1. Kentucky Wildcats
Head Coach: John Calipari
2016-2017 Season: 36-2 overall, 16-2 in SEC
Key Departures: De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo
Key Additions: Hamadou Diallo Kevin Knox, Quade Green, Jarred Vanderbilt, PJ Washington, Nick Richards, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
This is odd to say – but this is Calipari’s youngest ever team at Kentucky. The Wildcats are the youngest team in the SEC, and in the country. Typically, Cal will have a sophomore/junior return that will mentor the younger guys for the beginning stages of the season. But, not this year. Expect some early struggles, especially on the road as Cal is 2-6 in road openers during his tenure at UK.
Analysts love to compare each new Kentucky squad to another during Cal’s run in Lexington. This team projects closest to the 2013-2014 team that was an 8-seed in the tourney, but made a run to the Final Four. Expect some more regular season success though. This team is going to run 9-deep with players over 6’5. This team is made up of lengthy players who will play ‘positionless’ basketball. The versatility and length on this team will win them games early, specifically on the defensive side of the floor. You might see something a Calipari team has never done before, and that is go a full game of playing zone.
The main problem that is caused by being such a young squad is who will they turn to for leadership. Power forward PJ Washington is a versatile big who is a natural leader, having USA basketball experience. The point guard position has been handed to athletic Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who had a strong summer and is ahead of schedule in his development. He’ll need to grow up fast and the team does have a strong personality in backup PG Quade Green. The only player with experience returning is 6-9 sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel, but he figures to be more of a role player once again.
This team is ridiculously talented, but who will be their go-to guy when they need a basket? Diallo is an aggressive scorer, but his main deficiency is outside shooting. Their two most talented players are long term prospects Kevin Knox and Nick Richards, who both figure to be much stronger mentally at season’s end.
It’ll be interesting to see how much the young Cats struggle early on, especially without Jarred Vanderbilt for the first month or so, another ‘positionless’ player, and Jemarl Baker, a dead eye shooter. The Cats figure to struggle with shooting, as they do every year. But, this team has the talent to make a deep tourney run, and with their need for experience, expect Cal to have them playing their best in March.
2. Texas A&M Aggies
Head Coach: Billy Kennedy
2016-2017 Season: 16-15 overall, 8-10 in SEC
Key Departures: None
Key Additions: Savion Flagg
You may be thinking it is odd to have a team that finished 16-15 last year with not much roster change finish 2nd in the SEC, but one player can make a huge difference. Texas A&M had one of the best front courts in the country last year in Robert Williams and Tyler Davis. But, they did not have a point guard to feed those big men the ball. They have that this year in JJ Caldwell who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA last year. Caldwell was a top-100 recruit and should turn this Aggies team around.
The return of Robert Williams, a projected lottery pick, was a pleasant surprise for Billy Kennedy. Williams averaged 12 points and 8 rebounds as a freshman, and is a menace on the defensive side of the ball. If he’s focused, the sky is the limit for what he can become.
DJ Hogg, who essentially played point forward for the Aggies last year, also returns. He’ll be able to play his natural position of small forward this year, but his role last year made his game more versatile. 6-foot-4 scoring guard Admon Gilder, who averaged 13 ppg last year, is an explosive scorer who gives their backcourt and team additional offensive firepower.
The Aggies have all the pieces to contend for the top spot in the SEC. Despite being ranked in the top-25, I feel as if this team is being underrated. No team is going to want to go in the paint against the combination of Robert Williams and Tyler Davis. The Aggies are going to surprise some people this year.
Coming off an unexpected run to the Elite 8, Florida returns three key pieces from last year’s team. They could easily challenge the Wildcats (and Aggies) and end up first but they lose a couple key players in Hill and Robinson. Regardless, look for Florida’s guard play to be tremendous, they are going to force a lot of turnovers. Chris Chiozza will set the tone defensively on the perimeter before big man John Egbunu returns from a knee injury suffered last year.
The main story for this team will be the growth of KeVaughn Allen. He really came into his own last year, and is expected to contend for SEC player of the year. He is much more than a 3-point shooter, possessing the skill and athleticism to get to the bucket. He will likely lead the Gators in scoring and be the main reason for their success.
Expect another run in the tournament for the Gators. The most important aspect in March is guard play, and Florida’s aggressive backcourt will lead them in this tourney run. Mike White seems like he is ready to turn Florida into a consistent contender again.
Alabama being ranked top-4 in something other than football? Trust me, it felt weird typing it too. But, I am all-in on Alabama basketball this year. They might have the most exciting player in college basketball this year in Collin Sexton. Alabama fans can breathe, originally, he was ruled ineligible due to a role he played in the FBI scandal currently going on in college basketball. But, he will be eligible after serving a one-game suspension. John Petty, also a 5-star recruit is joining Sexton in the backcourt.
Braxton Key is also returning, and was a former 5-star recruit himself. Bigman 6-10 sophomore Daniel Giddens could take a big jump in production after sitting out last season. Alabama is going to have plenty of talent, the question is will it live up to expectations? I think they are up to the challenge, especially with Avery Johnson leading the way. Alabama will be electrifying in transition with Sexton running the show. The Crimson Tide will be if nothing else, very exciting.
This is going to be the year you see a huge progression from the Bulldogs under Ben Howland. This team can be an NCAA tournament team, I believe they have the talent. Tough nosed point guard Lamar Peters was very impressive over the summer at the adidas Nations event playing against top level college competition. He loves to get after it on the defensive end, and He’ll look to build off a solid freshman season and quarterback this team.
Quindary Weatherspoon, second team all-SEC last year, will likely be the team’s first scoring option. The team has Quindary’s younger brother Nick Weatherspoon a 5-star recruit, joining the team as well. Junior Aric Holman and sophomore EJ Datcher are solid athletes and improving players that will provide the team’s post presence. They return nearly everyone from last year (aside from the colossal disappointment Mario Kegler) and now know what to expect in Howland’s grind it out system. This is our pick to be the conference’s surprise team, making a big jump from last year’s 6-12 SEC conference record.
J.J. Frazier is going to be sorely missed. Not just from Georgia, but from the SEC. He was a joy to watch, especially the combo of Yante Maten and him. Maten is likely going to put up video game numbers as he is going to be the leader and the focal point of this team. But, he isn’t going to have much help outside of Derek Ogbeide. Freshman Rayshaun Hammonds, an energy forward will have a chance to be an impact player in his freshman year.
Georgia will be tough defensively as they always are. Always forcing teams to shoot tough 15-footers and bullying people in the paint. Mark Fox is a very underrated coach, and this team should should overachieve again, despite the loss of J.J. Frazier.
Dead last to finishing seventh in the SEC? That’s what happens when you recruit a generational talent like Michael Porter Jr. Porter is 6’10 and has a silky-smooth jumper. He’ll compete for SEC player of the year, provided he’s healthy, and expect him to win it depending on the team’s success. Joining Porter is his brother Jontay, also a 5-star recruit.
Missouri finished with a top-10 recruiting class thanks to the hiring of Cuonzo Martin. He also added 4-star center Jeremiah Tilmon. The Tigers are loaded with talent, but they have not seen success in quite some time. My question is what kind of experience and leadership will the older guys bring? They have not had any success, and they are also playing in a new system under Martin so there are a lot of question marks.
Luke Kornet is a huge loss for this team. When you lose a 7’1 athlete who can step behind the arc and knock down a three, that versatility is going to be tough to replace. But, they return three key players from last year’s team who made the NCAA tournament. Riley LaChance, Jeff Roberson, and Matthew Fisher-Davis all return and will be the focal points for Bryce Drew’s team.
Bryce Drew is starting to build something at Vanderbilt. He is going after 5-star recruits, and expect him to sign one or two during this early signing period. Vanderbilt vastly overachieved last year in making the tournament, despite losing in the weirdest way possible. It was still a success to be there. Drew has this team heading in the right direction, and they’ll be near the top soon, just not this year.
This team is going to desperately miss the combination of Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley. Those two led the Razorbacks to the SEC tournament and the reason they had the opportunity to knock off North Carolina in the Round of 32. Their production is going to be tough to replace.
If anyone is going to do it though, it will be the tandem of Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford. This duo will be really fun to watch. They just don’t have enough around them, but they could finish in the top half of the league.
10. South Carolina Gamecocks
Head Coach: Frank Martin
2016-2017 Season: 26-11 overall, 12-6 in SEC
Key Departures: Sindarious Thornwell, PJ Dozier, Duane Notice
Key Additions: Ibrahim Doumbia, David Beatty
It hurt me to put South Carolina this low following their miraculous run to the Final Four. Frank Martin became arguably the most beloved coach in the country, and Sindarious Thornwell a tourney star. But, Thornwell is gone, along with Dozier and the Gamecocks aren’t left with much.
Rakym Felder is suspended for the first half of the season and they also lost Duane Notice from last year’s team. There are a lot of questions surrounding this team, but Chris Silva will have a big season. I don’t know who they go to when they need a bucket late because Silva’s offensive production relies on put backs. With all these question marks, one thing is for sure, they are going to defend like hell.
Ole Miss’ roster is going to look a lot different with seven newcomers. But, the loss of Sebastian Saiz is going to be vital. He was a double-double machine last year for Andy Kennedy. But, they return Deandre Burnett who averaged 16.5 points per game last year. They also bring in Memphis transfer Markel Crawford who averaged 12 points per game. Defensively they are going to run the 2-3 zone that Andy Kennedy loves, despite the fact that it doesn’t really work. They are in for a rough year, but the guard combo of Burnett and Terence Davis is going to be fun to watch.
During the offseason, I was all in on Bruce Pearl’s Tigers. Now that the FBI scandal occurred, not so much. Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy have both been suspended indefinitely following the investigation. Those were two of Auburn’s three best players to go on top of a solid recruiting class. I don’t think they will be able to recover from the suspensions. If they do become reinstated, expect Auburn to compete for position amongst the top half of the league. They are a tournament team with them, not much of anything without them.
Will Wade is going to turn this program around. The late get of Tremont Waters was huge for this program. Wade is already killing it in recruiting as he has three top-100 commits coming in for next year. I’m talking about next year cause LSU fans really should not worry about this season. It is going to be bad. But, the future is bright.
14. Tennessee Volunteers
Head Coach: Rick Barnes
2016-2017 Season: 16-16 overall, 8-10 in SEC
Key Departures: Robert Hubbs III
Key Additions: Yves Pons, Derrick Walker
The Volunteers do have 5 returning players who averaged 7 points per game. So, they have that going for them, but that is just a silver lining. They aren’t very big and don’t shoot particularly well, but Rick Barnes has had this team as a tough out since he got there despite the lack of talent. I question their ability to score as I do with South Carolina, it is just that Tennessee has even less talent. Not a good predicament to be in.
Top 5 SEC Prospects
By Fred Cullen
1. Michael Porter Jr. – University of Missouri, Freshman
Porter is an incredibly smooth forward with bits and pieces of Kevin Durant and Joe Johnson to his game. Standing at 6’10 with elite athleticism, size and length, Porter projects to be a multi-dimensional, 3 point shooting, rim slashing forward in such high demand today. His height, length and relatively high shot release make his jumper nearly unguardable while those same attributes hint to high defensive upside. Being 6’10 and able to shoot the 3 alone make Porter Jr. a valuable asset to any NBA team however Porter Jr. has shown flashes of a handle and playmaking instincts typically not found in a player of his size. This all being said, Porter will have to improve his off-the-bounce attack if he wants to be a truly elite NBA scorer. Points came easy enough to Porter Jr. during his high school days as he typically could score at will thru sheer athleticism. Porter Jr. may find it a challenge scoring and shooting as efficiently in college as he faces more athletic opponents. But his year in college should serve him well, both on and off the floor, as he prepares for the next level. On top of all of this, Porter is an absolutely great kid, coming from a strong family background rooted in the sport. His father, who was hired as an assistant at Missouri, was a pro, and is held in high regard throughout the league.
2. Collin Sexton – University of Alabama
Dynamic. That is the first word which comes to mind when describing Collin Sexton. At 6’2 and with good length, Sexton has good size for the point guard position. He is a player with extreme fast twitch muscle; his first step is dangerous from anywhere on the court and he has the ability to get to the rim at will, as well as showing the ability to pull up and hit shots. Sexton projects as a player who lives at the free throw line, so even if his shaky 3 point stroke doesn’t improve, he’ll have no trouble getting buckets. Sexton also plays with extreme intensity; his motor and quickness will make him a devastating defensive PG capable of shutting down many opposing team’s lead guard. Sexton’s strength also appears to be his greatest weakness. Similarly to Russell Westbrook, Sexton’s intensity explosiveness and speed can be a detriment as he often racks up silly turnovers and fouls. Sexton must look to harness his decision making and control over the pace of the game. That and a more consistent outside shot are the only things stopping Sexton from becoming an elite PG.
3. Robert Williams – Texas A&M, Sophomore
Williams could develop into the perfect anchor to any NBA small ball lineup. At 6’9, he lacks ideal size to be a true NBA center, however Williams boasts a 7’4 wingspan and, as his SEC-Defensive Player of the Year win last year suggests, he should have no difficulty becoming a factor defensively in the NBA. His offensive game lacks polish but he’s shown flashes of an ambidextrous hook shots and even a mid-range jumper which defenses can’t ignore. While not a great shooter, Williams provides transition scoring, can clean the glass and is such a viable lob threat that he’ll never be considered a liability on the offensive end. Williams will need to improve his overall focus, touch and range if he wants to score as well as he defends, however he is one of the highest upside draft prospects in this conference.
4. Nick Richards – Unversity of Kentucky, Freshman
Cue up the young center’s highlight reel with Bob Marley’s "Jammin’", as Richards, hailing from Jamaica, is a big reggae fan and sure to be jammin’ all over the SEC this season. In a loaded Kentucky recruiting class, Richards arguably has the most long term potential of anyone. He’s still raw, having picked up the game late. But the positive of that is he hasn’t developed bad habits. He’s like a ball of silly puddy, much easier for his college coaches to mold. And his progress has been substantial. All things considered, he appears to be a natural with his feel for the game where it’s at. He’s an elite level athlete, and much further along than Willie Cauley-Stein at the same age. He will need to continue to polish his post game, but appears to be a kid with a frame to add weight and maintain his great speed and explosiveness. He shows signs of a face up game and just needs time for the game to slow down for him. He’ll have a chance to develop into an elite big at the NBA level if his development continues.
5. Kevin Knox – Kentucky, Freshman
Knox has the upside to become a devastating combo forward on the offensive end. His 6’9 size, leaping ability and length allows him to shoot over nearly any defender quick enough to stay in front of him while his speed and strength will translate to easy paths to the hoop when a PF or C must pick him up off a switch. He can also handle the ball well for a player his size. The tools are there, however some intangibles are still missing. Knox is not a knockdown 3 point shooter and has real laspses in focus and intensity. Despite his athleticism, Knox is underwhelming on defense. Much like Andrew Wiggins, his footwork and stance leaves much to be desired on the defensive end of the floor and he often gets beat off the bounce. His motor is lacking; there is no reason for someone with his capabilities not to be blocking shots and racking up steals at a higher rate. The reality of the situation is that Knox is unpolished, and young. And that is okay. Knox, who won’t even be 19 by the time the 2018 draft rolls around, has the potential to be a Paul George type of pro, but he must put the work in and become more focused and disciplined to get there.