- South Carolina
- Texas A&M
- Ole Miss
- Mississippi St.
All Conference Awards:
Player of the Year: Moses Kingsley, Sr., Arkansas
Coach of the Year: Mike White, Florida
Newcomer of the Year: Bam Adebayo, Fr., Kentucky
Freshman of the Year: Bam Adebayo, Fr., Kentucky
Key Returners: Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis
Key Losses: Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray, Alex Poythress
Key Newcomers: De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killyea-Jones, Tai Wynyard
Postseason Outlook: 1-2 seed
John Calipari re-loads yet again with another top-tier recruiting class, promptly replacing the abundance of riches he just sent to the NBA. The annual prognosis on Kentucky is always centered around how the incoming freshman class will fit with the returning veteran pieces. This year, the veteran presence is relatively limited, with Isaiah Briscoe as the only returning player from last year's top-ranked freshman class. He will likely start alongside two top-10 incoming freshman, De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Collectively, the three of them make up what will likely be the most athletic backcourt in the country.
Briscoe struggled early on in his freshman campaign, proving to be an abominable jump shooter from pretty much everywhere outside of 4-feet. Here's a quick overview of Briscoe's shooting performance last year:
- 14% on 3-point FGs (5/37)
- 46% on FTs (57/124)
Outside of being a good on-ball perimeter defender, it's hard to find any real value that Briscoe provided a year ago. He clearly struggled playing off-the-ball next to Tyler Ulis last season, and will face a similar dilemma this year with De'Aaron Fox likely to run the point. Both Fox and Monk excel in the open-court and love to attack the rim in transition. Fox projects as more of a playmaker/distributor, while Monk is more of a pure scorer, but both have similar stylistic tendencies on the offensive end. With the speed this trio possesses, Calipari will surely look to ramp up both full-court and half-court pressure defenses to get easy fast-break opportunities off turnovers.
When UK can't get out and run, rising senior Derek Willis will be a critical piece in the Cats half-court attack. Playing in a true stretch-4 role last season, Willis cashed in 44% of his 120 3-pointers, in addition to converting 58% of his 2s and 89% of his free throws. However, the defensive end is where Willis had issues last year, specifically when he was asked to guard more athletic wings. I'll defer to John Calipari's take on Willis's defensive effort during the SEC tournament:
"He was awful defensively... Oh, he was pitiful... He couldn't guard anybody..."
Despite his defensive woes, Willis should still compete for the 4th starting spot with incoming top-15 freshman Wenyen Gabriel, who projects as an elite defender and rim protector. Look for Calipari to balance his mix at the 4 and 5 positions with these two, and top-5 overall recruit Bam Adebayo. With Adebayo and Gabriel expected to provide immediate value on the defensive end, Willis should be a nice complement playing alongside either on the offense. Calipari has also spoken highly of rising sophomore Issac Humphries's improvement this offseason, who should bring additional size and physicality to an already deep frontcourt.
Calipari had to be frustrated with the significant regression UK made on the defense side of the ball last year, falling from 2nd to 53rd in the country in overall defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. With Adebayo and Gabriel anchoring the paint this season, UK should re-emerge as one the nation's elite defensive units. Coach Cal will also need his young perimeter core to wreak havoc defensively, in order to take some pressure off of the half-court offense. Look for inferior opponents to throw a heavy dose of zone against the Cats and dare the hyper-athletic guards to consistently make shots from the outside.
Key Returners: Kasey Hill, KeVaughn Allen, Devin Robinson, Josh Egbunu, Chris Chiozza
Key Losses: Dorian Finney-Smith
Key Newcomers: Canyon Berry (College of Charleston transfer)
Postseason Outlook: 7-10 seed
The first question that entered my mind when glancing at this year's Florida Gator roster was something along the lines of... "How is Kasey Hill still in school?"
Billy Donavan's 2013-2014 incoming freshmen, which featured Hill and athletic specimen Chris Walker, may go down as one of the all-time disappointing freshman classes in collegiate basketball history. After entering college ranked as the 10th overall freshman in the country, Hill has grinded his way through three subpar individual seasons at Florida. As a sophomore in Billy Donovan's last season, Hill played ~30 minutes a game, but then saw his clock actually reduced last year, once Mike White took over at the helm. And even in a slightly reduced role in his 3rd full college season, Hill showed no signs of improving his efficiency offensively (see below):
- Hill's '14-'15 season (two years ago)
- O-Rating: 89.5
- FT: 53% (50/95)
- 2-pt FG: 39% (81/206)
- 3-pt FG: 28% (8/29)
- Hill's '15-'16 season (last year)
- O-Rating: 91.0
- FT: 54% (71/132)
- 2-point FG: 42% (99/238)
- 3-point FG: 30% (19/64)
Three seasons is a large enough sample size to arrive at the conclusion that Hill simply can't shoot. And if he begins his senior year with similar offensive woes, expect to see increased time for backup point-guard, rising junior Chris Chiozza. White has already demonstrated that he has no problem benching Hill in favor Chiozza, a la last year's SEC tournament, when Chiozza started both games for the Gators at point. With that said, Chiozza certainly hasn't proven to be "Mr. Efficient" himself, but his 34% assist rate last season proves he is a true pass-first point guard option for White.
The other two key perimeter pieces for the Gators will be rising sophomore KeVaughn Allen and incoming College of Charleston transfer, Canyon Barry. Both Allen and Barry will be pivotal in fixing the Gator's 294th nationally ranked 3-point percentage last year, much of which was due to Allen's inability to knock down 3's (31% from deep as a freshman).
Allen entered Gainsville as a top-50 recruit, and was projected to be a dynamic scorer with a plus outside jumper. Allen's freshman pedigree, coupled with an outstanding 85% free throw percentage last season, are signs that his most efficient shooting days may still lie ahead of him.
While the casual hoop fan may know Canyon Barry for his famed "granny-style" form from the foul line (yup, you guessed it, Rick Barry is his daddy), many are oblivious to the fact that he was Charleston's leading scorer last season, before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the rest of the year. As a sophomore, Barry knocked down a respectable 37% of his 3-pointers, but his over-affection with long 2-point pull-ups hindered his overall offensive efficiency.
While White figures out which strings to pull with his perimeter group, he should sleep sound at night with a solid and proven frontline unit still in-tact from last year. Florida's interior rim protection should continue to be the strength of this Gator defense, especially with Devin Robinson and Josh Egbunu both returning at the 4 and 5 positions respectively. Egbunu and Robinson actually complement each other nicely on the boards, with Egbunu doing his damage on the offensive glass, and Robinson cleaning up the defensive glass. They also fit together exceptionally well offensively, with Robinson playing in a hybrid wing/stretch-4 role, while the chiseled Egbunu generally camps deep in the paint.
Mike White showed an aptitude to quickly pick-up on his roster's strengths and weaknesses over his first year on the sidelines in Gainsville. Look for the Gators to once again remain amongst the top 25-30 teams in the country defensively, but they'll need to knock down some outside shots if they hope to make a significant leap offensively.
3. South Carolina
Key Returners: PJ Dozier, Duane Notice, Sindarius Thornwell
Key Losses: Michael Careera, Laimonas Chatkevicius, Mindaugas Kacinas
Key Newcomers: Sedee Keita
Postseason Outlook: 8-12 seed
In year 4 of the Frank Martin's tenure in Columbia, the Gamecocks cracked the AP top-25 polls for the first time since 2004. Despite finishing SEC play in a 3-way tie for 3rd-place, the 'Cocks were left off the NCAA Tournament guest list, much of which can be blamed on a downy-soft non-conference schedule. This year, "General Martin" gets his entire perimeter core back, which should give Gamecock nation reason to believe their name will not be forgotten this time around on Selection Sunday.
High expectations were placed on South Carolina prior to last season, much of which was due to the anticipation of top-20 incoming freshman PJ Dozier. Dozier entered South Carolina pegged as a playmaking combo guard, who possessed point-guard like ballhandling and passing skills, all packed into a long 6'6 frame. That toolbox of skills gave Martin almost no choice but to immediately slot Dozier into the starting point guard spot from day 1. However, Martin soon realized the young Dozier just wasn't quite ready to run the show...
Dozier finished his freshman year with an atrocious 78 O-Rating, which was headlined by an abysmal 30% TO rate. By the end of the year, he had become lost in the rotation shuffles and rising senior Sindarius Thornwell had taken over the primary ball handling responsibilities. Thornwell, along with fellow veteran senior guard Duane Notice, give Martin a steady pair of backcourt mates to play alongside the young Dozier while he continues to develop. At 6'5 220 pounds, Thornwell is a weapon when he's in attack mode, whether it be spearheading Martin's up-tempo offensive pace in the open floor, or penetrating in half-court situations, where he often finds an open teammate or gets to foul line. Notice, on the other hand, is a more polished outside shooter and is comfortable deferring to Thornwell and Dozier to make plays for others.
With the starting backcourt basically set in stone, Martin will look to superfreak athlete Chris Silva to provide some stability on the inside, specifically on the defensive end. With the departure of Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas, the 'Cocks lose a ton of production on both the offensive and defensive boards. Silva was in Martin's doghouse toward the end of last season (which by the way sounds like my worst nightmare), but showed flashes of major destruction in his limited time on the floor. Silva posted an absurd 14% offensive rebounding rate and a 23% defensive rebounding rate last season, to go along with an astronomical 7.3% block rate. However, Silva committed just under 10 fouls per 40 minutes last year, which I believe is almost double what is legally allowed by basketball rules (need to validate that though).
Playing next to Silva on the inside will likely be top-100 freshman forward Sedee Keita. The 6'10 Keita is still incredibly raw, but his athletic upside projects him to be an effective rebounder, shot-blocker and rim-runner on the fast break, which should make him a perfect fit for this year's run-and-gun team. Martin will certainly have a polar opposite frontline look with Silva and Keita this season, compared to the pure back-to-the-basket, plodding post duo in Chatkevicius and Kacinas.
The ceiling for the Cocks this season is heavily reliant on the speed of PJ Dozier's maturation. Now with a full season of growing pains out of his system, Dozier must improve his efficiency in all aspects offensively, but most notably his assist to turnover ratio. He has all the tools to fit perfectly in the Gamecocks up-tempo attack, but if there's one coach in the country that won't tolerate careless decision-making with the ball, it's General Martin.
Key Returners: Moses Kingsley, Dusty Hannahs, Anton Beard
Key Losses: Anthlon Bell
Key Newcomers: Jaylen Barford (JUCO), Daryl Macon (JUCO), Arlando Cook (JUCO), Dustin Thomas (Colorado transfer), CJ Jones, Adrio Bailey
Postseason Outlook: 8-12 seed
After an NCAA tourney round of 32 appearance two years ago, Mike Anderson began a mini-rebuilding project last season after losing his top-3 scorers, Bobby Portis, Chad Qualls and Rashad Madden. Unsurprisingly, the Razorbacks were consistently inconsistent in 2016, finishing a mediocre 9-9 in SEC play and 16-16 overall. However, with the emergence of big man Moses Kingsley, along with two incoming JUCO All-Americans, Arkansas looks poised to crack the top-5 of the SEC in 2017.
On the perimeter, Anderson will have 6 legit guards to rotate across 3 positions. The returning trio of Dusty Hannahs, Anton Beard and Manuale Watkins is a solid veteran group of guards that all started for Anderson last season. However, none of those three will have guaranteed starting spots with the arrival of JUCO studs Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon.
Macon averaged 24 points a game over two seasons at Holmes Community College, shooting a respectable 50% from the floor last year. Characterized as a pure scorer coming out of JUCO, Macon has reportedly made an incredible leap in his outside shooting ability this offseason, which makes him a good bet to start at the 2. Macon and Barford's ability to consistently knock down outside shots will be critical to Arkansas keeping pace with their white-hot shooting display from last year, which made them a top-15 3-point shooting team in the country. However, that will also be heavily dependent on Dustys Hannahs's ability to maintain his lights out shooting from the land of plenty. Hannahs drained an absurd 44% of his treys last year on 200+ attempts and actually led the Razorbacks in scoring at 17 a game, just ahead of Kingsley.
The other incoming JUCO piece is Jaylen Barford, whose production at the JUCO level was nothing short of impressive. Barford put up 27 points a game on 59% shooting from the floor, to go along with 7 boards and 5 dimes a contest last season. While Anderson may use him as an instant offense weapon off-the-bench, it's hard to see him not immediately inserting Barford into the starting lineup.
Additional backcourt depth will be provided by junior Anton Beard, who actually started two years ago as a freshman, but saw his role decline last season as he struggled to find his outside shooting stroke. Beard and fellow veteran guard Manuale Watkins should both provide a consistent floor game off the bench, but neither are major scoring threats. The final piece to the backcourt is freshman CJ Jones, who emerged as a legitimate scoring option during Arkansas's recent trip to Spain, connecting on 50% of his 3-point attempts over the 10-day trip.
On the interior, Moses Kingsley emerged as a beast on the block last year and will be Anderson's most important player on both ends of the floor this season. When the Razorback guards aren't able to generate instant offense off the press, they must prioritize finding Kingsley down low in their half-court sets. Kingsley is one of the best in the SEC at getting to the line and consistently commands double teams against undersized bigs. However, his biggest value comes on the defensive end, where he is the sole rim-protector in Arkansas's half-court defense, and patrols the back-line of the full-court press. This roster lacks any real size outside of Kingsley, so expect him to be a one-man wrecking crew cleaning up opponent misses. Colorado transfer Dustin Thomas and incoming freshman Adrio Bailey should also provide some interior depth, next to Kingsley.
Similar to one of their conference foes (Georgia), shot-selection is major issue for this Arkansas squad, specifically in the half-court. For a team that shot lights-out from behind the arc last season, the Razorbacks took an inexplicably high percentage of long 2-point jumpers, where they were noticeably less efficient. With that said, Anderson now has the backcourt depth he needs to effectively execute his patented #Fastest40 defensive pressure, so expect the full-court press to be featured early and often this season.
5. Texas A&M
Key Returners: Tyler Davis, DJ Hogg, Admon Gilder
Key Losses: Alex Caruso, Danuel House, Jalen Jones
Key Newcomers: JC Hampton (Lipscomb transfer), JJ Caldwell, Robert Williams, Deshawn Corprew, Eric Vila (Spain)
Postseason Outlook: 8-12 seed
The production from Alex Caruso, Danuel House and Jalen Jones will be huge holes to fill for head coach Billy Kennedy this season, but the Aggies return a solid group of sophomores on the perimeter capable of emerging as go-to options very quickly.
The sophomore class is headlined by three ex top-100 recruits in Admon Gilder, Kobie Eubanks and DJ Hogg. Both Hogg and Gilder played significant minutes a year ago, while Eubanks was sidelined for most of the season with academic issues. All three are dynamic offensive players, but were overshadowed with the veterans Caruso, House and Jones running the show. With those three now gone, the new trio will get their crack at showcasing the dynamic slashing and scoring ability they each possess in a much more featured role. While Gilder and Eubanks are more perimeter-oriented penetrators, the 6'8 Hogg is a nightmare matchup on the wing, who can stretch opposing defenses with a capable outside jumper.
On the defensive end, the sophomores will need to show their defensive-minded head coach that they can guard consistently and replicate at least some of the havoc that Caruso and Anthony Collins created on the perimeter last season. The Aggies ranked 22nd in the nation in defensive turnover rate last year, which was a primary reason A&M was a top-15 defense overall. Gilder, Eubanks and Hogg are all long and athletic enough to generate some steals of their own, but it will be interesting to see how Kennedy mixes up his half-court defensive looks between man and zone with this revamped perimeter core. The other two backcourt members will be two new top-100 recruits in JJ Caldwell and Deshawn Corprew. With the point-guard position as a major vacancy on this roster, Caldwell will have an opportunity play himself into a starting spot as a true freshman.
On the interior, Kennedy returns a great 4/5 combination with Tonny Trocha-Morelos and a SEC POTY candidate Tyler Davis. As a freshman, Davis instantly provided A&M with a go-to scoring weapon on the block (shot 66% from the field), and routinely feasted on the offensive boards (ranked in the nation's top-40 in offensive rebounding rate). He is arguably the league's best post player, and should get plenty of space to operate in the paint with A&M's 4-out, 1-in half-court offense, all of which is made possible by Trocha-Morelos. At 6'10, Trocha-Morelos molded perfectly into the prototypical stretch-4 role last year, cashing in on 37% of his treys.
On the defensive end, both Trocha-Morelos and Davis are effective rim-protectors, but will need to pick up the rebounding slack leftover from Jalen Jones's departure. Kennedy's man-to-man half-court defense is geared toward stopping penetration at all costs, which causes opponents to chuck a ton of outside shots. This should result in a lot of long rebound misses, making it critical that the guards get engaged on the defensive glass.
On paper, the length and athleticism of this A&M team at all 5 positions should ensure the Aggies remain amongst the country's top-20 defenses. The major question is how quickly the unproven, yet talented, sophomore trio of Gilder, Hogg and Eubanks will develop offensively.
Key Returners: Riley LaChance, Matthew Fischer-Davis, Luke Kornet, Jeff Roberson
Key Losses: Damian Jones, Wade Baldwin
Key Newcomers: Payton Willis, Clevon Brown
Postseason Outlook: 10 seed-NIT
17 years, 332 wins and 7 NCAA tournament appearances later, the Kevin Stallings chapter has officially come to a close in Nashville. Now in steps his successor, Bryce Drew aka "Mr. Valparaiso", who feels almost like a long lost mentee to Stallings, given how similar their coaching styles are.
Over his last 4 years as Valpo, Drew consistently built well-balanced offensive teams, which featured no clear go-to scoring option, but got consistent contributions from 5-6 guys night in and night out. This notion of balance should remind the Commodore faithful of the prototypical Stallings team at Vandy, which were also characterized by a balanced inside-out offensive attack. Even on defense, both Stallings and Drew rely on a stout man-to-man approach, which doesn't force a ton of turnovers, but emphasizes effective off-ball rotations geared toward limiting easy buckets at the rim and uncontested 3's. The point is that these stylistic similarities between Drew and Stallings should make Drew's year 1 transition that much smoother.
From a pure roster perspective, the loss of Wade Baldwin will no doubt be a huge blow to the backcourt, leaving Drew with a major question mark at the point guard position. However, the rest of the perimeter features three returning starters, all of whom must assume more assertive roles in the offense this year.
After an excellent freshman campaign, rising junior Riley LaChance came down with a bad case of the "sophomore slumps" last season, in which he regressed in almost every meaningful offensive statistic. The challenge to return to his freshman year form will be compounded by the fact that he will likely have to assume the point guard duties, now with Baldwin no longer in the picture.
The 2nd cog to this perimeter core is wing sharpshooter Matthew Fischer-Davis, who is arguably the most talented player on the entire roster. "MFD" has one of the purest shooting strokes in the country (connected on 45% of 177 3-point attempts last season) and his athleticism gives him the potential to be a deadly slasher as well. However, often times he is overly content deferring to his teammates offensively, evidenced by his almost invisible 15% usage rate a year ago. Now, without Baldwin and Damian Jones scoring on the low-block, Fischer-Davis must become a more prominent and dynamic scoring option in the offense, as opposed to being a one-trick pony that floats on the perimeter.
The final piece of the Vandy backcourt, who sometimes plays the 4 in smaller lineups, is rising junior Jeff Roberson. Roberson was the pinnacle of efficiency for the 'Dores last season, posting a team best 124 O-Rating, mostly because of his ability to knock down open 3's (44% last season) and get easy put backs on the offensive glass. When Roberson plays at the 3, look for 6'7 sophomore Joe Toye to step in at the 4, who knocked down a cool 43% of his 3's last year, albeit in a small sample size.
While LaChance and Fischer-Davis must take major steps forward on the perimeter, a ton will be expected from the uber-skilled, 7-footer Luke Kornet on the inside. Despite suffering an MCL tear midway during last season, Kornet was Vanderbilt's best shot-blocker and defensive rebounder when he was on the floor. Oddly enough, his injury seemed to adversely impact his offense more than his defense, as Kornet's exceptional 78/62/41 freshman shooting splits fell to 69/50/28 as a sophomore. With Damian Jones no longer camping out in the paint, Kornet will play more of a true 5 offensively, which should give Vandy much improved spacing in the half-court. This will allow Kornet to feast on plodding big defenders, by pulling them away from the basket on pick-n-pop action with the guards.
After a disappointing end to the Stalling's era last season, Bryce Drew inherits an extremely skilled and unselfish offensive unit that is flying under the radar this year. Vandy's lineup combinations will always feature at-least four elite long-range shooters, which should give bigger SEC frontlines fits defensively.
Key Returners: JJ Frazier, Yante Maten
Key Losses: Charles Mann, Kenny Gaines
Key Newcomers: Tyree Crump, Jordan Harris, Pape Diatta (JUCO)
Postseason Outlook: 12 seed-NIT
No one in the SEC, not even Kentucky, was better than Georgia at protecting their own basket last season. The Bulldogs blocked more shots than any other team in the conference, and held opponents to just 53% shooting on all attempts at the rim, good for 2nd best in the league. 6'8 junior Yante Maten, along with two 6'9 sophomores, Mike Edwards and Derek Ogbeide, were critical parts to the stout interior defense last season, all of whom will be back in the mix this year.
However, the offensive side of the ball has been the achilles heal for this team over the past two years, much of which has been due to poor shot selection and shaky ball security. Last season, Georgia fell in love with inefficient mid-to-long range 2-point jumpers, which may explain why they ranked 250th in the country in effective FG%. The departure of Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann should help mitigate this issue, given they shot 38% and 39% respectively on a high volume of 2-point field goals last year. Mann, along with a few other role players, were also major reasons why Georgia gave the ball away so often last season (ranked 250th in the country in offensive TO rate), making the Bulldogs' half-court offense painful to watch at times. Edwards, Ogbeide and rising sophomore Will "Turtle" Jackson were also guilty of carelessness with the ball, each of whom posted horrendous assist to turnover rates in their freshman seasons, despite playing in limited roles offensively.
If it weren't for Maten and senior point guard JJ Frazier's production last season, Georgia may have been the worst offensive team in the conference. Fox's decision to play Charles Mann more at the 2-guard and let Frazier run the show at point was pure genius, as Frazier posted a cool 3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Frazier, along with Maten, were both were productive scorers a year ago, but like many of their teammates, showed a tendency to settle for inefficient looks. While Maten possesses a very good shooting touch out to 18 feet, a whopping 67% of his field goal attempts were 2-point jumpers last season, a major reason his 2-point FG% fell just below 50%. Maten is most efficient when he operates 6-8 feet away from the basket in post-up or turn-and-face situations and then attacks his defender. At 245 pounds, he uses his body effectively to draw fouls and get to the line, where he is a money free-throw shooter (78%). Just like Maten, Frazier loves to settle for mid-range pull-ups off-the-dribble, but is significantly more efficient as a 3-point shooter (39% from 3 last year). And when Frazier chooses to attack the basket, he is also effective drawing contact and getting to the line, where he knocked down 83% of his 193 attempts last season.
With Frazier's backcourt supporting cast of Mann and Gaines both graduating, the spotlight will shift to top-100 freshman Tyree Crump, who should fit nicely next to Frazier at shooting guard. Crump has been scouted as a true scoring 2-guard and is excels in the open floor. A major question mark on the perimeter will be the role of senior Juwan Parker, who missed the entire 2016 season with an Achilles injury. Many believed Parker was in-line to start last season before the injury, so there is a strong chance he snags the 5th starting spot from either Crump or senior Kenny Paul Geno. At 6'6 210 pounds, "KPG" is a prototypical role player who is not much of an offensive threat, but provides defense and toughness on the wing.
The 1-2 punch of Maten and Frazier will be the focal points for opposing defenses this season, especially with no other proven scoring in the rotation. However, Georgia's stout defensive identity should be even better this season this season, especially with core of the frontline returning.
Key Returners: Jayln Patterson, Antonio Blakeney, Brandon Sampson, Craig Victor
Key Losses: Ben Simmons, Keith Hornsby, Tim Quarterman
Key Newcomers: Duop Reath (JUCO), Branden Jenkins (JUCO), Skylar Mays
Postseason Outlook: NIT
From a pure talent perspective, head coach Johnny Jones returns a few young offensive weapons this season, even without freshman phenom Ben Simmons still on campus. Three of these weapons, Jalyn Patterson, Antonio Blakeney and Brandon Sampson, will make up the core of LSU's backcourt this season, all of whom are ex top-50 recruits.
Blakeney was the most productive of this group last season and particularly emerged down the stretch, averaging 19 points a game over the last 11 contests. Starting alongside Blakeney will likely be junior Jalyn Patterson, who, despite being nearly invisible offensively in his first two seasons, is probably LSU's best outside shooter. Patterson's minutes actually declined last season playing in a crowded Tiger backcourt, but expect his role to increase significantly with Tim Quarterman, Keith Hornsby and Josh Gray all graduating. The third key backcourt piece will be sophomore Brandon Sampson, who struggled in the limited minutes he got last season. Similar to Patterson, Sampson took a backseat to Simmons and the other veteran guards last year, but he is no doubt a highlight reel waiting to happen when he gets the ball on the break. His size and strength make him almost impossible to slow down when he gets a head of steam in the open court, so look for the Tigers to continue to run-and-gun off opponents' misses this season, many times with Sampson leading the charge.
The MAJOR, I repeat, MAJOR, reason for LSU's disappointing year last season was their half-court defense, or rather, complete lackthereof. On the surface, the Tigers's 147th ranked defense overall masks just how bad they were at protecting the basket. LSU ranked in the bottom-5 in the country in FG% defense on all shots at the rim, and were bottom-50 in total shots allowed at the rim. Simmons was the only effective shot-blocker at anytime on the floor, but it was the rotational and help side defense that was simply non-existent. With no Simmons in the paint to bail out "matador" perimeter defense, 6'10 JUCO addition Duop Reath is the only glimmer of hope for an improvement in LSU's rim protection this year. 6'9 ex-Arizona transfer Craig Victor will also need to take big leap forward in his defensive rebounding with Simmons no longer in the picture.
Key Returners: Shannon Hale, Riley Norris, Jimmie Taylor
Key Losses: Retin Obasohan, Arthur Edwards
Key Newcomers: Bola Olaniyan (SIUC transfer), Braxton Key, Ar'mond Davis (JUCO), Nick King (Memphis transfer), Corban Collins (Morehead St. transfer)
Postseason Outlook: NIT
Unlike in football, Alabama struggled all year long to score consistently in Avery Johnson's first season in Tuscaloosa. Johnson has been vocal this offseason about improving Bama's outside shooting, which was a major achilles heel for the Crimson last year (ranked 208th nationally in 3-point %). Johnson's NBA roots are evident in the emphasis he puts on the 3-point shot, which may explain why 43% of Bama's field goal attempts last year came from beyond the arc. Unfortunately, Johnson quickly found out that Justin Coleman and Brandon Austin don't quite have the outside shooting strokes of Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry. To make matters worse, his two best 3-point shooters last season, Retin Obasohan and Arthur Edwards, both graduate, leaving major questions on who will knock down open 3's this year.
Johnson is hoping the 5th ranked player in the 2016 JUCO class, Ar'mond Davis, can help address this void. The 6'6 Davis led JUCO power College of Southern Idaho in scoring last year, but only shot 28% from deep and 42% from the floor overall. Perhaps this offseason workout clip is reason to believe he'll improve upon that mark at the D1 level.
6'7 rising junior Riley Norris is Bama's best returning outside shooter from a year ago, and will surely start at the 3. Assuming Davis's talent can secure him the starting spot at the 2, this leaves Johnson with redshirt freshman Dazon Ingram as the likely starter at the point. Johnson put a ton of faith in Ingram last year as a true freshman, giving him the starting point guard nod from day 1. Unfortunately, Ingram's development was halted by a season ending leg injury after just 7 games. In the small sample size to start the year, Ingram displayed high-risk playmaking tendencies, posting an impressive 30% assist rate, to go along with an poor 35% turnover rate.
Even though Johnson has major question marks with his returning backcourt, he'll have plenty of continuity with Bama's frontline unit from last year. Rising sophomore Donta Hall, along with seniors Shannon Hale and Jimmie Taylor, will anchor the core of the interior defense. Both Hall and Taylor are excellent rim-protectors and big reasons Bama ranked in the top-15 nationally in block % and top-50 defense overall. Additional depth should come from 6'7 240 pound freshman Braxton Key, who possesses rare strength and physicality for an 18-year old.
While outside shooting and ball handling will certainly be major points of emphasis this year, the Tide need to improve considerably on the defensive glass. It's head scratching how this long and athletic frontcourt was the worst defensive rebounding team in the entire SEC last season. Incoming transfer Bola Olaniyan should help shore that up, and if Johnson can get the rest of the troops committed on the glass, Bama has the potential to be a top-30 defense this season.
10. Ole Miss
Key Returners: Sebastian Saiz, Rasheed Brooks
Key Losses: Stefan Moody, Martavious Newby
Key Newcomers: DeAndre Burnett (Miami FL transfer), Cullen Neal (New Mexico transfer), Tyrek Coger (JUCO)
Postseason Outlook: NIT-CBI
After coaching the likes of Stefan Moody and Marshall Henderson over the past 4 years, head coach Andy Kennedy brings in his newest offensive gunner, New Mexico transfer Cullen Neal. Henderson and Neal have a laundry list of similarities, most notably in their "brash" (politically correct) on-court antics and trigger-happy shot-selection. The Sante Fe New Mexican paper did a feature on Neal a season ago that highlighted a prime example of his arrogance:
"....the time he drew a technical foul at Wyoming [and] canned a late free throw and then cupped his ear to the Cowboys’ student section as if to prod them to try harder to rattle him."
Repeated incidents like this one, along with his volatile on-the-court play, make Neal virtually impossible to project this season. Neal is no doubt a talented scorer and playmaker, but he must be more efficient then he was at New Mexico if the Rebels are going compete this year in the SEC. Neal shot 37% and 32% from inside and outside the arc respectively last season, both of which were on a high volume of attempts. He'll play alongside another transfer in the backcourt this season, ex-Miami Hurricane DeAndre Burnett. Burnett is as shifty as they come with the ball in his hands, and should help carry a big chunk of the scoring load.
The third key backcourt member will be steady senior Rasheed Brooks, who has proven to be a defensive ballhawk on the perimeter for Kennedy. However, Brooks struggled shooting the ball last year from all over the floor, evidenced by his 55/46/30 shooting splits. When he puts the ball on the floor, he is noticeably reluctant to get all the way to the rim, which explains why he attempted only 40 free throws last year, compared to 124 2-point FG attempts and 148 3-point FG attempts.
The Rebel frontcourt features much more continuity from last season, which is led by senior Sebastian Saiz. Saiz was productive on both ends of the floor last year, most notably as a rebounder and shot blocker. His smooth touch from 8-15 feet out should make him a beneficiary of Burnett's and Neal's penetration. Saiz will likely start alongside junior Marcanvis Hymon (not an ideal last name), who was super effective on a per-40 minute basis last season. At only 6'7, Hymon displays great athleticism and a high-motor, which allow him to eat on the offensive glass (he posted a top-100 ranked offensive rebounding rate last year). Both Hymon and Saiz should have plenty of opportunities to clean up their teammates misses this season, and will need to do so for Ole Miss to remain a top 50-75 offense nationally.
11. Mississippi St.
Key Returners: Quinndary Weatherspoon, IJ Ready
Key Losses: Malik Newman, Craig Sword, Gavin Ware
Key Newcomers: Eli Wright, Mario Kegler, Schnider Herard, Abdulhakim Ado, Tyson Carter, Xavier Stapleton (Louisiana Tech transfer)
Postseason Outlook: CBI
The Ben Howland era is off-and-running in Starksville, but probably not as fast as most people expected. Howland inherited a relatively veteran group in his first season, which was led by a pair of senior guards, Craig Sword and Gavin Ware. Putting these two next to top-10 recruit Malik Newman looked to be a formidable backcourt on paper, but inconsistency plagued the Bulldogs all year long, particularly on when playing away from home. However, throughout the latter half of SEC play, the Bulldogs were much more competitive, as they jumped from 125th to 75th in kenpom.com's overall rankings. Unfortunately, the announcement of Malik Newman's transfer to Kansas put a big fat dent in any momentum from last year, killing most of the offseason optimism in "Stark Vegas".
Despite this setback, Howland continued to recruit effectively this offseason, and returns two underrated guards on the perimeter. Senior point guard IJ Ready will be the lone impact veteran on this squad, and should have the ball in his hands a ton this year. While Ready clearly prefers to facilitate for his teammates, his backcourt mate Quinndary Weatherspoon is more of a scorer and a nice fit at the 2 next to Ready. As a true freshman last year, Weatherspoon was overshadowed by the hype of Newman, but quietly put together an efficient offensive year, posting a 110 O-Rating and knocking down 39% of his 104 3-pointers. Weatherspoon also proved to be Howland's most disruptive defender on the perimeter and with increased minutes coming for both him and Ready, expect the Bulldogs to force more turnovers this season, which should hopefully lead to easy opportunities in transition.
Both Ready and Weatherspoon will have to quickly assume leadership roles this year for a squad that features 6 freshman, all of whom are top-100 ranked recruits . While there is no stand-out stud amongst this group, a pair of athletic forwards in Schnider Herard and Mario Kegler should make immediate impacts, especially with a major void in returning frontline production. The 6'8 Kegler projects as a more of a wing 3 offensively, but is capable of defending the 4 position. Herard is a true center that is still developing a reliable low-post game, but should be a major contributor on the glass right away. Howland may also look to another freshman, 6'10 Adbulhakim Ado, to provide some additional interior depth, but Ado still has a long way to go in developing his offensive skillset.
Another intriguing member of the freshman class is smooth, slashing lefty Eli Wright. The long 6'5 Wright thrives in the open floor, but has also shown a consistent pull-up, midrange game in the half-court. Though not a great outside shooter, Wright could be a nice fit on the wing, next to the smaller Weatherspoon at shooting guard.
Predicting how good this Mississippi St. team will be is highly dependent on projecting the plethora of young talent Howland has acquired and whether or not they can develop quickly. Ready and Weatherspoon are safe bets to form a solid backcourt this year, but they'll need a ton of support from the talented youngsters if this team wants to remain competitive in the SEC.
Key Returners: Terrence Phillips, Kevin Puryear
Key Losses: Wes Clark, Namon Wright, Jakeenan Gant, Ryan Rosburg
Key Newcomers: Jordan Barnett (Texas transfer) , Jordan Geist (JUCO)
Postseason Outlook: None
After enduring a 19-44 record over the past two season, Kim Anderson is still trying to clean up the mess Frank Haith left behind. Since taking over as head coach, 13 players have either decommitted, transferred or been dismissed from Mizzou, now leaving Anderson with a grand total of zero players that were brought in during the Haith era.
Mizzou's roster contains only two upperclassmen, which include former JUCO transfer Russell Woods and incoming Texas transfer Jordan Barnett. Barnett won't be eligible until December, but he'll become the Tigers's most talented player the minute he steps on the floor. An ex top-100 recruit, the 6'6 Barnett is a long, versatile wing that can score in a variety ways from all over the floor. With no elite interior size at Anderson's disposal, look for Barnett to get plenty of run at the 4, playing alongside the Mizzou's leading scorer last season, Kevin Puryear.
The lefty Puryear is a crafty finisher around the rim and loves to operate deep on the low-block. Despite being undersized at 6'7, he's effective at drawing fouls against bigger defenders and converts at a high percentage when he gets to the foul line (shot 84% from the stripe last season). Puryear should see a lot more double teams in the post this year, especially with no proven outside shooting to be found anywhere on this roster. The Tigers shot an atrocious 31% as a team from beyond the arc last year and ranked dead last in the SEC in effective FG%.
However, Anderson's backcourt features a pair of sophomore guards who will are capable of taking a major step forward this season. Terrance Phillips is the incumbent starting point guard, hailing from the esteemed Oak Hill Academy, who showed some promise early in non-conference action last year. However, his efficiency tapered off as the season went on, particularly during SEC play, as he struggled mightily finishing at the rim against bigger frontlines. As the primary ball handler, Phillips also was turnover prone at times and needs to lower the 24% TO rate he posted last season if Mizzou is going to be more efficient offensively.
Starting next to Phillips will likely be KJ Walton, an ex 4-star recruit out of Indiana who entered Columbia last season with relatively high expectations. While his minutes were limited playing behind Wes Clark last year, Walton showed flashes of being a capable scorer and playmaker. The freshman posted respectable shooting splits of 69/46/37 from the foul line, 2-point and 3-point areas respectively, and took better care of the ball than most of his backcourt mates.
The final starting spot on the perimeter is up-in-the-air, but rising sophomore Cullen VanLeer is the probably the best bet to claim it. VanLeer was primarily a spot-up shooter last season, but struggled knocking down open looks from the outside (27% on 110 3-point attempts). However, on the Tiger's recent trip to Italy, VanLeer actually led Mizzou in scoring over 4 exhibition games and connected on 47% of his deep balls. Regardless of who starts at the 3, Anderson will likely feature a 10+ man rotation, which will allow him fully evaluate all of the young assets he has at his disposal. Two of the freshman to watch are high-school teammates Willie Jackson and Frankie Hughes, who both had strong showings in the "Tour de Italy" as well.
After finishing last in the SEC a year ago, most will likely pencil Mizzou in to the cellar again this season. However, this is an underrated defensive team under the "packline-esque" defense that Anderson preaches, which should also get better on the offensive end, especially if Phillips and Walton can both take major steps forward as sophomores.
Key Returners: Bryce Brown, TJ Dunans, TJ Lang
Key Losses: Kareem Canty, Tyler Harris, Cinmeon Bowers
Key Newcomers: Ronnie Johnson (Houston transfer), Mustapha Heron, LaRon Smith (Bethune-Cookman transfer), Jared Harper, Anfernee McLemore
Postseason Outlook: None
Due to the high turnover on Bruce Pearl's team this offseason, War Eagle is one of the tougher teams to predict in the SEC. Auburn loses their 3 highest usage players to graduation, but brings in two new perimeter pieces that will likely play major roles this season. The first of these new faces is Houston transfer Ronnie Johnson, who is now at his 3rd school in 4 seasons (began career at Purdue). Johnson was a pivotal part in Houston's top-20 offensive attack last season, so expect him to slide right into the starting lineup at the point guard spot. Rising senior TJ Dunans played a ton at the point guard spot for Pearl last year, but is better suited off-the-ball as a true scoring 2-guard. Expect both Johnson and Dunans to dominate the ball in the half-court offensively, playing alongside sophomore Bryce Brown and top-20 incoming freshman Mustapha Heron.
Heron represents a ray of hope for Auburn basketball and is Pearl's highest ranked recruit since taking over as head coach two years ago. At 6'4 210 pounds, Heron can impact the game in many different ways, and his size/strength should make him a competent perimeter defender and rebounder right away. He possesses an all-around offensive game, with the ability to penetrate and kick, but is also capable of assuming a lead scoring role if needed . On the other hand, Bryce Brown displayed a much less dynamic offensive game in his freshman campaign last year. While Brown did knock down a respectable 37% of his 200+ 3-point attempts, he failed to score efficiently from anywhere else on the floor.
The final perimeter piece that should make an immediate impact is top-100 freshman Jared Harper. Harper is a perfect fit to play in Pearl's breakneck pace on offense, as he routinely looks to go 110 mph with the ball in the open court. However, at only 5'9, Harper will likely struggle in the half-court, where he still needs to develop a consistent pull-up jumper or floater offensively and will likely be picked on by bigger guards defensively. Nonetheless, he will surely have some flashy moments as a freshman, and his quickness should make him a nice addition to Pearl's press.
The frontcourt features two players that mesh nicely together at the 4 and the 5. TJ Lang is a true stretch-4, who was by far Auburn's best outside shooter last season (41% from 3). However, Lang must commit to becoming a better rebounder, specifically on the defensive end, where Auburn was an abomination last year. A lot will be expected of 6'9 Horace Spencer, who was also less than stellar on the defensive glass last season. Although Spencer was Auburn's best offensive rebounder last season, he was atrocious in basically every other offensive department. Spencer's primary value to the Tiger team is on the other end, where he posted the highest block rate in the SEC while he was on the floor last season.
With Pearl now in his 3rd season at head coach, this is certainly a make-or-break year for Auburn. Another season spent at the bottom of the SEC totem pole will likely spark some hot-seat rumblings for Pearl, which will put a ton of pressure on next year's top-5 incoming freshman class to produce wins quickly.
Key Returners: Robert Hubbs III
Key Losses: Kevin Punter, Armani Moore, Derek Reese, Devon Baulkman
Key Newcomers: Jalen Johnson, Grant Williams, Kwe Parker, Lew Evans (Utah St. transfer)
Postseason Outlook: None
Rick Barnes's first 12-14 months at Rocky Top have been... well, rocky.... Despite returning four key senior pieces to last years squad, the Vols stumbled down the stretch, en route to a 12th place finish in the SEC. Only one starter from last year's team returns, so Barnes will look to three 4-star freshman to make an immediate impact for this year's group.
After averaging 11 points a contest as a junior, senior Robert Hubbs III is the Vols lone returning starter and the odds on favorite to lead his team in scoring again. Hubbs is not an super efficient shooter from anywhere on the floor, but his top-20 turnover rate makes him a reliable offensive option in a high-usage role. Hubbs loves to settle for pull-up midrange jumpers, which may explain why he attempted only 69 free throws last season, compared to 237 total 2-point field goal attempts. He'll certainly need to get some scoring help from fellow returners, Detrick Mostella and Admiral Schofield.
Mostella is a former 4-star recruit himself, ranking in the top-50 of the 2014 247sports.com rankings. However, his talent has been overshadowed by his inefficiency in his first two seasons, but he did show signs of improvement as a sophomore last year. Schofield, on the other hand, was quite impressive coming off-the-bench in his freshman campaign. Despite being undersized as a forward, Schofield's linebacker 240 pound build make him a difficult matchup for opposing teams. He's shown flashes of his overall versatility and is capable of scoring from all over the floor, both in transition and in the half-court. The final member of the backcourt will likely be 6'6 lefty wing Jalen Johnson, the highest regarded of Barnes's 2016 freshman class. While Johnson showcases his athleticism in the open-floor, he plays within himself in half-court settings, simplifying his shot-selection to open 3's and hard drives going to his left. He will certainly need to expand his game as he progresses throughout his collegiate career, but his scouting report indicates he won't force the action too much as a freshman.
An intriguing player to watch this year will be Lamonte Turner, who sat out all of last year due to academic ineligibility. With Kevin Punter now graduating, Turner could sneak into the starting lineup, given he is the only true point-guard on this roster.
Barnes needs to address two major deficiencies for the Vols last season: transition defense and rebounding. Tennessee allowed more fast-break opportunities than any other SEC opponent last year, as 23% of all opponents FGs came in transition. The Vols also surrendered the 2nd most offensive rebounds to their opponents in the SEC last year, so Barnes will need Kyle Alexander and incoming transfer Lew Evans to immediately step-up and anchor the glass.
Similar to last year, the Vols have a slightly odd roster makeup, featuring a lot of "tweeners" that don't do anything particularly well. Admiral Schofield is the undetected gem on this roster, and should create constant mismatches on the offensive end. If he doesn't assert himself as a leader this season, the ceiling for this Vols team may wind up being the floor of the SEC standings.