Sneakers squeaking, glistening hardwood floors, the sweet sound of a ball going through the net, crazy student sections, that can only mean one thing… SEC Basketball is back!!!
After a season in which seven teams qualified for the NCAA tournament and one team (Auburn) made it all the way to the Final Four, there will be plenty of high stakes this season for all the teams as they look to compete with some of the best teams in the country.
Some teams have high expectations, while others will look to fly under the radar and crash the NCAA tournament party.
The motto in the SEC is that “It Just Means More,” and for each of the fourteen schools, that saying is true:
Alabama: It’s a new era in Tuscaloosa, as new coach Nate Oats steps in to replace the departed Avery Johnson. The Crimson Tide had their shares of ups and downs last season, but it did lead to a NIT postseason berth. Their season abruptly ended when they lost at home to Norfolk State in the opening round. This season is filled with optimism, as Bama returns their leading scorer and point guard Kira Lewis Jr. as well as veteran sharpshooter John Petty. The roster also gets a boost in experience by adding James Bolden, a grad transfer from West Virginia. If Oats, who has risen fast in the college basketball coaching tree, is able to replicate his style of offense he had at Buffalo, watch out for Alabama to make the leap into the NCAA Tournament.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks season mirrors Alabama’s in many ways, such as identical 18-16 records, a NIT appearance, and a new coach. The man in charge now in Fayetteville is Eric Musselman, who led Nevada to three straight NCAA tournament appearances. Musselman’s Wolfpack teams thrived with veteran leadership, and he’s already instilling that by getting transfers Jimmy Whitt and relying on returning guard Jalen Harris. The most potent scorer on this team is Isiah Joe, who averaged almost 14 points per game last year while shooting over 41 percent on three pointers. With plenty of scoring left on this roster, the Razorbacks will rely on Musselman to take them over the hump in the SEC.
Auburn: Despite a shaky midseason outlook for Auburn last year, they caught fire toward the end of the season and rode that momentum to becoming SEC tournament champions and playing in the Final Four for the first time in program history. Bruce Pearl has taken the Tigers to absurd new heights under his regime, and his teams have utilized their athleticism and speed to their advantage. This season provides another challenge for Auburn, as they lost their three best players in Chuma Okeke, Jared Harper, and Bryce Brown to the NBA. There’s still plenty of veteran leadership with players returning such as Anfernee McLemore, Danjel Purifoy, Samir Doughty, J’Von McCormick, and Austin Wiley. Pearl has been busy on the recruiting trail and he’s bringing in a highly touted freshman in Isaac Okoro, who should bring an immediate impact to the Tigers. Along with transfers Javon Franklin and Jamal Johnson, look for this team to continue to fly under the radar and make their third straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Florida: This season brings the most expectations under the Mike White era, and there is plenty of buzz regarding whether the Gators are the best team in the SEC. They made perhaps the splashiest move this offseason, when they were able to get Virginia Tech transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr., who averaged 15 points per game and eight rebounds for the Hokies last season. He’s going to be relied on to lead a very young but immensely talented roster that still has holdovers from last year like point guard Andrew Nembhard and Noah Locke. White has done well on the recruiting trail by signing a couple of McDonald’s All-Americans in Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann. With the combination of returners like Nembhard and Locke along with newcomers Blackshear, Lewis, and Mann, Florida has a shot to go deep into the NCAA tournament this year.
Georgia: Tom Crean severely underperformed in his first season as coach of the Bulldogs, finishing 11-21 with only two conference wins. After being near the basement, the only way to go is up with this program, and Crean has a new diamond in the rough that should help him out. That diamond is McDonald’s All-American Anthony Edwards, who chose to stay in-state for his collegiate basketball career. The freshman talent doesn’t stop there, as Georgia also added top-100 recruits in players such as Christian Brown, Jaykwon Walton, and Toumani Camara. The Bulldogs will look to rely on returning players like guard Tyree Crump and forwards Rayshaun Hammonds to provide the veteran leadership this team will surely need. If everything goes according to plan and clicks on all cylinders, Georgia will be knocking on the door for a NCAA tournament berth this season.
Kentucky: Projected by many to be a top-five team in the preseason rankings, this season is another high expectation ordeal for John Calipari. He lost plenty of scoring in PJ Washington, Tyler Herro, and Reid Travis, but as usual, he has reloaded with incoming talent. This new crop of players includes a pair of freshman guards in Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney. Point guard Ashton Hagans is back, along with EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards. An underrated move was adding Bucknell transfer Nate Sestina, who averaged nearly 16 points per game and nine rebounds last season. There might be some growing pains, as this roster is heavy with the freshmen and sophomores, but this is not uncharted territory for Calipari. Look for Kentucky to challenge Florida for SEC supremacy and make a deep NCAA tournament run.
LSU: After being caught up in a cloud of controversy last season due to recruiting issues, Will Wade is back on the sidelines for the Tigers. He did lose some key players from last year’s tournament team, such as Tremont Waters and Naz Reid, but he retained the backcourt of Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart. They were able to land a highly touted five-star big man recruit in Trendon Watford and a junior college transfer in Courtese Cooper, who is known for being a shot blocker. Wade is known for maximizing talent out of all his players, so he’ll need to do that in order for this team to have an outside shot of becoming SEC champs. The Tigers should have no problem getting into the NCAA tournament as a second tier SEC team due to the experience of their backcourt and coaching by Wade.
Ole Miss: Kermit Davis brought some of his Middle Tennessee State magic to Oxford last season, as the Rebels went to the NCAA tournament after an eight-win improvement from the season before. Ole Miss did lose a huge piece of their team in Terrance Davis, but they do return a backcourt that features scoring machine Breein Tyree and lockdown defender Devontae Shuler. Newcomers such as junior college transfers Bryce Williams and Khadim Sy will look to add to the scoring prowess of the Rebels. If they are able to absorb the loss of T. Davis and have Tyree and Shuler assume bigger leadership roles, then Ole Miss is set up for another borderline NCAA tournament appearance.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs had an impressive season under coach Ben Howland, and they were able to reach the NCAA tournament. Their offense improved dramatically from the previous year, especially their three-point shooting. It helped to have a dynamic playmaker like Quinndary Weatherspoon as the heart and soul of the team. Weatherspoon is now gone, but they still have Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary’s younger brother, who averaged nearly 10 points per game last season. This season will feature a possible breakout star in Reggie Perry and Tyson Carter, who is the returning leading scorer. If Mississippi State can have a steady scoring presence and gritty defense, then they’ll have a shot to replicate their success from last season.
Missouri: Last season was a disaster for the Tigers, as their anticipated star player Jontay Porter tore his ACL twice within a span of a year, ending his hopes for a successful season. They had to rely on fellow forward Jeremiah Tilmon for a scoring boost, and they ended up with an abysmal 5-13 record in the SEC. This season is filled with optimism, as transfer guard Dru Smith gives the Tigers a proven point guard, and Mark Smith, who was shooting 45 percent from three-point range, adds more offense. If Missouri can create enough on offense, have key stops on defense, and most importantly stay healthy, then they can contend for at least a NIT spot and possibly a NCAA tournament berth.
South Carolina: A few years removed from their Cinderella run to the Final Four, things haven’t exactly been magical for coach Frank Martin. They lose a major veteran presence in Chris Silva, but they’ve added a few transfer players in Jair Bolden and Micaiah Henry. Their backcourt of A.J. Lawson and Keyshawn Bryant add another year of experience under their belt, and they will benefit from another year of coaching under Martin. In order for the Gamecocks to create some havoc in the SEC they’ll need to force turnovers frequently and push the pace of their offense; otherwise it’s going to be another forgotten basketball year in Columbia.
Tennessee: Rick Barnes’ team flourished in the SEC last year, leading the conference in many offensive categories, including points per game and field goal percentage. A lot of their offense was centered around Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield scoring and Jordan Bone facilitating the ball. All three players have turned pro, so now it’s up to Barnes to find new ways to create offense. The Volunteers will rely on a perimeter offense with Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, and five-star recruit Josiah Jordan-James. With a lack of experience now in the frontcourt, Tennessee will have to bank on their perimeter shooting to have a chance at contention in this extremely deep SEC.
Texas A&M: Another marquee name is entering the SEC, this time being Buzz Williams, who is taking his coaching talents from Virginia Tech to Texas A&M. He’ll have a solid roster to work with, as he has three starters returning who averaged double figures in scoring last year. Point guard TJ Starks is going to be counted on to be the facilitator for the offense, and the duo of Wendell Mitchell and Savion Flagg will look to add on to the scoring. Quenton Jackson is a junior college transfer who will have an immediate impact for the Aggies. If Texas A&M is going to have a chance to compete in the SEC, they will have to be willing to go through growing pains under a new coach.
Vanderbilt: This doesn’t happen to Vanderbilt often, but heading into last season, they had a couple of five-star recruits in Darius Garland and Simi Shittu and dreams of reaching the NCAA tournament. None of their dreams manifested, as Garland got injured early in the season and went pro, and Shittu decided to try the professional basketball circuit as well. Former coach Bryce Drew is gone, and in steps longtime NBA player turned G-League coach Jerry Stackhouse to lead the Commodores. There is no way but up for this team, as they were winless in the SEC last year, and they at least have proven returning scorers such as Saben Lee and Aaron Nesmith. With a new recruiting class that features Scottie Pippen Jr, the son of NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, the Commodores will look to play spoiler in the SEC.