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Kris Dunn (AP Photo)

NBC Sports Preseason All-Americans: Kris Dunn Player of the Year

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PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kris Dunn, Providence

Kris Dunn was criminally-underrated last season, and despite the fact that he’s being projected as a top ten pick, it seems that the media at large is intent on doing the same thing once again this season. Here’s the deal: Dunn is a big, athletic point guard in the mold of John Wall, only, as one NBA scout put it to NBC Sports, a B-plus athlete instead of an A-plus athlete. He’s as good in transition and in ball-screen actions as any guard in the country, which is important because Providence head coach Ed Cooley is going to be putting Dunn in those situations quite a bit this season.

Cooley always asks his point guards to carry the water for his team’s. That’s why guys like Vincent Council, Bryce Cotton and, at Fairfield, Derek Needham put up such big numbers. Last season, Dunn averaged 15.6 points, 7.5 assists and 5.5 boards despite struggling with his efficiency; that’s what happens when you average 4.2 turnovers. Providence hemorrhaged big bodies this offseason and lost leading scorer LaDontae Henton to graduation.

[MORE: Top 100 players | Preseason Top 25]

In other words, Dunn’s usage this season is going to be off-the-charts, and so long as he can rid himself of the massive number of unforced turnovers he committed last season, his efficiency should improve. Throw in his elite defensive ability and (hopefully) an improved jumper, and you’re looking at the nation’s best player.

Now I get it.

Providence is likely going to be one of those teams that doesn’t lock up an NCAA tournament berth until late-February. This is a group that’s probably looking at getting seeded somewhere in that No. 7-No. 10 range.

Assuming the Preseason Player of the Year Award is a prediction of who we think wins it at the end of the year, is it possible to give that honor to a player that isn’t supposed to advance out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament?

When they’re as good as Kris Dunn is, I say yes.

(And as an addendum, I understand why someone would vote ‘no’ there. I get that argument. But leaving him off of first-team all-america entirely? That’s just plain wrong.)

MORE: Top leads guards | Top off guards | Top Wings | Top Bigs

Buddy Hield (AP)
Buddy Hield (AP)

NBC SPORTS’ FIRST TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

Kris Dunn, Providence

Marcus Paige, North Carolina

Last season, we had Marcus Paige pegged as the Preseason National Player of the Year. That … did not turn out well, but it wasn’t because Paige suddenly became a bad basketball player. It’s because he was injured. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his ankle. He was able to rest the plantar fasciitis that bothered him last season. He’s back to 100 percent, which means, theoretically, he’s back to being the player that was predicted to be the National Player of the Year at this time last year.

Buddy Hield, Oklahoma

As a freshman, Hield was considered to be mostly a defensive stopper. Over the course of the last two seasons, however, he developed into one of the nation’s best scorers as well, averaging 17.4 points and 5.4 boards as a junior. He deserves his spot on this list, even if he plays for a team off of basketball’s beaten bath. The next step for Hield will be to solidify his jumper. At the tail end of his junior year, the 6-foot-4 Bahamian shot just 9-for-40 from beyond the arc.

Ben Simmons, LSU

Basketball fans are going to fall in love with Simmons’ game rather quickly. In the pantheon of new-age big men, Simmons, a 6-foot-9 Australian, falls somewhere between point forward and small-ball four. He’s a deft passer and a slick ball-handler, smooth in spite of his size with a flair for making dazzling plays in the open floor. He’s has a bad habit of trying to make the fancy pass instead of the easy pass, and his jumper needs work, but given his size and skill-set, Simmons will likely make a run at Kyle Collinsworth’s record of six triple-doubles in one season.

Skal Labissiere, Kentucky

Labissiere has everything that NBA teams look for in a big man these days. He’s a face-up post scorer with range, for now, out to the college three-point line. He’s functional with his back-to-the-basket. He has the size (7-feet) and the athleticism to catch lobs and finish above the rim. He can protect the rim defensively. He works hard. He wants to be good. He has a tremendous backstory. These are the kind of kids that John Calipari always has success with, and while Labissiere isn’t the defender that Anthony Davis is or the low-post scoring threat that Karl Towns is, but he should be just as good in Kentucky blue.

Denzel Valentine (AP Photo)
Denzel Valentine (AP Photo)

SECOND TEAM

  • Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble is the star point guard on a Maryland team that is the favorite to win the Big Ten title and has the horses to reach the Final Four. I expect Trimble’s scoring (16.0 ppg last year) to drop this year, but he’ll be this team’s engine and the guy with the ball in his hands down the stretch.
  • Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia: Brogdon is one of those guys that doesn’t have a weakness in his game. He can shoot, he can pass, he can score in the post, he can rebound the ball, he can defend. Tony Bennett loves guys like that, which is why Brogdon is such a perfect fit in Charlottesville.
  • Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Valentine is going to go from being a good player teams in the Big Ten know about to a star in the college ranks this year. As a junior, he averaged 14.5 points, 6.3 boards, 4.3 assists and shot 41.6 percent from three.
  • Georges Niang, Iowa State: Niang may be the toughest cover in the sport. The biggest question that he faces this season: How much of his success the past two seasons was due to his ability, and how much was a result of just how good Fred Hoiberg was at taking advantage of his skill-set?
  • Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga: Wiltjer’s shooting splits as a junior (54.0/46.6/78.9) strongly resembled those of Doug McDermott. I get why people will make that comparison: high-scoring, sharp-shooting, defensively-lacking fours playing for programs outside the Power 5 Conferences.
Fred Van Vleet (Getty Images)
Fred Van Vleet (Getty Images)

THIRD TEAM

  • Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame: Jackson will be taking over the Jerian Grant role this season. Another super-talented point guard, Jackson will be put into plenty of ball-screen actions by head coach Mike Brey, something he thrives on.
  • Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State: We went with Van Vleet over Baker here. Baker may have the better pro prospects, but Van Vleet is the guy with the ball in his hands in the big moments.
  • Jamal Murray, Kentucky: I’m still not quite sure what to expect from Jamal Murray. He’s a big-time shooter that can get hot in a hurry, but is he truly a lead guard? He’s the odds-on favorite to lead Kentucky in scoring.
  • Perry Ellis, Kansas: Mr. Consistency. For some reason, Ellis always seems to be overlooked when we talk about the best players in college basketball.
  • Damian Jones, Vanderbilt: Jones is going to sneak up on some people this season. A junior, he was one of the best big men in the SEC last season. He’ll be surrounded by shooters this year, meaning he’s going to have a ton of room to operate.

Ranking the nation’s top big men

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After ranking the top lead guards and off guards, we move to the wing position.

With more teams moving away from the rigid positions that defined the game of basketball for years, the wing has become a more important role. Nowadays versatility is a trait of many of the nation’s best wings, as they can be used to initiate the offense as either a scorer or distributor.

Without further ado, below are our ranking of the top big men in college basketball. Who’s too high on the last? Who isn’t high enough on the list? Who’d we leave out?

[MORE: Top backcourts | Top frontcourts]

1. Skal Labissiere (Kentucky)

Expectations will be high for the 6-foot-11 center, especially after 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks during Kentucky’s Blue-White scrimmage this week. The native of Haiti still has to prove that he’s consistent on a game-in, game-out basis against big men who are more physically developed, but Labissiere’s skill set makes him a matchup nightmare when he’s setting high ball screens.

2. Georges Niang (Iowa State)

It’s already been a tremendous career for the 6-foot-8 senior, who is hoping for a deep NCAA tournament run to cement his legacy in Ames. One of the most versatile big men in the country, Niang shoots with efficiency from everywhere on the floor (46% FG, 80% FT, 40% 3PT) and is also a very good passer. With another strong season, Niang should pass the 2,000 point mark for his college career by the end of the season.

3. Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga)

One of the nation’s best shooters, the 6-foot-10 Wiltjer put up ridiculous shooting splits (54% FG, 78% FT. 46% 3PT) while averaging 16.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. While he’s a liability on the defensive end — and that’s probably putting it lightly — Wiltjer is one of the toughest matchups in the country on the offensive end because his range extends to 25 feet.

4. Damian Jones (Vanderbilt)

The 7-foot junior has already made it clear that he intends to enter the 2016 NBA Draft, so this season will be a huge showcase for Jones. The last two seasons, Jones has been one of college basketball’s most underrated big men and now it’ll be interesting to see how he plays with the spotlight on him. Jones averaged 14.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last season.

5. Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin)

One of the stars of the NCAA tournament last season (on and off the floor), this is Hayes’ team now since the Badgers lost so many key pieces. As a sophomore, Hayes showed improved range on his jumper, as he shot 39 percent from distance, and he also showed some tremendous footwork when he went to the post. Hayes average 12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2 assists per game last season and those numbers should go up as he’s now a go-to player.

MORE: Top 100 players | Top leads guards | Top off guards | Top 100 Wings

Utah's Jakob Poeltl (AP Photo)
Utah’s Jakob Poeltl (AP Photo)

6. Jakob Poeltl (Utah)

The freshman burst on the national scene last season after little was known about him coming from Austria. The 7-foot sophomore will now get a lot of NBA draft buzz this season after coming off the bench for much of last season. Poeltl averaged 9.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game last season in only 23 minutes per contest. If you’re still having trouble pronouncing his name, Poeltl was kind enough to help you out with a video.

7. Henry Ellenson (Marquette)

A new-breed big man who can stretch the floor with his jumper or handle the ball a bit in the open floor, Ellenson should give the Golden Eagles a tough-to-defend high-low post attack with junior Luke Fisher. A McDonald’s All-American last season, Ellenson stayed in his home state of Wisconsin in-part because his older brother Wally transferred into Marquette from Minnesota to continue his basketball career.

8. Rico Gathers (Baylor)

You could make the argument that Gathers should be playing for Baylor’s talented football team with the way he’s built, but he’s doing just fine on the basketball court. Gathers averaged a double-double of 11.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game as a junior and the 6-foot-8 big man is a load to handle on the interior. Along with Johnathan Motley and Taurean Waller-Prince, Gathers helps the Bears form one of the nation’s best frontcourt units.

9. Perry Ellis (Kansas)

Before a late-season ankle injury, Ellis was playing as well as any big man in the Big 12 and the senior is hoping for a big year to close out his career. One of the most consistent members of an inconsistent Kansas team, Ellis averaged 13.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game last season.

10. Cheick Diallo (Kansas)

If he’s eligible to play, Diallo will be one of the best high-motor big men in the country. A terror in the open floor, Diallo was one of the stars of the high school senior all-star circuit this past spring and he’ll rebound and run the floor with the best of them right away.

  • 11. Brice Johnson (North Carolina) Perhaps the best pro prospect on North Carolina’s loaded team, Johnson averaged 12.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game as a junior.
  • 12. Domantas Sabonis (Gonzaga) After a solid freshman campaign in which he averaged 9.7 points and 7.1 rebounds off the bench, Sabonis is once again apart of a deep Gonzaga frontcourt rotation.
  • 13. Diamond Stone (Maryland) The five-star big man from Wisconsin will be expected to give the Terps an immediate option in the post as Stone is one of the best post scorers to emerge from the Class of 2015.
  • 14. Stephen Zimmerman (UNLV) A five-star McDonald’s All-American who decided to stay home, Zimmerman is a highly-versatile big man who is a very good passer. If Zimmerman hunts his own shots, he could have a big year.
  • 15. A.J. Hammons (Purdue) As part of a deep Purdue front line that features two 7-footers and McDonald’s All-American Caleb Swanigan, Hammons should be a load to handle on the interior — if he remains consistent.
  • 16. Anthony Gill (Virginia) An unsung part of what Virginia does on both ends of the floor, Gill had a solid junior campaign, shooting 58 percent from the floor and averaging 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per contest.
  • 17. Kennedy Meeks (North Carolina) The 6-foot-9 junior got himself into better shape and had a very productive sophomore year, going for 11.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in only 23 minutes per outing.
  • 18. Amida Brimah (UConn) One of the nation’s elite rim protectors, Brimah averaged 3.5 blocks per game last season. While defense is his calling card, Brimah also had some good offensive outings, including a 40-point game last season.
  • 19. Ivan Rabb (Cal) Cuonzo Martin convinced Rabb to stay in the Bay Area and the Golden Bears are thrilled to have this springy 6-foot-9 big man. Rabb should rebound and defend the rim right away and his offense is improving.
  • 20. Zach Auguste (Notre Dame) Notre Dame usually utilized Auguste as their only true big man last season and he shot a ridiculous 61 percent from the field while averaging 12.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.

Others Considered: Shawn Long (Lafayette), Markus Kennedy (SMU), Elgin Cook (Oregon), Daniel Ochefu (Villanova), Devin Williams (West Virginia)

Ranking College Basketball’s Top Front Courts

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Where it was tough to whittle down the back courts to just 15 teams, for the front lines, it was tougher to find 15 units that we truly thought were potentially dominant. Whether it was a result of a lack of depth or a lack of star power, the back end of this list didn’t feel all that overpowering.

Here are the 15 teams with the best big men:

1. Gonzaga (Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis)

The Zags ended up winning out on this list for the simple fact that there isn’t another program in the country with three big men that are as good as this trio. Wiltjer is a prototype stretch four with shooting splits that are reminiscent of Doug McDermott. Karnowski is the rim protector, a 7-foot-1 behemoth that has developed a solid offensive repertoire that includes baby hooks and the ability to dive to the rim in ball-screens actions. And Sabonis may actually be the best of the three, a throwback power forward that plays physical, sets hard screens and is always looking to hit the glass.

As a whole, however, I’m personally not sold, although my colleagues don’t necessarily agree with me. I think Wiltjer is a defensive liability and I worry about lineup flexibility; can you get all three on the floor at the same time? Can Sabonis and Karnowski both be on the court without the shooting of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. to spread the floor? If the answer to those questions is yes, than Gonzaga should be a top 15 team. If not, it’s a much different story.

2. North Carolina (Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Joel James, Luke Maye)

When the casual ACC hoops fan thinks of North Carolina basketball, they probably think of an uptempo, run-and-gun team built around Roy Williams’ patented secondary break offense. And while that’s true, the best North Carolina teams have always had a couple of big bodies that commanded double-teams on the block. Sean May turned into Tyler Hansbrough who eventually became Tyler Zeller. None of UNC’s bigs have that kind of lottery pick potential, but Meeks, Johnson and James are all above average post scorers. Hicks struggles with his confidence in games, but he’s routinely one of UNC’s best players in practice. If he can put it together this season, the Tar Heels will reach another level.

3. Kentucky (Skal Labissiere, Isaac Humphries, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Derek Willis)

On paper, Kentucky probably has the most raw talent along their front line. The problem is that none of their five players have proven anything at the college level. Lee has been good in flashes but has yet to play extended minutes. Poythress struggled with his position identity before tearing his ACL. Humphries is a freshman that enrolled a year early. Willis has always been projected as an end of the rotation kind of guy. Labissiere has the talent to be the National Player of the Year, but until we see how he transitions to the college level, it’s tough to know whether he’s going to be great or just simply good. The good news? It’s hard to imagine all five failing to live up to their individual potential.

4. Maryland (Robert Carter, Diamond Stone, Damonte Dodd, Michael Cevosky)

I’m probably higher on this Maryland group that anyone mostly because I love the potential of running high-low offense through Diamond Stone and Robert Carter. Stone is the name you know. A 6-foot-10 four man that can play on the perimeter, he’s a top ten recruit and a potential one and done player. But Carter is the guy that has gotten all the hype since practice started. He averaged 11.4 points and 8.4 boards at Georgia Tech before sitting out last season and shedding a good 20 pounds. Dodd and Cevosky are both better than adequate subs as well.

RELATED: Top back courts in college basketball | Top 100 Players

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A.J. Hammons (Getty Images)

5. Purdue (A.J. Hammons, Vince Edwards, Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan)

Like Gonzaga, I love Purdue’s big men individually even if I don’t love them as a group. Hammons, when he’s dialed in, is one of the best big men in the country. He was, more often than not, dialed in last season. Haas is a 7-foot-2 center that showed tons of promise as a freshman, while Edwards, another sophomore, has a chance to be a star at the three after a very good freshman season. Throw in Biggie Swanigan, a McDonald’s All-American and a terrific low-post scoring threat, and Matt Painter is going to have some legendary battles in practice. But Haas and Hammons can’t play at the same time. Can Purdue function offensively with Swanigan at the four and Hammons or Haas at the five?

6. Baylor (Rico Gathers, Jonathan Motley, Taureen Waller-Prince)

I love this Baylor group. Waller-Prince is as underrated as anyone in the country, Gathers is an absolute bully in the paint and Motley has a chance to be this season’s breakout star in the Big 12. When all three are on the floor together — which is possible given Waller-Prince’s versatility — they’re going to be one of the best rebounding teams in the country. The problem? Depth. If Jo Acuil can’t get cleared (he has a heart issue, as if Baylor hasn’t had enough of those), the Bears will have to rely on Terry Maston, who played 11 games as a freshman.

7. Kansas (Cheick Diallo, Perry Ellis, Hunter Mickelson, Carlton Bragg, Jamari Traylor, Landon Lucas)

It was hard to know what to do with Kansas here. Bragg is promising, Mickelson and Lucas should be serviceable and Ellis should once again put up first-team all-Big 12 caliber numbers. That’s a good front line, but one that should be closer to No. 15 than No. 7. But if Diallo gets eligible, that changes things, as he’s precisely the piece their missing, an athletic, 6-foot-9 four that plays hard, runs the floor, defends and crashes the glass. He’s everything that Cliff Alexander wasn’t last year, and makes Kansas so much better. He’s also not yet cleared to play. So we slotted them here.

8. Utah (Jakob Poeltl, Brekkot Chapman, Jordan Loveridge, Kyle Kuzma, Chris Reyes)

I like the mix that Larry Krystkowiak has at his disposal here. Poeltl is an elite rim protector with a chance at being a lottery pick, Loveridge is a veteran scoring presence that can space the floor and Chapman and Kuzma are talented sophomores with bright futures. Losing Delon Wright is going to hurt the Utes, but the reason they’ll remain in hunt for a Pac-12 title.

9. Vanderbilt (Damian Jones, Luke Kornet, Djery Baptiste, Jeff Roberson, Samir Sehic)

There’s a chance that Vandy’s ranking here could look far too low by the end of the season. We expect Jones to be a star this season, potentially as the best center in all of college basketball. Baptiste and Roberson both look like quality rotation players and Sehic, a freshman, is an undersized four that always seemed to be able to produce regardless of competition at the high school level. Kornet is the x-factor. People around the program expect the 7-foot-1 sharpshooter to have a big season. If he lives up to the hype, the Commodores will be very dangerous.

Damian Jones (AP Photo)
Damian Jones (AP Photo)

10. UNLV (Stephen Zimmerman, Dwayne Morgan, Ben Carter, Goodluck Okonoboh, Derrick Jones)

There is so much talent on this front line. So much. Morgan and Okonoboh were high profile recruits in the Class of 2014, Jones — a freshman — will be the nation’s best dunker this season and Carter was a starter at Oregon. Zimmerman is the best of a bunch, a versatile, 7-foot lefty whose biggest strength is his ability to pass the ball. Can they live up to their potential is the major question mark here.

11. Virginia (Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Isaiah Wilkins, Jarrod Reuter)

Losing Darion Atkins, who was so, so good for the Cavs on the defensive end of the floor, is a bigger blow than some may realize. But Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey are both above average post scorers and Isaiah Wilkins is an intriguing prospect that had some promising moments last season. As with just about everyone on Tony Bennett’s roster, these guys are better than their numbers will suggest.

12. Arizona (Kaleb Tarczewski, Ryan Anderson, Mark Tollefsen, Dusan Ristic, Chance Comanche)

Even with Ray Smith done for the year with a torn ACL, the Wildcats deserve a place on this list. That’s what happens when you have this much quality depth. But who is a star in this group? Who scares opposing scouts? Zeus has never lived up to the billing of being a top ten prospect, scouts love Ristic but he has yet to beat out Zeus, Comanche is a freshman that needs a year or two and Tollefson is a transfer from San Francisco. Anderson, who averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 boards at BC, is the best of the bunch on paper, but he lacks explosiveness and is coming off of a redshirt season. He’s the x-factor in this equation.

13. Iowa State (Georges Niang, Jameel McKay, Simeon Carter)

Niang is the single-toughest cover in all of college basketball. A 6-foot-8 power forward, he’s so skilled: he can beat you in the post, he can beat you to the rim from the perimeter, he can pass, he can shoot, he can dribble. He’s a stud. McKay is the perfect compliment, a 6-foot-9 shot-blocker and offensive rebounder. But after those two, there really isn’t much of note in ISU’s front court.

14. LSU (Ben Simmons, Craig Victor, Elbert Robinson, Aaron Epps, Brian Bridgewater)

Simmons is going to be must-see TV every time he plays as a freshman. He’s a 6-foot-9 point forward with handle, an innate passing ability and a flair for making highlight reel plays. He’ll notch multiple triple-doubles this season. But where is his front court support? Craig Victor is the most talented of the bunch, but left Arizona because he couldn’t crack the rotation.

15. San Diego State (Malik Pope, Skylar Spencer, Zylan Cheatham, Angelo Chol)

This ranking is based on the assumption that Malik Pope lives up to his potential. He’s got the talent of a lottery pick and the consistentcy — and the health — of a four-year Mountain West big man. Spencer is a shot-blocker extraordinaire, Chol is an above-average high major big man and Cheatham has plenty of promise, but if Pope doesn’t play his way into being a first round pick, this rank will look silly in March.

Others considered: Texas A&M, Cal, Marquette, Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Duke

SEC Preview: Kentucky’s favored, but watch for Vandy, Texas A&M

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the SEC.

As has been the case for much of the recent past, the SEC shakes out like this: Kentucky, and then everyone else. Part of that is a result of just how good the Wildcats are and have been. Part of that is due to the fact that the SEC is a football league with the hoops side of things playing catchup. And while the gap is closing, it may be a few years before the impact is truly apparent.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Kentucky is loaded again … obviously: It’s standard at this point. This group is likely not going to be making a run at 40-0 like last year’s group, but they will be making a run at a national title. Skal Labissiere will be the nation’s best big man. Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe will make up the nation’s best back court. Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress will get their shot, finally.

2. But they may not have the best freshman in the league: That title could end up going to LSU’s Ben Simmons, who, along with Skal, is a favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. The Tigers are loaded with talent this year. Along with Simmons, they bring in McDonald’s All-American Antonio Blakeney, top 40 recruit Brandon Sampson and Arizona transfer Craig Victor. Throw in returnees like Tim Quarterman, Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby, and LSU, on paper, is a top 15 team. But head coach Johnny Jones has underachieved with talented rosters before. Is this the year they break through?

3. Vanderbilt will be the second-best team in the conference: It’s tough to call them a sleeper at this point because they’re getting plenty of pub, but the Commodores are the odds-on pick to finish second in the conference behind the Wildcats. They’re anchored by Damian James, who may be the most under-appreciated player in college basketball. The 6-foot-10 junior is a legitimate All-American candidate. Throw in talented sophomores Wade Baldwin IV and Riley LaChance, and another promising recruiting class, and head coach Kevin Stallings has more than enough pieces to put together something special in Nashville. Vandy won eight of their last ten regular season games last year after starting SEC play 1-7.

4. Coaching turnover: There has been an impressive influx of coaching talent into the SEC this year, although the league did lose arguably the best coach in the sport.

  • Billy Donovan left for Oklahoma City, leaving Florida in an interesting spot with new coach Mike White. More on them in a minute.
  • Former UCLA head coach Ben Howland took over for Rick Ray at Mississippi State and immediately reeled in Malik Newman, a top ten freshman in the class.
  • Donnie Tyndall was fired due to the scandal he was involved in at Southern Miss, but Tennessee went out and picked up former Texas coach Rick Barnes.
  • Alabama missed on Gregg Marshall but they did land Avery Johnson.
  • And don’t forget, in his second season at Auburn, Bruce Pearl has things rolling on the recruiting trail

5. Keep an eye on Texas A&M, too: Billy Kennedy is not a new hire by any stretch of the imagination, but his new assistant coach — Rick Stansbury — is already paying dividends on the recruiting trail. The Aggies have a loaded recruiting class, one that is going to be afforded the luxury of a year’s worth of seasoning as veterans Danuel House, Alex Caruso, Jalen Jones and Alex Robinson lead the way this year. This is a group that can reach the Sweet 16.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE:

  • Favorite: “Kentucky. For sure. One pro leaves, and any pro comes in. Skal is as good as anyone they’ve had and Jamal Murray can play either guard spot, but Tyler Ulis will make them go. He can lead, and he’s perfect in his role with those other guys around them.
  • Sleeper:
    • “Mississippi State is under the radar, with Malik Newman and Ben Howland coming in. But they’re starting to get attention, so I’ll go with South Carolina. They have a lot returning. Their ability to shoot is always a question, but [freshman P.J.]Dozier can really open things up.”
    • “Georgia. They’ve got really good guards and seemingly no one is talking about them.”
  • Best player: “Skal or Ben Simmons. Simmons versatility and his passing ability — he can use both hands as well as anyone — sets him apart.”
  • Most underrated player:
    • “[Mississippi State’s Craig] Sword on the wing. He’s as athletic as can be. His shooting can be streaky at times, he’s kind of hit and miss, but he will be better this year. He’s a really good fit in their system. Also, [Vandy’s Luke] Hornet has grown. He can really shoot it from deep, and with Damian Jones focal point, Luke’s ability to stretch the court will be key.”
    • “Stefan Moody. Dude is the SEC’s leading returning scorer and can’t even make a preseason watch list.”

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Skal Labissiere, Kentucky

I’m still of the belief that Labissiere is the best player on Kentucky and, feasibly, the most talented player in the entire country. He’s a seven-footer with a back-to-the-basket game, perimeter skills and a soft jumper and that shows up when he squares up opponents. The Anthony Davis comparisons are going to flow because the they’re both No. 1 recruits and centers at Kentucky with similar body-types, but Labissiere is much more skilled offensively and much less dominant defensively. Think LaMarcus Aldridge.

Damian Jones (AP Photo)
Damian Jones (AP Photo)

THE REST OF THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM:

  • Malik Newman, Mississippi State: Newman is a high-volume scorer that can drop 25 in a half without breaking a sweat. He’ll be playing on a team where he’s going to be asked to take a lot of shots. His efficiency numbers likely won’t be great, but he’s going to score a lot.
  • Damian Jones, Vanderbilt: For my money, Jones is the single-most underrated player in college basketball this season. He may be the best big man in the country this side of Labissiere.
  • Jamal Murray, Kentucky: I’m still not sold on Murray being a future NBA star, but based on his performance at the Pan-Am Games this summer, I think he’ll end up being a very good combo-guard in college.
  • Ben Simmons, LSU: Casual fans are going to love watching Simmons play. He’s a 6-foot-9 point forward that is so talented. He’d be the National Player of the Year if he was in a different program.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
  • Tim Quarterman, LSU
  • Danuel House, Texas A&M
  • Stefan Moody, Ole Miss
  • Wade Baldwin IV, Vanderbilt

BREAKOUT STAR: Yante Maten, Georgia

Wade Baldwin IV of Vanderbilt was an intriguing pick here, but I’m going with Maten. The 6-foot-8, 240 pound big man was somewhat buried on Georgia’s bench as a freshman last season, averaging just 18.2 minutes while watching Marcus Thornton and Nikola Djurisic. But while his playing time was limited, Maten did manage to average 5.0 points, 4.3 boards and 1.4 blocks. He’ll now step into a starting role in Georgia’s front court.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Kim Anderson, Missouri

This is just Anderson’s second season in Columbia, but things have not gone well for him. The Tigers went 9-23 last season, finished just 3-15 in the SEC and lost their top two players — freshman Teki Gill-Cesear and sophomore Johnathan Williams III — to transfer. Does Anderson have what it takes to turn the program around? If the Tigers don’t show signs of improvement this season, he may not get a chance.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Kentucky isn’t the only team from the SEC eyeing a run to the Final Four. Ain’t that right, Vanderbilt?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Watching those freshmen play. Skal Labissiere — assuming he eventually gets eligible — and Ben Simmons could end up going Nos. 1 and 2 in the 2016 NBA Draft, while Jamal Murray and Malik Newman won’t be all that far behind.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • 11/17, Duke vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic)
  • 12/6, Vanderbilt vs. Baylor
  • 1/30, Kentucky at Kansas
  • 1/30, LSU vs. Oklahoma
  • 1/30, Iowa State vs. Texas A&M

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @kyletucker_cj

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Kentucky: The Wildcats have a very strong argument to be the No. 1 team in the entire country heading into the season. Of course they’re going to be No. 1 in the SEC power rankings.
2. Vanderbilt: It’s hard not to love what Kevin Stallings brings back this season. One of the best X’s-and-O’s coaches in the sport has one of the nation’s best big men at his disposal and surrounds him with a myriad of talented shooters and scorers on the perimeter. I think this is a Sweet 16 team.
3. Texas A&M: The Aggies are in a great spot this year. Not only are they built for the future thanks to Billy Kennedy’s recruiting class, but they have enough veteran talent on their roster that they can make a run in an SEC that isn’t overly strong at the top. Daneul House and Alex Caruso get slept-on nationally.
4. LSU: From a talent perspective, LSU is second only to Kentucky in this league. But talent hasn’t kept Johnny Jones from underachieving before, so until this group proves that they can compete for an SEC title, I’ll expect them to be a borderline top 25 team that won’t feel comfortable about their NCAA tournament prospects until March.
5. Georgia: Georgia returns their veteran back court but graduates key pieces in their front court. The key to their season could end up being the development of YantTagse Maten. If he turns into an all-SEC caliber player, they should end up being a tournament team.
6. Florida: The Gators are one of the most interesting teams in college hoops this season. They lost Billy Donovan to the NBA after a disappointing year, but they also return plenty of elite talent from a team that was far more competitive than their record shows; no one in the country suffered more heart-breaking losses than the Gators last season, as it felt like they kept inventing new ways to lose basketball games. There’s talent, depth and athleticism on their perimeter (Kasey Hill, Chris Chiozza, Devin Robinson, KeVaughn Allen, Brandone Francis) and South Florida transfer John Egbunu will sneak up on some people on the interior. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike White led this group to a top four finish in the league. I can also see them heading to the NIT.
7. Auburn: I think Bruce Pearl is still a year or two away from really making Auburn competitive in the conference. That said, to me, Pearl’s presence on the sideline makes the Tigers two or three games better in league play.
8. Ole Miss: Stefan Moody is back for the Rebels this season, but they lose a ton of talent off of last year’s tournament team. Moody will put up some big numbers, but the Rebels would do well to finish in the top half of the conference this season.
9. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have some sleeper potential this season. They return five of their top six players and add top 30 recruit P.J. Dozier to the mix. But will Dozier be the difference between finishing 6-12 last season and reaching the top half of the league this season?
10. Mississippi State: Ben Howland is a terrific coach and he has a dynamic lead guard in Malik Newman, but it’s going to take more than one year and one player to turn things around in Starkville.
11. Arkansas: Mike Anderson lost the underrated Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls to the NBA and had three players get arrested for using counterfeit bills. It was a rough offseason in Fayetteville.
12. Tennessee: Rick Barnes takes over for Donnie Tyndall in Knoxville. The Vols overachieved last season and lost their best player, Josh Richardson, to graduation. Barnes will build Tennessee back up, but it will take a few years.
13. Alabama: Avery Johnson did a great job landing Terrence Ferguson, a top 10 recruit in the Class of 2016, but he really could use Ferguson this season.
14. Missouri: The Tigers went 9-23 in Kim Anderson’s first season and then proceeded to lose their two best players to transfer during the offseason. It’s going to be a long year in Columbia.