Note: Predicted conference standings may not line up exactly with our Top 40 rankings; this is because Top 40 were ranked via consensus voting, while individual conference ranks are up to the specific writer.
Player of the Year: KeVaughn Allen, G, Jr., Florida
Coach of the Year: Mike White, Florida
Newcomer of the Year: Michael Porter Jr., F, Fr., Missouri
Freshman of the Year: Michael Porter Jr., F, Fr., Missouri
See full preview here: #9 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #8 in our Top-40 countdown
3. Texas A&M
See full preview here: #18 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #26 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #35 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #40 in our Top-40 countdown
Key Returners: Daryl Macon, Jaylen Barford, Anton Beard, Dustin Thomas
Key Losses: Dusty Hannahs, Moses Kingsley, Manuale Watkins
Key Newcomers: Daniel Gafford, Khalil Garland, Darious Hall
Postseason Projection: Barely on the wrong side of the bubble, NIT Final Four
Outlook: Two weeks before North Carolina was cutting down the nets (and as I was struggling to stay alive through a violent hangover at the Las Vegas airport), Arkansas had the eventual national champs on the ropes. Leading 65-60 with 3:28 remaning, the Razorbacks appeared to be on the verge of a seismic upset, but a late collapse/some Tar Heel heroics/iffy refereeing left “Suitcase” Mike Anderson and the boys wondering what might have been. But it’s a new year in Fayetteville!
After years of playing an aggressive, pressing defense (modeled after his mentor, Nolan Richardson, and the “40 Minutes of Hell”), Anderson has eased off the gas pedal slightly, opting for more of a “disrupt their rhythm” press to control the tempo. To wit – Anderson defenses were in the top 12 nationally in turnover rate in 10 of 12 years from 2003 to 2014, but in 2016 that rank fell to 77th, and tumbled to 174th last season. Instead, Arky forced longer possessions and more difficult shots, taking advantage of the shorter shot clock (whoa, kinda smart?) and Moses Kingsley’s commanding interior presence.
The Razorbacks won’t have the luxury of funneling opponents to a shot-swatter like Kingsley this season, but Trey Thompson is a solid presence himself, a big who Knows His Role (shouts to my colleague Matt Cox) and basically never shoots the ball. Daniel Gafford, the prize of the recruiting class, is another interior option if Thompson spends too much time in foul trouble. Perimeter-wise, the team’s two best players, Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, are both pesky defenders who fit perfectly into Anderson’s new system: they can nab a few steals, but they’ll mostly play sound positional D and use their length and physicality to force tough shots. Dustin Thomas may be the team’s best overall defender, an athletic forward who can guard four positions and switch when needed – the Razorbacks were 13 points better per 100 defensive possessions with him on the court last year.
Offensively, it’s going to be the Macon and Barford show. Barford, a burly guard who thrives on getting to the basket, ranked 7th in the entire SEC in percentage of shots taken while on the floor, and with Dusty Hannahs gone, that could tick even higher. Barford exemplifies the Razorbacks’ biggest weakness on this end, though: too many inefficient midrange shots, not enough threes. Overall, Arkansas took 37.4% of their shots from midrange, 31st-most in the country, yet they only made 32.8% of them, 312th-best (all per hoop-math). And yet they still had an awesome offense! Macon was a big reason why – he’s the only proven returning shooter (slight apologies to Anton Beard), and despite a more wiry frame and lower usage than Barford, he took almost 50 more free throws.
Both guys will have the ball in their hands frequently, so emphasizing their strengths and minimizing weaknesses/inefficiencies will be crucial to Arkansas’s offense remaining tough. The whole roster thrives in transition, easily the best part of any Anderson offense. The team ranked 20th in percentage of shots taken in transition, per Synergy, and if opponents don’t stress getting back, Anderson’s squad will run, run, run. Depth is a concern at that pace, as the bench will mostly be bit players and freshmen (I like sophomore Adrio Bailey and freshman Khalil Garland most of that group), so the top six may have to play more minutes than usual.
Bottom Line: Arkansas has some high-level talent with Barford and Macon, but concerns about their lack of shooting aside from Macon along with unproven depth give me some hesitance on predicting a repeat NCAA Tournament appearance. I’m a broken record on this, but a stronger SEC around them will be a hindrance as well. Anderson has only made two tournaments in six years at his “dream job,” and I fear the Razorbacks will find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble this year.
8. Ole Miss
Key Returners: Terence Davis, DeAndre Burnett, Justas Furmanavicius, Breein Tyree, Marcanvis Hymon
Key Losses: Cullen Neal, Sebastian Saiz, Rasheed Brooks
Key Newcomers: Markel Crawford, Dom Olejniczak, Bruce Stevens, Devontae Shuler
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: When Andy Kennedy came to Oxford and the SEC back in March 2006, Billy Donovan was coming off his first national title at Florida (he’d go back-to-back the next season), V for Vendetta had just opened at #1 at the box office, and Kentucky fans didn’t know or care who Billy Clyde Gillispie was. Here we are eleven years later: Donovan is in his third year coaching NBA MVP Russell Westbrook, I’ve watched V for Vendetta 100 times on cable reruns, Kentucky fans have a massive vendetta against Billy Clyde while adoring John Calipari…and Andy Kennedy is still rolling along at Ole Miss, the longest tenured coach in the conference. He’s been consistently solid (if never elite), winning 20+ games every season except one (he won 19), and he has three years remaining on his contract.
This season, Kennedy returns two highly-talented perimeter pieces to facilitate his offense (which often features 1-2 extremely high-usage players) and adds some useful pieces via transfer and recruiting. The Rebels are Jon Rothstein’s favorite SEC sleeper, and if all the pieces mesh correctly, they can certainly contend for Kennedy’s third NCAA bid (surprisingly low!).
The offense will revolve around DeAndre Burnett and Terence Davis, two high-usage scorers that had breakout years after not playing/barely playing, respectively, during 2015-16. Davis in particular followed in the immortal footsteps of Stefan Moody and Marshall Henderson as one of the nation’s premier volume gunners when on the court – just look at where those guys ranked nationally in percentage of shots used over the past 5 years:
Kennedy’s offenses traditionally rely on one or two perimeter scorers heaving shots and a cadre of big bodies sieging the offensive glass for putbacks and kick-outs for even more heaves. Along with Burnett and Davis, Breein Tyree and Memphis grad transfer Markel Crawford will focus on the former. Sebastian Saiz is a big loss latter, but Justas Furmanavicius and Marcanvis Hymon both showed a penchant for tracking down loose balls. Plus, Ole Miss adds Drake transfer Dominik Olejniczak, a massive Polish seven-footer who started to emerge as a force late in the 2015-16 season for the Bulldogs. With Hymon and Furmanavicius only measuring 6’7, plus a year practicing against Saiz, Ole the Pole (trademark: me) could start right away and have a big year.
Defensively, Kennedy is a proponent of mixing up defenses and playing a lot of zone (particularly 1-3-1). This results in opponents getting a lot of open outside shots, and if the Rebels are playing a team with strong ball movement and multiple shooters, they’re going to struggle. The zone does make scoring at the rirm difficult, and all three of the team’s rotation bigs plus JUCO newcomer Bruce Stevens will snuff out many would-be drives at the rim. Freshman Devontae Shuler (an Oak Hill product) gives Kennedy a balls-to-the-wall option as a perimeter defender, an intense competitor who could help boost last year’s pedestrian turnover numbers on the defensive end.
Bottom Line: Mississippi is one of the many SEC teams with a high variance in potential outcomes for the season. If Burnett and Davis continue to get better and Ole the Pole/Stevens continue the onslaught on the O boards, the Runnin’ Rebs could have a top-notch SEC offense. The zone defense limits their ceiling, though (no Kennedy defense has ever finished in KenPom’s top 50, outside the top 100 six times), so look for them to try to outscore teams.
Key Returners: Mustapha Heron, Jared Harper, Danjel Purifoy, Bryce Brown, Austin Wiley, Horace Spencer
Key Losses: Ronnie Johnson, TJ Dunans, TJ Lang
Key Newcomers: DeSean Murray, Chuma Okeke, Davion Mitchell
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: Due to shady recruiting practices (and subsequent lying) plus taking over an Auburn program in a brutal state, Bruce Pearl hasn’t had a basketball team relevant on the national stage since 2011. After slowly but surely accumulating talent in War Eagle Land, he may finally matter once again.
Pearl’s uptempo system thrives on depth, and this year’s squad could easily go ten or eleven deep. The Tigers were one of the least experienced teams in the country last year, and with sophomores like Mustapha Heron, Jared Harper, and Danjel Purifoy actually having some experience this season, this year’s squad should be far more consistent.
Auburn attempted the 20th-most shots in transition in the country last year, taking advantage of their youth and athleticism to push the pace (as Pearl is wont to do). Heron and Harper showed a lot of potential in the open floor in year one, and they’ll likely lead an effective uptempo attack. One possible snag in the plan – Pearl loves to have his teams bomb away from deep, and Auburn may not have the necessary depth of shooters to make that attack work. Heron, Harper, Purifoy, and Bryce Brown are all capable from deep (and all should start), but none of the bigs and none of the newcomers are proven from deep. Pearl will need to properly allocate the minutes of his gunners to ensure the floor is always adequately spaced.
Defensively, Pearl teams want to force turnovers and play man-to-man up and down the court. The guards will look to force turnovers, but they need to do a better job of taking away the three, always a weakness of Pearl defenses. That’s particularly true this year, as Auburn will have a plethora of rim protection with Horace Spencer back healthy along with Austin Wiley and Anfernee McLemore, all of whom would have ranked in the Top 50 in the country in block rate had they played more minutes.
Another glaring weakness for the Tigers was their inability to end possessions with a defensive rebound. They ranked dead last in the SEC in defensive rebounding rate despite having all of the aforementioned size. Part of this is the guards leaking out to start the transition attack, but Wiley and Spencer were strangely poor for their size and athleticism. Another newcomer, Chuma Okeke, is an agile ‘tweener forward who tore apart the glass on the team’s foreign tour, averaging over 12 per game and posting a 20-rebound game in the process. Based on the final scores, Auburn played the Little Italian Urban Achievers in every game, so take that with a grain of salt – but if Okeke and company can get after it more on the boards, they’ll help initiate the Tigers’ crucial transition game. DeSean Murray, a transfer from Presbyterian, is another versatile option who should provide some physicality and depth.
Bottom Line: Auburn has the type of roster that Pearl wants – athletic, deep, and fast. The defense will harass opponents and the offense will be a freight train in transition, but they’ll need to hit shots and prove they can score in the halfcourt to really move up the standings. Pearl has always proven to be a players’ coach and a good motivator, and I have a tiny soft spot for him after the fun runs he had at Milwaukee in the early 2000s. The Tigers are undoubtedly talented, but they are still a young team in a highly competitive SEC.
Key Returners: Duop Reath, Brandon Sampson, Skylar Mays, Wayde Sims
Key Losses: Antonio Blakeney, Craig Victor
Key Newcomers: Tremont Waters, Jeremy Combs, Galen Alexander, Brandon Rachal, Randy Onwuasor, Daryl Edwards, Mayan Kiir
Postseason Projection: NIT Bubble (get hyped!), but ultimately CBI
Outlook: “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh.” Hear that? That’s the city-wide sigh of relief from Baton Rouge as LSU fans bask in the freedom from Johnny Jones and his baffling coaching. Jones almost always succeeded in reeling in talent, but the annual underachievement with that talent finally came to a head last year with a 2-16 SEC record and the worst major-conference defense in the nation (280th overall, per KenPom – excuse me while I clean up my vomit).
And so begins the Will Wade era, one of promise and optimism, as Wade reeled in several talented pieces this offseason (both freshmen and transfers alike) to give the Tigers a chance to climb out of the SEC cellar. The talented additions should give Wade plenty of lineup options, meaning that if he wants to continue to play like he did at VCU, the pieces should be there.
Wade didn’t necessarily embrace the full-court pressure, “Havoc” persona that Shaka Smart left behind, but he did understand the benefit of forcing turnovers and getting easy baskets in transition. Expect that to continue in Baton Rouge – it’s not easy to escape Shaka’s influence. His VCU teams pressured more in the half-court (with some full-court mixed in), and although Doug Brooks and Briante Weber aren’t walking through that door, Skylar Mays flashed quick hands as a freshman and should carry on the ball pressure legacy. The rest of the roster may have to get used to the increased emphasis on turnovers, but with the roster's added depth and athleticism, that shouldn't be a huge issue.
LSU’s new coach has assembled an impressive stable of wings and forwards that give him a ton of lineup flexibility. Returner Wayde Sims, North Texas grad transfer Jeremy Combs, JUCO transfer Daryl Edwards and freshmen Brandon Rachal, Galen Alexander, and Mayan Kiir all bring different games to the table, and the versatility of that group should allow for plenty of switching on the perimeter – a big part of Wade’s harassing defenses.
Offensively, the additions of Tremont Waters and Randy Onwuasor are major coups. Waters is a wizard with the ball, a skilled shooter, dribbler, and passer who can get anywhere on the court (and often score). With Mays’s complementary size (6’4) allowing him to guard bigger guards and his passing prowess, don’t be surprised to see a dual-PG system at times where Waters can focus more on putting points on the board. Onwuasor joins the Tigers after scoring a prolific 23.6ppg for the Thunderbirds of Southern Utah, and while his usage will almost certainly go down, he appears to be a perfect microwave-type scorer off the bench (cue Dickie V – “he can heat up in a hurry, baby!!”). They’ll join Brandon Sampson, the last remaining recruit from Jones’s decorated 2015 class, who will enjoy having increased talent around him – he profiles well as a complementary shooter and driver.
The Tigers will also be able to play through Duop (dibby da da mmmbop) Reath, a solid post scorer with impressive touch around the basket. He can be a bit of a black hole at times, though, and Wade would do well to have him focus on reading double teams and finding an open shooter. He’s the team’s only true post threat on offense, so avoiding foul trouble will be key, particularly with how much will be expected of him as a rim protector. Kiir can slide over to center if need be, and Aaron Epps will fill in some minutes, but LSU will be best with Reath manning the middle.
Bottom Line: For LSU (and especially the defense), there is truly only one way to go: up. With Wade in charge, that ascent might be faster than many expect – the recruiting momentum is already building, and with so much talent in and around Louisiana, it seems like only a matter of time before the Bayou Bengals are back in the top half of the SEC. Can Wade avoid the pitfalls that many previously successful coaches have run into at football schools? It may not be this year, but I’m betting on yes.
11. South Carolina
Key Returners: Chris Silva, Rakym Felder, Maik Kotsar
Key Losses: Sindarius Thornwell, PJ Dozier, Duane Notice, Justin McKie
Key Newcomers: Kory Holden, Frank Booker, David Beatty
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
Outlook: Coming off a Final Four appearance, Gamecock fans are likely feeling on top of the world. Unfortunately, though, South Carolina basketball appears to be coming down from its apex – the neighbor to the north is allowed to host collegiate events again, and the Gamecocks lose (among others) two indispensable pieces from the stunning 2016-17 team.
Sindarius Thornwell and PJ Dozier were about as vital as two players could be for a team last year. The two players took 28.4% and 31.0% of the team’s shots, respectively, when on the floor, and their length and intensity on defense set the tone for Frank Martin’s physical, half-court pressure system. It didn’t happen often last year, but look at the disastrous results when both players were on the bench:
The offense fell into a terrifying, bottomless sinkhole without those two guys, and this year’s team could have a massive issue scoring unless Delaware transfer Kory Holden and/or Maine grad transfer Wesley Myers is ready to perform at a high level, despite the increase in competition. Rakym Felder is a candidate to make a leap in his sophomore campaign, but he has a long way to go after a year as an inefficient role player. Oh, and he’s suspended indefinitely after his second bar fight-related assault charge (guys, don’t spit on women!), so it's unclear when he'll be on the court (Editor's note: charges were dismissed - suspension hasn't been lifted yet though). Hassani Gravett was even worse – meaning another newcomer, freshman David Beatty, will likely start from day one. Beatty can create his own shot and has a smooth shooting stroke, so he’ll get chances to score immediately. Frank Booker showed some promise at Oklahoma way back in 2014-15, but he was pretty invisible in the C-USA last season, so I don’t expect him to be much more than a spot-up shooter in his final collegiate year.
Another option to create offense is to play through Maik Kotsar in the post. The Estonian lefty has a crafty game in the post, using the glass and a lefty half hook to score at a solid clip from the right block. He needs to continue getting stronger and develop some vision out of the post, but he’s a nice complement to the brutish game of Chris Silva. Both guys led the charge to the offensive glass, a Martin staple, consistently earning the Gamecocks extra possessions and easy putbacks. Both will need to foul a lot less frequently, though.
Defense is where Martin’s bread is buttered, though. The Gamecocks play an extremely physical, in-your-face brand of basketball, predicated on ball pressure and forcing difficult shots. They were 5th in the country in percentage of turnovers forced, and opponents only took 28.8% of their shots at the rim – 316th-most in the country. Thornwell and Dozier were both key on this end as well, using their long arms and athleticism to both finish in the country’s top 100 in steal rate. Felder (if he’s actually on the team), Myers, and Beatty should be assets on this end, but Holden, Booker, and Gravett haven’t shown much in the way of disruption.
Martin mixes defense quite a bit, often using a pressure-based 3-2 zone to confuse opposing offenses and force them to play a style they’re not used to. Silva is an excellent shot-blocker, but once again, his constant fouling forced him to the bench quite a bit. That means Ibrahim Doumbia will need to help right away (Sedee Keita transferred in the offseason) and that Khadim Gueye needs to evolve from the disastrous form he showed in his first year.
Bottom Line: After what was unequivocally the best season in Gamecock hoops history (first Elite Eight, first Final Four, ended Duke’s year), a dose of reality may be ready to hit Columbia, SC. Dozier and (especially) Thornwell were vital pieces to Martin’s system, and the roster doesn’t have readymade replacements onhand. Beatty and Holden should be very productive as newcomers, but the defense won’t be as elite this year, and thus a corresponding fall down the standings seems likely.
Key Returners: Detrick Mostella, Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bowden, Jordan Bone, Lamonte Turner
Key Losses: Robert Hubbs, Lew Evans, Shembari Phillips
Key Newcomers: James Daniel, Yves Pons, Chris Darrington, Zach Kent,
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
Outlook: One of the bigger surprises in the SEC last year, the Vols had a good chance at a Tournament bid at the start of February when they sat 13-9 (5-4) with wins over Kentucky, @ Vandy, Kansas St., Georgia Tech, and @ Texas A&M – plus a top 20 non-conference SOS. Unfortunately, they puttered to the season’s finish line with a 3-7 run, and nothing Rick Barnes tried could get the team back on track. It’s not like he didn’t try – over the last 5 games, he tried tons of different lineup combinations, including smallball and two bigs:
Barnes hopes that with more experience (Tennessee was 328th in the country last year in weighted experience), his squad can find a more consistent level of play throughout the season and earn that elusive tournament bid in his third season in Knoxville.
Tennessee had the odd offensive combination of very little height + very little shooting in 2016-17. They ranked 294th nationally in average height and 321st in percentage of points scored from beyond the three-point line, and no player made more than 41 threes the entire season. Instead, the Vols blitzed the rim however they could, crashing the offensive glass and shooting a ton of free throws. Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams epitomized this paradox, as they were loads to handle in the paint despite standing only 6’4 and 6’5, respectively (the Vols’ roster claims they have grown to 6’5 and 6’7 this season).
For having such a young backcourt (3 freshmen and a sophomore), Tennessee was solid in taking care of the ball. Jordan Bowden, Jordan Bone, and Lamonte Turner should give Barnes an extremely sure-handed group again this year, and the addition of James Daniel III as a grad transfer from Howard gives even more scoring punch (averaged 27ppg in 2015-16). He wasn’t ultra efficient in the MEAC, but he was player for a dumpster fire of an offense and forced to take an insane amount of difficult/bad shots. I’d expect his shooting percentages to bump up higher as a volume scorer off the bench for a more talented team.
Defensively, the Vols saw a similarly strange combination of very little height and strong interior defense, once again led by Williams and his shot-blocking. Kyle Alexander proved to be a nice defensive big as well, and at 6’11, he actually gives Barnes some real size to work with. Tennessee played almost exclusively man-to-man last year (95% per Synergy), a major drop from Barnes’s final Texas teams. That should be beneficial this year as the young guys get more comfortable in one system.
Lastly, two newcomers should slide immediately into important roles on the wing. French import Yves Pons is a phenomenal athlete who will immediately be a terror on defense if he grasps the system and rotations, and he could make an impact on the offensive glass as well with how hard he plays. Certain folks I respect a lot on NBA Draft Twitter are extremely high on his potential. Chris Darrington transferred in from JUCO powerhouse Vincennes University, where he averaged 20.7ppg for an Elite Eight team. Most notably, he shot 43.3% from deep on 209 attempts, meaning he should immediately help solve the Vols shooting issues.
Bottom Line: Barnes did an excellent job adding key pieces from various channels (Europe, grad transfer, JUCO transfer) to complement his returning core, and those players should help shore up the Vols’ weaknesses from last season. If he can find the right way to blend all of the Vols pieces into effective lineup combinations, the Vols will be right back in the NCAA bubble mix.
Key Returners: Yante Maten, Juwan Parker, Derek Ogbeide, William Jackson, Mike Edwards
Key Losses: JJ Frazier
Key Newcomers: Rayshaun Hammonds, Nicolas Claxton, Teshaun Hightower
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: For a team returning nearly everyone from a 9-9 SEC squad, including a first-team all-conference level post player, Georgia’s outlook is relatively grim this year (in my humble opinion). Part of the issue is one of roster composition – likely the team’s best three players are all big men – and part of it is that other teams injected massive amounts of talent needles into to their metaphorical hindparts. It also doesn’t help that Mark “SEC Mediocrity” Fox is in charge – he’s 70-68 in the league in 8 years and has finished in KenPom’s top 60 just once, not the resume of someone who is going to vault the Bulldogs into the Kentucky/Florida tier of the league.
To Fox’s credit, he at least plays a style very conducive to the strengths of his roster. Offensively, the Bulldogs play a slow, half-court style, eschewing perimeter shooting to focus on pounding the ball inside and getting to the free throw line. Unfortunately, the ‘Dogs sometimes struggled to get their skilled frontcourt players in places to score, and that was with stud point guard JJ Frazier, who graduated. Sophomore Tyree Crump and freshman Teshaun Hightower will likely get first crack at ball-handling duties, but Crump barely saw the floor last year and Hightower is an unheralded combo guard. Jordan Harris, Juwan Parker, and Willie Jackson can help in a committee approach, but Harris had more turnovers than assists last year and Parker and Jackson are better suited to attacking roles from the wing.
When the guards do manage to get the ball inside, though, Georgia will be in great shape. Yante Maten is the aforementioned star and one of the country’s premier post scorers (94th percentile per Synergy). He has the tough-to-stop combination of quickness, strength, and touch on the block, and he even started to exploit double-teams more last year as a more willing passer. He’ll be complemented inside by Derek Ogbeide and touted newcomer Rayshaun Hammonds. Hammonds is especially intriguing – if he shows the chops to play the 3 at the college level, the ‘Dogs can play all three together in a terrifying frontline that will be accentuated by Fox’s defensive strategy.
That strategy is a mirror of the team’s offense – pack the paint, take away the rim, and mix up looks between man-to-man and zone. Teams seeking to shoot from deep will have chances against the matchup 2-3/3-2 morphing zone that Fox prefers, and they’d better make some, because scoring inside against Maten, Ogbeide, Hammonds, Mike Edwards, and another freshman, the mammoth Nicolas Claxton, will be a “tall” task, ha ha ha.
Bottom Line: Maten is a monster, but he didn’t have the impact on the team’s bottom line that one would expect from a player of his caliber – the team scored 1.02 points per possession whether he was on the court or off it, per hooplens.com. Fox will need to find a better way to accentuate his star’s talents if the ‘Dogs are going to avoid falling down the SEC standings this year, and with his limited guard options, I’m just not sure that’s in the cards this year.
14. Mississippi St.
Key Returners: Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters, Xavian Stapleton, Aric Holman, Tyson Carter, Schnider Herard
Key Losses: IJ Ready, Mario Kegler
Key Newcomers: Nick Weatherspoon, KeyShawn Feazell
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Year three in Starkville for Ben Howland is a pivotal one. He’s had numerous recruiting wins, most notably with 2017 freshman Nick Weatherspoon, and he’s built a skilled and athletic roster with which to contend in an increasingly competitive conference. The Bulldogs actually regressed slightly in year two, though (per KenPom rank and conference record), and they’ll have no rotation seniors this season, so they may still be a year away from true contention.
Presumably, every single Howland practice starts with some form of physical defensive drill, so that’s where we’ll start. The Bulldogs will play almost exclusively man-to-man, using their guards to extend beyond the three-point line in the halfcourt to both take away open shots and (hopefully) force turnovers. Quinndary Weatherspoon, Nick’s older brother, and Lamar Peters were solid in this role last year, and the younger Weatherspoon will ideally reinforce the perimeter defense.
The biggest concern defensively is on the glass. The ‘Dogs have given up way too many second shots in Howland’s first two years, a far cry from his dominant rebounding UCLA Final Four squads. The big guys, Schnider Herard and Aric Holman, do their part, but none of the guards really excelled at tracking down loose balls. Mario Kegler transferred to Baylor as well, and the team will miss his imposing physical frame at either forward spot.
Offensively, the Weatherspoons will be the leaders. Howland teams traditionally shoot the ball well, and with those two plus Peters and Tyson Carter, this year’s edition will have no shortage of proficient bombers. Ultimately, Peters will be the key, though. He’s by far the roster’s best creator, adept at getting into gaps and creating spot up opportunities for his fellow shooters (rather than difficult isolation shots that they Weatherspoon/Carter settled for). Look no further than the Peters’s on/off splits last season:
With Peters on the floor, the Bulldogs were respectable due to his ability to break down the defense and create for others. Without him, though, Mississippi State became a dumpster fire, devolving into too much my-turn, your-turn around the perimeter.
One last key will again be replacing Kegler. He unlocked a lot of mismatches with his ability to attack slower forwards, and his departure means former Louisiana Tech transfer Xavian Stapleton and freshman KeyShawn Feazell will step into large roles right away. Stapleton was effective in his first SEC season, and he has some breakout potential in the Bulldogs scheme. Feazell is a bigger than Stapleton (closer in build to Kegler), so if he can provide some immediate minutes, he should help more on the defensive glass.
Bottom Line: Howland has consistently brought in talent, but whether he still has the “magic touch” to turn that into a winning team in modern college basketball is still unknown. Kegler’s transfer is the biggest question mark – will the lineups be versatile enough to play how Howland desires? I like the assembly of players here, but the youth and the rest of the SEC’s arms race has me thinking the party in Starkvegas will be in spite of the basketball team’s (lack of) success, not because of it.