SEC Season Preview: Power Rankings, Preseason Awards and Florida taking down Kentucky?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2019-20 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the SEC.


The SEC is always going to be known as a football conference.

But the league’s basketball programs have done an adequate job of raising the bar over the last several years as an impressive seven SEC programs made the NCAA tournament last season.

Things continue to evolve in the SEC this season as seven McDonald’s All-Americans, a host of impact transfers and four new head coaches enter the fray. While some familiar faces are hovering near the top, the depth and overall quality of the SEC continues to get better each year.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Kentucky is as deep and talented as ever

It should come as no surprise that head coach John Calipari brought in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes to Lexington for this season. Kentucky continues to be one of the nation’s elite recruiting schools as Calipari added multiple five-star freshmen (Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks) and a top-flight graduate transfer (Bucknell’s Nate Sestina) to a roster that returns a lot from last season.

Losing P.J. Washington, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson and Reid Travis won’t be easy to replace but if anyone is capable of moving on from multiple pros, it’s probably Kentucky. The good news for Wildcats fans is the return of some quality players from last year’s team to go along with the new guys.

Point guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley both remain in the mix as Maxey and his scoring pop should fit in nicely with that group. Former five-star recruits E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards are also back on the interior for Kentucky as Sestina’s floor-spacing should help give the Wildcat frontcourt some versatility.

How Kentucky handles things on the wing will be intriguing with Whitney and Brooks expected to earn some minutes there. Finding go-to scorers to replace Washington and Herro won’t be easy. But the makeup and fit of this Kentucky roster is solid compared to some teams Calipari has put together as he has a solid mix of returnees and newcomers.

2. Florida emerged as a title contender when Kerry Blackshear Jr. transferred in

Expectations were already high for Florida as they entered the 2019-20 season. The return of promising sophomore point guard Andrew Nembhard and the addition of two McDonald’s All-Americans in Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann had a lot of Gator fans buzzing.

But it was the offseason graduate transfer addition of Kerry Blackshear Jr. from Virginia Tech that turned Florida into an overnight national title contender. Perhaps the best transfer in all of college hoops, Blackshear is the rare big man who you can play through on offense. Blackshear’s presence in the middle is massive for a Florida team that needed post scoring, veteran leadership and a safety valve if perimeter shooting isn’t working.

The Gators still need to see how their young pieces grow from last season if they want to truly be a title contender. But not many programs this offseason added a proven dude who can go out and get double-doubles against top-ten programs. The Gators will be must-see TV this season.

Kerry Blackshear Jr. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

3. LSU gets Will Wade back as they remain a top-25 team

The return of head coach Will Wade along with many key ingredients from last season’s Sweet 16 team makes LSU one of teams to beat the SEC this season. Although Wade and the Tigers dealt with a bunch of controversy last season they overcame the odds to capture the regular season title despite suspensions to Wade and starting guard Javonte Smart.

Although Wade never returned to the sidelines for the postseason following his suspension, the Tigers still had the talent to make it to the second weekend as Smart, Skylar Mays, Emmitt Williams and Marlon Taylor all returned to school. Despite the departure of guard Tremont Waters and big man Naz Reid, the Tigers remain a credible threat in the SEC this season thanks to last season’s returning depth and the addition of McDonald’s All-American forward Trendon Watford.

It’s unclear how LSU and Wade will respond to the scrutiny of him being back on the sidelines. But on paper, LSU has all that you need to repeat as league champs again this season.

4. Auburn and Tennessee remain strong despite big losses

Even though Auburn and Tennessee lose a lot of core players from last season, both programs should still be counted on to return to the top half of the SEC.

After last season’s surprise Final Four appearance, Auburn has to replace its starting backcourt of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown while do-it-all forward Chuma Okeke moved on to the pros as well. Luckily for the Tigers, Bruce Pearl’s bunch returns five experienced seniors while a deep recruiting class should make Auburn a deep team once again.

Following another successful 31-win season and a Sweet 16 appearance, Tennessee starts fresh with a new-look team that won’t run through Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Much like Auburn, the Vols have the benefit of an all-senior returning backcourt as Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden are the key players to watch now for Tennessee.

While it doesn’t appear as though Auburn or Tennessee has the star power to match the SEC’s top teams in Kentucky, Florida and LSU, it’s difficult to count out two programs who have consistently been near the top of the league the past few seasons.

(Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

5. Four new coaches enter the SEC

The SEC’s coaching overhaul continued this offseason with the addition of four new coaches to the league. Three of the names should be immediately familiar to college basketball fans while the fourth name is a respected NBA veteran.

Nate Oats (Alabama from Buffalo), Eric Musselman (Arkansas from Nevada) and Buzz Williams (Texas A&M from Virginia Tech) all made the NCAA tournament with their respective programs last season as they are proven college coaches of former top-25 programs. Oats making the leap from the MAC to the SEC is perhaps the most enticing development to follow among the three “familiar” hires to the league but it will also be intriguing to see Musselman recruit at a bigger program and to see Williams run a program in his home state.

Vanderbilt’s hire of former NBA All-Star Jerry Stackhouse is one of the most fascinating decisions in the country. While some will scoff at the notion of another NBA guy attempting his hand at high-level college coaching, Stackhouse put in the work getting coaching reps in the G League and as an NBA assistant before taking the leap to Nashville. Stackhouse will have to learn the ropes of recruiting and NCAA life but he has a shot to be successful.

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: KERRY BLACKSHEAR JR., Florida

A transfer from Virginia Tech who will start in the middle for the Gators right away, Blackshear might be the most productive big man in college hoops this season. Already a major presence for a Sweet 16 team last season, Blackshear was dominating title contenders like Virginia, Duke and North Carolina during his junior year as he put up monster double-doubles against all three programs. Blackshear’s consistent presence in the middle gives the young Florida offense someone to play through as the senior isn’t bothered by double teams or defenses geared to slow him down.

THE REST OF THE SEC FIRST TEAM

  • TYRESE MAXEY, Kentucky: A supreme backcourt scorer, the 6-foot-4 Maxey could be the most impactful of Kentucky’s five-star freshmen.
  • ANTHONY EDWARDS, Georgia: The mega-athletic 6-foot-4 shooting guard stayed home as the three-level scorer is potentially a top-five pick in the next NBA Draft.
  • JAVONTE SMART, LSU: This is Smart’s team now with Tremont Waters and Naz Reid bolting for the pros as he should increase his production from last season.
  • REGGIE PERRY, MISSISSIPPI STATE: The 6-foot-10 sophomore should take a leap this season as Perry could become a double-double machine.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • KIRA LEWIS JR., Alabama
  • SKYLAR MAYS, LSU
  • SCOTTIE LEWIS, Florida
  • ASHTON HAGANS, Kentucky
  • BREEIN TYREE, Ole Miss

BREAKOUT STAR: A.J. Lawson, South Carolina

Before a late-season ankle injury stunted his momentum, South Carolina wing A.J. Lawson was having a very good freshman season. The 6-foot-6 Lawson shot 38 percent from three against SEC opponents while averaging 13.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. As a sophomore, Lawson could grow into a dynamic offensive force as he has the size and skill to be among the SEC’s best players.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Will Wade, LSU

LSU’s Will Wade returns to the sidelines this season following a suspension at the end of last season. This will be a major storyline to keep tabs on this season. Wade not only faces the pressure of high expectations following the SEC regular season title and Sweet 16 appearance but he has the strange external pressure of the NCAA potentially looming. Even if the Tigers are successful once again this season, Wade will have detractors analyzing every move.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The SEC has multiple national title contenders among a deep field of six teams entering the field.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

I’m anxious to see if Florida can make the leap to national title contender. The addition of Kerry Blackshear makes the Gators such an intriguing team to watch.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Nov. 5, Kentucky vs. Michigan State (Champions Classic, New York City)
  • Nov. 10, Florida vs. Florida State
  • Dec. 21, Florida vs. Saint Mary’s (Sunrise, FL)
  • Dec. 28, Kentucky vs. Louisville
  • Jan 25, Tennessee at Kansas
(Elsa/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. KENTUCKY: Expectations will be high for Kentucky this preseason as they have perhaps the most talented roster in the country. While some Wildcat superteams of the past decade didn’t fit well together, the newcomers for this season’s team could fit nicely with the returning players. Finding go-to scoring will be something Kentucky has to figure out early as Washington’s incredible all-around play and Herro and Johnson’s toughness and bucket-getting will be tough to replace. But this Kentucky team has the length, depth and athleticism to be a defensive terror. It’s entirely conceivable that the Wildcats cut down the nets next Spring if things come together quickly.

2. FLORIDA: The Gators have a go-to post player (Blackshear), a stud lead guard (Nembhard) and Burger Boys (Lewis and Mann) who should make a major impact. It’s Florida’s other returning pieces that make them a more complete team. Sophomores Noah Locke and jack-of-all-trades glue guy Keyontae Johnson both return this season as the Gators have outstanding athleticism and defensive potential. Integrating the new guys into the mix and seeing how much of the offense flows through Blackshear in the post will be things to watch for early.

3. LSU: One of the true boom-or-bust teams of the 2019-20 season, it’s entirely conceivable that LSU repeats as SEC champions or completely bottoms out as Wade and company could continue to deal with NCAA issues. Regardless of off-court circumstances, the Tigers are really talented. Smart should adequately handle Waters’ responsibilities while replacing Reid will be handled by a committee of players. The late addition of Watford gives LSU a talented frontcourt piece who gives them a bit more offensive versatility than last season.

4. AUBURN: Following the Final Four run, the Tigers have to move on from some important players. While many programs would crumble after losing a first-round pick (Okeke) and starting backcourt (Harper and Brown) the Tigers still a lot of veterans back from the Final Four team. An all-senior backcourt of Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick should stabilize the perimeter and the frontcourt of Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore and Danjel Purifoy have been through a lot of SEC battles. Auburn will need to figure out who will do the scoring this season, but at the very least, five returning talented seniors and some notable newcomers should put the Tigers back into the top-25 conversation.

5. TENNESSEE: The Grant Williams/Admiral Schofield era is over as the Vols need to forge a new identity without its frontcourt stars. Thankfully for Tennessee, senior guards Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden are both back while McDonald’s All-American guard Josiah-Jordan James should help right away. If Tennessee can get adequate production from its new frontcourt of Yves Pons and John Fulkerson then the guard play should be enough for the Vols to remain in the top half of the SEC.

6. MISSISSIPPI STATE: Featuring a roster still loaded with top-100 talents, Ben Howland’s group should make it back to the Big Dance this season. Replacing Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters and Aric Holman won’t be easy. Once Reggie Perry returned to school from the NBA Draft process, Mississippi State’s chances for a strong season increased rapidly. The sophomore forward should make a leap this season. Perry is flanked by big man Abdul Ado, talented scoring guard Nick Weatherspoon and senior guard Tyson Carter while promising sophomore Robert Woodard II could act as a glue guy with big defensive upside. The pieces are all there but the Bulldogs have to figure out its new scoring hierarchy while also adapting to having a young and unproven bench.

(David Becker/Getty Images)

7. ALABAMA: Inheriting plenty of SEC-caliber talents from Avery Johnson, new head coach Nate Oats gets to work with some known talents. The return of sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr. was a huge development for the Crimson Tide as one of the nation’s youngest players a season ago gets another year to expand his game. Alabama has been waiting on former four-star prospects John Petty and Herb Jones to be more consistent and productive as Oats tries to figure out which buttons to push. Figuring out a so-so frontcourt rotation of Alex Reese and Galin Smith will be something to watch for. The Crimson Tide have talent but some returning vets have to be more consistent.

8. GEORGIA: Tom Crean’s team has talent but how it all fits could determine the Bulldogs’ fate. Freshman guard Anthony Edwards was a monster coup for Crean and his staff as the 6-foot-4 scoring guard could be one of the best newcomers in college hoops this season. Edwards will receive plenty of help from returning pieces like Tyree Crump, Jordan Harris and Rayshaun Hammonds as all three have started. The unexpected loss of big man Nicholas Claxton to the NBA Draft puts a damper on Georgia’s ceiling. If Edwards lives up to the hype though then this could be a very dangerous team.

9. OLE MISS: After shocking the SEC and making the NCAA tournament in his first season last year, head coach Kermit Davis and the Rebels face unique expectations this season. The guard duo of Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler are both All-SEC caliber talents who lead the way. The sophomore class also has some intrigue with guard Blake Hinson and forward K.J. Buffen. And Davis should be commended for a very good recruiting class that features a solid mix of JUCO standouts (big man Khadim Sy and guard Bryce Williams) and freshmen (Austin Crowley and big man Sammy Hunter). Replacing Terence Davis — one of the nation’s most underrated players last season — could be the difference between this team going NCAA or NIT in 2020.

10. SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks managed a notable 11-7 record and fourth-place finish in the SEC last year as they remain a tough out again this season. Sophomore A.J. Lawson could be a breakout star this season and there’s a lot to like about the South Carolina offense the running through him. Veteran center Maik Kotsar is also back in the middle. Major question marks loom for much of the rest of the roster, however, as replacing Chris Silva and Hassani Gravett (two of the last Final Four pieces left on the roster) will be key. Sophomore Keyshawn Bryant and freshman guard T.J. Moss are two to watch as their development could be key.

11. ARKANSAS: With the entire roster returning besides for Daniel Gafford, the Razorbacks have some talent in place for new head coach Eric Musselman to work with. The guard group will be led by promising sophomore Isaiah Joe and double-figure scorer Mason Jones. Arkansas will have to learn how to play without an NBA-caliber big man in the middle so Joe and Jones could be important. Of course, with any Musselman outfit, transfers are prominently involved. The Razorbacks get help from SMU guard Jimmy Whitt Jr. (who started his college career with Arkansas) and UNC-Wilmington forward Jeantal Cylla.

12. MISSOURI: There are no more Porters for Cuonzo Martin to rely on (healthy or not) for this roster as the Tigers seek out a new identity. The inside-outside duo of guard Mark Smith and big man Jeremiah Tilmon is back for Missouri as they will be the experienced leaders. Some promising younger players like sophomore shooter Torrance Watson are also back while Evansville transfer Dru Smith should make an impact. But it’s hard to love a Tigers team that doesn’t have a lot of star power or a true go-to presence.

13. TEXAS A&M: New head coach Buzz Williams has a habit of getting more out of his guys than anticipated but it’s hard to say how a roster of players he didn’t recruit take to his style. Veterans like guards Wendell Mitchell, T.J. Starks and Jay Jay Chandler return while wing Savion Flagg cold take an overall leap after nearly turning pro. And Williams has already helped retain or recruit six new pieces that should immediately help.

14. VANDERBILT: Following a disaster of a winless conference season and loss of Darius Garland and Simi Shittu to the pros, former NBA veteran Jerry Stackhouse takes over for Bryce Drew. The Commodores bring back two solid returning starters in guard Saben Lee and forward Aaron Nesmith. Besides for those two double-figure scorers Stackhouse’s program will be rebuilding.