With all the hand-wringing and excitement about the return of college basketball this week, you might be surprised to learn that just three teams ranked in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 lost.
Two of those losses came in the Champions Classic, as Kentucky and Michigan State fell to the top two teams in this week’s NBC Sports Top 25, Duke and Kansas, respectively. The third? Then-No. 17 West Virginia losing at home to now-No. 25 Buffalo on Friday night.
I say all that to say this: There really isn’t all that much to change about the Top 25 this week. There are really only three questions that need to be answered, so I’ll walk you through my thought process for each one:
Can Kansas fall out of the top spot with a win over a top 15 team?: Hell yes they can. The Jayhawks were the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason based on projections and feelings we had about how good they might end up being. Now we have actual, actionable results to evaluate, and there really should be all that much of a discussion. I’m not even sure there are Kansas fans will sit here and say that, after watching Duke beat Kentucky by 34 points, they believe the Jayhawks are better than the Blue Devils.
How far should Kentucky fall?: I dropped the Wildcats to 18th. I’ve seen other top 25s that have Kentucky at the back-end of the top ten. I don’t think that’s crazy, but I also think that we have much more to worry about with this Wildcat team that those folks realize. Kentucky still has top ten potential, but for my money they are much further from reaching their ceiling than anyone realized. I ended up with them 18th because I couldn’t justify dropping them below LSU or Mississippi State.
What do we do with West Virginia and Buffalo?: I was already lower on West Virginia entering the season than the public, so dropping them out of the top 25 with a loss at home against Buffalo was pretty easy for me to do. I know that loss came as a result of a once-in-a-career blow-up game from C.J. Massinburg and that the Mountaineers didn’t have Beetle Bolden down the stretch as he dealt with cramping issues, but it seemed pretty evident that Press Virginia has some kinks to work out. Buffalo, on the other hand, entered the season as one of the best mid-majors in the country after smoking Arizona in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament. They lived up to that billing, so why not reward them?
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.
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.
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.
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
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)
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.
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.
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.
The off-guard position in college basketball has a lot of intriguing questions heading into the 2018-19 season.
While the group is headlined by some strong returning players and some five-star freshmen, it seems as though many of the players on this list still have something to prove. Whether that is perimeter shooting, becoming a more complete player or bringing more consistency, the off-guard spot in college hoops could be in a great place this season if many of these guys make standard improvements.
Here’s a look at 20 of the key off-guards to watch this season.
1. CALEB MARTIN, Nevada, Sr.
The reigning Mountain West Player of the Year nearly left for the NBA before deciding to return with his twin brother, Cody, at the 11th hour. With the Martin twins back in the fold, many are projecting Nevada as a top-ten preseason team. Caleb had a huge junior season as he put up 18.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game as he was the clear go-to player on a deep Wolf Pack team.
Also a 40 percent three-point shooter, Martin’s ability to score from all over the floor is what separates him from many of his peers and it helps make Nevada’s offense one of the best in the country. This season, Martin won’t have to do as much since he’s playing on a veteran team that should be significantly deeper. But don’t discount Martin having a huge year and potentially vaulting into All-American status.
2. QUENTIN GRIMES, Kansas, Fr.
The prized pledge of another solid Kansas recruiting class, the 6-foot-5 Grimes should have a huge impact on the Jayhawks this season. The former McDonald’s All-American really came into his own as a more complete guard during his senior season as some believed he was the best guard prospect in the Class of 2018.
Capable of playing the one, but more likely to play the two given the Kansas backcourt situation, Grimes is a tough-minded two-way player who can score or distribute. The key for the reigning MVP of the 2018 FIBA Americas will be perimeter shooting. If Grimes can consistently knock down three-pointers then the Jayhawks should have an incredibly dangerous offense.
3. ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana, Fr.
Huge expectations will be lingering over Langford’s head all season, as the Hoosier faithful are hoping this in-state product can return Indiana basketball to glory. The former Mr. Basketball in Indiana is one of the most celebrated high school players to ever come out of the basketball-crazy state after putting up monster numbers.
At 6-foot-6, Langford is capable of 40-point outbursts where he’s scoring from all over the floor. Also a capable wing defender thanks to his length and athleticism, Langford is a likely one-and-done prospect if he lives up to his five-star billing. Consistency will be one of the keys to watch for with Langford. For as good as he can be, Langford had a tendency to disappear for minutes at a time for portions of his grassroots career. As long as Langford is engaged, he should be a force in the Big Ten.
4. LINDELL WIGGINTON, Iowa State, So.
After an impressive freshman season in which he was fifth in the Big 12 in scoring, Wigginton gets his chance to shine on a much deeper and more talented Iowa State team this season. Averaging 16.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range, the 6-foot-2 Wigginton showed natural ability as a scorer last season, as he’ll look to become more of a complete guard in his second season.
Testing the NBA waters this offseason, Wigginton can enhance his national reputation, and pro stock, by helping the Cyclones win games after the team finished only 13-18 last season. With another year to grow, and more help around him, Wigginton should be among the Big 12’s leading scorers once again.
5. JALEN HUDSON, Florida, Sr.
The leading scorer for the Gators last season, the 6-foot-6 Hudson will be counted on for points once again this season. It’s going to be the other things Hudson can give Florida that ultimately helps dictate how they might finish.
If Hudson can show more leadership, while also helping to set up teammates, then he’ll help offset the huge loss of point guard Chris Chiozza. The Gators don’t have an obvious replacement at lead guard for Chiozza, so Hudson’s impact in the backcourt beyond scoring will be something to keep an eye on. Even if Hudson is only trying to get buckets, he’s a 40 percent three-point shooter who put up 15.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game last season. The Gators just ideally need him to contribute a bit of everything.
6. KELLAN GRADY, Davidson, So.
Putting together the best freshman season at Davidson since Steph Curry, the 6-foot-5 Grady made his own mark for the Wildcats last season. Although not quite as gifted a perimeter shooter as Curry (but really, who is?) Grady is no slouch in that department after shooting 50 percent from the floor and 37 percent from three-point range while averaging 18.0 points and 3.3 rebounds per game.
With Davidson leading scorer Peyton Aldridge moving on from the program, the reigning A-10 Rookie of the Year is going to be the go-to guy for a Wildcats team with NCAA tournament aspirations. Since Davidson doesn’t have a lot of experienced pieces returning from last season’s tournament squad, then we could be seeing a lot of 20-point games from Grady.
7. KY BOWMAN, Boston College, Jr.
Although backcourt running mate and NBA first-round pick Jerome Robinson received much of the attention for Boston College last season, Bowman also had a monster campaign. As a sophomore, the 6-foot-1 Bowman averaged 17.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game while shooting 36 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the free-throw line.
A North Carolina native who seems to play at his best when facing the in-state teams that passed him over in the ACC, Bowman just missed a triple-double in a win over Duke last year. Now that Robinson is gone, Bowman will be asked to do even more this season, as the Eagles are going to be counting on Bowman for a potential All-American season. If Bowman can lift his three-point percentage closer to the 44 percent he shot as a freshman, then he could very well reach that status.
8. MUSTAPHA HERON, St. John’s, Jr.
Immediately eligible after the NCAA gave him a hardship waiver, the 6-foot-5 Heron is a monster addition for the Red Storm. Coupled with a potential All-American at point in Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s now has one of the best backcourt tandems in all of college basketball.
Spending his first two seasons at Auburn, Heron averaged 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game for the Tigers as a sophomore. The 220-pound Heron and his power and athleticism should pair well with Ponds’ slippery ability to get to the basket as the duo should be immensely fun to watch this season.
If Heron can find his three-point consistency like he showed during freshman season (42 percent from three-point range) then his perimeter shooting would also greatly open things up for Ponds as he attacks off the dribble.
9. KRIS WILKES, UCLA, So.
Quietly putting up good numbers as a freshman last season, the 6-foot-8 Wilkes was second on the Bruins in scoring and rebounding at 13.7 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Now the versatile perimeter threat will be asked to become a team leader on a young, but talented, Bruins team.
Wilkes flirted with staying in the NBA Draft, but by coming back for another year in the Pac-12, he has a chance to improve his average 35 percent three-point shooting while displaying more overall leadership for an intriguing team. Potentially an All-Pac-12 player with a big season, Wilkes will get asked to take a lot of big shots at UCLA this season.
10. MATISSE THYBULLE, Washington, Sr.
The offensive numbers won’t jump out at you. That doesn’t mean this 6-foot-5 senior doesn’t make a giant impact on all of Washington’s games. The Pac-12’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Thybulle can make game-changing defensive plays on one end while contributing quite a bit to other facets of the game.
Thybulle scored 11.2 points per game while getting 2.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game last season. But getting 3.0 steals per game and 1.4 blocks per game had an immense impact on a Washington team that finally showed signs of life on the defensive end. Also a 36 percent three-point shooter, Thybulle is the perfect three-and-d wing for a Washington team with a sneaky amount of talent this season.
11. ZACH NORVELL, Gonzaga, So.
Gonzaga’s most consistent and versatile scorer has a chance to be a better all-around player as a sophomore. The 6-foot-5 Norvell put up 12.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game while shooting 37 percent from three-point range. If Norvell improves defensively, then he’ll be one of college basketball’s best two-way guards.
12. NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech, So.
Consistency will be the key for this ultra-talented 6-foot-5 guard. There were times last season when Alexander-Walker looked like Virginia Tech’s best players and other games where he was barely contributing. If Alexander-Walker finds a better balance, he could be a force in the ACC this season.
13. KYLE GUY, Virginia, Jr.
A veteran scorer who acts as Virginia’s top perimeter shooter, the 6-foot-2 Guy would put up even bigger scoring numbers in a more uptempo offense. Guy averaged 14.1 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game while shooting 39 percent from three-point range.
14. T.J. GIBBS, Notre Dame, Jr.
Coming on strong during his sophomore season, the 6-foot-3 Gibbs is going to be asked to do even more for a young Fighting Irish team. The good news is that Gibbs is already used to being the main scorer. Gibbs scored double-figures in 19 of 21 ACC games last season while averaging 15.3 points, 3.0 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game.
15. D’MARCUS SIMONDS, Georgia State, Jr.
The reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year made a huge impression by putting up 21.2 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game last season. If Simonds can improve his woeful 29 percent three-point shooting then he’ll become one of the most complete scorers in the country.
The 6-foot-4 Weatherspoon saw his scoring numbers and three-point percentage dip from sophomore to junior season. But Weatherspoon also became a more well-rounded guard as he nearly doubled his assist total. If Weatherspoon lifts his perimeter shooting, then he could make this ranking look silly.
17. FLETCHER MAGEE, Wofford, Sr.
The SoCon Player of the Year is arguably the best pure shooter in college hoops. Just missing a 50/40/90 season as a junior, MaGee averaged 22.1 points per game while making 4.4 three-pointers per game at a 43 percent clip. Magee is perhaps most well-known for his 27 points in the Dean Dome last season when Wofford upset North Carolina.
18. PHIL BOOTH, Villanova, Sr.
It seems like Booth’s been with the Wildcats forever. This season the 6-foot-3 guard has more of a chance to shine. Already dropping 41 points, and nine three-pointers, on North Carolina in a preseason scrimmage, Booth appears to be ready to take a high number of shots in Villanova’s high-octane offense.
19. BRYCE BROWN, Auburn, Sr.
As dangerous as it gets from the perimeter, the 6-foot-3 Brown led the SEC with 107 made three-pointers last season. Auburn’s uptempo attack gives Brown a lot of makeable shots, as he averaged 15.9 points per game on 38 percent three-point shooting last season.
20. HERB JONES, Alabama, So.
Expectations are very high for the 6-foot-7 Jones to make a major leap this season. A potentially elite two-way guard who shows very strong defensive traits, Jones has the upside to make a leap to the pros. Jones has to expand on the modest minutes and numbers he put up last season, but he has major upside.
My family was paid at Mississippi State, Renardo Sidney says
One of the more recurrent refrains over the last year as the federal investigation into corruption into college basketball unfolded and moved to the courtroom has been that what’s on trial now has been going on for years. Decades.
“I was getting money,” Sidney said. “I don’t know how much. They weren’t giving it to me. They were giving it to my mom.
“I remember my mom used to come all the way down there (to MIssissippi State) probably once a month. I never asked her how much we were getting.”
Sidney didn’t specifically say where the money was coming from or how much it was. Mississippi State was coached at the time by Rick Stansbury, who stepped down from his position at the school in 2012 and is about to enter his third season as the head coach at Western Kentucky after an assistant coaching stint.
Neither Mississippi State nor Western Kentucky immediately responded to requests for comment made by NBC Sports.
Sidney said that while he was a high schooler, his family lived in a $1.4 million home in Los Angeles, where he was a target for sports agents who wanted to eventually represent him.
“It was agents that would want to come sit down and talk to me,” Sidney said, “but my dad would charge them.”
Sidney said he was told by one agent that his father charged the agent $1,500 for that conversation.
Sidney was eventually suspended for his whole freshman season of 2009-10 due to receiving improper benefits. That time off was destructive for him, he said.
“I gained 30, 40 pounds,” Sidney said. “I smoked a lot of weed.
Sidney’s collegiate career never got off the ground, and he went undrafted to begin a professional career that never truly materialized either.
Sidney, 28, has a two-year-old son and is currently training players in the Los Angeles area. Count him as among the growing number of people clamoring for college athletes to have the opportunity to profit from their talent.
“They make a lot of money off these kids,” Sidney said. “You’re selling-out all the basketball, football games. I think you should pay these kids. At the end of the day … these kids getting money, it’s going to keep happening. It’s not going to stop right now. It’s probably going to get worse.
“Just pay them. I wish we were getting paid.”
No. 21 Mississippi State: Is Year Four when Ben Howland gets MSU to the tourney?
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.
Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.
Today we dive into No. 21 Mississippi State.
We are heading into Year Four of the Ben Howland Experience in Starkville, and to date, it seems like the story is less what the Bulldogs have accomplished in his tenure and more what they’ve failed to do: Win with the talent that he has brought to Starkvegas.
Howland’s first recruiting class included top ten recruit Malik Newman. In 2016, he had a top ten recruiting class, according to 247 Sports, that included six four-star prospects. This past season his recruiting class didn’t rank all that high — he didn’t needed to bring in many bodies after 2016 — but he did manage to land Nick Weatherspoon, a top 30 recruit that held a five-star designation by some recruiting services. This year’s class is loaded as well, with Reggie Perry — a McDonald’s All-American with serious NBA upside — and four-star wing Robert Woodard the headliners.
Getting talent into the program has not been an issue for Howland.
Winning with that talent, however, has not proven so easy. In three seasons, he has gone just 55-45 overall with a 22-32 record in SEC play. He has not finished over .500 in league play to date, and last year’s run to the semifinals of the NIT was the first time he played in a postseason that wasn’t the SEC tournament.
Keeping that talent in the program has been the most elusive task. Prior to Nick Weatherspoon opting to return for his sophomore season, every player in the top 95 of 247 Sports composite rankings that Howland signed transferred out of the program — Newman, Mario Kegler, Schnider Herard and Eli Wright.
I’m not sure that this is how the Mississippi State administration envisioned it when they hired Howland two years after he was fired by UCLA.
That said, on paper, this should finally be the year that the Bulldogs get over the hump, but can they live up to the expectations they’ll have entering the season?
Is it too simple to state it like this: They have good players at every position?
Sometimes, it just doesn’t have to be complicated.
Let’s break it down position-by-position.
Quinndary Weatherspoon is the star of this team, the best scorer on the roster for the last two years and a senior that will deservedly be named a preseason first-team all-SEC player. He’s very good, as is his brother, sophomore Nick Weatherspoon. Nick did not acclimate all that quickly as a freshman, struggling with his shot, but he was a starter in every game he played and finished third on the team in scoring. And you know what they say, the best thing about freshman is that they become sophomores.
Lamar Peters is turnover-prone and regressed as a shooter during his sophomore season, but he is still a talented lead guard that has some potential as an NBA player, although the hype around him has died down in the last 12 months. He split time as a starter last year with fellow junior Tyson Carter, who is bigger, more athletic and more of an off-guard. That quartet will spend the season battling it out for the three starting spots on the perimeter assuming that they can hold off four-star freshman Robert Woodard, a physically-imposing wing coming into the program with a reputation for being a big-time scorer.
The frontcourt is just as promising. Aric Holman is a former four-star prospect that has developed into a solid SEC big man, averaging 10.9 points, 6.7 boards and 1.8 blocks while shooting 44 percent from three. Abdul Ado was strong in his role as well, scoring around the rim, rebounding the ball and defending the rim as a redshirt freshman. The x-factor — which we’ll get to in a bit — is Reggie Perry, who is probably the most talented player on the floor. Throw in a couple guys at the end of the bench (D.J. Stewart, E.J. Datcher, Jethro Tshisumpa) and there seven or eight guys talented enough to push for a starting spot and a roster that will provide flexibility and lineup versatility with talent at every position.
Yes, Mississippi State needs to shoot the ball better from distance this season, and yes, they need better point guard play (read: fewer turnovers), but that can be worked through. They have talent, depth, competition for positions, experience.
BUT MISSISSIPPI STATE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …
They’re still Mississippi State.
I really don’t mean to say this flippantly, but these are facts: Ben Howland hasn’t been a great basketball coach for a decade now. He hasn’t been bad, per se — he went to three NCAA tournaments in his last five years at UCLA, he won the Pac-12 regular season title in 2013 and he won 25 games just last year — but we are now more than a decade removed Howland reaching his third consecutive Final Four.
To put that into perspective, the last time that UCLA played a game in the Final Four, I had still never sent a tweet and Mariah Carey had a No. 1 song (seriously).
I’m not saying that Mississippi State can’t win with Howland as their head coach. I would never say that. I thought Rick Barnes was washed up and looking to cash in with one last job when he took over at Tennessee after getting run out of Texas. Three years later, he’s the reigning SEC regular season champion returning a team that is going to be ranked in the top ten this preseason and just beat Duke for a top 15 recruit.
I would not be shocked in the least to see Howland lead this group to a top four finish in the SEC and a run to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. My point is, simply, that we are a long way removed from assuming a team is going to hit their ceiling simply because Howland is their head coach.
Reggie Perry is the crown jewel of Ben Howland’s 2018 recruiting class, a McDonald’s All-American and one of the most interesting — and high-upside — prospects in the class.
“The biggest NBA sleeper in the freshman class,” is how one longtime scout in the state of Georgia described the 6-foot-10 Perry, “if [Ben Howland] doesn’t ruin him.”
That got me to thinking: When was the last time that an elite, five-star prospect that Howland recruited lived up to the hype that he had entering college? Malik Newman didn’t. Neither did the class that included Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, which ultimately got Howland fired. Josh Smith was eventually run out of Los Angeles. J’Mison Morgan was dismissed by two different programs in his college career. Jrue Holiday has turned out to be a pretty good (and underrated) pro, but he went from being the No. 2 player in a recruiting class where B.J. Mullens was ranked No. 1 to the No. 17 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft as six point guards were picked in front of him.
You have to go all the way back to Kevin Love in the Class of 2007 to find a five-star freshman that played for Ben Howland the way you would expect a five-star freshman to play.
Which brings me back to Perry.
For my money, he is the guy that will determine what Mississippi State’s ceiling will be. Howland has good players on their roster. Peters, the Weatherspoons, Holman, Carter. All of those guys are above-average SEC talents and I would not be surprised to see a couple of them end up on an all-SEC team by the end of the season. But Perry is the pro. At 6-foot-10, 245 pounds, he’s more physical than most combo-forwards but more skilled than most power forwards. He’s gifted athletically, he has a face-up game and he space the floor a little bit.
If he can make the kind of impact his talent says he should, he changes the dynamic of what this team is.
But given Howland’s track record with five-star prospects, who knows what will happen.
The Bulldogs absolutely have the pieces to be a team that makes a run at finishing top four in the SEC this season.
They have guard depth, they have size, they have veterans, they have a proven star in Quinndary Weatherspoon and an incoming freshman with the potential to be a difference-maker in Reggie Perry. Throw in a coach that has been to three Final Fours in his career, and it’s impossible not to like this team on paper.
That said, I just don’t think it’s a guarantee the Bulldogs are going to be good. We’ve already been over some of the narratives that are at play — Mississippi State is Mississippi State, Ben Howland is a decade removed from playing in a Final Four — but there are also some valid concerns about the way this team plays on the court that come into play.
Mississippi State only shot 31.5 percent from three last season, which is a number that is going to have to go up this year. Their three starters on the perimeter — both Weatherspoons and Lamar Peters — all shot under 30 percent from beyond the arc individually.
Those numbers have to be better, as does Mississippi State’s point guard play. The Bulldogs turned the ball over on nearly 20 percent of their possessions last season. Peters had a turnover rate of 22.9 percent. If Mississippi State is serious about being better than they were last year, those guards that look so good on paper have to actually play like it for an entire season.
If they do, Mississippi State should be right there with Kentucky, Tennessee and Auburn atop the SEC.
If they don’t, another trip to the NIT isn’t out of the question.