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Gafford’s career high lifts Arkansas over Indiana 73-72

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — An overtime loss in the season opener might have proved instrumental for Arkansas in a narrow win against Indiana.

The Razorbacks squandered a late lead in a 73-71 overtime loss to Texas, and the same fate loomed large again Sunday as the Hoosiers erased a double-digit Arkansas lead in the second half.

This time, the Razorbacks (2-1) found a way to hang on as Mason Jones’ free throw with 2.5 seconds left provided Arkansas a 73-72 win in the Hardwood Showcase.

Daniel Gafford scored a career-high 27 points for Arkansas, but it was Mason who delivered the big rebound and free throw that secured the win. It was a little redemption for Mason, who missed the front end of a one-and one with 1:01 left and Arkansas clinging to a 72-69 lead.

“I knew I was going to make that free throw,” Mason said. “I like the pressure.”

In a similar situation against Texas, Mason missed a late shot and Texas rallied to tie and force overtime. Mason said Arkansas coach Mike Anderson told him he’d get another chance, and Sunday it presented itself.

“We learned a lot from that Texas game,” Jones said. “I just knew to be ready when the chance came again and I was ready this time.”

Indiana (3-1) had a chance to take the lead with under 15 seconds left, but two shots under the Hoosiers’ basket would not fall and Jones rebounded the second miss and was fouled by De’Ron Davis with 2.5 seconds left. It was a foul Indiana coach Archie Miller did not totally agree with.

“We had a shot to win the game, had a tap to win the game and had an unfortunate call that put them on the line,” Miller said. “It was a 50-50 play. I don’t know if he fouled him or not, but I know it was a tough call.”

Jones hauled in the key rebound, but Gafford did not let Jones take all the credit in the post-game interviews.

“I tipped that rebound out, by the way,” Gafford laughed.

Jones made the first free throw to give Arkansas a 73-72 lead. Indiana called a time out after Jones’ free throw, and Anderson instructed Jones to deliberately miss the second free throw.

“I have been harping on guys to make free throws, so asking him to miss one, I don’t remember asking a player to miss a free throw in a while,” Anderson said. “It was a perfect miss.”

Indiana only had time for a desperation heave as the buzzer sounded.

Arkansas rode the second half play of Gafford, who also grabbed 11 rebounds. At one stretch in the second half, Gafford scored 10 straight Arkansas points to help the Razorbacks hold on against a furious Indiana rally.

“I wasn’t playing weak like I usually do,” Gafford, who passed up entering the NBA Draft to return to Arkansas for his sophomore season, said. “Today I let the game come to me instead of trying to just go and take it. Letting the game come to you, it comes more smooth.”

Anderson said Gafford was a force at both ends, as his blocked shot just seconds after the opening tip set an early tone.

Miller said his team would benefit from playing against Gafford later in the season.

“He’s a very good player,” Miller said. “He was a really tough handle for us today. He pretty much neutralized the game. He was dominant. That is something that is going to help us moving forward and defending the caliber of big like that.”

Arkansas led 38-35 at halftime on Gabe Osabuohien’s 3-pointer from the right perimeter. Then Isaiah Joe, who finished with 13 points, opened the second half with a 3-pointer for a 41-35 lead. The Razorbacks would stretch the lead to 10 points twice — 45-35 with 17:08 left on Gafford’s dunk, and 51-41.

Indiana rallied with an 11-2 run fueled by freshman Romeo Langford, who finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds, and eventually took a 58-57 lead on Juwan Morgan’s layup with 8:58 left.

Arkansas recaptured a five-point lead at 63-58 on Gafford’s inside shot, before Indiana surged again to twice tie the game late.

BIG PICTURE

Indiana: The Hoosiers played just eight players as they have battled some early season injuries. Six of the eight logged more than 20 minutes including Langford, who played 38 minutes.

Arkansas: The Razorbacks had all nine players reach the scoring column Sunday, getting contributions off the bench to help the scoring. Jones also delivered a huge performance with 11 points and seven assists without a turnover.

TURNING POINT

Arkansas appeared to be rolling to a big win when Jones completed a three-point play to give the Razorbacks a 10-point lead at 51-41 with 14:16 left. But the Hoosiers rallied by outscoring Arkansas 17-6 over the next five-plus minutes to take a 58-57 lead.

Juwan Morgan and Langford fueled the run, scoring nine of the Hoosiers’ 17 points with Morgan’s inside bucket giving Indiana the lead.

HIGHLIGHT REEL

Langford is projected to be a high lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and he lived up to that lofty status Sunday. Langford a 6-foot-6 guard in just his fourth college basketball game, showed off a variety of skills with slashing drives and long range. His back-to-back 3-pointers in the second half helped Indiana erase a 10-point deficit.

TIP-INS

This was just the third meeting between the two teams, and first since 2008 when Arkansas defeated Indiana in an NCAA Tournament game. . Arkansas is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its 1994 national championship under former coach Nolan Richardson. Anderson was a longtime assistant coach and former player for Richardson.

Roach hits 3-pointers late; Texas edges Arkansas 73-71 in OT

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FORT BLISS, Texas (AP) — This was exactly the kind of situation Texas had focused on, and when the Longhorns got the chance to prove it they did just that in a 73-71 overtime victory against Arkansas on Friday night in the ESPN Armed Forces Classic.

Two late 3-pointers by guard Kerwin Roach II helped Texas overcome a sluggish offensive showing in the second half and reach overtime, where the Longhorns outscored Arkansas 10-8 to pull out the victory before 1,200 people at Fort Bliss’ Soto Gym.

“It was a great way to start my senior season,” said Roach, who didn’t play in the opener for an unspecified violation of team rules. “That’s what I was ready to do. Just play basketball. I even had jitters myself.”

Last year, Texas played in 17 games that were decided in the final minute or overtime. They were 8-9 in those games, and that became an offseason focus – changing the outcome of those games.

“We’ve emphasized all offseason long what goes into winning close games,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said. “A little bit here midway through the first half our guys probably felt like this wasn’t going to be a close game, but it was.”

Roach led Texas (2-0) with 18 points, followed by Jericho Sims with 14 and Dylan Osetkowski with 11 and 13 rebounds. Texas led by double figures, and often by eight or nine, in the first half, and it led 36-30 at the break.

Arkansas (0-1) got a game-high 20 points from center Daniel Gafford, who also had a double-double with 12 rebounds. Joe added 17 points for the Razorbacks, while Jalen Harris and Mason Jones each had 11.

“This was our very first game,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “I thought they came to play. They kept that mindset. Even as Texas went up, double figures, 9, 10, whatever it was, our guys stayed the course. They got connected defensively and tried to make Daniel (Gifford) a big part of what we were doing.”

Arkansas trailed 36-30 at the half, but a 10-0 run midway through the second half allowed the Razorbacks to take a 49-47 lead after a 3-pointer by Joe.

The Razorbacks outscored Texas 33-27 in the second half, but free-throw shooting kept the Longhorns in it. They went 14-for-20 shooting from the line in the second half and 4 of 6 in overtime. That allowed Texas to overcome cold shooting, including a stretch of 9:47 without a field goal in the second half.

A dunk by Gafford put Arkansas ahead 62-59 with a minute to play. After an airball by Texas, Osetkowski made 1 of 2 free throws to make it 62-60. Gafford then missed the first of two free throws to push the lead to three, setting up Roach II’s tying 3-pointer with 1 second left that forced overtime.

In overtime, the teams traded points and Arkansas led 71-70 after a pair of free throws by Harris. But Courtney Ramey banked in a floater to regain the lead for Texas, and Elijah Mitrou-Long added a free throw to seal it.

BIG PICTURE

Friday’s game was a look at two teams who are NCAA postseason regulars.

Arkansas began its pursuit of a third consecutive NCAA tournament berth. The Razorbacks, who were one of eight SEC teams in last year’s NCAAs, have made the tournament three times in the past four years, and are looking to add to that with the nation’s No. 25-ranked recruiting class. Arkansas was picked 10th in the preseason SEC poll.

Texas played in its earliest season opener Friday. The Longhorns, who also made the NCAA tournament last season, return four of five starters from last year’s team. Texas was picked fourth in the Big 12 preseason rankings. The Longhorns feature last year’s No. 8-ranked recruiting class.

FOR THE TROOPS

Friday’s game was more than a year in the making, and both teams were excited about the opportunity.

“You can’t put a price on that,” Arkansas’ Anderson said. “That was breathtaking for our guys to spend some time (here). It’s an honor to come in and play in front of these guys. … It was a great experience.”

Roach echoed those sentiments.

“The experience here was great,” he said. “I got family in the military. It was just wonderful here. We went to the training simulators. We shot fake guns, the simulator of being on the top of a tank and shooting. It’s like real life Call of Duty here. It was real life that these people go through every day. We play basketball, but it’s really life or death for them. We really appreciate the mentality they have protecting our country.”

NICE THREADS

Both teams were playing on Veteran’s Day weekend in uniforms that had a military look, which camouflage and military-style letters and numbers. But there were no player names on the back – just “USA” on the jerseys of both teams.

GYM TIME

The game was played at Fort Bliss’ Soto Gym, which seated 1,200 for the game. The intimate environment, and bright lights much closer to the court, gave the game the feel of an old-time contest played in an armory. The bleachers around the court were only six rows deep.

College Basketball’s Best Big Men

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While plenty of our best-of lists are heavily populated by freshmen, this one, highlighting the top frontcourt players in the country, has a decidedly veteran bent.

From four-year stars to seasoned upperclassmen to super sophs and successful transfers, the best players big men in the country this season will be no strangers to college basketball fans.

Here are the 10 best big men heading into the 2018-19 season.



1. LUKE MAYE, North Carolina

By this point, Maye’s story is well known as he went from over-qualified walk-on to a potential National Player of the Year. Still, his rise is remarkable. He went from averaging 5.5 points in 14.4 minutes per game as a sophomore to 16.9 points in 32.2 minutes per game as a junior to establish himself as one of college basketball’s best bigs – and players.

Maye, a 6-foot-8 power forward, has gotten there largely on the strength of his ability to stretch defenses. He shot 43.1 percent from 3-point range last season, including a mark of 46.6 percent in ACC play, which was tops in the league. A rather remarkable feat for a frontcourt player who launched over 100 3s for the season. In a sport often dominated by freshmen, Maye gives North Carolina the valuable weapon of the combination of experience and talent.

2. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

The 6-foot-8 Japanese standout has been a favorite in basketball circles for awhile, though he’s yet to truly breakthrough in a major way to the broader hoops public. That could very much change this season.

Hachimura averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds as a sophomore for the Bulldogs last year while shooting 60.6 percent inside the arc. It’s been on the international scene, though, where he’s really flashed the potential that has him being looked at as a lottery pick. He averaged 20.6 points and 11 rebounds in the 2017 U19 World Cup and he’s averaging 21.5 points and six rebounds per game in Japan’s World Cup qualifiers this year. WIth Johnathan Williams graduated and Killian Tillie out for two months with injury, Hachimura will take over the Gonzaga frontcourt in a big way.

Rui Hachimura (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

3. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

The Kansas roster is loaded with returners off last year’s Final Four squad, a top-flight recruiting class and transfers like K.J Lawson and Charlie Moore, but it’s Dedric Lawson, a transfer from Memphis, that really puts the Jayhawks over the top as the preseason national title favorite.

As a sophomore at Memphis, the 6-foot-9 forward averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. He’s an elite defensive rebounder, an underappreciated shot blocker and a willing passer. He can replicate something close to the numbers he put up in the AAC in the Big 12, Lawson will have a spot on the All-American first team.

4. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

Wisconsin was bad last year. The Badgers finished under .500 and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in two decades. That famed top-four-in-the-Big-Ten run came to a close, too, obviously. Things were not sweet in Madison. Ethan Happ, though, he was good.

The Badger big man averaged 17.9 points, eight rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.5 steals per game while converting at a 52.8 percent clip from the floor. As an under-the-rim player who doesn’t stretch the floor, Happ doesn’t project particularly well at the next level, but he is unquestionably one of the top players – let alone big men – in the country. Wisconsin should be improved this season, and Happ will once again get his due after sliding off the radar some during the Baders’ dip last season.

5. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

Grant Williams has a chance to do something that no one has done since Corliss Williamson and Shaquille O’Neal did in the early 1990s: Repeat as SEC Player of the Year, as Williamson did in ‘94 and ‘95 and the Shaq Diesel did in ‘91 and ‘92.

The 6-foot-7 junior averaged 15.2 points, six rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game last season en route to those honors as the Volunteers surprised just about everyone with their move to the top of the SEC standings. Williams, picked as the league’s preseason player of the year this fall, isn’t a high-level finisher, but he draws fouls, gets to the line and frustrates opponents at a rate few others can match.

6. REID TRAVIS, Kentucky

It’ll be interesting to see how Travis fits in at Kentucky after spending four NCAA tournament-less seasons out west at Stanford. Given the monster numbers he put up the last two seasons with the Cardinal, it’s not hard to see the 6-foot-8, 238-pound forward as the linchpin on an otherwise young roster.

Travis put up 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game while shooting 52.7 percent from the floor. As a graduate transfer who flirted with the idea of going pro before making his way to Lexington, the bet is here that Travis embraces his role around a group of talented-yet-inexperienced teammates to help make the Wildcats one of the preeminent national title contenders.

7. DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas

Gafford could have easily called it a collegiate career last year after averaging 11.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks while shooting 60.5 percent from the floor. The 6-foot-11 Arkansas native made the decision quickly that he’d return to the Razorbacks after his rookie campaign, and enters this season as one of the premier shot blockers in the country.

8. DEAN WADE, Kansas State

There’s not much flashy about Wade’s game. He’s not overly athletic and he’s not going to be throwing down rim-rattling dunks, but he leads the charge for a Kansas State team that brings back everyone from last year’s surprise Elite Eight team.

He averaged 16.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 steals (more than he averaged on blocks) as a junior, but it was his 44 percent mark from 3-point range that truly made him an offensive threat and a potential All-American for his senior season.

Dean Wade (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

9. MIKE DAUM, South Dakota State

All Mike Daum has done for three seasons in Brookings is put up huge numbers. He averaged 15 points as a freshman before 25 as a sophomore and 23.9 – while shooting 42.5 percent from deep – last season as a junior. The 6-foot-9 Nebraska native could have been a graduate transfer or gone pro after last season, but instead returned to what will be the overwhelming favorite in the Summit and almost certainly a Cinderella darling come March.

10. P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky

The strangest part of this list is that it has two Kentucky Wildcats and neither are freshmen. How about that?

Washington averaged 10.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists last season as a rookie for John Calipari. He’s back for his sophomore campaign, and it’ll be interesting to see how he’s deployed by Calipari, who will have decisions to make about weighing 3-point shooting, experience and defense with his lineup construction, especially up front.

2018-19 SEC Preview: Can Kentucky beat out Tennessee, Auburn?

Chet White | UK Athletics
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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 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the SEC.


Known mostly as a football (or even baseball) conference for many years, the SEC is starting to come into form as a deep and respected basketball league.

The SEC’s stable of coaches has improved dramatically over the last decade, and with that, has come an influx of talent and top programs.

This season’s SEC boasts three serious contenders along with a bevy of second-tier teams who are dangerous enough to make deep postseason runs if things really come together.

The SEC features elite coaches, McDonald’s All-American freshmen, and a lot of returning talent from successful teams.

It should be another fun year for a league that was once a basketball afterthought.

Let’s get into it.



FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. The SEC should send a bunch of teams back to the NCAA tournament

Last season was a banner year for the SEC. The league sent a record eight teams to the NCAA tournament. The SEC had tons of top-50 caliber teams. This isn’t just a football conference anymore. The SEC has some serious depth on the hardwood.

We all know about Kentucky’s yearly influx of elite talent. It’s the other conference regular season leaders like Auburn and Tennessee who are the returning teams to keep an eye on. Both co-SEC regular season champions return most of last season’s teams. Then there are others like LSU, Mississippi State, Florida and Vanderbilt who have loads of young talent coming in. That should make for another deep year of SEC NCAA tournament teams. Even the group of teams just after the second tier shouldn’t be slept on. The depth of coaching and talent in the SEC is as good as it has ever been.

It should make for some unpredictable action in the conference this season as it will be very difficult to earn wins on the road.

2. Kentucky has as much depth as its had in years

We can usually count on Kentucky having a freshman-heavy team of elite recruits. That’s the case with five top-40 recruits — four of them five-star prospects. What makes this Kentucky team especially unique is that three McDonald’s All-American sophomores return in P.J. Washington, Nick Richards and Quade Green. Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis put up monster numbers last season as he’s immediately eligible of the Wildcats.

This is perhaps the deepest and most balanced Kentucky team we’ve seen since the Final Four team in 2015 as this Wildcat team has the potential to go nine or 10 deep. Freshmen like Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans help Kentucky’s ball-handling and perimeter defense while guards Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro should help provide scoring on the wing. E.J. Montgomery is a great option to have in the frontcourt to spell Richards, Washington or Travis.

If the exhibition trip to the Bahamas is any indicator of how talented and deep Kentucky is, then the Wildcats could be a major national title contender and the favorite in the SEC. They have a bit of everything this season, and the upside is scary.

Grant Williams (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

3. Returning SEC champion Tennessee returns most of its team

For as good as Kentucky is on paper, Tennessee will still be a force to be reckoned with. The Vols return basically the entire roster from a team that won a share of the SEC regular season title. SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams is back. He’s surrounded by four returning upperclass starters. SEC Sixth Man of the Year Lamonte Turner also returns for his junior season.

Tennessee returns a talented and cohesive top six that are all upperclassmen. The key could be the team’s play at point guard. We know Williams and Admiral Schofield as the team’s top two players. Senior big man Kyle Alexander is a solid glue guy who can protect the rim. The up-and-down play of Jordan Bone, Turner and Jordan Bowden at point has to get stronger.

Bone is the starter and steady for most of the time. Turner comes off the bench as a heat-check scorer who can also distribute. Bowden usually defends the other team’s top perimeter threat and adds some other elements as well. But all three of those guys shot just below 40 percent from the field. If that trio gets stronger, and becomes more efficient, then Tennessee has even more room to grow from last season and a Sweet 16 is very possible.

4. Auburn returns two key players suspended after the FBI investigations last season

Tennessee isn’t the only returning SEC regular season roster with a talented returning roster. Auburn shouldn’t be counted out either. The Tigers return a lot of contributors while returning two key players who sat out last season. Expectations will be huge for Auburn after last season’s unexpected success.

Although the Tigers lost Mustapha Heron to transfer and Desean Murray is gone as well, they gain forward Danjel Purifoy and center Austin Wiley. VCU transfer Samir Doughty is also eligible, as he’ll provide some rotational depth at guard.

Bryce Brown (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

With Auburn returning six rotation players from last season’s team, they should have plenty of options to choose from this year despite the losses. Auburn’s frontcourt depth will be superior to last season, as Purifoy and Wiley make the Tigers much bigger and more athletic. If Auburn goes with Chuma Okeke at the three, then they’ll have the size to go against some bigger lineups like Kentucky or Tennessee.

And Auburn’s guards are already well-established as Bryce Brown and Jared Harper are proven upperclass scorers. With that duo having Doughty and senior Malik Dunbar behind them, Auburn appears to also have solid depth on the perimeter. Integrating Wiley and Purifoy back into the rotation and changing how Auburn’s lineup might play could take an adjustment period. But this new-look lineup also lends itself to more versatile looks and size on the interior. Auburn should stay right in the SEC race if their two lineups can blend together.

5. LSU, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Alabama are all capable of making it to the NCAA tournament

The race for the SEC’s regular season title is going to be very fun to watch this season. There are also a group of second-tier SEC teams worth keeping track of. This league, once again, looks like it will have a lot of depth this season.

It’s clear that Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee look like the three favorites of the league this preseason. But the second group of teams in the conference shouldn’t be taken lightly. LSU, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Alabama are all capable of making it to the NCAA tournament thanks to deep rosters of talented players. Missouri would also very likely be in that group of second-tier SEC teams if they didn’t lose Jontay Porter for the season with a torn ACL.

Although the three favorites look like top-15 teams this season, don’t be surprised if one of these second-tier teams ends up making a deep tournament run, or even finishing in that top three of the regular season standings.

John Calipari (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

The reigning SEC Player of the Year has the same team back around him this season as the Vols have big expectations. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound Williams is a load to handle on the interior thanks to his natural strength as he’s able to play through contact while handling double teams.

An underrated passer out of the post, Williams can find shooters and wings for easy looks as he’s a huge part of Tennessee’s inside-outside game. The junior put up 15.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game last season while shooting 47 percent from the field.

THE REST OF THE SEC FIRST TEAM

  • P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky: Big expectations are on tap for Washington after a promising freshman season. The 6-foot-7 forward put up 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last season. If he improves his 23 percent three-point shooting then Washington could be a matchup nightmare for opponents.
  • REID TRAVIS, Kentucky: It’s doubtful Travis matches the 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game he put up at Stanford. But Travis will also have more talent around him, as he won’t get as many double teams. And his natural strength is elite at the college level, as he should rebound at a high level.
  • BRYCE BROWN, Auburn: The senior guard is the SEC’s most prolific three-point shooter as his range makes him a deadly threat. Brown averaged 15.9 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.7 assists last season as he’ll be counted on for more offense with Mustapha Heron gone.
  • TREMONT WATERS, LSU: Brilliant at times as a freshman, the 5-foot-11 Waters is capable of running an effective offense or taking over the scoring himself. Armed with a deep pull-up game, Waters could have some monster games this season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas
  • DARIUS GARLAND, Vanderbilt
  • JARED HARPER, Auburn
  • JALEN HUDSON, Florida
  • QUINNDARY WEATHERSPOON, Mississippi State
Admiral Schofield (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Tennessee has huge expectations with the entire team returning. Schofield, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound wing, is capable of making the Vols one of the most flexible teams in the country. With the size and strength to play bigger, but the skill level (39 percent three-point shooting) to play on the wing, Schofield enables Tennessee to throw different looks at opponents since he usually plays the three. Schofield should get more national attention this season as Tennessee’s second option beside Grant Williams.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

The SEC doesn’t have many coaches on the actual hot seat since so many are coming off of tournament appearances or recently being hired. But Auburn’s Bruce Pearl is going to face big expectations this season a year after the Tigers unexpectedly made the Round of 32. And now the Tigers get two key players in Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley back.

Auburn will face big expectations this season, and they’ll be expected to deliver results. If Pearl and Auburn flop, then the FBI investigation is still looming, and many of the teams veterans are starting to filter through the program. The Tigers have a lot on the line this season.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The SEC has a deep collection of teams with some legitimate Final Four contenders in Kentucky and Tennessee.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

It’s strange to feel excited about SEC conference play — for basketball. But the SEC was unpredictable, loaded with talent and completely compelling to watch last season. So much of the league’s talent is returning along with some seriously talented freshmen. It should be another great year to watch the SEC conference race.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Nov. 6, Duke vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic, Indianapolis)
  • Nov. 9, Washington at Auburn
  • Nov. 29, Kentucky at Louisville
  • Dec. 9, Gonzaga vs. Tennessee (in Phoenix)
  • Jan. 26, Kansas at Kentucky (Big 12/SEC Challenge)
Keldon Johnson (Chet White, UK Athletics)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. KENTUCKY: Kentucky’s depth and how it figures out the rotation will be something to monitor during the season. With three-point shooting being an issue last season, the Wildcats should improve that mark this season with the addition of guys like Herro. Frontline depth is also a major strength for the Wildcats as they feature veteran experience coupled with talented freshmen.

As long as Kentucky gets consistent point guard play and hits enough shots, they will come at teams in waves at both ends of the floor. For most teams, that should be too much to deal with.

2. TENNESSEE: The Vols are a preseason top-10 team with loads of balance and experience. And they’ll be tested by a tough schedule that includes West Virginia, Gonzaga, Louisville and Georgia Tech during non-conference play. If Tennessee’s perimeter play gets slightly better than this is a team with Final Four upside thanks to the frontcourt versatility.

Tennessee can play big and physical with teams like Kentucky, or they can use a surprising amount of perimeter skill and shooting if teams try to go uptempo with small-ball lineups. That’s what makes Tennessee such an intriguing team for this season. They should be able to win in a number of different ways.

3. AUBURN: With a top-40 offense and defense last season, the Tigers didn’t have many holes except for frontcourt depth. That was fixed since Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy are both back. As long as that duo can come in and play at a solid level, then Horace Spencer and Anfernee McLemore provides quality frontcourt depth for the Tigers.

From there, the Auburn backcourt should be able to handle itself like last season. Brown and Harper are one of the toughest duos in the conference, and improved depth should also be present on the perimeter. There are still looming questions about the FBI investigation. And the Tigers have been hit with the injury bug early this season. But they still have huge expectations entering this season.

4. LSU: An NIT with big dreams thanks to a strong incoming recruiting class, LSU has a lot to be excited about. It starts with sophomore point guard Tremont Waters. A potential All-American who can take over a game with his scoring, Waters gets help from Skylar Mays, Daryl Edwards and a five-star backcourt newcomer in Javonte Smart.

But it’s LSU’s revamped frontcourt that has people very excited. Freshmen Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams were both five-star recruits and should play an immediate role. Transfer senior Kavell Bigby-Williams (Oregon) and junior college big man Courtese Cooper should also add to the depth while freshman Darius Days is another touted four-star prospect.

LSU ultimately has the tools to be one of the best teams in the country. It’s all going to depend on how the frontcourt of freshmen like Reid and Williams performs this season. Waters has a chance to be sensational, but he needs more consistency and help from the supporting cast for LSU to make a deep run.

Tremont Waters (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

5. MISSISSIPPI STATE: It looks like things should be promising for Mississippi State this season. The Bulldogs return all five starters and a quality sixth man while bringing in a top-20 recruiting class from an NIT team. That means head coach Ben Howland should take this program to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.

The Weatherspoon brothers, Quinndary and Nick, are back to bring scoring, along with junior floor general Lamar Peters. As long as that trio can shoot more effectively from three-point range, they will be nearly impossible to defend. Junior guard Tyson Carter also returns after starting half his games and playing over 20 minutes per game last season. This perimeter group is tough and experienced. The interior has sophomore center Abdul Ado and senior Aric Holman returning along with freshman forward Reggie Perry. The McDonald’s All-American, along with junior college center Jethro Tshisumpa, gives the Bulldogs more interior depth this season.

With a core that has played together for a long time, along with an infusion of young talent and frontcourt depth, and Mississippi State should return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade.

6. FLORIDA: Florida has a lot to like about its team this season. Two high-scoring senior guards in Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen have returned as they play with a five-star freshman point guard in Andrew Nembhard. That trio has the chance to be long and athletic as Nembhard’s natural passing ability and leadership should help others get good looks.

The Gators return some veterans in the frontcourt, but that duo will have to improve when it comes to physicality and rebounding. Senior Kevarrius Hayes and junior Keith Stone both played extended periods last season, as both need to get tougher on the interior. That duo should be helped by a younger and healthier rotation that includes junior Gorjok Gak, sophomore Chase Johnson and freshman Isaiah Stokes. The bench also has some talent to watch with forward Deaundrae Ballard and guard Keyontae Johnson.

Replacing Chris Chiozza at point is going to be difficult, but Florida has a chance to make a new imprint with the bigger Nembhard at point. The Gators still have interior question marks, but they’ll have the perimeter punch to make nearly anybody.

7. VANDERBILT: The recruiting addition of two McDonald’s All-Americans has Vanderbilt with huge expectations for this season. Point guard Darius Garland’s signing was big for the Commodores as the five-star gives Vanderbilt two quality lead guards in a young backcourt that includes sophomore Saben Lee. Garland and Lee should be dangerous right away, especially is Lee can improve his 30 percent three-point shooting.

Besides for Garland, five-star big man Simi Shittu is a giant addition on the interior. Shittu is coming off of a torn ACL, but he had top-five potential in the class if his trajectory continued. Junior forward Clevon Brown and senior wing Joe Toye received plenty of minutes last season. Shittu should also play plenty with Division II transfer Yanni Wetzell (St. Mary’s TX) a New Zealander who put up big numbers before his move to the SEC. Notre Dame transfer Matt Ryan and freshman Aaron Nesmith should also add perimeter shooting to a group that could use a lot more of it.

Vanderbilt had a top-30 offense last season, so with the addition of talents like Garland and Shittu, it’ll be interesting to see if head coach Bryce Drew’s offense can sustain that kind of effectiveness. The Commodores have some big-time talent as they should be a dangerous team this season.

8. ALABAMA: Moving on from Collin Sexton and Braxton Key is going to be difficult. The good news for Alabama is that the rest of a talented and young roster is back. Eight players who averaged double-figure minutes are back for the Crimson Tide.

The key for Alabama is finding a replacement go-to scorer for Sexton. Senior forward Donta Hall, sophomore guard John Petty and junior guard Dazon Ingram are all capable scorers as Petty could be the one to make a big leap. In the frontcourt, junior Daniel Giddens and sophomores Alex Reese and Galin Smith all received solid minutes last season to form a good rotation for Alabama. In the perimeter, sophomore Herb Jones could be another key player for Alabama this season. A potential two-way wing with devastating defensive upside, Jones has the tools to be great.

Texas transfer Tevin Mack also joins to program and senior wing Riley Norris and guard Avery Johnson Jr. have all played in big games. As long as the Crimson Tide find a go-to scorer, they have the depth and talent to return to the tournament.

Cuonzo Martin (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

9. MISSOURI: It’s almost as if Missouri and head coach Cuonzo Martin have to hit the reset button from last season. The top two scorers are gone as Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson have graduated. There will be no Porter presence this season after Michael Jr. went pro and Jontay tore his ACL in the preseason. But the Tigers still have a lot of young talent.

The frontcourt of sophomore Jeremiah Tilmon and senior Kevin Puryear has a shot to be good. The guard play of the Tigers is going to be key. Point guard is a concern as senior Jordan Geist, Illinois transfer Mark Smith and a group of freshmen will all try their hand at the position early on. Missouri has plenty of talent coming into the pipeline. But this group might be too young and inexperienced to make a major dent in a talented league this season.

10. GEORGIA: Tom Crean takes over as head coach from Mark Fox as he inherits a decent rotation. The crop of bigs includes some depth and talent as senior Derek Ogbeide and sophomores Nicolas Claxton and Rayshaun Hammonds are a key part of Georgia’s season.

The backcourt also has some former starters as Turtle Jackson and sophomore Teshaun Hightower both started at point last season while Tyree Crump also earned legitimate minutes. Georgia is going to have a very tough time replacing departed forward Yante Maten. But this team will also play a bit more uptempo and shoot a lot more three-pointers under Crean this season. This roster is talented enough to surprise, as Georgia could be an intriguing spoiler.

11. TEXAS A&M: A new-look Texas A&M group won’t feature loads of interior talent and depth that we’ve seen the last several seasons. This version of the Aggies will be guard-heavy. There could be a lot of three- and four-guard sets this season.

Returning guards like junior Admon Gilder and sophomore T.J. Starks lead the way this season as they look for a whole new supporting cast. Transfers like Christian Mekowulu (Tennessee State) and Josh Nebo (St. Francis) should help defensively on the interior while JUCO transfers like Wendell Mitchell and Bandon Mahan help with more depth on the wing. Texas A&M will have to find their way pretty quickly. This group already lost a secret scrimmage to Stephen F. Austin as the season draws closer.

12. ARKANSAS: Arkansas will have more newcomers than Kentucky this season, so a transition year is expected for the Razorbacks. The good news is the return of sophomore center Daniel Gafford — a potential first-round pick next season. Gafford is a force on both ends of the floor, and with some offensive improvement, he’s a sleeper All-American pick.

From there, Arkansas has to integrate eight new freshmen and two sophomore transfers into a new rotation. Junior guard Adrio Bailey and sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien are the only two other returning players with solid SEC experience. Guard play will be huge for Arkansas as New Mexico transfer Jalen Harris could get a shot to run point early. The Razorbacks have to hope for a big season from Gafford while hoping the newcomers are ready to hit the deep end.

13. SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks haven’t found consistent footing since reaching the Final Four in 2017. Last season’s roster barely finished above .500 as this roster looks very similar this season. South Carolina’s strength lies in the frontcourt as senior Chris Silva and junior Maik Kotsar are returning starters with plenty of experience.

Backcourt depth and questions are point guard are the chief concerns. Hassani Gravett is more natural off the ball, so the Gamecocks are hoping Georgetown grad transfer Tre Campbell or a freshman like T.J. Moss can help earn some minutes at lead guard. Preseason hasn’t been kind to South Carolina either. They’ve already lost to Division II Augusta in a game in which the veteran frontcourt barely showed up.

14. OLE MISS: New head coach Kermit Davis only inherits five scholarship players from a team that was already last in the SEC the previous year. While the Rebels don’t have a lot of experienced pieces, they do return some SEC-caliber players in senior guard Terence Davis, senior forward Bruce Stevens and junior guard Breein Tyree. Sophomore guard Devontae Shuler should also make a leap, meaning Ole Miss has some decent backcourt depth.

Ole Miss is hoping that Davis’ defensive work at Middle Tennessee comes to the Rebels. Ole Miss was one of the worst defensive high-major teams in the country last season. If Ole Miss doesn’t get more stops, while developing some young talent, it could be another long season.

2019 NBA Mock Draft

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With the 2018 NBA Draft in the books, it is time for us to take a look at the 2019 NBA Draft, one in which NBA scouts are not all that enthusiastic about the players at the top. 

One thing to note here is that there are quite a few players in the Class of 2019 that are old enough to reclassify. Ashton Hagans and Charles Bassey have already done it. There may be a few more than follow in the footsteps of Marvin Bagley III and enroll in August. 

Here is a quick mock of the 2019 lottery:

1. R.J. BARRETT, Duke

Barrett seems like he is ready to follow in the footsteps of Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins before him, becoming the third Canadian youngster to get picked No. 1 in the draft. Before we get into stats and projections, it must be noted: Barrett was phenomenal at the U19 World Cup last summer, as he led the Canadians to a gold medal. That included a semifinal win over Team USA where Barrett put up 38 points, 13 boards and five assists on an American team that included the likes of P.J. Washington, Cam Reddish, Carsen Edwards and first round picks Josh Okogie and Kevin Huerter.

There is an awful lot to like about Barrett and the way that he projects at the NBA level. He stands 6-foot-6. He already has a solid build. He can play on the ball given his passing ability and has the athleticism to play as a wing and a slasher off the ball. He should be able to guard multiple positions. His ceiling will be determined by how well his jumper develops, but he’s already spent time working with the Three-Point Whisperer, Drew Hanlen.

2. NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina

Little’s college career got off to something of a rocky start before it even started. He found himself ensnared in the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball when shoe company executives were caught on wiretaps talking about a bidding war between Nike and Adidas and whether they’d funnel him to Arizona or Miami. That turned out well for North Carolina, because he fell into their lap and could end up being the highest Tar Heel picked in the draft since Marvin Williams went No. 2 in 2005.

Little was one of the biggest risers in this recruiting class, going from being a four-star recruit to a top five player in the class. He was the MVP of the McDonalds game. He’s added strength and continuously played with a motor that he hasn’t always shown. His size (6-foot-7), length (7-foot-1 wingspan) and athletic ability makes him an ideal switchable wing, and if his jumper continues to progress, he’ll have a chance to play for a long time in the NBA.

3. CAM REDDISH, Duke

Like Little and Barrett, Reddish is a fluid, 6-foot-7 wing with a long wingspan and the kind of athleticism that would lead you to believe he can play and defend multiple positions. Unlike Barrett and Little, Reddish is further along on the offensive side of the ball than on the defensive side. He’s a better shooter than the two guys listed in front of him, but his growth will come as he learns to be tougher and improves defensively.

But that skill-set he has offensively is really intriguing, and there are some that believe that, given what his ceiling is as a scorer, he could end up being the best player in this class if it all comes together for him.

(Eric Espada/Getty Images)

4. DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

Hunter is going to be an interesting draft prospect to monitor. For the most part, Tony Bennett has done a phenomenal job at turning relatively average — from an NBA perspective — prospect into quality pros. Mike Scott is still in the NBA. Malcolm Brogdon won Rookie of the Year and looks like a steal of a second round pick. Joe Harris. Justin Anderson. Even Klay Thompson is a Tony Bennett product from the Washington State days.

But Hunter, who averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards last season, is different. Given his physical tools and skill-set, he fits the mold of a wing in the modern NBA perfectly. He has the size at 6-foot-7, the wingspan, the defensive versatility. He can makes threes and attack closeouts. He has some ability to create his own shot. How will he develop in a system that is so … well, Virginia?

5. QUENTIN GRIMES, Kansas

Grimes is stepping into a situation at Kansas that is going to be somewhat strange. On the one hand, with four starters gone — including the entire perimeter — the Jayhawks are going to have shots available. On the other hand, Kansas had three players, including all-american Dedric Lawson, sitting out as transfers. Rarely has a new roster ever been so experienced.

Grimes should fit in just fine. At 6-foot-5, he has the size and ability to play on or off the ball. He can shoot it, he can operate in ball-screens and he has a feel for the game. He’s just a good, solid basketball player that has some upside and should provide Bill Self — who he spent July playing for with the U18 team — with some immediate backcourt relief.

6. SEKOU DOUMBOUYA, France

I’m not going to pretend like I’ve watched a ton of video on Doumbouya, but people I trust are high on him. The native of Guinea checks all the boxes for what NBA teams are looking for: Long, athletic, versatile defensively. Read this profile on him to get a feel.

(AP Photo/Michael Woods)

7. DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas

Gafford was arguably the biggest surprise in this draft class, as he turned down a chance to sneak into the back-end of the lottery to return to Arkansas for his sophomore season. At 6-foot-11, Gafford, who posted 11.8 points, 6.2 boards and 2.2 blocks as a freshman in the SEC, is an absolute freak of an athlete with solid length, some defensive instincts and quite a bit of potential.

To me, Gafford is built in the mold of of the rim-running, lob-catching, paint-protecting big with the potential to be switchable on the perimeter. We’ll see if his jumper ever comes around, but even if it doesn’t, he’s giving off some strong Clint Capela vibes, and that’s something that everyone is going to be looking for.

8. ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana

Langford has all the hype. An Indiana high school basketball legend that chased another Indiana high school basketball legend’s state scoring record, never left the state and opted to play his college ball for the Hoosiers. There’s a reason this kid spent an hour signing autographs for fans after his high school games.

He’s going to be an even bigger star for the Hoosiers next season, who I think will be in the NCAA tournament. Langford, a 6-foot-5 scorer and big-time athlete with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, could end up averaging 18 points next season. “He’s a bucket.”

9. LOUIS KING, Oregon

Bol Bol, the 7-foot-3 son of Manute Bol who spends all day shooting threes, is the Oregon player that is inevitably going to get the most hype, but for my money it’s Louis King that will end up being the best pro. At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot wingspan, King is the kind of fluid, skilled wing that is en vogue in the modern NBA.

The thing that’s intriguing about him is that he has some skill offensively. He’s more of a combo-forward than he is a natural wing, but he can do some things off the dribble, has shown flashes of being a playmaker and has developed into a guy that is threat from beyond the arc. He should thrive in Dana Altman’s system at Oregon.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

10. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

Rui’s potential is off the charts, and I still get the sense that the 6-foot-8 Beninese-Japanese Gonzaga product doesn’t totally have a feel for how the game is played here just yet. I fully believe that Rui is going to get buckets for the Zags next season, but if he is going to develop into a top ten pick, there are some things that he needs to improve on.

Shooting is an issue for him — he’s shot just 9-for-40 from three in two seasons in Spokane. He is also going to need to continue to develop on the defensive end of the floor, where he is fairly unproductive for a player with his physical tools. But the potential is there, and he’ll spend plenty of time on national television; Gonzaga is No. 2 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

11. DARIUS GARLAND, Vanderbilt

For me, Garland is the best NBA prospect of the point guards in the 2018 recruiting class. As competitive as Ashton Hagans is and as much of a proven winner as Tre Jones is, Garland’s game seems to fit the best at the next level. The NBA is a league where skill-level is becoming more and more important, which is why you saw Trae Young end up the No. 5 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft despite his warts.

For my money, Garland is the most skilled of the point guards. He’s probably the best shooter, he can operate in ball-screens and he’s a passer. He’ll be asked to shoulder plenty of the load for Vandy next season, so he should be fun to track.

12. CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue

I think Edwards is going to have a monstrous season as a junior for the Boilermakers. He averaged 18.5 points and 2.8 assists this season while shooting 40.6 percent from three despite playing on a team with four seniors, three of whom were all-league players.

Next year, Purdue will be his team, and I think we’ll get a better look at just how dynamic he can be. The key for Edwards will be his passing ability. He’s always been something of a score-first guard, and there’s a place for that in the NBA, but if he is going to end up being picked this high, he needs to showcase a better ability to get teammates involved.

(Elsa/Getty Images)

13. HERB JONES, Alabama

All the talk about Alabama’s recruiting class last season centered on Collin Sexton and, to a lesser extent, John Petty, but there is reason to believe that Jones could end up being the best of the bunch. At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot wingspan, he was the guy that Avery Johnson tasked with slowing down Trae Young when the Crimson Tide faced Alabama this season. He has all the tools that you need to be a terrific defender in the NBA.

The issue is the other side of the ball. He averaged just 4.2 points last season, and his jumper was … let’s just say not great. But he played as a secondary ball-handler at times and initiated some offense, and he seems to have a decent feel of how to play. This is a big summer for him. With Sexton gone, someone is going to need to fill that void, and Jones could be the guy.

14. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

The hype-train for Zion, one of the single-most explosive athletes that I have ever seen, went totally off the rails during his senior season in high school, as the 6-foot-5, 275-pound forward went viral on a nightly basis with his in-game aerial antics. And look, I’m all the way here for the dunks, but I can’t help but wonder just how he impacts a basketball game beyond that.

In my mind, stardom for Williamson comes if he turns into Draymond Green, a small-ball five that fully embraces being a defensive stopper that can guard any position, protects the rim and is a threat to grab-and-go in transition. But Green is a terrific passer that played as a de facto point guard in college, and I’m not sure Williamson is that. Maybe he’s Julius Randle, who seems to be just good enough for the Lakers to have to resign but not quite good enough to have much trade value. That success, however, lies in accepting that he’s closer to being a five than a three. We’ll see how it plays out, I guess.

SEC Conference Reset: The league gets even stronger in 2018-19

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone, and there are a dozen or so truly impactful decisions that are left to be made.

Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season.

The coaching carousel has come to a close.

The transfer market is slowly winding down.

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2018-19 season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the SEC over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

THE SEC LOOKS TO BUILD ON A GOOD 2017-18 SEASON: Much-maligned in recent years due to the underwhelming non-conference schedules and performances by some programs, the SEC has made strides. Good hires, with regards to both the conference office and schools picking new head coaches, and better scheduling practices paid dividends for the SEC last season as eight teams earned NCAA tournament bids and two others landed in the NIT. The ten combined postseason berths are the most for the SEC since the league expanded to 14 schools in 2013. And here’s the thing: the SEC should be even better in 2018-19.

In Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee the SEC boasts three teams that are in the Top 10 of many early rankings, and Mississippi State and LSU stand to be really good with the majority of their key contributors back. And in the case of LSU, the Tigers add a recruiting class that includes Nazreon Reid, Javonte Smart and Emmitt Williams. The jokes about this conference and its basketball product died down substantially last season, and that should continue to be the case in 2018-19.

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

AS WE’VE COME TO EXPECT, KENTUCKY RELOADS: Kentucky, which won 26 games and reached the Sweet 16 last season, will have to account for the loss of four of the team’s top six scorers, as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo and Wenyen Gabriel all made the decision to turn pro. Kentucky also lost Sacha Killeya-Jones, who after two seasons in Lexington transferred to NC State. Those are some key losses, especially Gilgeous-Alexander and Knox, but the expectation at this point is that Kentucky will be even better next season thanks to the combination of who returns and who joins the program.

After testing the NBA draft waters forward PJ Washington is back, as are fellow sophomores Quade Green and Nick Richards. Joining those returnees is one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, with point guard Immanuel Quickley, off-guards Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro and power forward E.J. Montgomery making up that talented quartet. It’s also worth noting that Kentucky is one of the schools reported to be making a run at Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis, a first team all-Pac 12 performer who will be a major addition to whichever program he joins. Lastly, there’s the expectation that 2019 five-star guard Ashton Hagans will reclassify and join the program this summer.

THE NBA DRAFT PROCESS LARGELY WORKED OUT FOR THE SEC: While Kentucky lost some key contributors, as noted above PJ Washington did make the decision to return for his sophomore season. And he wasn’t the only SEC talent of note to do this. Auburn and Mississippi State had multiple key contributors withdraw from the draft, including guard Bryce Brown and center Austin Wiley (Auburn), and guards Nick and Quinndary Weatherspoon (Mississippi State). It wasn’t all rosy for Bruce Pearl’s Tigers however, as leading scorer Mustapha Heron withdrew from the draft and then transferred to St. John’s in order to be closer to his ailing mother.

The loss of Heron aside, Auburn has enough talent to make a run at another SEC title after sharing the top spot in the regular season standings a season ago. And at Mississippi State, Ben Howland has his best team since arriving in Starkville as the top six scorers from a team that reached the Postseason NIT semifinals have all returned. Other programs that benefitted from players withdrawing from the draft include Tennessee (Admiral Schofield), LSU (Tremont Waters), Missouri (Jontay Porter) and Florida (Jalen Hudson). Having those players back in the mix will only make the SEC better in 2018-19.

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LSU IS POISED TO MAKE A BIG JUMP NATIONALLY: Will Wade’s first season at LSU was a step in the right direction, as the Tigers finished the year with an 18-15 record (8-10 SEC) and reached the second round of the Postseason NIT. Point guard Tremont Waters was one of the SEC’s best freshmen, fellow guard Skylar Mays took a step forward as a sophomore and forwards Duop Reath and Aaron Epps were both productive options in the front court.

LSU will have to account for the losses of Reath and Epps heading into 2018-19, and all Wade did on that front was land a highly-regarded recruiting class that includes two of the nation’s best front court prospects in Nazreon Reid and Emmitt Williams. Add in LSU keeping five-star point guard and Baton Rouge native Ja’Vonte Smart home, and this is a team that’s has the talent needed to be a factor in the SEC title race and a player nationally as well. That being said the climb won’t be easy considering the programs ahead of LSU in the SEC pecking order, but the Tigers will be heard from.

WHO’S GONE?

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, Kentucky : Of the four players to leave Kentucky early for the NBA Gilgeous-Alexander and Knox were the most productive, with Knox being a first team All-SEC performer and the league’s co-Freshman of the Year, and Gilgeous-Alexander being a second team All-SEC selection. Kentucky’s play improved when Gilgeous-Alexander took the reins as starting point guard, with his ability to see over defenses, get into the paint off the dribble and defensive work being the reasons why. As for Knox, while there were moments in which he settled he was Kentucky’s most skilled scorer. Those two won’t be easy to replace, but Kentucky has reloaded with a very good recruiting class. What will also be key: PJ Washington, Nick Richards and Quade Green all taking a step forward as sophomores.
  • Collin Sexton and Braxton Key, Alabama: Sexton shared SEC Freshman of the Year honors with the aforementioned Knox, averaging 19.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. While losing Sexton, a projected lottery pick, hurts it isn’t as if his being a one-and-done player wasn’t expected in Tuscaloosa. To that point the Crimson Tide welcome back the likes of guards John Petty, Herb Jones, Avery Johnson Jr. and Dazon Ingram, and four-star freshman Jared Butler should factor into the team’s plans as well. Avery Johnson will also have to account for the loss of Braxton Key, who transferred to Virginia after going through a sophomore season affected adversely by injury. Had the versatile Key been healthy for the entire season, it’s likely that Alabama would have been better than an 9-seed in the NCAA tournament (and avoided Villanova in the second round).
  • Robert Williams, Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg, Texas A&M: Billy Kennedy has some major holes to fill in the front court, as Williams, Davis and Hogg all decided to turn pro at season’s end. In the case of Williams, the buzz for him was such that he could have left after his freshman season and been a lottery pick as opposed to returning to College Station for the 2017-18 season. While Williams was the best defender and athlete in this trio Davis was the best low-post scoring option, and the 6-foot-9 Hogg was the best perimeter shooter. Texas A&M also lost Tony Trocha-Morelos from its front court rotation, and the personnel losses place even more pressure upon the likes of Isiah Jasey, Josh Nebo and recent addition Christian Mekowulu as the Aggies look to build on last season’s Sweet 16 run.
  • Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov, Florida: The good news for Mike White is that four of the top six scorers from last year’s team are back, including leading scorer Jalen Hudson. The bad news: he’ll have to account for the loss of starting point guard Chris Chiozza, who averaged 11.1 points and 6.1 assists per game last season. Also gone is Egor Koulechov, who in his lone season at Florida chipped in with 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. While those personnel losses hurt, the return of Hudson, KeVaughn Allen and Keith Stone and the additions of talented prospects such as Andrew Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson will help matters. Also, forward Isaiah Stokes is healthy after missing last season due to a torn ACL. Florida should once again be good, but how good will depend upon the consistency of KeVaughn Allen.
(Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

WHO’S BACK?

  • PJ Washington, Kentucky: Washington went through the NBA draft process, but ultimately decided to return to Lexington for his sophomore season. While productive as a freshman, averaging 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, Washington did not have the consistent first-round grade that some players look for when making their draft decisions. His return is undoubtedly a positive for Kentucky, which will be able to pair solid returning contributors with a very good recruiting class. And that has been the formula for Kentucky’s most successful teams during John Calipari’s tenure as head coach.
  • Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Lamonte Turner, Tennessee: Only one of these three, Schofield, went through the NBA draft process, and with all of them returning the Volunteers are expected to be even better in 2018-19. Williams was named SEC Player of the Year last season after averaging 15.2 points and 6.0 rebounds per game as a sophomore, with Schofield and Turner (SEC Co-Sixth Man of the Year) being double-digit scorers as well. In total Tennessee returns its top six scorers from a team that won a share of the SEC regular season title.
  • Bryce Brown, Jared Harper and Austin Wiley, Auburn: Auburn, which shared that SEC title with Tennessee, received needed boosts on two fronts this spring. Brown, Harper and Wiley all decided to return for another season after testing the waters, with Wiley and Danjel Purifoy both being cleared after being sidelined last season due to the FBI investigation that rocked college basketball. Wiley and Purifoy will miss the first nine games of the 2018-19 season, but to have those two back in the rotation is big for Bruce Pearl. Auburn did lose leading scorer Mustapha Heron, who transferred to St. John’s after withdrawing his name from the draft, but they have the talent needed to account for his departure.
  • Chris Silva, South Carolina: After sharing SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors with Texas A&M’s Robert Williams, Silva tested the NBA draft waters before deciding to return for his senior season. And that’s a huge deal for South Carolina, which will have to account for the losses of Frank Booker and Wesley Myers. While his defensive work is what got Silva an individual honor last season, it’s important to remember that he averaged 14.3 points per game as a junior.
(Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

WHO’S COMING?

  • Immanuel Quickley and E.J. Montgomery, Kentucky: Kentucky’s recruiting class was mentioned above and with good reason, as it’s considered to be the second-best crop in the country behind Duke. Quickley and Montgomery are key figures, with the former immediately in the mix on the perimeter as Kentucky looks to account for the departures of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo. As for Montgomery, the 6-foot-10 forward will also see immediate minutes with P.J. Washington being the most noteworthy front court returnee and Nick Richards back as well.
  • Darius Garland, Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt lost three of its top four scorers from a season ago, but the Commodores should put forth an improved product due to who arrives on campus. Among the newcomers is 6-foot-2 point guard Darius Garland, one of two five-star recruits brought in by Bryce Drew. Garland and sophomore Saben Lee should combine to form a talented and entertaining perimeter duo for the Commodores this season. As for the other five-star prospect, forward Simi Shittu, it remains to be seen how much he’ll be able to contribute early on after a torn ACL ended his senior season in late January.
  • Nazreon Reid and Emmitt Williams, LSU: Will Wade hit the jackpot last spring by landing Tremont Waters, and his second recruiting class at LSU ranks among the nation’s best. Wade left the state for two five-star prospects in Reid and Williams, who will be expected to contribute immediately as both Duop Reath and Aaron Epps are out of eligibility. The third five-star prospect in the class in point guard Ja’Vonte Smart, a key recruit in that Wade managed to keep the state’s top talent from leaving.
  • Andrew Nembhard, Florida: With the graduation of Chris Chiozza, Florida had a major hole to fill at point guard even with reserve Michael Okauru still in the fold. Enter Nembhard, a 6-foot-4 Canadian who finished his high school career at Montverde Academy in Florida. Nembhard’s size gives Florida a different dimension at the point than it had with Chiozza running the show, and his ability to get guys the ball in spots where they’re most effective should result in the freshman working well alongside Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen.

COACHING CHANGES

  • Tom Crean, Georgia: After a nine-year run that produced two NCAA tournament bids the Mark Fox era came to an end in Athens, with Georgia hiring former Marquette and Indiana head coach Tom Crean to replace him. Crean spent last season working as a color commentator and studio analyst at ESPN, and the hope in Athens is that his accomplishments at prior head coaching stops foreshadow similar success at Georgia. Unfortunately for Crean he won’t have either Yante Maten or Juwan Parker to work with as both graduated, but three starters (William Jackson II, Derek Ogbeide and Rayshaun Hammonds) and reserve Tyree Crump are among the returnees.
  • Kermit Davis, Ole Miss: Ole Miss bid farewell to Andy Kennedy, the program’s all-time wins leader, in mid-February as he announced his resignation. Stepping in to replace Kennedy was Kermit Davis, whose successful 16-year run at Middle Tennessee included 332 wins, six regular season conference titles (three Sun Belt, three Conference USA) and three NCAA tournament appearances. The biggest news for Davis this offseason was Terence Davis, Ole Miss’ leading scorer each of the last two seasons, deciding to withdraw his name from the NBA draft and return for his senior year.
(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-SEC TEAM

Grant Williams, Tennessee (POY)
Bryce Brown, Auburn
Tremont Waters, LSU
Chris Silva, South Carolina
PJ Washington, Kentucky

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. Tennessee: A season that began with the Volunteers being picked to finish 13th in the SEC ended with 26 wins, a share of the SEC regular season title and the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance in four years. With much of that team back Rick Barnes may have a national contender on his hands, and the disappointing end to last season should motivate this experienced group.

2. Kentucky: The combination of returnees and talented newcomers make the Wildcats a player within the SEC and nationally, as we’ve come to expect. P.J. Washington and Quade Green will need to take on leadership roles while also competing for minutes alongside the likes of Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro and E.J. Montgomery (and likely Ashton Hagans as well). And can Nick Richards take a step forward after struggling with inconsistency last season? Kentucky will need him to.

3. Auburn: From a depth standpoint the Tigers don’t have much room for error, especially with the departure of Mustapha Heron. That being said this is a very good rotation to work with, as Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley will be back on the court after sitting out the first nine games of the 2018-19 season. Bryce Brown, Jared Harper, Horace Spencer and Anfernee McLemore return, and transfer guards Samir Doughty (VCU) and Jamal Johnson (Memphis) will be eligible after sitting out last season.

4. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return their top six scorers from a season ago, including guards Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon and forward Aric Holman, making this Ben Howland’s best roster since he arrived in Starkville in 2015. As a result, look for the Bulldogs to be an SEC title contender next season.

5. Florida: While the losses of Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov aren’t to be overlooked, the return of Jalen Hudson means that the Gators should once again be a tough out in 2018-19. Adding Andrew Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson to the mix will help with the perimeter depth, and Keith Stone and Kevarrius Hayes are back in the front court. The key for Florida: KeVaughn Allen playing with aggression consistently.

6. LSU: After a good first season in Baton Rouge, Will Wade is set up for a more successful run in 2018-19. Of course there’s the addition of one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, but Tremont Waters’ decision to return for his sophomore season is huge for LSU.

7. Alabama: Collin Sexton has moved on, but the Crimson Tide don’t lack for promising perimeter talents as Dazon Ingram, Avery Johnson Jr., Herb Jones and John Petty are all back for another season. In the front court Donta Hall and Daniel Giddens are back, with the former being Alabama’s leading returning scorer and rebounder.

8. Missouri: The Tigers lose Michael Porter Jr. and an all-SEC performer in Kassius Robertson, but the return of Jontay Porter means that Cuonzo Martin will have one of the SEC’s best front courts with Porter, Kevin Puryear and Jeremiah Tilmon being the key figures. On the perimeter the Tigers will need freshmen Javon Pickett and Torrence Watson to hit the ground running, as Jordan Geist is their most productive returnee.

9. Vanderbilt: The Commodores did lose a lot of production from last season, but that senior-led group finished the year with an 11-20 record. There’s a renewed sense of optimism due to the recruiting class that Bryce Drew has added, and in sophomore guard Saben Lee he has another young “building block” to work with.

10. Arkansas: Losing Jaylen Barford, Darryl Macon and Anton Beard, three of the top four scorers from a team that won 23 games and reached the NCAA tournament, does hurt. That being said Arkansas does boast one of the SEC’s better big men in rising sophomore Daniel Gafford, who made the decision to not even test the NBA draft waters.

11. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost their top three front court contributors, as Robert Williams, Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg all turned pro. That leaves guards T.J. Starks and Admon Gilder to shoulder much of the load in 2018-19, with transfers Josh Nebo (Saint Francis-PA) and Christian Mekowulu (Tennessee State) joining Isiah Jasey in the front court. Also, Texas A&M will need Jay Jay Chandler and Savion Flagg to take a significant step forward if the team is to exceed this expectation.

12. Ole Miss: Kermit Davis won’t be working with a bare cupboard in his first season at Ole Miss. Terence Davis’ decision to return for his senior season means that the Rebels welcome back four of the team’s top scorers in 2017-18, with guards Devontae Shuler and Breein Tyree and forward Bruce Stevens rounding out that quartet. And the late additions of K.J. Buffen and Blake Hinson improve Ole Miss’ talent and depth in the front court.

13. South Carolina: The return of Chris Silva means that the Gamecocks return one of the SEC’s best defenders and overall players. But there’s still the need to account for the loss of two of the team’s top three scorers in Frank Booker and Wesley Myers. Returnees Justin Minaya and Hassani Gravett, and Georgetown transfer Tre Campbell will be among the other key contributors for Frank Martin in 2018-19.

14. Georgia: As noted above three starters are back from last season’s team as Tom Crean takes over. But with Yante Maten having graduated, who steps forward as Georgia’s top offensive option? They’ll likely have to get it done by committee, and in a league that’s gotten even better than it was last season that could make for some tough nights in Crean’s first season.