SEC Preview: Kentucky, Florida Look to Be Class of the Conference

The Wildcats and Gators should hold a fascinating battle for the conference crown, but don't count out the rest of the SEC making noise.
Author:
Publish date:
Kentucky basketball Florida SEC preview 2019-20

As part of SI.com's preview of the 2019–20 college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the seven major conferences, plus the best of the rest. We've done the AAC, ACC, Big EastBig 12 and Big Ten; next up for our conference previews is the SEC, complete with our analyst's breakdowns of each team and a projected order of finish.

The Big Picture

The only thing you really need to know about the SEC this season is that it’s probably coming down to Kentucky and Florida. Armed with blue-chip freshmen and returning talent, the Wildcats and Gators are well-positioned to run the conference in some order and enter March with a shot at the title; there’s nobody else here you can say that about. This can be as simple as betting on a John Calipari-recruited team to figure out how to win, or envisioning Florida as the best defensive group anywhere, leaning on potentially the nation’s top big man in Kerry Blackshear. Both those scenarios make sense, and they aren’t mutually exclusive, either. They play each other twice, including on the final day of the conference slate. The results should be entertaining.

Beyond that, this could be a bloodbath. LSU, Tennessee and Auburn lost their best players to the NBA. Alabama and Arkansas have new coaches. Any of those teams could roll to a top-four finish, and the gap likely won’t be wide. Ole Miss can build on last season’s surprising results, and Georgia brings in arguably the country’s top recruit in Anthony Edwards. As far as making the tournament is concerned, all those teams have arguments. The fact it’s a down year for the conference overall from a talent perspective places even more of a premium on coaching and continuity. It won’t be a shock to see seven SEC teams in the tournament again.

Conference POY: Kerry Blackshear, Florida

Blackshear arrives from Virginia Tech as the potential answer to all that plagued the Gators last season. Mike White’s group played staunch defense and employed a plodding style to augment its strengths, but fell to Michigan in the second round of the tournament, with the offense running dry. Florida can afford to think bigger this season, and that’s because it should be able to play through Blackshear in the halfcourt. His ability to score in the paint, step outside the arc and pass out of the post should make everyone around him better. A big year is likely in store.

Co-Newcomers of the Year: Tyrese Maxey, Kentucky and Anthony Edwards, Georgia

Anthony Edwards is the SEC’s most gifted freshman, blessed with an NBA-type build and high-end athleticism, and seemingly certain to put up big numbers at Georgia, although it may not translate to winning right away. If it does, and the Bulldogs can force their way into the tournament picture, his brief stay in college should be must-watch. It’s Maxey who could end up being the conference’s most impactful recruit—he’s expected to play a big role for Kentucky as an offensive-oriented complement to Ashton Hagans and someone who can create his own shot when it counts. Maxey’s polished scoring package should put him among the top players in the conference from day one, and he’ll be crucial to UK’s title chances.

Darkhorse Team: Arkansas

Eric Musselman is no stranger to quick turnarounds, and the Razorbacks bring back a good deal of talent that’s well-suited to how he’ll want to play. Despite the loss of Daniel Gafford, Arkansas should be able to push the tempo and put up a ton of points, starting with its potential breakout star Isaiah Joe. If they prove they can defend at a pace to match the way they’ll want to score the ball, they should be able to outperform projections and put together a top-half finish. Beyond the top two teams, it’s really anyone’s guess how this goes.

First-Team All-Conference

Kerry Blackshear, forward, Florida
Ashton Hagans, guard, Kentucky
Anthony Edwards, guard, Georgia
Isaiah Joe, guard, Arkansas
Reggie Perry, forward, Mississippi State
Sixth Man: Tyrese Maxey, guard, Kentucky

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH

1. Kentucky

This is not the sexiest Kentucky team of John Calipari’s tenure, but with a nice blend of firepower, experience and depth, the Wildcats are well-positioned to pace the conference. Ashton Hagans returns to run the show, freshmen Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney could lead the team in scoring, and there’s also potent outside shooting thanks to grad transfer Nate Sestina and freshman Johnny Juzang. If there’s a hole, it’s going to be interior play, with neither E.J. Montgomery nor Nick Richards inspiring a ton of confidence. But if Kentucky can adequately protect the basket and rebound well enough to get into transition, this should be a team that can beat you several different ways. There are always ups and downs with Calipari teams, but there’s a lot to like about the makeup of this group on paper.

2. Florida

Perhaps the most talented Gators team in recent memory has earned itself some real expectations. Mike White has recruited exceptionally well, successfully landing Kerry Blackshear to anchor the team and with two gifted freshmen in Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann. Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson each had strong freshman seasons, and should continue as above-average contributors in their roles. Depth isn’t necessarily a strength here, but Florida should benefit from the influx of talent—there ought to be less reliance on the grind-it-out approach it took last season, and more opportunities to outscore people. If Lewis and Mann hit the ground running, the Gators will push Kentucky for the top spot, and should remain relevant near the top of the national rankings all season.

3. Auburn

Over the past couple years, Auburn has consistently been greater than the sum of its parts, and with five seniors returning to the rotation, that shouldn’t change much. Jared Harper and Bryce Brown are gone, but J’Von McCormick played well off the bench last season and will be asked to help carry that load, along with Samir Doughty. This could be a stellar defensive team, with Austin Wiley and underrated Anfernee McLemore up front and freshman Isaac Okoro expected to provide a big boost on that side of the ball. Bruce Pearl generally finds ways to make things work, and this is a group that knows how to win games. Don’t bank on a Final Four return, but don’t rule Auburn out.

4. LSU

The Tigers bring back significantly more than most people expected six months ago or so, starting with head coach Will Wade and Javonte Smart, who seem to have escaped the NCAA’s clutches. But the loss of Tremont Waters, who was the primary constant behind last season’s success, could end up hamstringing this group when it comes to halfcourt offense. Whether it’s increasing the tempo or by mucking up games, Wade will have to find ways to make his team’s athleticism work for him, with Smart, Emmitt Williams, Marlon Taylor and Darius Days all of use. They’ll need top freshman Trendon Watford to generate offense up front, and senior guard Skylar Mays to step up and lead in the backcourt. Don’t expect LSU to win the conference again, but the drop-off may not be all that steep.

5. Alabama

The arrival of sought-after coach Nate Oats should offer the Crimson Tide a boost, with the team’s success ultimately tied to the development of speedy sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr. Alabama struggled to keep up offensively last season, with difficulty manufacturing easy looks leading to an inefficient year on whole. A fresh approach should benefit this group, with Lewis and junior John Petty (a much better three-point shooter than his 34% clip indicates) capable of becoming one of the conference’s better duos, and grad transfer Beetle Bolden adding value at guard. Donta Hall’s graduation leaves a critical hole at center, and Oats will need workmanlike play from Alex Reese and Galin Smith on the glass to bridge that gap on a team that otherwise struggled on the glass. Weighing upside and attrition, this group offers perhaps the widest variety of outcomes of anyone in the conference.

6. Tennessee

There’s no replacing the trio of Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone, who defined the Vols’ attitude and enjoyed extreme success the past two years. Senior guards Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden will be asked to pick up the slack and ease the transition. Freshman Josiah-Jordan James helps bridge the talent gap, and if his size, speed and playmaking ability prove to be difference-making, there’s a chance for Tennessee to remain stable. But there are still a lot of question marks with this rotation, particularly up front, where they were often reliant on playing through Williams in lieu of an workhorse perimeter shot-creator. Rick Barnes will ensure this team isn’t an easy out, but it’s hard not to expect some regression.

7. Arkansas

Eric Musselman inherits a team well-equipped to play his preferred, fast-paced style, beginning with sharpshooter Isaiah Joe, who should finish among the SEC’s leading scorers. As a true freshman, Joe shot 41% from distance while attempting eight treys per game, a remarkable mix of volume and consistency that should be further weaponized this season. Mason Jones, Jalen Harris and SMU transfer Jimmy Whitt can all get up and down the floor. If the Razorbacks can make up for their lack of height with group rebounding, consistent defense and strong transition play, there’s room for immediate improvement.

8. Ole Miss

Kermit Davis’s arrival helped trigger a quick turnaround, leading to an eight-win improvement nobody expected coming into last season. Although Terence Davis is off to the pros, the athletic backcourt duo of Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler returns, enabling the Rebels to apply perimeter pressure and force turnovers. But they’ll need real growth from several underclassmen, including Blake Hinson, who had some flashes but was highly inconsistent as a freshman. Expecting them to finish above .500 in the conference again might be a stretch, but this group should be able to stay competitive on a nightly basis.

9. Georgia

How well Anthony Edwards acclimates to the college game will ultimately dictate where Georgia finishes—expect him to put up impressive counting stats, but those numbers may not necessarily translate to winning basketball right away. Edwards will have the ball in his hands a lot, but there’s a chance he struggles with efficiency, at least out of the gate. Having an experienced guard next to him in Tyree Crump should help. Rayshaun Hammonds made real progress last season and gives the Bulldogs a third quality scorer. But the lack of depth and size up front and overall reliance on underclassmen poses real questions. If Edwards hits the ground running, this could be a tournament team. Regardless, it’s fair to expect more than just two SEC wins.

10. Missouri

Despite a trying season and 5-13 conference mark, Missouri was defensively sound last season (while playing an especially slow brand of basketball, to be fair), and looks clearly positioned for some improvement. Most of the team returns, including junior Jeremiah Tilmon, and Evansville transfer Dru Smith should be a key reinforcement as Cuonzo Martin leans on guard-heavy lineups. The Tigers draw a friendly conference schedule and will face Kentucky and Florida just once each. There’s a real chance they return to the middle of the pack if things break correctly.

11. Mississippi State

Reggie Perry should be one of the most productive players in the country, and gives this group a nice interior backbone. He’ll be counted on to carry the team most nights, the departures of quality guards Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters leaving them without a proven point guard. The onus falls on Tyson Carter and Nick Weatherspoon (who will miss the first 10 games due to suspension) to make it work in their stead. The progression of athletic forward Robert Woodard looks like a swing factor here. But the lack of consistent shot creation could become an issue.

12. South Carolina

Although the Gamecocks get back sophomore A.J. Lawson, who’s played his way onto the NBA radar, there’s just not a lot else to work with on the roster, and Frank Martin has his work cut out for him. South Carolina graduates its most valuable player in Chris Silva as well as stalwart Hassani Gravett, and will rely on several returning underclassmen to fill the void. Expect this group to be solid defensively once again, but someone will have to step up at point guard for it to find collective success. If Lawson can put together a real breakout season, his team could finish higher than expected, but asking them to win 11 games in the conference again is a step too far.

13. Texas A&M

As Buzz Williams steps in to begin what could be a real overhaul, he’ll inherit the majority of last season’s rotation, led by junior forward Savion Flagg, who came on down the stretch last season and should again be productive. The question might be whether bringing back all the parts from a team that went 6-12 in the conference is a good thing. T.J. Starks has been chronically inefficient, and Jay Jay Chandler has had consistency issues as well; expect freshmen Cashius McNeilly and Emanuel Miller (who followed Williams from Virginia Tech after originally committing to the Hokies) to see playing time. Williams’s arrival could be the fresh start the Aggies need, but it’s more likely they take a season or two to return to the picture nationally.

14. Vanderbilt

In theory, things can only improve as Jerry Stackhouse begins to rebuild a battered program. Vandy going winless within the conference was improbable (unfortunately, that happened), and mathematically even more so the second time around. That’s not to say they’re ready to dig out of the basement, but progress needs to be measured reasonably here. There are high hopes for sophomore Aaron Nesmith, and if junior Saben Lee can rein in the turnovers, he should be able to better stabilize this group. Still, it feels like this could be another long season.