With the start of college basketball season less than a month away, we're previewing each team in nine conferences. Using a statistical projection system developed by economist Dan Hanner and SI's Luke Winn -- read more about it here -- we've projected the conference standings and the top seven scorers from each team. Today we look at the SEC. Is there more to the conference than Kentucky and Florida?
Projected Conference Race
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Coach of the year: Mike Anderson, Arkansas
The Hogs bring back a solid chunk of scoring, which should help them take the next step and reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in Anderson’s tenure in Fayetteville. Arkansas could be the biggest SEC threat outside of Kentucky and Florida, and that’d be a testament to Anderson’s job performance.
Player of the year: Aaron Harrison, Kentucky
Harrison should be looking to crack an NBA rotation, but he and his brother Andrew opted to return to Lexington after the Wildcats fell short of a national title. He’s Kentucky’s leading returning scorer and looks to be the SEC’s premier player on its best team.
Freshman of the year: Karl Towns Jr., Kentucky
The ‘Cats’ 6-11 freshman has big shoes to fill – literally. Towns and his size-20 sneakers will make an immediate impact in the post for Kentucky. He averaged 20.9 points, 13.4 rebounds and 6.2 blocks per game as a senior at St. Joseph (N.J.) High and was the Gatorade National Player of the Year.
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The Wildcats are SEC favorites behind what might be one of the best frontcourts in college hoops history. Junior Willie Cauley-Stein (6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds per game in 2013) headlines three seven-footers making up Kentucky’s front line. But it wouldn’t be Big Blue Nation without a stacked freshman class. Expect five-star newcomers like center Karl Towns Jr. and guard Trey Lyles to make an impact for John Calipari’s squad.
The new-look Gators lost four starters from the first SEC team ever to go 18-0 in conference play. Oh, and it also reached the Final Four. But with Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young gone, sharpshooter Michael Frazier II (44.7 percent on 3s last year) will lead the offense. Guard Kasey Hill and forward Chris Walker should step up to match last year’s defense, which finished second in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency rating (89.3).
Coach Mike Anderson’s team beat Kentucky twice last season. The Razorback’s return their three leading scorers -- Rashad Madden, Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls – from that roster. Madden (12.7 points per game in ’13) should shift to shooting guard as newcomers Anton Beard and Jabril Durham battle for the point guard job. A true floor general could be what the Hogs need to reach the NCAA tournament.
Replacing All-SEC forward Johnny O’Bryant III will be priority number one for LSU this year. O’Bryant, who averaged 15.4 points and 7.7 boards per game, helped the Tigers win 20 games in 2013. A strong frontcourt should help: Talented forwards Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin are back with the addition of 7-1 post Elbert Robinson III. JUCO point guard Josh Gray is the wild card on the perimeter.
Rebels’ guard Marshall Henderson was a lightning rod for attention last year, but his 19.0 points per game finished third in the SEC. Ole Miss hopes senior Jarvis Summers (17.3 points per game in ’13) can be the go-to leader for this team. Beyond Summers, too many questions exist at the guard position, which is why coach Andy Kennedy’s team might not be stocked for an SEC run.
Alabama failed to win a game on the road last year (0-11) as it limped to a 13-19 record, the program’s worst since 1971. Improving without departed All-SEC guard Trevor Releford will be difficult for coach Anthony Grant. Forward Shannon Hale, an All-SEC Freshman pick in 2013, could combine with a number of new faces to help turn the Tide and save Grant’s job.
Georgia staged an impressive rally during the 2013 season, winning its last six SEC games and tying with Kentucky for second in the league. If 6-8 forward Marcus Thornton can stay healthy, his inside presence should combine well with the Dawgs’ perimeter tandem of Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines. Nonconference matchups with Gonzaga and Kansas State should give Georgia tests before it can prove its SEC worth.
The Gamecocks were the worst shooting team (.413) in the SEC last season en route to winning only five conference games. But coach Frank Martin’s program upset Kentucky late in the year as part of four wins in South Carolina’s final six games. Martin’s crew seems more experienced this season, starting with two-guard Sindarius Thornwell (13.4 points per game in ’13) and healthy senior point guard Ty Johnson.
The Aggies suffered a blow during the offseason when leading scorer Jamal Jones opted to transfer, taking his 13.4 points per game with him. Even with Jones, Texas A&M finished 13th in the league in scoring (65.2 points per game) and 12th in field-goal percentage (.429). But the Aggies bring back four starters and add 6-7 transfer swingman Danuel House, a former five-star recruit.
Auburn canned coach Tony Barbee right after the Tigers lost in the first round of the SEC tournament. Then Auburn lit a fire under the program with the hiring of Bruce Pearl. Fans will have to be patient for Pearl’s process, but three talented transfers could make an immediate impact: Forward Cinmeon Bowers, guard Antoine Mason and guard K.C. Ross-Miller.
The Vols rebounded from a dismal midseason lull in 2013 to win 24 games and reach the Sweet 16. But after coach Cuonzo Martin took the Cal job, new headman Donnie Tyndall had to piece together a crumbling roster. Guard Josh Richardson (10.3 points per game in '13-14) is the only returning Vol who played meaningful minutes last year. Tyndall expects growing pains with his untested group.
Frank Haith raised eyebrows when the coach jumped from Missouri to Tulsa during the offseason. Now new coach Kim Anderson has a tough job ahead with a revamped roster. Sophomore guard Wes Clark and sophomore forward Johnathan Williams III might be the most recognizable names amid new faces like touted freshmen Jakeenan Gant and Namon Wright. Matching last season’s 23 wins will be a task for Missouri.
Vanderbilt, which capped back-to-back losing seasons last year, must replace nearly 25 points per game in departed scorers Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller. ‘Dores’ forward Damian Jones (11.3 points per game in ’13) could carry the load on offense, but coach Kevin Stallings better hope four-star guard signees Wade Baldwin and Shelton Mitchell can produce. Otherwise his seat might get a little warm in Nashville.
The Bulldogs are one of the most experienced teams in the SEC, returning all five starters. The problem is Mississippi State was one of the worst rebounding and scoring teams in the league last season – it was 260th in the country in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency. Coach Rick Ray hopes a year of development from guys like senior guard/forward Fred Thomas will change the trajectory of this team.