With summer recruiting heating up and summer sessions underway, SI.com is taking a look at the state of each conference. Players are listed by what year they will be in the 2016–17 season. Click here for the American, ACC, A-10, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Mountain West and Pac-12. Below, the SEC.
State of the champions: Kentucky, Texas A&M
Of the eight players who appeared in 30-plus games for Kentucky last season and helped the Wildcats win the SEC tournament, only two return for 2016–17. The tears over another exodus of production evaporated as fast as a drop of water in the desert. In come five top-30 recruits, per Scout.com rankings, including four five-star prospects among the top 13 players in the country. There’s a point guard (6' 4" De’Aaron Fox, the country’s No. 6 prospect), a shooting guard (6' 4" Malik Monk, No. 13), a small forward (6' 10" Wenyen Gabriel, No. 12) and a center (6' 9" Bam Adebayo, No. 11), complemented by power forward Sacha Killeya-Jones, a 6' 10" prospect ranked No. 27. Presumably, holdover guard Isaiah Briscoe (9.6 ppg) will be a veteran anchor as a sophomore and big men Derek Willis and Isaac Humphries will fill out the rotation one way or another. As usual, John Calipari starts almost completely fresh, and thus far the plan has produced just one national title, in 2012. So as usual, Kentucky’s championship aspirations rest on how quickly the alleged first-year studs play like studs.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M rode a senior core to a regular season SEC title last year but doesn’t quite have the same cavalry arriving after losing three of its top four scorers. Then again, Billy Kennedy maybe didn’t need one as badly. Tyler Davis (11.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg as a freshman) will be the 6' 10" centerpiece, and the Aggies need young contributors like sophomore guard Admon Gilder (7.0 ppg) and sophomore forward DJ Hogg (6.2 ppg) to emerge as stalwart starters. And there are two top-60 recruits in the fold: forward Robert Williams and point guard J.J. Caldwell. The program has forward momentum and upward mobility. Whether it has a chance to surpass Kentucky this year is another matter.
Notable newcomer: Bam Adebayo, Kentucky
Kentucky posted the nation’s second-best adjusted defensive efficiency in 2014–15 (86.5), in large part because it had big men like Willie Cauley-Stein who were extremely effective on that end. The Wildcats fell to 53rd in the defensive efficiency rankings last season and exited in the NCAA tournament Round of 32, in large part because it fielded big men that were ineffective or inconsistent or borderline anonymous. So of the new fleet of top-notch recruits to arrive in Lexington, perhaps none have as significant an opportunity to chart the course of the 2016–17 season as Adebayo, who is expected to bring an unremitting physicality to the Wildcats after averaging 18.9 points and 13 rebounds as a high school senior. Adebayo doesn’t need to be a preternaturally effective defender as much as he simply needs to keep opponents honest, and maybe then some, by banging in the post and attacking the glass. Do that, and Kentucky might find what it was missing a year ago.
Notable departure: Malik Newman, Mississippi State
Newman was a top-10 recruit who signed with the Bulldogs as the cornerstone to a rebuild for Ben Howland. Now Malik Newman is a transfer guard at Kansas, sitting out the 2016–17 season after that landmark year in Starkville never quite came to be. (He averaged 11.3 points per game and shot 39.1% from the floor.) It’s not that Mississippi State, under Howland, was the league’s lone hope of unseating or at least unsettling Kentucky. But if teams in the SEC are going to ascend to the top, they can’t afford to win a grueling recruiting battle only to see the fruits of that labor vanish in a year. Who knows what might have happened if Newman had stayed and been backstopped by the five top-100 recruits Howland landed in the Class of 2016.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide ranked 170th nationally in offensive efficiency and lost their most efficient scorer in Retin Obasohan (17.6 ppg, 47.1% FG). With one double-digit scorer returning (Shannon Hale, 10.8 ppg), we’ll see how much JUCO transfer Ar’Mond Davis or top-100 recruit Braxton Key can help.
Arkansas: Last season, the Razorbacks won one road or neutral-site game before Feb. 27, and that was against pitiful Missouri. Leading scorer and three-point ace Dusty Hannahs (43.3% from long range) is back but the incoming recruiting class is middling. So unless there’s more toughness and effectiveness away from home, there won’t be much more than another .500 season in the offing.
Auburn: Danjel Purifoy, a four-star recruit from the Class of 2015, will play this year after redshirting. Mustapha Heron, a top-25 recruit from the Class of 2016, arrives on campus. The Tigers won just five SEC games a year ago, so this is the latest phase of the Bruce Pearl project: Get something out of the prospects his energy was supposed to lure to campus.
Florida: The Gators played solid defense in Mike White’s first season (24th nationally in adjusted efficiency), so that’s a good start. And KeVaughn Allen (11.6 ppg) is a nice linchpin at the point, entering his second year. But any shot at challenging for a league title may rest on the long-awaited ascendance of former five-star recruit Devin Robinson (9.0 ppg) in his junior year.
Georgia: This was a 20-win team that shot merely 44.8% from two-point range and accordingly ranked just 229th nationally in true shooting percentage (52.6%). J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten, the top two scorers, are back. Two four-star shooting guard prospects, Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris, arrive. Can improved offense lift the Bulldogs from the league’s second tier?
Kentucky: Statistically, you couldn’t argue with how Tyler Ulis (128.8 offensive rating) and Jamal Murray (120.2) meshed in the backcourt last season. The Wildcats had the nation’s fifth most efficient offense. Can Fox and Monk—two potential lottery picks in 2017—replicate that chemistry?
LSU: Ben Simmons arrived, along with fellow five-star prospect Antonio Blakeney, but the Tigers didn’t even manage a postseason appearance. There’s no Ben Simmons walking through that door for 2016–17. So significantly improving upon a defense that was the nation’s 147th most efficient unit is probably priority No. 1.
Mississippi State: Basically, Howland is starting over after starting over. Three of the top four scorers are gone and in come those five top-100 recruits. The mission this summer is simply to get everyone on the same page.
Missouri: The four players who logged the most minutes on average are back . . . but is that experience worth anything when it helped produce a 10-win season? The recruiting class offers no apparent saviors. Kim Anderson must put together a unit that is greater than the sum of its parts, or he may be putting together a résumé next spring.
Ole Miss: Guard Stefan Moody hoisted nearly twice as many shots as the next-most prolific Rebel last year en route to 23.6 ppg. With Moody graduated, and one double-digit scorer back, Ole Miss must figure out some scoring-by-committee or slip back into the lower tier of the league.
South Carolina: Of note will be P.J. Dozier’s development. He arrived as a McDonald’s All-American and five-star recruit and promptly averaged 6.7 points on 38.1% shooting in 34 games as a freshman. With two of its four double-digit scorers graduating, a team that ranked 235th in true shooting percentage (52.5%) could use Dozier as a major producer sooner than later.
Tennessee: Rick Barnes arrived, went 15–19 and then lost three of his top four scorers, including 22.2-point-per-game guard Kevin Punter. It’s another Year 2 revamp after a Year 1 restart in the SEC, as the Volunteers welcome six three-star signees from the Class of 2016. This team needs to get better at most everything, starting with defense, where it ranked 174th nationally in adjusted efficiency.
Texas A&M: The Aggies ranked 208th nationally with 34.4% efficiency from three-point range. If they’re going to build around Davis as an offensive standout, they’re going to need one or two shooters to keep teams honest. Sophomore forward DJ Hogg (46 threes as a freshman) is a candidate.
Vanderbilt: Kevin Stallings may have beat the posse to Pittsburgh, but Bryce Drew arrives with some decent pieces to work with. One potential issue? Beyond 7' 1" Luke Kornet—who was fourth in the nation with three blocks per game but who had surgery to replace a screw in his foot in the off-season—Drew doesn’t have individual defenders as solid as the departed Damian Jones and Wade Baldwin IV to rely upon.