SEC Preview: Who Will Rule a League Filled With Freshman Phenoms?

The SEC is home to several of the country’s top freshmen, but a handful of veteran scorers are also poised to make noise.
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Sports Illustrated’s 2017–18 preview is guided by data from our College Basketball Projection System, a collaboration between economist Dan Hanner and SI’s Chris Johnson and Jeremy Fuchs. We project teams on a player-by-player, lineup-based level and then simulate the season 10,000 times to generate our 1–351 national rankings and conference forecasts.

These are the model’s projections for the SEC, including individual awards, the teams’ order of finish and (advanced and raw) stats for the top seven players in each school’s rotation.

The Big Picture

Kentucky has been the class of the SEC more often than not since John Calipari took over in Lexington eight seasons ago, and that should hold true in 2017–18. But after an unusual amount of offseason roster turnover, it could take more time than usual for Calipari to mold all of the Wildcats’ pieces into a cohesive whole. Kentucky won’t be able to coast through SEC play. Florida, for one, is a real threat to snatch the conference title after reaching the Elite Eight last season. Alabama might have the best college guard in the 2018 NBA draft class, Collin Sexton; Missouri brings in maybe the best player, full stop, in that class in Michael Porter Jr.; and Texas A&M’s formidable frontcourt pairing of Robert Williams and Tyler Davis will overwhelm most league opponents.

Player of the Year: Michael Porter Jr., Missouri

Insofar as team success—or a lack thereof—matters in this award, Porter is a risky choice. You won’t find many scouts who don’t think Porter is a special talent, but it’s not a sure thing he’s capable of carrying the Tigers to the NCAA tournament on the heels of a putrid three-year stretch in which the program won just 27 total games under former head coach Kim Anderson. Porter could go the path of Ben Simmons (LSU) or Markelle Fultz (Washington), posting gaudy numbers in a string of increasingly frustrating losses before watching the tournament from home, only to be selected with the top pick in the draft anyway. Or he, his brother Jontay and the rest of a retooled roster could jump from last place to a top-five finish in the league table.

Newcomer of the Year: Collin Sexton, Alabama

For the sake of variety, let’s leave Porter out of this space and cede the floor to Sexton, a rapid riser on the recruiting scene who led Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League in points per game last year. Reports have mentioned Sexton in connection with an FBI investigation into corruption across college basketball (program staff member Kobie Baker resigned last month), but head coach Avery Johnson said recently that “we don’t have any eligibility concerns” right now. Assuming Sexton isn’t forced to miss any time because of the inquiry, he’s capable of roasting just about every backcourt defender he faces in this league. SI projects the Pebblebrook (Ga.) High product, the No. 6 prospect in the class of 2017 according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, as the highest scoring freshman guard in the country at 16.4 PPG.

All-Conference Team and Sixth Man

G: Collin Sexton, Alabama
G: Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky
G: KeVaughn Allen, Florida
F: Michael Porter Jr., Missouri
F: Yante Maten, Georgia
Sixth man: F Robert Williams, Texas A&M

Projected Order of Finish


The Skinny on Each Team

1. Kentucky (12–6)


A foot injury to Jarred Vanderbilt will shuffle Kentucky’s forward rotation, but with so many other players available to sop up his minutes (including fellow five-stars Kevin Knox and P.J. Washington), the Wildcats shouldn’t have too much trouble making do without him before the start of SEC play. Kentucky’s biggest flaw this season might be its lack of shooting.

2. Florida (12–6)


It didn’t take long for Florida head coach Mike White to turn his team into Kentucky’s prime challenger in the SEC. A pair of transfers—forward Egor Koulechov from Rice and guard Jalen Hudson from Virginia Tech—will supplement a solid returning group headlined by Allen, who was named first-team all-conference as a sophomore last season.

3. Alabama (11–7)


Sexton is the player to watch in Tuscaloosa this season, but he’s not the only elite recruit head coach Avery Johnson brought in. Guard John Petty, the No. 28 prospect in the class of 2017 according to the RSCI, could turn into a valuable complementary scorer. Sexton’s capacity to attract multiple defenders should create more quality looks for Petty.

4. Texas A&M (10–8)


Williams is a good bet to be taken with one of the top 10 picks in the NBA draft next summer. But before he jumps to the pros, he will team with junior Tyler Davis to form the most imposing frontcourt duo in the SEC. SI projects Williams and Davis to combine for 29 points and 17 rebounds on a per-game basis.

5. Auburn (10–8)


The biggest Auburn basketball story this season is its involvement in an FBI investigation into corruption across college basketball. (Assistant Chuck Person has been suspended without pay after the revelation of his arrest on federal bribery and fraud charges.) But unless one or more of the Tigers’ players are affected, they have a chance to receive an invitation to the tournament for the first time since 2003.

6. Missouri (9–9)


The Tigers could make this projection look silly by the start of the tourney if Porter is even more dominant than we expect in his first and probably only college season. Kassius Robertson was an important pickup for first-year Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin. The Canisius transfer’s deep shooting range will help open up driving lanes for Porter.

7. Mississippi State (9–9)


Quinndary Weatherspoon will vie with Sexton, Allen and Ole Miss’s Deandre Burnett to lead all SEC guards in scoring. His brother, Nick, the no. 26 recruit in the RSCI, probably won’t come close to matching Quinndary’s points-per-game figure, but he’s one of two Bulldogs freshmen who should get major minutes right away. The other is former four-star Abdul Ado, who redshirted last season.

8. Arkansas (9–9)


The Razorbacks put a scare into eventual national champion North Carolina in the second round of last year’s tourney before falling 72–65. They could be dangerous if they get back in the field this season. Opponents will have to figure out how to lock down three guards (Daryl Macon, Jaylen Barford, Anton Beard) whom we project to average double figures in scoring.

9. Ole Miss (8–10)


Arkansas might have three capable backcourt scorers, but Ole Miss features two guards who made the top 40 of our list of the nation’s projected top 100 points-per-game outputs: Deandre Burnett (no. 28), at 16.7, and Terence Davis (no. 39), at 16.3. The Rebels also are adding two high-impact transfers in Memphis graduate Markel Crawford and Drake’s Dominik Olejniczak.

10. Georgia (8–10)


Maten is a productive rebounder and shot-blocker and prolific foul-drawer who ranked fourth in the SEC in scoring last season. (The three players who finished ahead of him have moved on.) The Bulldogs may not receive much attention outside of when they face SEC contenders like Kentucky and Florida, but you’ll regret not watching Maten in his final college season.

11. Vanderbilt (8–10)


The Commodores’ offense will look different without center Luke Kornet spacing the floor, but second-year head coach Bryce Drew will still have one of the SEC’s most lethal three-point marksmen around in Riley LaChance, who knocked down 44.3% of his triples against conference competition last season. Junior wing Joe Toye wasn’t far behind at 41.3%, albeit on 33 fewer attempts.

12. South Carolina (8–10)


In case this projected finish didn’t make it clear, we’re not optimistic about South Carolina’s chances of making it back to the Final Four. The Gamecocks will look to Delaware transfer Kory Holden to keep their offense afloat after waving farewell to first-team All-SEC member Sindarius Thornwell, as well as starting guards Duane Notice and P.J. Dozier, this offseason.

13. Tennessee (7–11)


James Daniel III topped Division I with 27.1 points per game at Howard in 2015-16. After playing in only two contests last season because of an ankle injury, he projects as Tennessee’s go-to scoring threat on the perimeter. That said, Daniel won’t be able to manufacture offense as easily against SEC defenders as he did against the ones he faced in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

14. LSU (5–13)


New head coach Will Wade’s first season in Baton Rouge could be rough, but he did upgrade the Tigers’ roster by adding two graduate transfers, North Texas’s Jeremy Combs and Southern Utah’s Randy Onwuasor, as well as Tremont Waters, a 5'11" point guard recruit who chose the Tigers in June after getting his release from Georgetown and is ranked No. 38 in the RSCI for the class of 2017.