Top SEC storylines to watch in 2017-18:

1. How many bids will be handed out to the league after suffering through a few down years? I count as many as 10 deserving teams as the season begins. Obviously that won’t come to fruition, but the SEC is extremely deep this year.

2. Scandal ridden Auburn is a massive question mark as the season begins. Will Bruce Pearl even make it to November 10?

3. Cuonzo Martin and Will Wade are the league’s only new coaches. Martin brings the entire Porter family with him to the Midwest, making Missouri an instant contender, while Wade will have LSU competing immediately after the disappointing Johnny Jones era in Baton Rouge.

4. Kentucky is Kentucky. John Calipari reloaded with an embarrassing amount of freshman talent. If it all coalesces, they’re of course a national title contender.


PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

1. Kentucky

As usual, Calipari has assembled an absurd amount of talent in Lexington – but this team is even younger than the youngest Coach Cal teams of the past. While there’s almost zero experience, there’s an abundance of length, versatility, talent, lottery potential, etc, etc, etc. Honestly, predicting a style of play for his group is an exercise in futility. They can press, they can deny, they can score in transition, but the "can they hit jump shots consistently" question will once again pop up for the Wildcats. Jemarl Baker is actually the best shooter on the roster, but as a late addition (and the least hyped recruit) he might not get that much run, leaving me to think this iteration of the ‘Cats simply overwhelms opponents with athleticism at the rim via the good ol’ Cal dribble drive offense and playing volleyball on their missed shots. The only non frosh starter for UK probably comes in the post, whether it be Sacha Killeya-Jones or Wenyen Gabriel, and they’re both just sophomores. The 1-4 depth and athleticism is simply awe-inspiring. Quade Green will run the point in the Tyler Ulis mold, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at 6-foot-6 has point ball skills, which doesn’t seem fair, especially when this team is in transition. Only a Cal recruited team could lose a player like Jarred Vanderbilt and not bat an eye. Vanderbilt’s recovery is ahead of schedule, and he’ll have a unique role with his passing ability at 6-foot-9. PJ Washington has a MKG type of game, while Nick Richards is a 6-foot-11 shot swatter who can run the floor as well as any player his size. The embarrassment of riches around him offensively allows Cal to utilize him as a super defensive sub, and he could have a Willie Cauley-Stein role this year where his offense isn’t necessarily needed. All that talent and I haven’t even touched on the dual pieces de resistance off the ball: Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo. Knox is a Durant-esque 2/3 that creates a mismatch wherever he steps foot on the floor, and Diallo is going to be an absolute terror all over. The only question for both, once again, is their jump shooting ability. When this team runs into an elite lane clogging defense is when things could get interesting (a matchup with UVA or Cincy in the NCAA Tournament could spell doom, or better yet, a third meeting with Wichita State). Defensively, this UK team has a chance to be one of the most efficient of all time. The only way to even find shots is essentially long two point jumpers unless you have a ridiculously quick set of penetrating guards that can disorganize the athleticism. Cal defenses always, always chase away shooters at an elite level, and with the length/athleticism combo at the rim, there’s going to be nothing to find in the paint.

Talent wise, no one can compete with the ‘Cats. Can you outscheme Cal? Yep. Do they have shooting concerns? Definitely. Is there a little concern at the point with Green? Sure. But the low ceiling for this team is Final Four. The easily reachable ceiling is national title. So, nothing new in Lexington.


2. Florida

Part of me thinks the Gators are the best team in the SEC this year. The other part of me is concerned that Mike White won’t be able to replicate the dual PG transition offense that was so lethal last year without Kasey Hill. Florida does return the other half of that PG equation in Chris Chiozza. Chiozza is the engine for the Gators this year as an efficient scorer despite having a suspect jump shot, and he’s also an outstanding distributor and on-ball defender. KeVaughn Allen returns off the ball as one of the league’s deadliest and most efficient shooters, as he posted the league’s second-highest efficiency rating in SEC play. He’s also another ball hawk on the perimeter when Mike White extends man-to-man pressure, which is frequently. When Florida isn’t in transition, they were almost exclusively a ball screen offense in the halfcourt. White has repeatedly discussed moving away from leaning on PnR so heavily, but there’s no doubt it’s going to be a big part of the offense still, especially with a highly efficient "roller" like Kevarrius Hayes and a penetrator like Allen. Rice transfer and deadly shooter Egor "The Mad Russian Israeli" Koulechov gives White the slip screen corner shooter off PnR that was so effective with Devin Robinson and Justin Leon last year. Keith Stone will have an opportunity to develop in that role as well. White added Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson to the offensive mix, and he can play off the ball or on the wing, but he has to prove to White he can defend in his extended pressure scheme and rebound defensively, which is an ongoing issue for the Gators, especially with John Egbunu out for at least the first half of the season. While Egbunu rehabs from his ACL tear, big Aussie Gorjok Gak and freshman Isaiah Stokes have to help on the glass and defending at the rim, the two softest spots for the Gators heading into the season. Stokes is Jarnell’s younger brother, and he has an even wider base. He’s a below the rim big like Stokes, and he’s recovering from a knee injury that could see him behind on his development and weight loss regimen. Mike Okauru and DeAundrae Ballard are the other freshmen of note. Okauru is the point of the future and could give White that dual PG look the Gators were so efficient at running, while Ballard’s length and athleticism will provide depth on the wing.

The Gators could be flying under the radar a bit nationally despite a trip to the Elite 8, and they will certainly challenge UK’s SEC supremacy this year.


3. Alabama

Combine a dominant "saber approved" defense with a stud freshman point guard to give a pretty terrible offense a major shot in the arm and you suddenly have an SEC title contender in Avery Johnson’s third season in Tuscaloosa. Collin Sexton will step in and run the point immediately (assuming the Adidas scandal is behind him now) as one of the quickest on ball penetrators in the country, with a solid jump shot to boot. Sexton can instantly turn around one of the worst (and slowest) offenses in the league. His running mate will be Dazon Ingram, a long 6-foot-5 slasher who can play on or off the ball as Johnson embraces "pace and space" positionless basketball. Riley Norris returns on the wing as the Tide’s best shooter, while Avery Jr. has a role on the perimeter in his dad’s defensive scheme. 6-foot-7 Herb Jones and 6-foot-5 John Petty, both highly-touted freshmen, are further proof of Johnson’s embrace of positionless basketball. Jones has a ridiculous wingspan and can play 1-3. He’ll be a factor in Johnson’s defense that emphasizes shutting down the 3-point line and forcing penetration into a wall of shot blockers. Petty, meanwhile, is a pure scorer and could immediately become Johnson’s go-to shooter on the wing. The frontcourt is where the Tide’s bread is buttered defensively. While all of the athleticism on the perimeter forces offenses off the 3-point line, the rim protection prowess of Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens, who posted nine blocks per 40 in his freshman year in Columbus, and Donta Hall (eight blocks per 40) forces offenses to either pull up for the inefficient two point jumper – or get swatted. Offensively in the frontcourt, Braxton Key is the guy to watch as a sophomore. He has a burgeoning stretch game at the 4 and is an elite passer for his size, but he too often settles for the jump shot, and he turned the ball over at an excessive rate. Freshman Alex Reese is a wide-bodied addition to the frontcourt with a four-star ranking.

Simply put, the Tide’s offense and defense were on polar ends of the spectrum last year. The defense has the potential to take a step into another stratosphere of elite, and if Sexton (and Petty) are as good as advertised, the offense could skyrocket up the efficiency charts, making the Tide a player on the national level.


4. Ole Miss

Andy Kennedy has a deep and talented backcourt, and Ole Miss is a dark horse long shot contender in the loaded SEC. I’ll get to the backcourt in a bit, but the first order of business this offseason for Kennedy was replacing the vastly underrated Sebastian Saiz in the frontcourt. 7-foot Drake transfer Dominik Olejniczak could be Kennedy’s primary option; he’s not as versatile as Saiz, but he’s mountainous, and he showed a burgeoning back-to-the-basket game before he left Drake. Justas Furmanavicius has a more traditional Euro big game and could be a more efficient offensive threat with a year of D1 seasoning under his belt, while Bruce Stevens comes in from the JUCO ranks as another stretch 4 option for Kennedy. Marcanvis Hymon returns as Ole Miss’ leader in block rate last year. None of the options are on Saiz’ level, but together they give Kennedy some versatility, and with what figures to be a fairly lethal dual PG, 4 four-out offense, he’s really only looking for someone who can anchor the 1-3-1 defense capably and crash the glass. Speaking of the backcourt, it’s so talented that leading scorer Deandre Burnett might be pressed for minutes. OK, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but with Breein Tyree fully recovered from knee surgery and the addition of highly-touted Devontae Shuler, Burnett can move completely off the ball and focus solely as an off-ball scorer. Burnett is also coming off multiple offseason surgeries, but he should be good to go for November 10. Terence Davis and Markel Crawford form a dynamic wing duo for Kennedy, as Davis actually led the SEC in shot rate and has the potential to be a lockdown defender on the perimeter. Crawford comes in from Memphis and can score from anywhere on the floor as a 6-foot-5 highly athletic wing. With the addition of Shuler, Kennedy can have three ball handlers on the floor around a high-scoring wing and a serviceable big. Shuler also gives him a ball hawk defensively on the perimeter, and the 1-3-1 mix in might have more halfcourt traps/extended pressure gadgets added to it this year to complement that aspect of Shuler’s game. Additionally, the backcourt depth and versatility are likely to force Kennedy to increase the tempo even more than last year, the first time he topped 70 possessions during his 11-year tenure in Oxford.

Outstanding backcourt depth and talent make Ole Miss a sleeper in a deep SEC, and as long as Kennedy gets a modicum of production out of his frontcourt sans Saiz, the Rebels should return to the dance after a two-year layoff.


5. Missouri

Cuonzo Martin returns to the Midwest and brings the Porter family with him, completely changing the fortunes of the moribund Missouri basketball program after the Kim Anderson experiment. We all know Martin is a defensive mastermind who designs defenses to take away the perimeter at an elite level while not allowing much of anything in transition or at the rim. So what does Martin’s defense give you? Two-point jump shots. The past two seasons at Berkeley saw his defense produce a top-15 two-point jump shot rate out of opposing offenses (although I have some lingering early concerns about the young talent’s willingness to buy into the defense). The question, as with all Martin teams, is whether or not he maximizes the top-tier talent he has assembled on the offensive end. Michael Porter Jr. is of course the crown jewel in Martin’s recruiting class. MPJ can score at all three levels, and with ease. My greatest fear is that Martin simply throws him out and says "go be the top recruit in the country," a similar tactic he has employed offensively at Cal and Tennessee with his top-flight recruits. Porter’s not the only infusion of talent on the team, as his brother, Jontay Porter, reclassified, and Martin added former four-star Illinois signee Jeremiah Tilmon, a legit back-to-the-basket scorer. That’s in addition to Terrence Phillips at the point, who probably couldn’t believe his luck when the Porter family descended upon Columbia. Phillips led the SEC in assist rate, which is impressive, but it’s downright shocking when you consider that Missouri scored at 0.95 points per possession in SEC play – by far the least efficient mark in the league. Canisius grad transfer Kassius Robertson was an underrated addition by Martin as a dead eye shooter that should see an open look every time he touches the ball off a kickout given the talent around him, while freshmen Blake Harris and C.J. Roberts are borderline four-star guards who are somewhat overlooked given the addition of the Porters. Harris and Roberts can give Martin dual PG looks and speed up the offense dramatically when playing alongside Phillips in a smaller lineup. Jordan Barnett is a talented wing who struggled to get open looks in last year’s offense. As a third or even fourth scoring option, his 30 percent 3-point shooting could skyrocket.

Michael Porter Jr. is capable of dragging Missouri to the NCAA Tournament after mostly languishing in the basement since joining the SEC. Whether or not Martin maximizes his talent on the offensive end is the biggest question mark regarding the height of Mizzou’s ceiling.


6. Texas A&M

The Aggies should be due for a bounceback season after the lack of a point guard and some injuries derailed their year (assuming the multiple suspensions several key players have already incurred don’t become a season-long issue). With a dominant frontcourt and a legit point guard option, the Aggies should find themselves back in the NCAA Tournament. Starting with the backcourt, J.J. Caldwell will shore up the point, which was a disaster area for Billy Kennedy last season. The Aggies turned the ball over on 23 percent of their possessions in SEC play, the worst mark in the league. Caldwell will serve a four-game suspension to start the season (which hurts because they’ll have West Virginia and Oklahoma State in that span), but he’s an elite distributor and plus on-ball defender when he finally sees the court. Duane Wilson comes in from Marquette as a combo guard who can defend on the perimeter, while Admon Gilder can mercifully move off the ball this year and back to his more natural wing position. Gilder famously shut down Malik Monk last year and is easily the most lethal defensive threat when Kennedy mixes in his funky 2-3 matchup amoeba zone. Jay Jay Chandler and T.J. Starks are both four-star freshman combo guards with outstanding athleticism. They’ll both see immediate minutes, particularly the penetrating Starks. The frontcourt is the strength of the team with dual posts Robert Williams (who is suspended for the first two games) and Tyler Davis. Williams has a freakish wingspan that allowed him to be named the SEC’s DPOY, and he block shots at the league’s second-highest rate. Davis is one of the most efficient block scorers in the league, and both are among the best offensive rebounders in the country. Tonny Trocha-Morales returns to his stretch role, which is vital for spacing in a dual post offense. It’s understandable that Kennedy has implied a reduced role for TTM given that his efficiency bottomed out in league play, but as a 6-foot-10 stretch shooter and havoc wreaker defensively, it’s hard for me to fathom that he can’t be useful even when he’s not hitting shots. His mere presence creates more driving lanes and more room for Davis and/or Williams. Plus, his efficiency should improve with Caldwell on the floor. D.J. Hogg should return to a 3/4 role with Caldwell eligible, as Kennedy was forced to use his plus passing skills in a point-forward role of sorts without a point guard last year. He’s healthy this year and should be due for big year as an elite 3/4 "3 and D" guy at 6-foot-9. Savion Flagg is another four-star recruit who projects as Hogg’s replacement when he inevitably goes pro. Isiah Jasey is the last of a quartet of four-star freshmen, and he’ll be another option in the deep frontcourt.

If Kennedy can figure out the most efficient combo of Davis/Williams/TTM, and Caldwell actually comes to fruition as a legit floor general (at this point he seems more myth than reality), the Aggies should be in line for a ride up the SEC standings.


7. Tennessee

I’m probably slightly higher than most on the Vols this year, but I like the increased size, experience and athleticism that Rick Barnes has to work with this year. Last year’s Tennessee team had a weird season. They actually played all four Final Four teams, and South Carolina was the only one they weren’t competitive against, and they very easily could have scored wins over UNC and Oregon. Last year’s squad was way undersized, but oddly completely eschewed the 3, shooting them at the league’s second-lowest rate, as Barnes largely returned to his Jerry Sloan learned flex offense. Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner act as dual points for Barnes, with Turner representing more of a shooting point guard (his repaired shoulder should allow for a nice sophomore jump), while Bone is lightning quick and a pure distributor. Barnes added two pure scorers around them from lower levels, as James Daniel comes in from Howard (where he was the nation’s leading scorer two seasons ago) and Chris Darrington from the JUCO ranks where he filled up box scores as a shooter/slasher. With Daniel, Darrington, Turner and another budding sophomore Jordan Bowen, Barnes can really open up the offense on the perimeter and move away from the ubiquitous flex action he used last year. With the addition of some height, Barnes can move Admiral Schofield back to a more natural wing position, and his 3-point rate and efficiency should increase while still being able to check opposing 4s in Barnes’ switching man-to-man defense when necessary. Two freshmen wing additions add a lot of athleticism, as Jalen Johnson can jump out of the building and 6-foot-6 Frenchman Yves Pons has the profile of a first-round pick simply on potential and athleticism. The undersized yet often effective frontcourt play of **Grant Williams **returns (although UT insists he and a few other Vols have grown, which Ken Pomeroy actually penned a post about). Williams posted the league’s seventh-highest block rate and was highly effective at crashing the glass and using his speed at 6-foot-5 to draw contact at the league’s fourth-highest rate against slower 4s and 5s. Williams was a jack of all trades in the frontcourt, while the more traditionally sized Kyle Alexander swatted shots at a high per 40 rate when he could stay on the floor. John Fulkerson returns from injury this year and will certainly bolster the frontcourt, while Zach Kent is an intriguing offensive option at the 5 as a versatile scorer despite being a true freshman big, while fellow freshman big Derrick Walker probably offers a higher initial floor as a solid rebounder.

Barnes added some necessary perimeter scoring punch and some solid height to give his lineup more flexibility. A big sophomore leap from Bone at the point would go a long way, as would Daniel and Darrington showing they can score at the high-major D1 level.


8. Vanderbilt

There’s a lot to like about Vandy in Bryce Drew’s second season in Nashville, but I’m not sure people outside of the SEC realize how important Luke Kornet was to last year’s team on both ends. While Drew can’t replace Kornet, he does return four starters from what should have been a second round NCAA Tournament team. (I’ll not rehash what happened against Northwestern for any Dores fans reading this.) Drew’s team will be led by a deep backcourt that returns Riley LaChance as a sharpshooting point (44 percent from deep in league play), frustrating gunner Matthew Fisher-Davis and a pair of undervalued wings in Jeff Roberson and Joe Toye. Drew then bolstered the backcourt/wing unit even further with the additions of Xavier transfer Larry Austin, who figures to be more of defensive presence on the perimeter for this team, and lightning quick point guard Saban Lee, a blow-by lead guard as a freshman recruit. Sophomore Payton Willis will return to his role as a super sub utility guy in the backcourt. The frontcourt is where the issues lie for Drew. Djery Baptiste looked like he was pretty far away from being a major SEC contributor in the paint in his freshman year. Despite his athletic gifts, he’s still too raw to be relied upon for much, and four-star recruit Ejike Obinna profiles incredibly similarly to Baptiste. That leaves sophomore Clevon Brown as the only other option in the frontcourt.

I expect Drew to bump the extremely versatile Roberson and Toye down and simply play small, which is also playing to his team’s strength – the deep and talented backcourt.


9. Arkansas

STOP THE PRESSES! Mike Anderson no longer presses! What looked like a trend the last few years was officially confirmed last year, as Arkansas spent the least amount of time in full-court press in Anderson’s career. That’s not to say that he doesn’t extend pressure anymore, because he certainly does. It’s just mainly utilized now to slow down offenses and disrupt rather than to primarily generate turnovers en masse. That’s also not to say that Arkansas isn’t a transition reliant offense, as they are still very much in run and attack mode when possible. Between Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, this is very much a backcourt driven basketball team. Macon is by far the more efficient of the two as a shooter and slasher, while Barford tends to lower his head and penetrate no matter the situation. Both are disruptive forces defensively in Anderson’s attack-heavy scheme. Anton Beard returns as the third senior in the backcourt, and he’s probably the best pure distributor and a solid perimeter shooter (and this Arkansas team is really low on shooters with Dusty Hannahs gone), as well as a plus on-ball defender (pretty much a requirement for a member of Anderson’s backcourt). Replacing Moses Kingsley’s defense on the back end is Anderson’s primary concern this year, but Trey Thompson could be in line for a big senior season as something of a point forward. His per 40 rates are fantastic as a passing big on offense and rim protector on defense. With more minutes this year his efficiency is sure to take a hit, but his those rates suggest he’s due for a solid season. Highly-touted freshman 5 Dan Gafford is a lock to lead the Razorbacks in blocks, and he’s probably the odds-on favorite to lead the league if all the UK bigs sort of cancel each other out. Adrio Bailey and Dustin Thomas (although I’m not sure why he hasn’t been playing in the preseason) give Anderson two versatile defenders who can guard opposing 3s and 4s and easily switch out on the perimeter. Darious Hall is another touted frosh who should see immediate minutes on the wing, especially considering Anderson’s lack of depth. (I’m not sure if highly touted frosh Khalil Garland’s injury is season ending, but it sounds likely.)

Anderson has a talented, senior-laden squad and a few impact freshmen, which means the Hogs should likely stay in the top half of the league. That said, as I noted several times, the league is deeper, and the lack of depth and perimeter shooting are major concerns.


10. Georgia

To be blunt, Mark Fox’s brand of basketball is quickly becoming unviable, especially as the SEC rebounds from a few down years as a conference. This is the age of "pace and space," and with Fox stubbornly sticking to a jumbo lineup that relies heavily on shots at the rim (no team in the SEC had a lower 3PTA rate and a higher FTA rate than the Dawgs last year), his teams aren’t really able to guard effectively in man to man against so many hybrid frontcourts. That said, there’s still plenty of talent on this roster, and Yante Maten is one of the most effective big men in the country. He could potentially be in the top 10 nationally in usage and shot rates – and that would be fine, as he’s efficient and a developing distributor out of double teams. The rest of the frontcourt is rounded out by Derek Ogbeide, a monster rebounder and rim protector, Mike Edwards, and two talented freshmen in RayShaun Hammonds and Nic Claxton. Hammonds will play the 3 for Fox, which means the 3-5 will all be physically imposing 6-foot-8 bigs who can protect the rim and rebound. Points in the paint and offensive rebounds will be tough to come by against Fox’s man to man and occasional 2-3 zone, but you can beat the backcourt off the dribble and from the perimeter, especially with quicker 3s and 4s. The backcourt has some issues. Jordan Harris (currently suspended), Turtle Jackson, Tyree Crump and Teshaun Hightower can all play on or off the ball, but all have glaring defensive lapses while none are consistent ball handlers/distributors to feed Maten. Crump and Harris are former four-star recruits, but Crump’s freshman year was something of a disaster offensively, and who knows where Harris currently stands with Fox. That probably leaves Jackson as the most likely full-time point option.

Maten is an unequivocal monster in the paint with a burgeoning complementary skill set, but some glaring backcourt and scheme issues likely keep Georgia from realizing their potential again.


11. Mississippi State

The Weatherspoon brothers could have MSU finally gaining some traction in Ben Howland’s third season Starkville. Quinndary Weatherspoon is healthy this year, and while playing hurt he saw his efficiency drop across the board. If he’s back to his freshman form, he’ll be one of the league’s most efficient and lethal shooting/slasher combo wings. He’ll also benefit from the addition of his brother, Nick Weatherspoon, who pairs with Lamar Peters to form a dual PG offense based off their relentless penetration. Those three are also key defensively in Howland’s scheme predicated on extending his guards and taking away the 3-point line as much as possible, a staple of days at UCLA as well. What was also a staple from those great Bruin teams was defensive rebounding, which MSU hasn’t done a lick of since Howland got to Starkville. Aric Holman holds down the fort in the paint as a legit rim protector and solid rebounder, but he’ll need help from senior Schnider Herard and highly-touted frosh Abdul Ado if the rebounding is going to get to a Howland-esque level. Ado is currently nursing a quad injury that shouldn’t keep him out past the first few games, if that. Tyson Carter and Xavian Stapleton occupy the wing for Howland, with Carter being a perimeter bomber and Stapleton an effectively versatile defender capable of guarding 2-4 in Howland’s switching man to man. Expect to see a sophomore leap from Eli Wright as an across the board contributor. He’s sort of been the forgotten man of a talented sophomore class, but he was a four-star recruit as well and can most readily help the woeful defensive rebounding.

Howland has a team of athletic wing scorers and an underrated dual point guard attack (I love dual PG offenses). If they defend in man to man and rebound anywhere close to a typical Howland defense, the Bulldogs should be much improved.


12. LSU

Will Wade comes in from VCU and ends the tumultuous and ultimately disastrous Johnny Jones era in Baton Rouge. Wade will immediately inject some life into the moribund program, but he probably needs another year to build his stable before the Tigers make any big leap out of the cellar. That said, Wade has a tetrad of four-star freshmen as well as two impact grad transfers coming in that will keep LSU competitive this year. It’s a bit misleading to associate Wade with Shaka Smart’s "havoc" defense simply because he was an assistant for Smart and took over at VCU for two seasons, but he does indeed apply a fair amount of halfcourt pressure, and he actually does have the athleticism and depth to continue that defense in Baton Rouge. Point guard Skylar Mays actually posted the league’s third-highest steal rate last year, albeit for a defense that allowed an astounding 1.2 points per possession in league play, by far the worst of the power conference defenses. Mays has a proven elite D1 scorer in Randy Onwuasor as his running mate. Onwuasor was a penetrating scoring machine at Southern Utah. Onwuasor won’t be asked to be one of the country’s highest-used players like he was at SUU, but his ability to put the ball in the bucket routinely is certainly an asset. Wayde Sims and Brandon Sampson are two long, athletic wings who will likely start for Wade as the talented freshmen get acclimated, especially since talented freshman slasher Galen Alexander is still on the shelf to start the year. Sampson is the threat offensively of the two, while Sims could be useful in Wade’s defensive scheme. Brandon Rachal is another four-star wing addition who has pressure defender written all over him. Tremont Waters is yet another four-star backcourt addition as one of the top-rated incoming points in the country. He gives Wade the definite option of a potentially lethal two point guard offense with Mays and Waters. Waters’ highlights (albeit they’re packaged to make a player look like Pete Maravich) show an uncanny floor vision for a player his age. The frontcourt will be anchored by Wade’s best inherited player, Duop Reath. Reath is still relatively new to basketball, so his ceiling is still lofty, and his efficiency around the rim will improve. North Texas transfer Jeremy Combs is a veteran option when he’s able to get back on the floor after a knee injury, and Mayan Kiir is another South Sudan native (like Reath) who has talent as a freshman, but is still quite raw offensively.

First and foremost, Wade will make sure this LSU team defends, even if it’s not via a "havoc" like system (although I think this roster is capable of going that route if Wade reverses course). The talent level is already high and LSU will certainly be a program on the rise in very short order.


13. South Carolina

From the Final Four to the SEC cellar seems like too steep of a falloff in one offseason, but it’s a testament both to how deep the SEC is this year and how utterly important Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier were to the Gamecocks. In fact, you could make a case that Thornwell was the most valuable player in college basketball last year, and it wouldn’t get much argument from me. Remember, the Gamecocks played four D1 games without Thornwell last year, only winning one (at lowly USF), and they didn’t sniff 1.00 points per possession in the three losses. In short, South Carolina is going to struggle to score with any semblance of efficiency this year. To make matters worse, Rakym Felder’s off-court actions have led to his apparent dismissal. According to Martin, he’s "no longer a part of the team," and to wit, he’s no longer listed on the official Gamecock roster. Felder was to take over the point this year, and he was one of Martin’s only shooters last year. That leaves Hassani Gravett and Delaware transfer Kory Holden as the ball handlers, and Holden is expected to be the team’s primary shooter if his knee is 100 percent after offseason surgery. Martin supplemented the roster with what, in all honesty, figure to be low-impact transfers. Wes Myers comes in from Maine after breaking a teammate’s jaw in locker room fight. He’ll provide some scoring punch in the backcourt. Former Oklahoma Sooner Frank Booker was a nonfactor at FAU last season. He’ll join the wing as a presumed shooter, and there’s Holden as well. The top addition to the backcourt is probably freshman David Beatty, a potent rim attacker, but Martin has him tabbed for a redshirt in what looks like a rebuilding year. How these smaller, less physical transfers fit into Martin’s infamous pressure matchup 3-2 zone is murky. The frontcourt should be the strength of the Gamecocks, which is the way Martin prefers it anyway. Chris Silva returns in the middle as a banger who draws a ton of contact, while his block mate Maik Kotsar returns as another top offensive rebounder, which should once again be the top offensive option for USC. Given Silva’s excessive foul rate, Martin really needs 7-footer Khadim Gueye to develop into something. His freshman year was probably better spent redshirting, as he posted a miserable 55 ORtg in limited minutes and fouled at nearly twice the rate he blocked shots per 40. Martin’s top freshman addition is four-star wing Ibrahim Doumbia, who immediately becomes his most athletic option. He’ll need to be a major factor tout suite if the Gamecocks want to stay out of the bottom tier in a deep, deep SEC.

Replacing Thornwell and Dozier simply isn’t possible, and the incoming transfers aren’t going to have much of an impact defensively, which is where South Carolina typically makes their hay. Remaining competitive in the best SEC in years will be a task, but Gamecock fans always have last year.


14. Auburn

At this point, I have no idea how Bruce Pearl hasn’t been fired, especially considering his track record. It appears Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley are likely to sit out the year (and I would be shocked if either ever suits up for Auburn again). Moving past the scandal that could derail what looked like Auburn’s best season in years and focusing on the court, the Tigers could do some damage – so this is ranking is predicated on my gut feeling that Pearl isn’t coaching the team in a week and Wiley and Purifoy are done for the year. Even with the depth hit, Pearl will still likely run his transition-heavy offense that saw the Tigers attempt transition shots at the the 21st-highest rate in the country, and he has the versatile athletes to make it potent. Mustapha Heron, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper are the catalysts in the backcourt for Pearl’s up-tempo attack. All three have a green light from deep, and all three are encouraged to gamble for steals in Pearl’s man-to-man defense. Consequently, that gambling often leaves opposing perimeter players wide open when they don’t generate a turnover, and thus teams posted 1.13 points per possession against the Tigers in SEC play and shot 40 percent from deep. The frontcourt is anchored by two outstanding and athletic rim protectors in Horace Spencer and Anfernee McLemore, and Chuma Okeke should help bolster a very poor defensive rebounding team. DeSean Murray should see immediate minutes as an undersized and underrated frontcourt scorer. He was a bull in the paint at Presbyterian despite being just 6-foot-5, and while the competition is obviously on a different level than the Big South, he’ll be one of the toughest players in the league, and he can front opposing 5s, even at his height. He’s a player I really enjoyed watching on Big South streams. Davion Mitchell, the other four-star freshman recruit in addition to Okeke, will now be pressed into service earlier than expected, as Pearl will have to go smaller without Purifoy and Wiley.

To reiterate, this ranking is purely conditional. If the embattled Pearl stays on and Purifoy and Wiley are somehow cleared, Auburn is long, two deep everywhere and athletic – a perfect combination for Pearl’s transition-centric attack. In the best case scenario, everyone plays and Auburn is a top-half SEC team with an NCAA Tournament invite. Worst case scenario, Pearl is forced to resign, and Auburn suffers through its ninth straight losing SEC season.


SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kevin Knox, Kentucky

ALL SEC FIRST TEAM:
Yante Maten, Georgia
Michael Porter Jr, Missouri
KeVaughn Allen, Florida
Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky
Kevin Knox, Kentucky

ALL SEC SECOND TEAM:
Collin Sexton, Alabama
Braxton Key, Alabama
Robert Williams, Texas A&M
Quinndary Weatherspoon, Mississippi State
Chris Chiozza, Florida


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