As the college sports offseason rolls on, SI is checking in with the Power 5 men's basketball conferences—plus the Big East—to see where things stand ahead of the 2020–21 NCAA season.
Up next in our series is the SEC, which boasts a familiar face at the top and a series of challengers who can threaten the crown if things break right. In addition to power ranking the conference's 14 teams, we ask a series of burning questions whose answers will go a long way to shaping the SEC this
SEC Summer Power Rankings
This season will bring Kentucky’s biggest roster overhaul in years, with only Keion Brooks expected back from last year’s rotation, and six freshmen and three transfers inbound. This, of course, guarantees nothing, but the talent alone gives the Wildcats a leg up on most of the conference. Expect newcomers B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke to have the most responsibility out of the gate, before joining the one-and-done ranks. John Calipari was recently optimistic that grad transfer Olivier Sarr would be immediately eligible, which would be a huge boost to the rotation up front. In terms of talent, Kentucky sits in this top spot for now, but this may be a race that fluctuates heavily all season.
Keeping Scottie Lewis and Keyontae Johnson for another year was a major coup for Mike White, and the Gators should be able to build on last year’s 11–7 conference mark. Someone will have to step up at point guard, preferably Tre Mann, who had a slightly disappointing freshman season but should get the first crack at replacing Andrew Nembhard. Transfers Tyree Appleby and Anthony Duruji should step into the rotation, and the Gators should be sound defensively again. If a go-to scorer emerges from the group, Florida should have a real shot to win the league. To be fair, we said that last year.
A serious influx of talent should help get Tennessee move back toward the top tier of the conference, with freshmen Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer likely to bolster the Vols on both ends of the floor. Josiah Jordan-James, Santiago Vescovi and John Fulkerson return, and grad transfer E.J. Anosike averaged a double double for Sacred Heart last season. Rick Barnes will have to figure out how to find time for everyone—and that’s without mentioning Yves Pons, who's still mulling turning pro. But this is a tough-minded, talented group that will be in good shape as long as it jells quickly.
The Tigers await decisions from Trendon Watford, Javonte Smart and Darius Days, all of whom are testing the draft waters. Regardless, LSU faces a tall task regrouping without do-it-all guard Skylar Mays. Freshmen Cam Thomas and Eric Gaines are expected to step into immediate backcourt minutes. Georgetown transfer Josh LeBlanc, UCLA transfer Shareef O’Neal and freshman Mwani Wilkinson should form one of the more athletic frontcourts in the conference. Still, the lack of a creative playmaker on the roster poses a challenge. There’s certainly enough talent to make it work, and getting one or two more players back should help stabilize this situation.
Leading scorer Mason Jones is turning pro, and Isaiah Joe is still mulling, but the Razorbacks should be in pretty good shape with or without him. Eric Musselman has had success with a transfer-heavy approach in the past and adds six of them, including Northern Kentucky grad transfer Jalen Tate, who was one of the better players in the Horizon League. If Joe returns, he’ll join blue-chip freshman Moses Moody to give Arkansas a dangerous pair of perimeter shooters. This is a team that emphasizes tempo and forcing turnovers, and it'll have the depth and talent to play Musselman’s style and bounce back in a major way.
There’s no replacing Kira Lewis, but after an uneven year, Nate Oats brings in a solid recruiting class led by guard Joshua Primo and forwards Alex Tchikou and Keon Ambrose-Hilton, plus Yale grad transfer Jordan Bruner. The Tide still awaits a final decision from John Petty, and if he returns, he’ll form one of the better shooting duos in the conference with sophomore Jaden Shackelford. And we’ll finally see whether or not Villanova transfer Jahvon Quinerly is the answer at point guard. A lot may hinge on how ready the freshmen are to contribute, but improving on an 8–10 mark should be doable.
This is where the conference starts to flatten out a bit, with very little separating these mid-tier teams on paper. Frank Martin seems to find ways to eke out wins every year, and nearly everyone should return from a team that managed a 10–8 conference record, primarily by beating up on the bottom half of the league. A.J. Lawson is still mulling entering the draft and starting center Maik Kotsar departs, but Jermaine Couisnard and Keyshawn Bryant have shown productive flashes, and the Gamecocks have finished Top 50 in defensive efficiency (per KenPom data) in all but one of Frank Martin’s seasons at the helm.
Expect Ole Miss to be sound defensively again, led by senior point guard Devontae Shuler and shot-blocker Khadim Sy. It will have to figure out how to replace top scorer Breein Tyree, but grad transfers Romello White (Arizona State) and Dimencio Vaughn (Rider) should help the cause. Expect improvement on last season’s 6–12 mark.
After the departure of their top six players—five seniors and projected lottery pick Isaac Okoro—the Tigers have plenty of work to do. Incoming freshmen Sharife Cooper and JT Thor should play big roles immediately, and this will be another athletic team capable of grinding out games. Cooper in particular will shoulder a major workload at point guard, with enough creative ability to compensate for his size and help win games. But he may need to turn in some virtuosic performances to prevent Auburn from falling into the middle of the pack.
Cuonzo Martin should have continuity working in his favor, with an experienced backcourt, headlined by Xavier Pinson and Dru Smith. How much that matters will hinge on major offensive improvement from a team that shot just 48.7% on twos and 29.7% on threes. The Tigers also desperately need better production from their bigs.
11. Texas A&M
The Aggies pleasantly overachieved in Buzz Williams’s first year at the helm, but this group is still a ways off. A solid recruiting class including Top-100 prospects Hassan Diarra and Jaxson Robinson comes in, and Savion Flagg leads the returners.
Ben Howland will have to reinvent this team after losing Reggie Perry and Robert Woodard to the pros, and brings in five freshmen, led by promising point guard Deivon Smith. Will it be enough to reprise a top-half finish? Unlikely.
Anthony Edwards, Rayshaun Hammonds and three senior guards are gone, which means Georgia returns to square one. There’s talent on the roster, including sophomores Sahvir Wheeler and Toumani Camara, but Tom Crean will have to work some magic to get out of the basement this season.
Losing not only Aaron Nesmith, but also Saben Lee to the pros poses a major hurdle for Vandy to gain traction this season. Notre Dame transfer D.J. Harvey is eligible and Dylan Disu showed flashes last season, but this situation, per usual, requires patience.
Is there an elite team in this conference?
Kentucky and Florida form a clear-cut top-two at this point in time, and it’s far too early to say anything conclusive, but neither team completely sparks your fancy as a full-blown title contender on paper. Kentucky rolls out a brand-new team and Florida will be banking on player development after the fortuitous returns of Keyontae Johnson and Scottie Lewis. It’s important to note that if the start to the season is delayed as COVID-19 continues to impact the return of sports, there may actually be added valuable development time if players are able to remain on campus. Conversely, teams’ capacity to practice together could be impacted negatively. There’s too much we don’t know. But this could be a weird year for SEC basketball on whole.
Do Kentucky’s pieces fit?
John Calipari reeled in yet another big-time recruiting class, but it’s been a while since he dealt with this type of roster turnover, and his two most promising freshmen—B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke—are both scorers used to having the ball in their hands. Much was made of adding grad transfers Davion Mintz and Olivier Sarr, but it’s not like either player was dominant at his previous stop, and both have more to prove. If Devin Askew hits the ground running, his playmaking could do a lot for this group. The other freshmen—Isaiah Jackson, Lance Ware and Cam’Ron Fletcher—are further off from making serious contributions. At a glance, it’s unclear what this will look like, beyond Boston and Clarke taking turns hoisting jumpers. But it’s also hard to see this group totally falling flat.
Can Tennessee make a leap?
There’s a real case for the Vols as a sneaky SEC contender, particularly if the aforementioned Yves Pons returns. Tennessee dealt with the departures of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield and managed a 9–9 mark in conference play last season. Santiago Vescovi and John Fulkerson should be entrenched in the lineup. Keon Johnson could immediately be the best perimeter defender in the conference, and Jaden Springer will help with shot-creation. Josiah-Jordan James has breakout potential. But, like the rest of the conference, there’s a lot of meshing that has to take place first.
Who’s leaving for the NBA?
A handful of key players are still undecided as the Aug. 3 NCAA deadline approaches, most notably Isaiah Joe (Arkansas), John Petty (Alabama), Pons (Tennessee) and the LSU trio of Trendon Watford, Darius Days and Javonte Smart. All those players would ostensibly be difference-makers for their respective teams, and all four of those teams have tournament hopes and are in line for a top-half finish. We’ll have a better feel for what the conference really looks like a week from now.
Is this a six-team league?
It’s hard to pick out a team with real sleeper potential beyond the top six, with apologies to Auburn, which has earned the benefit of the doubt, but is also facing arguably the most difficult retooling job in the conference. South Carolina and Ole Miss figure to border on relevance. But most of the league feels interchangeable at this point, which leaves opportunity, but also could point to some general mediocrity. And if this ends up being a shortened, conference-only season, résumé building as a bubble-type team might pose a challenge.