Looking Forward: Here’s what the offseason holds in store for the SEC

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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 for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 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. 

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

Can anyone in the SEC actually challenge Kentucky?: I’m not talking about challenging them for an SEC title, because that’s more or less off the table in my mind. Assuming the Wildcats stay healthy — and probably even if they don’t — I think you can pretty much write in Kentucky as the 2017 SEC regular season champs, and you can do it in pen.

I wonder if there is another team in this conference that can actually beat Kentucky, period. I don’t think the SEC is “bad” — we’ll get to that in a second — but the gap between Kentucky and whoever you think will finish second in the conference is wider than the gap between that second-place team and the team destined to finish in eighth. Some teams are just young, others lose large numbers of key pieces, and others just don’t have the pedigree or the coaching to realistically threaten a team that can win a national title.

In fact, I think you can make the argument that Kentucky is far more likely to go 40-0 this season than Duke is simply because the schedule they play is much easier.

The SEC balanced at least: And that’s why I hesitate to call the conference bad. The way the league shakes out, there may not be another team capable of getting to the Sweet 16. But there are 10 other teams in the conference that could make the NCAA tournament and I wouldn’t be surprised. There are five or six teams that could finish second in the SEC regular season standings and I wouldn’t be surprised. Kentucky is clearly the best team in the conference and Missouri is, by far, the worst, but I don’t think it’s crazy to think that the other 12 teams in the league could all end up finishing somewhere between 12-6 and 7-11 in the league.

When will the infusion of coaching talent payoff?: Prior to last season, that was the big story line in the conference. The SEC had made it clear that they wanted their member schools to take basketball more seriously. Invest money, schedule better, etc. And after Bruce Pearl was hired in 2014, the 2015 Coaching Carousel saw Ben Howland, Rick Barnes and Avery Johnson join the conference. But here’s the thing: Those four coaches I just mentioned finished 10th-13th in the league.

Howland seems to have things headed in the right direction on the recruiting trail, as does Pearl. Barnes and Johnson actually outperformed expectations last season. But results are what matters, and those four are not getting results yet. How long will we have to wait for them to make their programs relevant nationally?

How is Johnny Jones still employed?: Last season was a disappointing one for the SEC, but no one was more disappointing than Jones and LSU. He took a vaunted recruiting class led by potential No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and coached them right out of the postseason. Simmons quit by the end of the year, putting in as much effort defensively as I do at paying attention to Milan’s fashion trends, and Jones only further sullied a reputation that wasn’t exactly sparkling to begin with.

     RELATED: Coaches on the Hot Seat | Coaching Carousel Winners, Losers

LSU basketball head coach Johnny Jones speaks during media day, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015 in Baton Rouge, La. (Travis Spradling/The Advocate via AP)
LSU basketball head coach Johnny Jones (Travis Spradling/The Advocate via AP)

NOTABLE NEWCOMERS

  • Kentucky’s class: The Wildcats did not get Marques Bolden last week, but that doesn’t change the fact that they, once again, have an absolutely star-studded recruiting class. De’Aaron Fox may be the best point guard in a ridiculous corp of point guards, Malik Monk is one of the most entertaining freshman to enter college hoops in recent memory and Bam Adebayo is a freak athlete and finisher at the rim that Kentucky lacked in their front court last season. Throw in Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones, two more five-star freshmen, and there’s a reason the Wildcats are sitting at No. 2 nationally in our preseason top 25.
  • Mustapha Heron, Auburn: Heron is Bruce Pearl’s first five-star recruit with Auburn, and it signifies a bit of a change within the makeup of his roster. Most of the transfers that Pearl landed as make-shift parts when he took the job are gone. He now has a young group with a good amount of talent to work with. Can Heron be the guy that he builds his team around?
  • Schnider Herard and Mario Kegler, Mississippi State: Herard and Kegler are the big names — and big men — in a class that includes six four-star recruits. Adding them to the talented guards that the Bulldogs return means that Ben Howland has a stable of young talent. It feels like they’re a year away still, but it felt like they were five years away when Howland took over.
  • Cullen Neal, Ole Miss: Neal is a volume shooter and a big time scorer that is eligible immediately and can play the next two seasons. He’ll fill some of the scoring void left by Stefan Moody’s graduation.
  • Canyon Barry, Florida: Berry, who is the final son of Rick Barry to matriculate through the college ranks, heads to the SEC as a grad transfer after averaging nearly 20 points at Charleston. He’ll be an impact offensive weapon, likely off the bench, for the Gators.

SURPRISING DEPARTURES

  • Malik Newman, Mississippi State: Newman has yet to sign with an agent and still may return to the Bulldogs. He’s deciding between being a potential second round pick and a sophomore in college. The biggest reason I’m including him here is because I wanted to write a bit more about MSU. Newman wasn’t the best freshman guard on the Bulldogs last season. Quinndary Weatherspoon was. And while Howland’s club loses Craig Sword and Gavin Ware, they bring back senior point guard I.J. Ready, Weatherspoon and, potentially, Newman, combining them with a slew of talented freshmen and sophomore big men. I like where Howland has this program headed.

     RELATED: Looking Forward Big 12 | ACC | A-10 | Big East | Big Ten | AAC

COACHING CHANGES

Bryce Drew, Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt finally cut ties with Kevin Stallings after 17 seasons, as the former ‘Dores coach took over for Jamie Dixon at Pittsburgh earlier this spring. This opened the door for Drew, the younger brother of Baylor’s Scott Drew and the hero of this infamous March moment, to finally make the jump to the high-major ranks after a terrific five-year run at Valparaiso. He won four Horizon League regular season titles and reached two NCAA tournaments in five seasons. He’s long been considered one of the best young coaches in the mid-major ranks, and Vandy should consider themselves lucky to have landed him.

Arkansas' Moses Kingsley (33) shoots a basket over South Carolina's Laimonas Chatkevicius (14) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina in Fayetteville, Ark., Saturday, March 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Sarah Bentham)
Arkansas’ Moses Kingsley (AP Photo/Sarah Bentham)

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-CONFERENCE PREDICTIONS

De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky (Player of the Year)
Malik Monk, Kentucky
KeVaughn Allen, Florida
Yante’ Maten, Georgia
Moses Kingsley, Arkansas

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS, IN TWEETS

1. Kentucky: The Wildcats are so far ahead of the rest of the conference it’s absurd. The toughest decision was figuring out with player should be POY.

2. Georgia: J.J. Frazier and Yante’ Maten will be the best 1-2 punch in the SEC this side of Lexington. Is this the year for Mark Fox makes a statement?

3. Florida: Mike White returns a young, talented core that’s a perfect fit for his style of play. How much of a leap will Allen and Robinson make?

4. Texas A&M: I love the young talent on Billy Kennedy’s roster, but it feels like they’re a year away after losing House, Caruso, Jones and Collins.

5. South Carolina: Martin loses his front line, but Thornwell returns and he has some solid young pieces. How much of a sophomore leap does Dozier make?

6. Mississippi State: This might be a stretch, but if Newman returns, I think Howland can coach up his young talent by the time league play comes around.

7. Ole Miss: Kennedy restocks his roster with some transfers, but I’m not sure people really appreciated just how good Moody was. Front line an issue.

8. Arkansas: Mike Anderson has talent on his roster. I do not trust Mike Anderson to be able to win with talent on his roster. Top four team on paper.

9. LSU: Slotting LSU behind Arkansas should tell you how I feel about Johnny Jones. Antonio Blakeney should put up big numbers as a sophomore.

10. Vanderbilt: Losing Baldwin and Jones would be tough for any coach to overcome. Drew will make Vandy competitive in time.

11. Auburn: Pearl is starting to amass some high-end talent, but they’re young and there isn’t much depth on the roster. A year or two away.

12. Tennessee: Rick Barnes had his guys playing hard despite being severely undersized last season. Losing Kevin Punter (22 ppg) certainly doesn’t help.

13. Alabama: Losing Obasohan hurts. Losing Terrence Ferguson’s commitment may hurt more. Tide closer to top half of league than Missouri.

14. Missouri: It should tell you something that in a league as mediocre as the SEC, the easiest decision to make was putting Missouri in last place.

No. 6 UConn star Azzi Fudd out 3-6 weeks with knee injury

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STORRS, Conn. — Sixth-ranked UConn’s top scorer, Azzi Fudd, is expected to be out three to six weeks because of a right knee injury she suffered during her team’s weekend loss to No. 5 Notre Dame, a university athletic spokesperson said.

The sophomore guard was injured in the first half of the game when a teammate collided into her. She returned midway through the second period to play four hobbled minutes, but sat the rest of the way.

“I think she’ll be all right,” coach Geno Auriemma said afterward.

Fudd entered the game averaging 24.0 points but finished scoreless on two shots over 13 minutes in the team’s first loss of the season.

The athletic spokesperson didn’t specify the type of knee injury Fudd sustained.

She underwent evaluation and an MRI confirmed the injury, the spokesperson said.

The Huskies host Princeton next.

New Mexico State suspends player after shooting

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LAS CRUCES, N.M. — New Mexico State’s athletic director says power forward Mike Peake has been suspended indefinitely from the basketball team in connection with last month’s fatal shooting of a student from a rival university.

Mario Moccia also told reporters that neither he nor the school could comment on Peake’s enrollment status as a student. The 21-year-old Peake has not been charged in the Nov. 19 pre-dawn shooting on the University of New Mexico’s campus in Albuquerque hours before the host Lobos were to play the Aggies. That game was canceled along with the Dec. 3 rematch in Las Cruces.

“Mike is suspended from our basketball team until the completion of the university’s investigation and the investigation of the proper authorities,” Moccia said. “When those investigations will be complete, I can’t say.”

State police investigators said 19-year-old Brandon Travis conspired with two other UNM students and a teenage girl to lure Peake onto campus.

The subsequent shootout left Travis dead at the scene and Peake hospitalized with a leg wound that has required several surgeries.

A brawl at an Oct. 15 UNM-NMSU football game in Las Cruces was a precursor to the shooting, police said.

First-year NMSU men’s basketball coach Greg Heiar was not made available to talk to media until 10 days after the shooting.

He expressed his condolences for Travis and his family and said he took full responsibility for the actions of multiple players who sneaked out of the hotel on that morning of the game.

But until Monday, NMSU officials had not spoken publicly about any specific discipline for Peake related to the shooting.

“If there is criticism over this decision, I am in a position to take it on myself,” Moccia said. “I’ve known this player for years and I know what kind of person he is. I didn’t feel a need to rush to judgment. I wanted to give the investigation time to play out before making any decisions.”

Peake, a 6-foot-7 junior from Chicago, played one season at Georgia before transferring to Austin Peay. He joined New Mexico State in 2021 and averaged 4.1 points and 2.4 rebounds last season, helping the Aggies reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

No. 18 Gonzaga withstands scare from Kent State for 73-66 win

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SPOKANE, Wash. – Drew Timme scored 29 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, and No. 18 Gonzaga closed the game on an 11-0 run to rally past Kent State 73-66 on Monday night.

The nation’s longest home win streak was extended to 69 games but not without a major scare by the Golden Flashes. Kent State led 66-62 with 3:38 left after Miryne Thomas’ 3-pointer, but the Bulldogs tightened on the defensive end and got a handful of big plays offensively to hold off the Flashes.

Julian Strawther added 14 points, including a 3-pointer with 3:19 left that started Gonzaga’s decisive run. Timme’s spinning basket in the lane with 2:29 left gave Gonzaga (6-3) the lead, and he added a key defensive play blocking Sincere Carry’s layup attempt at the other end.

Timme was fouled and split free throws with 1:55 left, but Malachi Smith grabbed the offensive rebound and his three-point play gave the Bulldogs a 71-66 lead. It was Smith’s first basket of the game.

“(Timme) was heroic. He wasn’t really looking for the ball much early and wasn’t demanding it . he was splitting the defense and scoring in a variety of ways like he does,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “To end up with 17 boards is monster and we needed every one of them.”

Nolan Hickman added 10 points and seven rebounds for the Bulldogs, who held a 43-30 advantage on the boards. It was just the second home game inside the McCarthey Athletic Center for Gonzaga and first since Nov. 7 against North Florida.

Thomas led Kent State (6-3) with 16 points, including four 3-pointers. Malique Jacobs added 11 points and Carry, who was averaging 18.5 points per game, was held to 10.

“I think in the second half we moved the ball well, we got some turnovers, got some easy shots and was able to give us a lead playing a great team and great program. . Unfortunately we couldn’t finish it off. Give them a lot of credit for that,” Kent State head coach Rob Senderoff said.

Kent State nearly pulled off a surprising upset on the road for the second time in two weeks but couldn’t withstand Gonzaga’s late surge. Kent State led No. 1 Houston by one-point with less than a minute to go nine days ago in Houston but couldn’t make the plays in the closing seconds to finish off the upset in a 49-44 loss.

“Coach Few has told us all week that this is a great team that could go to the Sweet 16. . We knew what they were capable of and we weren’t taking them lightly and we knew it was going to be a dog fight,” Strawther said.

JERSEY RETIRED

Kelly Olynyk’s No. 13 jersey number was retired in front of a sellout crowd. Olynyk played for Gonzaga from 2009-13 and led the Bulldogs to its first ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament while earning first team AP All-American status as a senior.

“You’re almost speechless,” Olynyk said. “It’s just such an honor, especially with the names that you’re up beside. They’re unbelievable players.”

BIG PICTURE

Kent State: The Golden Flashes lost their third game of the season and their second against a ranked opponent. Kent State has three non-conference games left before beginning Mid-American Conference play at home against Western Michigan.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs bounced back from a one-point loss to No. 12 Baylor last week with the win. All three of Gonzaga’s losses are to teams ranked in the top 12 of the AP Top 25.

UP NEXT:

Kent State: At Cleveland State on Saturday.

Gonzaga: Host in-state rival Washington on Friday.

Preseason No. 1 North Carolina drops out of AP Top 25

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Houston and Texas remain firmly entrenched atop The Associated Press men’s college basketball poll, while preseason No. 1 North Carolina has dropped out entirely after a fourth straight loss.

The Cougars earned 37 of 62 first-place votes in the poll, extending the program’s first stay at No. 1 since the “Phi Slama Jama” days in the 1980s for another week. Houston (8-0) beat Norfolk State and Saint Mary’s in its first week at the top.

“I don’t dwell on it,” coach Kelvin Sampson said last week about the No. 1 ranking. “We’re not running around here pushing our chest out, thinking we’re something we’re not.”

The Longhorns received 14 first-place votes. No. 3 Virginia got three votes and No. 4 Purdue got the remaining eight.

Connecticut (9-0) climbed to No. 5, the program’s highest ranking since early in the 2011-12 season. Other than the top five, there are three other teams in the AP Top 25 that entered Monday undefeated (No. 11 Auburn, No. 13 Maryland and No. 23 Mississippi State).

SWIFT FALL

North Carolina is only the sixth team to go from preseason No. 1 to unranked since at least the 1961-62 season, most recently with Michigan State during the 2019-20 season.

Of that group, the Tar Heels had the swiftest exit from the poll to start the season (four weeks) excet for UCLA in 1965-66. The Bruins fell out of the poll after just three weeks back when only 10 teams were ranked.

Ranked No. 18 last week, the Tar Heels (5-4) l ost their fourth straight game over the weekend at Virginia Tech while playing without banged-up big man Armando Bacot. They appeared on a single ballot this week from the 62-member panel that votes on the AP Top 25.

“I told them also that I’m not panicked, I’m not any of that,” coach Hubert Davis said afterward. “I’m convinced we’re going to be a great basketball team by the end of the season.”

Last year’s Tar Heels were on the bubble to even make the NCAA Tournament well into February in Davis’ debut season. They went on a final-month tear all the way to the NCAA championship game before falling to Kansas.

THE TOP TIER

Kansas climbed to No. 6, followed by three Southeastern Conference teams in Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas. For the Volunteers and Crimson Tide, it marked their first appearances inside the top 10 this year. Arizona rounded out the top 10, falling six spots after a loss at Utah.

RISING

No. 13 Maryland had the biggest jump of the week, vaulting nine spots after wins against Louisville and Illinois last week in the Terrapins’ first year under Kevin Willard. That marks the program’s highest ranking since pushing into the top 10 during the 2019-20 season.

Tennessee was next up with a six-spot climb, while No. 11 Auburn rose four spots.

In all, 13 teams climbed from last week.

SLIDING

Creighton had the week’s biggest fall, tumbling 14 spots to No. 21 after losing at Texas and at home to Nebraska last week.

No. 12 Baylor fell six spots after a loss to Marquette, though the Bears responded by beating Gonzaga on Friday in a rematch of the 2021 NCAA championship game won by Baylor.

The Zags, now No. 18, fell four spots to their lowest ranking since checking in at No. 20 on Christmas Day in 2017.

In all, four teams slid from last week.

STATUS QUO

Beyond the top three, No. 25 Ohio State remained in place after a tough loss at No. 15 Duke last week.

WELCOME

No. 23 Mississippi State and No. 24 TCU were the new additions to the poll, with the Bulldogs (8-0) earning their first AP Top 25 ranking under first-year coach Chris Jans since January 2019.

The Horned Frogs were ranked 14th and 15th, respectively, in the first two polls before falling out for two weeks.

FAREWELL (FOR NOW)

In addition to UNC, Michigan State (No. 20) fell out after losses to Notre Dame and Northwestern.

CONFERENCE WATCH

The SEC led the way with six ranked teams, including No. 16 Kentucky. The Big Ten and Big 12 each had five ranked teams, followed by two each for the Atlantic Coast, Pac-12 and Big East conferences.

The American Athletic, West Coast and Mountain West conferences each had one.

Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer tops women’s AP Top 25 appearances

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer stands atop The Associated Press women’s basketball poll with the most appearances all time, breaking a tie with the late Pat Summitt.

VanDerveer’s Cardinal remained No. 2 behind top-ranked South Carolina, giving her 619 weeks with one of her teams in the AP Top 25: 592 weeks with Stanford and 27 with Ohio State when she was in charge of that program. Summitt’s 618 weeks in the poll all came with Tennessee.

The Hall of Fame coach downplayed the achievement.

“Fortunate to be here for 36 years. We have great players and have been successful,” VanDerveer said. “I don’t pay attention to (records). People bring it up and I’m like `OK, great.”‘

Louisville fell out of the Top 25 for the first time since 2016, a span of 127 weeks. That was the fifth longest active streak. The Cardinals (5-4) started the season ranked seventh and have struggled to find consistency this year, dropping their last two games to Ohio State and Middle Tennessee.

They are the third preseason top 10 team to fall out of the poll, joining Texas (this week) and Tennessee (last week). Before this year, only 10 preseason top 10 teams had fallen out of the rankings at some point during the year since the AP Top 25 became a writers’ poll in 1994-95.

Even more rare has been a preseason top five school dropping out. Only five teams had done that prior to this year and none before January. Tennessee was the last to do it, starting the 2015-16 season at No. 4 before falling out of the rankings Feb. 22.

Now Texas and Tennessee are both out before the New Year.

“Two factors are at play here. One of them is more parity with more good teams,” said Rebecca Lobo, the former UConn star, ESPN analyst and Top 25 voter. “The other factor at play is the transfer portal. I think those three teams all have multiple players who start who weren’t in their program a year ago. It’s a reflection that you can’t just assemble teams and right away expect them to be good. I think all those teams will in the poll by the end of the season.”

Ohio State moved up to No. 3 after, the Buckeyes’ best ranking since Nov. 30, 2009, when they also were third. Indiana and Notre Dame round out the top five.

UConn fell three spots to sixth with Virginia Tech seventh, the best ranking ever for the school. North Carolina and N.C. State were tied in eighth and Iowa State is 10th.

RANKED RAZORBACKS

Arkansas (10-0) vaulted into the poll at No. 21. The Razorbacks have a difficult month ahead with games against No. 18 Creighton and a tournament in San Diego that has Oregon, South Florida and Ohio State.

“I do think we know a lot about our team,” Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors said.

He was also happy his team made the poll as every sports team on campus that has played this year has been ranked, including football, men’s basketball, soccer and cross country.

“We didn’t want to be the team that stops that streak,” he said..

FALLING LOUISVILLE

The Cardinals had been ranked ever week since Jan. 11, 2016. That was the same season they started the year at No. 8 before falling out on Nov. 30, the earliest a top 10 team had fallen out of the poll until last week. Things got better for Louisville as the Cardinals finished that regular season 24-6 and went 15-1 in the ACC.

HISTORIC WEEK

With Louisville, Texas and Tennessee all out of the Top 25, it marks only the second time in the poll’s history that none of those three teams were ranked. The only other time was the first-ever poll in 1976.

COMING AND GOING

Oklahoma and Kansas State also returned to the Top 25 this week, coming in at No. 23 and No. 24. Marquette dropped out after losing to Seton Hall.