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.

College Basketball Preseason Top 25: The X-Factor for every ranked team

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I love a good x-factor.

You know, the guys that are not a team’s star that will determine just how good said team is going to be.

So we’re going to talk through them.

For each and every team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

Because that’s how you #PreviewSZN properly.



1. MICHIGAN STATE: Joshua Langford

This one is easy.

We know what Michigan State can be without Joshua Langford. They played 26 games without him last season. They won 21 of them. They won the Big Ten regular season title without Langford. They won the Big Ten tournament without him. They made it to the Final Four without him. And while Matt McQuaid and Nick Ward are gone, this is more or less the same team that did all of those things.

So we know how good Michigan State is without Langford.

But what we don’t know – and what we will hopefully find out in January – is just how good the Spartans can be when they get their former McDonald’s All-American, a guy that averaged 15 points before hurting his ankle last year, back.

2. KENTUCKY: E.J. Montgomery

Kentucky has a ton of talent in their backcourt and plenty of bodies on the wing. Where they are going to lack depth – and, frankly, ability – is going to be up front. Nate Sestina is fine. He’s big, he’s strong, he can make threes, he’s not going to beat himself. He’s a solid player. Nick Richards is … Nick Richards. He’s big and he’s athletic and he is good at being both big and athletic.

But we know what both of those guys are and aren’t. Put another way, we know that neither of them are going to come in and be all-SEC players. Montgomery, on the other hand, at least has the talent to be. He’s 6-foot-10 with some perimeter skills and impressive physical tools. If it all comes together for him, he’s the guy that can let Kentucky play small, either as a small-ball five or a mismatch four.

3. KANSAS: Ochai Agbaji

The key to this entire Kansas season is going to be figuring out what to do at the four. I don’t think Silvio De Sousa is the answer, because De Sousa is a big, physical post player that will do nothing to create space for Udoka Azubuike. I don’t think Mitch Lightfoot is good enough to play that role, and I don’t know if Bill Self is going to be ready to trust a freshman like Jalen Wilson or Tristan Enaruna to play there full-time. That leaves Agbaji, who has the size and athleticism to guard fours with the perimeter ability to cause all kinds of problems for teams that try to play big. At the very least, he can do what LaGerald Vick did during the Kansas run to the 2018 Final Four.

4. LOUISVILLE: Fresh Kimble

The Cardinals have a point guard problem, and the truth is that the x-factor for that group is going to be whoever actually wins the job. But here’s the thing: Darius Perry isn’t winning that job, and David Johnson is out for a while with a shoulder injury. That leaves Fresh Kimble, the grad transfer from St. Joe’s, with the weight on his shoulders. He averaged 15 points in the Atlantic 10 last season, so he has some scoring ability, but playing on a Cardinals team that is this good means that he is going to be asked to do a lot more than just score.

5. VILLANOVA: Bryan Antoine

This is another one that is really quite easy. Antoine is arguably the best recruit that Jay Wright has landed during this run that the program has been on. He’s a 6-foot-4 combo-guard that can defend and provide the kind of versatility that the Wildcats have been known for. He’s a potential one-and-done player. He’s also a freshman at a program where freshman tend to have a muted impact, and he has been out of action all summer after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Villanova will be fine either way, but if they are going to reach their ceiling, it will be because Antoine shows up in league and plays like a five-star prospect.

6. DUKE: Tre Jones

Jones is the single-biggest x-factor in all of college basketball this season. I wrote all about it here.

7. FLORIDA: Tre Mann

Florida is going to be a very, very good team this season. The addition of Kerry Blackshear Jr. was a game-changer, and I fully expect that Andrew Nembhard will take a major step forward as a sophomore. Let’s not forget Scottie Lewis and the impact that he will have.

But if they are missing something, it’s perimeter firepower. Kevaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson were flawed basketball players, but they were unequivocally bucket-getters, guys that could make threes and create offense out of nothing. I think Tre Mann is going to be that guy for Florida this year, and I’m not sure how many players on this roster are capable of doing what he can do.

8. GONZAGA: Admon Gilder

This one is simple, really. Gonzaga lost basically everything from their backcourt. Their bigs are loaded once again, and Corey Kispert has All-WCC potential on the wing, but Mark Few needs a playmaker and some scoring pop in his backcourt. Gilder is the guy that’s most capable of providing that.

9. MARYLAND: Eric Ayala

The biggest question mark with the Terps is Anthony Cowan. I love the sophomore class that Mark Turgeon has on his hands, but I love them as guys that can play a role alongside Cowan. And while Cowan has had great games during his three seasons in College Park, consistency has not been his strong suit. That’s where Ayala comes into play. He can handle point guard and playmaking duties in a pinch, and on the nights when Bad Cowan shows up, Ayala can carry the water.

Put another way, we know how good Maryland will be when Cowan plays well. If Maryland can win games at a high level even when he doesn’t, that’s when they become a real title contender.

10. VIRGINIA: Braxton Key

We know more or less what Mamadi Diakite is going to be this season. We have a pretty good idea of how Virginia is going to use Jay Huff. We know that Kihei Clark looks like the next in line to develop into a good ACC guard. And we know that we shouldn’t expect too much from the rest of that UVA backcourt.

What we don’t know is how Braxton Key is going to respond to being asked to play a bigger role. Key can do all of the things that De’Andre Hunter was able to do, he can play that same role, he just isn’t quite as good at it. If he can play near the level he was at as a freshman at Alabama, then Virginia will have a difference-maker.

11. TEXAS TECH: Chris Clarke

Chris Beard has proven himself capable of turning over a roster in one season and then getting the absolute most out of what he has left. He did it in each of the last two years. He did it in his one season at Little Rock. This is how Beard operates. But the key to the entire process is getting buy-in from his team, and that’s where I think they are going to be some issues this season. There are just three guys on this Texas Tech roster that are upperclassmen. The best player on the roster, the guy that is going to be asked to be Keenan Evans and Jarrett Culver, is top 35 freshman Jahmius Ramsey. He’s the highest-rated recruit that Beard has ever landed, and he’s good enough to do what Tech needs him to do … if he buys in.

And that’s where Clarke comes into play. There are already some rumblings that Ramsey’s ego may be a problem for this team. The Red Raiders need a strong, veteran presence on the roster to help keep the myriad freshmen and sophomores in that locker room heading in the right direction and on the same page. Clarke, and to a lesser extent Davide Moretti, is the guy I’m looking to.

12. OREGON: Francis Okoro

Oregon’s best teams under Dana Altman have featured someone at the five that is capable of protecting the rim, controlling the defensive glass and switching out onto smaller guards when necessary. N’Faly Dante might be a five-star recruit, but he’s not that guy. If there is anyone on the roster than can fill that Jordan Bell-Kenny Wooten role, it’s probably Okoro.

13. SETON HALL: Myles Cale

Here’s the dirty little secret about Seton Hall – they brought basically everything back from last season, but the Pirates weren’t much more than a bubble team last season. They won games when Myles Powell went nuts. They also got swept by DePaul. They need to have Powell’s supporting cast be better, and Cale is the guy with the highest ceiling. He’s a smooth wing with three-point range, some sneaky athleticism and the the ability to get 15-20 points on any given night. If we see that ability on a consistent basis this season, if Cale plays his way onto an All-Big East team by the end of the season, then the Pirates will be able to live up to their preseason ranking. If he doesn’t, this looks like a roster that is going to live and die with Myles Powell’s heat checks.

14. NORTH CAROLINA: Justin Pierce

Cole Anthony is going to be awesome, and I think Garrison Brooks is good enough that Armando Bacot can be brought along at his own pace without having issues in their frontcourt. And I believe that Christian Keeling will be good enough to play at the two this season; he was a big time scorer and shooter for Charleston Southern and should be just fine spacing the floor for Anthony, et al. Pierce is the x-factor to me because: A) I’m not convinced that Leaky Black and Brandon Robinson are good (or healthy) enough to start at the three, and B) I’m not convinced that Pierce is actually a three and not more of a combo-forward.

15. UTAH STATE: Neemias Queta

Just how healthy is Queta? The 7-foot-1 Portuguese sophomore injured his knee playing in the U-20 Euros over the summer, and while he didn’t tear anything significant, Utah State had played a little coy on the actual nature of the injury. Even without Queta, the Aggies are the favorite to win the Mountain West by a landslide. With him, they are a legit top 15 team with some Final Four upside.

16. ARIZONA: Zeke Nnaji

Arizona has plenty of talent in their backcourt. Nico Mannion and Josh Green are five-star freshmen and potential first round picks. Max Hazzard proved himself as an experienced, veteran point guard while leading UC Irvine to the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. There’s still a chance that they can get Jemarl Baker, the Kentucky transfer, eligible as well. The questions come in the frontcourt. Maybe I’m just jaded, but I do not think that Chase Jeter, Ira Lee and Stone Gettings will be enough for the Wildcats to beat out the likes of Oregon, Washington and Colorado for a Pac-12 title. Zeke Nnaji, however, is a freshman that has created some buzz during the preseason. Is he the difference-maker Sean Miller needs?

17. SAINT MARY’S: Aaron Menzies

There are two things that Randy Bennett’s best teams in Moraga have had in common: 1. A dynamic, NBA-level lead guard. 2. An All-American big man – think Jock Landale, or Brad Waldow, or the GOAT Omar Samhan. We know that Jordan Ford is going to be awesome at the point. We also know that the 7-foot-3 Menzies was a double-digit scorer at Seattle. Can he provide that same production for the Gaels?

18. XAVIER: KyKy Tandy

Xavier’s Big Four is very well known at this point. Naji Marshall, Quentin Goodin, Paul Scruggs and Tyrique Jones are all upperclassmen that have established themselves as good Big East players at this point. But what that quartet lacks is perimeter shooting, and freshman KyKy Tandy is a guy that can shoot. He brings a different dynamic to their perimeter, and he shoot be ready to contribute as a freshman.

19. LSU: Trendon Watford

We know that LSU has a pair of really good guards in Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart. We also know that Emmitt Williams and Marlon Taylor provide the kind of elite athleticism that will let Will Wade do some pressing, crash the glass and have defensive versatility. Watford is the guy that compliments those athletes well, because he’s more of a finesse player, a four-man with a reputation for being something of a face-up scorer. If he can provide 12-14 points and create a little bit of space in the paint, it will raise the ceiling of a team that has a starting five that can match anyone in the SEC.

20. BAYLOR: Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague

Baylor is toughest team to figure out because it feels like every player on their roster is something of an “x-factor.” Is Tristan Clark going to be healthy? Can Baylor continue to survive on 6-foot-5 Mark Vital’s ability on the glass? Can Devonte Bandoo or Jared Butler do what they did last season now that they are known entities? To me, I think that the real answer is going to be Mitchell and Teague, and that’s because we more or less know what everyone else on the roster is capable of. Mitchell is a talented Alabama transfer and Teague had success at UNC Asheville, but how they adjust to the Big 12 will be something to monitor.

21. MEMPHIS: Lester Quinones

This one is simple: Memphis doesn’t have all that much shooting on their roster. Lester Quinones is a big-time shooter and, unlike Tyler Harris, he’s 6-foot-5. Not 5-foot-9.

22. AUBURN: Isaac Okoro

The key to Auburn last season, what made them so difficult to guard and so tough to score on, was Chuma Okeke. He was that versatile defensive weapon. He was the four-man that could pull bigs away from the rim and bury smalls in the paint. He made Auburn matchup proof, and while he’s gone, people that know Okoro’s game best think that he is going to be able to fill that role. The question, however, is whether or not the four-star prospect is going to be able to do so at the highest level as a freshman.

23. TENNESSEE: John Fulkerson

Tennessee has some very, very good guards on their roster. Josiah-Jordan James is a five-star prospect. Lamonte Turner is underrated. Jordan Bowden has talented. Hell, even Yves Pons has a roll as a small-ball four on this roster. When they are missing is a bully in the post, which is a problem for a team that got more than 55 percent of their offense off of two-point field goals last season; that was in the 92nd percentile nationally. Fulkerson seems to be the guy that will start at the five. Will he be ready for it?

24. VCU: Marcus Santos-Silva

Santos-Silva is coming off of a season where he averaged 10.0 points, 7.4 boards and 1.1 blocks as the anchor for the Rams. Most people are going to think of Marcus Evans and De’Riante Jenkins when they think of the Rams, and justifiably so, but Santos-Silva is the guy who that staff thinks is in for a monster junior season. If he plays like one of, if not the best big man in the Atlantic 10, then VCU has a chance to be a second weekend NCAA tournament team.

25. OHIO STATE: D.J. Carton

The big question mark on this Ohio State team is in their backcourt. They graduated both of their starting guards, and while they add C.J. Walker, a transfer from Florida State, they also bring in Carton, an uber-talented, four-star lead guard. The kid is an elite athlete, but he’s also raw. If he’s ready to be a starter as a freshman and not just starting because there isn’t anyone else, Ohio State’s ceiling grows.

Mid-Majors that will crash the dance in March

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It’s always fun to root for the little guy.

When March Madness rolls around next spring, there will be a number of conferences with one bid to cheer for against bigger, power conference opponents. What makes this year’s mid-major crop particularly intriguing is the number of returning NCAA tournament teams who have almost full teams coming back.

In an era where smaller schools are getting hit harder with transfers each offseason, seeing NCAA tournament teams like Liberty, Vermont, New Mexico State, Colgate and North Dakota State stay together should be a fun storyline to follow as they are some of a handful of mid-major teams to keep tabs on this season.

A programming note: We did not include schools from the Atlantic 10 or the Mountain West while Saint Mary’s and BYU were left off the list as well. It’s not that those programs aren’t good or worth talking about, but at this point I think we all know schools like VCU and Utah State are going to be pretty good. 



LIBERTY (Atlantic Sun)

Making the Round of 32 and knocking out Mississippi State last season, Liberty has another chance to do damage in the NCAA tournament with four returning starters. Two fifth-year seniors have a chance to earn Atlantic Sun Player of the Year honors as wing Caleb Homesley and forward Scottie James are standout players. Homesley lit up the Bulldogs for 30 in the first-round NCAA upset while James is a three-year starter and double-double threat. Senior guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz and junior guard Elijah Cuffee both started every game and logged heavy minutes for a 29-win team last season as the Flames have a ton of returning talent and experience. With six neutral site games and road games at Vanderbilt and LSU, Liberty will also test themselves in non-conference play.

VERMONT (America East)

Putting a scare into Florida State in the first round last season, Vermont could easily win multiple games in the NCAA tournament with many key players returning. Once America East Player of the Year Anthony Lamb pulled his name out of the NBA Draft the senior became the league’s best returning player. The last three years, the Catamounts are a ridiculous 45-3 in the America East with 83 overall wins. This could be the season they finally break through. Lamb will have significant help on the interior with grad transfer big man Daniel Giddens. The former four-star recruit spent time at Ohio State and Alabama and adds instant experience and credibility inside that the Catamounts lacked.

Junior Stef Smith is another returning double-figure scorer to keep tabs on, and, of course, there are two more Duncans still at Vermont after Ernie Duncan moved on from a prolific four-year career. Robin Duncan was an All-Rookie Team selection in the conference while Everett Duncan is a noted floor spacer with some starts in his career. Vermont has early road tests at St. Bonaventure, St. John’s, Virginia, Yale and Cincinnati.

NEW MEXICO STATE (WAC)

Before Auburn made a surprising Final Four run last season they were nearly ousted by the Aggies in the first round in a one-point game. Although New Mexico State loses experienced rebounding ace Eli Chuha from that group, they return 10 of their 13 rotation players — including eight seniors. A deep and balanced team coming off of a 30-win season, New Mexico State has continued to dominate the WAC under head coach Chris Jans. Terrell Brown and AJ Harris are the top scorers to return as they form a great backcourt along with productive forward Ivan Aurrecoechea and WAC Tournament MVP Trevelin Queen. With a top 40 offense on KenPom, this group gets it done a number of different ways on offense while wearing you down with the deepest rotation in the country (per KenPom) last season.

HARVARD (Ivy)

The Ivy League’s most experienced team combines the conference’s top recruiting class to form a very dangerous team. The Crimson have two Ivy Player of the Year candidates in point guard Bryce Aiken and forward Seth Towns — who missed all of last season due to injury. Aiken is capable of scoring outbursts on any night while having Towns back will be huge for Harvard’s frontcourt. Even without Towns playing last season, Harvard managed an NIT appearance and win over Georgetown. Now, all five starters from last season, Towns and a recruiting class led by four-star forward Chris Ledlum have their sights set on an Ivy title and possibly more. Head coach Tommy Amaker has had plenty of talented teams at Harvard but this group will have some of the highest expectations in recent years.

COLGATE (Patriot)

For only the third time in program history, Colgate made the NCAA tournament last season. Expectations are sky high this season after the Raiders gave Tennessee a solid game in the first round with four starters coming back. Patriot League Player of the Year Rapolas Ivanauskas returns as the solid-shooting forward is skilled and capable of big games. Dynamic point guard Jordan Burns is also back as he can get hot from the perimeter while also being a very good distributor. Senior forward Will Rayman also returns along with reigning Patriot Rookie of the Year Tucker Richardson at guard. The Raiders have star power from multiple spots and veteran shot makers at multiple positions. If Colgate plugs its hole from center and finds some bench pop they could roll through the Patriot once again.

WESTERN KENTUCKY (Conference USA)

Rick Stansbury could finally have the talent to take Western Kentucky back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013. With the return of potential All-American big man Charles Bassey, the Hilltoppers have four starters back as Taveion Hollingsworth, Josh Anderson and Jared Savage are three double-figure scorers around Bassey. Perimeter shooting, a major weakness for Western Kentucky a season ago, should also be improved with the addition of IUPUI transfer Camron Justice. Replacing Lamonte Bearden at point guard will be key to the Hilltoppers’ ceiling. If Lipscomb transfer Kenny Cooper is cleared right away by the NCAA then he’d help a ton while talented four-star freshman Jordan Rawls could also be called on. After falling in the Conference USA Tournament title game in back-to-back seasons, this could be the Western Kentucky team that makes a run.

NORTH DAKOTA STATE (Summit)

Winning a First Four battle against NC Central before losing to Duke in the NCAA tournament, the Bison return all five starters and most of a deep rotation from a 19-win team. A team that is designed to space the floor at multiple spots and limit turnovers, North Dakota State doesn’t have any individual star but they should be one of the deepest mid-major teams in the country. Senior guards Vinnie Shahid and Tyson Ward are the team’s leading scorers while vital role players return throughout the roster. As long as the Bison are knocking down three-pointers and improve on their No. 292 KenPom defense from last season and they’ll be in good position to make it back to the Dance.

EAST TENNESSEE STATE (SoCon)

Coming off of a 24-win campaign, the Bucs have six key players coming back as the return of double-double forward Jeromy Rodriguez was huge. A program that has averaged 25 wins per season in four years under head coach Steve Forbes, East Tennessee State has two very strong shooters in elite bench scorer Tray Boyd III and junior guard Patrick Good. All-conference guard Bo Hodges is also back for the Bucs along with emerging sophomore guard Daivien Williamson. For a program that is consistently competing for the the postseason, this could be the most talented team Forbes has had during his time with the Bucs.

BUFFALO (MAC)

Head coach Nate Oats (Alabama) and five seniors moved on from the Bulls but there is still plenty of talent back for a program looking to make the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in six seasons. Veteran coach Jim Whitesell takes over after four years as an Oats assistant. The former Loyola coach has returning talent at his disposal. Two starting guards return in junior Jayvon Graves and senior Davonta Jordan as they form a strong defensive backcourt who should score more. Sophomores Jeenathan Williams and Ronaldo Segu are also expected to contribute more with Williams being a potential breakout star. Transfers will also help as wing Gabe Grant (Houston) and guard Antwain Johnson (Middle Tennessee) are both eligible after sitting out last season. New pieces have to fit together under a new coach but Oats didn’t leave the roster bare when he left for the SEC. There is still plenty of talent for Buffalo to have another strong season.

BRADLEY (MVC)

Surprisingly winning the Missouri Valley tournament and giving Final Four team Michigan State a tough first-round matchup, the Braves return their three top scorers. Senior guard and first-team All-Valley guard Darrell Brown has nearly 100 starts under his belt as he’s a tough-minded two-way leader. Junior forward Elijah Childs, a third-team all-conference player, also showed flurries of elite play in becoming one of the league’s most improved players last season. And senior sharpshooter Nate Kennel can knock down shots from nearly anywhere on the floor. The Braves lose three vital senior glue guys but figure to replace those minutes with emerging sophomore Ja’Shon Henry and two bigs in Koch Bar and Ari Boya. LSU transfer guard Danya Kingsby is also a potential perimeter option to run alongside Brown.

College Basketball 2019-2020 Preseason Top 25

AP Photo/Nati Harnik
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Beginning in September and running up until November 5th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2019-2020 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are unveiling the NBC Sports preseason top 25.

1. MICHIGAN STATE

  • WHO’S GONE: Matt McQuaid, Kenny Goins, Nick Ward
  • WHO’S BACK: Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman, Joshua Langford, Aaron Henry, Kyle Ahrens, Gabe Brown, Foster Loyer, Marcus Bingham, Thomas Kithier
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Rocket Watts, Malik Hall, Julius Marble, Joey Hauser*
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, Kyle Ahrens, Aaron Henry, Xavier Tillman

Michigan State has all the pieces to go out and win a national championship this year. They have shooting. They have size. They have talented veterans in starting roles with promising younger pieces ready to push them for minutes. They have a Hall Of Famer running the show in Tom Izzo. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that they have this kid who just so happens to be the best player in college basketball this season. Cassius Winston, ever heard of him?

If there are concerns here, it’s that the Spartans are a little bit thin up front. Xavier Tillman is ready to take over the five-spot in a full-time role with Nick Ward gone, but the bigs behind him are young. Will Marcus Bingham be ready to play 20 minutes a night? What will be more interesting to see is if Izzo goes full small-ball. With Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown and Malik Hall on the roster, he has the bodies to do it, especially if Marquette transfer Joey Hauser finds a way to get a waiver from the NCAA.

2. KENTUCKY

  • WHO’S GONE: P.J. Washington, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, Reid Travis
  • WHO’S BACK: E.J. Montgomery, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickly, Nick Richards
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Kahlil Whitney, Tyrese Maxey, Keion Brooks, Johnny Juzang, Dontaie Allen, Nate Sestina
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Tyrese Maxey, Ashton Hagans, Kahlil Whitney, Keion Brooks, E.J. Montgomery

Surprise, surprise: Kentucky is loaded again, especially in the backcourt. Ashton Hagans returns for his sophomore season where he will be joined by Tyrese Maxey in what may end up being the toughest, most competitive and best defensive backcourt in college basketball. Immanuel Quickly, Kahlil Whitney, Johnny Juzang and Keion Brooks will give John Calipari more than enough weapons to keep defenses guessing on the perimeter; those practice battles to earn playing time are going to be fun to watch.

The big question mark is going to be in Kentucky’s frontcourt, where E.J. Montgomery will look to take a P.J. Washington-esque step forward and Nick Richards will, hopefully, live up to his five-star potential. The addition of grad transfer Nate Sestina from Bucknell will provide some depth and experience where the Wildcats really need it. It will be interesting to see if Coach Cal makes the decision to play small this year, because he certainly has the roster to do it.

3. KANSAS

  • WHO’S GONE: Lagerald Vick, Dedric Lawson, Quintin Grimes, K.J. Lawson, Charlie Moore
  • WHO’S BACK: Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji, Udoka Azubuike, Marcus Garrett, Silvio De Sousa, Mitch Lightfoot, David McCormack
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Isaiah Moss, Jalen Wilson, Tristan Enaruna, Christian Braun
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Devon Dotson, Isaiah Moss, Ochai Agbaji, Silvio De Sousa, Udoka Azubuike

The NCAA investigation into Kansas and the possible ramifications of the Notice of Allegations that the university received last week will hang over the Jayhawks’ head all season long. That’s a given.

And with the understanding that this off-the-court stuff is something that Kansas is going to have to deal with all season long, let’s talk about what is actually happening on the court, because Kansas is going to be fascinating next season. The Jayhawks may have the best center in the country in Udoka Azubuike. At the very least, he’s the best low-post scorer in college hoops. They have one of the best point guards in Devon Dotson. They have one of college basketball’s breakout stars in Ochai Agbaji headlining a plethora of quality wing pieces – Marcus Garrett, Isaiah Moss, Tristan Enaruna, Jalen Wilson. They have more frontcourt depth than just about anyone else, with Silvio De Sousa, David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot all fighting for minutes up front.

The big question is going to be what the Jayhawks do at the four. Dedric Lawson is the perfect player to slot in there, but he’s gone. In his stead, they have … well, I’m not really sure. They can play two bigs, but that will obliterate their spacing. The same can be said if Garrett slots in at the four. Agbaji would make some sense, but I’m not sure he’s capable of guarding college fours the way that someone like Josh Jackson was. There is no easy answer, which means that Self will have his work cut out for him.

4. LOUISVILLE

  • WHO’S GONE: Christen Cunningham, Khwan Fore, Akoy Agau
  • WHO’S BACK: Jordan Nwora, Dwayne Sutton, Ryan McMahon, Steve Enoch, Malik Williams, Darius Perry
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Samuell Williamson, Jaelyn Withers, Josh Nickelberry, Fresh Kimble, David Johnson, Aidan Igiehom, Quinn Slazinski
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Fresh Kimble, Samuell Williamson, Dwayne Sutton, Jordan Nwora, Steve Enoch

The big news for Louisville is that they bring back Jordan Nwora, who looks to be the favorite to win the ACC Player of the Year award heading into the season. They also get back Dwayne Sutton, and Malik Williams, and Steve Enoch, and add a recruiting class that is exactly what you would expect someone like Chris Mack to bring into a program like Louisville. They have everything that you would expect out of a top five team …

… except clarity at the point guard spot.

There are options there. Darius Perry returns from last year’s team. Fresh Kimble, a grad transfer from St. Joseph’s, joins the program, as does four-star freshman David Johnson, who is dealing with a shoulder injury that could keep him out at the start of the season. Someone is going to have to win the starting job. Will they be good enough to carry the Cardinals to the top of the ACC?

5. VILLANOVA

  • WHO’S GONE: Eric Paschall, Phil Booth, Jahvon Quinerly
  • WHO’S BACK: Jermaine Samuels, Cole Swider, Saddiq Bey, Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Rountree, Brandon Slater
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Bryan Antoine, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore, Eric Dixon
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Collin Gillespie, Bryan Antoine, Saddiq Bey, Jermaine Samuels, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl

Maybe I’m overvaluing Villanova again because they’re Villanova, but I am quite bullish on them once again. I think the Saddiq Bey and Jermaine Samuels are both in line for big seasons, and when combined with Bryan Antoine – who will hopefully be healthy by December – give Jay Wright three wings that fit perfectly with the way that he wants to play. Collin Gillispie isn’t Jalen Brunson, but not very many people are Jalen Brunson, so that’s a concern, but I think that he’ll be serviceable in the Big East this season.

And then there is all the young talent on the roster. Cole Swider should take a significant step forward as a sophomore. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is a five-star recruit. Brandon Slater should be ready for a bigger role. The big concern here is that this team is still going to be very, very young for a Villanova team. We might still be a year away with this group.

6. DUKE

  • WHO’S GONE: Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Marques Bolden
  • WHO’S BACK: Tre Jones, Alex O’Connell, Jack White, Javin DeLaurier, Jordan Goldwire, Joey Baker
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Vernon Carey, Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt, Cassius Stanley
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Tre Jones, Alex O’Connell, Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt, Vernon Carey

This Duke roster is weird. Talented, but weird.

I like a lot of the pieces here. Vernon Carey is going to be a very good college basketball player. Same with Matthew Hurt. Wendell Moore should be able to impact the game on the defensive end of the floor from day one. Javin DeLaurier is a very useful role player, while the likes of Alex O’Connell, Jack White, Joey Baker and Jordan Goldwire will all be a year older this season.

The problem is that Duke doesn’t have very many lineups that they can play that will be good defensively and be able to create enough space for Carey to operate in the lane. That’s where Tre Jones comes into play. We wrote all about Mr. Jones and why his ability to shoot will be the most influential skill for any player in college basketball next season right here.

7. FLORIDA

  • WHO’S GONE: KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson, Kevarrius Hayes, Keith Stone, DeAundre Ballard
  • WHO’S BACK: Noah Locke, Andrew Nembhard, Keyontae Johnson, Dontay Bassett, Isaiah Stokes
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Kerry Blackshear Jr., Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann, Omar Payne, Jason Jitoboh
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, Scottie Lewis, Keyontae Johnson, Kerry Blackshear Jr.

The outlook for Florida’s season changed dramatically when they landed a commitment from Kerry Blackshear Jr., the Virginia Tech grad transfer that picked the Gators over Tennessee and Kentucky. He is an All-American talent that will anchor the frontcourt for a team that has all the perimeter depth you would want.

It starts with Andrew Nembhard, who is going to have a big sophomore season and will pair with Tre Mann to handle Florida’s point guard duties. Scottie Lewis is going to be one of the best perimeter defenders in the sport next season, while Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson are back to round out Florida’s rotation.

8. GONZAGA

  • WHO’S GONE: Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Josh Perkins, Zach Norvell, Geno Crandall, Jeremy Jones
  • WHO’S BACK: Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev, Corey Kispert
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Admon Gilder, Drew Timme, Oumar Ballo, Ryan Woolridge, Brock Ravet, Anton Watson, Martynas Arlauskas, Pavel Zahkarov
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Ryan Woolridge, Admon Gilder, Corey Kispert, Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev

Mark Few lost quite a bit off of last season’s roster, and there are more than a few questions about just who this team is going to be able to trust this season, but there is more than enough talent here for the Zags to once again make a run at being a top ten team.

Killian Tillie is back and healthy. Corey Kispert is a talent that has been waiting for more opportunity in Spokane. Filip Petrusev will finally be able to anchor the frontcourt on his own, while the likes of Drew Timme and Oumar Ballo are promising freshman that are going to push for minutes immediately. The big question is going to be in the backcourt, where a pair of grad transfers – Ryan Woolridge and Admon Gilder – are going to take the reins with a freshman – Brock Ravet – providing depth. All three are new to the program, and it’s never ideal to head into a season with such inexperience at the point guard spot.

9. MARYLAND

  • WHO’S GONE: Bruno Fernando
  • WHO’S BACK: Anthony Cowan, Jalen Smith, Serrel Smith Jr., Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Ricky Lindo, Darryl Morsell
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Chol Marial, Makhi Mitchell, Makhel Mitchell, Donta Scott
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Anthony Cowan, Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins, Ricky Lindo, Jalen Smith

There is nothing riskier than going all-in on a team coached by Mark Turgeon, but here we are. Losing Bruno Fernando hurts, but the Terps not only got Jalen Smith back, they also return Anthony Cowan. That could end up being the best 1-2 punch in the Big Ten this side of Michigan State.

What’s more promising is that the Terps have a loaded sophomore class. Smith is the name you know, but Eric Ayala, Aaron Wiggins and Ricky Lindo all had promising rookie campaigns, while the likes of Darryl Morsell and the Mitchell twins give Turgeon plenty of depth.

10. VIRGINIA

  • WHO’S GONE: De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Jack Salt
  • WHO’S BACK: Braxton Key, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff, Kihei Clark
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Casey Morsell, Tomas Woldetensae, Kadin Shedrick, Justin McKoy
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Kihei Clark, Casey Morsell, Braxton Key, Mamadi Diakite, Jay Huff

I am a Tony Bennett stan, and I fully believe that the combination of Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff is the kind of malleable, versatile and talented frontcourt that will allow Bennett to flex his X’s-and-O’s muscles and get creative offensively, but I fully admit that putting Virginia in the top ten is likely beyond the top of their range.

They lost De’Andre Hunter. They lost Ty Jerome. They lost Kyle Guy. That’s a lot to lose, especially when Virginia was not planning on losing the latter two for another year. Will Casey Morsell be ready at the start of the season? Is Kihei Clark going to be able to handle the lead guard role in a ball-screen heavy offense? Just how good is Braxton Key going to be as a senior?

I don’t really have answers. But I’m willing to bet on Bennett figuring those answers out.

11. TEXAS TECH

  • WHO’S GONE: Jarrett Culver, Matt Mooney, Tariq Owens, Brandone Francis, Norense Odiase, Khavon Moore
  • WHO’S BACK: Chris Beard, Davide Moretti, Kyler Edwards, Andrei Savrasov
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Jahmius Ramsey, Chris Clarke, T.J. Holyfield, Kevin McCullar, Russel Tchewa, Terrence Shannon
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Jahmius Ramsey, Davide Moretti, Kyler Edwards, T.J. Holyfield, Chris Clarke

The Red Raiders only return two players from last year’s national runner-up: Davide Moretti and Kyler Edwards. But there is no one in college basketball that has proven to be better at finding a way to entirely remake a roster year after year that Chris Beard. Jahmius Ramsey is going to be one of the most productive freshman in all of college basketball this season – he is a perfect fit for Beard’s style of play – and the addition of grad transfers Chris Clarke and T.J. Holyfield will help as well. Like Virginia, I’m not really sure how, exactly, it’s going to happen, but I fully believe that Tech is going to end up being right there in the mix at the top of the Big 12 once again this season.

12. OREGON

  • WHO’S GONE: Paul White, Louis King, Ehab Amin, Kenny Wooten, Bol Bol, Victor Bailey
  • WHO’S BACK: Payton Pritchard, Will Richardson, Francis Okoro
  • WHO’S COMING IN: N’Faly Dante, C.J. Walker, Anthony Mathis, Shakur Juiston, Addison Patterson, Chris Duarte, Lok Wur, Chandler Lawson
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Payton Pritchard, Chris Duarte, Anthony Mathis, C.J. Walker, Shakur Juiston

The Ducks are the toughest team for me in these rankings. On the one hand, they lost oh-so-very-much from last season. On the other hand, Payton Pritchard is back, as is Will Richardson, and they will be joined by a rebuilt roster with quite a bit of interesting talent: Freshmen N’Faly Dante, C.J. Walker, Addison Patterson and Chandler Lawson; transfers Shakur Juiston, Anthony Mathis and Chris Duarte. Throw in Francis Okoro, and there are enough pieces here for Dana Altman to have fun figuring things out.

13. SETON HALL

  • WHO’S GONE: Michael Nzei
  • WHO’S BACK: Myles Powell, Myles Cale, Quincy McKnight, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Ikey Obiagu
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Tyrese Samuel
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Quincy McKnight, Myles Powell, Myles Cale, Sandro Mamukelashvili, Ikey Obiagu

There’s an argument to be made that Seton Hall is going to be the best team in the Big East next season. This is essentially the same roster that Seton Hall had last season, which matters because Myles Powell returns for his senior season. He is one of the most dangerous scorers in all of college hoops. He is going to be an All-American. He’s awesome. He also has a solid supporting cast, with Myles Cale, Quincy McKnight and Sandro Mamukelashvili all back. Their ceiling will likely be determined by how good Jared Rhoden and Ike Obiagu end up being this season.

14. NORTH CAROLINA

  • WHO’S GONE: Coby White, Nassir Little, Luke Maye, Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams, Seventh Woods
  • WHO’S BACK: Leaky Black, Garrison Brooks, Brandon Robinson
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Cole Anthony, Armando Bacot, Jeremiah Francis, Anthony Harris, Christian Keeling, Justin Pierce
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Cole Anthony, Christian Keeling, Leaky Black, Armando Bacot, Garrison Brooks

Cole Anthony is going to be the most productive freshman in college basketball this season. He’s a terrific athlete, a high-volume scorer and the kind of uber-competitive lead guard that will make North Carolina fans forget about Coby White fairly quickly. The problem for the Heels is that White isn’t the only guy they lost. Luke Maye, Nassir Little, Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams are all gone as well. I think Armando Bacot is going to be very, very good for UNC in the long term, and adding a pair of grad transfers in Justin Pierce and Christian Keeling will certainly help, but there is going to be a learning curve early on for this group.

15. UTAH STATE

  • WHO’S GONE: Quinn Taylor
  • WHO’S BACK: Sam Merrill, Neemias Queta, Diogo Brito, Brock Miller, Abel Porter
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Alphonso Anderson, Liam McChesney, Sean Bairstow
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Diogo Brito, Abel Porter, Sam Merrill, Brock Miller, Neemias Queta

Once we got word that the knee injury suffered by star center Neemias Queta in the FIBA U20 Euros was not serious, we knew that Craig Smith and this Utah State team would be the best in the Mountain West and arguably the best outside the power conferences. Queta is one reason why. Sam Merrill, who might play his way onto All-America teams by the time March roles around, is probably a bigger reason why. All told, the Aggies bring back five of their top six from last season. They are going to be dangerous.

16. ARIZONA

  • WHO’S GONE: Justin Coleman, Ryan Luther, Brandon Randolph
  • WHO’S BACK: Dylan Smith, Chase Jeter, Brandon Williams, Alex Barcello, Ira Lee
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Max Hazzard, Christian Koloko, Zeke Nnaji, Stone Gettings
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Max Hazzard, Nico Mannion, Josh Green, Ira Lee, Chase Jeter

With everything going on around the program, it’s hard to believe that this team will be fighting with Oregon and Washington for Pac-12 supremacy. Nico Mannion and Josh Green, a pair of five-star freshman, are the headliners, and their jobs will be all-the-more important with Brandon Williams out due to a knee injury. UC Irvine transfer Max Hazzard should provide some experience and depth, but the key is going to be how Sean Miller handles his frontcourt. Can Chase Jeter be trusted? Is Zeke Nnaji going to live up to the preseason hype? How good is Ira Lee?

17. SAINT MARY’S

  • WHO’S GONE: Jordan Hunter
  • WHO’S BACK: Jordan Ford, Malik Fitts, Tommy Kuhse, Tanner Krebs, Dan Fotu, Jock Perry
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Aaron Menzies, Alex Ducas, Kyle Bowen
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Jordan Ford, Tommy Kuhse, Tanner Krebs, Malik Fitts, Jock Perry

The Gaels have been to just two of the last six NCAA tournaments, but this looks like a season where they are going to get back. Jordan Ford is going to be this year’s mid-major star to know, while Malik Fitts is the kind of athletic and versatile small-ball four that will allow SMC to matchup with power conference programs. Throw in the return of Tommy Kuhse and Tanner Krebs as well as the addition of 7-foot-3 center Aaron Menzies, Randy Bennett has himself a squad.

18. XAVIER

  • WHO’S GONE: Ryan Welage, Zach Hankins, Kyle Castlin, Elias Harden
  • WHO’S BACK: Quentin Goodin, Naji Marshall, Paul Scruggs, Tyrique Jones
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Kyky Tandy, Dahmir Bishop, Zach Freemantle, Jason Carter, Daniel Ramsey, Dieonte Miles
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Quentin Goodin, Paul Scruggs, Naji Marshall, Jason Carter, Tyrique Jones

The Musketeers are better than people realize. After a strong finish to last season, Travis Steele returns four starters, including potential breakout star Naji Marshall. Quentin Goodin, Paul Scruggs and Tyrique Jones are all back as well, and with the arrival of recruiting class that includes five four-star players and a pair of immediately eligible transfers, Xavier has the look of a team that is going to make a run at the top of the Big East.

19. LSU

  • WHO’S GONE: Tremont Waters, Naz Reid, Kavell-Bigby Williams
  • WHO’S BACK: Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Emmitt Williams, Marlon Taylor, Darius Days
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Trendon Watford, James Bishop
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Marlon Taylor, Trendon Watford, Emmitt Williams

LSU looked like they could be one of the worst teams in the SEC heading into this year. Then the school decided not to fire Will Wade. Then Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Emmitt Williams and Marlon Taylor all decided to return to schol. Then Trendon Watford committed. Wade has done more with less. The x-factor is going to be when the NCAA drops their Notice of Allegations.

20. BAYLOR

  • WHO’S GONE: King McClure, Makai Mason, Jake Lindsey
  • WHO’S BACK: Tristan Clark, Jared Butler, Devonte Bandoo, Mark Vital, Freddie Gillespie, Matthew Mayer
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Jordan Turner, MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler, Mark Vital, MaCio Teague, Tristan Clark

I’ll be honest: I think I might actually have Baylor too low here. The Bears finished in the top half of the Big 12 last season despite missing Tristan Clark for all of league play. Now he’s back, as is the majority of their key pieces: Mark Vital, Devonte Bandoo. Throw in Davion Mitchell and Macio Teague, a pair of talented transfers, and freshman Jordan Turner, and Scott Drew might have his deepest team in Waco. He finds a way to get it done with guys that don’t really matter. It’s going to be interesting to see what he can do now that he has a roster that’s good enough to give the Bears some level of expectation.

21. MEMPHIS

  • WHO’S GONE: Jeremiah Martin, Kyvon Davenport, Mike Parks Jr., Raynere Thornton, Kareem Brewton, Antwann Jones Jr.
  • WHO’S BACK: Tyler Harris, Alex Lomax, Isaiah Maurice
  • WHO’S COMING IN: James Wiseman, D.J. Jeffries, Lester Quinones, Malcolm Dandridge, Damian Baugh, Lance Thomas, Precious Achiuwa, Boogie Ellis
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Tyler Harris, Boogie Ellis, D.J. Jeffries, Precious Achiuwa, James Wiseman

I am lower than consensus on Memphis. I explained why here.

22. AUBURN

  • WHO’S GONE: Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Malik Dunbar, Horace Spencer, Chuma Okeke
  • WHO’S BACK: Samir Doughty, J’Von McCormick, Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore, Austin Wiley
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Isaac Okoro, Tyrell Jones, Jaylin Williams, Babatunde Akingbola, Allen Flanigan, Jamal Johnson
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: J’Von McCormick, Samir Doughty, Danjel Purifoy, Isaac Okoro, Anfernee McLemore

Losing Chuma Okeke early to the draft hurts, but that was expect. Losing Jared Harper? That hurt more. The good news is J’Von McCormick showed flashes of being ready to take over for Harper, and it looks like Isaac Okoro is going to be able to do some of the things that made Okeke so good for Auburn. There are going to be some growing pains, but there is enough talent here for the Tigers to be relevant in the SEC.

23. TENNESSEE

  • WHO’S GONE: Admiral Schofield, Kyle Alexander, Jordan Bone, Grant Williams, Derrick Walker Jr, D.J. Burns
  • WHO’S BACK: Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, Yves Pons, John Fulkerson, Jalen Johnson
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Josiah James, Drew Pember, Olivier Nkamoua, Davonte Gaines
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, Josiah James, Yves Pons, John Fulkerson

Missing out on Kerry Blackshear really hurt, because the Vols have everything other than a big man. Lamonte Turner should be able to make Tennessee fans forget Jordan Bone left early. Josiah James should have an immediate and significant impact as a freshman. There’s a lot to like about Jordan Bowden, too. But not having that rock to anchor the offense, a guy to fill the Grant Williams role, is why Tennessee is at the back end of the top 25.

24. VCU

  • WHO’S GONE: Michael Gilmore
  • WHO’S BACK: Marcus Evans, Isaac Vann, Deriante Jenkins, Marcus Santos-Silva, Vince Williams, Mike’L Simms, P.J. Byrd, Malik Crawford
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Jarren McAlister, Tre Clark, Hason Ward, Nah’Shon Hyland
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Marcus Evans, Isaac Vann, Vince Williams, Deriante Jenkins, Marcus Santos-Silva

The Rams being essentially everyone back from a 25-win team that went 16-2 in the Atlantic 10 last season, finished the year ranked seventh in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric and adds an impressive recruiting class. Perhaps most important – Marcus Evans has had a full offseason to get himself healthy. Look out for the Rams.

25. OHIO STATE

  • WHO’S GONE: C.J. Jackson, Keyshawn Woods
  • WHO’S BACK: Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson, Luther Muhammad, Duane Washington, Kyle Young, Justin Aherns, Musa Jallow, Jaedon LeDee
  • WHO’S COMING IN: D.J. Carton, Alonzo Gaffney, EJ Liddel, Ibrahima Diallo, CJ Walker
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: C.J. Walker, Duane Washington Jr., Luther Muhammad, Andre Wesson, Kaleb Wesson

I might be too low on the Buckeyes. Kaleb Wesson returns to school, and he will be joined by Luther Muhammad and Andre Wesson in the frontcourt. There is a lot to like about some of the young talent on OSU’s roster – particularly freshman point guard D.J. Carton – and as always, Chris Holtmann is as good as any coach in the country.

FIVE TEAMS THAT JUST MISSED

DAVIDSON

  • WHO’S GONE: Nathan Ekwu, Dusan Kovacevic
  • WHO’S BACK: Kellan Grady, Jon Axel Gudmundson, Luka Brajkovic, Luke Frampton, Kishawn Pritchett, Carter Collins, David Czerapowicz, Bates Jones
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Hyunjung Lee, David Kristensen
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Kellan Grady, Jon Axel Gudmundson, Luke Frampton, Kishawn Pritchett, Luka Brajkovic

CREIGHTON

  • WHO’S GONE: Sam Froling, Kaleb Joseph, Connor Cashaw
  • WHO’S BACK: Davion Mintz, Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock, Jacob Epperson, Damien Jefferson, Marcus Zegarowski
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Shereef Mitchell
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Davion Mintz, Marcus Zegarowski, Ty-Shon Alexander, Mitchell Ballock, Jacob Epperson

WASHINGTON

  • WHO’S GONE: Jaylen Nowell, Noah Dickerson, Matisse Thybulle, David Crisp, Dominic Green
  • WHO’S BACK: Nahziah Carter, Hameir Wright, Sam Timmins, Jamal Bey
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Isaiah Stewart, Jaden McDaniels, Quade Green, Marcus Tsohonis, RaeQuan Battle
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Quade Green, Nahziah Carter, Hameir Wright, Jaden McDaniels, Isaiah Stewart

COLORADO

  • WHO’S GONE: Namon Wright
  • WHO’S BACK: McKinley Wright IV, Tyler Bey, D’shawn Schwartz, Lucas Siewert, Evan Battey, Shane Gatling, Daylen Kountz
  • WHO’S COMING IN: No one
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: McKinley Wright IV, Shane Gatling, Tyler Bey, D’Shawn Schwartz, Lucas Siewert

MARQUETTE

  • WHO’S GONE: Sam Hauser, Joey Hauser, Joseph Chartouny
  • WHO’S BACK: Markus Howard, Theo John, Sacar Anim, Ed Morrow, Jamal Cain
  • WHO’S COMING IN: Koby McEwen, Symir Torrence, Jayce Johnson
  • PROJECTED STARTERS: Markus Howard, Koby McEwen, Sacar Anim, Brendan Bailey, Theo John

SEC Offseason Reset: Can Florida beat out Kentucky for league title?

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The grad transfer market is still in full swing, but for the most part, we know what the meaningful parts for the majority of the teams around the country will be.

That means that it is time to start talking about what is coming instead of what was.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at key personnel changes, the impact of the coaching carousel and the most important storylines heading into the 2019-20 season for each of college basketball’s top seven conferences.

Today, we are talking SEC.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

KENTUCKY RELOADS: In typical John Calipari fashion, Kentucky lost a lot of great players this offseason only to reload with six more players who could contribute this season. Nearly any team in the country would be cooked if they had to replace three first-round picks and Reid Travis. But the Wildcats under Calipari have turned yearly roster construction into a near-science as they once again have tons of good players entering the rotation.

The five-man freshmen class is headlined by five-stars Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks. Calipari also took quality four-stars in in-state guard Dontaie Allen and reclassified guard Johnny Juzang. And grad transfer forward Nate Sestina (Bucknell) was one of the best available bigs as he averaged 16 and 8 with 38 percent three-point shooting.

Kentucky still has to figure out how all of these new pieces will fit with returning players like Ashton Hagans, E.J. Montgomery, Nick Richards and Immanuel Quickley. But almost any program in the country would love to have a roster with this many five-star talents as Kentucky again looks poised to be in the SEC and national title conversations.

Will Wade (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

LSU SHAKES OFF A DRAMATIC END TO LAST SEASON TO STAY LOADED: Entering the offseason, LSU basketball was in an entirely uncertain place. Head coach Will Wade was suspended as the Tigers made a Sweet 16 run without him. Perhaps most importantly, the talent that took LSU to the sport’s second weekend was virtually all locked into the NBA Draft process.

Point guard Tremont Waters and big man Naz Reid opted to stay pro and leave school. But the Tigers dodged some major bullets when Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Marlon Taylor and Emmitt Williams all withdrew from the draft and returned to school. LSU also reloaded with the addition of McDonald’s All-American forward Trendon Watford as he should come in and start right away.

Seemingly overnight, LSU went from potential SEC doormat, looking for a new head coach, to returning many of the players that helped them win the SEC’s regular-season title last season. Smart and Mays have the potential to be All-SEC players while Williams should take a leap now that Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams have moved on. LSU has talent, size, athleticism and some depth. Watching them play with a chip on their shoulder in light of the mess at the end of last season should be interesting.

KERRY BLACKSHEAR’S TRANSFER TO FLORIDA SHOOK UP THE WHOLE SEC: The most important transfer of the offseason returned home to Florida as former Virginia Tech big man Kerry Blackshear will finish his college hoops career with the Gators.

By adding the 6-foot-10 double-double threat into the lineup, Florida vaults into the preseason top-10 as Blackshear gives the Gators much-needed stability and scoring on the interior. Blackshear was one of the few big men in all of college basketball last season where an offense could run through him and thrive. This is a dude who dropped monster double-doubles against Virginia (23 and 13), North Carolina (19 and 17) and Duke (23 and 10 AND 18 and 16) last season.

Perhaps most importantly in Blackshear going to Florida, however, is that the Gators kept the potential All-American away from looming conference threats like Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas A&M. While Texas A&M isn’t a threat to win the SEC, there was a chance Blackshear would follow his former coach, Buzz Williams, to the Lone Star State. The Gators winning Blackshear over the Wildcats and Vols completely changes the landscape of the SEC title race.

Kentucky would have been the league’s runaway favorite with Blackshear in the middle while Tennessee was very effective with talented frontcourt players like Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Instead, Blackshear gives the Gators a go-to scorer as his presence makes Florida one of the nation’s most intriguing teams.

THE SEC LOADED UP IN RECRUITING: Seven McDonald’s All-Americans, and a host of other top-100 prospects, will enter the SEC this season as the league did a great job of reloading through recruiting. And while most people associate Burger Boys and five-star talents with John Calipari and Kentucky, they only brought in three of those seven McDonald’s talents.

With 16 top-100 prospects (according to Rivals) joining the SEC, the league continues to increase its talent levels while also leveling the playing field. What used to be a top-heavy conference dominated by the Wildcats has become a deep and talented league where double-digit teams should be tough outs this season. Kentucky is still the class of the conference when it comes to high-end recruiting. But Anthony Edwards (Georgia) and Scottie Lewis (Florida) are both individually ranked ahead of any single Kentucky recruit as watching all of the talented five-stars clash should be a ton of fun.

FOUR NEW COACHES ENTER THE SEC: The SEC has four new head coaches in the fold this season as the conference has done a great job of holding basketball coaches accountable to create a winning culture that is similar to football. Nate Oats (Buffalo to Alabama), Buzz Williams (Virginia Tech to Texas A&M) and Eric Musselman (Nevada to Arkansas) all have proven track records at the college level as all three coaches are coming off of multiple NCAA tournament appearances.

That trio should also be strong on the recruiting trail. Oats deserves praise for convincing Kira Lewis, John Petty and three four-star prospects to stay with the Crimson Tide while Williams and Musselman have long been dangerous when it comes to landing premier talent.

All three will be fascinating to see at their new schools. Oats finally gets to coach at the highest level of the sport after doing so well in the MAC. Williams returns to his native Texas where he can establish a strong local recruiting pipeline. And Musselman turned Nevada into a consistent top-25 program with resources not nearly as plentiful as he’ll have in the SEC.

The wildcard of the new-coach quartet will be Vanderbilt’s hire of NBA veteran Jerry Stackhouse. While the NBA-to-college coaching game has been a dangerous one, Stackhouse brings a unique pedigree thanks to his time as an NBA assistant (Raptors and Grizzlies) and G-League head coach (Raptors 905). Stackhouse has also worked closely with his own AAU program, which produced a McDonald’s All-American and top-five pick in Brandon Ingram. So Stackhouse shouldn’t be coming into the college game completely oblivious about the expectations and work that comes in recruiting.

(AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

WHO’S GONE

  • P.J. WASHINGTON, TYLER HERRO and KELDON JOHNSON, Kentucky: The three leading scorers for the Wildcats all turned pro and got picked in the first round of the NBA Draft. Kentucky has survived this type of loss before and they’ll survive these losses as well.
  • TREMONT WATERS AND NAZ REID, LSU: Losing an elite point guard and McDonald’s All-American big man will be tough for the Tigers. Waters was an elite creator and scorer while Reid could take over a game when his motor was running high.
  • JARED HARPER, BRYCE BROWN, CHUMA OKEKE, Auburn: Following a surprising Final Four run, the Tigers lose their top three scorers and most versatile defender in Okeke. Auburn has to replace over 43 points of offense per game between these three next season.
  • ADMIRAL SCHOFIELD, GRANT WILLIAMS and JORDAN BONE, Tennessee: Losing the SEC’s best frontcourt and top three scorers will be tough to replace for the Vols. This is the main core that led Tennessee to an SEC title and Sweet 16 appearance.
  • DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas: Rim-running now for the Chicago Bulls, Gafford was an elite SEC big man the past two seasons. The Razorbacks will miss his rebounding and rim protection in a big way.
  • NICOLAS CLAXTON, Georgia: After leading the Bulldogs in scoring, rebound and blocked shots, Claxton parlayed a strong NBA Draft Combine appearance into being an early second-round pick.
  • DARIUS GARLAND and SIMI SHITTU, Vanderbilt: These two McDonald’s All-Americans were supposed to lead Vandy into the upper echelon of the SEC. Instead, Garland only played five games (knee injury) and became a lottery pick while Shittu didn’t live up to lofty expectations before also turning pro.

WHO’S BACK

  • ASHTON HAGANS and E.J. MONTGOMERY, Kentucky: The sophomore duo both have a chance to increase their production since Kentucky lost their top four scorers from last season. Hagans has to show more offensively while Montgomery won minutes at the end of the season.
  • SKYLAR MAYS and JAVONTE SMART, LSU: Both double-figure scorers and potential all-league players return for the Tigers as Smart and Mays will have the ball in their hands much more with Waters gone. If either of the duo improves on their 31 percent three-point shooting it would be huge.
  • LAMONTE TURNER AND JORDAN BOWDEN, Tennessee: Although the Vols lost four of their main six players from last season, the returning duo of Bowden and Turner should be very good. Both players can take over a game — particularly if the three-ball is going.
  • KIRA LEWIS and JOHN PETTY, Alabama: Both double-figure scorers nearly left before Nate Oats convinced them to stay for another season. With Lewis and Petty back, Alabama has a backcourt that is one of the most talented in the country.
  • A.J. LAWSON, South Carolina: Generating some pro buzz his freshman season, the 6-foot-6 sophomore showed flashes of brilliance last season. Capable of 20-point games on any night, if Lawson improves his efficiency he’ll be an All-SEC player.
  • RAYSHAUN HAMMONDS, Georgia: Making a big leap as a sophomore, the 6-foot-8 forward has all-SEC potential if his game continues to develop. Hammonds put up solid numbers (12.1 pts, 6.1 reb) in only 24 minutes per game.

WHO’S COMING

  • KERRY BLACKSHEAR, Florida: The nation’s top graduate transfer becomes an immediate candidate to win SEC Player of the Year after his transfer from Virginia Tech. The 6-foot-10 Blackshear is a nightly double-double threat who can take over a game.
  • ANTHONY EDWARDS, Georgia: Some believe this in-state, five-star shooting guard is the best prospect in the country and a future top-five pick. The 6-foot-4 Edwards reclassifying into 2019 gives Georgia a potentially elite scorer with big expectations.
  • SCOTTIE LEWIS and TRE MANN, Florida: This McDonald’s All-American duo should earn major PT right away. The ultra-athletic 6-foot-5 Lewis immediately becomes one of the team’s better defenders while he’s no slouch on offense either. The 6-foot-4 Mann can get buckets in a hurry as he helps Florida’s recent inconsistent perimeter shooting.
  • TYRESE MAXEY, KAHLIL WHITNEY and KEION BROOKS, Kentucky: Among Kentucky’s five-man freshman class, these are the three players who could come in and start right away. Maxey’s penchant for scoring makes him a nice counterpart to Hagans, Whitney’s athleticism should be used on both ends of the floor and Brooks is a productive frontcourt player with upside.
  • TRENDON WATFORD, LSU: Dynamic offensively, the 6-foot-9 Watford should be able to score, rebound and help with his passing right away. Watford is a different type of player than Naz Reid but he could be more of a consistent impact.
  • ISAAC OKORO, Auburn: A five-star prospect who is physically ready right away, the 6-foot-5 Okoro should defend multiple spots, help on the glass and aid the offense in transition. Okoro is a year of skill development away from being a potential monster.
  • JOSIAH JAMES, Tennessee: The McDonald’s All-American will be asked to play big minutes right away as he’s a physical lefty who can finish at the rim and defend multiple spots. The 6-foot-6 James has pro upside if he improves his perimeter jumper.
  • JAMES BOLDEN, Alabama: Helping Alabama on both ends of the floor will be this West Virginia grad transfer guard. “Beetle” was a double-figure scorer last season while he’s also experienced in Press Virginia’s turnover-focused approach on defense.
  • ARKANSAS TRANSFERS: The graduate transfer duo of shooting guard Jimmy Whitt (SMU) and forward Jeantal Cylla (UNC Wilmington) should come in and help right away as both averaged double-figures last season.
  • DRU SMITH, Missouri: The Evansville transfer is expected to come in and make a huge impact in the Tiger backcourt. As a sophomore, Smith put up 13.7 points, 4.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game on ridiculous shooting splits (57% FG, 48% 3PT, 86% FT).

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-SEC TEAM

KERRY BLACKSHEAR, Florida (SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR)
SKYLAR MAYS, LSU
ANTHONY EDWARDS, Georgia
KIRA LEWIS, Alabama
JAVONTE SMART, LSU

Ashton Hagans (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. KENTUCKY: Once again the class of the SEC, Kentucky has more top-to-bottom talent than any roster in the country. Figuring out the rotation and how everyone gets along will once again be one of the things to watch with the Wildcats. The fit of returning guard Ashton Hagans and incoming freshman Tyrese Maxey is a good one as Maxey can go on scoring bursts while Hagans can continue to be a lockdown defender and floor leader. Kahlil Whitney showed flashes of brilliance late in his high school career and could thrive in Kentucky’s system. And the group of bigs remains as deep as ever as E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards are joined by Nate Sestina and Keion Brooks. As we’ve seen on some Kentucky super teams in the past, sometimes the pieces just don’t properly fit. But this group seems like they could play well together and do some serious damage.

2. FLORIDA: Things changed dramatically for Florida once Kerry Blackshear committed to the Gators. Without Blackshear, the Gators were a fringe top-25 team with major question marks inside. With Blackshear, Florida adds a go-to scorer and major factor on the interior. Returning guards Andrew Nembhard and Noah Locke also gain the benefit of adding two five-star talents in Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann into the rotation while Keyontae Johnson remains a promising wing forward. Perimeter shooting still needs to become more consistent. And Florida is asking a lot out of a young perimeter rotation. But the talent is in place for this team to compete for an SEC title and beyond.

3. LSU: Avoiding potential disaster, LSU still finds itself in the thick of another SEC race after winning last season. The Tigers will try to avoid the drama that surrounded the end of last season as Will Wade is back at the helm and many of last season’s key players return. The perimeter group of Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays and Marlon Taylor is strong and the addition of Trendon Watford means the Tigers have two former five-star prospects in the frontcourt as he joins Emmitt Williams. Shooting is something to watch for with this team as LSU only shot 32 percent from distance last season while losing a key shooter in Tremont Waters. This could be another special season for LSU. Or will the NCAA come down on Wade and change everything?

4. AUBURN: Although the Tigers made the Final Four last season and find themselves in the NBCSports.com Preseason Top 25, it will be a very different outfit for Bruce Pearl this season. Gone are the team’s top three scorers as the Auburn offense will need to find new go-to players. Thankfully, there’s a lot to like with returning role players. Samir Doughty, J’Von McCormick, Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore and Austin Wiley are all experienced upperclass players who averaged double-figure minutes. Five-star guard Isaac Okoro leads a six-man recruiting class that includes three additional top-100 prospects. Auburn needs to find a star but they’re deep, talented, experienced and athletic.

5. TENNESSEE: It will be a transition period in Knoxville as the Vols learn to play without the frontcourt of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Jordan Bone and Kyle Alexander leaving also means Tennessee needs to replace four of their top six. But the backcourt of Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden should excel in new roles while Josiah James is a worthy freshman who should play right away. Tennessee needs more development out of big man John Fulkerson and uber athlete Yves Pons, and perimeter shooting could be a question mark, but there’s still a lot to like about Tennessee returning to the Big Dance.

6. GEORGIA: The addition of Edwards gives the Bulldogs a very intriguing team for next season. A known developer of talent, head coach Tom Crean has to get a leap from veteran forward Rayshaun Hammonds and one of the two senior returning guards in Tyree Crump or Jordan Harris. And besides for Edwards, Georgia recruited four additional four-star prospects. The Bulldogs have talent but can they put it all together?

7. MISSISSIPPI STATE: There’s still a lot to like about the Bulldogs despite losing the top two scorers in Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters. Plenty of talent and scoring potential remains as Tyson Carter, Reggie Perry and Nick Weatherspoon should all step up. Robert Woodard and Abdul Ado give additional length and athleticism as Mississippi State’s entire starting lineup should be former top-150 prospects. If Perry can have a big year then this team might be even better than last season.

8. ALABAMA: The perimeter-oriented Crimson Tide will have to find some inside help if they want to be among the league’s top teams. The backcourt trio of Kira Lewis, John Petty and James “Beetle” Bolden are all known commodities who can score and make plays. Junior wing Herb Jones also has intriguing capabilities. But help has to arrive in an unproven frontcourt that features young or unproductive returning players. If Alabama figures out a four-guard lineup and gets some contributions inside they will be dangerous.

9. OLE MISS: Kermit Davis stunned the nation by taking Ole Miss from worst to NCAA tournament berth in his first season. The Rebels bring back some potential all-league guys and should remain feisty. Breein Tyree is a potential All-SEC first-teamer as he can put up points in bunches while Devontae Shuler is an adequate second option. Rising sophomores Blake Hinson and KJ Buffen also return and should bring more production. Replacing Terence Davis will be tough and Ole Miss needs to shore up a shaky defense.

10. ARKANSAS: New head coach Eric Musselman won with unique rosters at Nevada as he inherits some talent with the Razorbacks. The sophomore core led by Isaiah Joe is promising and junior Mason Jones and graduate transfer Jimmy Whitt (SMU) are proven double-figure scorers. Finding suitable frontcourt players to help offset the loss of Daniel Gafford will be something to watch for early. This team looks like it might be a year away from being a contender.

11. MISSOURI: The Tigers might be the hardest team to peg in this whole conference. They return some solid SEC contributors like big man Jeremiah Tilmon, guard Mark Smith and a host of role players. Transfer guard Dru Smith is expected to make a huge impact right away. It’s still hard to love this team without a go-to player and a struggling offense.

12. SOUTH CAROLINA: Outside of talented sophomore A.J. Lawson and wing Keyshawn Bryant, there isn’t a lot of proven SEC talent on the roster for the Gamecocks. After sitting out a season, George Washington transfer Jair Bolden will help on the perimeter. Senior center Maik Kotsar is one of the SEC’s most experienced players. It’s just hard to say how this roster will look since they’re relying on so many unproven guys.

13. TEXAS A&M: Buzz Williams returns to his native Texas as he hopes to bring the Aggies back to the postseason. The return of Savion Flagg is huge for Texas A&M as he was great to end last season. The Aggies also have some promising returning players around Flagg in Wendell Mitchell, Jay Jay Chandler and TJ Starks. But this group is probably a year away from being a major threat as Williams hopes to build with a positive spring recruiting haul.

14. VANDERBILT: Losing their two most talented players (Garland and Shittu) from an 0-18 team in the SEC means last place is likely inevitable for the Commodores. New head coach Jerry Stackhouse convincing double-figure scorers Saben Lee and Aaron Nesmith to return is positive news for the future while freshman forward Dylan Disu is a young piece to track.

Preseason All-American Teams

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With the deadline for underclassmen to withdraw from the NBA draft and return to school having come and gone, we can now have a full sense of what the 2019-20 season will look like.

A number of would-be All-American candidates ended up keeping their names in the draft despite the fact that they may not end up getting drafted, but there is still a solid crop of upperclassmen to pair with some talented newcomers that will give us a pretty strong contingent of All-Americans.

So without further ado, here is a first look at what those All-American teams could end up looking like.

(Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

PRESEASON FIRST TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State: Winston, for my money, will enter this season this season as the Preseason National Player of the Year. He is the lone First-Team All-American returning from last season, and he will be playing for the consensus No. 1 team in the country. It may be hard for him to improve on the 18.8 points and 7.5 assists that he averaged last year, but that is largely because he should have more help this year with Josh Langford healthy and Aaron Henry on the verge of a breakout year.

MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette: Markus Howard averaged 25 points and 3.9 assists last season, and that was when he was playing on a team that still had both of the Hauser brothers on it. This year, they are gone, meaning that there is a real chance that he ends up averaging upwards of 30 points this year. I don’t know how many wins that will lead Marquette to, but it is enough to get him some hype in the preseason.

MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall: Powell is Howard-lite. He’s not quite as consistent or efficient, but he is just as dangerous when he gets into a rhythm. As a junior, Powell averaged 23.1 points, and I would expect him to be just as dangerous as a senior on a team that returns everyone from last season. Hopefully, we’ll have at least one duel between Seton Hall and Marquette that turns into a shootout between Howard and Powell.

JORDAN NWORA, Louisville: The Cardinals got Nwora back for his junior season after he spent this past year proving himself as one of the most improved players in college hoops. He averaged 17 points and 7.6 boards while shooting 37.4 percent from three, and he should see an uptick in his efficiency this year with Louisville’s talented freshman class providing him with some more help.

JAMES WISEMAN, Memphis: Wiseman, to me, has the best chance to end up being a First-Team All-American. The way he plays should fit in well with the style that the Tigers play under Penny, and he is the consensus top player in this recruiting class and projected as the first pick in the 2020 NBA Draft playing on a team that many believe will be a top ten team.

Cole Anthony, Jon Lopez/Nike

PRESEASON SECOND TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

COLE ANTHONY, North Carolina: If Wiseman doesn’t end up being the best freshman this season, I think Anthony will. At the very least, he has a chance to put up the most impressive numbers. Think about what Coby White did for North Carolina last year, and Anthony is not only a better fit for North Carolina than White was, he is also probably a better player.

DEVON DOTSON, Kansas: Dotson really came on strong down the stretch of last season and should be the sparkplug that keeps Kansas in the mix for the Big 12 title this year. Think about this: Both Quentin Grimes and R.J. Hampton are playing some where other than Kansas this season at least in part because Dotson will handle the lead guard duties.

KERRY BLACKSHEAR JR., TBD: It is a bit difficult to truly rate Blackshear since we don’t know where he is going to be yet, but I think there is an argument to be made that he will be the best frontcourt player in college basketball next season. The fifth-year senior was terrific playing in Virginia Tech’s system a year ago, and will be an anchor no matter where he ends up this year.

MAMADI DIAKITE, Virginia: I’m fine being out on an island on this one, but I think that Diakite is the guy on Virginia’s roster that benefits the most from all the talent they lost this offseason. We already know how good he is defensively, but he has a burgeoning perimeter stroke and proved during run to the national title that he was better offensively that some believed. There is plenty of space left on the bandwagon when you’re ready to join me.

ISAIAH STEWART, Washington: There’s a real chance that Stewart ends up being the most productive of the elite freshmen in this class. He has a terrific motor and is an absolute monster around the rim, checking in as the best rebounder in this class. He’ll soak up Noah Dickerson’s touches offensively and anchor the Syracuse zone defensively.

Sam Merrill (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)

PRESEASON THIRD TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

TRE JONES, Duke: He may end up being the best defender in college basketball next year, and I think that his leadership will be vital for a Duke team that is going to be very young again. If he doesn’t improve his perimeter jumper, however, ranking him here will look silly come March.

ANTHONY COWAN JR., Maryland: Cowan had something of a disappointing junior season, as his efficiency went down. I’m looking at him to bounceback this season and prove himself one of the best point guards in college hoops. I can see him averaging 17 points and six assists for a team that I currently have in the top five nationally, but I can also see a situation where he ends up being the piece that holds Maryland back.

TYRESE MAXEY, Kentucky: Once again, it is tough to figure out who, exactly, will be Kentucky’s All-American candidate next season, so we’re going with Maxey because he seems to be the guy that projects as the leading scorer right now.

JARRON CUMBERLAND, Cincinnati: Cumberland quietly was awesome this past season, averaging 18.8 points and 3.6 assists while shooting 38.8 percent from three to help keep Cincinnati relevant after they lost so many critical pieces the season before. How will he adjust to John Brannen taking over for Mick Cronin?

SAM MERRILL, Utah State: Merrill has a case as the best player in college basketball outside of the top seven leagues. He’s coming off of a season where he led the Aggies to the Mountain West crown and a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament while averaging 20.9 points and 4.2 assists. USU will enter this season as a preseason top 25 team.

ALSO CONSIDERED

  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas
  • YOELI CHILDS, BYU
  • TRISTAN CLARK, Baylor
  • AYO DOSUNMU, Illinois
  • ANTHONY EDWARDS, Georgia
  • JORDAN FORD, Saint Mary’s
  • JON AXEL GUDMUNDSSON, Davidson
  • KIRA LEWIS, Alabama
  • NAJI MARSHALL, Xavier
  • SKYLAR MAYS, LSU
  • ANDREW NEMBHARD, Florida
  • JALEN PICKETT, Siena
  • PAYTON PRITCHARD, Oregon
  • JAVONTE SMART, LSU
  • JALEN SMITH, Maryland
  • KILLIAN TILLIE, Gonzaga
  • KALEB WESSON, Ohio State