By Kevin Sweeney
The biggest story of the offseason in my mind in the SEC was the Kerry Blackshear sweepstakes. Five different SEC teams seemed to believe they had the talented big man locked up throughout the process, with Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas A&M all among those vying for his services. In the end, the Virginia Tech transfer chose the Gators, giving Mike White’s bunch the preseason SEC Player of the Year by many outlets in addition to an already-strong core.
#1. Florida— I absolutely love the way this roster is constructed for Mike White. In my mind, the Gators have an above average starter at every position, with the mix of experience and top-end talent necessary to compete for a national championship. Elite grad transfer Kerry Blackshear gets paired with an elite pick-and-roll passer in Andrew Nembhard, and Mike White’s bunch has a trio of high-level wing talents in Noah Locke, Tre Mann, and Scottie Lewis. This is a prove-it year for White: he got some heat last season from Gator fans after a 12-11 start. There’s no excuse for this team not to be elite.
#2. Kentucky– John Calipari never hit the jackpot in the big man sweepstakes for the 2019 class, but has a roster with tons of lineup versatility thanks to its multipositional wings and dynamic backcourt options. I’m not sure a guard pairing could fit more perfectly together than Ashton Hagans and Tyrese Maxey– with Maxey’s elite touch and ball-screen skill level complimenting the toughness and downhill ability of Hagans. UK should have no problems hanging among the nation’s elite as long as EJ Montgomery has the breakout year Big Blue Nation is hoping for. If not– there’s some reason for concern.
#3. LSU– I’m quietly all-in on LSU as the team not getting enough national love heading into the 2019-20 season. Replacing three players as productive as Tremont Waters, Naz Reid, and Kavell Bigby-Williams is always a challenge, but this roster is still deep, athletic, and talented all over. Javonte Smart is ready to take over running the show next to a veteran guard in Skylar Mays, and Smart can be freed up to score with a playmaker like Trendon Watford playing the 4. Watford, Emmitt Williams, and Darius Days should help the Tigers still pound the offensive glass, and Will Wade’s teams have always done a nice job forcing turnovers. NCAA sanctions may be coming, but for now, there’s a lot of reasons to be excited about things in Baton Rouge.
#4. Alabama— I’ve cooled a touch on the Tide with a pair of significant offseason injuries to James Rojas and Juwan Gary, but I still believe that Nate Oats will get this team to the NCAA Tournament in year one. Talent wasn’t the problem for Alabama last season under Avery Johnson– it seemed like the Tide quit down the stretch. Oats will get the most out of his players by instilling a blue-collar mindset into this program, and he has the guards to thrive in his system from day one. Someone needs to step up on the inside– I’ve heard good things about Javian Davis, but I am hoping to see the Tide go small some with three guards next to Herb Jones at the four. Don’t sleep on Jaden Shackelford, a dynamic scoring guard who has earned rave reviews out of fall practice.
#5. Auburn— The Tigers were a ridiculous shot by Kyle Guy from the national championship game a season ago, and while it’s incredibly unrealistic to expect a repeat of that, this young Tiger team should get back to the NCAA Tournament. The big question: whether they can maintain the same identity they had a season ago– two elite guards hurling threes with the best of them with tough, athletic kids who bought in on defense surrounding them. It’s unrealistic to expect J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty to seamlessly replace Jared Harper and Bryce Brown, but they are experienced, athletic guards who can create shots for themselves and others. This team will have to make its money on the defensive end: elite freshman Isaac Okoro should do a lot of Chuma Okeke things for this team, and the athletic forward duo of Danjel Purifoy and Anfernee McLemore should create quite the ballhawking unit. Purifoy has to be able to score efficiently for this team to reach its potential, but in an SEC with a lot of good and no great beyond the top three, the Tigers are as good a bet as any.
#6. Arkansas– Like Alabama, the roster the new coach inherits is perfect for the coach inheriting it. Eric Musselman was a miracle worker at Nevada by playing an NBA-style offense that emphasized high-level shooting and playing with pace. He has the pieces to do both– Isaiah Joe could crush some shooting records this season, and Mason Jones is hardly a slouch from outside. The Hogs just need someone to ensure they don’t get killed on the inside– rebounding is a team effort, but one or more of Reggie Chaney, Ethan Henderson, and Adrio Bailey simply has to provide some steady play up front.
#7. Mississippi State– The Bulldogs should be terrific up front– Reggie Perry had a breakout summer playing for the USA U19 team at the FIBA World Cup, while pieces like Abdul Ado, Prince Oduro, and Keyshawn Feazell should all be steady. The big determining factor in how good this team can be is guard play– losing Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters is big, and Nick Weatherspoon’s early-season suspension further depletes this unit. Freshman Iverson Molinar will have to give the Bulldogs steady minutes right away.
#8. Tennessee— I’m not sure I get the hype for the Vols. Sure, the backcourt trio of Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, and Josiah James is talented, but none are true point guards and each seem best-suited for complimentary roles. Meanwhile, the rest of the returners for Rick Barnes’ group are basically complete nothing-burgers on the offensive end. In addition, while the Vols are gearing up to welcome a star-studded 2020 recruiting class, most of this incoming class profiles more as long-term pieces than immediate-impact guys.
#9. Missouri– The hope in Columbia is that Evansville transfer Dru Smith can be the piece that pushes a solid roster over the top. Smith was one of the best under-the-radar mid-major players in the nation at Evansville, a crafty, intelligent point guard who seems to always be in the right place at the right time on the floor. Between Dru Smith, Mark Smith, Javon Pickett, and Xavier Pinson, the Tigers have a deep stable of guards to go with an athletic frontcourt. Now. it’s all about getting the immensely talented but enigmatic big man Jeremiah Tilmon to put it all together. If he can put his foul woes behind him, he’s an all-conference talent.
#10. Ole Miss– Breein Tyree may have been the leading scorer for the Rebels in 2018-19, but Terence Davis was clearly this team’s best player. Losing Davis is a massive challenge for Kermit Davis– Terence Davis’ playmaking, shot-making, and defense was critical in Ole Miss getting to the NCAA Tournament. A Tyree/Devontae Shuler backcourt should be strong, but I’m quite worried about this frontcourt unit. Massive pressure is on JUCO product Khadim Sy to provide steady play at the 5.
#11. Georgia– I have no idea what to do with Georgia. The Bulldogs will have a likely top-10 player in the nation in Anthony Edwards, but the rest of the roster is incredibly young and somewhat flawed. Tom Crean’s bunch profiles to struggle to create consistent halfcourt offense, and turnovers may be a problem as well. I’m a believer in the talent and athleticism across this roster, but it will take more than just Edwards to ensure UGA gets back to the NCAA Tournament.
#12. South Carolina– What to do with the Gamecocks? Everyone seems to have forgotten that Frank Martin’s bunch won 11 SEC games last season after a disaster non-conference slate despite dealing with some tough injury luck. With talents like AJ Lawson, Keyshawn Bryant, Justin Minaya, Jermaine Cousinard on the wing, Martin has the athletes he needs to play his style of defense and enough shot-makers to hang around in games. The key to it all will be finding someone to provide strong play at center– Martin has a strong developmental track record with bigs, and those around the program are extremely high on freshman center Wildens Leveque. If he can grow up early, picking the Gamecocks 12th won’t look good come March.
#13. Texas A&M– With six freshmen and one JUCO product on the roster, this is very much a roster in transition for year one under Buzz Williams. I really question if a team led by TJ Starks at point guard can ever win big, but I’m not sure there’s a suitable replacement on the roster. I have no doubt that Buzz will get it rolling in College Station, but it’s going to take time.
#14. Vanderbilt– This is a multi-year build for Jerry Stackhouse. The goal for this year has to be to find some building-block pieces while Stackhouse gets his guys into the program. Aaron Nesmith and Saben Lee should have big years, and I’ve heard very good things about freshman forward Dylan Disu.
All-Conference First Team:
- Andrew Nembhard (Florida)
- Tyrese Maxey (Kentucky)
- Isaiah Joe (Arkansas)
- Anthony Edwards (Georgia)
- Kerry Blackshear Jr (Florida)
Player of the Year: Anthony Edwards (Georgia)
Edwards is just ridiculously fun to watch. He moves incredibly smoothly despite his burly frame, and his shot-creating ability is already better than much of the NBA. I’d be surprised if he didn’t put up huge numbers this season. The real question: can he carry the Bulldogs all the way to the NCAA Tournament.
Breakout Player: Emmitt Williams (LSU)
Williams brought energy and effort as rotation big man a season ago for the Tigers, but should explode onto the season. He shined this summer on the Tigers’ international trip, a sure sign of things to come. Williams is a great finisher at the rim and a tenacious rebounder– I can’t wait to watch his development.
Newcomer of the Year: Anthony Edwards (Georgia)