Kentucky is still king in the SEC, but upstart squads at Texas A&M, LSU and Vanderbilt
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, which is now in its second season, we've forecast the conference standings and the top seven scorers from each team. Next up is the SEC.
Coach of the year: Billy Kennedy, Texas A&M
The Aggies were a surprise team for much of last season before falling apart at year’s end. They dropped five of their last seven games, including a second-round upset loss to Auburn in the SEC tournament. More than a few A&M fans aren’t sold on Kennedy’s leadership, which is why this season should be telling. But the Aggies boast the returning talent to contend in the SEC with the help of a top-10 recruiting class. If that’s enough to end the program’s four-year tournament drought, Kennedy will have Texas A&M headed in the right direction.
How well has LSU’s most touted recruit since Shaquille O’Neal performed in his short time on campus? “He’s as good as advertised,” Tigers coach Johnny Jones said at the team's media day. Simmons, the Australian-born No. 2 overall player in the class of 2015, is an impact rookie who will snag both SEC Freshman and Player of the Year honors. The 6'10", 240-pound forward was named Naismith Trophy Boys High School Player of the Year after averaging 28 points, 11.9 rebounds and four assists as a senior at Montverde Academy in Florida. But don’t be fooled by Simmons’s size—he can play any position. At least initially, though, LSU should use him to make up for the loss of All-SEC big men Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, both of whom are now in the NBA. Simmons will soon follow, and he may even be the top pick in the 2016 NBA draft.
Projected conference race
|conference rank||team||projected Conf. record||last year's Conf. record|
Each team’s outlook in about 68 words
A reshuffled roster is nothing new in Lexington, but losing seven players to the NBA is. Yet John Calipari’s talented team still returns as the SEC favorite. Forward Skal Labissiere, the top-ranked recruit in 2015, headlines a star-studded signing class that again ranked No. 1, per Rivals.com. Those newcomers, along with vets like senior Alex Poythress, should keep the ‘Cats poised for another Final Four run.
The Aggies bring back senior guard Alex Caruso, the reigning SEC assist leader (4.5 per game), and leading scorer Daniel House (14.8 points per game) to a roster that should break its four-year tournament drought. The key might be a top-10 recruiting class that features four top-100 players, including 6'10" freshman Tyler Davis, who could secure a starting spot.
The departure of NBA-bound forwards Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin preceded the arrival of heralded freshman Simmons, who’ll be the Tigers' go-to player. While Simmons shores up the post, guards Josh Gray, Keith Hornsby and Tim Quarterman provide depth in the backcourt. LSU must improve in some areas—like free throw shooting (10th in the SEC in ’14)—but it should still go dancing.
|Wade Baldwin IV||PG||10.0||4.0||4.0||117.9||20%||72%|
After a three-year hiatus, coach Kevin Stallings and the Commodores boast the talent needed to return to the NCAAs. All-SEC 7-footer Damian Jones (14.4 points and 6.5 boards in ’14-15) is the centerpiece, while guards Wade Baldwin IV and Riley LaChance are lethal three-point shooters. Toss in Cornell transfer guard Nolan Cressler (16.9 points per game in ’13), and Vandy will be one of the biggest threats to Kentucky in the SEC.
No coach in college basketball inherits bigger shoes to fill than Mike White. The former Louisiana Tech coach steps in for Billy Donovan, who took the Gators to four Final Fours. But Florida went 16-17 last year thanks to an anemic offense (1.01 points per possession, 11th in the SEC). Aside from forward Dorian Finney-Smith, inexperience is rampant in Gainesville. White needs more out of guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza.
With returning guards Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice, South Carolina could build off its first winning season since 2009. The backcourt duo averaged a combined 22.8 points per game last year. The question comes in the post, where coach Frank Martin hopes seniors Laimonas Chatkevicius and Michael Carrera can increase their outputs. Perhaps that would lead the Gamecocks to the postseason, but it probably won’t take them to the Big Dance.
If you are looking for an SEC sleeper, check out Athens. Sure, Georgia lost two key frontcourt figures in forwards Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic, but few SEC teams are more experienced on the perimeter. Seasoned guards Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann should take pressure off emerging forward Yante Maten. Toss in a solid signing class, and Georgia could surprise in the conference race.
Mississippi State’s shocking hire of Ben Howland, a coach with three Final Fours under his belt at UCLA, signaled a commitment to a turnaround in Starkville. Howland’s first signing class included five-star guard Malik Newman, who’ll earn immediate minutes alongside seniors Gavin Ware and Craig Sword. But are the Bulldogs a tourney team? Not without reversing an offense that ranked 12th in SEC in points per possession (0.99) in 2014.
The Tigers head into Year 2 of the Bruce Pearl era having lost two guards—Antoine Mason and KT Harrell—who combined for 32.9 points per game last season. The good news? Pearl’s new recruiting class ranked 20th nationally, per Rivals.com, and he also landed transfers like forward Tyler Harris (Providence). Now the Tigers’ defense (12th in the SEC in points allowed per possession) must improve.
The Rebels will go as far as Stefan Moody takes them. The SEC’s leading returning scorer (16.6 points per game) is the most experienced guard at Ole Miss, which lost double-digit scorers Jarvis Summers and LaDarius White. But Moody’s scoring won't fix a defense that ranked ninth in the league in points per possession allowed (1.01). It will help if junior forward Sebastian Saiz steps up in the post.
Mike Anderson’s squad won 27 games last season, but it loses 50.6 points per game in scoring from that team. Four of Arkansas’s best players, including reigning SEC player of the year Bobby Portis, are gone. Anton Beard and Anthlon Bell will try to replace stellar swingman Michael Qualls, but Portis’s absence will sting the most. That’s why Arkansas won’t match last season’s offensive output (77.4 points per game).
|Robert Hubbs III||SG||11.3||3.8||1.3||111.6||19%||76%|
The Vols were spiraling downward after the firing of coach Donnie Tyndall after one season. But Tennessee saved face with the hire of ex-Texas coach Rick Barnes. The problem is the cupboard is pretty bare at Barnes’s new UT: All-SEC guard Josh Richardson is off to the NBA, and guard Kevin Punter and forward Armani Moore are the primary threats on offense. Prepare for growing pains, Vols fans.
The first season of the Avery Johnson era at Alabama looks like a serious rebuild. Only six scholarship players return to Tuscaloosa, an exodus that includes the Crimson Tide’s three leading scorers. Now Belgian guard Retin Obasohan should step into bigger shoes, and Johnson might need immediate help from freshmen guard Dazon Ingram, Alabama’s Mr. Basketball. But it’s far too early to slot ‘Bama in for the postseason.
No SEC program needed a clean slate more than Missouri. Its 9-23 record in coach Kim Anderson’s first season was its worst since 1967. During the off-season key forwards Johnathan Williams III and Montaque Gill-Caesar decided to transfer. That’s why Anderson needs immediate help from junior transfer Russell Woods, a 6'8" forward. It’s also why the Tigers are still too young to take a major step forward this season.