Now that the deadline for the NBA Draft has passed and we know the players that are returning to their respective programs, I thought it would be a good time to make early predictions for next season. I encourage all of our readers to chime in with your predictions as well. Anything that encourages discussion is always welcomed here.
In my opinion, when I look at the teams next season on paper, I don't see a serious contender to Kentucky. The Wildcats are going through a golden age under Calipari while the conference as a whole isn't. In the last five years, there have been three separate seasons in which the league has only sent three schools to the tournament. The other two seasons in that span: four and five teams. The league schools have made nice coaching hires, and recruiting has improved, but the overall success as a result of these developments has been slow. These days, it's hard to consider the SEC as a power basketball conference with a straight face. It's vital that the league can somehow get three or four additional teams with Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament in an effort to begin altering perception of the league in basketball.
Here are my way too early predictions for next season.
1. Kentucky - The heavy favorite now and likely in the fall as well, Kentucky looks poised for another dominant season in the SEC. Yet another recruiting class full of 5 stars and future NBA players (De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones) mixed with very good returning players (Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis, Tai Wynyard) are so far ahead of every other team in the league from a talent standpoint that it's borderline unfair at this point.
2. South Carolina - I love their backcourt (Sindarius Thornwell, Duane Notice, P.J. Dozier), and if Chris Silva can get out of the doghouse (he was suspended for the NIT games and his status with the program has yet to be finalized), I think he can be a very good player in the post. The biggest question for South Carolina is can they develop a productive bench?
3. Florida - The Gators return proven players (Kasey Hill, Chris Chiozza, KeVaughn Allen, Devin Robinson, John Egbunu, Justin Leon and Kevarrius Hayes had their moments last season as newcomers, and grad transfer Canyon Barry averaged just under 20 points last season at Charleston) and add a solid 3-man recruiting class. The verdict on Mike White remains fuzzy after the Gators faded down the stretch last season in missing the tournament. A third consecutive season without a tournament bid, and a former coach on the verge of the NBA Finals, could make the Gator fans very vocal next season if things don't round into shape.
4. Georgia - The Bulldogs return two of the best league players from this past season (J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten) but did lose longtime stars Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann who completed their eligibility. Frazier and Maten are All-Conference players, but can Mark Fox get enough production from the other guys? My gut feeling is he will, but Georgia must perform better in the non-conference. Their struggles prior to conference play last season put them behind the 8-ball for the remainder of the season.
5. Texas A&M - Early projections I've seen from the college basketball press is that A&M won't fall far from the SEC Championship squad they had last season. I honestly don't know how they believe that when you look at the players they lost from that team. That said, I don't think A&M will fall completely off the map. Tyler Davis and Tony Trocha-Morelos should be a formidable post duo. D.J. Hogg and Admon Gilder will be counted on for more production, and A&M landed a good grad transfer in J.C. Hampton from Lipscomb.
6. Alabama - With the 2017 high school senior class being one of the state's best in recent years, it's vital that Bama continues building on the momentum that was established in year one of Avery's tenure. There is no clearcut leader for this team yet so it could lead to some early struggles, but I think there's a better balance of talent than a year ago. The newcomers (Nick King, Avery Johnson, Jr., Corban Collins, Ar'Mond Davis and Braxton Key) join a inconsistent but capable group of returning players who may finally be able to get this program over the hump. Avery and his staff should have more options this season, and that makes me cautiously optimistic about this group.
7. Vanderbilt - Bryce Drew takes over at Vandy. Drew had a nice run at Valparaiso, but it remains to be seen if he's just the latest mid-major flavor of the week or a guy with the necessary chops to get it done in the SEC. Kevin Stallings did not leave the roster bare. Luke Kornet, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Jeff Roberson and Riley LaChance are all proven SEC players. Add in a few guys (Joseph Toye, Djery Baptiste and Camron Justice) who could take the next step and a solid 2016 class, and Vandy is one of the more intriguing teams heading into next season.
8. LSU - The Tigers were the most disappointing team in the country last season relative to the preseason expectations. As a result, Johnny Jones enters this season under some heavy scrutiny. Fortunately for Jones, Antonio Blakeney elected to return to school. With Ben Simmons and Tim Quarterman remaining in the draft, Blakeney should become the leader of this team. I expect him to have a big sophomore season. Craig Victor is another returning player to watch. This team will have low expectations coming into the season, and that may be a blessing in disguise.
9. Auburn - After 40 losses in the last two seasons, Auburn needs to show some improvement this season. The arrival of 5 star guard Mustapha Heron should help. Everything I've read about Heron from the recruiting analysts has been positive. He's very talented, but they all say that he plays hard and elevates those around him. Auburn has been devoid of guys like that in recent years; maybe Heron can fill the void. Auburn will also return quality players in T.J. Dunans, Antonio Lang, Jr., Bryce Brown and, if he's eligible, Danjel Purifoy. Pearl also adds a couple of 3-4 star high recruits and some grad transfers to round out the roster. We all expected Pearl to turn things around in Auburn. This season might be the beginning of that turnaround.
10. Mississippi State - I believe that MSU could be much better than this prediction next season. Ben Howland has done a great job in a short time recruiting players to Starkville. So why do I have them projected at 10th? First and foremost, the status of star guard Malik Newman remains up in the air. Newman withdrew from the NBA Draft, but there is also a story going around that he is going to transfer. Newman had a disappointing freshman campaign relative to the hype surrounding him entering college, but he also battled toe and back injuries last season that played a part in his struggles. Healthy, he's likely one of the best guards in the league so State will miss him if he bolts. My second reason for projecting State this low in the standings is they will be one of the youngest teams in the country next season. I still believe they're a year away from really coming into their own.
11. Arkansas - It just hasn't happened for Mike Anderson at Arkansas. Entering his 6th season, Anderson has guided the Razorbacks to just one NCAA Tournament appearance. It's hard to pinpoint what exactly the trouble has been for Anderson, who was stellar at UAB and Missouri. The program received good news when Moses Kingsley withdrew from the draft and returned to school. His return gives Arkansas a chance to finish well ahead of this projection. They also return Dusty Hannahs, one of the best shooters in the league. But the talent level of the entire roster is questionable at this point, and the program as a whole just doesn't appear to have any momentum at the moment.
12. Ole Miss - This prediction is just asking for trouble. Say what you will about Andy Kennedy, but his teams have been reliably competitive in the SEC. The worst season he had was his third season when the Rebels finished 4th in the old West division. Overall, he's never had a team finish worst than 6th. This prediction is little more than a gut feeling on my part. Kennedy has made the most of the transfer market, and his starting backcourt will likely be transfers in Cullen Neal (New Mexico) and Deandre Burnett. Sebastian Saiz also returns. It doesn't seem likely this team finishes this low, but I'm going to go with my gut for now.
13. Tennessee - It's rebuilding mode in Knoxville. The Vols lost their best two players (Kevin Punter and Armani Moore) from a team that finished 12th. There are solid players remaining on the roster, and Rick Barnes is a good coach, but it seems like this team needs another good recruiting class or two to really get back in the mix.
14. Missouri - I like the make-up of this Missouri team better than the last two seasons, but they're still really young and it remains to be seen if they have the talent level that can compete night in/night out in the SEC. There's a good young core in players like Kevin Puryear, Terrence Phillips and K.J. Walton, but I don't see enough to predict them higher at this point. Kim Anderson inherited a real mess so I don't think the struggles have been all of his fault, but a rash of transfers mixed with two of the worst seasons in the programs history doesn't give him much rope. It will be interesting to observe what Missouri does if the Tigers do in fact finish near the bottom again.