By Kevin Sweeney
The SEC has proven once again that college basketball is all about coaching. Over the last few years, the league as a whole has made strong coaching hire after strong coaching hire, and recruiting up and down the conference has taken a massive step forward. Now, the conference has a legitimate case for the best conference in college basketball, with 6 likely top 25 teams in the preseason and a few other clubs that should contend for NCAA Tournament berths.
For the first time in seemingly ever, Kentucky actually has some roster continuity. PJ Washington, Quade Green, and Nick Richards return for their sophomore campaigns, with Washington on an All-American trajectory and Richards shining on the Wildcats’ trip to the Bahamas this summer. Combine that returning group with one of the nation’s best grad transfers in double-double machine Reid Travis and a loaded freshman class, and Kentucky has a legit case not only for #1 in the SEC, but for #1 in the country. Spacing remains a bit of a concern for me, especially after John Calipari elected to start Washington at the 3 next to Travis and Richards in their exhibition vs Transylvania, but the talent level with this group is so high that I’ll bet on them to figure things out.
The Vols return virtually everyone from a team that was a mainstay in the top 25 every week after December 4th last season, including defending SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and bruising wing Admiral Schofield. Rick Barnes’ team plays extremely unselfish basketball and does an outstanding job on the defensive end, and should be in everyone’s preseason top 10.
One of the biggest surprises of the college basketball season last year, Bruce Pearl galvanized a Tiger club reeling from the losses of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy to suspensions in connection with the FBI investigation into college basketball and led the Tigers to the SEC regular season title. Now, Pearl gets both of those guys back to add to a strong returning core that developed last season, and the sky is the limit for this Auburn club. Purifoy likely steps into the role Mustapha Heron (St. John’s) played last season as a big-bodied playmaking wing, while Wiley provides a low-post scoring threat the Tigers didn’t have last season. However, I do have concerns that perhaps the Tigers lose a bit of the us-against-the-world mentality that Pearl instilled last season and experience a bit of regression from last year’s dream run.
Will Wade has proven in the short time he’s been in Baton Rouge that he’ll be a force to be reckoned with on the recruiting trail. Bringing in Tremont Waters late during his transition class was as important a recruiting coup as any in the country, as the former Georgetown pledge carried this offense and is now one of the best guards in the country. Now, Wade brings in one of the nation’s best recruiting class, with a pair of dynamic forwards in Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams along with combo guard Javonte Smart joining the fray. This is another club with clear Final Four talent, if Wade can put all the pieces together.
I’ve been coming around to the Gators as the season gets closer, thanks in no small part to the Gators having what I believe will be one of the best backcourts in the country. Part of that is my bullishness on freshman PG Andrew Nembhard, the mature floor general who averaged 15.7 points and 8.8 assists for Canada at the FIBA U18 Americas event this summer. While Nembhard is unlikely to provide the defense and leadership that Chris Chiozza provided, he’ll combine with KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson for a fearsome guard unit that should be explosive on offense.
#6. Mississippi State
With their top 6 scorers returning from a team that won 25 games and reached the semifinals of the NIT last season, optimism is sky-high in Starkville. Floor spacing remains the biggest concern, as only one rotation player shot better than 34% from downtown last season in big man Aric Holman and none of the incoming recruits seem likely to drastically change the Bulldogs’ spacing situation. However, with the amount of on-ball talent that the Weatherspoon brothers and Lamar Peters possesses plus the sky-high potential a frontcourt rotation of Holman, Abdul Ado, and top-50 freshman Reggie Perry possesses, this team should enter the season in the top 25.
I’m not going to overreact too much to the Crimson Tide’s drubbing at the hands of Jacksonville State yesterday and keep Avery Johnson’s club where I had them earlier this month.
The Tide lose Collin Sexton but return a lot of talent from last season’s club that went dancing, plus add former Texas star Tevin Mack and high-level reclassified freshman Kira Lewis. On paper, the athleticism of guys like Herbert Jones, Mack, and Dazon Ingram should make this team incredibly switchable on defense.
Bryce Drew hit a grand slam with his 2018 recruiting class with a pair of 5-star freshmen in PG Darius Garland and big Simi Shittu along with top-75 wing Aaron Nesmith. The fact that a group combined with an excellent sophomore guard in Saban Lee and Notre Dame transfer Matt Ryan won’t be picked above 8th in the SEC speaks to the depth of this conference. The x-factor here could be Yanni Wetzell, a transfer from D2 St. Mary’s (TX) who averaged 15 points and 7 rebounds while shooting 41% from 3 as a sophomore.
#9. South Carolina
The Gamecocks still don’t have a clear point guard, but Frank Martin’s club has the pieces to get back to the Big Dance. Top-150 recruit AJ Lawson should pair nicely with lefty slasher Justin Minaya on the wing, while Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar form a sturdy frontcourt for USC. Georgetown grad transfer Tre’ Campbell and returner Hassani Gravett should compete for the starting point guard spot, though neither has shown to be a NCAA Tournament-level starting option in their collegiate careers.
#10. Ole Miss
Kermit Davis inherits a solid returning group in year one leading the Rebels, with Breein Tyree, Terence Davis, and Bruce Stevens all having averaged double figures last season. Davis is the headliner, a physical scoring guard who can make plays at all 3 levels. Newcomers like JUCO products Brian Halums & Zach Naylor along with highly-rated freshman Blake Hinson have to step up, but if they do, this team could surprise in year one.
It’s definitely a transition year in Fayetteville, with 6 of the Razorbacks’ top 7 scorers departing and a highly-touted 8-man class incoming. The good news for Mike Anderson is that his one holdover, Daniel Gafford, is a projected lottery pick. Who will surround Gafford is a major question, with New Mexico transfer Jalen Harris likely to compete with freshman Desi Sills for starting point guard duties and guards Isaiah Joe, Mason Jones, and Keyshawn Embery looked to as bucket-getters. I question whether Gafford is wired to be played through in the post, or if he’s better off just bringing energy and rim protection as a rim-running big.
Losing Jontay Porter was simply a crusher, as the likely lottery pick and SEC POY candidate tore his ACL and MCL during a secret scrimmage last weekend and will miss the season. Jeremiah Tilmon and Kevin Puryear will lead the frontcourt in his absence, a solid group but certainly not a dominant one, and the backcourt lacks talent as well. Adding former highly-rated recruit Mark Smith after he earned a waiver to play right away after transferring in from Illinois is big, but this might be a rough year in CoMo as the Tigers learn to live life without Jontay.
#13. Texas A&M
A big stylistic shift seems likely this year for the Aggies, as Billy Kennedy loses his twin towers in Tyler Davis and Robert Williams along with “big wing” DJ Hogg, who’d likely have played the 4 for most clubs. An Admon Gilder/TJ Starks/Wendell Mitchell backcourt is enough to keep the Aggies afloat, though Starks will have to be much more efficient and take better care of the ball as the point guard for this club. A pair of transfers in the frontcourt in Josh Nebo (St. Francis PA) and Christian Mekowulu (Tennessee State) will be looked to as solid options, but won’t be played through the way Davis or Williams was.
Tom Crean takes over in Athens after an uninspiring run under Mark Fox, but the talent level isn’t where Crean needs it yet. The graduation of Yante Maten leaves the Bulldogs without a high-level SEC player. In year one, a solid sophomore class that features Rayshaun Hammonds, Speedy Claxton, and Taishaun Hightower, along with late add freshman Ignas Sargiunas and holdovers Willie Jackson and Tyree Crump. I don’t see the Bulldogs scoring enough points to win games, but I believe in Crean long-term.
All-Conference First Team:
- Tremont Waters– LSU (15.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 6.0 apg, .417/.351/.801)
- Jared Harper– Auburn (13.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 5.4 apg, .360/.355/.822)
- Quinndary Weatherspoon– Mississippi State (14.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.3 apg, .484/.313/.771)
- Grant Williams– Tennessee (15.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.9 apg, .470/.120/.764)
- PJ Washington– Kentucky (10.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.5 apg, .519/.238/.606)
Player of the Year: Tremont Waters (LSU)
Waters carried an undermanned LSU team to 18 wins last season, making big shot after big shot despite not having much help. With so much more talent around him this year, Waters will transition into more of a natural point guard role, orchestrating the offense and helping the Tigers get out and go. He’s going to be incredibly fun to watch this season.
Breakout Player: Jordan Bone (Tennessee)
Bone flew under the radar last season for the Vols, but was quietly a huge part of their success last season. He’s expected to take the next step in his game this season, adopting a bigger scoring role as a lead guard in Rick Barnes’ offense. He was a surprise inclusion on the Bob Cousy Award watchlist this preseason, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he winds up in that discussion this season.
Newcomer of the Year: Andrew Nembhard (Florida)
I touched on Nembhard in my Florida writeup, and while he may not be the best newcomer in the conference, he might be the most important. Taking over for Chris Chiozza, Nembhard has to run this team efficiently in Mike White’s offense. I believe he will, as he’s an excellent passer and steady shooter who should make tons of plays.