The premier college football conference in the country is also quite the formidable conference when it comes to college basketball, but last season the SEC was in a down year that would eventually be wiped away from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The SEC was likely looking at a max of four bids in the 2020 NCAA Tournament, a far cry from the previous season that saw the conference send seven teams to the dance. The 2020-21 season figures to be just as top-heavy as the conference was a season ago, but the contenders in this conference are amongst the best teams in all of college basketball, giving the SEC a very realistic shot of seeing one of their schools land in the 2021 Final Four.
How does the conference as a whole shake out? Let’s take a look at the SEC.
#10 Kentucky (+120 to Win SEC)
This will surprise absolutely nobody who follows the sport of college basketball, but guess what? John Calipari landed the #1 recruiting class in the country again!
Once again Coach Cal’s ‘Cats are poised for a roster reboot as his next class of phenom freshmen finds their way to Lexington. Seven freshmen in all will decorate the Kentucky roster, most notably of the combo of BJ Boston (7th overall ranked recruit) and Terrence Clarke (10th overall ranked recruit).
The freshmen wing tandem is, naturally, extremely athletic and talented and will give SEC defenses fits in their likely lone season playing for Big Blue Nation. The tandem is already projected to be drafted in the lottery of next season’s NBA Draft, with Boston being in the mix to potentially go #1 overall.
This season, however, Calipari adds a new wrinkle by adding two key senior transfers in former Wake Forest big Olivier Sarr (13.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg) and former Creighton shooting threat Davion Mintz (9.7 ppg in 2018/19).
Kentucky is once again absolutely loaded with talent, and once again it’s a roster that will get better as the season goes on. The Wildcats are considered the odds-on favorite to win the SEC for a reason, they should be considered the team to beat in this conference and have a very real shot to play at Lucas Oil Stadium in early April.
#12 Tennessee (+350 to Win SEC)
If there’s a team capable of ruining Kentucky’s jaunt to the top of the SEC standings, look no further than Rick Barnes’ Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols enter the new season as the preseason #1 team in the conference, yet a lot of people are not aware of how good this team can be.
The Vols in fact could be one of the biggest sleepers in the country.
This is a team that does not have any apparent weaknesses. It returns four of the top scorers from a season ago, the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year in senior Yves Pons (10.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.4 bpg), and the 3rd best-recruiting class in the nation led by potential NBA lottery pick Jaden Springer.
That doesn’t even mention the addition of Sacred Heart grad-transfer E.J. Anosike (15.7 ppg, 11.6 rpg) or the return of senior forward John Fulkerson (13.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg).
The 2019/20 season was a rebuilding season of sorts for the Vols after they watched as Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone, and Kyle Alexander all departed the program either through graduation or going pro. The season was made even more challenging when Barnes lost star Lamonte Turner for the season just 11-games into the year.
This season should see the Vols bouncing back in a big way, however, and Tennessee is not only a viable contender to unseat Kentucky at the top, but they’re also a dark horse for a deep run in March. This team has it all and will be worth your attention all season.
The Dangerous Dark Horses
LSU (+500 to Win SEC)
While a lot of attention this season will be on Kentucky and Tennessee, don’t forget about Will Wade’s LSU Tigers as a potentially dangerous sleeper in the conference.
The Tigers boast one of the deeper rosters in the country and return sophomore standout Trendon Watford (13.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg) along with the junior tandem of Ja’vonte Smart (12.5 ppg, 4.2 apg) and Darius Days (11.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg). Mix in a top-10 recruiting class headlined by sharpshooting guard Cameron Thomas, sprinkle in a couple of transfers like Shareef O’Neal (UCLA), Bryan Penn-Johnson (Washington), and Josh LeBlanc (Georgetown) and LSU has a potentially lethal offensive group once again.
LSU’s bugaboo a season ago came on the defensive side of the floor, however, as the Tigers were social distancing before it was cool. Time and time again the Tigers would see big leads evaporate as LSU just could not clamp down on the defensive end of the floor. Wade should get a boost from his two big transfers in O’Neal and Penn-Johnson, but ultimately how well they defend will determine how far they go this season.
One thing’s for certain, however, and that is the fact that LSU will be one of the most entertaining teams in the country to watch again. Look for the Tigers to be involved in a lot of high-scoring thrillers throughout the season.
Florida (+900 to Win SEC)
The Florida Gators enter the 2020/21 season hoping to erase a disappointing 2019/20 campaign that saw the Gators vastly underperform to their preseason expectations.
Mike White’s Gators were tabbed as the #6 overall team when the first rankings came out a season ago, but the Gators played anything like the sixth-best team in the nation on their way to a 19-12 season with an 11-7 record in the SEC.
While that’s certainly not the worst season in the world, it still fell far short of Florida’s aspirations for the season to contend for a conference title and make a deep run in the tournament.
The Gators may not be down for too long, however, as they return the bulk of last season’s team including All-SEC wing player Keyontae Johnson (14.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and rising-star sophomore Scottie Lewis (8.5 ppg), and bolster their bench by adding two key transfers in former Cleveland State guard Tyree Appleby (17.2 ppg, 5.6 apg) and former Louisiana Tech forward Anthony Duruji (12.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg).
Florida did lose Virginia Tech grad-transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. to graduation and standout point guard Andrew Nembhard (11.2 ppg, 5.6 apg) transferred to Gonzaga, but there should be enough talent on the roster to mitigate those losses.
Once again, the Gators look like a dangerous team on paper but it remains to be seen how that will translate to the floor. If they can play closer to their potential this season, the Gators are a legitimate threat to make a lot of noise in the SEC.
Arkansas (+1200 to Win SEC)
Rarely can a team stomach the loss of six of your top seven scorers and come back and be projected to be even better in the following season, but that’s what’s on tap for Eric Musselman’s Arkansas Razorbacks in year two of his coaching tenure.
The Hogs do not return a single starter from a season ago as free-shooting Isaiah Joe (16.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and first-team All-SEC guard Mason Jones each departed for the NBA, but they do add six impactful transfers and inked the 7th best-recruiting class in the land to quickly reload the roster, leaving Musselman’s team loaded with talent at every position.
Notable transfers to keep an eye on for the Hogs include Northern Kentucky grad-transfer Jalen Tate (13.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and New Mexico grad-transfer Vance Jackson (11.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg). They will likely join Indiana transfer Justin Smith (10.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg) in the Razorbacks’ starting five and should immediately contribute in Musselman’s free-flowing offense.
The biggest question circling this team entering the season is whether or not Musselman may actually have too much talent. Hammering out the rotations and getting the right chemistry will ultimately determine the fate of a team that’s so dependent on the influx of new talent. If the talent comes together as expected and the team gels, this is a dark horse to make a run in March. But if the chemistry just never comes together, we’ve seen many teams that have unraveled with the heavy transfer approach.
The Middle of the Pack
Alabama (+1600 to Win SEC)
While Alabama’s basketball season doesn’t officially start for many Tide boosters until Nick Saban’s playoff run concludes, Bama faithful may have a lot to look forward to from their basketball team this season.
Crimson Tide head coach Nate Oats enters his second season in Tuscaloosa with an arsenal of offensive weapons, most notably the backcourt combination of Jaden Shackelford (15.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and John Petty (14.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg). Oats will also have the services of Villanova point guard Jahvon Quinerly and Yale grad-transfer Jordan Bruner (10.9 ppg, 9.2 rpg), and the Crimson Tide’s starting five looks as good as any in the conference.
Alabama will miss star guard Kira Lewis, who was drafted 13th overall by the Pelicans, but they get back four-star talent Juwan Gary and top-five JUCO product James Rojas who were both lost for the season a year ago with ACL tears suffered in practice.
That potentially gives Oats a roster deep in talent, but if the Tide are to contend for a spot in the NCAA Tournament this season and a possible top-four standing in the conference they will need to tighten up a defense that gave up nearly 80 points a contest a season ago.
South Carolina (+1600 to Win SEC)
Frank Martin’s Gamecocks overachieved a season ago as they finished above .500 in conference play at 10-8 and went 18-13 overall on the season after being projected to finish 10th in the SEC before the season began.
South Carolina enters the new season with heightened expectations as they return all but two players from a season ago and have one of the more experienced teams in the entire conference.
Unlike LSU and Alabama, Frank Martin’s Gamecocks defend the hell out of opponents and this has been his calling card since his Kansas State days. Last season South Carolina had the 16th best scoring defense and 19th best three-point shooting defense according to KenPom and this season should not be much different. Martin’s group has been incredibly consistent dating all the way back to South Carolina’s random run to the Final Four and have ranked in the Top 50 for defensive efficiency in four of the past five seasons.
Offensively is where South Carolina tends to sputter, however. Per KenPom rankings, South Carolina’s best offensive team came back in 2017 when they were the 91st overall ranked unit, and a season ago they were ranked 122nd in the country. Essentially they are a bit of a mess in the half-court and generate a lot of their best offense from their tenacious 2-3 matchup defense. The Gamecocks will lock teams down, but will also endure long scoring droughts of their own. It’s just a stable of Frank Martin’s team.
The best scoring threats on the roster come in the Carolina backcourt with leading scorer A.J. Lawson (13.4 ppg) returning for his junior season and redshirt sophomore Jermaine Couisnard (12.1 ppg) playing alongside him at point guard.
Ultimately, the fate of South Carolina’s season lies in improving an offense that can flat out disappear for long periods. If they can match their strong defensive play with a consistent scoring attack, the Gamecocks have sleeper potential to crack the top-six of the conference. In all likelihood, though they will be very similar to last season’s team and trade upsets with losses to teams they shouldn’t lose to.
The Long Shots
Auburn (+4000 to Win SEC)
Missouri (+5000 to Win SEC)
Ole Miss (+6000 to Win SEC)
Georgia (+10000 to Win SEC)
Mississippi State (+10000 to Win SEC)
Texas A&M (+10000 to Win SEC)
Vanderbilt (+10000 to Win SEC)
Out of all the power conferences in the country, the SEC is by far the most top-heavy. The ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ are very easy to spot in the SEC this season. Here’s a quick look at the long shots to win the conference.
Auburn lost all five starters from a season ago, including NBA lottery pick Issac Okoro, leaving Bruce Pearl to have a 2020/21 transitional season of sorts. Pearl did land one of the biggest recruits in the country in Sharife Cooper (20th overall recruit), but Cooper’s eligibility still remains in question and as of this writing he is not cleared to play. Couple that with Auburn self-imposing a postseason ban for the 2020/21 season, and we do not expect much from Pearl’s Tigers this season.
Missouri returns eight players that started a game for the Tigers a season ago but are still expected to finish towards the bottom of the conference as the eight players returning aren’t exactly the 2014/15 Kentucky Wildcats. Cuanzo Martin does get back the guard tandem of Xavier Pinson (11.1 ppg) and Mark Smith (10.0 ppg), however, after injury-riddled seasons plagued each of Martin’s two best players.
Ole Miss enters season three under former Mid Tennessee State head coach Kermit Davis and is coming off of a disappointing 15-17 season that saw the Rebels go a miserable 1-10 when they went on the road. Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic shrunken crowds will help Ole Miss cure their road woes? The team does add three key grad transfers in former CS-Bakersfield guard Jarkell Joiner (15.6 ppg), former Rider wing Dimencio Vaughn (14.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg), and former Arizona State rim protector Romello White (10.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg). The Rebels are unlikely to contend for an SEC crown, but if everything comes together they could very well be in the mix for a postseason bid.
Georgia loses #1 overall draft pick Anthony Edwards and four of the team’s top six scorers from a season ago, leaving Tom Crean faced with the task of retooling a roster on the fly. Georgia will have eight new players in all, with Sahvir Wheeler (9.0 ppg, 4.5 apg) being the best returning Bulldog. Crean also welcomes in three transfers including that of former Stony Brook product Andrew Garcia (13.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and former Virginia Tech forward P.J. Horne (7.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg), but the cupboard will need another season to restock.
Mississippi State is down three starters from a season ago, including the 2020 co-SEC player of the year Reggie Perry. Ben Howland has also watched four other players leave the program via the transfer portal, leaving the Bulldogs in a full-blown rebuilding season for 2020/21. Howland should turn it around and get the Bulldogs back to the middle of the conference in the coming seasons, but this year will be one where they figure to take several lumps from their conference foes. Four-star freshman Deivon Smith will be a fun player to pay attention to for Howland’s ‘Dogs, however.
Texas A&M enters season two under coach Buzz Williams and while the Aggies program is slowly turning back around, it’s not quite there yet. Seniors Savion Flagg (10.4 ppg), Quenton Jackson (8.8 ppg), and Quinnipiac grad-transfer Kevin Marfo (10.2 ppg, 13.3 rpg) will be the catalyst’s for Williams team this season, but TAMU figures to still be at least a year or two away from seriously contending in the conference.
Vanderbilt is just bad. They will be the SEC’s whipping boy for the third-consecutive season.
SEC Projected Order of Finish:
- South Carolina
- Ole Miss
- Texas A&M
- Mississippi State