments this offseason. Coach Jerry Stackhouse’s ongoing reclamation project would have suffered another massive setback after combo forward Dylan Disu bounced for Texas without him. Losing D.J. Harvey and Maxwell Evans dented depth, but the ‘Dores can try to deal with a short bench. Jordan Wright’s a jumbo wing who can exploit mismatches, while combo forward Myles Stute has the size and strength to slide down to the five. Vitally, Stackhouse snagged Minnesota post Liam Robbins, who averaged 11.7 points and 6.6 rebounds, off the transfer market. Adding Dayton transfer Rodney Chatman and freshman Peyton Daniels also gives Vandy the option to spell Pippen. Vandy’s not close to contending, but it has an All-SEC talent, versatile wings, and a steady big. That should be enough to move out of the basement.

Read the Vanderbilt preview

No. 11: Missouri Tigers

Rock M Projection: 16-14, 7-11 SEC | KenPom: 13-17, 6-12 SEC

  • Returning OV%: 18.36
  • Returning %Min: 19.27

Quick Take: Continuity was the best asset for coach Cuonzo Martin and the Tigers last season. Now, Mizzou welcomes nine newcomers — five freshmen and four transfers — and only returns one starter in Kobe Brown. Now, the buzzword is flexibility, especially among the Tigers’ corps of guards. Ball State transfer Jarron Coleman can play on or off the ball and figures to start lead guard, while Brown anchors the four spot. After that? Will it be Green Bay transfer Amari Davis at combo guard? Does wing Javon Pickett move back into the starting lineup? And who among freshman Yaya Keita, freshman Trevon Brazile, or sophomore Jordan Wilmore replaces Jeremiah Tilmon? If the blend is correct, the Tigers could surprise, but the more likely outcome is a reset in Columbia.

Read the Missouri preview

No. 12: Texas A&M Aggies

Rock M Projection: 15-15, 6-12 SEC | KenPom: 16-13, 8-10 SEC

  • Returning OV%: 36.40
  • Returning %Min: 43.05

Quick Take: Few programs were hit harder by COVID-19 than the Aggies, and when spring arrived, an exodus ensued and unwound Buzz Williams’ more methodical rebuild. Two departures were cause for concern. Leading scorer Emanual Miller bounced for TCU, while freshman Jaxson Robinson — a hard-fought recruiting win — moved on to Arkansas. What Williams desperately needs is for point guard Hassan Diarra to take firm hold of the job, push Andre Gordon off the ball, and let Quenton Jackson settle in on the wing. Or perhaps Virgnia Tech combo guard Tyrece Radford claims a starting spot, while freshman Manny Obaseki is a slashing lefty with a developing jumper. Finally, a successful reboot by Duke transfer Henry Coleman would fill a crucial need in the post.

Read the Texas A&M preview

No. 13: South Carolina Gamecocks

Rock M Projection: 14-17, 5-13 SEC | KenPom: 16-14, 7-11 SEC

  • Returning OV%: 36.57
  • Returning %Min: 34.43

Quick Take: Frank Martin’s surprised us in the past and elevated worse rosters to the middle of the pack. Wing Keyshawn Bryant is a terror in the open floor but never carved out a role in a half-court offense. Jermaine Cousinard showed flashes of serving as a microwave scorer, but the Gamecocks need him to put together consistent outings this season. Moving up likely entails several transfers, whether it’s Washington’s Erik Stevenson or North Texas’ James Reese, quickly finding their stride. In the past, Martin’s programs overachieved by making the game a slog and eking out close wins. A stylistic shift to a faster pace, however, has removed that margin for error. It’s been almost five years since the program reached the Final Four — the only NCAA Tournament appearance in Martin’s tenure — and it’s more than fair to wonder whether all parties would benefit from a fresh start.

Read the South Carolina preview

No. 14: Georgia Bulldogs

Rock M Projection: 11-20, 3-15 SEC | KenPom: 10-20 3-15 SEC

  • Returning OV%: 16.93
  • Returning %Min: 21.88

Quick Take: Tom Crean’s rebuild in Athens is off the rails. A ballyhooed 2019 recruiting class is gone, and only Anthony Edwards is earning an NBA paycheck. Eight players transferred out, including star point guard Sahvir Wheeler and agile big Toumani Camara. Worse, Wheeler decamped to Kentucky. The Bulldogs were already in dire straits when P.J. Horne, their best returner, suffered a season-ending knee injury. In all likelihood, Virginia transfer and former top-40 recruit Jabri Adur-Rahim, who only played 4.6 minutes per game in Charlottesville, might be the most talented roster member. After him, Crean tried to patch gaping holes with average up-transfers and JUCOs. Entering his fourth season, Crean’s scrambling more than executing a deft plan.

Read the Georgia preview