SEC Preview: Kentucky, Tennessee Lead a Strong and Deep Conference Race
As part of SI.com's preview of the 2018–19 college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the seven major conferences, plus the best of the rest. Our predicted order of finish for each league is drawn from our master 1–353 rankings, the full list of which will be revealed later this month. We did the AAC, ACC, the Big East, the Big Ten the Big 12 and the Pac-12; Next up for our conference previews is the SEC, complete with our analyst’s breakdowns of each team and either anonymous scouting takes or media day quotes from coaches around the league.
The Big Picture
The SEC is sure to be one of the deepest conferences in the nation this season. Coming off a season in which eight teams earned a trip to the NCAA tournament, there’s a chance even more find themselves playing in March this year. Kentucky is retooled and looking like one of the scariest teams in the nation while Tennessee brings back the bulk of a squad that won the SEC regular season title. There are plenty of incoming freshmen like Nazreon Reid at LSU and Reggie Perry at Mississippi State who will inject even more buzz into the league this season, while returning players like South Carolina’s Chris Silva and Auburn’s Jared Harper are set to follow up impressive seasons from a year ago. If things get tight like they did last season, there’s at least six teams that could be in contention to take the regular season title. But as we’ve seen before, Kentucky could run away with things.
Player of the Year: Grant Williams, Tennessee
This is a pretty easy pick. The Wildcats are loaded with talent as always, Chris Silva of South Carolina and Daniel Gafford of Arkansas will have the chance to stuff the stat sheet like nobody’s business this season, but last year’s Player of the Year according to the coaches is in position to take over this season. After going for 16.2 points and 6.0 rebounds as a sophomore, Williams now gets to lead a group of Volunteers who have a year of experience together and a desire to make up for last season’s early exit in the NCAA tournament. A hangover is certainly possible for a team that saw its win total increase by 10 last year, but with Williams at the center of Rick Barnes’s unit, it should be able to improve on its 26–9 year. And if this team can improve at all, it will likely have a lot to do with Williams elevating his play.
Newcomer of the Year: Reid Travis, Kentucky
There are so many freshmen you could look at in this conference to make a major impact and help dictate just who wins the SEC, but Kentucky’s graduate transfer from Stanford will likely perform the best. In 2017–18, Travis averaged 19.5 points on 52.7% shooting to go with 8.7 rebounds and was named first team All-Pac-12. Coach John Calipari has so much talent around Travis that his production will probably see a slight dip, but getting the chance to play with better teammates than he had last year will allow for the game to come even easier to him. Vanderbilt’s Simisola Shittu and Travis’s teammates EJ Montgomery, Ashton Hagans and Keldon Johnson will all shine this year, but the graduate transfer will prove to be the best addition to any team in the conference.
Dark Horse Team to Win the Conference: Alabama
Losing Collin Sexton makes Avery Johnson’s job a lot harder this season. Still, there are enough returning pieces on this team, which got quality experience last season, that the Crimson Tide should feel confident about their prospects for 2018–19. If Alabama can avoid a blowout loss in conference early on—like last season’s 19-point thrashing in Georgia—it will be able to get its confidence up to attack the back half of the conference schedule way better than it did last year. It’s easy to dismiss a team that lost five straight to close out the regular season, but with Donta Hall, John Petty and Dazon Ingram all returning, the Crimson Tide should like their chances against the rest of the SEC.
Predicted Order of Finish
The Skinny: Once again coach John Calipari welcomes one of the best recruiting classes to the nation to Lexington with the expectation of another Final Four run. With PJ Washington (10.8 points per game last season) and Quade Green (9.8 points) back on campus, the Hall of Fame coach has two of his top five scorers from last seasons to help get all of the new pieces acclimated. As if getting four five-star recruits from the class of 2018 (forward EJ Montgomery and guards Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson and Immanuel Quickley) isn’t already enough of a reload, Calipari also adds 2017 four-star guard Jemarl Baker Jr. who missed all of last season with a knee injury, and first team All-Pac-12 performer Reid Travis. It’s not quite the depth of the 2014–15 squad, but Calipari has plenty to work with this season.
Scout’s Take: “Kentucky is always tough to prepare for because it requires more than just the scouting report. You know you are going to play against a tough, physical team that is well coached and often tremendously talented. It’s not enough to just know what they are going to do. They have absolutely nothing to hide. You are going to know what they are doing and trying to do when you play them. They are so well coached and understand what they are trying to do, so it’s about stopping them. That is not easy.”
The Skinny: Returning the reigning SEC Player of the Year in Grant Williams and Coach of the Year in Rick Barnes should be plenty of reason enough for the Volunteers and their fans to feel great heading into this year. This team also returns its entire starting five and the top five scorers from a squad that tied with Auburn for the SEC regular season crown. With the way last season’s potential promising tournament run got stopped short on the first weekend by Cinderella Loyola-Chicago, look to see Tennessee come out focused and looking to prove the jump from 16–16 in 2016–17 to 26–9 last year was not a fluke. The top scoring defense in the conference from last season should give fits to everybody throughout the SEC while the offense will try to improve after being in the middle of the league.
Coach’s Quote (Rick Barnes): “We know that it’s different than where we were a year ago … we addressed it with our guys, a week after the NCAA tournament was over last year we showed them teams that had great years and were expected to be good the following year, and they came back and didn’t do anything. So we let them know that early back in the spring, and we talked about that we’re not going to be able to start where we left off in the NCAA tournament, we’re going to have to earn our way back like everybody else.”
The Skinny: Like Tennessee, Auburn saw a promising campaign end during the first weekend of the Big Dance. After going 13–5 in conference last season to split the regular season title with the Volunteers, coach Bruce Pearl is trying to improve the Tigers for the third straight season. In 2017–18, they were a 20-win team for the first time since 2008–09 and reached the tournament for the first time since 2003. Losing Mustapha Heron (16.4 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game) and DeSean Murray (10.1 points and 6.7 rebounds) will be major blows in the scoring and rebounding departments, but there’s a lot of returning pieces who are primed to take a big step this season. Guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper will take on a bigger load in the scoring and distributing departments and forwards Chuma Okeke and Anfernee McLemore should bring a strong presence on the interior. They will all just need to be ready to play with a target on their back now.
Scout’s Take: “Auburn is just so talented. I think they are as talented as anyone in the league. They have great guard play and a great interior player. They have great rebounding and athleticism on the wings. Anfernee McLemore is a great shot blocker along with Austin Wiley. Auburn can beat you just about any way. Playing inside out, they have one of the best shooters in the country in Bryce Brown and another dynamic player at the point guard position. They are a really talented team.”
The Skinny: The last time LSU had a recruiting class this highly regarded, it featured now-NBA players Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney. Nazreon Reid and Emmitt Williams won’t have the same amount of pressure on their shoulders alone as Simmons and Blakeney did, but LSU as a whole will have high expectations to meet. After leading the conference in steals and leading the team in points and assists as a freshman last season, Tremont Waters is in position for a breakout season. He and junior Skylar Mays (1.6 steals a night in 2017–18) are going to be one of the most aggressive backcourts in the nation and should pester opposing ball handlers to no end. Depending on just how well coach Will Wade can work in freshman Ja’vonte Smart into his guard rotation, the sky could be the limit for the Tigers. Wade was able to improve from year one to year two at Chattanooga and VCU. Now he needs to do it one more time in an even tougher conference.
Coach’s Quote (Will Wade): “We like it when Naz [Reid] gets rebounds. We let him push the ball. He's a playmaker. I mean, it's appropriate that we talk about—he's like having Tremont [Waters] at a big spot, at a four or five spot. We move him around, and we'll play him at the three some this year, too, so we can play really big when we do that. We can maneuver him around just because of his unique skill set, and he's got a very, very bright future ahead of him in basketball.”
5. Mississippi State
The Skinny: Ben Howland’s squad went 25–12 last season but carried the distinction of being the only team in the top half of the conference to not play in the NCAA tournament. Coming off a run to the NIT semifinals and the addition of a top-20 recruiting class according to 247 Sports gives the Bulldogs hope they can make the jump off the bubble this year and compete for an SEC title. With all the main contributors from last season returning, particularly Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon and Aric Holman (combined for 36.1 points, 15.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists), there’s no reason Mississippi State shouldn’t start off strong this year. Freshmen Reggie Perry, Robert Woodard and DJ Stewart will be key in helping the Bulldogs take a leap and improve upon their 9–9 conference record from a year ago. Losing three of four to LSU and Tennessee at the end of the season and in the conference tournament was a tough way to miss out on the tournament, so Howland will look have his team ready to finish as strong as it started last season.
Scout’s Take: “Mississippi State is very similar to Kentucky. They are talented. Traditionally, once Ben Howland’s teams get into year three or four, they really start to make a significant mark. It looks to be shaping up that way for them again this year. You will know exactly what they are doing. There won’t be anything particularly complicated, but it’s hard to prepare for and hard to stop. They are really good at what they do.”
The Skinny: Last season didn’t go quite as well as the Gators hoped at the start of the year, but a third-place finish in the conference and a second straight trip to the tournament are a solid foundation to build off going into this season. Unfortunately for Florida, it lost its second- and third-leading scorers from a year ago in Egor Koulechov (13.8 points and a team-high 6.4 rebounds) and Chris Chiozza (11.1 points and a team-high 6.1 assists). Andrew Nembhard of Montverde Academy should help ease the blow of losing Chiozza, but he’s still a freshman trying to help fill the shoes of a senior who played 32 minutes a game. Now-seniors KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson should take some pressure off Nembhard though, and keep Florida in strong contention for the SEC title once more.
Coach’s Quote (Mike White): “I think [Jalen Hudson] got some good feedback [from the NBA] last spring … He was very diligent, he was very open, and he was honest about the feedback that hit him in terms of consistency, earning more of a reputation of being a higher level defender and rebounder, leading, talking … and he’s done that, he really has. He hasn’t done it yet in a game, of course, but he has probably made the biggest jump on our roster in terms of leadership since practice has started this year.”
The Skinny: Collin Sexton isn’t around anymore to just lower his head and find a way to the rim when Alabama needs a bucket, but sophomore John Petty will be back and ready to shoulder more of a burden on the offensive end. Coach Avery Johnson will need to help freshman Kira Lewis adjust to the college game as quickly as possible, because although Donta Hall and Dazon Ingram (second- and fourth-leading scorers from last year) return, the hole left by Sexton is still a giant one. If the Crimson Tide don’t slow down on their turnovers though, they could find themselves falling behind in a stacked conference. And unless someone shows the ability to take control of games in one-on-one scenarios in a fashion similar to Sexton, this team can’t rank last in the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio again and expect things to work out.
Coach’s Quote (Avery Johnson): “Hopefully we won’t be so easily scouted [this year]. I thought last year, because of the way were built—and you know, Collin [Sexton] was an alpha dog, he’s going to score 20 points a game. Sometimes teams could load up their defense, try to shut him down. I’m hoping this year we’ll be a lot more versatile on offense. Maybe we’re not going to have one guy that can get us 20 points every night, but I’m hoping we’ll have four or five guys that can get us 14 or 15. If we can accomplish that goal, then you’ll see the ball move a little bit more … that’s what I’m excited about with this year’s team.”
The Skinny: The top three scorers from Bryce Drew’s squad all graduated last season, but one of the best crops of freshmen Vanderbilt has ever seen will make the transition into this season a bit smoother. Big man Simisola Shittu and guard Darius Garland were both top 15 prospects according to 247 Sports and should help lift the Commodores toward the middle of the conference after they finished 13th last season. Sophomore Saben Lee should impress with an increased role this season, but a lack of reliable depth will still plague this team throughout the year. If the freshmen are as good as advertised though, Vanderbilt will have a trio that will keep it in contention on a nightly basis and help it climb the standings this season.
Scout’s Take: “Vanderbilt is unique because Bryce Drew is such a good offensive coach, and they run such a good motion. If they shoot the ball well, they are really hard to play against. As much as anybody in the league, the threat of the three-point line is where they really hurt people and is the basis of the attack. They really spread the floor. With the addition of Darius Garland and Saben Lee back, I think they will have one of the best backcourts in the country. They are very talented.”
The Skinny: Sophomore big man Daniel Gafford could be in line for a monster season this year, but the Razorbacks almost certainly won’t reach the 10–8 mark they had in conference last season. Coach Mike Anderson helped his team improve each season when he first took the job, but this year could easily be the third season over the last four in which Arkansas sees its wins drop. Replacing the scoring of Jaylen Barford (17.9 points), Daryl Macon (16.8 points) and Anton Beard (9.5 points) will be a tall task. C.J. Jones and Darious Hall will probably have difficulty trying to help keep the offensive production where it was last season for Arkansas, but it they can improve their lackluster defense, they might be able to stay in the middle of the pack in the SEC.
Coach’s Quote (Mike Anderson): “I think [Daniel Gafford] has evolved from the standpoint of knowing he’s going to be the center of attention. He’s got to be able to distribute, you’ll see him probably have more assists this year. He’s stepped out, he can knock down the 15-foot shot. He can put it on the floor, make nice passes. He’ll continue to do what got him all the notoriety, and that’s running the floor, offensive rebounds, running the break. He has a great pair of hands, and he’s put on about 8–10 pounds, so he’s gotten stronger.”
10. Texas A&M
The Skinny: The Aggies are going to spend much of this season being victims of their past success. Texas A&M had the potential to return five key rotational players, but Tyler Davis (14.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and first team All-SEC), Robert Williams (10.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year) and D.J. Hogg (11.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists) all decided to leave school. Sophomore T.J. Starks is back and ready to show how much he’s improved from his first year where he earned SEC All-Freshman honors after going for 9.9 points and 2.3 assists a night. Senior Admon Gilder will be the lead guy for Billy Kennedy this season, and if he can keep his turnovers down with an increased usage, he could potentially help this team make a run at the tournament.
Coach’s Quote (Billy Kennedy): “I think we can be a team that can get to the NCAA tournament and finish in the top six in our league. Our margin for error is not as great as it’s been maybe in the past, but we’ve got a hard-working group. Our culture is good and strong and are guys are buying into how we want to play differently this year.”
The Skinny: Losing Jontay Porter for the season is going to be a big blow for this team. The Co-Sixth-Man of the Year and All-Freshman performer provided a menacing presence in the middle of Missouri’s defense and his 2.2 assists per game were the fourth-best mark on the team. Porter’s classmates Jeremiah Tilmon and Blake Harris now have even more responsibility outside of just helping fill the voids left by Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett. Coach Cuonzo Martin might not be able to make the improvement from year one to year two that he did at Missouri State and Cal, but if he can keep the Tigers close to the 20–13 record they had last season, that will be a big win for this team. An NCAA tournament berth will be hard to attain, but if they can adjust to the loss of Porter by the time the conference season starts, they might have a chance to make a push for consecutive appearances at the Dance.
Scout’s Take: “Missouri was tough for us last year. We had a hard-fought game. It will be interesting to see how they look. They had an unfortunate injury to a key player. They have another key interior player, though. They are really talented and well coached. Last year, they were a little bit different than Cuonzo [Martin]’s previous teams in the way they approached using the three-point line as a part of their attack. I’m sure some of that was personnel driven, so it will be interesting to see how their new personnel and the changes that they make will affect the way they approach things.”
12. South Carolina
The Skinny: Chris Silva’s senior season could be a special one, but this team is still far from the squad coach Frank Martin guided to the Final Four in 2017. Hassani Gravett is taking on more responsibility in the backcourt, and while his ability to set up his teammates will go a long way for a team that didn’t have another player average at least two assists last seasons, he will also need to show serious growth as a shot maker. Sophomore Justin Minaya could help with floor spacing coming off a season where he shot 36% from three. Conversely, Maik Kotsar on the inside could provide major relief for Silva in matchups against bigger teams.
Scout’s Take: “South Carolina has always created a challenge for everyone. They play so hard. They play aggressive, defensively. They challenge every pass and dribble and force you to play under duress. When you get into league play, sometimes you have two or three days to prepare, but other times, you only have one. Depending on when you catch them, it is really hard to simulate what they do. It creates a significant challenge for teams, because they will not allow you to come down and execute your offense.”
The Skinny: After a year away from coaching, Tom Crean returns to the sideline looking to end Georgia’s three-year stretch of decreasing in wins. Losing Yante Maten and his team-high 19.3 points and 8.3 rebounds will be almost impossible to overcome though. A solid recruiting class highlighted by forward Amanze Ngumezi and guard Ignas Sargiunas could help usher in a new era for the Bulldogs, but it will likely be a rocky road this season. If senior guard William Jackson II can take another step forward with an increased workload as he has the past two seasons, he might be able to help the reshaping of a Georgia offense that was 301st in the nation in scoring last season.
Coach’s Quote (Tom Crean): “I’m scared to death about what our transition defense would be right now. We don’t understand how important it is to switch ends. We’re starting to switch ends a little better on the offensive end, we’ve got to go back on the defensive end with that same sense of urgency.”
14. Ole Miss
The Skinny: Last season the Rebels’ horrid defense was their main issue. They ranked 306th in scoring defense at 78.1 points a night, and they surrendered more than that in 11 of their final 17 games, going 1–10 in those contests. After an impressive 16-year run at Middle Tennessee that featured six regular season conference championships and three NCAA tournament appearances over his final nine years, Kermit Davis is tasked with turning things around in Oxford. Getting back three of the top four scorers from last season should make for an easier transition for Davis, assuming those upperclassmen can buy into a system different from Andy Kennedy’s. After 12 seasons with Kennedy, Ole Miss will have a new look on the sideline, but any hope of success this year will fall on holdovers from the old regime. Seniors Terence Davis and Bruce Stevens and junior Breein Tyree will be tasked with ushering in a new era as they get ready to leave school.
Coach’s Quote (Kermit Davis): “Blake [Hinson] really fits the mode of how we played at Middle Tennessee. He’s about 6’7”, 230 pounds, very versatile, I don’t think there’s any doubt he’ll be an all-SEC player before he leaves Ole Miss. He can make a three, he can drive it, he’s got great toughness … he comes in with a lot of maturity and if we started today, he’d start at the four for us.”