By Kevin Sweeney
The recruiting level has ramped up to new levels in the SEC, and those successes should manifest themselves this season. Top to bottom, the conference has brought in as much talent in this recruiting class as any league in the sport. Excitement about the conference is as high as it has been in recent years, with the possibility for six to eight NCAA Tournament berths to come from the SEC this season.
- Kentucky- There’s a bit more unknown about this roster than even Kentucky is used to facing, but you can’t deny the top-tier talent. John Calipari brings in a remarkable 6! 5-star recruits in this season, and will once again have the best roster on paper in the SEC. The questions here lie in the leadership, where UK lacks that veteran presence to keep things together when things get tough.
- Alabama- I’m sticking with one of my bigger out-there takes of the summer, and that being Alabama finishing 2nd in the SEC. The addition of a pair of 5-star guards in Collin Sexton and John Petty should help the Crimson Tide’s offensive efficiency to increase, while maintaining a core that will make them stout defensively. I’m a big believer in the Tide to be perhaps a top-15 team this year if things break right.
- Florida- Mike White remains one of the more underrated coaches in the country, and he has assembled a top-15 type team again this season. The backcourt of Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen is nothing short of outstanding. Where my questions lie are up front, especially if it takes John Egbunu longer than expected to return to 100% from a knee injury he suffered last season.
- Texas A&M- This roster is so talented, from likely top-10 pick Robert Williams to experienced center Tyler Davis, to solid scorers on the wing in Admon Gilder and DJ Hogg. Things will all come down to point guard play for the Aggies, and they have a guy they are very excited about in redshirt freshman JJ Caldwell to run the show. Definitely a dark horse conference title contender.
- Missouri- If you had told me in late February of last season that I’d be picking Mizzou to be a top-5 team in the SEC this season, I would have said you were crazy. Yet here we are, with Missouri hiring Cuonzo Martin as their head coach and #2 2017 prospect Michael Porter joining the Tigers to give this team a chance to engineer a huge turnaround from their futility of recent years and make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013.
- Auburn- An intriguing club to me this season, the Tigers took their lumps in SEC play, but that wasn’t unexpected given their top 4 scorers were freshmen. That young core of Jared Harper, Danjel Purifoy, Mustapha Heron, and Austin Wiley will now a be a year older and will be bolstered with two more 4-stars in Chuma Okeke and Davion Mitchell. This team has the talent to be an NCAA Tournament team this season.
- Arkansas- The losses of rim-protector Moses Kinglsey and floor-spacer extraordinaire Dusty Hannahs loom large, but the Razorbacks still have a talented backcourt pairing in Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon that will win them a lot of games. They’ll need steady play from 4-star freshman big Daniel Gafford to reach the Big Dance for the 3rd time in 4 years.
- Ole Miss- Andy Kennedy has so many good options to work with in the backcourt, whether it be high-volume scorer DeAndre Burnett, rising all-around-star Terence Davis, or Memphis grad transfer versatile wing Markel Crawford. The frontcourt is where concerns lie, as the Rebels will have to rely heavily on Drake transfer Dominik Olejniczak and JUCO forward Bruce Stevens to produce.
- Vanderbilt- Losing a stretch big who did as much as Luke Kornet is never easy, but when you have the talent that Vanderbilt has at guard, you will still be dangerous. However, I do have major concerns about their post play. Jeff Roberson will likely see the vast majority of time at the 4, but none of the 3 bigs on the roster have averaged over 2 points per game in Division 1 basketball. The Commodores will need someone to step up there if they are going to find themselves on the right side of the bubble come March.
- Mississippi State- Ben Howland has assembled an extremely talented backcourt, featuring junior Quinndary Weatherspoon, sophomore Lamar Peters, and freshman Nick Weatherspoon. However, the Mario Kegler transfer looms large now, as the sophomore now at Baylor would have fit in perfectly as a 4-man in this system.
- Tennessee- Grant Williams had one of the more underrated freshman seasons in the country a season ago, looking like a young Bonzie Colson at times while averaging over 12 points per game playing that undersized combo forward spot. The Vols also add former NCAA scoring champ James Daniel, who enters as a grad transfer from Howard.
- South Carolina- The Gamecocks lose so much, especially in the backcourt, from last season’s Final Four squad, but I won’t rule them out from moving up in these standings with a coach like Frank Martin who always gets the best out of his guys. One guy to watch is Delaware transfer Kory Holden, who averaged over 17 ppg in the CAA and will get plenty of opportunity to score for the Gamecocks this season.
- Georgia- The Bulldogs have one of the best big men in the country in Yante Maten. I’m just not sure there’s enough around him for UGA to make a push in the NCAA in what appears to be a critical year in Mark Fox’s tenure in Athens. With JJ Frazier having graduated, Fox will need some major contributors to step up in the backcourt to give Maten some room to work in the post.
- LSU- Will Wade has done a tremendous job recruiting talent since getting to Baton Rouge this spring, but I still think the Tigers are a year away from getting out of the cellar. Landing guys like 4-star guard Tremont Waters in the late period leave the Tigers if nothing else a much more interesting team for the 2017-18 season before a highly-touted recruiting class enters in 2018.
At some point, we just have to say that John Calipari has mastered the one-and-done system. He’s basically brought in an entire rotation of freshmen in his 8-man freshman class. The point guard is Quade Green, a true distributor out of Philadelphia. On the wing is the uber-athletic Hamidou Diallo and jumbo wing Kevin Knox, with PJ Washington and Nick Richards manning the frontcourt. Then there’s the bench, featuring impressive combo guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and shooter Jemarl Baker as well as injured combo forward Jarred Vanderbilt. That in of itself would be a scary roster. However, a pair of former 5-stars are also present in Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones who should play big roles. Gabriel has earned rave reviews this offseason, and the versatile wing will be looked to as a key glue guy for this UK team. The concerns of lack of veteran leadership or a clear star are valid, and that leaves the SEC a bit more open for the taking than usual. That said, Kentucky is still a top-7 team nationally on paper and is the rightful preseason favorite in the SEC.
Dark Horse: Texas A&M
This Texas A&M team certainly has the talent to win an SEC title this season. While last season’s 16-15 finish doesn’t exactly jump of the page as a team ready to contend for a title, they lost 10 games by 10 points or fewer. The only hole on the roster was point guard, and that spot should be resolved with the addition of JJ Caldwell, an elite passer from the point guard spot who is a perfect fit for what the Aggies want to do offensively. Combine that addition with the potential for a huge jump in production from Robert Williams, who averaged 12 points, 8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks in less than 26 minutes a night as a freshman and only scratched the surface of his potential. The Aggies are going to be very dangerous this season.
First Team All-Conference:
- G: KeVaughn Allen (Florida)
- G/F: Kevin Knox (Kentucky)
- G/F: Michael Porter Jr. (Missouri)
- F: Robert Williams (Texas A&M)
- F: Yante Maten (Georgia)
Player of the Year: Michael Porter Jr (Missouri)- Porter has a very strong case to be the #1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. At 6-10, he handles and shoots the ball like a guard and as ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla put it on Sunday, Porter “scores like he breathes”. He immediately has given hope to a Missouri program that was quite frankly a dumpster fire a few months before. I wouldn’t be stunned if Porter has the best freshman season of any collegian since the one Michael Beasley had at Kansas State in 2008-09.
Breakout Player of the Year: Wenyen Gabriel (Kentucky)- Gabriel is such an intriguing talent. He’s super long, can defend pretty much anyone in the country, and has an improving offensive arsenal. Look for his role to increase as a scorer this season for sure, but the biggest impact he’ll make is as a glue guy and veteran leader for this UK team. I could see him averaging about 10 points and 8 rebounds per game this season.
Newcomer of the Year: Michael Porter Jr (Missouri)