SEC Basketball Preview: Talent Influx Makes for a More Balanced Conference in 2020-21

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As part of Sports Illustrated's preview of the 2020–21 men's college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the six major conferences. We've done the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12, with the SEC wrapping up the series. All are complete with our analyst's breakdown of each team and a projected order of finish.

The Big Picture

The COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the NCAA tournament in March naturally overshadowed the SEC’s likely going from seven bids in 2019 to, at most, four last season. Heading into 2020–21, the league is more balanced thanks to an influx of young talent and key transfers capable of producing from Day 1.

Reliance on young talent is nothing new in the SEC, especially at the top, and the conference scored five of the top 10 slots in the SI All-America team recruiting rankings for 2020. As you might’ve guessed, Kentucky, again, has the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, and a combination of its talent, mentality and length are the reason the Wildcats will ultimately remain on top.

Conference Player of the Year: Keyontae Johnson, Florida

Johnson is the ultimate stat-sheet stuffer and, arguably, the best two-way player in the SEC. Last season, Johnson improved in virtually every category from the previous year, averaging 14 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.2 steals a game while shooting 54% from the field. After withdrawing his name from the NBA draft, Johnson will be asked to do even more with the departure of Andrew Nembhard, who transferred to Gonzaga. The Gators will need him to be a star, and Johnson is more than capable of filling the order.

Florida's Keyontae Johnson

Newcomer of the Year: BJ Boston, Kentucky

The SI All-American is 6-foot-7 with a 6’ 10” wingspan and a perimeter jump shot akin to Kevin Durant. Boston is the star of John Calipari’s No. 1 recruiting class and creates matchup problems with his skill set and unrelenting motor. Last year, Boston played on a star-studded high school team at Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth, Calif.), yet remained the team’s brightest star, averaging 21.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.1 steals a game. He’ll thrive in Calipari’s up-tempo dribble-drive offense and benefit from having another likely NBA lottery pick (Terrence Clarke) on the other wing.

Dark Horse to Win the Conference: Auburn

Yes, the Tigers lost all five of their starters from last year’s squad, which finished second in the SEC, but Bruce Pearl has Sharife Cooper, the jewel of his 2020 recruiting haul. Cooper was, arguably, the top point guard in the 2020 class and has a long history of dominating in all facets of the game, including making his teammates better. People tend to forget that Cooper was arguably the top player in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League, the most grueling summer circuit in the country, for two years straight. His playmaking and scoring ability will bode well for the young, talented pieces Pearl has in the stable.

First-Team All-SEC

Keyontae Johnson, Jr., Florida
John Fulkerson, Sr., Tennessee
BJ Boston, Fr., Kentucky
Trendon Watford, So., LSU
Javonte Smart, Jr., LSU
Sixth Man: John Petty Jr., Alabama

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Kentucky

Yes, the Wildcats lost a lot, and no, that isn’t anything new. The Wildcats reloaded with the top recruiting class in the SI All-America team rankings, headlined by what could potentially be the best wing combination in college basketball in Boston and Clarke, both of whom are projected NBA lottery picks following the season. Both are deadly scorers with length and size who bring the same intensity on the defensive end. That could spell doom for opposing backcourts and should ignite a ferocious defensive squad for Calipari. In the paint, Kentucky boasts arguably the top transfer of the spring in Olivier Sarr, paired with all-everything big Isaiah Jackson and a combination of Davion Mintz and Devin Askew at the point is more than capable. Add in depth and length on the bench and the Wildcats are primed to win the league for the fifth time in the last seven years.

2. Tennessee

Rick Barnes has it all: Four of his top five scorers back, the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year (Yves Pons) and a top-three recruiting class, consisting of point guard Jaden Springer, who won a national title at IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.), and Keon Johnson, one of the top scorers in the 2020 class. Add in, arguably, the top power forward in the SEC in John Fulkerson and the Vols have more than enough to push the Wildcats at the top.

3. LSU

The Tigers boast one of the most talented rosters in the SEC, and with double-figure scorers like Smart running the show and Trendon Watford and Darius Days back, LSU is more than capable of challenging for the league crown this season. Will Wade managed to reel in a top-10 recruiting class, headlined by lethal scoring guard Cameron Thomas. Also, the Tigers got three key transfers—Shareef O’Neal (UCLA), Bryan Penn-Johnson (Washington) and Josh LeBlanc (Georgetown)—who are capable of producing immediately.

4. Florida

Johnson is the engine for the Gators, pumping in 14 points a game last season while shooting 54% from the field. The Gators have capable talent and leadership surrounding him this season and that should make all the difference. Mike White will look to junior transfers Tyree Appleby and Anthony Duriji to help Johnson lead, and Scottie Lewis could be on the brink of a breakout season. Nembhard transferring to Gonzaga will give Tre Mann the keys to the show, and Noah Locke will also have an expanded role for the talented Gators.

5. Arkansas

It’s never a good thing to lose six of your top seven scorers from a team that finished 20–12 the previous season, but the Razorbacks’ combination of key transfers and a top-10 recruiting class should be able to compete in the SEC this season. Justin Smith averaged 10.4 points and 5.5 rebounds a game last season at Indiana and Vance Jackson had multiple 20-point games at New Mexico last season. They join Desi Sills, who proved his worth last season when Isaiah Joe was sidelined with an injury, and freshman sharpshooter Moses Moody.

6. Alabama

The Crimson Tide return one of the best duos in the country in John Petty Jr. and Jaden Shackelford, and Jahvon Quinerly, a former five-star recruit, is eligible after sitting out last season. That should help ease the loss of Kira Lewis, who was a lottery pick in the 2020 NBA draft. Also, Yale grad transfer Jordan Bruner will be a key addition after pumping in 10.9 points and 9.2 rebounds last season. The biggest question for Alabama is: Will it stop anyone from scoring? Last season, the Tide allowed a cringe-worthy 79 points a game.

7. South Carolina

Frank Martin returns a core of capable players, highlighted by A.J. Lawson, who averaged 13.4 points and 3.7 rebounds per game last season. Lawson is one of three top scorers who are returning, including Jermaine Couisnard, who scored 12.1 points a game as a freshman. Also, after not living up to the hype at North Carolina, transfer Seventh Woods is back home and eligible this season.

8. Auburn

The Tigers lost a lot, there’s no way around it; all five starters, including NBA lottery pick Isaac Okoro, are gone. The bright side for Bruce Pearl is that playmaker extraordinaire Cooper will be running the show. Cooper has a long history of dominating and winning against elite competition when he’s given the keys. He’ll have help from a trio of sophomores in Jaylin Franklin, Devan Cambridge and Allen Flanigan, and fellow freshman stars like J.T. Thor to feed the ball to. When Cooper and Co. find their chemistry, they’ll be capable of more than just making noise.

9. Texas A&M

SEC Coach of the Year Buzz Williams is back with a solid stable of players who could overachieve this season. Senior Savion Flagg has averaged double figures for two straight seasons and will have his most important role this season. The Aggies will need early contributions from freshman scoring guard Jaxson Robinson and point guard Hassan Diarra plus grad-transfer Kevin Marfo, who led the country in rebounding last season (14 per game) at Quinnipiac. The Aggies have the pieces to make a run in the SEC.

10. Ole Miss

The Rebels started strong last season but took a steep dropoff to finish things out. The good news? They return four of their top six scorers, including double-figure scorers Devontae Shuler and K.J. Buffen. Grad transfers Romello White and Dimencio Vaughn will be ready to produce from Day 1. Vaughn averaged 14.8 points at Rider and White snagged 8.8 rebounds at Arizona State last season. Kermit Davis has his work cut out for him as he tries to achieve balance and consistency.

11. Missouri

The best news for the Tigers is that they’re finally healthy, which means Mark Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon are back and ready to roll. That’s great news for Cuonzo Martin’s crew, which returns 88% of its scoring from last season. Martin has a stable full of experience and a capable grad transfer in Drew Bugg—all ingredients for an overachieving team.

12. Georgia

Hard not to start with the obvious here, but No. 1 NBA draft pick Anthony Edwards is gone, as are four of the team’s top six scorers. Now, Tom Crean will rely heavily on Sahvir Wheeler, Tye Fagan, Christian Brown and Jaykwon Walton, plus a whopping eight new players on the roster. Virginia Tech transfer P.J. Horne will need to produce immediately, but with no one over 6-foot-9 on the roster, all signs point to an uphill battle for the Dawgs this season.

13. Mississippi State

Ben Howland is down three starters, including Co-SEC Player of the Year Reggie Perry, plus four other players have transferred from last year’s team. Now, the Bulldogs will rely heavily on a talented recruiting class headlined by elite point guard Deivon Smith, as well as transfers Jalen Johnson and Javian Davis. Chemistry could take time; the question is, how much damage can they do when they gel?

14. Vanderbilt

The Commodores have only three league wins in the last two seasons, and with Aaron Nesmith and Saben Lee gone, Jerry Stackhouse will need talented transfers D.J. Harvey and Isaac McBride to put up points right away. Scotty Pippen, Jr. and Maxwell Evans are capable leaders that will have to take leaps in the scoring department for the Commodores, and Dylan Disu and Clevon Brown will need to step up in the post. Lots of “ifs” that will have to lean toward coming true quickly if they want to move in a positive direction in the league this season.