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SEC Men’s Basketball Preview: Kentucky Leads a Crowded Field at the Top

The Wildcats are no longer consistently ahead of the conference pack, but can they reclaim their old perch after a brutal season?

As part of Sports Illustrated’s preview of the 2021–22 men’s college basketball season, we’re breaking down each of the seven biggest conferences (AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC), plus a “best of the rest.” All will be complete with our analyst’s breakdown of each team, plus a projected order of finish drawn from SI’s master 1–358 rankings, to be revealed next week. Next up is the SEC.

The big picture

The SEC has evolved into a reliably competitive league over the past several years—obviously, it’s not just Kentucky and everyone else anymore—and this is shaping up as a fascinating campaign, with five teams holding an ostensible shot at winning the conference. John Calipari and the reloaded Wildcats won’t go 9–16 again. Nate Oats has built a stable contender at Alabama. Arkansas and Tennessee have proved they can hang, and Auburn can’t be counted out. On paper, there’s just not a lot separating the upper tier of teams. And while LSU and Florida don’t quite have the same level of talent this year, those programs have been perennially relevant.

This isn’t a league with massive star power relative to seasons past—in that respect, it’s a slightly down year for a group of teams that have become a consistent feeder of NBA talent. A highly active transfer market has reshaped the conference and college hoops at large. But there should be six or seven tournament-caliber squads here when it’s all said and done, and potentially a couple of Final Four–caliber teams.

Conference Player of the Year: Scotty Pippen Jr., Vanderbilt

It admittedly feels weird picking a player from a bottom-half team to win this award, which probably says more about the state of the league than anything else. That’s not a knock on Pippen, who was excellent last season and has his work cut out for him in helping Vandy back to relevance. But the top teams in the league should all rely largely on multiple key contributors, making this a tough race to project until we get a sense of teams’ usage patterns. Pippen is the unquestioned focal point of his team and has a leg up in that respect. I just wouldn’t go to Vegas and place my bet here anytime soon.

Newcomer of the Year: JD Davison, Alabama

Davison is a remarkable athlete and gifted passer who will see big minutes for the Crimson Tide out of the gate. Alabama brings back two high-quality, experienced guards in Jahvon Quinerly and Jaden Shackelford, and should deploy Davison alongside them, leaning on his ability to play in transition and find teammates to maximize their offensive output. The five-star recruit should be a big part of a balanced offense and should be among the top freshmen in the league, while drawing plenty of interest from NBA scouts.

Dark-horse team: Auburn

The SEC seems more wide-open than usual, and Auburn should be tangibly better than last season, with one of the biggest and most athletic rosters in the conference. Half-court scoring may be a concern, but the Tigers could be a stellar defensive team, with 7' 1" Walker Kessler transferring in from North Carolina and manning the middle. Freshman Jabari Smith—a projected top-10 draft pick—could be a difference-maker and won’t need to be a true offensive focal point to make an impact. The big question here is the backcourt play, with score-first guard K.D. Johnson joining up from Georgia, Eastern Kentucky transfer Wendell Green Jr. the projected starter and top passer on the roster and breakout candidate Allen Flanigan injured to start the season. But if this all breaks correctly, there’s enough talent for Auburn to hang with anyone.

First-team all-conference

Colin Castleton, Florida
Jahvon Quinerly, Alabama
Scotty Pippen Jr., Vanderbilt
Jaden Shackelford, Alabama
Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky

Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe dunks during the Blue-White game

SI’s predicted order of finish

1. Kentucky

A bounce-back campaign should be in store for John Calipari’s Wildcats, with seven new players supplying depth and quality that was missing last season. Four transfers—Kellan Grady, Sahvir Wheeler, Oscar Tshiebwe and CJ Fredrick should make significant contributions, making this one of the oldest teams Cal has coached in his 13 seasons in Lexington. Still, a lot of successful meshing has to happen before this team can hit its stride— freshmen TyTy Washington and Daimion Collins are x-factors—and this doesn’t seem like a year anyone will simply run away with the league. Provided the new pieces click, Kentucky has the most balanced group on paper, with enough shooting, size and playmaking to win the conference and make a run in March. But first things first.

2. Alabama

Nate Oats has turned the Tide into a nationally relevant program, and while they’ll be hard-pressed to go 16–2 in the conference again, the drop-off may not be wildly steep. There’s no replacing Herbert Jones, and it’ll be hard to repeat as a truly elite defensive team without him. Shackelford is back, but there’s less shooting on the roster sans Josh Primo and John Petty. The arrival of touted freshman Davison instantly makes Bama a more dynamic transition team, and his partnership with Quinerly—a breakout candidate in his own right—will likely determine how far this team goes. Expect Furman transfer Noah Gurley and returner Keon Ellis to make big contributions. There’s more than enough here to mount a serious challenge in the league and more personnel continuity than most.

3. Arkansas

Expect more fast-paced, frenetic play from the Razorbacks, who effectively reloaded and have been a reliably tough out the past couple of years. Moses Moody is gone, but Arkansas is expecting significant improvement from Davonte Davis and Jaylin Williams, sophomores with the ability to raise the team’s ceiling significantly. Eric Musselman went back to the transfer well and nabbed three seniors—Chris Lykes (Miami), Au’Diese Toney (Pitt) and Stanley Umude (South Dakota)—all of whom should make solid contributions alongside reigning SEC Sixth Man of the Year JD Notae. It may take some mixing and matching early on to find optimal combinations, but Arkansas has experience, depth and a shot to challenge atop the conference.

4. Tennessee

It’s not often a team that produces two first-round draft picks has a chance to be tangibly better the following season, but the Vols bring back four upperclassmen and a high-quality transfer in Justin Powell. Five-star freshman Kennedy Chandler may have to split point guard minutes with Santiago Vescovi, but the backcourt play should be steady regardless, which gives Tennessee a significant leg up—in theory. Without a true go-to half-court scorer, the Vols will have to rely on turning stops into transition opportunities, but they do have the personnel to play small and fast if they choose. Whether it’s enough to win the league is a fair question.

5. Auburn

Expect a more competitive season from the Tigers, with several key additions stabilizing the roster after Sharife Cooper and JT Thor turned pro. North Carolina transfer Kessler provides size and should be due for a big season, and five-star freshman Jabari Smith raises the group’s ceiling, though he may not be the focal point of the team. Johnson, the Georgia transfer, should take over ballhandling duties, and Flanigan could be back before conference play starts, giving Auburn plenty of firepower. This is a big, athletic team that should be able to match up with anyone.

6. Florida

Mike White has had success with transfers, and brings in Myreon Jones (Penn State) and CJ Felder (Boston College) to take over for the departed Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis. Colin Castleton came on strong at the end of last season and should be one of the better bigs in the conference. The Gators should be balanced and capable defensively, with enough shooting to hang around on most nights. Freshman wing Kowacie Reeves could play a key role.

7. LSU

The Tigers have their work cut out for them after their three leading scorers—Cam Thomas, Trendon Watford and Javonte Smart—all turned pro. Making matters worse, Illinois transfer Adam Miller will miss the season with a torn ACL. So it’s anyone’s guess what this is going to look like, with Missouri transfer Xavier Pinson’s taking over lead guard duties, Darius Days’s returning up front and little else to bank on in terms of production. Five-star freshman Efton Reid and Cincinnati transfer Tari Eason should play key roles, and Will Wade has the athletes to play his preferred up-tempo style, but this may take some time to jell.

8. Mississippi State

Ben Howland has more talent at his disposal this time around, with transfers Garrison Brooks (North Carolina), D.J. Jeffries (Memphis) and Rocket Watts (Michigan State) enhancing the group considerably. The Bulldogs struggled to score at times last season but should be excellent on the glass with Brooks and Tolu Smith up front. To make the tournament, they’ll need a proper breakout from junior Iverson Molinar, who flashed brilliance at times last season but struggled with shot selection. The lack of an established point guard on the roster is a bit concerning.

9. Ole Miss

The Rebels want to play faster this season and have new faces at every position, including McDonald’s All-American guard Daeshun Ruffin and transfers Jaemyn Brakefield (Duke), Nysier Brooks (Miami) and Tye Fagan (Georgia). Second-leading scorer Jarkel Joiner should step into a larger role on offense, but has to be much more efficient to make a difference. There’s enough here for Ole Miss to play its way back onto the tourney bubble, but it’ll have to remain a quality defensive team to do it, and Devontae Shuler and Romello White are gone.

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10. Texas A&M

Virginia Tech transfer Tyrece Radford is the key addition to a team that struggled to do much of anything well last year and lost a month of the conference schedule due to COVID-19. The Aggies saw three of their top players depart (Emanuel Miller, Jay Jay Chandler and Savion Flagg), and transfers Marcus Williams (Wyoming) and Henry Coleman (Duke) should step in (a third transfer, Jalen Johnson, tore his ACL in preseason). This should be a more balanced offensive team, but that may not be enough.

11. Vanderbilt

Pippen is a clear bright spot for Vandy, but whether he can elevate the team to the middle of the pack is a fair question. Pippen had an excellent statistical season last year, but it wasn’t enough for the Commodores to sniff .500. Minnesota transfer Liam Robbins adds size up front and could greatly enhance the defense. But it will take a serious leap from Pippen—who will draw plenty of defensive attention—to improve in the standings.

12. Missouri

Replacing four starters (and nine players total) from a team that made the tournament will be a tall task for Cuonzo Martin. All-SEC guard Dru Smith turned pro, and leading scorer Pinson switched sides to join LSU. Mizzou will have to find a way to overachieve, with just three players coming back, headlined by Kobe Brown. Four transfers and five freshmen round out the roster.

13. South Carolina

Go-to scorers Jermaine Couisnard and Keyshawn Bryant are back, but neither was particularly efficient last season, and star wing A.J. Lawson turned pro. North Texas transfer James Reese V gives Frank Martin some much-needed shooting, but this looks like an uphill battle to improve after finishing 12th in the league last year.

14. Georgia

The Bulldogs saw four starters transfer—three of them within the conference—and will go back to square one, with Virginia transfer Jabri Abdur-Rahim the most promising addition. This isn’t going to be easy.

More College Basketball Coverage:

Top Men's Breakout Candidates for 2021–22
 College Hoops Coaches on the Rise
64 Reasons to Be Excited for the CBB Season

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