SEC 2019-20 Preview

-Jim Root


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. 

Preseason Predictions

Player of the Year: Kerry Blackshear, Sr., Florida
Coach of the Year: Nate Oats, Alabama
Newcomer of the Year: Kerry Blackshear, Sr., Florida
Freshman of the Year: Anthony Edwards, Georgia


Tier 1

1. Kentucky

See full preview here: #4 in our Top-40 countdown

2. Florida

See full preview here: #6 in our Top-40 countdown


Tier 2

3. LSU

See full preview here: #16 in our Top-40 countdown

4. Alabama

See full preview here: #30 in our Top-40 countdown

5. Mississippi

See full preview here: #29 in our Top-40 countdown


Tier 3

6. Tennessee

See full preview here: #35 in our Top-40 countdown

7. Auburn

See full preview here: #36 in our Top-40 countdown

8. Mississippi St.

Key Returners: Nick Weatherspoon, Reggie Perry, Tyson Carter, Abdul Ado, Robert Woodard
Key Losses:
Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters (pro), Aric Holman
Key Newcomers:
Prince Oduro (Siena), Jethro Tshisumpa (JUCO), Elias King, Devin Butts, Iverson Molinar

Lineup:

Outlook: Last year’s Mississippi State Bulldogs were not demonstrably different, roster-wise, than the 2017-18 version that went to the NIT Semifinals, but last year’s team made the NCAA Tournament as a 5 seed. MSU ranked 18th in the country in minutes continuity, a measure of how similar a team is year-over-year, and the team’s defense was actually slightly worse than the NIT version. So what led to such a stark(ville) improvement? Why, three-point shooting, of course! Mississippi State went from 329th in the country in 3P% (31.5%) to 34th (37.7%), and in a competitive sport with thin margins, that made all the difference.

Unfortunately, the four best shooters are off to the professional ranks, including stretchy big man Aric Holman, leaving just Tyson Carter and low-volume Nick Weatherspoon to threaten from deep, leading to cramped floor spacing and a generally greater struggle to put the pumpkin in the basket. Ben Howland is high on seven-foot Dutch freshman Quinten Post’s perimeter shooting, though I’m incredibly hesitant to believe he’ll play him unless he proves up to speed defensively and on the boards.

That means Howland will likely turn back the clocks to the days of his hyper-physical defenses from early in his UCLA tenure, when the Bruins ranked in KenPom’s top five in AdjDE for three consecutive seasons. Expect most lineups to feature two true bigs, with any “small” lineups still featuring the 230-pound Robert Woodard putting the “power” in power forward. Even if Woodard plays more at the 3, Howland has a four-man rotation in the front court, with obvious breakout star Reggie Perry and fellow returning starter Abdul Ado likely to open games.

Perry won the MVP for his efforts in Team USA’s FIBA u19 run to the gold medal this summer, and when you pair that with his production down the stretch last season, it doesn’t take much foresight to see him averaging close to a double-double. His biggest hindrance to that might actually be his teammates, as Ado, Woodard, Siena transfer Prince Oduro, and little-used senior EJ Datcher will be fighting wars among themselves for boards. The latter two each have Grand Canyon-sized holes in their games that will limit their playing time, though (the environmental feature, not the school). Oduro was the worst free throw shooter in college basketball two years ago (not hyperbole – 33% on 123 attempts), while Datcher has been a walking foul in the limited minutes he’s graced the floor.

Of course, I previously failed to mention the other statistical area where the 2018-19 Bulldogs showed marked improvement, going from “very good” to “borderline elite”: offensive rebounding. Perry is a bruising force with a non-stop motor, abusing smaller or sleepier bigs for repeated second chances, and again, the three bigs around him (plus Woodard) will declare war on the paint on a nightly basis.

The primary concerns about Mississippi State lie with creating quality shots with any kind of consistency. The ‘Dogs relied heavily on Lamar Peters and Quinndary Weatherspoon, and the remaining guard tandem – Carter and younger ‘Spoon – haven’t shown the same kind of offensive ability. Howland will hope one of the freshman guards – Iverson Molinar or Devin Butts – can step in and deliver some creation, whether that be in iso or pick-and-roll settings, or the offense will become a glorified form of “volleyball on the glass.” Molinar has picked up some hype in the offseason, displaying extreme vertical bounce, and if he’s ready to help generate shots, the Bulldog ceiling raises a little bit.

Even without Q-Spoon and Peters, the perimeter defense will remain stout. Howland plays all man-to-man and loves to extend his athletic guards, and this ball pressure makes it difficult for opponents to get into their sets. Woodard and ultra-lanky freshman wing Elias King (actually the highest-rated recruit) will have the athleticism to complement Nick ‘Spoon and Carter, and with plenty of shot-blocking behind them, they can gamble a little for steals and easy baskets going the other way.

Bottom Line: The ceiling is lower than last year’s squad because scoring in the half court will be a chore, but the gigantic front line and a tenacious defense should keep the Bulldogs in the middle of the SEC pack. If the shooting tumbles all the way back to 2017-18 levels, though, the sharks are circling beneath them in the standings, ready to pounce on a potentially available NCAA bid.

9. Mizzou

Key Returners: Mark Smith, Jeremiah Tilmon, Torrence Watson, Javon Pickett, Xavier Pinson
Key Losses:
Jordan Geist, Kevin Puryear
Key Newcomers:
Dru Smith (Evansville), Tray Jackson, Mario McKinney, Kobe Brown

Lineup:

Outlook: A promising season in Columbia was torpedoed before it left the harbor last year, as returning star and likely first-round draft pick Jontay Porter tore his ACL in a closed scrimmage in October, sinking Tiger hopes. The highly-skilled big man was supposed to be the offensive fulcrum, able to step out and shoot or facilitate from the elbow, opening space up for a team that lacked creative forces in the backcourt. Instead, too great a burden fell on rising junior Jeremiah Tilmon and now-graduated guard Jordan Geist, and the anemic offense limited the Tigers to a 5-13 SEC record. To top it all off, Porter re-tore his ACL in March (10 days after Mizzou’s season ended) and ended up going undrafted. This all came after the most anticipated recruit in the program’s history, Jontay’s older brother Michael Jr., missed nearly the entire 2017-18 season with a back injury. So while the program is still in better shape than it was after Kim Anderson wrecked it like Ralph, the last two years have been a far cry from what could have been.

And yet, cautious optimism remains. A rising trio of sophomore guards will be joined by a healthy Mark Smith (who missed the final 13 games with injury after burying 45% of his threes) and, FINALLY, a true point guard in Evansville transfer Dru Smith. Tilmon has taken some lumps as an offensive focal point in the post the last two seasons, but he showed clear progress last year, and he should benefit greatly from having more weapons spreading the floor around him. And most of all, an athletic and long roster should allow Cuonzo Martin’s disciplined man-to-man defense to blossom, a prominent feature of his best teams.

Even with the Smiths around, Missouri will play through Tilmon frequently, particularly early in games. He has deft footwork for such a sizable human, and the progression of his free throw shooting – 54% as a freshman, 68% as a sophomore – makes him an even bigger threat in one-on-one situations. His issues have been twofold: his passing against double-teams did not improve much last year, and silly fouls have forced him to the bench far too often. Between both Smiths, Torrence Watson, Xavier Pinson, and Javon Pickett, Tilmon will have perimeter weapons to kick to, so long as he is patient and can more aptly read rotating defenses. As for his fouls, well, that’s why I said they’ll play through him early. As a junior, he should avoid the kinds of plays that got him into trouble – moving screens on the perimeter, hacking at the rim – especially given how badly the Tigers need him on the floor (sorry, Reed Nikko). Without him, they could not get open shots, instead settling for a plethora of threes late in the shot clock, and Hoop Lens data backs this up:

The 3FG% is indicative of the deteriorating shot quality Missouri got with him on the bench, something Cuonzo hopes will change with the introduction of a veteran creator like Dru Smith into the offense.

Dru (we’re going first name basis to avoid confusion here) comes from one of the country’s most unique systems at Evansville, where ex-coach Marty Simmons’ intricate motion offense was almost entirely reliant on off-ball movement. Still, on the limited pick-and-roll possessions Smith ran (63 in 21 games), he ranked in the 99th percentile nationally as a finisher, showing his ability to shoot off the dribble and finish at the rim when possessing a step advantage, something the Mizzou offense has lacked:

Per hoop-math, Smith shot 69.9% at the rim as a sophomore (and only 25.5% of those attempts were assisted), a tremendous figure for a point guard.

Adding that element will give Martin a whole series of other options for generating offense, especially since he’s embraced the three-point shot during his tenure at Missouri. Freshman forward Tray Jackson can even allow them to play four-out without going too small; although he’s not a pure shooter, he has a projectable stroke and should see some open shots as opponents rush to double Tilmon and deny Smith and Smith the ball. Additionally, Pinson can move Dru off the ball at times, particularly if he has reined in his own tendency for wild turnovers. Speaking of which: Mizzou has been infuriatingly turnover-prone for the past two years (318th and 313th in TO rate), and Martin will desperately hope that more experience across the roster will alleviate that somewhat.

Jackson also helps weaponize the defense. He’s on a different tier of athlete from the graduated Kevin Puryear, and if he picks up the scheme early, he’ll give Cuonzo the switchable forward he has sorely lacked (KJ Santos and returning junior Mitchell Smith were not long-term answers). Additionally, Pickett, Watson, Dru, Pinson, and Mark all have solid-to-great length on the perimeter, with Dru being an on-ball menace in his last year at Evansville (4.0% steal rate, 18th nationally). They’ll all be partially responsible for helping Tilmon stay out of foul trouble, because if they allow a cavalcade of open drives, he likely won’t be able to resist hacking.

Bottom Line: Missouri finally has more quality experience and possible depth, with the infusion of more athleticism from freshmen Jackson, Kobe Brown, and Mario McKinney changing the makeup of the roster as well. If Tilmon continues his promising development and the guards knock down shots, the offense will ascend from the dregs of the SEC, and with Martin at the helm, the defense should be formidable as well. With no relevant seniors (very tough preview for Reed Nikko), the peak of this team may be a year away, but this version can still contend for a Tournament bid.

10. Arkansas

Key Returners: Isaiah Joe, Mason Jones, Jalen Harris, Reggie Chaney, Adrio Bailey, Desi Sills
Key Losses:
Daniel Gafford (pro)
Key Newcomers:
Jeantal Cylla (UNC Wilmington), Jimmy Whitt (SMU)

Lineup:

Outlook: It’s mostly forgotten now, but Arkansas nearly took the UCLA path to coaching oblivion this offseason. When the administration fired Mike Anderson, generally considered fairly successful and a longtime Razorback assistant, it was widely assumed that Kelvin Sampson was already cruising north in a brand spankin’ new convertible, ready for a triumphant return to power conference hoops (sorry AAC, you’re cool too). Instead, he leveraged Arkansas, leaving the Hogs adrift, seemingly without an obvious plan B. Whether it was planned or not, though, they pivoted to former Nevada boss and sometimes-shirt-wearer Eric Musselman, fresh off three consecutive NCAA Tournaments at the helm in Reno.

Musselman lacks local recruiting ties, but that matters far less for a coach who so thoroughly dominates the transfer market (at one point, 11 of Nevada’s 13 scholarship players had started college elsewhere). He wasted no time bringing that approach with him to Fayetteville, either, securing two grad and two sit-out transfers in his first offseason. The most important of those is basketball boomerang Jimmy Whitt, who returns after a three-year foray at SMU. He’ll pair with assist-extraordinaire Jalen Harris to give Musselman multiple creators, something his pace-and-space, largely position-less system thrives on. Both are at their best when creating for others, especially considering how monumentally bricky they are as a pair. Seriously, we’re going to need a separate paragraph for this one…

For their careers, Harris and Whitt are a combined 31/161 (19.3%) from deep, which seems offensively bad until you consider that they went 12/97 (12.3%) last year. Harris himself went 8/69 (not nice), and allowing him to shoot 69 threes might honestly be fair justification for Anderson hitting the unemployment line. This was a mean-spirited stanza, but the point is: these guys need shooting around them like the Kardashians need attention.

Luckily, Anderson left behind two 6’5 gunners, with Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones burying nearly 200 threes between them. Both are high-volume, attention-drawing threats, exactly what Musselman needs to generate the open action he craves offensively. Joe in particular is true sniper, with his size and shooting prowess earning him googly eyes from many a Draft Twitter aficionado. Picture him like the Caleb Martin of Muss’s Wolf Pack offenses: constantly roaming the perimeter, hunting shots via spot up or on the move, with a green light brighter than the Vegas Strip. Aside from those two, the roster is nearly bereft of shooters (sophomore backup guard Desi Sills and grad transfer Jeantal Cylla are the only others even worth mentioning), and that issue plagued Arkansas last year – when either Joe or Jones sat, the offense crumbled:

The lack of shooting stands out the most (three-point percentage and rate dropped), but the increase in turnovers and decrease in FT rate also paints the picture of a congested court. Oh, and if both sat? Armageddon:

Obviously 169 possessions do not form a massive sample size (just over two full games worth), but the message is crystal clear: unleash the snipers.

The offense will need to mimic the effectiveness of Nevada’s 2018 unit, because the defense may be similarly harmful. This team lacks rebounders in a Threat Level Midnight kind of way, both in quantity and ability. Reggie Chaney is the team’s biggest body at 6’8, but he did not get on the defensive glass last year, and Musselman won’t be able to rely on the undersized Cylla and Adrio Bailey to consistently battle the SEC’s larger post players. The wild card is Division II transfer Emeka Obukwelu, who averaged nearly 20 and 8 at UT-Tyler, but the fact remains that Arkansas was one of the country’s very worst defensive rebounding teams last season and lost its only truly competent glass-eater (Daniel Gafford) to the Chicago Bulls.

Chaney, at least, provides the defense with an element that 2018 Nevada sorely lacked: a rim protecting menace to cover up for the guards getting blown by on the perimeter. He’s only one man, though, so the guards and wings will need to keep opponents in front to avoid Chaney finding himself in foul trouble. This Musselman team also won’t have the advantage of an abundance of length with which to mask its defensive flaws: after starting 6’7/6’7/6’7/6’8/6’10 last year, Muss might go 6’2/6’3/6’5/6’5/6’8 this year, a comparatively diminutive lineup in a league with plenty of size. Nevada played almost exclusively man-to-man the last few years, and Musselman’s pro background supports that notion, but he may have to sprinkle in some zone to compensate for this unit’s size deficiencies.

Bottom Line: After the disappointment of missing on Sampson, Arkansas recovered nicely and found a worthy leader all the way out in Reno. Musselman will make the Razorbacks the Transfer U of the SEC, and having the big conference draw will only make his pull more magnetic. This year’s offense has the potential to be dynamite, playing in transition with multiple creators and snipers to spread out the defense, but the interior concerns will be glaring. Can the Hogs force enough turnovers and missed shots to compensate for their lack of rebounding? With so many NCAA Tournament hopefuls, the conference will not be forgiving to any glaring flaws. I’m guessing the Hogs just miss this year and end up at MSG in the NIT.

11. Georgia

Key Returners: Tyree Crump, Rayshaun Hammonds, Jordan Harris
Key Losses:
Nic Claxton (pro), Derek Ogbeide, William Jackson, E’Torrion Wilridge, Teshaun Hightower
Key Newcomers:
Anthony Edwards, Christian Brown, Jaykwon Walton, Toumani Camara, Rodney Howard, Sahvir Wheeler

Lineup:

Outlook: Tom Crean’s first year at Georgia was a disaster, plain and simple, but, hey, at least it went better than his first year at Indiana? Seriously, I don’t think I fully realized or appreciated just how dire things got in Athens. The Bulldogs finished 11-21, 2-16 in the SEC, and finished 132nd in KenPom’s rankings, all adding up to the program’s worst season since 2009. Crean’s predecessor, Mark Fox, never earning fewer than 5 SEC wins (and that was when the league only played 16 games), winning at least 18 games overall in his final five campaigns.  

But Crean wasn’t brought in to work Year One miracles. He’s here to raise the ceiling of a program that hasn’t made a Sweet 16 since 1996, a coach with three such finishes in his career (plus a Final Four), and he took a large step in the right direction with this recruiting class. Ranked ninth nationally by 247sports, the six-man group has a megastar (Anthony Edwards, henceforth known only as AntMan in this space) and plenty of wing versatility. More on them shortly…

Only three rotation pieces return from last year’s calamitous team, which is probably a good thing, especially since one of them is Rayshaun Hammonds, likely the roster’s only impactful big man. Three-star freshman Rodney Howard will at least provide more size and depth, and Crean will likely try to squeeze some minutes out of Amanze Nguzemi as well, despite his ineffective debut season. Even Hammonds isn’t a natural center – as a freshman, he often played alongside two true bigs, and he played only 66 of his 943 possessions (7.0%) last year without one of Derek Ogbeide, Nicolas Claxton, or Nguzemi next to him to man the paint. With that dearth of bigs, the identity of the team will center around its guards and wings playing in transition, cranking the offensive tempo to The Fast & The Furious levels.

AntMan will not lack for running mates, as the rest of the class boasts four more Top 100 backcourt players: a trio of 6’6 wings in Christian Brown (from Oak Hill Academy – ever heard of it?), Jaykwon Walton, and Toumani Camara, along with the 5’8 flash that is Sahvir Wheeler. The wings will rotate alongside returning guards Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris, seniors who will have to fight tooth and nail to avoid getting completely passed over. And if all those were not enough, Georgia also scooped up a solid piece on the grad transfer market in Northeastern guard Donnell Gresham, a pass-first combo guard who can knock down shots and a well-built, physical defender. The biggest question: who emerges alongside AntMan to seize the obvious-but-still-terrific nickname of “The Wasp?”

Okay, that’s a lot of listing names – what’s Tommy C going to do with all of those weapons? Expect Georgia to run, run, run, unleashing the stable of wings in the open floor and wearing down opponents with barrages of fresh bodies. I won’t go so far as to call Crean a “roll the balls out” coach on offense, but the Dawgs will likely overwhelm more with talent and athleticism than consistent action and precise execution. He wants to spread the floor for drives and cuts, using handoffs and quick pick-and-rolls as a means to get the defense moving (not specifically to score off that action). AntMan will be nearly unstoppable if he can catch against an off-balance defense, as his powerful frame will bounce off defenders and allow him to get all the way to the rim:

The concerns here are two-fold: shooting and defense. Georgia was dreadful from deep last year, and although the most harmful shooters have all departed, none of the freshmen carry a “knockdown shooter” label. Without spacing, the driving lanes will get clogged, which may be Crump and Harris’s ticket to playing time.

Defensively, oh boy. Crean’s teams are basically never known for their ability to get stops, and with so many freshman playing minutes for a coach who doesn’t traditionally succeed on that end, there’s a frighteningly low floor. Additionally, the team has very little shot-blocking, so if the guards get beat off the dribble, opponents will face light resistance to at the rim. In fact, given the youth and lack of size, I’d expect to see some zone from the Dawgs, something Crean didn’t shy away from last year (18% of the time, per Synergy).

Bottom Line: It feels harsh placing a talented Crean team this low, but the SEC is going to be brutal (yes I’m a broken record on that), and the youth and lack of size/rebounding could limit them. Georgia will still be a must-watch team thanks to AntMan’s individual talent, and if the other rookies can score with him, UGA could have a devastating transition attack. The NCAA Tournament is a realistic goal, though I’m guessing they fall short of that, and expectations are probably higher given the recruiting class and the still-present excitement around hiring Crean.

12. Texas A&M

Key Returners: TJ Starks, Savion Flagg, Wendell Mitchell, Jay Jay Chandler, Josh Nebo
Key Losses:
Admon Gilder (grad transfer), Christian Mekowulu, Brandon Mahan (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Quenton Jackson (JUCO), Andre Gordon, Yavuz Gultekin, Cashius McNeilly, Jonathan Aku, Emanuel Miller, Bakari Simmons

Lineup:

Outlook: Let’s go to our good pal Jon Rothstein, reporting live from College Station on the big offseason coaching change. Jon, can you give us a sense of what the mood is like on campus and in the city?

There you have it, folks! Buzz parlayed his resounding success at Virginia Tech into a hefty raise down in the Lone Star State, including 25% raises for his entire staff, as well. That brings another marquee coaching name to the SEC ranks, and although the foundation of this roster struggled to 14-18 (6-12) campaign last year, there’s talent (if not depth) to be a pain in the a** to play against, at the very least – Buzz’s specialty.

On the court, Buzz’s first order of business needs to be solving (or at least alleviating) what we’ll call “The TJ Starks Problem.” Starks has gotten his share of grief from this website, and deservedly so – despite his catastrophically poor shooting numbers (36.6% from the field/22.4% from three/64.9% from the FT line), he still ranked 49th in the entire country in percentage of shots taken while on the court, per KenPom – a galling number. The Aggies aren’t flush with other creators, so unless one of the newcomers emerges as an option at the point (Andre Gordon? Cashius McNeilly? JUCO transfer Quenton Jackson?), Starks will still be the man. He struggled mightily in both transition and pick-and-roll settings, actions he’ll see plenty of in Buzz’s up-tempo, spread PnR scheme, so correcting his errors is pivotal. He often rushed his decision-making, throwing lazy passes and showing poor dribble control:

Plus, he simply could not finish over size, despite flashing the ability to get to the rim. Buzz has worked wonders with point guards in the past, and Starks certainly has some burst and aggression, but this may be Buzz’s toughest task to date.

That spread pick-and-roll requires other pieces too: a big man threat as a roller, plus shooters with which to space the floor. The first box is a clear “check,” as former St. Francis (PA) center Josh Nebo is one of the better “run and jump” bigs in the country. He’s an emphatic finisher (shot 70% from the field last year, many of which were dunks), and his presence chugging down the lane will draw defensive attention regardless of who the ball-handler is. The shooting is a little more in question, although the returning duo of Wendell Mitchell and Savion Flagg have potential on the wing. Each hit around 50 threes while shooting in the mid-30s, percentage-wise, and there’s no doubt Buzz & Co. will have them working tirelessly on their perimeter strokes. Jay Jay Chandler is more of an athletic rim attacker, but he’ll be a weapon in transition and attacking sloppy closeouts.

Another issue last year was depth, as waves of transfers and injuries over the years slowly sapped the program of players. That forced Billy Kennedy to give heavy minutes to Chris Collins, a redshirt senior former walk-on who rarely looked at the basket. Apologies to Chris, because in truth, he was stuck playing a role in the SEC he did not belong in, and he actually did defend reasonably well, but his monstrous stat lines down the stretch must be acknowledged:

For those keeping score at home: 11 games, 10 starts, 204 minutes…0/18 from the field, including 0/13 from deep. That’s playing 4-on-5 if I’ve ever seen it - no wonder Mr. Starks still had a green light!

That means newcomers Jackson, McNeilly, Gordon, wing Bakari Simmons and forwards Emanuel Miller and Jonathan Aku all have chances to earn immediate minutes. Jackson is the most highly-touted of the bunch, the #22-ranked JUCO propsect per jucorecruiting.com and a skilled wing scorer. Miller and Aku (who relassed from 2020) will need to play, too, because beyond Nebo, this team is completely devoid of big men.  

On the other end, Buzz runs a “pack-line-adjacent” man-to-man that is hell-bent on keeping foes out of the lane, which may leave the Aggies vulnerable to perimeter shooters. He’s never had a shot-blocker like Nebo on the back line (please don’t tell Chris Otule), but he likely still tries to protect him given the team’s lack of interior depth. If Nebo does get in foul trouble, don’t be shocked to see some ultra-small lineups with Flagg at the nominal center spot (a la Lazar Hayward or Jae Crowder at Marquette), with Buzz comfortable switching to zone looks in such alignments if need be.

Bottom Line: Kennedy didn’t leave the cupboard totally bare (I genuinely like Mitchell and Flagg, and Nebo is fun too), but this is a thin roster unless the new guys really help out. I don’t think it will be near as ugly as year one in Blacksburg when Virginia Tech went 11-22 (2-16), but it’s possible in such a cutthroat league. I’ll go with the Aggies being plucky and competitive, especially at home in front of (hopefully) an energized crowd, but not quite clawing their way to tournament contention.


Tier 4

13. South Carolina

Key Returners: AJ Lawson, Keyshawn Bryant, Justin Minaya, Maik Kotsar, TJ Moss (injury)
Key Losses:
Chris Silva, Hassani Gravett, Felipe Haase (transfer), Tre Campbell
Key Newcomers:
Jair Bolden (George Washington), Jermaine Cousinard, Micaiah Henry (Tenn. Tech), Jalyn McCreary, Trae Hannibal, Trey Anderson, Wildens Leveque

Lineup:

Outlook: Following South Carolina’s magical run to the Final Four in 2017, the program has gotten stuck in a bit of a rut. Over the last two years, the Gamecocks are just 33-32 overall, including a perfectly average 18-18 in conference play, as Frank Martin has been unable to recreate the “decent offense / lockdown defense” combination that made the ’17 version such a pain to play against. This year’s roster has intriguing young talent in the backcourt, but in what might prove to be a historically deep SEC, even a team as promising as South Carolina could get pushed towards the bottom.

Making sense of last year's Gamecocks takes a little analysis. They went just 5-8 in non-conference play, including a home loss to Stony Brook and an utterly baffling defeat at Wyoming, but rebounded to salvage a surprising 11-7 tally in the league. So did they drastically improve, a young team that finally rounded into form against higher-level competition? To oversimplify things, not really. Sure, the reps helped sophomore-to-be guards AJ Lawson, Keyshawn Bryant, and TJ Moss get their feet wet, but a bigger part of the answer was unfortunately less substantial: luck. Take a gander at the ‘Cocks’ three-point shooting splits (and their opponents’) over the two segments of the year:

South Carolina actually took 2.5 less threes per game in conference play, but due to the torrid shooting pace, the Gamecocks actually made 1.1 more. And for context: the 40.9% success rate would have ranked fourth in the entire country had it extrapolated over the full year.

The problem, at its core, was shot selection. South Carolina took the 13th-highest share of two-point jumpers in the country last year, and this is often a bugaboo for Martin’s offense, which employs a lot of cramped flex action. This took away driving lanes for his big guards (both Lawson and Bryant are 6’6), leaving more of the work to the big men – returnees Alanzo Frink and Maik Kotsar among them – to clean up the offensive glass, a classic Martin trait (Tennessee Tech grad transfer Micaiah Henry will fit right into the puzzle).

To Martin’s credit, he allowed the young guards to play in the open floor when possible, pushing in transition more than usual. The three sophomores, plus now-healthy junior Justin Minaya, redshirt freshman Jermaine Cousinard, and George Washington transfer Jair Bolden, give the backcourt depth and varied offensive arsenals. More experience for the guards should help clean up some of the turnover issues exhibited in the past, but until Martin embraces spacing the floor a little more, it’s hard to see too high a ceiling for a team that wants to batter its way to the rim via drives and Kotsar/Frink post ups. Lawson is a promising prospect and looked good for Canada’s FIBA U19 team, but he can only do so much.

On the other end, the defense was Martin’s worst since 2015 (per KenPom AdjDE), as the perimeter youth struggled to learn Martin’s tricky matchup 3-2 zone. Nearly all of his teams do one of two things: rebound well enough defensively (a challenge when in zone) or force a preponderance of turnovers via length and physicality. Last year’s did neither, but with so much length on the roster, some added experience, plus a shot-blocker in Henry, I’d expect an increase in the half court pressure. Rebounding looks dicier; none of the veteran bigs do it well, and the best incoming recruit, Jalyn McCreary, is more of a hybrid 3/4.

Bottom Line: Martin did a hell of a job coercing an 11-7 record out of last year’s team after its non-conference struggles, but I think that performance was a little “smoke and mirrors” given the team’s aberrational shooting (and its best shooters, Felipe Haase and Hassani Gravett, are gone). Still, even in a harrowing SEC, there’s reason for optimism around the burgeoning backcourt, and I’d expect a stingier defense with Martin at the helm, as well. That said, this team feels “a year away” given how few seniors will contribute (just Kotsar and Henry).

14. Vanderbilt

Key Returners: Aaron Nesmith, Saben Lee, Clevon Brown, Matthew Moyer
Key Losses:
Darius Garland (pro), Simi Shittu (pro), Joe Toye, Matt Ryan (transfer), Yanni Wetzell (transfer)
Key Newcomers:
Dylan Disu, Scotty Pippen Jr., Jordan Wright, Oton Jankovic

Lineup:

Outlook: At least make a splash, I guess?

After Vandy (surprisingly?) fired Bryce Drew following an 0-18 SEC campaign, it was unclear what direction the administration would go to fill its head coaching vacancy. Apparently, though, the Commodore brass looked down I-40 and saw the momentum building at Memphis under Penny Hardaway and wanted something similar. The ‘Dores hired Jerry Stackhouse, former NBA great and Memphis Grizzlies assistant, who, like Hardaway, had absolutely zero NCAA coaching experience. In Stackhouse’s defense, he has seen coaching success – he won the G-League title with the Raptors 905 in 2017 and earned the league’s Coach of the Year – so it’s not a complete “what?” hire. But he has never recruited and never had any association with the SEC, leaving significant questions as to whether he can win in a league full of proven head coaches.

Drew didn’t leave the cupboard completely bare, but it’s still the core of an 0-18 team, so even clear improvement would leave the Commodores clawing to get out of the league’s basement. Aaron Nesmith and Saben Lee are the most promising pieces, at least giving Stackhouse a back court with some size, shooting, and creation ability. Our best guess is Stackhouse will play a pro-style spread offense, relying on the guards to attack the space created by a spread-out alignment, and Lee is excellent going downhill off the dribble. Nesmith is also a sneaky-promising prospect after ascending to a starting role for SEC play last year; just ask friend of 3MW/The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie, who has him going 23rd in his early 2020 mock draft.

Spacing the floor around the ‘Dores action is going to be the larger challenge. Nesmith is a better shooter than he showed last year (83% from the FT line, but just 34% from deep), but the rest of the roster’s wings – Matthew Moyer, Maxwell Evans, freshman Jordan Wright – aren’t going to consistently fill it up from distance. That means Vandy will need to consistently get out in transition to score effectively, so any cheap points the ‘Dores can get off turnovers will be crucial. Freshman Dylan Disu looks like a high-impact defender as a freshman, and rolling out a 2-3-4 trio of him, Moyer, and Nesmith could present serious issues for opposing ball-handlers. All three have the requisite length and athleticism play a pressure scheme; it’s unclear if Stackhouse will go that route, but some wrinkles might help cover the talent gap Vandy will face in year one. Oh, and freshman guard Scotty Pippen Jr.’s papa was a decent defender himself.

Senior center Clevon Brown will be an impactful rim protector on the interior after ranking 6th and 8th in the SEC in block rate the past two seasons. Again – not sure if Mr. Stack will apply pressure on D, but funneling opposing guards into Brown’s waiting arms makes sense. The Commodores will also likely employ some smaller lineups with Moyer and Disu manning the “big” spots – this will leave them highly vulnerable inside and on the defensive glass, but the edge in athleticism can even the playing field somewhat.

Bottom Line: Bryce Drew brought in five-star recruits (including a lottery pick in Garland) and ran decent action on offense, but for various reasons - not the least of which was Garland’s injury - the team completely collapsed last year. And yes, losing 20 straight games (13 by double-digits, three of last four by 15+) is a full-on collapse. Stackhouse enters with legitimate concerns about his abilities to recruit and win in the SEC, but he has unquestionably brought some excitement to the program, and his early player moves – securing the commitments of Disu and Pippen, plus DJ Harvey and Quentin Millora-Brown on the transfer market – have built on that optimism. Winning in the G-League is no easy task (the talent is very evenly spread out there), so harping on his X’s-and-O’s probably isn’t fair, either. He’ll need to continue to raise the talent level in a hyper-competitive conference, but the enthusiasm around the coaching change is a promising sign for the future.