1. Kentucky Wildcats 2014-15 Record 38-1 (21-0)
DEPARTURES: Karl Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, Dakari Johnson
ADDITIONS: Isaiah Briscoe, Isaac Humphries, Skal Labissiere, Charles Matthews, Mychal Mulder, Jamal Murray
ROSTER: John Calipari has once again used recruiting to reload his roster. The Wildcat are now deepest in the backcourt with Briscoe, Murray, Matthews, Mulder and sophomore Tyler Ulis all expected to get minutes this year. Don’t sleep on their front court though. UK returns Marcus Lee, Derek Willis and Alex Poythress returns after suffering a torn ACL last season. That’s not even mentioning incoming freshmen bigs Humphries and potential 2016 top pick Labissiere. Youth is the biggest knock against Coach Cal’s team, but that was also true of last year’s 38-1 team. If all the new pieces are clicking by March UK might just capture its second title in five years (fact check).
OUTLOOK: UK is the favorite to repeat as SEC Champs and are also one of the many preseason national title contenders. With a loaded non-conference schedule, the Wildcats will be tested early and often this year forcing the new group of elite youngsters to grow up quickly if they are to meet the lofty expectations placed on their shoulders by Big Blue Nation.
KEY PLAYER: Skal Labissiere. While the ball and Calipari’s trust will be in the hands of Ulis, and Murray is their best scorer, the success of UK will depend on the play of Skal. Possessing a sweet shooting stroke out to the three point line, along with the length and size to be a force in the paint, if Labissiere can have anything near a similar impact as the last number one big man recruit in Lexington, then it will be smooth sailing for UK.
2. LSU Tigers 2014-15 Record: 22-11 (11-7)
DEPARTURES: Jordan Mickey, Jarell Martin
ADDITIONS: Ben Simmons, Antonio Blakeney, Brandon Sampson
ROSTER: Ben Simmons alone would vault any school he went to into the Top 5 of their conference. Luckily for the folks of Baton Rouge, Simmons chose the LSU Tigers as his one-year stop before heading to the NBA. Rebuilding the Tigers into a powerhouse won’t fall squarely on Simmon’s shoulders though. Fellow freshmen Blakeney and Sampson will also make their collegiate debuts at LSU this year. While LSU lost two All-SEC caliber players in Mickey and Martin they were able to retain two solid pieces in Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby. Quarterman is a competitive lead guard with size and versatility. Hornsby, in particular, should thrive off drive and kick opportunities that Simmons, Blakeney, Quarterman and Sampson will surely provide.
OUTLOOK: Fans in Baton Rogue haven’t been this anxious for basketball since Shaquille O’Neal was throwing down rim crushing dunks for the Tigers. While very talented and deserving of the praise heaped upon him, Simmons is still just a freshmen. It might take him until the beginning of 2016 to reach the early expectations placed on him. Even with a slow start he should have his game humming once SEC play starts and that will keep LSU in the race for the conference title.
KEY PLAYER: Antonio Blakeney. Blakeney is a known scored and with Ben Simmons getting most of the opposing team’s attention Blakeney is going to have to be effective and efficient while having the ball in his hands less than he is used to.
ROSTER: A team that casual observes will be shocked to see placed immediately behind Kentucky is the Vanderbilt Commodores. Under Kevin Stallings Vandy has quietly morphed into a formidable foe and this year’s team begins ranked 18th in the AP Preseason Poll. The main reason for all the preseason love is the development of seven-footer Damian Jones. Jones has made significant progress in each of his first two seasons at Vandy and now looks the part of a dominant big, capable of anchoring the paint on both ends. Jones won’t have to do it alone for the Commodores, a backcourt of Wade Baldwin IV and Riley LaChance makes teams unable to focus all of their attention on Jones.Will the comradery of the Commodores be enough to unseat LSU and Kentucky?
OUTLOOK: Their Big Three of Jones, LaChance and Baldwin IV would make them a daunting opponent in any conference. Even though a fair amount of high-level talent has found its way to the premiere "football conference" Vanderbilt should be able to hang right with the best the SEC has to offer. Also, Stallings is one of the longest tenured coaches in the conference and with four new coaches entering the league, there’s something to be said for Vandy’s stability.
KEY PLAYER: Damian Jones. In order for Vanderbilt to be the team it has the potential to it’s going to need Jones to be a beast, particularly on the boards. If Jones can have a real impact on both ends, game after game, the Commodores will give any team a fight.
4. Texas A&M 2014-15 Record: 21-12 (11-7)
DEPARTURES: Avery Johnson Jr., Davonte Fitzgerald, Peyton Allen, Dylan Johns, Antwan Space
ADDITIONS: Kobie Eubanks (eligible in December), Anthony Collins, Elijah Thomas, DJ Hogg, Admon Gilder, Tyler Davis
ROSTER: Depth is a word the folks in Aggieland better get used to hearing this season. Thanks to a highly touted recruiting class, head coach Billy Kennedy will have 12 players–nine of which are returnees–worthy of getting play every night. Led by guards Alex Caruso and Danuel House, the Aggies are a very versatile group. Add in freshmen, and former high school teammates, Tyler Davis and DJ Hogg and it’s easy to see that this is the most talented roster that Kennedy has had during his four years at College Station.
OUTLOOK: Health is going to be the biggest factor for A&M this season.
They had the talent last year too, but a few untimely injuries kept them out of the Big Dance.
Kennedy is on record this offseason stating that the Aggies should make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011. For that to happen they need their 12 deep roster to remain as healthy as possible. Even with Jalen Jones missing the team’s first four games due to suspension, A&M will head to the Battle 4 Atlantis with almost a full roster. And don’t forget Kobie Eubanks will join them in time to face in-state and former Big 12 foe Baylor.
KEY PLAYER: Danuel House. House led the Aggies in scoring last year (14.8 PPG) and at 6’7" with long arms and above average athleticism the tools are there for him to be a tough matchup for any team A&M faces. House’s injury late in the season was the final blow to the Aggies chances at reaching the NCAA’s.
Hopefully House will be 100 percent recovered as the season begins tonight.
5. Mississippi State 2014-15 Record: 13-19 (6-12)
DEPARTURES: Maurice Dunlap, Roquez Johnson, Oliver Black
ADDITIONS: Malik Newman, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Aric Holman, Joseph Strong
ROSTER: Mississippi native and top-ranked high school point guard, Malik Newman, didn’t surprise many people when be signed to be a Bulldog. What Newman did do however, was give Mississippi State a star and a face of their program–both of which have been lacking in Starkville since Dee Bost graduated in 2013. Newman was a huge recruit for Bulldogs’ new head coach, Ben Howland. Howland, of Pittsburgh and UCLA game, should immediately have an impact on Mississippi State’s team. A hard-nosed, defensive-minded coach, Howland will make sure every player on the floor gives max effort on both ends of the court. Newman is the biggest name on paper, but Howland will look towards seniors Travis Daniels, Gavin Ware and Craig Sword to be his leaders.
OUTLOOK: Mississippi State grossly underwhelmed last year, which caused Rick Ray to lose his job. With most of their roster intact and freshmen Newman and Quinndary Weatherspoon added to the mix expectations will be high again down by the Mighty Mississippi. If the talented senior/freshmen five-man mix of Sword/Newman/Weatherspoon/Ware/Daniels can form chemistry early than the Bulldogs have a puncher’s chance of bringing home the SEC title.
KEY PLAYER: Malik Newman. Newman is the third biggest freshmen in the SEC, but how he adapts will be more vital than Simmons’ adjustment at LSU. Newman is a true combo guard and is used to having the ball and controlling the offense at all times. Can he be productive and efficient playing off the ball for the Bulldogs?
ROSTER: The Georgia Bulldogs are loaded with guards this year. They are two-deep at every position (if you include point guard and two wings as part of the backcourt).This season will start and end with the play of Charles Mann, Kenny Gaines and JJ Frazier. The two seniors and junior are the best players in Mark Fox’s team. Gaines and Mann earned ALL-SEC recognition this preseason and all three were members of last year’s NCAA Tournament team that came just seven points shy of defeating eventual Final Four participant Michigan Stare. While there aren’t many flashy names, Fox does a good job of finding and molding serviceable big men practically out of thin air.
OUTLOOK: While Georgia might not have the overall diversity of talent like other projected top five teams in the conference, the talent they do have is more than capable of keeping them right on track with the who’s who of the SEC. As long as Mann, Gaines and Fraizer build off what they wear able to accomplish last year then Georgia will once again be right in the thick of the chase to get a NCAA Tournament bid.
KEY PLAYER: Charles Mann. The top SEC teams have all have solid, if not better, guard play. In order for the Dawgs to be in contention Mann is going to have to outplay his matchups to lead UGA to victors against teamed ranked higher on this list.
7. Florida Gators 2014-15 Record: 16-17 (8-10)
DEPARTURES: Billy Donovan, Eli Carter, Michael Fraizer II, Jon Horford, Chris Walker
ADDITIONS: KeVaughn Allen, Kevarrius Hayes, Keith Stone, John Egbunu, Brandone Francis
ROSTER: The biggest change for the Florida Gators comes in the sidelines. After 19 seasons, four Final Fours and back-to-back National Championships, Billy Donovan left Gainsville for the seemingly greener pastures of the NBA. Replacing him is former Louisiana Tech coach Mike White. At 38, White is easily the conference’s youngest head coach. Though Donovan is gone, he didn’t leave the cupboard empty. The Gators return Kasey Hill, Devin Robinson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Alex Murphy and Chris Chiozza. They also add sharpshooting freshmen KeVaughn Allen to replace Michael Fraizer II and Kevarrious Hayes, Keith Stone and John Egbunu will try to fill the void left by Jon Horford and Chris Walker.
OUTLOOK: Losing the best coach in school history and four of the top seven players at the same time is a huge blow. However, if Coach White is anything like the Donovan, he’s been painted as in the lead up to this year then the Gators will be retooling instead of rebuilding. While White was an impressive 101-40 in four season at Louisiana Tech, he remains an unknown commodity in the SEC. The same could be said for rising sophomores Robinson and Chiozza. Florida may take a few lumps and stumble out of the gate, but once things come together on the court and on the sidelines, Gainesville could easily be home to a spoiler for the better SEC teams.
KEY PLAYER: Kasey Hill. Billy Donovan’s offense ran through the point guard and last year Hill had more downs than ups in his first year at the reins. Hill, a former top 10 high school recruit, will need to grasp a better hold of Mike White’s system for Florida to reach its potential this season.
8. South Carolina 2014-15 Record 17-16 (6-12)
DEPARTURES: Tyrone Johnson, Reggie Theus, Jr., Austin Constable, Shamiek Sheppard, Demetrius Henry
ADDITIONS: PJ Dozier, Chris Silva, Eric Cobb, Raymond Doby, Jamall Gregory
ROSTER: In his third year at the helm, the South Carolina Gamecocks are starting to look like a vintage Frank Martin team. The addition of freshmen guard P.J. Dozier–his father Perry Sr. played at South Carolina as well–is going to give Martin a much needed jolt of versatility to this South Carolina team. Dozier, a consensus five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American, is his best when playing point guard. At 6’7” he will walk out every night with a matchup advantage physically. Dozier headlines a Top 25 recruiting class to go along with key returning players Sindarius Thornwell and Michael Carrera. Carrera is the type of hounding and hustling player that Martin loves and Thornwell has proven to be a quality scorer night in and out. In order for the Gamecocks to reach the heights of their talent they will need to play harder and tougher than every team they face.
OUTLOOK: South Carolina got a break from the SEC schedulers this season as the three best teams (Kentucky, Vanderbilt, LSU) all have to travel to Columbia to face the Gamecocks in their only matchups this season. Meaning, if they can pull off a couple upsets at home they will find themselves right in the thick of the tournament bubble conversation if they manage to hover around .500 in the rest of their conference schedule. Dozier and Thornwell are going to be counted on to provide most of the offensive firepower for this team. Thornwell’s shooting abilities have been showcased during his first two seasons in Columbia and playing more off the ball with Dozier’s arrival should only help those numbers. Dozier, meanwhile, will need to show that he can handle the pressure of smaller, quicker guards and be able to run a team as a freshmen. If everything goes perfectly, South Carolina should contend for a tournament berth. But, things rarely ever go perfectly in basketball and it’s more likely that the Gamecocks will once again find themselves on the outside looking in. I expect Martin and his boys to be a pain in the backside of every SEC foe and pull off a few upsets along the way, allowing them to be a part of one of the three major postseason tournaments.
KEY PLAYER: Sindarius Thornwell. With P.J. Dozier in town, Thornwell should finally have a Robin to his Batman. Simply meaning teams will no longer be able to focus their defensive attention on Thornwell, at least not without getting burnt by Dozier. Thornwell needs to show he can flourish off the ball and be a knockdown threat on the perimeter nightly.
9. Auburn Tigers 2014-15 Record 15-20 (4-14)
DEPARTURES: K.T. Harrell, Alex Thompson, Alex Purchase, Matthew Atewe, K.C. Ross-Miller
ADDITIONS: Tyler Harris, Kareem Canty, TJ Dunans, Horace Spencer, Danjel Purifoy, New Williams, Bryce Brown
ROSTER: Bruce Pearl’s second season at Auburn is not going to be a fun one for the War Eagle faithful, and that’s after finishing with just four conference wins in his first year with the Tigers. The loss of 2014-15 SEC scoring champion, K.T. Harrell, is a huge blow for Auburn, especially since the player pegged to help replace some of that scoring production (Danjel Purifoy) is yet to be cleared to play by the NCAA. Purifoy is an Alabama native and four-star recruit who played last year at the Hargrave Military Academy. As long as Purifoy is sidelined, that means Pearl and the Tigers will need more out of Providence transfer Tyler Harris. Harris began his career at NC State where he played just 19 games before transferring to Providence, which he left as a graduate transfer to attend Auburn this year. The younger brother of Tobias Harris looks to make an impact in the SEC like his brother did as a Tennessee Volunteer. They also are hoping for good things from their JUCO transfer T.J. Dunans. Dunans spent his first two years at Columbia State Community College. At 6’5”, Dunans will be another perimeter option for Auburn.
OUTLOOK: Auburn is not going to scare anyone on paper, but Pearl has been known to coach his guys up for big games. If Purifoy is cleared and can find a rhythm, they instantly become a team capable of putting an unexpected scare into an opponent that takes the Tigers too lightly. Still the biggest portion of talent on this roster rest on the backs of a four-man recruiting class. A class that should give Pearl more time on the sidelines regardless of how Auburn ends up performing this year. However, the freshmen that Pearl has brought in are a lot different than the blue chips that Kentucky is constantly rotating in and out of Big Blue Nation. Maybe Pearl, who coach Tobias at Tennesee, will be the coach that makes it click for the younger Harris brother. If so they will have a shot at doubling their in-conference win total from a year ago.
KEY PLAYER: Danjel Purifoy. The homegrown talent was a big recruiting win for Pearl, and would be an even bigger win if allowed to play by the NCAA. The Tigers need to be able to put all the talent they have out on the floor and without Purifoy they take a significant hit in terms of total talent.
10. Tennessee 2014-15 Record 16-16 (7-11)
DEPARTURES: Josh Richardson, Tariq Owens, Willie Carmichael III, Braxton Bonds
ADDITIONS: Kyle Alexander, Ray Kasongo, Shembari Phillips, Admiral Schofield, coach Rick Barnes
ROSTER: Tennessee should see one major upgrade right away next season and that will come in the form of coaching. After one season with the Volunteers, Donnie Tyndall was fired in the offseason after allegations of NCAA infractions during his time at Southern Mississippi were brought to light. Tennessee moved quickly to assure the services of former Texas head coach Rick Barnes. Barnes was let go for failing to live up to the expectations that he had set for the program during his 17-year tenure in Austin. Rocky Top has so far welcomed Barnes in with open arms–the schools third coach in as many seasons. Barnes walks into a team that returns six players (including four seniors: Armani Moore, Devon Baulkman, Derek Reese and Kevin Punter) and will need to work quickly to get the team adapted to the up-tempo style he looks to play; The Vols didn’t score more than 78 points in any game last season. Moore and Punter will be counted on to bring noticeable increases in their production from the perimeter this year. Their offensive production will be a high priority as Tennessee doesn’t really have a roster that screams defense. There are a myriad of fast and athletic players on the team it will be a struggle to say the least to keep the higher caliber teams from turning the game into a track meet.
OUTLOOK: While the jump in coaching from Tyndall to Barnes should give the Volunteers a boost, it doesn’t seem like the coaching change alone will be enough to raise the Vols back to the top of the conference. It’s going to take a few recruiting classes for Barnes to really start making an imprint on Rocky Top, but once he gets in a groove it’s not a stretch to think Tennessee can become a contender for the SEC throne. However, with so little options on offense, it looks like the Vols will come up short in 2015. They should be able to get wins from the bottom of the conference and would need to scrape a few wins from the middle tier in order to regain respect from the college basketball world as a whole.
KEY PLAYER: Armani Moore. Moore is the go-to-guy for the Volunteers and will need to perform and get his numvers every game against the best defender the opposing team has to offer. At 6’4”, 217lbs Moore has a strong build that will allow him to be effective in the paint and on the perimeter. If he is near the top on the SEC scoring leaderboard than it means Tennesee should finish within the top 6 in the conference.
11. Ole Miss Rebels 2014-15 Record: 21-13 (11-7)
DEPARTURES: Ladarius White, Jarvis Summers, Dwight Coleby
ADDITIONS: Sam Finley, Tomasz Gielo, Rasheed Brooks, Terence Davis, JT Escobar
ROSTER: Jarvis Summers and Ladarius White will be greatly missed by Andy Kennedy and the rest of the Rebels this year. They were the driving force behind last year’s team. However, a repeat trip to the Round of 64 looks far fetched this year. Even with the return of Stefan Moody–who impressed with a stellar junior season–the other pieces of this Ole Miss roster leaves you uneasy. The Rebels will see an influx of transfers (five total, three eligible to play this season). Kennedy might need to tape players’ names on them like the NFL does with training camp just so everyone gets to know each other.
OUTLOOK: Kennedy has helped bring Rebels basketball back to national relevancy in his 10 years running the show. Yet, this year there is sure to be more chants of "HAIL STATE" throughout Mississippi than in years prior. A sophomore slump from Stefan Moody would throw a wrench into any hope Ole Miss has at playing decent basketball. They’re scarce with elite players, especially in the front court, so they will need someone other than Moody to step up otherwise they could be looking at a single digit win total in conference play.
KEY PLAYER: Stefan Moody. 16.6 PPG was an impressive feat for the diminutive lead guard. Moody needs to expand on that as well as help facilitate the growth and development of those around him. Even if Moody’s scoring numbers increase it won’t help the Rebels if he’s the only player that can consistently put the ball in the basket.
12 Alabama Crimson Tide 2014-15 Record: 19-15 (8-10)
DEPARTURES: Levi Randolph, Rodney Cooper, Jeff Garrett, Ricky Tarant, Devin Mitchell
ADDITIONS: Brandon Austin AL, Donta Hall, Dazon Ingram, Arthur Edwards
ROSTER: Another program that made a coaching change is the Alabama Crimson Tide. After six years the Anthony Grant era has run its course to mixed and mostly underwhelming results–don’t feel bad for Grant, he’s now coaching Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant with the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was from the NBA level that the Crimson Tide found Grant’s successor, Avery Johnson. Johnson comes into a team that is looking for a way to replace its top two scorers from last year (Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper). While the other teams that dwell at the bottom of this list are simply rebuilding or are in a down year Bama is lacking in terms of athleticism and talent compared to their other SEC counterparts. To make matters worse they have to see their former top recruit Kobie Eubanks suit up for another SEC team (Texas A&M) this season.
OUTLOOK: Shannon Hale and Jimmie Taylor need to up their production if the Crimson Tide don’t want to hit rock bottom this season. Avery Johnson’s first year with Bama is most likely going to be a year that the Roll Tide faithful are going to want to forget. The Crimson Tide are going to struggle and it will be a testament to Johnson’s coaching abilities if they can reach eight SEC wins for a second straight year.
KEY PLAYER: Jimmie Taylor. While Shannon Hale proved to be the better scorer last year, Bama needs Taylor to show he can be more consistent on the offensive end too. Taylor showed he is above average as a rebounder and defender, now he needs to reach that level as a scorer too.
13. Arkansas 2014-15 Record: 27-9 (13-5)
DEPARTURES: Bobby Portis, Michael Qualls, Rashad Madden, Nick Babb, Jacorey Williams
ADDITIONS: Willy Kouassi, Jimmy Whitt, Lorenzo Jenkins
ROSTER: From second best to second worst in just a year’s time. That’s the impact the departures of underclassmen Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls had on Mike Anderson’s team. With transfers and graduated players taken into account the Razorbacks will return four players whom have combine to start 45 games. Arkansas is going to need more out of their former four-star recruits if it wants to beat the ranking it currently sits in. Moses Kingsley has flashed some Bobby Portis-lite capabilities in the preseason, including a 17-foot jumper. If Kingsley can bring that offensively in addition to what he’s shown he can do defensively it won’t take long for the Razorbacks to look like the team from last season. Freshmen guard Jimmy Whitt should help with the scoring load as well (averaged 30.6 PPG as a high school senior). What and the outside shooting of Athlon Bell and Dusty Hannahs will be crucial for Arkansas this season.
OUTLOOK: With 80 percent of their starting lineup gone it’s easy to peg Arkansas into the bottom of the conference standings–as I have done. With a multitude of new players stepping into the spotlight things can go one of two ways for Mike Anderson’s group. They fail to replicate the success and production that 80 percent brought with them and find themselves in the bottom half of the SEC. The new pieces make a significant leap and Anderson’s "40 Minutes of Hell" system drives opponents crazy creating endless turnovers and easy scoring chances for Arkansas.
KEY PLAYER: Anthlon Bell. Bell averaged 7.9 PPG last year, but has shown the ability to get hot in a moments notice. Bell needs to make 2015-16 season into one long hot shooting streak for the Razorbacks. Jimmy Whitt may need a year of seasoning before fully displaying his scoring Arsenal and Moses Kingsley has been too inconsistent in the past. Bell needs to take his game to the next level quickly for Arkansas.
14. Missouri Tigers 2014-15 Record: 9-23 (3-15)
DEPARTURES: Deuce Bello, Johnathan Williams III, Montaque Gil-Caesar
ADDITIONS: Kevin Puryear, Cullen VanLear, Terrence Phillips, Martavian Payne, Russell Woods, KJ Walton
ROSTER: Kim Anderson took over a messy situation after Frank Haith was relieved of his coaching duties during the season last year. This year Anderson finds himself in an even worse spit. Of the little talent Missouri did have returning three of their best players left the program (Deuce Bello to Middle Tennessee State, Montaque Gil-Caesar to San Diego State and Johnathan Williams III to Gonzaga). What’s left for the Tigers is a young group–six freshmen–led by sophomore Jakeenan Gant. Gant has a less than stellar debut for Mizzou as a freshmen and now is one of the Tigers most talented and experienced players.
OUTLOOK: Missouri fans should prepare for more of the same from last year on the court.
Mizzou was able to scratch and claw their way to three SEC wins last season and the conference as a whole is much more improved this year. These young Tigers will take their lumps this year in hope that it will make them a better team in the long haul. With that said anything more than six SEC wins should be considered a massive over achievement by the Missouri faithful.
KEY PLAYER: Terrence Phillips. Phillips, the younger brother of Brandon Jennings, is the quintessential pass-first point guard and there will be minutes by the ready for him. The Tigers will need Phillips to orchestrate the offense and help bring the best out of all the players around him. For Missouri to get the most out of everyone, they need Phillips to be the playmaker he showed he is during his stint at Oak Hill Academy.