Return of the Rock: SEC Preview

by JUSTIN FITZGERALD

The story line in the SEC remains the same: Kentucky, and then everyone else. The Wildcats reloaded after last year’s 38-1 season and are once again national title contenders. Everyone is chasing John Calipari, but the gap may close in the next few years. Many teams in the conference have made a splash with their coaching hires, showing that they’re serious about taking college basketball to the next level. This is still a football conference, but SEC basketball is slowly on the rise. Here is my preview for this year, with last year’s record in parentheses.

  1. Kentucky Wildcats (38-1, 18-0)

    Tyler Ulis. Courtesy of Bleacher Report.
    Tyler Ulis. Courtesy of Bleacher Report.

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Final Four

People love to criticize John Calipari as a coach due to his past NCAA violations, but he is a master of the one-and-done method. Every year he loses at least five players, only to turn out a National Championship contender the next season. Kentucky lost its top seven scorers from last season, but returns point guard and defensive specialist Tyler Ulis along with forward Alex Poythress. Ulis is poised for a breakout season, while Poythress should play major minutes after missing most of last season due to injury. Calipari brought in the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class once again, including Rivals No. 1 recruit forward Skal Labissiere and guards Isaiah Briscoe, and Jamal Murray. This team is not as deep as last year’s near perfect squad, but should be among the best teams in the country.

  1. Vanderbilt Commodores (21-14, 9-9)

    Damian Jones. Courtesy of the Tennessean.
    Damian Jones. Courtesy of the Tennessean.

Postseason: NIT Quarterfinals

Unlike Kentucky, Kevin Stallings has a roster with a lot of experience. He welcomes back All-SEC First Team member, Damian Jones, a potential NBA talent. He also gets back guard Wade Baldwin IV, an impact freshman last year. He is also joined by guards Riley LaChance and Matthew Fisher-Davis, who were both excellent three point shooters last season (38 and 40 percent respectively). If you want a team besides Big Blue to win the SEC, Vanderbilt is your best bet.

  1. Texas A&M Aggies (21-12, 11-7)

    Danuel House. Courtesy of San Antonio Express-News.
    Danuel House. Courtesy of San Antonio Express-News.

Postseason: NIT Second Round

Billy Kennedy has this team in a position to be one of the top teams in the conference. The Aggies return leading scorers Danuel House, Jalen Jones, and Alex Caruso, while also bringing in a stellar recruiting class. Forwards Tyler Davis and Elijah Thomas will be ready to step in immediately, and will give Caruso, who averaged 5.5 assists a game last year, scoring options in the post. This team should give the Aggies their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011.

  1. LSU Tigers (22-11, 11-7) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnjzoTBNwGo

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Second Round

It will be all about Ben Simmons in Baton Rouge this season. There are sky high expectations for the 6-foot-9 forward from Australia, who is the preseason favorite for National Player of the Year and a near lock to be the first pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. But the expectations for Simmons don’t match the expectations for the current team. Head coach Johnny Jones has to replace last year’s top two leading scorers in Jerrell Martin and Jordan Mickey, who also accounted for nearly 50 percent of LSU’s rebounds last season. This leaves the Tigers without a frontcourt player who played more than six minutes a game last season, meaning Simmons should expect to be double teamed nearly every time he touches the ball. This team should be fun to watch, but don’t expect them to get back to the Final Four for the first time since 2006.

  1. Georgia Bulldogs (21-12, 11-7)

    Kenny Gaines. Courtesy of 247sports.com
    Kenny Gaines. Courtesy of 247sports.com

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Second Round

Georgia may be thought of as a football school, but they’re one of two teams to finish in the top three of the SEC the past two seasons. Mark Fox’s squad may slip a little this season after losing leading scorer Marcus Thornton, but should get back to the NCAA Tournament. The whole starting backcourt of Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann, and J.J. Frazier return, and will be the backbone of the team this season.

  1. Florida Gators (16-17, 8-10)

    Dorian Finney-Smith. Courtesy of The Sports Saga.
    Dorian Finney-Smith. Courtesy of The Sports Saga.

Postseason: None

Last year’s Gators started out in the preseason top 10 and flopped to a sub .500 finish, the first since 1997-98. To add insult to injury, head coach Billy Donovan accepted an offer to become the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Michael White takes over for Donovan, and inherits a roster that underachieved last season. Dorian Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill, and Devin Robinson were all highly touted recruits, but there are questions about whether they can live up to that potential.

  1. Ole Miss Rebels (21-13, 11-7)

    Stefan Moody. Courtesy of 247sports.com
    Stefan Moody. Courtesy of 247sports.com

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Second Round

Andy Kennedy returns leading scorer Stefan Moody, who could average close to 20 points a game. Moody averaged 16.6 points a game last season, and the Rebel lost Jarvis Summers and Ladarius White, who both averaged over 11 points a game. Along with forward Sebastian Saiz and Miami (Fla.) transfer DeAndre Burnett, this team could be a handful for some of the top teams in the conference.

  1. Mississippi State Bulldogs (13-19, 6-12)

    Craig Sword. Courtesy of 247sports.com
    Craig Sword. Courtesy of 247sports.com

Postseason: None

Ben Howland comes to Starkville, and has already generated a lot of excitement. Howland is one of the best recruiters in basketball, helping lead UCLA to three straight Final Fours from 2006-2008. Leading scorers Craig Sword and Gavin Ware return, but Howland was able to land top 10 recruit Malik Newman. The addition of Newman shows Howland has already made an impact, and this program is certainly on the rise.

  1. South Carolina Gamecocks (17-16, 6-12)

    Duane Notice. Courtesy of greenvilleonline.com
    Duane Notice. Courtesy of greenvilleonline.com

Postseason: None

Frank Martin brought back last year’s leading scorers Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell, and both will still play a major role in the backcourt. Martin, however, was also able to bring in 5-star guard P.J. Dozier, who will make an immediate impact. The Gamecocks should still improve, but lack the talent to be an above-average SEC team.

  1. Auburn Tigers (15-20, 4-14)

    K.T. Harrell. Courtesy of USA Today.
    K.T. Harrell. Courtesy of USA Today.

Postseason: None

Bruce Pearl’s tenure at Auburn hasn’t been successful, but that could start to change this season. He welcomes back his top three scorers, including leading scorer and SEC Second Team guard K.T. Harrell. He also brings back last year’s leading rebounder Cinmeon Bowers, and top 100 recruits and forwards Danjel Purifoy and Horace Spencer will add muscle in the post.

  1. Tennessee Volunteers (16-16, 7-11)

    Armani Moore. Courtesy of Knoxville News Sentinel.
    Armani Moore. Courtesy of Knoxville News Sentinel.

Postseason: None

Rick Barnes should reinvigorate the fan base, but may have his work cut out for him this season. He loses SEC first team guard Josh Richardson, and needs either forward Armani Moore or guard Kevin Punter to assert themselves into that role. Barnes also has back guard Robert Hubbs III and forward Derrick Reese, but there are questions about whether they will respond to a new coach.

  1. Alabama Crimson Tide (19-15, 8-10)

    Avery Johnson. Courtesy of Alabama Public Radio.
    Avery Johnson. Courtesy of Alabama Public Radio.

Postseason: NIT Second Round

After only one NCAA Tournament appearance in six seasons under Anthony Grant, the Tide decided to go in a new direction and hired former NBA coach Avery Johnson. Johnson has a tough task ahead of him this season, as he lost the top three scorers from last season. His roster lacks talent this year, but Johnson should be a good recruiter do to his success as a player and coach in the NBA. It may take a few years, but he could turn the program around.

  1. Arkansas Razorbacks (27-9, 13-5)

    Anthlon Bell. Courtesy of USA Today.
    Anthlon Bell. Courtesy of USA Today.

Postseason: NCAA Tournament Third Round

After finishing second in the SEC last season, expect the Razorbacks to take a major step back this season. Gone are the top three scorers from last season, including SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis and SEC Second Team member Michael Qualls. Both averaged over 15 points a game last season and are huge losses for head coach Mike Anderson. Anderson only has one player back who played more than 15 minutes a game in Anthlon Bell, and this roster also has little depth.

  1. Missouri Tigers (9-23, 3-15)

    Wes Clark. Courtesy of YouTube.
    Wes Clark. Courtesy of YouTube.

Postseason: None

Kim Anderson still has a long road ahead after taking over at his alma mater last season. This team was the worst in the SEC last season, and should retain that position after losing four starters. Wes Clark returns to lead a team that averaged only 60. 5 points a game last season, which was 321st in the nation.