SEC Summer Reset: Despite draft losses, Kentucky still heavy favorite
With spring recruiting having closed and nearly every transfer player in place, SI.com is here to catch you up on the state of each conference heading into the summer. So far we’ve covered the AAC, ACC, A-10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Mountain West and Pac-12. Now, the SEC:
State of the champion: Kentucky
Don’t expect many familiar faces when Kentucky takes the floor this winter. The Wildcats sent seven players from last year’s roster to the NBA, most notably forwards Karl-Anthony Towns (whom Minnesota selected with the first overall pick) and Willie Cauley-Stein (whom the Kings selected with the No. 6 pick). Those seven players accounted for 61.6 points per game last season, or 82.8% of the team’s scoring output. They also helped Kentucky to SEC regular-season and conference titles a 38-0 record before falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
Any other school would worry about that kind of mass exodus, but the ‘Cats aren’t fretting. If we’ve learned anything about John Calipari, it’s that the coach knows how to reload. Forward Alex Poythress and guard Tyler Ulis should step up and assume bigger roles in 2015-16. Plus, Calipari has another stellar crop of recruits lying in wait. Five-star prospects Skal Labissiere, Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray (who reclassified so that he can play this fall) will add more top-tier talent to the roster when they arrive in Lexington.
The Wildcats won’t look the same next season, but it’s far too early to count out Calipari in the SEC. The conference should still be Kentucky’s to lose next year.
Notable newcomer: Ben Howland, Mississippi State
The biggest coaching transaction in the SEC took place in ... Starkville? Mississippi State made a splash by luring former UCLA coach Ben Howland out of a two-year coaching hiatus to take over the Bulldogs. Howland replaces Rick Ray, who was fired after three seasons.
Howland’s arrival might have involved a bit of sticker-shock. He took UCLA to three Final Fours in 10 seasons in Westwood. Mississippi State has only been to one Final Four (1996) in its history and hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2009. But at his introductory press conference, Howland said he sees a bright future with the Bulldogs.
“I think there’s so much opportunity here,” Howland said. “I’ve watched this program. I was there at the 1996 Final Four. I watched the great years [former coach Rick] Stansbury had here during his tenure. I think there is tons of potential here.”
It’s hard to argue against Howland’s track record. He’s taken three teams (Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh, UCLA) to the NCAA tournament. At UCLA, Howland sent 18 players to the NBA. The coach hasn’t wasted any time making an impression, either: He beat out Kentucky and Kansas to secure the commitment of five-star guard Malik Newman in April. That means the rest of the SEC is officially on watch.
Notable departure: Billy Donovan, Florida
It felt like a long time coming when Donovan announced his departure from Florida at the end of April. The longtime Gators coach flirted with the NBA on a number of occasions, even accepting the Orlando Magic job in 2007 before changing his mind and returning to Gainesville. But the opportunity to coach the Oklahoma City Thunder was too much for Billy the Kid to pass up. After 19 seasons, Donovan left the SEC.
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley shed a few tears when he wished Donovan farewell at a May 4 press conference. “The basketball piece he delivered in spades and we thank him for that,” Foley said. “What we really didn’t know 19 years ago was the type of person we were getting.”
Donovan’s departure leaves a gaping hole in the league. For much of his tenure, the Gators were regularly among the SEC’s most dangerous contenders for a national title. The coach won two national championships and appeared in four Final Fours at Florida, and despite coming off his first losing season (16-17) since 1998, Donovan was only one season removed from a Final Four berth (2014). It’s hard to imagine a coach with bigger shoes to fill than Michael White, who was hired on May 7 to replace Donovan after four seasons at Louisiana Tech. The SEC will surely miss Donovan’s success.
Auburn: Get used to defensive drills. Bruce Pearl’s first losing season as a head coach came courtesy of a defense that finished last in the SEC in efficiency and effective field-goal percentage in 2014-15.
Florida: Spend some quality time at the charity stripe. The Gators’ dismal free-throw percentage (63.5) last season ranked 333rd nationally.
Kentucky: Try to maintain the status quo on defense. Departed seven-footers like Towns and Cauley-Stein were the heart of one of the best defenses in modern college basketball. Could Labissiere fill the void immediately?
LSU: Make room for highly touted freshmen. The Tigers’ hyped 2015 signing class includes forward Ben Simmons, the No. 2 player in the nation, and guard Antonio Blakney, who is ranked No. 13.
Mississippi State: Learn how to take care of the basketball. The Bulldogs finished last in the SEC in turnover margin (-2.7) and 337th nationally in turnover percentage (23.3) last year.
Ole Miss: Work on perimeter shooting. Last season the Rebels boasted the second-most efficient offense in the SEC, but their three-point percentage (33.1) ranked eighth.
Tennessee: Find a new floor leader. Coach Rick Barnes inherits a team that loses impact guard Josh Richardson, who led the Vols in scoring (16.0 points per game) and earned SEC All-Defensive Team honors.
Texas A&M: Focus on finishing. The Aggies won 21 games last season but lost five of their last seven games, including an opening loss to Auburn in the SEC tournament.
Vanderbilt: Learn how to defend the three. Vandy’s defense was one of the most efficient in the SEC, but the ‘Dores still allowed teams to shoot 38% from beyond the arc in conference play, worst in the league.