- Ky McKeon
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: Tremont Waters, So., LSU
Coach of the Year: Mike White, Florida
Newcomer of the Year: Reid Travis, R Sr., Kentucky
Freshman of the Year: Darius Garland, Vanderbilt
Key Returners: Dazon Ingram, John Petty, Donta Hall, Herbert Jones, Avery Johnson, Riley Norris
Key Losses: Collin Sexton, Braxton Key
Key Newcomers: Tevin Mack (Texas), Kira Lewis Jr., Diante Wood, Javian Davis-Fleming
Outlook: After a good start to the 2017-18 season, the much-hyped Alabama Crimson Tide struggled near the end of the year dropping five straight games heading into the SEC Tourney. Bama saved itself by notching two big wins in the conference postseason and ended up earning a 9-seed in the Big Dance and the school’s first NCAA Tourney bid since 2012. From an advanced metric standpoint, Alabama underachieved last season and was perhaps a bit over-seeded in the Field of 68. But, considering the immense youth of the roster (4th youngest team in the country) and the basketball history down in Tuscaloosa, 2017-18 should be marked as a success.
This year, the Tide won’t have superstar point guard Collin Sexton, who led the SEC in usage and sparked Bama’s basketball revival. Without Sexton on the floor last season, Alabama scored a mere 0.92ppp, a putrid number, and poured in 1.07ppp with him on the court. Offense has indeed been Avery Johnson’s Achilles Heel in his first three seasons, turnovers and outside shooting being the biggest drivers to the futility. It’s due to Sexton’s departure (and Braxton Key transferring to Virginia) that many have Alabama outside their top 40 heading into the year. I’m of the opinion, however, the Tide could be better than last season.
Defense is the Tide’s calling card and has been since Johnson took the reins in 2015-16. Last year, Bama ranked #1 in the SEC in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom (20th in the nation) due to an aggressive, hard-working style of play that featured a slew of athletic wings, a bulldog at the point in Sexton, and a shot blocker in the middle. Alabama forces opposing teams into taking low-percentage shots – i.e. they don’t allow chances at the rim and limit three-point looks. With its two best defenders returning in Herbert Jones (perimeter) and Donta Hall (paint), expect the Tide to once again feature a top 30 national defense.
Point guard and scoring are the two biggest question marks heading into the season. Dazon Ingram, a 6’5” junior, likely regains PG duties after relinquishing the job to Sexton in 2017-18. Ingram has had turnover issues throughout his career, but he had a significantly down year playing more off the ball last season – perhaps a shift back to playmaking responsibilities will kick start his offensive production. Ingram is at his best when he’s attacking the rim (a staple of most players on the Bama roster): in 2017-18, he ranked in the top ten in free throw rate. Ingram’s ability to score, rebound, and facilitate makes him an invaluable piece to another potential Tourney team.
John Petty and the aforementioned Jones will be looked upon to increase their offensive production in their second season. Petty can be a knockdown three-point shooter, but he’s very streaky. Exhibit A: in Bama’s win versus Auburn last season, Petty went 8/13 from deep; in Bama’s loss to Auburn, he went 1/9. Jones is more of a penetration guy on offense, but as mentioned above he thrives on the defensive end where he’s a “stock” machine.
Alabama’s greatest hope for offensive competency lies in Texas transfer Tevin Mack, yet another athletic and versatile wing for Johnson to run out on the floor. Mack was suspended from the Longhorns’ squad back in 2016-17 but appears to be getting along fine in Tuscaloosa. Johnson is on record saying Mack was oftentimes Bama’s best player in practice, so expect a major impact from him in his first season in crimson, especially from beyond the arc.
More scoring potential lies in Riley Norris who was granted a 5th year of eligibility after going down with a season-ending hip injury nine games into last year. Norris could be an “instant offense” type of player off the pine with his ability to shoot the basketball. He’ll join Avery Johnson Jr. and freshmen Kira Lewis Jr. and Diante Wood to create a deep backcourt rotation.
Up front, Alabama brings back the aforementioned Hall and former Ohio State Buckeye Daniel Giddens. Hall ranked 35th in the country in block percentage as a junior and on the other end ranked 2nd in the country in FG% (72.6%). The big man is an excellent rebounder and provides the perfect safety valve in the paint on defense to a team with an uber-athletic perimeter. Giddens will spell Hall off the bench (the Tide were awful when both bigs played together last year); like Hall, he’s also a stout defender of the rim and a plus rebounder. Sophomore Alex Reese will likely crack the rotation as well as a stretch-four type of forward Johnson can use to space the floor.
Bottom Line: Don’t sleep on Alabama. Despite the loss of Sexton, the Tide could be even better than in 2017-18 and should be right in the thick of things in a super competitive SEC. The defense is a lock to be there (Johnson has five perimeter players over 6’5”) and if the offense improves with the help of Mack, expect Alabama to beat its 9-seed 2018 Tourney showing.
Key Returners: Jontay Porter, Jeremiah Tilmon, Jordan Geist, Kevin Puryear
Key Losses: Kassius Robertson, Jordan Barnett, Michael Porter Jr.
Key Newcomers: Torrence Watson, KJ Santos (UIC / JUCO), Xavier Pinson, Javon Pickett
Outlook: I’ll start this off by saying, as a Mizzou fan/alumni, it’s nice to finally be relevant again in the sport of basketball. A large thank you is due to the Porter family who pretty much single-handedly accelerated the Mizzou basketball program timeline by five years. Even though Michael Porter played in only parts of three games during his college career, his presence opened the floodgates for recruiting wins and national relevance. Credit is also due to Cuonzo Martin, who took over a Missouri team that went 8-24 last season under the spectacular failure that was Kim Anderson. Looking ahead, Martin has already developed a clear recruiting pipeline in the St. Louis area and has a roster that can challenge for a second straight Tourney bid.
Mizzou loses two of its best players from a season ago in Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett. The pair were by far the Tigers’ best perimeter shooters and were extremely valuable overall on both ends of the floor. The Tigers were a three-point reliant offense last season, so replacing the shooting production is going to be a huge key for the 2018-19 group. Defensively, Martin has always had stingy squads thanks to his preaching of toughness and not allowing easy shot attempts near the rim.
The Tigers’ success this season will be largely tied to Jontay Porter, a likely first round pick in this year’s NBA Draft that mercifully decided to come back to Columbia for one more year in the Black and Gold. Porter is truly a jack of all trades on the basketball floor, able to shoot and score from anywhere on the floor (36.7% from 3), rebound well (3rd in the SEC in defensive rebounding rate), facilitate as well as any big man in the country (20.0 assist rate), and defend the rim on the other end of the floor (top 100 national block rate). Martin has even mentioned allowing Porter to bring the ball up to initiate offensive sets this season – extremely uncommon for a 7-foot forward in college basketball. Look for Porter’s playing time to skyrocket in his second season as he makes his case for an All-American team and an NBA Lottery selection.
Nearly as important as Porter this season will be his frontcourt mate, Jeremiah Tilmon. As a freshman, it was plain to see the talent Tilmon possessed and the high-level of player he could develop into down the road. His biggest knock is his tendency to hack the living bejeezus out of opposing players, averaging 7.5 fouls per 40 minutes last season. He’ll need to nip this problem in the bud, because Mizzou needs his presence on the floor with its questionable big man depth. At his best, Tilmon is a solid post defender and shot blocker on defense and, on offense, is a force backing down opponents on the block. He also ranked among the best offensive rebounders in the SEC as a rookie in 2017-18.
Like so many other teams across the country, point guard play is a major concern for the Tigers. Jordan Geist became the de facto starting point guard last season after Blake Harris transferred away, leaving literally no other point guard on the roster (apologies to Brett Rau). Turnovers were Mizzou’s biggest issue as a team in 2017-18, ranking 313th in the country in turnover rate, a consequence of shaky lead guard play. Despite his obvious shortcomings, Martin loves Geist due to his high motor and tenacity, so expect to see plenty of the 6’2” senior on the floor this season. The hope for Tiger fans this year is that Xavier Pinson, a talented 3-star freshman, can develop into the point guard of the future. He’ll get opportunities given the lack of ball handlers, but he needs to put on weight to be a steady contributor. The good news is one Mizzou assistant already called Pinson one of the best passers he’s ever seen.
Porter, Tilmon, and Geist are the constants of Mizzou basketball this season; the remaining rotation is full of unknowns. Senior forward Kevin Puryear, returns to retake his role of positionless 3/4 tweener. He’s steadily improved over his career but has yet to become a reliable player on either end of the floor. Puryear has one of the more interesting split stats in that he shoots 80% from the foul line but only 30% from beyond the arc; if he can boost the latter number, it would be a tremendous help to a Mizzou lineup looking for shooting. Defensively, Mizzou allowed 0.12ppp more when Puryear was on the floor (that’s bad), a likely consequence of his poor rebounding and inability to stay in front of defenders.
Tourney hopes will hinge greatly on the performance of three newcomers: Torrence Watson, KJ Santos, and Javon Pickett. Watson, a top 100 recruit, needs to be a scorer and take on the Robertson role alongside Porter. In high school, Watson was a terror, pulling from anywhere on the floor and finishing above the rim. He projects as an athletic two-way wing in college and should start right away. Santos will be relied on for rebounding and defense. The former UIC Flame started nearly every game during his freshman year and proved to be a good outside shooter in addition to his ability to clean the glass. Pickett is an under-the-radar freshman that initially committed to Illinois in the offseason. Like Watson, Pickett is an athletic wing, and his length makes him an intriguing versatile defender and potential offensive contributor in his first year.
Martin has options this year in terms of rotation. While not every guy on the roster is an all-star, there’s enough solid pieces and experience to experiment with lineup combinations. Cullen VanLeer comes off an ACL tear and should contribute more as an emotional leader in his senior season versus an on-floor presence (hopefully). In three seasons, the “shooter” VanLeer has connected on just 30.3% of his 300 outside attempts. Reed Nikko, a good rebounder and rim protector, and Mitchell Smith, a project that apparently has put on 20 pounds of muscle this offseason, will provide depth in the frontcourt.
Bottom Line: Mizzou has enough talent to make a run at another NCAA Tournament. Martin will have his squad playing tough, in-your-face defense, and the pace will be slow enough on offense for the Tigers to keep most games close. If Porter can blossom into one of the better bigs in the country and Watson can provide double-digit scoring punch, the Tigers should be right in the thick of the middle-tier SEC bloodbath.
Key Returners: Saben Lee, Joe Toye, Clevon Brown, Ejike Obinna
Key Losses: Jeff Roberson, Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Payton Willis, Djery Baptiste
Key Newcomers: Darius Garland, Simi Shittu, Aaron Nesmith, Matt Ryan (Notre Dame), Yanni Wetzell
Outlook: After an impressive start to what’s sure to be a long Power 6 coaching career, Bryce Drew’s Commodores took a step back in 2017-18, unable to reproduce a Tourney run without stud center Luke Kornet. While Kornet was considered to be a giant (heh) loss at the time, Vandy was still picked by numerous outlets (including 3MW) to make the Field of 68 and KenPom ranked the Commodores 38th in his preseason rankings (yes, those are a bit flawed). Vandy just never quite hit its stride last season, even losing two in-state battles to Belmont and MTSU. Now, with five key contributors graduating or transferring out, Drew will start fresh in 2018-19 with a top ten recruiting class and a decent returning core.
Despite the 12-20 (6-12) finish, Vandy’s offense hummed last season, ranking 29th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings (2nd in the SEC). Only three sub-.500 teams in the KenPom era (since 2002) have finished with a higher offensive rating: 2003 St. Bonaventure (23rd), 2004 Pepperdine (22nd), and 2010 Portland State (27th). Drew coaches a smart and efficient style of offense, one that is half-court based (slow-paced) and focuses on the three-ball. The defensive end is where VU struggled, finishing dead last in the SEC in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Offense should still be a strength for the Commodores, particularly from the perimeter as it had been in 2017-18. Rising sophomore Saben Lee and freshman Darius Garland, the #1 ranked point guard in the 2018 class, will handle the ball in Drew’s half-court attack. Lee, the team’s primary PG last season, did well in his inaugural season, driving the lane with a purpose and finishing at a high rate within the arc. He’ll likely move off the ball with Garland coming to Nashville, which means the 6’2” Lee will need to improve his 30.7% three-point percentage.
Garland is truly the whole package, a blinding quick sharpshooter with sticky handles and a high basketball IQ. Everything points to Garland exceling in Drew’s offense and we could see him etch his name on the All-SEC squad in his first (and maybe only) season in black and gold.
Drew’s other two top 100 recruits, Simi Shittu (#19 per ESPN) and Aaron Nesmith (#69), should also have immediate impacts in their freshman seasons. Shittu, now fully cleared from a HS Senior year ACL injury, is a 6’10” playmaker that does everything well on the basketball court except shoot. He’ll be a nightmare matchup at the 4 with his ability to face up and break down his defender off the dribble. Shittu’s passing and ball handling ability allows him to take on a point-forward role in transition and he’s uber-switchable on the defensive end. Nesmith is a knockdown outside shooter with good size from the 2-guard spot at 6’6”. He has potential to be a high level player at Vanderbilt over the next four years.
Two experienced wings, Joe Toye and Matt Ryan, two of the four upperclassmen on the roster, will be looked upon to provide leadership. Toye, the epitome of “role player”, had a really down shooting year in 2017-18 – he’ll need to be a threat from outside the arc without the likes of Jeff Roberson and Riley LaChance. Ryan comes to Nashville by way of Notre Dame. The 6’8” junior has enough size to play a small-ball four and functions as a strict catch-and-shoot guy on offense. In his two seasons at Notre Dame, Ryan attempted 206 threes to just 37 twos.
The frontcourt was not a source of production for the Commodores last season, but that may change in 2018-19. Aside from Shittu, Drew brings in an intriguing former D2 transfer in Yanni Wetzell, a 6’10” big man that can stretch the floor and put the ball on the floor. Wetzell’s combination of size, mobility, and shooting is reminiscent of Kornet – he averaged 15ppg and 7rpg and shot 42% from three-point range as a D2 sophomore.
Wetzell will support and run alongside the defensive / glass tandem of Ejike Obinna and Clevon Brown. Obinna, a rising 6’10” sophomore, started a lot of games near the end of the year but he really didn’t do much of anything during his time on the floor. He finished well enough for a big man and cleaned the defensive glass, but had one of the lower block rates on the team. Brown was objectively better than Obinna in 2017-18 and will hopefully see more run as a junior; his 8.2% block rate ranked 55th nationally (6th in the SEC).
Bottom Line: Vandy will be an interesting team to watch this season. A lot of the Commodores’ success will depend on the development and play of the three incoming freshmen, particularly Garland and Shittu. 3MW is a staunch believer in Bryce Drew as a good offensive coach, but he’ll need to sure up his team’s defensive end to make a run at another NCAA Tournament.
10. South Carolina
Key Returners: Chris Silva, Maik Kotsar, Justin Minaya, Hassani Gravett, Felipe Haase
Key Losses: Wesley Myers, Frank Booker
Key Newcomers: Jermaine Couisnard, TJ Moss, AJ Lawson, Keyshawn Bryant, Tre Campbell (Georgetown), Alanzo Frink
Outlook: Two years removed from an improbable Final Four run, the South Carolina Gamecocks look to continue their rebuild and improve upon a so-so 2017-18 showing. Frank Martin showed off his coaching chops once again last season by integrating a completely new squad, imprinting his passion for defense and physical basketball in the process. With a solid core of returners that includes a potential SEC Player of the Year and a strong recruiting class, the Gamecocks look to be one of the conference sleepers heading into 2018-19.
South Carolina has been one of the more dichotomous teams in college basketball the past four seasons, exhibiting middling-to-poor offense contrasted against elite defense. On offense, the Cocks rely heavily on offensive rebounds and getting to the foul line to score points. Last season, Martin’s group ranked 344th in 2PFG% and 231st in 3PFG%, which has been about par for the course during his tenure in Columbia. Defensively, the Cocks were lockdown in 2017-18, ranking 25th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. South Carolina forces turnovers at a high rate thanks to its high ball pressure half-court defense (either man-to-man or 3-2 zone) that is predicated on physicality and toughness. Martin always recruits big, long, physical perimeter players to fit his desired style, the 2018 class being no exception.
Personnel-wise, Martin will have a number of talented players at his disposal, chief among them being senior Chris Silva, possibly one of the most underrated players in the entire country. In 2017-18, Silva, a 1st Team All-SEC and Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year, ranked #1 in the nation in free throw rate, #2 in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, and #38 in offensive rebounding percentage. He heads into the 2018-19 season as arguably the SEC’s best rebounder and most impactful player on both sides of the ball.
Silva embodies South Carolina basketball with his high-energy, physical style of play, but his returning frontcourt mates have left much to be desired in their young careers. Junior Maik Kotsar will reclaim his starting spot alongside Silva this year, with sophomores Felipe Haase and Jason Cudd serving as backups. Kotsar has shown flashes of brilliance during each of his first two seasons, but has yet to put together a full, consistent year – he’s a career 46.5% FG shooter (bad for a center) and 50% FT shooter (bad for anyone). Haase is a floor stretcher and big body at 6’9” 250 lbs., but neither he nor Kotsar has proven to be a reliable rebounder or rim protector. Look for Alanzo Frink, a burly 6’8” freshman, to get some looks in the frontcourt rotation this season should the aforementioned returners fail to produce.
Martin has a ton of options to plug into his backcourt rotation this season. Returners Hassani Gravett and Justin Minaya likely have the inside track to start the season at the 2 and 3, respectively. Gravett played a lot of point as a junior last year and dished out a healthy amount of assists, however, turnovers plagued the 6’2” guard all year. He’ll likely move off the ball this season with Georgetown’s Tre Campbell coming to town, which could do wonders for his confidence shooting the ball from the outside. Minaya primarily serves as an outside shooting threat on the wing.
Campbell didn’t put up crazy stats during his three years at Georgetown, but Martin and the Gamecock faithful seem to be excited about his experience and the fact that he plays the point guard position, a severe weak point following the graduation of PJ Dozier. Outside of Campbell and Gravett, look for freshman combo guard TJ Moss to play a bit on the ball and even freshman shooting guard AJ Lawson.
Moss is first and foremost a scoring guard, but he played a lot of point in the high school ranks. At 6’4”, he’s long and athletic, and capable of affecting the game on both ends of the floor. Lawson is USC’s highest ranked incoming recruit – 247 had him in the top 50 of the class of 2019 (he reclassified). Martin has been raving about Lawson all season, comparing him to Dozier and indicating he could start right away. Like Moss, Lawson is long and skinny and has a good-looking outside shot.
Rounding out Martin’s incoming freshman class and backcourt rotation are wings Jermaine Couisnard and Keyshawn Bryant. Couisnard, out of Montverde, has a D1-ready body at 6’4”, and is a physical ball player in the mold of many past Martin guards. Bryant is a raw and explosive athlete, a 6’6” wing slasher that should be a problem in transition and out on the perimeter on defense.
If you’re not keeping score at home, Martin brings in four freshman guards measuring 6’4”, 6’4”, 6’6”, 6’6”… a potential lethal combination of natural length and Martin physicality is the near future of USC basketball.
Bottom Line: South Carolina is once again a team that doesn’t look sexy on paper but likely “overachieves” compared to preseason expectations. The main factor for that is defense, which can be the ultimate difference maker in any college basketball game. If the incoming young guns can provide more of a punch on offense next to the superlative Chris Silva, the Cocks could threaten for the Bubble come March.
Key Returners: Terence Davis, Breein Tyree, Bruce Stevens, Devontae Shuler, Dominik Olejniczak
Key Losses: Deandre Burnett, Markel Crawford, Justas Furmanavicius, Marcanvis Hymon
Key Newcomers: Blake Hinson, Brian Halums (JUCO), Zach Naylor (JUCO),
Outlook: The good people of Mississippi finally grew tired of the excruciatingly mediocre Andy Kennedy, sending the long-time coach packing in favor of Kermit Davis, formerly of Middle Tennessee. Last season was the only in Kennedy’s tenure in which he failed to lead the Rebels to 7 conference wins, a good stat on the surface but one that doesn’t do much for Ole Miss fans when considering his 12 years at the helm yielded only two NCAA Tourney bids. Enter Davis, a coach that had been rumored for several Power 6 positions after vaulting the MTSU Blue Raiders to mini-powerhouse status in C-USA (and prior to that, the Sun Belt).
All feedback on Davis so far this offseason has been positive evidenced by what the returning Ole Miss players say about him and the fact he was able to maintain the majority of Kennedy’s recruits and former players during the transition. Davis inherits a team that loses arguably its most important player in Deandre Burnett, but there’s plenty of talent coming back to Oxford for the new coach to work with.
With Burnett gone, point guard duties will fall to rising junior Breein Tyree, a player who handled the rock quite a bit last season even with Burnett, and sophomore Devontae Shuler. Tyree is an athletic, electric bulldog in the backcourt; his high-energy, fearless style of play makes him a nightmare to play against on both ends of the floor – one game in particular against Missouri in which Tyree went for 25 points stands out in my mind. With Burnett’s absence look for Tyree to blossom into a go-to scorer on offense as he looks to run the team as an upperclassmen. Shuler is similar to Tyree in his fearlessness and quickness. While he struggled to shoot the ball as a freshman, his talent is undeniable and he should see plenty of minutes either starting alongside Tyree or coming off the pine.
While Tyree is the “break-out” candidate on the squad, Terence Davis is the guy who will lead the Rebels as he looks to improve his NBA Draft stock. After flirting with the Draft this year, Davis decided to return for his senior year to build on what was a successful junior season. Expect Davis’s usage to skyrocket this season without Burnett, who was Ole Miss’s “1A” to Davis’s “1B” (or vice versa depending on the game). The 6’4” athletic wing is a versatile scorer that can get buckets in a multitude of ways, and on defense Davis is an excellent shot blocker for his position.
Two JUCO imports should make an enormous impact on the Ole Miss lineup this season: 6’5” wing Brian Halums and 6’8” wing Zach Naylor. Halums, who averaged 17.5ppg and 7.5rpg, was a JUCO All-American last season and is ranked as high as 5th among all JUCO prospects coming into 2018-19. He is an uber-talented wing with significant bounce and shooting ability – last season he canned 44.8% of his three-point attempts, something that is desperately needed by the 317th best three-point shooting team in the country. Naylor, the 19th rated JUCO prospect, is a big scoring wing that can play the 2-4 spots. Like Halums, Naylor can shoot the trey-ball (41.5% last year) and averaged 20.0ppg to go along with 9.1rpg last season. My money is on Halums to start for the Rebels alongside Davis and Tyree, and it wouldn’t shock me to see Coach Davis throw Naylor at a small four with that group as well.
Inside, the Rebels are a tad weak overall primarily due to their lack of depth. Senior forward Bruce Stevens and redshirt junior Dominik Olejniczak are the only returning bigs and 4-star freshman Blake Hinson is more of a 3/4 tweener. Stevens is a semi-stretchy big with a good-sized frame at 250+ lbs. He’s the Rebels’ best rebounder and is a guy that can get to the foul line at ease. Olejniczak disappointed in his first season in Oxford, but the Polish 7-footer has potential to be a contributor on both ends. Hinson, a 2019 reclass, will be a floor spacer in his inaugural season and could start immediately at the 4. He has a high motor and can put the ball on the floor in addition to being able to stroke from distance.
Kermit Davis’s offenses were never terribly efficient at MTSU, but his current band of Rebels have the ability to be a high-scoring offense. Ole Miss stayed true to its “Runnin’” Rebel moniker last year, pushing in transition when possible. It’ll be interesting to see if Davis continues that style of play or if he falls back to his historical slower tempo / half-court attack. Defensively, expect a fair amount of zone from Davis – MTSU has consistently ranked in the top 50 of zoning teams the past five seasons. Any semblance of competent defense would be an improvement on last year’s Ole Miss squad.
Bottom Line: Kermit Davis was a great hire for an Ole Miss basketball program in need of a change. While Kennedy was never awful in his tenure at Oxford, he never realized his teams’ full potentials. Ole Miss is on the right track to SEC competitiveness with the Davis hire and a good young nucleus of returners and recruits.
12. Texas A&M
Key Returners: TJ Starks, Admon Gilder, Savion Flagg
Key Losses: Tyler Davis, Duane Wilson, DJ Hogg, Tonny Trocha-Morelos, Robert Williams
Key Newcomers: Christian Mekowulu (Tennessee State), Wendell Mitchell (JUCO), Brandon Mahan (JUCO), Josh Nebo (St. Francis PA)
Outlook: This will be an interesting season for Billy Kennedy. The Texas A&M head coach doesn’t get mentioned all too often in hot seat conversations, but looking at his past performance, maybe he should. It’s true that the Aggies have reached the Sweet Sixteen in two of the last three years, but those are the only two seasons in which Kennedy has led A&M to an NCAA Tournament in his seven year tenure, despite having several talented-enough teams. A bid this year in which the Aggies lose five major contributors would silence any would-be critic, but to make a run, Kennedy will have to shift his preferred style of play.
Injuries certainly helped derail what could have been a magical 2017-18 season. A&M started the year 11-1 in non-conference play with wins over WVU, PSU, OK State, and USC but lost five straight to kick off SEC play. Noticeably absent or hobbled for four of those five games was Duane Wilson, the Aggies’ starting point guard. Consistent PG play has been an issue the past two seasons for Kennedy, one that will need to be solved without the luxury of ridiculous big man depth.
TJ Starks will get the primary run at point guard as he tries to improve upon what was an inefficient freshman season. Starks will be expected to be one of the leaders on the team, but that doesn’t mean he needs to be or should be the primary option on offense. Somehow on a team with three NBA-level players, Starks ranked 1st on the squad in usage and percentage of shots attempted (and ranked 4th in usage in the SEC). Turnovers contributed to the usage stat, but he still threw up way too much crap at the basket as evidenced by his atrocious .423/.324/.635 (2P/3P/FT) shooting slash. The hope is Starks can use this offseason to become a more mature decision maker on the floor, because he absolutely has the talent to be a key factor for the Aggies in 2018-19.
While Starks should dial back his aggressiveness on offense, another returner, Admon Gilder, perhaps should look to increase his. Gilder is A&M’s returning leading scorer and the owner of sparking shooting percentages over his three-year career in College Station. His biggest asset is his ability to shoot the long ball, but Gilder can and needs to be more dynamic than just a standstill shooter. Last season, A&M was +0.17ppp better when Gilder was on the floor and shot just 23.4% from three when the guard sat.
With Robert Williams, Tyler Davis, and Tonny Trocha-Morelos gone, the Aggies could have a completely new approach on the offensive end. Kennedy has even stated in interviews that he expects to play faster and may even implement a four-guard lineup. The shift in strength from the interior to the perimeter will be an interesting dynamic to watch this year. Aside from Gilder and Starks, A&M’s backcourt will consist of sophomore Jay Jay Chandler and two JUCO imports in Wendell Mitchell and Brandon Mahan.
Mitchell is Kennedy’s biggest recruiting pull of 2018. The 6’4” combo guard is rated the #1 or #2 JUCO prospect in the country depending on the source and averaged 19.8ppg, 5.9rpg, and 6.5apg last season. The former Baylor Bear wasn’t given much of an opportunity to shine in Waco, but should be an immediate impact player and likely starter for the Aggies. Look for Mitchell to help out Starks with ball handling duties and add another outside shooting threat to the lineup. Mahan, a 6’5” sophomore that averaged 14.1ppg last year, will serve as a floor spacer from the wing spot. Chandler will see increased minutes at both guard spots in his second season.
Everyone likes a good breakout candidate and A&M has one in rising sophomore Savion Flagg, a 6’7” wing and former top 100 recruit in the class of 2017. Flagg earned a couple starts when DJ Hogg went down and proved to be an aggressive, tough rim attacker capable of providing solid offensive production. This year, if Kennedy does decide to go smaller, look for Flagg to see some time at the 4, a position he could thrive at on offense and hold his own on the other side of the ball.
A&M’s defense was so good last year (#14 per KenPom) primarily because of the strength and size of its interior. Williams and Davis are gone, but Kennedy actually has a couple good options to plug into the lineup that should provide solid resistance inside. Tennessee State grad transfer Christian Mekowulu and St. Francis (PA) transfer Josh Nebo were both the Defensive Player of the Year in their respective conferences, leading their leagues in block rate and intimidating the opposition. The SEC is a different animal than the OVC or NEC, but both big men should be able to make an impact; Mekowulu in particular should start at the 5 and provide some punch on the offensive end via the glass and free throw line. Redshirt freshman John “Trey” Walker III and sophomore Isiah Jasey will round out Kennedy’s frontcourt rotation.
How Kennedy adjusts his style of play in 2018-19 from an interior-focused one to a perimeter-oriented, up-and-down look will be telling of his coaching abilities. The Aggies are talented enough to make a run in the SEC, but consistent point guard play and major production from a guy like Mitchell, Gilder and/or Flagg will be needed to make up for the lost production of Williams / Davis / Hogg. Spots 7-12 in the SEC will be highly contentious in 2018-19 and A&M certainly has the ability to finish at the top of that tier and threaten for another Tourney run.
Key Returners: William Jackson II, Rayshaun Hammonds, Derek Ogbeide, Nicolas Claxton, Tyree Crump, Jordan Harris, Teshaun Hightower, E’Torrion Wilridge
Key Losses: Yante Maten, Juwan Parker
Key Newcomers: Amanze Ngumezi, Ignas Sargiunas, Jojo Toppin, Tye Fagan
Outlook: The mediocre tenure of Mark Fox has come to an end in Athens, Georgia as the basketball program waves goodbye to its 9-year head coach, sending him packing to join fellow middle-of-road SEC coach Andy Kennedy. Presumably Fox and Kennedy are having a perfectly normal conversation about some perfectly normal topic in some average city like, I don’t know, Boise, Idaho. Not that Boise is bad per se, it’s just... fine, as was Fox’s career at the helm of UGA hoops. In nine seasons, Fox’s teams finished 163-133 (77-79) and made just two NCAA Tournament appearances.
In Fox’s absence steps Tom Crean, a coach two years removed from the Indiana job and one that was rumored to fill just about every vacancy throughout all of the 2017-18 season. Crean is famous for being the butt of several (hilarious) memes (Tom Crean + meme = Tom Crème?), but seemed to gain universal respect as an analyst / color commentator during his year hiatus. Through his commentary, it was clear that Crean knew the game of basketball and he has a sturdy track record as a program builder. Crean rebuilt the basketball program at Marquette ultimately making a Final Four with Dwyane Wade and then resurrected Indiana from Kelvin Sampson’s wrongdoings. Now he sets his sights on a Georgia program looking to become a perennial SEC contender.
Contention status likely won’t come in year one with the loss of Yante Maten, one of the better Bulldogs in recent memory. With Maten’s graduation, Georgia is without a clear alpha since what seems like eternity. You’ll notice the amount of “key returners” listed on top of the preview – that’s not a mistake; Fox often went 10 or 11 deep into his bench last season, but unfortunately none of those players listed are proven leaders or go-to playmakers. Crean will not only have to build a new culture at Georgia, he’ll have to develop the plethora of returning pieces.
William Jackson II (aka “Turtle”) is the returning leading scorer at just over 8.0ppg. He leads a whole mess of inefficient combo guards that possess talent but lack (at least so far) proper decision-making. To his credit, Jackson has steadily improved his game over his three-year career and is UGA’s best option at the PG spot on day one of the season, but he’ll need to continue to improve his ball protection and shooting decisions. Likewise, Tyree Crump and Teshaun Hightower, two point guards in the same inefficient mold as Jackson, will need to prove their more than quick transition threats on offense.
If I had to choose one guy on the roster to make the leap into “star” player in 2018-19, it’d be rising sophomore Rayshaun Hammonds, a 6’8” wing and former top 40 recruit. Hammonds showed flashes of his overwhelming potential last season vaulted by his impressive athleticism and versatility on both ends of the floor. Without Maten, Hammonds should get his number called more often on offense – look for him to be a driving (hopefully shooting?) threat from the wing or a presence down on the block.
Hammonds will be flanked by a trio of big men in returners Derek Ogbeide and Nicolas Claxton, and promising newcomer Amanze Ngumezi. Ogbeide is a big time rebounder and stout post defender, one of the key reasons along with Maten Georgia’s defense ranked 27th in the nation per KenPom. Claxton, a 6’11” sophomore, is a skinny shot blocker with floor spacing potential; he was UGA’s best offensive rebounder by rate in 2017-18. Ngumezi (aka “Slim”), a top 125 recurit per Rivals and 247, should be an immediate contributor in his freshman season. The 6’9” power forward is very athletic and moves really well for his size. A 4/5 combo of Ngumezi and Hammonds would make Georgia a tough group to keep up with in the open floor.
UGA’s other incoming freshmen include Ignas Sargiunas, JoJo Toppin, and Tye Fagan. Sargiunas is a Lithuanian combo guard with plenty of international experience under his belt; his outside shot will be his biggest contribution this season. Toppin is an athletic lefty wing that’s probably a year or two away from contributing, and Fagan is a high-energy combo guard who plays a hard-nosed brand of basketball. Sargiunas and Fagan, especially, will push returning guards Jordan Harris and E’Torrion Wilridge for playing time.
Crean’s rotation is mystery at this point, but clearly the veteran coach isn’t going to run 13 deep on a nightly basis. Look for him to mix and match lineups early in the year to discover what fits his preferred style of play (at Indiana it was an uptempo, glass crashing focus).
The question in Athens for this season is: who will step up on a team full of role players? Tom Crean is a great hire for a program trying to rebuild, and I have full confidence he’ll bring this team back to relevance in the coming years. For this season, the Dogs have a lot of bodies but aren’t quite ready to contend in the SEC (though Lindy’s will probably have them in their top 25 for the 3rd straight year *winky face*).
Key Returners: Daniel Gafford, Adrio Bailey
Key Losses: Daryl Macon, Jaylen Barford, Anton Beard, Darious Hall, CJ Jones, Trey Thompson, Dustin Thomas, Arlando Cook
Key Newcomers: Jalen Harris (New Mexico), Mason Jones (JUCO), Isaiah Joe, Ethan Henderson, Keyshawn Embery, Reggie Chaney, Desi Sills, Jordan Phillips
Outlook: It’s hard to find a team that lost more production from 2017-18 than Arkansas. After making their third NCAA Tourney appearance under Mike Anderson, the Hogs lose 8 of their top 10 guys to graduation, transfer, or other. The good news is Arkansas has absolutely zero pressure to win this year with a team chock full of newcomers; the bad news is losing’s not fun, and in a competitive SEC landscape, Pig Suey is going to be doing a whole lot of losing.
Curiously, the best NBA prospect from last year’s Razorback squad opted to forego the Draft and come back to college. Sophomore center Daniel Gafford, a player many pegged to be a first round lock this offseason, will be the heart and soul of the Hogs this year as he makes his case to be a Lottery pick in 2019. Frankly, we here at 3MW think Gafford is wonderful, especially after witnessing him at the PK80 last fall (a tournament in which Gafford was coming off the bench for some reason). Very few players in the country can impact a game defensively as Gafford can; the 6’11” center ranked 1st in the SEC in block rate and 14th nationally as a freshman but also turned in a sky-high defensive rebounding rate, oftentimes a rare feat for a prominent shot blocker. Offensively, Gafford wasn’t really a “playmaker”, but that also wasn’t his role on last year’s team; you can bet Anderson will be force-feeding the big man the rock every chance he gets in 2018-19.
Gafford’s role wasn’t playmaking because Arkansas had two of the best playmakers in the country on their squad last year in Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford. Anderson’s offense was pretty much pick-n-roll or isolation with either Macon or Barford every possession, and it worked way more times than not. When not playing through its guards in the half-court, Arkansas ran, ranking 28th in the country in % of shots attempted in transition. This season, Arkansas still should run a lot, but the half-court approach may look entirely different.
Defensively, Anderson’s style is a known commodity by now, borrowing the 40 Minutes of Hell philosophy from his mentor Nolan Richardson. Gafford serves as the perfect pain anchor in a high-pressure system.
So who’s going to play for Arkansas this season? A shit ton of freshmen, that’s who. With only forwards Adrio Bailey and Gabe Osabuohien returning outside of Gafford, Anderson will be relying heavily on newcomers for production. Bailey and Osabuohien should both see major upticks in playing time, but neither has a vice grip on minutes over the new blood.
The two non-freshmen joining the fold are New Mexico transfer Jalen Harris, who spent last season redshirting on the bench, and JUCO import Mason Jones, a 16ppg scorer last year. Harris started 18 games as a freshman at New Mexico back in 2016-17 so don’t be surprised if he starts at the point on day one for the Backs. His handles and stealing ability on defense are his greatest assets, but he must improve on his outside shot to be a consistent scorer. Jones will provide plenty of shooting and is physical enough to excel in Anderson’s defensive scheme.
Isaiah Joe, Keyshawn Embery, and Desi Sills round out the backcourt for the Hogs; all three are freshmen and all three bring something to the table. Joe is a 4-star point guard that should compete with Harris for that starting spot with his quickness and passing ability; the one knock on him early on is his weight; he’s much too skinny to compete regularly in the SEC. Embery has plenty of size to play right away in the SEC and should get opportunity on the wing next to either Harris or Joe. The swagger Embery plays with is reminiscent of Macon and Barford; his playmaking abilities make him a threat to lead the Hogs in scoring if he adjusts well to the college game. Sills is a confident lefty combo guard that can shoot from anywhere on the floor.
Three freshmen also join the frontcourt ranks; they are Ethan Henderson, Reggie Chaney, and Jordan Phillips. Henderson is the highest ranked recruit in Anderson’s incoming crop, a 4-star top 100 player out of Los Angeles. Henderson is an athletic and mobile big that should block a lot of shots during his Arkansas career; his offensive skillset isn’t developed much past “dunk” but he’ll get better with time. Chaney, out of Findlay Prep, is another power forward, one that’s burlier than Henderson but just as mobile. Chaney’s strength, rebounding, and ability to defend either the post or step out on the perimeter makes him valuable to a young squad. Phillips is a versatile wing with good size and shooting ability.
Arkansas has never finished below 9th in the SEC under Mike Anderson, but that will almost certainly change in 2018-19. Gafford is a terrific college player and NBA prospect, but his talents won’t be enough to save a very young and inexperienced Hog team from the SEC slaughterhouse.