SEC Preview: It’s Kentucky’s world, everyone else is living in it

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the SEC.

For the last two or three years, all we’ve heard about the SEC is how the conference is on the way up.

It wasn’t just going to be simply be football and Kentucky anymore. Bruce Pearl was going to turn around Auburn. Ben Howland and Rick Barnes would do the same for Mississippi State and Tennessee. Billy Kennedy had himself a pipeline at Texas A&M, while Johnny Jones was landing No. 1 draft picks at LSU.

And yet, here we are in 2016-17, and the preseason AP poll has Kentucky ranked No. 2 … and nary another SEC program to be found.

I guess it’s going to be football and Kentucky for at least one more season.

LEAGUE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | ACC | Pac-12 | Big Ten | Mid-Majors

De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky Athletics
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky Athletics

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Kentucky is loaded with talent once again: Are you really surprised that, in a year where the freshman class is as good as we’ve ever seen it be, that Kentucky has a roster stocked with future first round draft picks? It starts with Bam Adebayo, a top ten prospect and the most athletic big man in the SEC, and continues with another pair of potential lottery picks in back court mates De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Isaiah Briscoe was a five-star prospect last season, Wenyen Gabriel could end up being the best defender on this team and there are some NBA people that think Sacha Killeya-Jones might end up being the best long-term prospect on the roster.

And I haven’t even mentioned Derek Willis or Isaac Humphries yet. Kentucky is certainly loaded with talent …

2. … but there are legitimate questions about fit: Specifically, just how well does this roster fit together? The way I see it, there are two legitimate concerns, the first of which is UK’s perimeter shooting. Fox and Briscoe have yet to prove themselves as three-point threats while Monk has been anything-but consistent as a perimeter shooter in his young career. Willis was the difference-maker last season when he was thrust into the squad, but when he is on the floor, issues emerge for the Wildcats defensively. Does he guard threes or fours? Can you play him over Gabriel, who isn’t the same shooter but who is a potential stopper defensively? Can Humphries act as a rim protector? Can he play with Adebayo on a team that is just about locked into perimeter shooting issues?

To read more on this, I went in-depth on the Wildcats here. It takes more than a paragraph to fully flesh out that thought process.

3. Florida has a team that can get to the tournament: For my money, Florida is the second-best team in the SEC on paper, and I’m not sure it is all that close. Kasey Hill is a former five-star recruit who finally, after nearly three seasons of inconsistency, looked like a McDonald’s All-American down the stretch. KeVaughn Allen had flashes of brilliance in a promising freshman year. Devin Robinson has the kind of physical tools that should allow him to thrive in Mike White’s uptempo style of play, and Chris Chiozza offers a nice counter-balance to the insanity as a heady playmaker. Throw in Canyon Barry – Rick’s last son – and powerhouse big man John Egbunu, not to mention a slew of solid role players coming off the bench, and this team has the pieces to crack the top 25. Can White unlock their potential?

CONTENDER SERIES: Duke | Oregon | Kentucky | Kansas | Villanova

ANNAPOLIS, MD - NOVEMBER 13: KeVaughn Allen #4 of the Florida Gators puts up a shot in front of Jace Hogan #44 of the Navy Midshipmen in the first half during the Veterans Classic at Alumni Hall on November 13, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
KeVaughn Allen (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

4. Beyond that, who can you trust in the SEC?: I’m legitimately asking you, because I don’t know that there is a team here you can. Georgia has J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten and nary another proven contributor. Ole Miss is going to be relying on a pair of transfers in Cullen Neal and Deandre Burnett. I’m not sure Arkansas has the talent around Moses Kingsley to be worth paying attention to. Texas A&M lost so many veteran pieces from a season ago. Vanderbilt made a needed change at head coach, but losing two first rounders for a First Four program is not easy to over come. This feels like it is South Carolina’s year, but what have they done to prove that they’re something more than a middle-of-the-pack SEC program?

5. Auburn, Mississippi State and Tennessee really are on the right track: It really should not be a surprise to anyone that Ben Howland, Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes are able to recruit, because they’ve been able to recruit at every stop they’ve landed during their coaching careers. And while all three programs are still at least a year away, they’re heading in the right direction. Pearl finally has a roster of 13 scholarship players whom he recruited, headlined by a five-star prospect in Mustapha Heron with a top five recruiting class coming next season. Howland has a potential star in Quinndary Weatherspoon and six four-star freshmen entering his program. Barnes has more work to do still, but the Vols are not devoid of talent, just size. The results are coming … eventually.

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Moses Kingsley, Arkansas

Unless you are from the state of Arkansas, you may not realize just how good Kingsley was as a junior last season. The 6-foot-10 center averaged 15.9 points, 9.3 boards and 2.4 blocks despite playing for a Razorback team that didn’t have too many other threats.

Top Backcourts | Top Frontcourts | Top 100 Players

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 13: Moses Kingsley #33 of the Arkansas Razorbacks dunks against the South Carolina Gamecocks during the second round of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament at Georgia Dome on March 13, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Moses Kingsley (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

THE REST OF THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM:

  • De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox could very well end up being the best perimeter defender in college basketball this season.
  • J.J. Frazier, Georgia: Frazier is so underrated. he averaged 16.9 points, 4.5 boards and 4.4 assists last season.
  • Bam Adebayo, Kentucky: If a Kentucky player is destined to win the SEC Player of the Year award, I think that it will end up being Bam.
  • Malik Monk, Kentucky: There isn’t a more exciting player in college basketball this season than Monk. The question is whether or not he is going to be consistent enough to garner postseason awards.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Quinndary Weatherspoon, Mississippi State
  • KeVaughn Allen, Florida
  • Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
  • Tyler Davis, Texas A&M
  • Yante Maten, Georgia

BREAKOUT STAR: Tyler Davis, Texas A&M

Last year, playing on a team that was dominated by perimeter talent, a freshman like Davis was never really going to be a guy that was featured … and yet he still managed to average 11.3 points in just over 22 minutes. With guys like Danuel House, Alex Caruso and Jalen Jones gone, it’s going to be the Davis show for Billy Kennedy.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Johnny Jones, LSU

When you have the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft on your team posting stat lines of 19 points, 12 boards and five assists every single night, and you cannot get that team to care enough to get into the NCAA tournament, it’s not an easy task to justify your salary to your bosses. Jones did that. We’ll see if it’s still the case if the Tigers have a disastrous 2016-17 season.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Man, the SEC was lucky to get more than two teams into the Big Dance this year.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Seeing how John Calipari puts all the pieces on his roster together.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • 11/15, Kentucky vs. Michigan State
  • 12/3, Kentucky vs. UCLA
  • 12/6, Florida vs. Duke
  • 12/17, Kentucky vs. North Carolina
  • 1/28, Kentucky vs. Kansas

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @kysportsradio

POSITION RANKS: Lead Guards | Off Guards | Wings | Big Men

De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky Athletics
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky Athletics

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Kentucky: Duh.
2. Florida: I just love the talent on this roster. I do think that, out of the rest of the teams in this league, the Gators have the highest ceiling, but don’t go betting your mortgage on Mike White being able to tap into that talent until he proves he can win at this level.
3. Georgia: The Bulldogs have the best 1-2 punch in the SEC this season with J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten. If you know who is going to step up to support those two, please drop us a line and let us know. But that duo should be enough to get the Bulldogs into the NCAA tournament conversation.
4. Ole Miss: Andy Kennedy is the longest-tenured coach in the SEC and has done a pretty good job running a program that you may forget has a basketball team. Transfers Cullen Neal and Deandre Burnett should thrive in Kennedy’s offense – think of Neal as Marshall Henderson minus the crazy – while Sebastian Saiz is one of the more underrated bigs nationally.
5. Texas A&M: I think the Aggies are still probably a year away, but with Admon Gilder, D.J. Hogg and J.J. Caldwell playing around Tyler Davis, I think Billy Kennedy has enough pieces to make a run at the top four in the league and a trip to the NCAA tournament.
6. South Carolina: It’s hard to know what to make of the Gamecocks. I think Frank Martin has the pieces he needs to play the way he wants to play, but it’s hard to ignore that they lost three starters or how their season ended in 2016. Let’s see if P.J. Dozier is the real deal.
7. Vanderbilt: Vandy lost two first round picks and their head coach, which is a lot to overcome. But Bryce Drew may actually be an upgrade and there is probably more talent in this program than you may realize: Matthew Fisher-Davis, Camron Justice, Luke Kornet, Jeff Roberson. The big question: Can Riley LaChance handle the point guard duties full-time?
8. Arkansas: Moses Kingsley is an animal and Dusty Hannahs has game good enough to back up one of the best names in college hoops, but I’m not yet convinced that a team coached by Mike Anderson can out-perform expectations.
9. Mississippi State: Quinndary Weatherspoon is one of the best players you haven’t heard of, and his ability is one of the reasons that no one is really talking about Malik Newman leaving the Bulldog program. Given their youth, this team is a year away, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Howland find a way to get them to around .500 in league play come March.
10. Alabama: There are some pieces here – namely Dazon Ingram, Riley Norris and Memphis transfer Nick King – but we’d be having a very different conversation about the Tide is Terrence Ferguson hadn’t decommitted.
11. Auburn: I have a feeling that Mustapha Heron is going to be better than some people realize, but the talent on the Tiger roster is just a bit too raw at this point to expect them to really compete for the postseason.
12. Tennessee: The Vols are going to be fun to watch this year because they’ll spread the floor and get up and down the court, but when you play high-major basketball and have just three players taller than 6-foot-6, you’re in trouble.
13. LSU: Johnny Jones couldn’t win with the most talented player in college basketball last season, which should we expect him to win with essentially the same team and no Ben Simmons?
14. Missouri: Head coach Kim Anderson climbed out of a coffin at Midnight Madness. That wasn’t the kind of symbolism the Tigers intended, I’m sure.