The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close. The transfer market is slowly winding down.
In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2017-18 season. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the SEC over the next six months.
1. This is the youngest Kentucky team that John Calipari has ever had: Eight of the top nine scorers from Kentucky’s 2-16-17 team are gone, either off to the professional ranks or via graduation, meaning that there are really only two sources of experience on this team: Wenyen Gabriel, who averaged fewer than five points in 18 minutes as a freshman last season, and Hamidou Diallo, who is a redshirt freshman that enrolled at the school in the middle of last year and very nearly made the choice to enter the NBA Draft.
Put another way, Kentucky lost 80.8 points per game off of last year’s team, and there were all of 26 teams in college basketball that averaged more points than that last season. The last time he dealt with something like this was in 2013, when his most senior returnee was Kyle Wiltjer. That incoming recruiting class, however, was not what this class is. He has five five-star prospects enrolling — Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt, P.J. Washington, Nick Richards and Quade Green — along with a pair of four-star recruits as well as Diallo, who is technically still a freshman.
It’s not a secret that the best teams have a combination of one-and-done stars alongside talented veterans. Can Cal buck that trend?
2. So where does Kentucky actually get offense from this year?: The most concerning thing about Kentucky isn’t necessarily their age, it’s the fact that they don’t have a difference-maker offensively. The best players on their team next season are all great athletes with physical tools and a chance to be terrific defenders, but where are they going to get points from? Can a team with this much youth consistently win games in the 50s and 60s? Who is going to make a perimeter shot?
3. How does Florida bounce back after their Final Four run?: A year after getting back to the Final Four for the first time in the post-Billy Donovan era, the Gators look like they have another top ten team this season. Mike White lost a handful of key pieces off last year’s team, but with KeVaughn Allen back in the fold, Chris Chiozza at the point and a handful of quality transfers and freshmen entering the fray, it’s not crazy to think that Florida and not Kentucky is best built for a run at the SEC title.
4. Alabama is the latest SEC also-ran to land a monster recruiting class. Can they turn that into wins?: It’s not a secret that the SEC has programs that have been able to land impressive recruiting classes in the past. We’ve seen LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn and Mississippi State all land five-star prospects and impressive classes in recent years, but that influx of talent has yet to manifest itself in wins on the floor. The Crimson Tide are the latest in that group, as Avery Johnson brought in a pair of five-star recruits in Collin Sexton and John Petty; Sexton is a top ten prospect. They may be in a better position than anyone team before them, as the Tide bring back essentially everyone from a team that won 10 SEC games and had everything except offensive firepower.
Will that recruiting finally pay off?
5. What happens with Jontay Porter?: That’s the big question with Missouri at this point. Michael Jr.’s younger brother has sprouted into a 6-foot-10 monster, a five-star prospect in the Class of 2018 that should be able to have an immediate impact on the program whenever he does arrive on campus. The question is whether or not he wants to fast-forward the timeline, enrolling in school this fall and playing with his brother during his only season on campus. That addition would be mammoth for Cuonzo Martin, because he still has a talent deficient roster that desperately needs bodies.
6. Texas A&M has long had the pieces, but do they finally come together?: The Aggies look like a team destined to make noise this year. Robert Williams, a potential lottery pick, returned to school, as did Tyler Davis, D.J. Hogg and Admon Gilder. They’ve added Duane Wilson as well as a pair of point guards. This is the year for them to make a run, which is more or less what we’ve been saying about Billy Kennedy’s program for the last three years. At what point does it finally all come together?
- Michael Porter Jr., Missouri: What else is there to say about Michael Porter Jr. at this point? He might be the best prospect not currently in the NBA. He’s a 6-foot-9 wing with absurd athleticism and the ability to step out and knock down a three. The big question is if his presence alone is going to be enough to get Missouri back into the NCAA tournament conversation.
- Collin Sexton, Alabama: There is so much to like about Sexton. As a player, he’s as good of a scorer as you’ll find coming in as a freshman. He’s a sneaky bet to lead the SEC in scoring and, along with John Petty, should be able to provide Avery Johnson with the scoring pop he lacked last season. As a person, Sexton is a maniac during games. He talks to himself, he talks to opponents, he plays with his heart on his sleeve. It’s quite entertaining. Hopefully Alabama fans will show out to see this kid. He may not be there long.
- Kentucky’s team: The whole thing is going to be new. The most experienced player on the roster is Wenyen Gabriel, who averaged 4.6 points in 18 minutes last season. Starting over with a bunch of teenagers has always been the MO for the Wildcats, but having a total lack of veterans is something new and, frankly, something that is somewhat concerning.
- J.J. and Jay Jay, Texas A&M: The Aggies had a team last season that looked like it would be able to make some noise in the SEC, and for the most part, that roster has remained intact for this year. The big difference, however, is that they might finally have a point guard after struggling to find someone to fill that role last year. J.J. Caldwell, a redshirt freshman, and Jay Jay Chandler, a true freshman, will battle it out for minutes. Their success might determine A&M’s ceiling.
- Will Wade, LSU: Johnny Jones didn’t do any favors for his successor, as the roster was gutted before Will Wade walked in the door from VCU. The good news for Wade? He landed a four-star point guard prospect in Tremont Waters, but that’s not going to change the fact that he has quite a bit of work to do before the Tigers are back in the mix in the SEC.
- Cuonzo Martin, Missouri: On the surface, it looked like the situation that Martin was taking over in Columbia was going to be an ugly one. Kim Anderson left the cupboard bare. And then Martin went out and hired Michael Porter Sr., earning him commitments from both of his five-star sons, while adding a couple more talented prospects. The big name is Michael Jr. He might end up being the best player in college basketball next season, and that’s a nice luxury to have in the midst of a rebuild.
WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS
Michael Porter Jr., Missouri (Player of the Year)
Collin Sexton, Alabama
KeVaughn Allen, Florida
Yante Maten, Georgia
Robert Williams, Texas A&M
WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS
- Kentucky: John Calipari is going to have his work cut out for him, and it’s rarely going to be pretty basketball that his team plays this season, but winning games in the 50s and 60s is still winning games. It will be interesting to see how Coach Cal handles coaching a team where the elder statesmen are a sophomore that averaged 4.6 points and a redshirt freshman.
- Florida: The Gators are a year removed from a trip to the Final Four, and while they will enter this season without Kasey Hill and Devin Robinson, there are still enough pieces in play for them to have a shot at winning the SEC. The key is going to be John Egbunu’s health. How does he recover from last year’s torn ACL?
- Alabama: Last year, Alabama played a slow, stifling defensive style and couldn’t score. This year, they added a pair of five-star freshmen, one of whom — Collin Sexton — will be in the mix as the SEC’s leading scorer. I think they’re a top 20 team nationally.
- Texas A&M: The Aggies have the talent to be a top 25 team this season. That much is clear. The question is whether the two J.J.’s will be good enough at the point guard spot that Billy Kennedy can get this group back to the NCAA tournament.
- Missouri: Michael Porter Jr. That’s really all you need to know at this point. He’s probably going to be the best player in the conference this season — there are NBA front office people that would take him No. 1 in this draft if they could. The question is going to be whether or not Cuonzo Martin can find a way to make it work with him and if his supporting cast will be good enough.
- Arkansas: The Hogs lost Moses Kingsley after last season, but there is some young talent on this roster. The question is whether or not Mike Anderson is actually going to be able to have sustained success with that talent.
- Georgia: Mark Fox is a criminally underrated basketball coach that will have arguably the best player in the SEC on his roster in Yante Maten. I’m not quite sure how he gets it done, but I think he keeps the Bulldogs relevant in the conference.
- Ole Miss: Andy Kennedy always seems to find a way to get the Rebels somewhere around 20 wins and a .500 or better record in the SEC. He loses Sebastian Saiz, but with Deandre Burnett back, Ole Miss should be able to make some noise.
- Vanderbilt: Bryce Drew somehow got Vanderbilt into the NCAA tournament last season and will return a number of key pieces from that team.
- Mississippi State: Is this the year that Ben Howland’s talent stockpile finally pays off in the form of wins? Quinndary Weatherspoon is a first-team all-SEC talent that leads a roster loaded with former four-star recruits.
- Auburn: Like Mississippi State, the Tigers have some talent on their roster. Mustapha Heron is back, and Danjel Purifoy should take a step forward. The midseason addition of Austin Wiley will likely payoff more this season. I can see Auburn making the NCAA tournament and I can see them finishing the year at .500.
- South Carolina: Not only did South Carolina graduate Sindarius Thornwell, they lost P.J. Dozier to the NBA. We’ll see if Hassani Gravett and Delaware transfer Kory Holden can fill those holes.
- Tennessee: The Vols are in a tough spot. They lost a couple of key pieces off of last year’s team while the rest of the bottom of the league looks like it is going to take a step forward. That said, if the pieces fall right, I can see Rick Barnes finishing the year in the top half of the league; 6-13 in this league is a toss-up. Keep an eye on the duo of Grant Williams and John Fulkerson.
- LSU: Yes, the Tigers brought in Will Wade, and yes, they landed a commitment from Tremont Waters, but this is still a team with quite a bit of work to do before they are relevant again.