Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Let's Go Crazy, Let's Get Nuts: SEC Picks in June

Hello again. Sure, the college basketball season is five months away (I promise not to weep). But now that NBA Draft and (most) transfer decisions have been made, I thought it would be fun to post my way-too-early SEC picks. I encourage anyone who reads this post to do the same in the comments section.

In recent years we've seen the SEC make improvements in basketball. That continued last season when the league sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament. Five of the seven teams won their first round games, and four of the seven made it to the second weekend. I'm sad to report that Auburn made the Final Four, the first in the school's history. If one measures success on NCAA Tournament results (and most fans do), the SEC had a very successful 2018-19 campaign. And yet the league still finished a distant fourth - behind the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC - in Ken Pomeroy's conference rankings.

With so much talent leaving the league for the NBA Draft, it will be difficult for the SEC to move into Pomeroy's top three rankings this season. The league likely won't be as top-heavy as it was last season (LSU, Kentucky and Tennessee finished a combined 46-8 in league play), but the league expectation of seven or eight teams in the tournament should remain. Let's get to the picks:

1. Kentucky - The Cats return Ashton Hagans, Nick Richards, Immanuel Quickley and EJ Montgomery, add the top recruiting class in the league (shocking, I know), and still have a Hall of Fame coach on the bench. The rest of the league have made tremendous strides to catch up to what Calipari has built, but UK remains the safest bet (by far) in the conference.

2. LSU - There is a likely NCAA investigation into the Tigers program coming, but for now LSU looks capable (on paper) of defending their regular season title. Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Emmitt Williams, Darius Days and Marlon Taylor all return. Plus, the Tigers added 5-star Trendon Watford (okay, I am now weeping). Perhaps the most important returner for the program is Will Wade. The university (perhaps pressured by fan demands) is standing behind Wade for now.

3. Florida - The Gators return Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, Keyontae Johnson, and signed the 2nd ranked class in the league (per 247). The Gators don't currently have much size in the frontcourt so that could be a concern. Mike White's team will also have to be better offensively than they were last season. Their core of freshmen and sophomores will be as talented as any team in the league, but they will be young. An x-factor could be the decision of Virginia Tech grad transfer Kerry Blackshear, Jr. He is considering several SEC schools, including Florida, for his final year of college basketball.

4. Alabama - I like what the new coaching staff has done to retain and add to the roster. Kira Lewis, John Petty, Herb Jones, Alex Reese, and Galin Smith all return. Javian Davis-Fleming also returns after sitting out last season with a redshirt. Nate Oats retained the three top 100 recruits that committed to Avery Johnson, added a 3-star big and a Juco All-American. The staff also signed two transfers in James Bolden from West Virginia and Jahvon Quinerly (a former McDonald's All-American) from Villanova. Bolden is eligible to play immediately while Quinerly is hoping to receive a waiver to play this season. If - If! - everything gels, next season could be fun.

5. Ole Miss - This is probably higher than many will pick Ole Miss, but I'm a believer in Kermit Davis. The Rebels return Breein Tyree, Devontae Shuler, Blake Hinson and KJ Buffen. Tyree should be one of the best players in the league. The key for the Rebels will be their recruiting class being better than expected (ranked 10th in the league rankings by 247) and providing some depth.

6. Tennessee - The Vols return Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner, and they should be two of the better players in the league. However, I don't know how you lose a quartet of Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone and Kyle Alexander and not take a step back. Williams and Schofield were two of the best players in the country, and Bone developed into a projected NBA Draft pick. Rick Barnes had a rather awkward and public dance with UCLA this summer for their head coaching position, but he returned to Knoxville. 

7. Mississippi State - With Reggie Perry, Robert Woodard, Tyson Carter, Nick Weatherspoon and Abdul Ado all returning, I'm tempted to have State higher. But I also thought the Bulldogs had plenty of talent last season, and they were a bit underwhelming. Perry and Woodard should be a dynamic duo. There are questions at the point guard position. State also has to be better on defense than they were last season, which was abysmal. Tough team to predict.

8. South Carolina - I should just pick Carolina two or three spots higher because I never seem to get them right. I really like their sophomore trio of AJ Lawson, Keyshawn Bryant and Justin Minaya, and Maik Kotsar is a veteran in the middle. But Chris Silva isn't coming back, and I think his absence will loom large for this team. With Silva gone, the Gamecocks will need to be good from 3 again, a season after they led the league in 3-pt shooting.

9. Auburn - This isn't me trolling Auburn fans, I promise. This is me looking at an Auburn program that lost three very good players in Jared Harper, Bryce Brown and Chuma Okeke. Yes, Auburn returns good players in Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore, Samir Doughty, J'Von McCormick and Danjel Purifoy. Yes, Bruce Pearl signed the 5th ranked class in the league. But Harper, Brown and Okeke were special players that aren't easily replaced, certainly not at a program like Auburn. I'll be shocked if they don't take a step back this season after losing those three guys.

10. Texas A&M - Anybody that read my posts during the end days of Avery and the short time between coaches knows that I really like Buzz Williams. I'm tempted to pick A&M higher because of Buzz, but also because they return some good players in TJ Starks, Savion Flagg, Wendell Mitchell, Jay Jay Chandler and Josh Nebo. I'm not going to pick them higher than this for now because I'm not sure they have the depth to justify picking them higher than the teams above, but it won't surprise me if Buzz gets things humming in College Station sooner rather than later. In my opinion, that was one of the best hires in the country.

11. Georgia - Last season was dreadful if you're a Georgia fan (11-21, 2-16), but hopes are rising in Athens after Tom Crean signed the 3rd ranked class in the league (again, per 247), which includes the 2nd ranked player in the country, Anthony Edwards. Many believe Edwards will be the number one pick in the 2020 draft. A guy like that makes teams better. The Bulldogs also return Rayshaun Hammonds, Tyree Crump, Jordan Harris and Amanze Ngumezi. Most college basketball writers will likely pick Georgia higher than this because of Edwards. I'm a little more skeptical because I think Tom Crean is a tad overrated.

12. Missouri - Putting Missouri here is probably the wrong call since the Tigers do return a solid core of players with Jeremiah Tilmon, Mark Smith, Javon Pickett, Torrence Watson and Xavier Pinson. The team also adds a transfer in Dru Smith, who is expected to be an impact addition. I only put them here because I like the teams, players or coaches ahead of them more. But if we're being honest, there isn't much difference between teams once you get past the few that make up the top in any given year. Missouri could just as easily finish 5th.

13. Arkansas - I think I'm putting Arkansas here purely out of spite. I did not agree with the decision to fire Mike Anderson. The guy averaged 21 wins a year during his tenure and had taken the program to three tournaments in the last five years. His team last season was one of the youngest in the country, yet still made the postseason. It seemed like a hasty decision. I do think Arkansas made a good hire in Eric Musselman, a guy I was lobbying for the Alabama job four years ago. Musselman built Nevada into a nationally relevant program, and it's entirely possible that he does good things at Arkansas. It's hard to get a read on this team because the roster is still in flux (currently two players over the scholarship limit), and it's hard to know how the players recruited by Anderson will jive with Musselman, his staff, or the numerous transfers that the new staff have already signed. Transfers was key to Musselman's success in Reno, and it appears he's repeating the formula in Fayetteville.

14. Vanderbilt - There's nowhere to go but up for Vanderbilt following an 0-18 season in 18-19. The school had no choice but to make a coaching change after such a historically bad season, but I must say I was surprised that they replaced a young coach with limited experience with another young coach with no experience. Jerry Stackhouse obviously brings name recognition to the table, but so did Avery Johnson at Alabama. Stackhouse has never been a head coach at any level so this is a gamble on Vanderbilt's part. If Stackhouse proves to be the wrong hire, it's going to be tough for the Commodores to scrape back into the top half of the league standings anytime soon when you consider the rising status of many programs around the league.

I hope those of you that check out this post will post your early predictions in the comment section. Hope everyone is enjoying their summer.    

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