It's early July. Not exactly the most exciting time for fall sports fans. Football is 8 weeks away, basketball recruiting gets back into full swing this week, and the Alabama team will be taking its Canadian trip next month. But for the hardcore college basketball fan, November seems very far away. To cope, we fans compile way-too-early predictions for the coming season. In an effort to combat an uneventful Sunday evening, I thought I'd post my early SEC predictions for next season. I'm hoping to start a dialogue with this post so I encourage all readers to share your predictions in the comments below.
1. Florida - An experienced team that made an Elite Eight run last season is my favorite to win the league title this season. A collection of proven veterans, up-and-comers, and potential impact transfers certainly help the Gators look the part.
2. Kentucky - Maybe Cal's most inexperienced team of his career, but, as always, ultra talented. Question marks abound, but I've got too much respect for the program that Cal has built in Lexington to pick them much lower than this.
3. Alabama - Avery has put in the work to raise the profile of the program, engage the students and alumni, and create expectations even among the most casual Alabama basketball fan. Top 10 recruiting classes will do that. In my opinion, Avery's tenure from this point forward will be graded based on this season. It's now or never for a team with Top 25 potential.
4. Texas A&M - I will likely go back and forth with my prediction of A&M until November; Do I pick them 4th or higher? Tons of experience and talent return for the Aggies, including a guy who was a likely lottery pick in this past NBA draft if he had chose that path. The point guard issue has also been addressed for a team that won 16 games last season despite having no true point guard on the roster.
5. Auburn - Even though it's been fun to snicker about the struggles of Auburn in Bruce Pearl's first three years, year four could be a very different story. Several good recruiting classes appear ready to bear fruit, and this team - at least on paper - looks talented enough to make it to the NCAA Tournament for the ninth time in program history.
6. Ole Miss - If you've got good guards, you've always got a chance. And Ole Miss should have one of the best backcourts in the league this season. The big question for the Rebs will be in the post where they will likely miss the rebounding talent of Sebastian Saiz, who completed his Ole Miss career last season.
7. Arkansas - Speaking of guards, Arkansas returns a dynamic duo who will both have the green light. This team will go as far as Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon can carry them, and that could be very far. My guess is Arkansas will take a slight step back in the wake of the departures of Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley.
8. Mississippi State - Like Auburn, Mississippi State could be primed for a step forward thanks to the recruiting efforts of Ben Howland and his staff. My gut feeling is that State is still a year away from being a major player in the league, but I won't be shocked if they finish higher than this prediction.
9. Georgia - The Bulldogs have Yante Maten - the likely preseason Player of the Year - but not much else that would fit the definition of consistent. If Georgia misses the NCAA Tournament this season. Mark Fox could be out. A ton of pressure in Athens to get things right.
10. Missouri - Can't help but be reminded of the 15-16 LSU team in terms of the preseason expectations for a team and player. Cuonzo is a better coach than Johnny Jones, but frankly, his next team that overachieves will be his first. Michael Porter, Jr. is an elite talent, but the reality is this is still a staff in its first season at a program that has only won 8 SEC games in the last three seasons.
11. Vanderbilt - Many are going to have the Dores higher because of some of the players they return. But it's the one they don't - Luke Kornet - that makes me believe Vandy takes a step back. Let's remember: that team last season lost 16 games with Kornet. Three wins over Florida and a brutal schedule got them into the tournament, but I'd entertain a debate over how good they really were.
12. South Carolina - Seems stupid to pick the Gamecocks this low after a Final Four run last season, but the losses of Thornwell, Dozier and Notice are massive from my point of view. In a season in which so many SEC teams have become seemingly more talented on paper, I can't say the same thing for Carolina after losing those three guys. Frank Martin has done an amazing job with this program, but this feels like a rebuilding year.
13. Tennessee - I picked the Vols in this spot last season, and they finished 9th in the standings. They also looked like a legit NCAA Tournament team heading into February, before hitting a wall. There's talent on this team so it certainly wouldn't surprise me if they foil my predictions again. But someone has to finish in the bottom half.
14. LSU - I have no confidence in my picks 5-13, but I do feel confident that LSU will finish in this spot, and I also feel confident they will be a better team than a year ago. Honestly, it's a low bar for this team to finish better than the LSU team last season, which was one of the worst teams I've ever watched. Will Wade is killing it on the recruiting trail so far, which means LSU's place at the bottom is likely temporary.
SEC Player of the Year: Yante Maten will likely be the preseason pick, but will Georgia have enough team success to deliver the award to Yante? And yes, team success does matter when choosing these awards. With that in mind, my pick for Player of the Year is Chris Chiozza. The Gators are my favorite, and Chiozza could be poised for a Scottie Wilbekin type of season. Dark horse: Robert Williams at A&M.
SEC Coach of the Year: Mike White will likely be in the mix again if Florida wins the league. If this very young Kentucky team wins the league again, just hand the award to John Calipari; he will have earned it. My pick is Avery Johnson. I think Alabama is poised for a breakthrough season, and Avery would be deserving of the award if that pans out. Dark horses: Bruce Pearl or Ben Howland if their respective teams take a big step forward.
SEC Freshman of the Year: Seems strange to think a Kentucky player won't be the favorite heading into the season, but the two most likely candidates appear to be Michael Porter, Jr. at Missouri and our very own Collin Sexton. The success rate of the teams will likely determine the winner. I'm going to be a homer and pick Collin.