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The 2023-24 SEC Basketball Preview

A tight race at the top of the standings and genuine depth give the conference a credible argument for its best season in nearly two decades.

SEC Basketball Tournament - Championship Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

For just the second since the SEC expanded, Kentucky did not see its name appear atop the preseason poll. Instead, the Wildcats were picked fourth — the program’s lowest forecasted finish in at least 15 seasons.

The question is whether the UK’s waning dominance foreshadows a wide-open race for the regular season title. If forecasts are any hint, the answer is no. As the season approaches, Tennessee is a near-consensus pick to return that hardware to Knoxville.

Yet the league itself is arguably deeper than ever.

KenPom’s algorithm expects the average efficiency margin for SEC teams to clock in at 16.39. Should that happen, the conference would have (analytically speaking) its most robust crop of teams since 2007. Typically, the bubble forms around the No. 45 spot in Pomeroy’s ratings. As it stands, the SEC has nine teams inside the top 50. So, it makes sense why bracketologists’ early — some might say premature — efforts have the SEC snapping up eight bids when Selection Sunday rolls around.

As usual, the middle of the standings will devolve into a scrum where one or two results — and tiebreaker math — sort out the fray. Often, teams aspiring for an at-large bid needed to hit a 10-8 record to have confidence about their odds. Now? It’s not out of the possibility that a 9-9 or 8-10 squad ekes into the field of 68.

Preseason Player of the Year

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Mississippi State Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Wade Taylor IV | Texas A&M | Junior | Combo Guard

Looking over the SEC’s crop of returning talent doesn’t invoke a sense of awe. In fact, if I had to place a bet on who takes home this award, I’d go with the field. But for this exercise, we have to pick someone, and Taylor has the most logical case. There’s healthy statistical output at 16.3 points, 2.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists. That production buoys a preseason favorite. And while Taylor’s shot selection can be, um, daring, he hits his numbers efficiently.

Taylor’s also fun to watch. Even if a conference that values speed and athleticism, Taylor’s fast but can also pull the emergency brake for a stop-and-pop jumper. When rolling, he can eat you alive in high pick-and-rolls, averaging 1.122 points per possession. Taylor can also get to the charity stripe at his leisure, sinking 88 percent of them.

It’s also of little surprise he’s a usage monster. The Aggies play at a controlled clip, but Taylor’s burst injects tempo into their half-court offense, collapsing defenses and opening up spaces and opportunities for his teammates. He’s also able to consistently force turnovers, allowing coach Buzz Williams’ squad to be opportunistic in transition.

Other Top Returners

  • Mark Sears, point guard, Alabama
  • Davonte Davis, combo guard, Arkansas
  • Trevon Brazile, hybrid, Arkansas
  • Johni Broome, post, Auburn
  • Riley Kugel, wing, Florida
  • Antonio Reeves, combo guard, Kentucky
  • Jordan Wright, wing, LSU
  • Tolu Smith, post, Mississippi State
  • Noah Carter, hybrid, Missouri
  • Matthew Murrell, wing, Ole Miss
  • Meechie Johnson, combo guard, South Carolina
  • Santiago Vescovi, combo guard, Tennessee
  • Zakai Ziegler, point guard, Tennessee
  • Tyrece Radford, wing, Texas A&M
  • Tyrin Lawrence, wing, Vanderbilt

Most-Important Transfer

NCAA Basketball: Northern Colorado at Baylor Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports

Dalton Knecht | Wing | Tennessee

In each of the past three seasons, the Volunteers have finished in the top five for adjusted defensive efficiency. They’ve also never been better than 35th in offensive efficiency, including a No. 64 finish last season. The inability to score has also reared its head in the dog days of February and undermined chances to push for a regular-season SEC title.

So, the Vols turned to the portal for someone who doesn’t need a set to conjure up offense. Knecht, a 6-foot-6 jumbo wing, averaged 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds last season at Northern Colorado, aided by knocking down 38.1 percent of attempts from 3-point range. But Knecht isn’t just a stagnant spacer. He glides off the bounce, smooth counters in tight spaces, and sneaky bounce around the rim.

Put simply, Knecht’s scoring package is translatable to a high-major. Moreover, a better supporting cast should let him shed some inefficient touches. At this point, Josiah-Jordan James is a sturdy defensive stopper on the wing, and, unlike last season, Barnes won’t rely on a five-star freshman like Julian Phillips to quickly settle in.

Top Transfers

  • Grant Nelson, hybrid, Alabama
  • Aaron Estrada, combo guard, Alabama
  • Tramon Mark, point guard, Arkansas
  • Khalif Battle, combo guard, Arkansas
  • Denver Jones, wing, Auburn
  • Walter Clayton Jr., point guard, Florida
  • Micah Handlogten, post, Florida
  • Noah Thomasson, combo guard, Georgia
  • Jalen Cook, point guard, LSU
  • Tre Mitchell, post, Kentucky
  • Andrew Taylor, point guard, Mississippi State
  • John Tonje, wing, Missouri
  • Connor Vanover, post, Missouri
  • Moussa Cisse, post, Ole Miss
  • Brandon Murray, wing, Ole Miss

Best Freshman

NCAA Basketball: Big Blue Madness Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Edwards | Wing | Kentucky

A long lefty with ideal positional size, Edwards’ game might be most balanced among eight freshmen on the Wildcats’ roster.

He’s a load in transition and a potential three-level threat in the half-court. He’s a heady cutter and doesn’t waste dribbles on straight-line drives. Still, there’s some room for growth. His shooting mechanics don’t have any glaring issues, but the results aren’t always consistent. Meanwhile, scouts want to see Edwards tighten his handle, add counters, and become automatic on one-dribble pull-ups.

Still, Edwards was UK’s best player during the GLOBL Jam event in Canada over the summer, averaging 14 points, seven rebounds, and two assists. Crucially, he didn’t hesitate shooting off the catch, even if he only connected at a 30 percent clip.

Defensively, he’s sound. You rarely see him out of position off the ball, and he understands when he can gamble in passing lanes. He’s also a phenomenal rebounder for his position. That ability and competitive mentality have shown up in every setting where Edwards has been evaluated.

Top Freshmen

  • Aaron Bradshaw, post, Kentucky
  • DJ Wagner, combo guard, Kentucky
  • Rob Dillingham, point guard, Kentucky
  • Aden Holloway, point guard, Auburn
  • Baye Fall, post, Arkansas
  • Layden Blocker, point guard, Arkansas
  • Reed Sheppard, combo guard, Kentucky
  • Cameron Carr, wing, Tennessee
  • Sam Walters, hybrid, Alabama
  • JP Estrella, post, Tennessee

Our Picks

NCAA Basketball: 2024 SEC Basketball Tipoff Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

A quick note: The order is based on our Rock M Nations projections, which were made by picking the result of every SEC game. However, context never hurts. To that end, we include KenPom’s projected finish for every team, where each was picked in the SEC media poll, and its average projected finish among 18 outlets. If you see teams with the same conference record, we applied tiebreaker rules to the forecast to sort the order.

SEC | Consensus Forecast | 2023-24

School Avg. Finish (SD) Median Range First Place Top Four Lunardi
School Avg. Finish (SD) Median Range First Place Top Four Lunardi
Tennessee 1.3 (0.6) 1 0.7-1.9 14 18 In
Texas A&M 2.9 (1.7) 2 1.3-4.6 3 14 In
Arkansas 3.4 (1.2) 3 2.2-4.7 0 16 In
Kentucky 4.2 (1.5) 4 2.7-5.7 0 13 In
Alabama 4.3 (1.6) 5 2.7-6.0 1 7 In
Auburn 5.8 (1.7) 6 4.2-7.5 0 3 In
Miss. State 7.2 (1.4) 7 5.9-8.6 0 0 In
Florida 7.6 (1.5) 8 6.1-9.1 0 1 In
Missouri 8.7 (1.6) 8 7.1-10.3 0 0 Out
Ole Miss 10.3 (1.4) 10 8.9-11.7 0 0 Out
LSU 11.4 (1.0) 11 10.4-12.4 0 0 Out
Vanderbilt 11.4 (1.0) 11.5 10.4-12.5 0 0 Out
Georgia 12.6 (0.9) 13 11.6-13.5 0 0 Out
South Carolina 13.8 (0.5) 14 13.3-14.3 0 0 Out
Sources: SEC Media, Vegas Insider, KenPom, EvanMiya, Haslametics, Bart Torvik, Massey, CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated, On3, 247 Sports, USA Today, John Rothstein, The Almanac, Blue Ribbon Yearbook, Lindy’s, Busting Brackets, Rock M Nation, Joe Lunardi/ESPN

No. 1: Texas A&M Aggies

Rock M Projection: 26-5, 15-3 SEC | KenPom: 18-11, 10-8 SEC | Media: 2nd | Average: 1.3

Quick Take: Maybe it would be best if Texas A&M skipped non-conference play. After Christmas, the Aggies went 17-3, finished second in the SEC, and looked like a top-15 squad. Now, coach Buzz Williams returns eight players, including four starters, and is second in the conference for returning production. Losing Dexter Dennis will leave a slight mark. Williams could stick him on the opponent’s top option and trust Dennis would make life difficult. Still, he has Wade Taylor, the preseason Player of the Year, running the show and a rugged scorer in Tyrece Radford playing off of him. The question is whether Manny Obaseki holds off a pair of transfers – Eli Lawrence and Jace Carter – for the third spot in the backcourt. Carter should be the early favorite after averaging 16.6 points and 7.0 rebounds last season at UIC. Having Lawrence, Obaseki, and Hayden Hefner ensures Williams has genuine depth and flexibility. Up front, there’s no mystery. Henry Coleman III and Julius Marble are incumbents who each started more than 30 games last year, while Andersson Garcia supplies versatility off the bench. Now, the Aggies can be a hard watch. They’re among the few teams that roll out a pair of traditional bigs. Spacing can be tight, and sometimes, the Aggies’ best offense is missing a shot and letting Coleman and Marble get on the boards. Radford and Taylor also excel at hunting contact and getting to the line. Sure, the Aggies could stand a little more finesse in the rotation, but that’s a quibble. This team guards, rebounds, and generates enough turnovers for transition chances to offset boggy stretches in the halfcourt. It also has two guards who’ve shown they can manufacture offense outside sets.

Read the Texas A&M Preview

No. 2: Tennessee Volunteers

Rock M Projection: 24-6, 14-4 SEC | KenPom: 21-8, 12-6 SEC | Media: 1st | Average: 2.8

Quick Take: Odd as it sounds, coach Rick Barnes might be facing a prove-it season. While the Volunteers took some roster hits in the offseason, they’re among the top five teams in the SEC for returning production, a core built with three consecutive top-10 recruiting classes. They plucked one of the best perimeter scorers in Dalton Knecht from the portal. Meanwhile, freshman Cameron Carr, ranked No. 54 in the 2023 class, could be poised to contribute early. Barnes has all the commodities you could want: experience, continuity, and talent. His teams are also suppressive defensively. All well and good. But UT’s offense can wander and abandon Barnes in the home stretch. Does that change this season? And is Knecht, moving up from the Big Sky Conference, going to translate his skills swiftly? Texas A&M is equally old, gelled, and stingy, but they have a Wade Taylor to extinguish droughts. The unbalanced schedule is also slightly kinder to the Aggies. Any margin is microscopic. Still, a veteran nucleus of Santiago Vescovi, Zakai Zeigler, and Josiah Jordan James balances creation, shooting, and defending on the perimeter. Jonas Aidoo snatches boards and swats shots. Tobe Awaka’s stat line is modest, but the sophomore big opened up eyes this summer at tryouts for USA Basketball’s U19 squad. It’s that collection of talent that separates the Vols from Kentucky, Arkansas, and Alabama.

Read the Tennessee Preview

No. 3: Kentucky Wildcats

Rock M Projection: 23-7, 13-5 SEC | KenPom: 21-10, 11-7 SEC | Media: 4th | Average: 4.3

Quick Take: After dabbling in the transfer portal and with older rosters, coach John Calipari is dusting off his one-and-done model. The Wildcats brought in eight freshmen, including four top-25 prospects. A decade ago, that infusion might have sufficed. Only the sport has changed. Now, successful programs get old and stay old. And thanks to wise investments and hires, the SEC is no longer a hoops backwater where talent alone means supremacy. Still, there are some nice pieces here. Justin Edwards, a projected top-five draft pick, offers a balanced offensive package and is a legit two-way wing. DJ Wagner and Robert Dillingham can rotate ball-handling duties. Reed Shepherd can shoot the rock. And after a long delay and much angst, Antonio Reeves is back to provide some veteran ballast on the perimeter. But even as Cal steadily filled this roster, circumstances have eroded depth along the front line. Freshman Aaron Bradshaw, the No. 5 prospect in 2023, and Ugonna Onyenso will miss the start of the season as they work back from foot injuries. Zvonimir Ivisic is a polished stretch five, but the Croatian has been tangled in bureaucratic red tape, first with UK’s admissions office and now with the NCAA. The fallout from Bob Huggins’ exit at West Virginia put Tre Mitchell on the open market, providing the ‘Cats a lifeline. Usually, Calipari’s teams get traction by mid-January, but will youth in the backcourt and shallow depth in the frontcourt delay that process? If so, the grumbles out of Lexington might start earlier than usual.

Read the Kentucky preview

No. 4: Arkansas Razorbacks

Rock M Projection: 22-9, 11-7 SEC | KenPom: 21-8, 11-7 SEC | Media: 3rd | Average: 3.2

Quick Take: While Arkansas reached the Sweet 16, there’s no denying last season was a tad stilted in Fayetteville. Poor injury luck, which knocked out Trevon Brazile and sidelined Nick Smith for long stretches, didn’t help. But the Razorbacks’ shift toward youth and high-end freshmen wasn’t seamless. Jordan Walsh struggled as a floor spacer, and broader shooting woes made for clogged gaps when Anthony Black tried to attack off the bounce. So, coach Eric Musselman dusted off a familiar blueprint and hit the transfer portal hard. Houston transfer Tramon Mark fits his preference for long, rangy wings with some defensive grit. Yet Mark faces the same issue as other pickups: can he shoot the ball consistently? Last season, he only made 32.8 percent of his 3s. Temple transfer Khalif Battle averaged almost 18 points per game, while Louisville El Ellis should be able to move into a more natural off-ball role. All three fit Muss’ preferences for athletic guards who can exploit one-on-one matchups, but they shot just 33.4 percent combined from long range. It’s hard to exploit space when opponents can just shrink the floor. That’s where Cincinnati transfer Jeremiah Davenport might help. Brazile’s return supplies Muss with a hyper-athletic four-man, while Makhi Mitchell is a physical anchor for the backline. The Hogs can also sprinkle in a pair of top-50 freshmen in point guard Layden Blocker and post Baye Fall. We feel confident Muss will get this team to guard, and he’s savvy enough to adapt his offense as he goes. Yet their ceiling will rise or fall based on how often shots drop.

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No. 5: Alabama Crimson Tide

Rock M Projection: 20-11, 10-8 SEC | KenPom: 21-9, 12-6 SEC | Media: 5th | Average: 4.4

Quick Take: Transition touched every facet of the Tide this offseason. Some of it was expected, like Brandon Miller departing for the NBA. Some of it wasn’t, like the decisions of Noah Clowney and Charles Bediako to remain in the draft. It reached coach Nate Oats’ staff, which saw all three assistants depart for head coaching jobs. Toss in the transfers of Jahvon Quinerly and Jaden Bradley, and Bama lost nearly 70 percent of its shots, points, and rebounds. Oats held onto combo guard Mark Sears, Bama’s second-leading scorer, and sophomore Rylan Griffen, a prime breakout candidate. Yet the departures left Oats with hefty work in the portal. On balance, he did well under the circumstances. North Dakota State transfer Grant Nelson, who averaged 17.9 points and 9.3 rebounds, is the clear headliner, a fluid and skilled five who should easily fit Oats’ three-and-frees system. Hofstra guard Aaron Estrada was the CAA Player of the Year, averaging 18.5 points and shooting 37 percent from 3-point range. Meanwhile, Latrell Wrightsell, who arrives via Fullerton, can also space the floor of the catch. Bama should have no problem figuring out its top six rotation members, but depth is a question. Three freshmen – Mouhammed Diobate, Sam Walters, and Jarin Stevenson – could be pressed into early action. However, none of them are rated higher than 50th nationally. Don’t get us wrong. This roster isn’t poor, but there are questions. Nelson, for example, struggled against quality competition. The frontcourt lacks a proven rim protector – a linchpin of Oats’ system. We know the Tide will score. Yet it’s only contended when it manages to guard consistently. It’s unclear if this group can fulfill that objective, and it’s reliant on at least four players efficiently scaling up their output.

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No. 6: Missouri Tigers

Rock M Projection: 20-11, 10-8 SEC | KenPom: 17-14, 8-10 SEC | Media: 9th | Average: 8.7

Quick Take: We’re more bullish than the consensus on Mizzou. (Thank you, tiebreakers.) In practice, though, all it took was flipping two home games — Florida and Arkansas — into the win column. That’s how narrow the margins are in the middle of the standings. Coach Dennis Gates did lose four pros off a roster that overachieved. However, he’s returning key vets — Nick Honor and Noah Carter — at positions that power a juiced-up version of the Princeton offense, a change-of-pace ball handler in Sean East II, and a high-upside sophomore in Aidan Shaw. MU should also have more size along the front line with a pair of stretch fives in Oral Roberts transfer Connor Vanover and freshman Jordan Butler. But the linchpin for the rotation is three perimeter pickups from the portal: John Tonje, Caleb Grill, and Tamar Bates. All three fill different roles, but they can each shoot the ball consistently, which should keep the floor spaced. Still, two questions gnaw at this group. Does it have a player who can create outside of the offense? And will this iteration of the Tigers be average defensively? If the answers are suitable enough, we trust Gates’ system to muster enough quality shots to push this team up the standings by a couple of spots.

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No. 7: Mississippi State Bulldogs

Rock M Projection: 20-11, 10-8 SEC | KenPom: 20-10, 10-8 SEC | Media: 7th | Average: 7.2

Quick Take: On Jan. 25, coach Chris Jans’ crew bobbed dead in the water. Mired in a five-game skid, the Bulldogs sat at 1-7 in the SEC and a visit from TCU looming. Six weeks later, State saw its name pop up on Selection Sunday. That’s laudable, but it might have led to some recency bias. Is it a good thing State leads the SEC in returning production? Yes and no. Defensively, this group should again grind foes into pulp. But it’s also a roster that had the 11th-worst offensive efficiency among high-major programs. Its attack orbited around Tolu Smith, who will miss the entirety of non-conference play with a foot injury. Marshall transfer Andrew Taylor, who averaged 20.2 points last season, should probably stay limber. Wing D.J. Jeffries is still waiting to become a consistent 3-and-D threat, while combo guards Shakeel Moore and Dashawn Davis combined to shoot 29.8 percent from behind the arc. As for Cameron Matthews, the combo forward’s impact is felt defensively. In the near term, West Virginia transfer Jimmy Bell Jr. fills the physical void left by Smith. But outside of Smith and Taylor, Jans’ additions are hard to gauge. JaQuan Scott and Lerenzo Fort are top-15 JUCO prospects, but those players frequently become reliable reserves instead of critical cogs. Point guard Josh Hubbard, the No. 95 prospect nationally, could spell Taylor, but State’s two other freshmen are developmental pickups. In almost any other power conference, State’s questions on offense might dampen expectations. Yet the SEC is a league where athletic and defensive-minded rosters can claw their way to the middle.

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No. 8: Florida Gators

Rock M Projection: 19-12, 9-9 SEC | KenPom: 18-12, 9-9 SEC | Media: 8th | Average: 7.8

Quick Take: Universal praise greeted Florida’s hire of Todd Golden. At San Francisco, his use of analytics – and open door for writers and podcasters – earned him a devoted following. But how would it translate in the SEC? In Year 1, it was decidedly blah. UF didn’t suffer egregious losses but only logged three wins over top-100 teams in KenPom. And once Colin Castleton went down, UF limped to a 2-5 finish. Then, Golden gutted his roster. Will Richard and Riley Kugel, pegged as a potential breakout player, are the only holdovers of note. Any aspirations hinge on a portal class, ranked No. 1 by EvanMiya’s model, hitting in a big way. Iona import Walter Clayton Jr. is a steady lead guard who can flex off the ball to shoot 40 percent from 3-point range. By contrast, Zyon Pullin, a UC-Riverside transfer, was a high-usage scorer out west. While their styles contrast, they can fit alongside Richard and Kugel in the backcourt. Yet it’s the frontcourt overhaul that’s notable. Golden didn’t take any chances on being left shorthanded. Seton Hall transfer Tyrese Samuel supplies a rugged interior defender and rebounder. Meanwhile, Marshall transfer Micah Handlogten is on NBA draft boards for his ability to switch, guard multiple positions, and protect the rim. And until last month, Yale import E.J. Jarvis stood decent odds at steady minutes a stretch big. Then, he abruptly gave up hoops. Golden’s components should be enough to merit more optimism. But we saw Golden in a similar position a year ago. He didn’t inherit a dilapidated roster and managed to bolster it with Richard and Kugel soon after he arrived. Still, Golden objectively underperformed compared to Gates and Jans. His batch of quality wins was equal to Mike White and Matt McMahon. Golden’s process is admirable, but we’ll have to see if we can marshal those resources to their full potential.

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No. 9: Auburn Tigers

Rock M Projection: 18-13, 8-10 SEC | KenPom: 21-9, 11-7 SEC | Media: 6th | Average: 5.9

Quick Take: Yes, we know it’s risky to doubt coach Bruce Pearl. However, we can’t shake doubts about how he constructed the Tigers’ backcourt. More specifically, who is the reliable point guard? When AU purrs, there’s a ball handler that plays fast without ushering in chaos: Jared Harper, Sharife Cooper, and Wendell Green Jr. That does not describe KD Johnson. Five-star freshman Aden Holloway oozes talent, but his instincts tilt toward scoring. Sophomore Tre Donaldson saw limited action last season, but it’s unclear how much his role will expand. Off the ball, FIU transfer Denver Jones’ stat line is ogle-worthy, but it came on 30 percent usage on a team that finished 210th in KenPom. Pearl doggedly pursued a pair of transfer targets — Matthew Cleveland and Tyrin Lawrence — but came up short. Instead, the Tigers will turn to Chaney Johnson, who arrives via Alabama-Hunstville, and a top-15 JUCO talent in Chad Baker-Mazara. Along the frontline, Johni Broome is a sneaky candidate for SEC Player of the Year, but other vets like Jaylin Williams and Dylan Cardwell top out at reliable. We know how tight the margins can be in the middle of the standings. So, flip a couple of results, and this prediction might look silly. But for now, we think the sum of Pearl’s parts is merely average.

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No. 10: Ole Miss Rebels

Rock M Projection: 20-11, 8-10 SEC | KenPom: 16-13, 8-10 SEC | Media: 10th | Average: 10.2

Quick Take: Say this much for Ole Miss: The Rebels are going for it. They opened a new arena. They ramped up spending. Instead of giving coach Kermit Davis leeway, it swapped him out for Chris Beard. That personnel move came with considerable baggage. Optics aside, Beard wins. He does it quickly. And if a couple of waiver decisions break his way, the Rebels could contend for an NCAA tournament bid. He held on to Jaemyn Brakefield and Matthew Murrell, who should have a preseason All-SEC pick. He also raided the portal to extract a quartet that could rapidly elevate Ole Miss’ ceiling: Brandon Murray, Moussa Cisse, Jamarion Sharp, and Allen Flanigan. Yet Murray and Cisse each need the NCAA to sign off – a prospect that looks unlikely. It’s why, despite Beard’s bona fides, we have the Rebs slotted here. Flanagan followed his father from Auburn, where he was an assistant, and should give Beard a reliable combo guard. Murrell is a headliner on the wing. Brakefield is a modern combo forward. And Sharp, a transfer from Western Kentucky, is arguably the best shot blocker in the country. But without Murray and Cisse, the Rebels depth chart rapidly thins out. Meanwhile, we’re not sure Beard’s options at lead guard – Saint Peter’s transfer Jaylen Murray or Arizona State transfer Austin Nunez – qualify as top-tier options. Regardless of personnel, Beard’s team should be miles ahead defensively, giving Ole Miss a puncher’s chance most nights.

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No. 11: LSU Tigers

Rock M Projection: 15-15, 7-11 SEC | KenPom: 17-12, 8-10 SEC | Media: 13th | Average: 11.4

Quick Take: By and large, preseason forecasts haven’t offered us many surprises. The only modest one is seeing SEC writers pick coach Matt McMahon’s crew to finish 13th. Jalen Cook’s availability might serve as the sliding-doors moment. The Tulane point guard, who left LSU once and transferred back this spring, still awaits word on a transfer request from the NCAA. If forced to sit, the Bayou Bengals lose a dynamo that averaged almost 20 points per game in a quality conference. It would cause Carlos Stewart, a Santa Clara transfer, into a prime role as an initiator instead of a spacer who made 40.2 percent of catch-and-shoot jumpers last season. It would also ask Jordan Wright to be more than a stable vet in the rotation, supplying eight to 10 points per night. And each backcourt member grades out poorly as a defender — a problem for a program coming off a year where it posted the SEC’s worst defensive efficiency. Nevada transfer Will Baker is a hyper-skilled post player, but you can play him off the floor. Kentucky transfer Daimion Collins is an elite athlete but still raw as a player. There’s also the matter of progress for sophomores Tyrell Ward and Jalen Reed. It’s easy to admire the individual pieces McMahon has collected, but Cook running the point creates a starting five that gives it some coherence. Without him, though, LSU lacks proven ball handlers and lingering questions defensively — enough that McMahon might see his team make only modest headway.

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No. 12: Vanderbilt Commodores

Rock M Projection: 16-15, 6-12 SEC | KenPom: 14-16, 5-13 SEC | Media: 11th | Average: 11.4

Quick Take: Full disclosure: We’re fond admirers of coach Jerry Stackhouse. Pay close enough attention, and you’ll see he runs some of the best action in the conference. There’s a reason NBA franchises poked around this offseason. Vandy’s torrid finish last season raised his profile and nearly ended with a push into the field of 68. Yet roster management has always been a bit tricky in Nashville. And it was again this spring. Liam Robbins graduated. Jordan Wright and Myles Stute transferred to other SEC programs that finished in the bottom four. A viable depth piece in Quentin Millora-Brown will suit up at The Citadel. Tyrin Lawrence entered the portal, flirting with Auburn and Texas before staying put. Stack held onto a veteran lead guard in Ezra Manjon, and Colin Smith, who showed flashes as a jumbo wing, could backfill for Stute. Notre Dame transfer Ven-Allen Lubin might be the sneakiest portal addition in the league and has three years left of eligibility. And Tasos Kamateros is a workmanlike option in the middle. The backcourt is adequate, but the interior offers many open questions. Vandy could also be a sieve at times defensively. The portal lets programs stay old, but continuity remains essential. Stute, Wright, and Millora-Brown aren’t headliners, but they knew Stack’s system and filled in 23 points each night. Replacing those pieces can thwart momentum — no matter how good you are at Xs and Os.

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No. 13: Georgia Bulldogs

Rock M Projection: 13-18, 5-13 SEC | KenPom: 17-13, 7-11 SEC | Media: 12th | Average: 12.5

Quick Take: Conversely, how much faith do you place in coach Mike White? This outlet is a wee bit skeptical. White is not incompetent. He constructs rosters that look complete on paper. But his results are merely adequate. Over his last five seasons at Florida, the Gators averaged 9.8 wins in SEC play. Last year, UGA started conference play 4-4 — and crumped to a 2-8 finish. This iteration of the Bulldogs raises the same metaphysical question. Justin Hill should be steadier as a creator. Jabri Abdur-Rahim found stability as a 3-and-D wing but will need to expand his contributions off the dribble. Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe is the long and physical wing defender who’s a staple in this conference. A trio of four-star freshmen — Silas DeMary Jr., Blue Cain, and Dylan James — could make a dent as depth pieces. White was also productive in the transfer portal. Jalen DeLoach arrives from VCU as a bouncy four-man, and combo guard Noah Thomasson might supply some scoring punch at combo guard. UGA also bet Illinois wing RJ Melendez can assemble the pieces in a new locale. That said, Thomasson is the only proven scorer on the roster, and at some juncture, White might be tempted to pivot toward a youth movement. There are intriguing pieces at Stegemen Coliseum, but which direction will White go? And do you trust his judgment?

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No. 14: South Carolina Gamecocks

Rock M Projection: 13-18, 3-15 SEC | KenPom: 16-14, 7-11 SEC | Media: 14th | Average: 13.8

Quick Take: The Gamecocks will be better but still bring up the rear. It’s hard to replicate finishing 221st in KenPom, and while G.G. Jackson is gone, this roster is a slight upgrade over coach Lamont Paris’ debut campaign. Combo guard Meechie Johnson counts as the lone key cog returning to the fold, and when he played efficiently, Carolina owned a .500 record. Jacobi Wright made quiet strides as a sophomore and lends depth at lead guard. And Josh Gray offers rim protection. Paris will count on Wofford transfer B.J. Mack, who averaged 16.6 points and 5.6 rebounds, to blend brawn and skill at the four-spot. Miles Stute averaged 8.4 points and 4.6 rebounds at Vanderbilt, supplying the Gamecocks with a replacement-level wing. Then there’s point guard Ta’Lon Cooper, whose assist rate (35.8%) at Minnesota should let Paris play Johnson off the ball. The Gamecocks’ starting five has improved enough to envision a push out of the cellar. But the bench is mighty thin after Wright, and Paris’ two freshmen — Collin Murray-Boyles and Arden Conners — will need a couple of years to develop. Fortunately, Paris’ bosses have shown they’ll grant wide latitude. Frank Martin won just 44 percent of his SEC games and reached one NCAA Tournament. Yet the program never cratered and proved a tough out once conference play arrived. That kept him on the sideline for a decade. So, Paris’ seat is likely cool. If this squad finds a way to seven wins in conference play, it’ll probably keep the temp down. It might also help Paris make another slight upgrade to the talent he imports.

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