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  • Kentucky looks poised to use a blend of youth and experience to get back to the top of the SEC, but don't count out the conference's two major surprise teams from a season ago.
By Dan Greene
August 30, 2018

Now that we’re less than three months away from the start of college basketball’s regular season, it’s time to check in on each of the six major conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC). Every team in the country has questions at this point of the summer, some more pressing than others. So in addition to power-ranking each league, we’ll be asking some burning questions about the conference, whether they’re related to specific teams and players or the league as a whole. We’ve already done the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12. Last up is the SEC.

SEC Summer Power Rankings

1. Kentucky: Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis will provide some much-needed experience to a roster once again teeming with freshman talent and bringing back sophomore forward PJ Washington.

2. Tennessee: After last season’s largely unforeseen breakthrough, the returns of all-league talents Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield have expectations higher in Knoxville entering this fall.

3. Auburn: Losing Mustapha Heron and Desean Murray to transfer was a blow, but the Tigers are relatively prepared to weather it, with their Bryce Brown/Jared Harper backcourt remaining a strength.

4. Mississippi State: The brotherly combo of Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon should grow in prominence after last season’s NIT semifinal appearance; return of 6’10” senior Aric Holman helps too.

5. LSU: A top-five recruiting class joins sophomore guard Tremont Waters—an SEC Player of the Year contender—for an added jolt of both youth and excitement in coach Will Wade’s second season.

6. Alabama: Collin Sexton may have been lost to the lottery, but sophomore guard John Petty and junior wing Dazon Ingram will be aided by the eligibility of Texas transfer Tevin Mack and the arrival top-50 guard Kira Lewis.

7. Florida: Jalen Hudson returns as the Gators’ clear go-to scorer to play alongside incoming five-star Canadian point guard Andrew Nembhard, who will have to help ease the loss of backcourt stalwart Chris Chiozza.

8. Vanderbilt: The arrival of two consensus top-15 recruits—point guard Darius Garland and forward Simisola Shittu—and top-100 guard Aaron Nesmith make the Commodores one of the SEC’s most intriguing teams.

9. Texas A&M: After a disappointing, uneven season ended in the Sweet 16, Billy Kennedy’s team will have to straighten things out while replacing the potent inside combo of Robert Williams and Tyler Davis.

10. Arkansas: Big man Daniel Gafford impressed NBA scouts while helping power the Razorbacks to the NCAA tourney as a freshman, but he won’t have a quartet of senior starters supporting him this time.

11. Missouri: Jontay Porter will be recast as the Tigers’ top returning player, and while he may thrive in the role, questions remain around him.

12. South Carolina: Forward Chris Silva has steadily developed into a stud, but it might not be enough to hasten the payoff of the Gamecocks’ post-Final Four rebuild.

13. Georgia: Tom Crean takes over a program that’s been stuck in the mud of mediocrity, but after the graduation of star forward Yante Maten, a step back may precede the Bulldogs' march in a better direction.

14. Ole Miss: It’s a fresh start after last season’s 1–11 finish with Kermit Davis taking the reins and only one starter, junior forward Bruce Stevens, returning to Oxford.

Burning Questions

Is Kentucky back to its best formula?

While it’s become most closely associated with its annual restocking of one-and-done talent, Calipari-Era Kentucky has had its most success when it can successfully blend those newcomers with a handful of veterans—think the way Darius Miller, Terrence Jones, and Doron Lamb factored into the 2012 national title or how key the Harrison twins and Willie Cauley-Stein were in reaching the 2015 Final Four. So as important as the Wildcats’ four top-35 freshmen will be, the addition of senior forward Reid Travis (19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game at Stanford last season) and the return of sophomore wing PJ Washington (10.8 points, 5.7 rebounds) will be pivotal to them reaching Minneapolis in April.

After last year’s surprising SEC title, can Auburn keep it going?

The Tigers were picked to finish ninth in the SEC last October, a situation surely not helped by their ensnarement in the FBI probe that resulted in former assistant coach Chuck Person’s arrest. As head coach Bruce Pearl attempted to stonewall internal investigators and two expected starters were suspended, a senior-less Auburn reeled off a 14-game win streak that helped propel it to a shared SEC regular-season title. Most of the core is back from that young, overachieving team, but Mustapha Heron, who was the team’s leading scorer and highest-usage player, and starter Desean Murray are not. Heron's solid rebounding ability at 6’5” helped the Tigers win with a smaller, quicker lineup, making him particularly difficult to replace. But they’re set for a significant boost from the return of center Austin Wiley, a potential NBA talent who was ineligible last season in the wake of the probe.

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And what about Tennessee?

The other team that went 13–5 in the SEC was even more surprising, at least by the metric of its 13th-place prediction in the league’s preseason poll. But the Volunteers rode a top-notch defense (sixth nationally in adjusted efficiency) to the program’s best season since... Bruce Pearl’s tenure. The good news for the Vols is that they bring back basically the same team they had in the NCAA tournament—since-graduated senior James Daniel averaged 14.0 minutes in those two games and fewer than half of the team’s minutes for the season—and will bolster their depth with the arrival of four-star forward D.J. Burns. After few outsiders expected much of anything from it last season, Rick Barnes’s team will enter this year with legitimate hopes for a deep March run. That could be a new burden to carry, but it’s likely a welcome one.

Is LSU too young to be dangerous?

The SEC’s strong upper tier is made up of teams either returning just about everybody (Tennessee, Auburn, Mississippi State) and a team with a couple top-notch vets playing alongside a top-notch recruiting class (Kentucky). Then there’s LSU, which brings in a group of freshmen not far behind Kentucky’s pedigree to join Tremont Waters, a savvy passer (33rd nationally in assist rate) and quality scorer (15.9 points per game) who gained tons of experience playing heavily as a freshman, and junior guard Skylar Mays. The Tigers’ defense was a problem area last season and part of the reason they went 3–7 over a rough one-month stretch in the midst of SEC play. An influx of youth isn’t usually the prescription for that sort of issue, but if second-year coach Will Wade can coax a decent defense together LSU is a team that could make a push.

Will Kira Lewis be ready?

The Crimson Tide’s recruiting class got a late upgrade when Lewis, a 6’3” guard who was a top-50 player in the Class of 2019, committed to Alabama and reclassified to enroll there immediately. Point guard was the most obvious place of need on the Tide’s roster, as they should be deep along the wings but had no obvious candidate to replace Collin Sexton at the head of things. Lewis profiles as the kind of player who can make an early impact in college (and he will certainly have the opportunity to) but having missed out on most of the summer sessions from which most freshmen benefit, he will have an additional challenge in being up to speed out of the gate.

How will the new coaches impact the league’s bottom?

Tom Crean’s gap-year odyssey landed him in Athens, while Ole Miss lured Kermit Davis away from a successful run at Middle Tennessee. Both are experienced head coaches with a record of building programs, albeit more gradually than via sudden turnarounds. That should be fine in the long run for Bulldogs and Rebels fans, but in the meantime they’ll be looking to move their way up an increasingly competitive and tough SEC. There aren’t really obvious candidates to fall down the league ladder, so every step climbed will have to be earned.

How will the league fare in March?

The SEC set a new league record this past March by landing eight NCAA tournament bids, upping its previous high by two. That feat will be hard to repeat, given some of the questions around the league’s middle, though there’s certainly a chance they give it another run. What surely disappointed the league offices last season, however, was that only two of those eight teams reached the Sweet 16, with none advancing any further. This season Kentucky and Tennessee both look like potential Final Four squads, with Auburn not far behind. So while the quantity of the SEC’s March Madness showing is likely to drop, the quality of its performance has a good chance to improve.

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