“You’re born. You take shit. You get out in the world. You take more shit. You climb a little higher. You take less shit. Till one day, you’re up in the rarefied atmosphere, and you’ve forgotten what shit even looks like. Welcome to the layer cake, son.”
Give us this much: We try to make sense of chaos.
Once the SEC releases the conference’s hoop slate, we fill in bubbles in a virtual form picking outcomes. That’s how we set our pecking order, and Sam Snelling spends weeks meticulously profiling each team. Then, for good measure, we track predictions from other outlets, compile them, and then take the average.
That’s how we try to gauge consensus.
Only this year, it might be more difficult than at any point since the conference expanded its ranks. TV money, smart coaching hires, and robust investment upgraded the product. But you know that story. Now, the embrace of the transfer portal and NIL might have ratcheted up the tempo in the arms race.
As it stands, the SEC is forecasted as the nation’s second-best conference in KenPom’s algorithm. Five programs are among the top 25 of those ratings, and another five landed among the top 50. None are lower than 100th. Back in 2012-13, the average finish for an SEC team was 100th in Pomeroy’s ratings. Last season, it was 68th. This year? 39th. Should the projections hold, it would be the conference’s best performance in two decades.
Since the 2017-18 season, programs slowly settled into the following tiers.
- Tier 1 — SEC Contenders: Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn, LSU
- Tier 2 — NCAA Tournament Teams: Florida, Arkansas, Alabama
- Tier 3 — Mediocre Middle: Mississippi State, South Carolina, Missouri, Texas A&M, Ole Miss
- Tier 4 — Basement Dwellers: Georgia, Vanderbilt
This accelerating process of investment and stratification came at the worst possible time for a program like Missouri, who essentially punted on hoops by hiring Kim Anderson. And even though spending improved during Cuonzo Martin’s tenure, MU ranked in the lower third of the league. So did its recruiting. And its on-court performance.
Which brings us to the quote atop this piece.
It’s a bit of sage wisdom from a refined gangster, played by Michael Gambon, to a young Turk, played by Daniel Craig, during a holdup at the end of a cult classic. No blood is spilled. Craig’s been double-crossed, but is savvy enough to know resisting is futile — a trait that’s obvious to the vet. The subtext isn’t subtle: you don’t shed ambition, and success is as much the byproduct of patience and guile as it is brute force.
That aptly sums up the SEC’s third tier. Only Texas A&M has a money cannon. Everyone else has to work smarter, and the margin is thin between sneaking into the NCAA tournament and playing in an empty arena on Wednesday at the SEC tournament. Usually, it’s just two or three wins. This offseason, three of those programs — Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Mizzou — made coaching changes. Meanwhile, Kermit Davis might feel his seat warm if Ole Miss can’t get near the bubble.
Their best hope: Florida and LSU, who are also breaking in new coaches, feel their grip slip. But even then, that might only mean finishing sixth, because wonks and writers are all in agreement about top five teams in the league. Given that MU’s generally picked to finish between ninth and 12th, the best frame for Dennis Gates’ season is one of incremental progress. Yet they’re not alone in a league that’s more cutthroat than ever.
Everyone’s clawing over each other and clambering toward daylight. Who sees it first?
Preseason Player of the Year
Oscar Tshiebwe | Kentucky | Senior | Post
Duh. Who did you think it would be? It’s not just that Big Oscar put up 17.4 points, yanked down 15.1 boards, and shot 60.6 percent from the floor. His individual net rating was plus-35, and the Wildcats saw their collective efficiency improve by 24.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. It’s been almost 15 years since a consensus national player of the year came back to school. So, we defer to that status.
Other Top Returners
- Colin Castleton, Post, Florida
- Wendell Green Jr., Point Guard, Auburn
- Jahvon Quinerly, Point Guard, Alabama
- Kario Oquendo, Combo Guard, Georgia
- Kobe Brown, Combo Forward, Missouri
- Jordan Wright, Wing, Vanderbilt
- Matthew Murrell, Wing, Ole Miss
- Henry Coleman, Combo Forward, Texas A&M
- Santiago Vescovi, Tennessee
- Sahvir Wheeler, Kentucky
Isiaih Mosley | Missouri | Senior | Wing
Are we biased? Just a tad. It’s not just Mosley’s robust production and sterling efficiency that works in his favor, either. Few of the other imports on this list will have as prominent a role as Mosley will in his hometown. Before Mosley committed, Mizzou’s raw talent was slightly ahead of what coach Cuonzo Martin fielded last season and at least fit what Dennis Gates implemented at Cleveland State. Now, the Tigers have an alpha, the kind of player who rarely decides to sign on for a total rebuild. Ideally, his presence would help an overachieving Mizzou insert itself into the NCAA tournament discussion. Do that, and not many peers will have a competitive argument for this title.
- John Broome, Post, Auburn
- KJ Williams, Post, LSU
- Mark Sears, Combo Guard, Alabama
- Antonio Reeves, Wing, Kentucky
- Will Richard, Combo Guard, Florida
Nick Smith | Combo Guard | Arkansas
Most of the SEC’s leading contenders boast plenty of returning production. Not in Fayetteville. On the grassroots circuit, Smith profiled as a scoring point, putting up 18.6 points per game leading Brad Beal Elite on Nike’s EYBL circuit. At North Little Rock, Smith, who is 6-foot5, ran the show, but he’s just as potent playing off the ball. That flexibility will come in handy for coach Eric Musselman, who has jumbo point guard Anthony Robinson at the helm. The Hogs also have a five-star wing in Jordan Walsh in the fold, but he’s more of a threat in the open floor. If Arkansas expects to contend for an SEC crown, they’ll need a cornerstone. Smith fits those parameters. It wouldn’t be a shock if G.G. Jackson puts up big numbers for Carolina, but the Gamecocks are a consensus pick to finish next-to-last in the standings.
- G.G. Jackson, Combo Forward, South Carolina
- Cason Wallace, Combo Guard, Kentucky
- Chris Livingston, Combo Forward, Kentucky
- Julian Phillips, Wing, Tennessee
- Brandon Miller, Combo Forward, Alabama
- Anthony Black, Point Guard, Arkansas
- Jordan Walsh, Wing, Arkansas
- Yohan Traore, Post, Auburn
- Jaden Bradley, Point Guard, Alabama
The order is based on our projections, which were made by picking the result of every SEC game. However, we also included picks by analytic model (KenPom), SEC media, and averaged each teams projected finish from a broad group of media outlets. Using tiebreaker rules explain how Mississippi State and Texas A&M wound up lower in our forecast.
No. 1: Kentucky Wildcats
Rock M Projection: 26-5, 15-3 SEC | KenPom: 25-6, 14-4 SEC | Media: 1st | Average: 1.13
Quick Take: Several years ago, it was reasonable to ask whether John Calipari’s one-and-done approach was outmoded. Since then, Kentucky’s executed a pivot. Perfectly? No. But to look at the ‘Cats isn’t to see perpetual youth. Increasingly, Cal’s made the transfer portal a core component of roster building. Look at this year’s rotation: Oscar Tshiebwe, Sahvir Wheeler, Jacob Toppin, C.J. Frederick, and Antonio Reeves. And the drivers of success will be upperclassmen in Tshiebwe, a dominant rebounder and sneaky roller, and a PNR dynamo in Wheeler. After that, Cal tried to fill in shooting. Frederick, who is back from a knee injury, was a sniper at Iowa. Reeves canned 39 percent of his attempts at Illinois State. It makes sense to keep one of them on the floor. Matters are murkier at combo guard and the four spot. Presumably, Cason Wallace, a five-star frosh, slots in alongside Wheeler. Sorting out whether Toppin, Daimion Collins, or Chris Livingston gets the nod at combo forward might be the biggest issue in non-con. Detractors love to knock Cal’s roster construction and schematic chops, but give him credit when it’s due. This team has experience, shooting, athleticism, and interlocks in a logical fashion. Until Kentucky massively underachieves, it’ll keep the benefit of the doubt – and default status as the SEC favorite.
No. 2: Arkansas Razorbacks
Rock M Projection: 24-6, 14-4 SEC | KenPom: 20-8, 11-7 SEC | Media: 2nd | Average: 2.75
Quick Take: Welp, this lofty prediction looks a tad different Texas handed the Hogs a 30-point beatdown in a charity exhibition. But maybe that drubbing is a boon for a roster that’s as heavy on youth as it is on talent. And with two Elite Eights in as many seasons, coach Eric Musselman has built up a little equity. Of course, by now, we’re also familiar enough with his model that we don’t sweat Arkansas cycling out 83 percent of minutes and 87 percent of its scoring. It’s not a loss. It’s an opportunity for a trio of five-star freshmen: point guard Nick Smith, Jr., combo guard Anthony Black, and wing Jordan Walsh. This roster is so loaded that three four-stars, including two in-state kids, will be lucky to crack the rotation. At the same time, Muss used his familiar savvy in the transfer portal, which included pilfering Mizzou’s highest-upside player, Trevon Brazile. The Hogs also snagged Ricky Council IV, a bouncy wing and assertive perimeter defender. Few coaches play a tighter rotation than Muss, and it’ll be interesting to see who gets squeezed out. Veterans Davonte Davis and Kamani Johnson could be clawing for their roles, and that’s not including three transfers in combo forward Jalen Graham and literal twin posts in Makhel and Makhi Mitchell. We can quibble about experience all we want, but Muss has the most-important commodity: talent. And while the approach rarely works at non-bluebloods, Muss has shown he can adapt to almost any group.
No. 3: Tennessee Volunteers
Rock M Projection: 23-7, 13-5 SEC | KenPom: 23-6, 13-5 SEC | Media: 3rd | Average: 2.75
Quick Take: By any metric, Tennessee was borderline elite last season. It won 27 games, went 14-4 in the SEC, finished ninth in KenPom, and earned a No.3 seed in the field of 68. Yet the Volunteers didn’t crack the AP top 10 until March. And if a surging Michigan hadn’t clipped his team in the second round, the expectations for coach Rick Barnes might be a tad loftier. Instead, we had a familiar discussion around Barnes’ spotty tourney resumé. This season, the Vols remain mostly intact. It was always likely that point guard Kennedy Chandler would bounce early, and big man John Fulkerson (finally) exhausted eligibility. If there was a surprise, it was five-star freshman Brandon Huntley-Hatfield’s defection to Louisville. But it’s hard to have much angst when you add another five-star – Julian Phillips – to replace him. Meanwhile, the bulk of the rotation is back in Knoxville. Assuming Zakai Zeigler has his expected breakout, Barnes can keep using Santiago Vescovi as a spacer and secondary creator. At this point, we respect Josiah-Jordan James for the stability he brings defensively, and Olivier Nkamhoua plies many trades at the four. Finally, Barnes has optionality between Jonas Aidoo and Uros Plavsic in the post. Barnes has the Vols rolling. We expect them to contend each year. But do they have enough elite pieces to press for a title and make a deep run come March? Will Zeigler take a step forward? Can Phillips make an early dent? A few positive replies will be what it takes to elevate this group from good to memorable.
No. 4: Auburn Tigers
Rock M Projection: 22-9, 11-7 SEC | KenPom: 21-9, 11-7 SEC | Media: 4th | Average: 4.13
Quick Take: Ahead of last season, we said Auburn’s guard play would determine its fortune. They mainly offered positive answers, with Wendell Green, Jr. and K.D. Johnson helping power a 22-1 start and a No. 1 ranking. Yet the Tigers stumbled to a 6-5 finish, including early exits from the SEC tournament and the big dance. Our spreadsheet shows the Tigers returning a healthy amount of production, and while losing a frontcourt of Jabari Smith, Jr. and Walker Kessler hurts, coach Bruce Pearl recruits well enough to limit the damage. The replacements? Five-star Yohan Traore and Morehead State transfer Johni Broome, one of the nation’s best rim protectors. No doubt, Green, Johnson, and Zep Jasper are critical pieces, but their combined half-court efficiency has plenty of room for improvement. They filled up the stat sheet, but when they were the focal point, the Tigers were worse offensively. Having a top-3 draft pick in Smith took care of those hiccups. This season, though, Broome and Traore might not offer the same punch. Look, we expect Auburn to be in the mix for back-to-back titles, but those aspirations will depend on whether its dynamos take a modest but crucial step forward.
No. 5: Alabama Crimson Tide
Rock M Projection: 19-11, 10-8 SEC | KenPom: 18-11, 10-8 SEC | Media: 5th | Average: 4.94
Quick Take: I know it sounds ludicrous, but we probably need to be a tad harsher on Alabama. Quietly, the school ramped up spending. It’s landed four top-15 classes in recent seasons. And even with an SEC title season in the sample, the Tide have won at just a 59.3 percent clip – or 18 wins per year – since 2018. Coach Nate Oats again assembled a roster chock-full of talent, including the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class. Chances are his 3-and-free offense will be dynamite. Once point guard Jahvon Quinerly returns from a knee injury, he’ll round out a veteran quartet with combo forward Noah Gurley, post Charles Bediako, and wing Darius Miles. Oh, and Bama will have a healthy Nimari Burnett, a former top-40 recruit who is a dogged on-ball defender. Those guys alone would make for a top-tier starting five. Instead, they’ll be fighting for roles in hyper-talented freshmen like Brandon Miller (No. 15), Jaden Bradley (No. 25), and Rylan Griffen (No. 56). The key for this group is clear: defend. Oats’ teams easily rip off scoring jags, but they’ve twice finished lower than 90th nationally in defensive efficiency. There are enough pieces on this roster to get in the mixer for another regular-season title, but Oats and Co. will only get there if they put the clamps on people.
No. 6: Florida Gators
Rock M Projection: 17-13, 9-9 SEC | KenPom: 17-12, 9-9 SEC | Media: 7th | Average: 6.56
Quick Take: Under Mike White, the Gators never slipped into mediocrity. They were, at worst, average. And it wasn’t until last season his seat appeared to warm. White didn’t wait to see if the thermostat increased, jumping to Georgia. As for Florida, it followed its template: hire a fast riser who could be the next Donovan. This time, it was Todd Golden, who arrived from San Francisco as a darling of analytic wonks like us. He inherits a roster that retained a cornerstone in big man Colin Castleton, a couple of high-major veterans in Myreon Jones and C.J. Felder, and a high-upside sophomore in Kowacie Reeves. Golden also deployed his algos to hunt for several quality additions from the transfer portal, led by Belmont combo guard Will Richard. He averaged 12.1 points per game and flashed the kind of upside that makes NBA Draft Twitter giddy. But don’t undersell the importance of St. Bonaventure point guard Kyle Lofton and VMI’s Trey Bonham, both of whom profile more as scoring point guards. Finally, Alex Fudge, a former top-60 prospect, came back to his home state from LSU. There is no doubt that Golden’s amassed quality pieces, but how do they interlock? Ironically, none of his primary ball handlers were particularly efficient last season. At the same time, Fudge and Richard will have to acclimate quickly. It’s easy to envision an at-large bid if everything clicks, but on balance, the Gators might find themselves in the same place as when their last boy wonder bolted.
No. 7: LSU Tigers
Rock M Projection: 19-11, 9-9 SEC | KenPom: 18-11, 8-10 SEC | Media: 8th | Average: 8.13
Quick Take: For a minute, the offseason looked pretty dicey for LSU. Once the NCAA formally delivered a notice of allegations, coach Will Wade got booted from the Boot. Finally, right? And not surprisingly, all but two players — Mwani Wilkinson and Justice Williams — from an NCAA tournament team went with him. Enter Matt McMahon, the latest coach off the Murray State conveyor belt. You may have heard of him. He averted a disaster in less than 50 days, starting with importing three former Racers to Baton Rouge: point guard Justice Hill, combo guard Trae Hannibal, and big man KJ Williams, the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year. Next, he persuaded Adam Miller, who missed last season with a knee injury, to stick around. McMahon also bolstered his front court with a sneaky good addition in Northwestern State transfer Kendal Coleman and will offer N.C. State point guard Cam Hayes a needed reboot. And he capped with the addition of wing Tyrell Ward, a top-50 prospect in 247Sports’ composite ratings. A cushy non-conference slate, which features no true road games, should help this group fuse together. It also offsets an SEC slate that sees them play 10 of their first 12 games against projected NCAA tournament teams. Yet McMahon has the quality guard depth to power his ball-screen-based attack, a proven interior threat, and rangy defenders. Their ceiling depends on Miller living up to his potential, but there are enough pieces that LSU should be feisty night in and night out.
No. 8: Texas A&M Aggies
Rock M Projection: 19-11, 9-9 SEC | KenPom: 17-12, 8-10 SEC | Media: 6th | Average: 6.56
Quick Take: Who is Texas A&M? The team that started last season 15-2? The one that lost eight in a row? Or a group that blazed to a 12-3 finish and reached the NIT final? Before coach Buzz Williams won at Florida on Feb. 15, A&M was 3-10 in games against top-100 teams in KenPom. From that date on, it went 9-3 against those opponents and, at one point, had the NCAA tournament selection committee in a bind. Williams’ roster reset appears to have worked — with whiplash as a side effect. The Aggies are hard to pin down, finishing as high as seventh and as low as dead last in the past five years. This season, though, the Aggies are among the SEC’s leaders in returning production, headlined by Henry Coleman as a small ball-ish five, a tough on-ball defender and mid-range threat in Tyrese Radford, and microwave scorer in Wade Taylor. The supporting cast of Andre Gordon, Manny Obaseki, and Hayden Hefner lend continuity to the rotation. Meanwhile, Williams buffeted defensive depth from the transfer portal in Andersson Garcia, Julius Marble, and Dexter Dennis. This roster and Williams track record make it reasonable to expect an NCAA tournament bid — assuming the Aggies have a reliable scorer and jump shooting. There’s a lot of good players here. But until they demonstrate season-long consistency, it’s hard to project Williams’ crew to break from the middle of the pack.
No. 9: Missouri Tigers
Rock M Projection: 18-13, 8-10 SEC | KenPom: 19-12, 8-10 SEC | Media: 11th | Average: 10.38
Quick Take: Maybe it’s just us, but it seems like pundits forgot coach Dennis Gates added one of the nation’s most-efficient scorers to the roster. It’s probably too simplistic to say Mizzou has Isiaih Mosley and other teams don’t, but college hoops is still driven by guards. And even if you account for a dip in efficiency, Mosley still projects as an apex predator. The Tigers also held on to Kobe Brown, an All-SEC second-teamer, and nabbed another high-IQ combo forward in Noah Carter. Nick Honor and Sean East II contrast styles, but both are reliable lead guards. Meanwhile, Cleveland State transfers Tre Gomillion and D’Moi Hodge are the kind of translators Gates needs to install his style. The staff also managed to keep Aidan Shaw, a top-60 talent, in the mix. Indeed, the roster’s a tad light on floor spacers, and Mohamed Diarra is the closest approximation a true center. But it has players who can read, cut and pass. It has late-clock insurance in Mosley. And it has defenders who excel at creating takeaways. Even if this group doesn’t get in the bubble conversation, Gates’ renovation progressed enough that it shouldn’t finish among the bottom three in the standings.
No. 10: Ole Miss Rebels
Rock M Projection: 15-14, 7-11 SEC | KenPom: 16-13, 8-10 SEC | Media: 9th | Average: 9.63
Quick Take: Last year, the Rebels were a testament to poor injury luck, which undermined any continuity coach Kermit Davis tried to foster. Now, point guard Daeshun Ruffin and combo forward Robert Allen have clean bills of health. Wing Matthew Murrell, one of the SEC’s top returners, is a headliner. And Jaemyn Brakefield might be poised for a breakout. So, how are the Rebels this low on the totem pole? Well, the six players who didn’t enter the transfer portal aren’t precisely known as stingy defenders, and struggles at that end were at the core of Ole Miss’ woes. If the Rebels re-establish that identity, there’s a chance to move up. As for reinforcements, Jackson State transfer Jayveous McKinnis is undersized but productive in the post, while Josh Mballa (Buffalo) and Theo Akwuba (Louisiana-Lafayette) add depth to go with Allen. Meanwhile, the freshmen class is packed with intriguing long-term assets like point guard Amaree Abram and post Malique Ewin. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Davis get this squad in the mix for the bubble. But for now, we’ll keep our expectations modest.
No. 11: Vanderbilt Commodores
Rock M Projection: 15-16, 6-12 SEC | KenPom: 15-16, 6-12 SEC | Media: 12th | Average: 12.19
Quick Take: When Vandy hired Jerry Stackhouse, it was easy to grasp the rationale: former NBA player, respected assistant coach, and G League Coach of the Year. Pair that CV with an Ivy League-caliber education, and maybe the Commodores could match Bryce Drew’s recruiting with a top-flight scheme. Instead, Stackhouse needed a longer timeline. Now, Scotty Pippen, Jr., who manufactured almost 30 percent of the ‘Dores’ offense, is gone. Vandy returns a quality core of Jordan Wright, Myles Stute, Quinton Millora-Brown, and Liam Robbins, yet it’s an open question whether that quartet scales up their production enough to replace Pippen. Stackhouse added UC-Davis transfer Ezra Manjon, but he’s nowhere near as efficient as a scoring point guard. There’s a trio of four-star freshmen, but none qualify as having an immediate impact. Stack got the program to the NIT last season, and a recent contract extension should quell any chatter about his job security. That said, he’s had enough time to think getting on the NCAA tournament bubble isn’t an outlandish benchmark. If circumstances break Vandy’s way, that could happen this season. If not, tenor around Stack could change.
No. 12: Georgia Bulldogs
Rock M Projection: 15-16, 5-13 SEC | KenPom: 14-16, 5-13 SEC | Media: 13th | Average: 13.13
Quick Take: Coach Mike White was perfectly adequate at Florida, winning 62 percent of his games and never finishing below .500 in the SEC. But when you follow Billy Donovan, that can appear underwhelming. So rather than waiting for his seat to warm, he jumped to rival Georgia. We can debate the logic of his decision, but White quietly improved a roster that was a federal disaster area. Combo guard Kario Oquendo isn’t always efficient, but he’s one of the SEC’s better returners. Jabri Abdur-Rahim, a former top-50 talent, could take a step forward if his finishing at the rim improves. And Braelen Bridges is a reliable post threat. More importantly, White upgraded athleticism across the roster. Terry Roberts is a dynamic combo guard and All-Missouri Valley player from Bradley. Justin Hill piloted a Big South champ at Longwood. And Madrez McBride was an undersized sniper at North Texas. Meanwhile, several high-major players — Jusaun Holt, Frank Anselem, and Matthew Alexander-Moncrieffe — could also serve as valuable depth pieces. If the blend is right, UGA could defy expectations. But at a minimum, this roster should keep the Dawgs out of the cellar.
No. 13: South Carolina Gamecocks
Rock M Projection: 13-18, 5-13 SEC | KenPom: 14-15, 6-12 SEC | Media: 14th | Average: 12.88
Quick Take: At a certain point, a coach can become stale. That was certainly the case for Frank Martin, whose program never bottomed out but failed to build off a 2017 run to the Final Four. Now, Lamont Paris gets a crack at the job. Early on, the former Chattanooga coach made in-state talent a priority, and he got off to a cracking start by flipping G.G. Jackson, who reclassified to the 2022 class, to the Gamecocks. The likely one-and-done candidate better be ready. The Gamecocks shed almost 83 percent of their production. They’ll be hoping Ohio State transfer Meechie Johnson, a former four-star recruit, and Hayden Brown, a versatile combo forward from The Citadel, ease the workload on the star freshman. Right now, it’s hard to see an obvious depth chart, and it might mean a hard reset — even with an elite prospect in the fold.
No. 14: Mississippi State Bulldogs
Rock M Projection: 13-16, 5-13 SEC | KenPom: 16-13, 8-10 SEC | Media: 10th | Average: 9.94
Quick Take: Tiebreakers aren’t always friendly, and that’s the case for coach Chris Jans’ crew. On paper, this isn’t a last-place roster. Tolu Smith is a quality post player. D.J. Jeffries could, at last, become a potent 3-and-D wing. And Shakeel Moore is a reliable veteran at combo guard. But the rest of the roster is a mishmash. Eric Reed, Jr. and Tyler Stevenson stuffed stat sheets but did so at mediocre mid-majors. Will McNair started for Jans at New Mexico State, but he was a low-usage option on an NCAA tournament squad. This spring, the Bulldogs appeared to be the landing spot for Missouri State bucket-getter Isiaih Mosley. Instead, the guard chose a homecoming to Mizzou. That decision looks like a significant tipping point.