In every podcast hit, radio appearance, phone call with a coach, etc since March, I told folks that college football starting was the single most important factor in having a college basketball season. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey’s leadership to get college football off the ground is a big reason college basketball is set to get off the ground in less than two weeks. The league should be tons of fun on the court this season – seven of the league’s 14 teams landed a top-50 recruit in the 2020 cycle, and there’s plenty of returning talent as well. Let’s dive in:
- Tennessee – After a disappointing 2019-20 weakened by early NBA Draft entries and plagued by injuries, Tennessee has a chance to be one of the most improved (and most fun) teams in college basketball this season. Is it bold to pick them over Kentucky? Yes. But I’m drinking the orange Kool-Aid thanks to a LOADED group of newcomers and plenty of key returners. The Vols have one of the most experienced frontcourt duos in the country in John Fulkerson and Yves Pons – Pons’ athleticism makes him a dynamic defender and impactful slasher, while Fulkerson has improved every season of his career and has blossomed into one of the nation’s best bigs. That duo can anchor things, but the real upside is driven by the backcourt. This was a different team offensively once Santiago Vescovi arrived at the semester break, giving new life to a sputtering offense despite having virtually no time to learn the system. Vescovi is poised, makes tough shots, and will be able to settle into more of a distributor role with so much talent next to him. 5-stars Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson should be two of the higher-impact freshmen in America: both are game-ready athletes who play super hard and will likely be one-and-dones. I’m particularly excited about Johnson, who I believe could be a top-10 pick in next year’s draft. Josiah-Jordan James is also a breakout candidate as a sophomore, and Oregon transfer Victor Bailey is a proven high-major shot-maker. It’s an embarrassment of riches for Rick Barnes, who’ll be able to bring along these dynamic freshmen as the season goes on thanks to the returning core. I truly believe this team is a national title contender.
- Kentucky – The long-awaited Olivier Sarr waiver finally came, and in the process made folks in Lexington even more excited about another loaded Kentucky team. The 7-footer from Wake Forest plugged the only remaining hole on a well-structured roster: size. Do I expect him to dominate games or put up massive numbers? No. But adding a proven starting-caliber center at the highest level was critical for a team that only had one other true big on the roster in freshman Isaiah Jackson. While they are different players, the comparison to Reid Travis makes sense to me – a net-positive player who can eat minutes up front. Realistically, that’s all John Calipari’s club needs thanks to the dynamic wing talent on this roster. No freshman in America is as polished as a scorer as BJ Boston is: the Georgia native is fearless as a shot-maker with a smooth stroke and limitless range. Meanwhile, Terrence Clarke is one of the most talented players Calipari has had – a long, rangy athlete who can create like a point guard, guard five positions, and make plays with the ball in his hands. The Clarke/Boston duo should mesh together well and has the potential to be one of the best 1-2 punches in college basketball. I’m also bullish on a third freshman: shifty point guard Devin Askew. Askew plays with a swagger but makes good decisions with the ball, and I have no doubt he’ll earn more and more minutes away from steady grad transfer Davion Mintz at point guard. Just one scholarship player who played in a game last season returns, so even by Kentucky standards this roster is loaded with new faces. But the talent here is undeniable, and the Wildcats should be a top 10 team once again.
- LSU – The Tigers had four players test the NBA Draft waters this spring, and all four had legit cases to leave and have a shot at an NBA contract. Holding onto three of them has to be considered a big win for Will Wade, who will once again have a “strong-ass” roster (sorry, I had to) in 2020-21. Javonte Smart coming back at point guard gives the Tigers some continuity in the backcourt despite the graduation of Skyler Mays. He needs to continue to improve as a shooter and will without a doubt get more attention without Mays next to him, but another jump seems possible for the in-state product. Meanwhile, a pair of starters return up front in Trendon Watford and Darius Days: Days in my mind is one of the more underrated players in the country given how efficient he is around the rim he is and how impactful he is on the glass, while Watford finished strong after some early-season struggles. Add in scoring freshman wing Cam Thomas, and there’s little doubt that the Tigers will put the ball in the basket in bunches. The main question marks center around a defense that simply wasn’t good last season – the Tigers were 12th in the SEC and 179th nationally in defensive efficiency per KenPom, struggling to force turnovers and giving up threes in droves. There’s excitement about freshman point guard Jalen Cook as a defensive disruptor, and Washington transfer Bryan Penn-Johnson’s length could be a factor as a rim protector, but both of those guys are relatively unproven commodities.
- Florida – Failing to win 20 games and finishing outside the top 30 in KenPom was without a doubt a disappointment for a Florida team that entered the season with some prognosticators (including myself) calling them a top 5 team. Things just never quite clicked: the offense sputtered at times while playing at a slow tempo, and a talented group of freshmen showed promise but weren’t the instant-impact stars some expected them to be. One reason for the offensive struggles was point guard Andrew Nembhard not making the leap some expected: while he performed admirably as a passer, he struggled shooting the ball and wasn’t aggressive enough for my liking. He’s off to Gonzaga, leaving a trio of potential options at the point guard spot. Sophomores Tre Mann and Ques Glover have their appeal: Mann was an elite recruit known for his shooting and playmaking exploits but struggled through injuries and poor play as a freshman, while Glover was a pleasant surprise at times but struggled with shooting and decision-making. Cleveland State transfer Tyree Appleby is a nice x-factor at that spot: he’s a gifted passer in ball screens who can really stroke it, and he could be the best of both worlds for Mike White’s offense. The Gators certainly have plenty to work with on the wing: Keyontae Johnson is a beast on both ends and will play in the NBA eventually, while Noah Locke can flat-out shoot and Scottie Lewis is one of the biggest potential breakout guys in the country. Up front, I’m tracking the development of Omar Payne, a former top-50 recruit who was steady but not spectacular as a freshman. Between Mann, Lewis, and Payne, the Gators have three former elite recruits worth buying stock in. I’m a little reticent given last season’s disappointment, but there’s a lot to like here if these young guys take a step forward.
- Alabama – Nate Oats has flipped this Alabama roster quickly, and has done well using the massive Alabama brand to bring high-level talent to a place not known as a basketball powerhouse. While the Tide couldn’t put it together in year one of the Oats era despite having a potential lottery pick in Kira Lewis, hard work was done to change the culture from the Avery Johnson era and build up buy-in for Oats’ hard-hat mentality. Oats’ team is going to play FAST in Tuscaloosa, and to do that you need excellent guards. I believe the Tide has just that, with two terrific returners in elite shooter John Petty and impressive sophomore Jaden Shackelford ready to work with one of the deepest recruiting classes in America. JUCO import Keon Ellis can flat-out light it up from deep, and there’s plenty of buzz about elite Canadian recruit Joshua Primo. But the ceiling for this group changes if Oats can get it right with former 5-star recruit Jahvon Quinerly. Quinerly’s time at Villanova was disastrous: he and Jay Wright never meshed, but he didn’t look like a top recruit even when he did step on the floor. Still, the guy was considered one of the best recruits in the country out of high school for a reason, and he would raise the upside of this group in a major way if he puts it all together. Up front, the addition of Jordan Bruner can’t be overlooked. Bruner is a terrific rim protector who fits in perfectly with the Oats system on both ends thanks to his ability to handle the ball and space the floor.
- Arkansas – Things started fast for Eric Musselman to begin his time with the Razorbacks, but the Hogs faded fast after a 14-2 start thanks to injuries and some close losses. All things considered, winning 20 games was still a win for an Arkansas program in transition: Muss took a team with essentially seven capable players and almost no size and got the most out of them, which bodes well as he continues to add talent to this program. On the other hand, this is a VERY different Arkansas team than the one we saw last season thanks to the departure of all but one of those rotation players from last season. Instead, it’s one built around freshmen and transfers – a four-man freshman class made up entirely of in-state recruits that features top-40 wing Moses Moody and six transfers, three who sat out last season and three grad transfers. Moody and fellow freshman KK Robinson should make big early impacts: Moody played for one of the best high school teams ever at Montverde and should be game-ready, while Robinson’s shiftiness and fearlessness will make him a great fit right away out of Oak Hill. Meanwhile, the additions of Justin Smith (Indiana), Connor Vanover (Cal) and Vance Jackson (New Mexico) gives this team the size it lacked last season without giving away the versatility and spacing that Musselman prioritizes. The main hole on this roster is a go-to scorer: throughout Musselman’s career, he has always had guards he could give the ball and tell them to get a bucket – think Marcus Marshall, Caleb Martin, and Mason Jones. There isn’t that type of guy on this team: I’m not sure Moody or Desi Sills is geared up for that role, and Smith’s struggles as a shooter likely preclude him from being a go-to guy. There’s excitement about Jacksonville transfer JD Notae, but is he talented enough to lead an offense at times? If the Hogs find a go-to guy, watch out.
- South Carolina – The last two seasons in Columbia have been virtual carbon copies of one another: early-season buy game losses knock the Gamecocks out of legitimate NCAA Tournament contention before the new year, then an overachieving SEC season to finish in the top half of the conference. What has made SC such a high-variance team in recent years is the inability to consistently make shots: the Gamecocks made under 6 threes per game last season and played several games that were just plain ugly. Meanwhile, South Carolina’s aggressiveness sometimes pushed into recklessness, and the frequency with which the Gamecocks sent opponents to the free throw line really hampered them a season ago. The main reason for optimism moving forward is a talented backcourt: AJ Lawson didn’t take the step forward I had hoped for last season but is still an impactful scorer, while Jermaine Couisnard is wired to score and Keyshawn Bryant continues to develop. Meanwhile, Martin adds another aggressive two-way guard in Seventh Woods, a transfer from North Carolina who struggled offensively in Chapel Hill but is a worthwhile reclamation project. I like the young duo of Alanzo Frink and Wildens Leveque up front – both are grinders who are good around the rim. I’m not sure I buy that the Gamecocks will take another step forward and go dancing, but it seems foolish to pick them in the bottom half of the conference after how they’ve fared the last two seasons.
- Auburn – So much of Auburn’s appeal last season was how experienced they were: the main rotation was five seniors and a freshman who played well beyond his years in Isaac Okoro. Now, the name of the game is youth for Bruce Pearl’s club. The Tigers have no seniors and just two juniors on this year’s club, which returns just one player who averaged over 4 points per game a season ago. The offense will be built entirely around the scoring exploits of gifted freshman guard Sharife Cooper, a 5-star recruit who is dynamic with the ball in his hands and oozes confidence. I’d be surprised if Cooper didn’t put up big scoring totals, but how efficient he can be is the major question. Part of that depends on how much help he can get around him: I’m confident that Devan Cambridge will take major steps forward, but guys like Allen Flanigan and Tyrell Jones didn’t show much last season and freshmen like Justin Powell and JT Thor aren’t in the recruiting range where immediate production is guaranteed. Betting against a Bruce Pearl team is a fool’s errand, but there are enough question marks here to make 8th feel like a reasonable preseason pick.
- Ole Miss – The Rebels were definitely disappointing in year two under Kermit Davis, but a talented group of newcomers should get Ole Miss back within striking distance of an NCAA Tournament bid. Four transfers and a top-50 freshman give this roster life: Matthew Murrell and CSUB transfer Jarkel Joiner add big-time scoring prowess to a team replacing Breein Tyree in the backcourt, while grad transfers Dimencio Vaughn (Rider) and Romello White (Arizona State) are plug-and-play starters. White’s addition was particularly important given how much the Rebels struggled on the interior last season – while not a superstar, White is as steady as they come up front with sixteen career double-doubles to his name. All those newcomers combined with a trio of proven returners in Devontae Shuler, KJ Buffen, and Khadim Sy is a good start, but is it enough to go dancing? I think a lot relies on Shuler, who needs to raise his game as a senior starting point guard in this league. He was just too inconsistent for my liking last season and struggled against top competition. Shuler is the engine that makes this team go and needs a big season to lift the Rebels to the next level.
- Missouri – Things have stalled some in CoMo after a promising start to the Cuonzo Martin era, with back-to-back sub-.500 finishes after all the excitement of year one with the Porter brothers. A main reason for that has been recruiting: after all the buzz that Martin created with big-name visitors thanks to Porter’s commitment and his prior recruiting exploits at Cal, it was reasonable to expect that the Tigers would be a factor on the trail moving forward. Instead, they’ve fallen behind and mostly chased underrated high-value guys while the rest of the conference brings in elite recruit after elite recruit. With that, the main reason for optimism is experience: the Tigers will be a team dominated by juniors and seniors who’ve played a lot of basketball at this level. Seniors Dru Smith, Mark Smith, and Jeremiah Tilmon have had their moments in their careers – Dru Smith is the epitome of steady at point guard, while Tilmon has flashed star potential but an inability to stay on the floor. Meanwhile, Xavier Pinson took major steps forward as a sophomore despite some shooting struggles, flashing a competitiveness and toughness that Martin loves along with a willingness to take and make tough shots. Could we see a similar breakout campaign this year from Kobe Brown? Brown was productive as a freshman as a versatile forward, and if he improves as a shooter he has a chance to be a very good player for this program. I’m not overly high on the talent level here, but Mizzou has enough pieces to compete in every game and make things interesting with some close game luck.
- Texas A&M – Buzz Williams deserves a ton of credit for turning things around in a major way midseason last year after a horrific start. Winning 10 SEC games after losing to Harvard and Fairfield and struggling with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Troy is fairly remarkable, and Williams getting complete buy-in from his team on the defensive end keyed that turnaround. The Aggies won despite a lack of offensive talent thanks to free throw margin and forcing turnovers, and those strengths could continue thanks to good coaching and some interesting newcomers. Still, there are a lot of questions left to answer. TAMU loses its best player from a season ago in Josh Nebo, who flourished under Williams as an elite rim protector who lived at the free throw line and was highly efficient at the rim. While there’s plenty of excitement about Quinnipiac grad transfer Kevin Marfo, he’s a clear downgrade from Nebo outside of perhaps as a rebounder. Freshmen guards Jaxson Robinson and Hassan Diarra need to give this offense a jolt.
- Georgia – Regardless of how many recruiting wins Tom Crean has, at some point he’s going to have to finish better than 13th in the SEC. He couldn’t last season despite having potential #1 pick Anthony Edwards, and we’ll see if he can this year with a roster buoyed by a trio of grad transfers. Adding Andrew Garcia (Stony Brook), PJ Horne (Virginia Tech) and Justin Kier (George Mason) should help the Bulldogs be relevant in 2020-21, augmenting some intriguing returners. But it’s also a sign that Crean doesn’t have a ton of confidence in some of his younger players – namely former well-regarded recruits Jaykwon Walton and Christian Brown, who didn’t play much last season. In my mind, the Bulldogs have three really good young players: jitterbug point guard Sahvir Wheeler, who was a major bright spot last season, Toumani Camara, a high-upside forward with tons of versatility, and KD Johnson, an aggressive, attacking combo guard who should get a lot of touches from day one. Is that trio along with the three grad transfers enough to compete for the NIT? That feels like what the goal should be in 2020-21.
- Mississippi State – The Bulldogs are in rebuild mode after the departures of their top four scorers from a season ago. It was expected going into last season that Reggie Perry would head to the pros, but early departures from Nick Weatherspoon and Robert Woodard were unexpected and hamper this roster for 2020-21. MSU won last season on the interior, with Perry leading the charge but with a slew of physical frontcourt guys who helped them dominate the offensive glass. Ben Howland’s teams have long enjoyed control of the boards, but we can’t discount personnel here with multiple NBA players manning the frontcourt. A pair of transfers in Jalen Johnson (Louisiana-Lafayette) and Javian Davis (Alabama) should help solidify that unit, and I think there’s some upside in an Iverson Molinar/Deivon Smith backcourt pairing. But there are a lot of unproven pieces here and no star power.
- Vanderbilt – Early NBA draft departures are rebuild killers, and Jerry Stackhouse dealt with a pair of them following his first season at the helm of the Vanderbilt program. Losing likely top-20 pick Aaron Nesmith is understandable, but star point guard Saben Lee will likely go undrafted and could have boosted his stock with another year of work on his shot and decision-making skills. The Commodores do have some building blocks: Scotty Pippen Jr was impressive as a freshman combo guard, and Dylan Disu flashed major upside as a big who can space the floor. Notre Dame transfer DJ Harvey should be a plug-and-play double-figure scorer, and Kansas transfer Isaac McBride should give Pippen a capable running mate in the backcourt. The key: win some games, keep this nucleus together in the offseason, and keep adding one piece at a time. I believe Stackhouse can be the guy to do that IF he’s patient enough to play the long game in college basketball (particularly at a school where the rift about the role of athletics at the university has been very public.
All-Conference First Team:
- Jaden Shackelford (Alabama)
- BJ Boston (Kentucky)
- Keyontae Johnson (Florida)
- Yves Pons (Tennessee)
- Darius Days (LSU)
Player of the Year: Keyontae Johnson (Florida) – The freshmen from Kentucky and Tennessee have a chance to make a splash here, but Johnson feels like the right choice. He’s such a well-rounded player: willing to defend anyone on the floor, solid as a floor spacer, and nearly impossible to stop when he gets a head of steam. Johnson’s versatility opens up so many options for Mike White – you can trot him out at the 3, 4, or 5 and in the process create so many mismatches. He may not fit your traditional POY mold, but he’s as impactful as anyone in this conference.
Breakout Player: Scottie Lewis (Florida) – A former 5-star recruit, Lewis was somewhat inconsistent as a freshman but certainly showed flashes of brilliance. Lewis is an all-world athlete with tremendous leaping ability who plays with a high motor. What he needs to do to expand his game is to continue to polish his shooting stroke. Late in the year, he started to turn it on from deep, shooting 48% from deep in his final 12 games. Continued improvement on that front could turn him into a star and position him well for his NBA career.
Newcomer of the Year: BJ Boston (Kentucky) – I think Boston might be the best pure scorer in the freshman class. He has one of the deeper “bags” in college basketball – capable of going to get a shot off the bounce or picking his spots from the midrange and doing so efficiently. He also has awesome shooting touch, which will serve him well not just as a shooter but also as he expands his floater game off the bounce. Expect a huge year from him.