As is well known around the southeast by now, the SEC is back to being a major factor in the world of college basketball. After a pathetic start to the decade, the conference ended up closing out the 2010s with a number of strong programs that really made their mark on the college hoops landscape. Now, as we head into the next decade of collegiate athletics, the SEC looks to challenge the ACC and Big Ten as the premier league in college basketball.
Looking ahead to the 2020 season specifically, the conference appears to be as deep as it has ever been. While only Kentucky and Florida seem capable of making a run to the Final Four, it is damn near impossible to rank teams 3-12 in the conference, as one could make a legitimate argument for each one of them to make the NCAA Tournament come March. With that said, let’s get straight to it:
- Kentucky Wildcats Projected Record: 24-7 (13-5 SEC) - Everybody knows the drill by now. Once again, John Calipari will take the few leftovers from last season and piece them together with an influx of incredible talent from this year’s crop of five-star freshman to create one of the best teams in college basketball. Point guard Ashton Hagans is the lone returning start for the Wildcats, which is honestly the best position to have a returning guy. It helps that Hagans is a candidate for All-SEC honors. Immanuel Quickley, E.J. Montgomery, and rare upperclassman Nick Richards join Hagans in returning production, as they will each look to blossom from role players into stars for the ‘Cats. If they aren’t able to, Calipari will simply turn to any one of his five blue-chip freshman (guard Tyrese Maxey or wings Keion Brooks, Kahlil Whitney, Johnny Juzang, or Dontaie Allen) to lead the way. The post was looking like (for once) Cal’s biggest area of concern this season, so he went out and got graduate transfer Nate Sestina, who averaged 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds for Bucknell as one of the best mid-major bigs in the country last season. Same song, different verse in Lexington.
- Florida Gators Projected Record: 25-6 (13-5 SEC) - While Kentucky will once again have the most raw talent in the conference, the Gators will actually have the best roster. Mike White’s squad returns a trio of impressive sophomores in Noah Locke, Andrew Nembhard, and Keyontae Johnson, as well as post players Dontay Bassett and Gorjok Gak. But the main reason for the lofty expectations (consensus top-ten preseason) set on the Gators this season is the addition of three newcomers. With graduate transfers all the rage in college athletics now, Florida grabbed the biggest one of the off-season, as they landed senior big Kerry Blackshear from Virginia Tech. Blackshear was a stud for the Hokies for years, and was even named SEC Preseason Player of the Year by the media. Additionally, the Gators are bringing in a pair of five-stars that rivals any in the country in guards Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann. Mike White’s teams always defend the hell out of the basketball; they always seem to take the next step whenever they get a dominant big and a couple of shot-makers (see the 2017 Elite Eight run). Well, he’s got just the right ingredients this year for a deep run come March.
- LSU Tigers Projected Record: 21-10 (12-6 SEC) - There was a time, early in the off-season, where I was fully expecting to predict a first-to-worst type of season for the Bayou Bengals this year. Then, somehow, Will Wade got his job back, their star point forward who was caught up in the NCAA investigation into Wade got his eligibility back, senior guard Skylar Mays decided to return for a final season, and five-star Trendon Watford spurned the Tide for LSU. Wade then went the JUCO route to make-up for a recruiting class that had completely fallen apart after his suspension to fill out the rest of the roster, and just like that, the Tigers will be heading into the season with a stacked team again. Missouri is going to get the hammer from the NCAA for the team LSU will field this season. That being said, you don’t just lose guys like Tremont Waters, Naz Reid, and Kavell Bigby-Williams without a drop-off, so don’t expect a repeat SEC title from the best squad Baton Rouge can buy.
- Alabama Crimson Tide Projected Record : 20-11 (11-7 SEC) - That’s right, I’m calling my shot now: Alabama will be grabbing a double-bye in the SEC Tournament come March. A tough non-conference slate will get the Tide ready for the brutal conference season. However, Alabama did get a fortunate draw in SEC scheduling, and Nate Oats will have this team humming come February. I’m expecting All-SEC honors from Kira Lewis, huge progression from Alex Reese and Herbert Jones, a more consistent John Petty, and a nice lift off of the bench from the likes of Beetle Bolden and Jaden Shackelford. If you are looking into lodging for the SEC Tournament in Nashville, don’t worry about finding a place to stay until Friday night.
- Auburn Tigers Projected Record: 22-9 (10-8 SEC) - Typically, when a non-traditional power loses guys like Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, and Chuma Okeke, guys who will all go down as Auburn legends, the fall-off is steep. However, despite the loss of those key play-makers, Auburn will actually be one of the few teams in college basketball who will be starting five seniors this season. J’von McCormick, Samir Doughty, Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore, and Austin Wiley were all contributors to the Tiger’s first-ever Final Four team a year ago, so they’ve got plenty of good experience. On top of that, Bruce Pearl has always been known as a recruiter, and now that he’s got two seasons of strong showings at Auburn to show for it, the talent is, unfortunately, starting to roll in. Expect guys like Isaac Okoro and Jaylin Williams to be taking time from those seniors sooner rather than later, as Auburn will likely be dancing again in March.
- Tennessee Volunteers Projected Record: 16-15 (9-9 SEC) - Much like Auburn, Tennessee also lost a ton from the core that has made up the past few seasons’ worth of success that the Vols have experienced. Unlike Auburn though, Rick Barnes doesn’t recruit at the kind of level Pearl does, and Tennessee lost arguably even more than Auburn did. Four of five starters, including two-time SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams are gone, and the Vols have a brutal schedule, both in conference and outside of it. Senior guards Lamonte Turner and Jorden Bowden were as good as it gets as the sixth and seventh options on the team, but they will now be counted on to be the go-to guys, along with five-star freshman Josiah-Jordan James. Tennessee will go from having one of the strongest front-courts in America to an almost non-existent one, with only one post player on the roster with any kind of experience in 6’9 John Fulkerson, who averaged 3.1 PPG last season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see thi-s team end up even further down the standings, but Barnes is a great coach, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt in what should be a transitional rebuilding year.
South Carolina Projected Record: 17-13 (9-9 SEC) - The Gamecocks lost one of the best players to ever don a South Carolina uniform in Chris Silva, but Frank Martin’s squads typically are perfectly fine in the post as long as they have physical players with good size like Maik Kotsar scratching and clawing in the paint. That is almost a guarantee when you
get into a bar fighttake the court against one of his teams. Really, the element that takes a Frank Martin-coached team to the next level is having a couple of guards who can create shots consistently, as that’s the one area of his coaching style that really struggles. Well, we know they have one guy in A.J. Lawson, who actually put up better numbers than Kira Lewis as a freshman last season. Proven players Justin Minaya and T.J. Moss both return to the team after missing most of the season with injuries last year, and wing Keyshawn looks to make a big leap this year. The Gamecocks are never pretty, but I’d be stunned to see them much further down the standings than this.
- Ole Miss Rebels Projected Record: 19-12 (9-9 SEC) - 2019 SEC Coach of the Year, Kermit Davis, will try to top his impressive debut with another return to the NCAA Tournament this season. The Rebels lost both of their post players on a team that was already severely undersized, but the guard and wing play for the Rebs should be among the best in the conference. Senior guard Breein Tyree was 3rd in the SEC in scoring a year ago, and with former back-court mate Terence Davis gone, Tyree could be in for an even bigger year this season. Devontae Shuler returns at the point after taking a huge step forward last season under Davis’ guidance, and a pair of strong wings in Blake Hinson and K.J. Buffen return for their sophomore seasons. They may be counted on to provide some sort of presence in the post, but JUCO transfer (by way of Virginia Tech), Khadim Sy will also chip in on that front. The lack of much of anything in the post will hold this team back, but doubt Kermit at your own risk, because that guy can coach.
- Arkansas Razorbacks Projected Record: 20-11 (8-10 SEC) - New Arkansas head coach, Eric Musselman, wasn’t exactly left with a bare cupboard in Fayetteville. Although stud big Daniel Gafford is now in the NBA, the next six leading scorers all return for the Hogs this season. Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones could be the next version of Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon in Fayetteville, and Musselman, as he was known to do successfully at Nevada, brought in three significant transfers in Jimmy Whitt (who actually started his career at Arkansas before transferring to SMU), Jeantal Cylla, and Emeka Obukwelu. The Razorbacks aren’t getting a ton of love right now, but I expect them to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid this year; they are going to be dangerous.
- Georgia Bulldogs Projected Record: 17-14 (8-10 SEC) - Year One didn’t go so well for new head coach Tom Crean, so he did a complete overhaul of his roster, bringing in a rare top 10 recruiting class to Athens. The class is highlighted by projected top-5 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, Anthony Edwards. The 6’6 guard can do it all, and will probably end up contending for SEC Player of the Year before it is all said and done. The Dawgs also return a trio of productive players in Rayshaun Hammonds, Jordan Harris, and Tyree Crump. Hammonds is a very good wing who can play in the paint if needed, and Harris and Crump are capable guards. With Edwards and the rest of that coveted class in toe, this team has a much higher ceiling than most in the crowded middle of the SEC, but can they reach it?
- Mississippi State Bulldogs Projected Record: 17-14 (8-10 SEC) - Most prognosticators have Mississippi State near the top of the SEC and returning to the NCAA Tournament this season, but I’m just not buying it. Sure, their post pair of sophomore stud Reggie Perry and 6’11 veteran Abdul Ado are arguably tops in the league, but Ben Howland has never impressed me as an on-the-court coach. With 1st Team All-SEC and low-key Bulldog legend, Quinndary Weatherspoon, exhausting his eligibility, along with point guard Lamar Peters and stretch-four Aric Holman, I just see the Bulldogs really struggling to generate offense. Alabama fans know how much that limits a team. Quinndary’s little brother, Nick, is a good player (although he’ll miss basically the entire non-conference serving a suspension), and senior guard Tyson Carter can shoot it from distance, but State often relied on Q and Peters to carry them on offense. I think this is a solid team that will struggle to score when it needs to, and I think Mississippi State disappoints in 2020.
- Texas A&M Aggies Projected Record: 15-15 (7-11 SEC) - The SEC will be highly impacted by former Virginia Tech players this season, but none will have the same impact as the former Hokies coach, Buzz Williams, as he takes over for the underachieving Billy Kennedy in College Station. He’s got a bit of a rebuild on his hands, as the Aggies have probably the worst depth in the conference; however, they’ve got a talented starting five. Wendell Mitchell and T.J. Starks form an explosive pair in the back-court, and Saivion Flagg could be headed towards All-SEC honors as a stat-stuffing stretch-four. Nobody is going to enjoy playing this team, as Williams can really coach, but it’s hard to see them winning enough games against a tough schedule to climb out of the basement of the conference.
- Missouri Tigers Projected Record: 14-17 (6-12 SEC) - When Cuonzo Martin first returned to the SEC in Columbia with a top-5 recruiting class with him, things were looking bright for the Tigers. Well, this is not the future Mizzou fans had envisioned. As we know now, pretty much no one from that heralded class ended up playing much ball for Martin, with the exception of Jeremiah Tilmon, the junior post that will be relied on heavily this season. Tilmon could be a 1st-Team All-SEC player, but he’s got to stay on the court. Injuries and foul trouble always seem to limit him. Mark Smith is a solid guard in the back-court, and Missouri has capable players in Javon Pickett, Torrance Watson, and Xavier Pinson. But this roster just lacks talent. Five years ago, this group would have been fine in the SEC, but it’s hard to see them doing much in 2020.
- Vanderbilt Commodores Projected Record: 12-19 (4-14 SEC) - The best thing I can say about Vanderbilt this season is that they’ve got nowhere to go but up after posting the first ever 0-18 season in SEC history. First-time head coach Jerry Stackhouse will have his hands full trying to turn this program around after the disappointingly disastrous Bryce Drew era. Returning wing Aaron Nesmith is a good scorer, and guard Saben Lee has posted a lot of minutes in Nashville, but there simply isn’t much after that. Stackhouse drew on his NBA ties to bring in Scotty Pippen (yes, his son) and Notre Dame transfer D.J. Harvey, but he’s got a long way to go to make this team competitive again.
It’s going to be a fun year in the SEC, as I predict that 11 teams will be playing in either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT this season.