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College Basketball Conference Reset: The SEC’s best players and biggest story lines

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the SEC.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky

Malik Monk is the guy that everyone loves on Kentucky. He’s the high-volume scorer, the shooter that can hit eight threes in a game and pop off for 47 points on national television against North Carolina. That performance was unbelievable. But Monk hasn’t played like that every game, while Fox has been terrific basically every night that he’s step foot on the court for the Wildcats. His numbers are terrific – 16.3 points, 6.8 assists, 5.0 boards, 1.8 steals – but it’s the totality of what he provides Kentucky that gets him the nod over Monk. He’s Kentucky’s engine offensively, particularly in their lethal transition game, and he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the country. As good as Lonzo Ball and Frank Mason II have been, there’s an argument to be made that Fox has been the best point guard in college basketball.

ALL-BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
  • Malik Monk, Kentucky
  • P.J. Dozier, South Carolina
  • Sebastian Saiz, Ole Miss
  • Yante Maten, Georgia

RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | Big EastPac-12 | SEC | Big 12

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. Kentucky is going to steam-roll through the league: This has more to do with Kentucky than it does the SEC, although the fact that the SEC is the weakest of the power conferences is a good thing for the Wildcats. But regardless of the reason, the Wildcats are the safest bet of any team in any league to win their conference. And that is a good thing for John Calipari, because it should afford him plenty of chances to try and cure what ails his team. Their biggest issue at this point is perimeter shooting because Cal is still figuring out how to effectively work Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis into the rotation. The other issue is Bam Adebayo, who has shown flashes of dominance but has been more or less anonymous for the first six weeks of the season. The Wildcats already are Final Four good, and they can still get better.
  2. A full strength South Carolina is the second-best team in the conference: The Gamecocks were terrific through the first month of the season, posting a perfect record and dominating the likes of Michigan and Syracuse. They are tough, they are athletic, they defend and they have a pair of really talented guards in Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier. All in all, Frank Martin’s club is just a misery to play against, as Frank Martin clubs tend to be.
  3. The young talent in the conference needs more time to mature: Entering the season, there were three teams that were really intriguing given the amount of talent that had joined the program: Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn. The Aggies should be good enough to earn themselves an NCAA tournament bid despite the fact that they are playing without a point guard, but both the Bulldogs and the Tigers look like they’re a year away from getting Bruce Pearl and Ben Howland back into the NCAA tournament.
NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 13: Yante Maten #1 of the Georgia Bulldogs shoots the ball against the South Carolina Gamecocks during the quarterfinals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 13, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Yante Maten (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. So how many SEC teams are going to get bids to the NCAA tournament?: Kentucky’s going dancing, that’s for sure. Beyond that? Nothing is a given. Part of the reason is that the league, has a whole, did not land many great non-conference wins. Kentucky picked off North Carolina. Beyond that? South Carolina has wins over Syracuse and Michigan, Florida beat Seton Hall and Miami, Arkansas beat Texas, Georgia beat Georgia Tech, Ole Miss beat Memphis, Texas A&M beat … Denver. What that means is that, as of today, not only are these SEC teams in a bad spot today, there are only so many quality wins available in conference play. Just how much can you improve your résumé if you don’t land a win over the Wildcats? The league sent three teams to the tournament last season. Can they better that number this year?
  2. When will Sindarius Thornwell return?: Thornwell was deservedly in the conversation for all-americans seven games into the season, averaging 18.7 points, 6.1 boards and 4.3 assists. But then he got suspended for an offseason arrest, and the Gamecocks have gone just 2-2 in his absence. Yes, it’s given a chance for P.J. Dozier to shine, but if Thornwell is out for any significant amount of time, South Carolina is going to have a significantly lower ceiling than they would otherwise.
  3. Is there a challenger to Kentucky in the conference?: If there is going to be one, it’s going to be South Carolina. But we won’t have an answer to that until we know when the Gamecocks will be back to 100 percent. Even then, in order for Kentucky to blow the league title, something weird is going to have to happen.

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BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: Georgia is checking in at 8-4 on the season, which is the kind of non-conference record that is usually reserved for teams that are going to be mired somewhere near the bottom of a power conference. The Bulldogs are better than that – J.J. Frazier is one of the better point guards in the conference and Yante Maten is one of the best big men in the country – but just how much “better than that” they are depends on just how good their supporting cast ends up being.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Four games into the season, Arkansas went to Minnesota and lost by 14 points. At that point, it looked like the Razorbacks were destined for another .500 season, but fast forward a month and that is still the only loss Arkansas has suffered while Minnesota is sitting at 12-1. Moses Kingsley hasn’t been as good as he was as a junior, but that may be a good thing for Mike Anderson’s club as they look to be more balanced.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Kim Anderson climbed out of a coffin at Missouri’s Midnight Madness, which is not the imagery that a coach who won 19 games in his first two seasons and went 6-30 in the SEC in that span wants to invoke. The Tigers have already lost to NC Central and Eastern Illinois this season. Yikes.

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats drives against Kenny Williams #24 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Malik Monk (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. Kentucky: What else is their left to say about the Wildcats? They are a second consistent three-point shooter away from being an absolute terror. The good thing about playing in the SEC is that they shouldn’t have their chances of a No. 1 seed hurt if they focus on developing the likes of Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel, Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis.
  • 2. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are a misery to play against. They’re as tough and physical defensively as every Frank Martin team has been, but this group actually has some skill of the offensive end of the floor. P.J. Dozier has been fantastic this month, but the Gamecocks have a ceiling if they don’t get Thornwell back.
  • 3. Florida: I’m still trying to figure out this Florida team. They have the pieces that would allow them to thrive in Mike White’s system and they have some impressive computer numbers, but this was the case last season as well. The on-court product has yet to match the on-paper potential.
  • 4. Texas A&M: The Aggies are a point guard short of being really good. They have a really good front line – namely Tyler Davis and Robert Williams – and some solid shooters around them, but they don’t have a playmaker to set the table. The Aggies are in a tough spot in terms of getting a tournament bid after a non-conference season where they lost close games to Arizona, UCLA and USC.

NIT teams

  • 5. Georgia: The Bulldogs have the best one-two punch in the league this side of Kentucky in J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten,
  • 6. Arkansas: The Razorbacks are the great unknown in the SEC. They have a gaudy 11-1 record but they haven’t really beaten anyone that would make you believe that record is real. They could finish under-.500 in the league and they also could finish second in the league.
  • 7. Ole Miss: I like this Rebel team. Sebastian Saiz might be the best big man in the conference, but as long as Deandre Burnett has these bouts of inconsistency, Ole Miss has a ceiling.
  • 8. Auburn: The loss to Boston College is worrying, but with wins over Oklahoma and at UConn – and the recent addition of Austin Wiley – there’s reason to be bullish on the Tigers as we head into conference play.

Autobid or bust

  • 9. Tennessee: The Vols actually looked pretty good at North Carolina, when they had a chance to knock off the Tar Heels on the final possession. Four of their five losses this season have come to Wisconsin, Oregon, North Carolina and Gonzaga.
  • 10. Alabama: The Crimson Tide have played a pretty difficult schedule, but the only win of note that they have to date came against Arkansas State. It seems fitting that a team coached by Avery Johnson doesn’t have anyone averaging double-figures.
  • 11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores are sitting at 6-6 on the season, but they’ve had some promising performances of late, beating Chattanooga and losing by five at Dayton.
  • 12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs got a boost last month when it turned out that Quinndary Weatherspoon didn’t actually need season-ending wrist surgery. That doesn’t, however, change the fact that this is a very young roster that Ben Howland is working with.
  • 13. LSU: The Tigers have a 35-point loss to Wichita State and a 36-point home loss to Wake Forest on their résumé.
  • 14. Missouri: During Missouri’s midnight madness festivities, Missouri head coach Kim Anderson made the decision to climb out of a coffin to introduce the crowd. I wonder at what point he’ll realize the symbolism.

Miami lands Florida grad-transfer Keith Stone

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Keith Stone is leaving the SEC but not the state of Florida.

The former Gator will finish his career at Miami as a graduate transfer, he announced Monday via social media.

The 6-foot-8 Stone is from Deerfield, Fla., less than an hour’s ride from Miami Beach. He averaged 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season before tearing his ACL in January. With Dewan Hernandez, Ebuka Izundu, and Anthony Lawrence all gone from the Canes, Stone could be in line for a major role right from the jump if his knee gets back to full strength.

Miami went 14-18 last season to finish under .500 for the first time in Jim Larranaga’s eight seasons, and it was just the second time the Canes failed to win at least 20 games.

Kyle Guy says he’s staying in the draft, will not return to Virginia

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Kyle Guy is off to the professional ranks.

The Virginia junior had already declared for the NBA draft, but announced Monday that he plans to stay in the draft and not return to the Cavaliers next season, as he would be allowed to under NCAA rules.

“I am officially keeping my name in the draft. I know it’s the right step after much prayer and thought with my family,” Guy wrote on social media.

Players retain the option to return to school up until the end of next month, but Guy’s announcement makes it clear he has no intention of utilizing that avenue as he plows ahead toward a professional career after being named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player as Virginia won its first-ever national championship earlier this month in Minneapolis.

The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 15.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game in Virginia’s slow-paced offense while shooting 49.5 percent from 3-point range. Right now, Guy’s draft ceiling would appear to be in the second round with going undrafted a possibility as well. If he does make it at the next level, it’s pretty clear it’ll be the 3-point shooting that gets and keeps him there in a league that covets that skill now more than ever.

For Virginia, Guy’s decision simply crystalizes what was likely the reality already – they’re going to have a completely remade roster, which certainly isn’t uncommon for national championship winners. There’s a reason no one since Florida in 2006 and 2007 has repeated as champions. With Guy gone and Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite all having declared, Tony Bennett and Co. could be looking at more modest expectations following the greatest season in program history.

Duke adds to 2019 class with top-30 guard Cassius Stanley

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Duke’s already monster 2019 class got even stronger Monday.

Cassius Stanley, a four-star guard from California, pledged to the Blue Devils to give them their fifth recruit rated in the top-35 nationally in the class.

“I’ll be joining the brotherhood. Go Duke,” Stanley said in his announcement video posted to social media.

“He wants to come in and start or contribute as a starter on a highly competitive team,” Jerome Stanley, Cassius’ father, told 247Sports. “He’s used to winning and he plans to come in there and win. He doesn’t plan to be a project, he wants to step on the floor immediately and help them win.”

Stanley’s commitment only further reinforces how strong Duke is on the recruiting trail as it now has five-stars Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore signed along with top-40 Boogie Ellis of San Diego.

The Blue Devils may have lost their high-profile trio of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, but with these major additions along with Tre Jones, Marques Bolden and Alex O’Connell slated to return, they’ll be looking at another top-10 (and maybe higher) preseason ranking after a disappointing Elite Eight departure from the NCAA tournament last month.

Udoka Azubuike returning to Kansas for senior season

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Injuries have robbed Kansas center Udoka Azubuike of nearly two full seasons of college basketball. They also likely played a major part on while he’ll be back for his fourth year on campus.

The 7-footer will return to Lawrence and the Jayhawks for his senior season rather than declare for the NBA draft, the school announced Monday.

“We’re all very excited about Udoka making the decision not to enter the draft,” Kansas coach Bill Self said in a statement released by the school. “Unfortunately for him, injury is the reason as he still cannot participate (at) what would be the NBA combine or workouts for the NBA teams. We really anticipated that this would be the year he would enter the draft but that was also based on him having an injury-free year.”

Azubuike was averaging 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 70.5 percent from the field before a wrist injury cut his season short in January after just nine games. He also played just 11 games as a freshman due to injury.

In his lone full healthy season, Azubuike averaged 13 points and 7 rebounds per game as he made 77 percent of his shots from the field, making him nearly an unstoppable force for teams across the Big 12. His return makes Kansas, the 10th-ranked team in our preseason Top 25, an even stronger favorite to regain its Big 12 crown after Texas Tech and Kansas State shared the league title last year to deprive Kansas of its spot atop the league for the first time in 14 years as it battled injuries, suspensions and lackluster play.

The 21 most important ‘stay-or-go’ NBA draft early entry decisions

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This single most important and influential decision when if came to this year’s NBA draft belonged to Cassius Winston.

The Grand Maester of the Michigan State offense, Winston put together an All-American season as he led Michigan State to the 2019 Big Ten regular season title, tournament title and a trip to the Final Four. Over the weekend, the 6-foot point guard announced that he will be returning to school for his senior season, immediately ensuring that the Spartans will be the No. 1 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25 and locking them in as favorites to win next year’s national title.

But he is far from the only important decision that is left to be made in this year’s NBA draft process. At 11:59 p.m. on April 21st, the deadline to declare for the NBA draft came and went. The players who put there name into the mix — more than 130 that we know of — will have until May 29th to pull their names out of the draft.

Here are 21 decisions that will have the biggest impact on the 2019-2020 college basketball season.

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

KERRY BLACKSHEAR

Blackshear might be the single-most influential player in all of college basketball, but to figure out where he is going to have influence, the 6-foot-10, 250 pound forward has a couple of decisions to make. For starters, he has declared for the NBA draft, and given that he is 22 years old and more or less fully developed as a player, now may be the best time for him to make the jump to the professional ranks. If he does decide to return to school, he’s going to have to decide where to play: He’s a redshirt junior and a graduate transfer, which means that the Virginia Tech big man may end up being a former Virginia Tech big man. Every school in college basketball will want to get involved. We’ll see where he ends up.

IGNAS BRAZDEIKIS and JORDAN POOLE, Michigan

Michigan essentially had two players on their roster last season that you could trust to be threats on the offensive end of the floor night in and night out: Poole and Brazdeikis. Now it looks like there is a real chance that both of them to could end following Charles Matthews lead and remain in the NBA draft despite the fact that neither look like they will be a first round pick.

That’s a major concern for John Beilein, because with Zavier Simpson, Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers all back, Michigan will have a case to be the preseason No. 1 team in the country if both Iggy and Swaggy Poole return. If both end up gone, the Wolverines may never break 60 points in a game next year.

DEVON DOTSON, QUENTIN GRIMES and UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas

This one is tricky because we have yet to get official word on whether or not Azubuike has actually declared for the draft*; he did last season and ultimately opted to return to school. Of the three, I think Dotson is probably the most important, as the Jayhawks don’t have anyone nearly as good as he is at the point. If Azubuike opts to enter the draft, Bill Self does still have David McCormack on his roster, who will be an adequate replacement. Grimes is the x-factor here. A former top ten recruit, I think he’s probably the most likely to keep his name in the draft this year even if it’s as a second round pick. I’m not sure if that’s necessarily the best plan of action — I do think there is still a chance that he could come back to Kansas and play his way into the first round with a big sophomore year — but I get it. If he’s gone, the Jayhawks do have some perimeter pieces that will be able to fill the void in Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett.

With all three back, we’re talking about Kansas as the surefire best team in the Big 12 and potentially as a top five team. If they’re all gone, then it is going to be a long, long season in Lawrence.

*(Since this posting, Azubuike has announced that he is returning to school.)

Grant Williams (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

GRANT WILLIAMS and JORDAN BONE, Tennessee

This may sound counterintuitive, but I think that it is true: Bone is the more likely of the two to leave school this year, but Williams would have a much bigger impact on the Tennessee program if he opts to return. Bone was a bit inconsistent as a junior, but when he was at his best, he was the best guard in the SEC. Losing that hurts, but the truth is that with Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden and Josiah James in the mix, there is enough backcourt talent in Knoxville to withstand his departure.

I’m not sure that is true with Williams. Tennessee does have some big bodies on their roster, but Williams would be in the conversation with Cassius Winston for preseason National Player of the Year if he opts to come back to Tennessee for another run at a national title. And with Williams back, they would very much be in that conversation. As it stands, Tennessee is No. 22 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

A source close to the situation told NBC Sports that they think there’s a “50-50” chance that Williams is back.

KYLE GUY and MAMADI DIAKITE, Virginia

I fully expect that both Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter will remain in the NBA draft for good. That leaves Guy and Diakite as the players who are up in the air. Everyone should know about Guy by now. The reigning Final Four MOP, Guy led Virginia in scoring last season and is one of the best shooters in all of college basketball. For a program that lacks perimeter depth, Guy’s return would obviously be enormous.

But Diakite’s return is just as impactful. He’s such a monster on the defensive end of the floor, and I’m not sure people realize just how good he is. His offensive game is coming along, but the value is that he would be a perfect pairing next to Jay Huff if Virginia wants to play big and that he is versatile enough to defend on the perimeter if needed when Virginia plays small. It’s not a coincidence that the most productive six-game stretch of Diakite’s career came during the run to the NCAA title, when he averaged 10.5 points, 8.2 boards and 2.7 blocks.

Kyle Guy (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

JORDAN NWORA, Louisville

There are a few Louisville players that have declared for the NBA draft, but for my money, Nwora is the one that matters the most, and it is not close. One of college basketball’s most improved players, Nwora is will be a first-team All-ACC player and a potential All-American if he comes back. He will be the veteran scorer that the Cardinals need as Chris Mack brings in a loaded, six-man recruiting class. With Nwora back, the Cards will be a top ten team.

KILLIAN TILLIE and ZACH NORVELL, Gonzaga

Assuming that Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke are both gone, Tillie becomes the most important player on Gonzaga’s frontcourt if he opts to return to school. And Norvell slides right in as the projected leading scorer. Frankly, with those two and Corey Kispert on the roster, I think the Zags will have more than enough scoring to keep things rolling as their talented six-man recruiting class gets some experience.

The reason they are as low on this list as they are is that I still think there is a ceiling to what Gonzaga can be because of their point guard situation. Right now, they are in a position where they’ll have to decide between freshman Brock Ravet and sophomores Greg Foster Jr. and Joel Ayayi. I would not be surprised if there was a grad transfer that was in the mix here at some point.

ANTHONY COWAN, Maryland

The Terps already got word that they are getting Jalen Smith back for his sophomore season. With the rest of last year’s promising recruiting class in the mix — Aaron Wiggins, Eric Ayala, Ricky Lindo — the only thing they need to ensure that they are a preseason top ten team is their star point guard. Cowan, if he returns, will be in the mix for preseason All-American honors.

MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall

This one isn’t difficult. Seton Hall returns basically everyone from last season if Powell comes back. They should still be relevant in the Big East if he doesn’t, but he was arguably the most dangerous scorer in college basketball this side of Markus Howard last year, and assuming he’s back in the fold, we have the Pirates at No. 12 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

Myles Powell (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

PAYTON PRITCHARD and KENNY WOOTEN, Oregon

Assuming that Louis King ends up staying in the draft, Pritchard and Wooten are the two guys that will matter for Oregon next season. They are the two pieces that allow Dana Altman’s system to work the way that it is supposed to work — a high-scoring lead guard and an uber-athletic five that can protect the rim and finish lobs. With both of them back, I think Oregon is a top 10-15 team and the best team in the Pac-12.

E.J. MONTGOMERY, Kentucky

Montgomery is interesting here. He’s super-talented, and he plays a position for Kentucky where the Wildcats are going to really lack some depth this season, but we’ve yet to see him prove that he is anything more than ‘loaded with potential’ at the SEC level. I think Kentucky needs him because they need to keep bodies in their frontcourt, but I’m on a wait-and-see mode before I decide just how much of an impact I think that he is going to make.

CHUMA OKEKE and JARED HARPER, Auburn

I would make the argument that these two were the two most important players on Auburn’s team this past season. If I had to guess, I would say that Okeke is probably gone. He proved just how good he is this past season, and his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered in the NCAA tournament likely won’t be complete until December. If he returns to school, it might end up being a two-year decision, but if he comes back and is fully healthy, he is miles better than Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore and the other options the Tigers have in their frontcourt.

Harper is a bit more up in the air, and while he was terrific this past season, especially in March, I do think that J’Von McCormick’s emergence has given Bruce Pearl some breathing room. He can do a lot of the things that Harper does, just not quite as well.

NEEMIAS QUETA, Utah State

Utah State is currently the No. 16 team in the NBC Sports preseason top 25, and much of that has to do with the fact that we are assuming Queta ends up returning to school. His size, his ability to protect the rim and how well he finishes makes him extremely valuable in the Mountain West and helps the Aggies matchup with teams from bigger conferences.