Early SEC basketball observations for the 2017-18 season

In Features by Blake Lovell

And we’re back.

It’s been over a month since the 2017 NCAA Tournament wrapped up, which means we’re still a long way from the start of the new season. But it’s never too early to talk about SEC football.

Wait, we’re talking about SEC basketball….in May….six months before the season starts? Well, that’s something.

Before we begin, a quick reminder: it’s May. A lot will change before the season starts due to transfers, recruits, injuries, etc. These are my extended thoughts as of today, but we’re still too far away to know how it’ll all unfold.

Let’s begin.

The Big 3?

When I teased this article last week, I discussed my current top three SEC teams for the ’17-18 season:

  1. Kentucky
  2. Florida
  3. Alabama

The two at the top will surprise no one.

John Calipari may have his youngest team ever at Kentucky, and a higher than normal amount of frustration could be present early on due to the inexperience. Still, the Wildcats are a Top 10 team that may rise even higher depending on the highly-anticipated decisions of Pitt grad transfer Cam Johnson and highly-coveted big man Mohamed Bamba (5/18 update: Bamba is going to Texas).

As for Florida, the Gators return top scorer KeVaughn Allen and fellow guard Chris Chiozza, but must replace Canyon Barry, Devon Robinson, and Kasey Hill. The good news is that Rice transfer Egor Koulechov averaged 18.2 points per game last season and will add another backcourt scoring threat to the roster. Then there’s the possibility of John Egbunu returning, which would allow Kevarrius Hayes, Keith Stone, and Gorjok Gak to continue to develop alongside him.

And now for the team that the casual fan would consider the most surprising.

Yes, Alabama will be loaded next season. Both on the football field and the basketball court. Freshman sensation Collin Sexton will bring an infectious energy to Tuscaloosa, and in the process, he’ll make everyone around him better.

The Crimson Tide will have good depth at pretty much every position, and the progression of Donta Hall and Daniel Giddens in the frontcourt will decide just how far this team can go. The defense won’t be a concern, as this will be one of the best defensive teams in the country.

Of course, Alabama could go further with…..

Braxton Key’s decision

(5/23 Update: Key is officially on his way back to Tuscaloosa)

As of this writing, Key has yet to commit to Alabama for next season. He did what most potential-NBA bound players do and that’s throw his name into the draft mix without hiring an agent. Testing the draft waters is smart when you want to know what areas of your game need to improve the most.

The question is, what happens next?

If Key decides to return to Alabama, the Tide instantly become a Top 20 team in my eyes. With the depth and playmaking ability that this team would have at key (no pun intended) positions, that high of a ranking is justified.

If Key stays in the draft or transfers elsewhere, it’s a bit of a blow. He was Alabama’s leading scorer last season and really started to make significant strides in his overall game by season’s end.

From my perspective, staying at Alabama and playing for a coach like Avery Johnson is Key’s best move. Johnson knows how to succeed at the next level and could continue to speed up Key’s development over the next year or two.

What about Texas A&M?

I fear that I’m vastly underestimating the Aggies by not finding a spot for them in the top three.

Why? Billy Kennedy returns his top five scorers from a season ago:

  • Tyler Davis (14.1 PPG, 7.0 RPG)
  • Admon Gilder (13.7 PPG)
  • DJ Hogg (12.0 PPG)
  • Robert Williams (11.9 PPG)
  • Tonny Trocha-Morelos (8.1 PPG)

Davis will be a monster in the paint. Williams will be a lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft. And let’s not forget that J.J. Caldwell – a Top 100 recruit in 2016 – should be eligible after being forced to sit out last season. He’ll likely step in and take over the starting point guard role while allowing Gilder to move to his natural place at shooting guard.

No one should be shocked if Kennedy puts it all together and has Texas A&M competing for an SEC title.

Will Wade changing the culture

One of the best tweets of the SEC basketball offseason thus far came courtesy of Ross Dellenger of The Advocate:

That sums up what Wade’s approach will be in his first season in Baton Rouge. The first priority will be changing the culture, the second priority will be winning games.

The latter may be difficult. LSU does return Duop Reath (12.0 PPG) and Brandon Sampson (11.6 PPG), and adds forward Jeremy Combs (10.2 PPG) from North Texas. But replacing Antonio Blakeney’s scoring and leadership isn’t something that’ll happen overnight.

There’s also the inevitable overhaul on the defensive end of the floor. The Tigers were beyond awful on defense last season – allowing 83.0 points per game (335th nationally) while letting opponents shoot 47.2 percent from the floor (326th nationally). Wade will immediately implement the havoc defense that was a staple at VCU, but he’ll need a strong commitment from his roster to play that style effectively.

If Wade can get that commitment on defense and quickly develop 4-star recruits Brandon Rachal and Galen Alexander, the Tigers will easily be more competitive than they were last year.

And that havoc style isn’t one that other SEC teams will want to see, even if LSU struggles to translate that into a ton of wins in Wade’s first year.

Here’s our in-depth discussion with Cody Worsham of TigerRag.com on what lies ahead for Wade and his staff this upcoming season.

Death, taxes, and South Carolina being picked to fail

How will Frank Martin and the Gamecocks follow up the program’s first Final Four? Probably by being picked in the bottom half of the SEC in the preseason.

But hey, that’s nothing new. Two seasons ago, South Carolina was picked seventh and finished second. Last season, South Carolina was picked eighth and was a win away from playing for a national championship.

By my calculations, the Gamecocks will be picked ninth this season and go on to win the national title. Let the celebration begin in Columbia.

But before we get there, I’ll go ahead and be the first to say what everyone will be saying by November: the Gamecocks will take a step back.

Replacing a player like Sindarius Thornwell is nearly impossible. Add in the fact that both P.J. Dozier and Duane Notice are gone as well, and you could justify leaving South Carolina out of a way too early bracketology.

Here’s what will decide South Carolina’s fate: the progress of big men Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar. Silva was a force during the Gamecocks’ Final Four run, and Kotsar showed great potential in his freshman season. Rakym Felder’s ability to control the offense at the point will also be a significant factor.

No matter what, throw out the preseason expectations when it comes to a Martin-coached team. They’ll always be better than you think.

Started from the bottom now we’re here

No SEC team has changed its fortunes more dramatically this offseason than Missouri.

Just a few months ago, Mizzou fans were weeping over setting an SEC record with three straight seasons of 20 or more losses.

But now, the Tigers are a completely different basketball team. There’s a new coach in Cuonzo Martin. There’s a new star in Michael Porter Jr. There’s a supporting cast that happens to include the team’s top three scorers from last season – Jordan Barnett (12.2 PPG), Kevin Puryear (11.8 PPG), and Terrence Phillips (10.4 PPG).

And did I mention that Missouri’s 2017 recruiting class is now ranked sixth nationally?

Yes, times have changed in Columbia. But games aren’t won in the offseason, so this is only one step in a larger process.

Missouri must shoot the ball better this season – 39.3 percent from the floor in ’16-17 (337th nationally) – if it wants to have a shot at an NCAA Tournament bid. Something tells me that adding the nation’s best freshman should help those offensive issues.

Seeing how quickly all the new faces build an on-court chemistry will decide how far the Tigers will rise up the SEC rankings.

I talked with Rock M Nation writer Sam Snelling on the Marching to Madness podcast to get his thoughts on what lies ahead for this Mizzou program.

The young grow old

This is the year for Auburn. This is the year for Auburn. This is the year for Auburn.

I said it three times because I want to believe it. After all, Bruce Pearl returns his top four scorers – all of whom were freshmen last season – and adds JUCO guard Malik Dunbar (15.6 PPG at College of Central Florida) and 4-star recruits Chuma Okeke and Davion Mitchell.

But offense was rarely an issue for the Tigers. Defense, however, was a huge issue.

Auburn’s youth and inexperience was on full display on the defensive end of the court, and that must improve greatly for the Tigers to reach their first NCAA Tournament since 2003. Former coach Sonny Smith talked about this on a recent episode of our Marching to Madness podcast, pointing out that the physical toll of their first college season was a big reason Auburn’s defense was nonexistent at times.

And contrary to popular belief, Pearl isn’t on the hot seat. Auburn won 18 games last season – the program’s second highest win total since 2003.

Speaking of young squads looking to take a step forward in ’17-18, Ben Howland’s Mississippi State squad isn’t far away from an NCAA bid of its own.

The Bulldogs will boast one of the most dynamic backcourts in the country with Quinndary Weatherspoon, and Lamar Peters both back, with versatile 5-star point guard Nick Weatherspoon – the brother of Quinndary – joining them in Starkville.

Losing 5-star big man Garrison Brooks to North Carolina was a big blow to an unproven frontcourt, but if Aric Holman and Schnider Herard can become consistent scorers and defenders in the paint, the Bulldogs can be an excellent basketball team.

Will two of the SEC’s youngest teams from last season have enough experience to finally complete their rise into the upper half of the league?

Destination conference

Following Jeremiah Tilmon’s commitment, Missouri moved up to No. 6 in the 247 Sports 2017 team rankings. That gave the SEC six teams in the Top 20:

  • 1. Kentucky
  • 5. Alabama
  • 6. Missouri
  • 18. Florida
  • 19. Ole Miss
  • 20. Texas A&M

Overall, 11 teams are ranked in the Top 50. The lowest ranked team is Mississippi State at No. 64, which is no big deal considering how much young talent is already there.

This is the result of the theme I’ve talked about for a while now. The level of coaching in this league is as good as it has ever been from top to bottom, and as these coaches build up their respective programs, the competition is only going to get tougher.

The rankings show prove that the SEC has become a destination for a plethora of the country’s top high school players. That trend should continue.

The team I’m most unsure about…..

It’s Georgia.

A lot depends on whether Yante Maten decides to return to school for his senior season. Losing both Maten and JJ Frazier would leave Mark Fox in an extremely difficult spot.

Fox’s job security will be talked about a lot this upcoming season, and losing two of the best players to ever come through the program – who accounted for 37 of the team’s 71.6 points per game last season – wouldn’t be ideal.

Juwan Parker and Derek Ogbeide would have to step up in a big way, as would standout freshman forward Rayshaun Hammonds.

That’s not a bad trio if Maten goes pro, but is it one that’ll do enough to take the heat off of Fox?

The team you shouldn’t forget about…..

It’s Vanderbilt.

Bryce Drew’s first season in Nashville didn’t get off to a great start. The Commodores were 12-13 in early February before going on a tear and making the NCAA Tournament.

A big reason for the team’s turnaround had a lot to do with Drew’s ability to adjust to his team’s strengths while still implementing his own system.

We’ll learn a lot more this season about the way he wants his team to play, as Vandy will add a few transfers – forward Matt Ryan from Notre Dame and D-2 big man Yanni Wetzell – and a nice group of freshmen to go along with three of its top four scorers from last season.

Replacing Luke Kornet will be challenging due to how much he was able to change the game on both ends of the floor, so bringing along Wetzell and the incredibly athletic Djery Baptiste will be the top priority for Bryce Drew and his staff.

Even with the losses of Kornet and Nolan Cressler, it feels like the Commodores will be marching in March.

The teams I’m most intrigued by…..

It’s Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Tennessee.

These three teams have a lot of great pieces back in the fold, but there are some interesting questions that each will need to answer to reach their full potential.

Mike Anderson got the gift of Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford both returning, but how tough will it be to replace Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley?

Andy Kennedy added to an already good backcourt by grabbing Memphis transfer Markel Crawford and Oak Hill product Devontae Shuler, but will Marcanvis Hymon, Justas Furmanavicius, or 7-foot-2 Drake transfer Dominik Olejniczak be able to fill the void left by double-double machine Sebastian Saiz?

Rick Barnes returns Grant Williams and the rest of the talented sophomore crew, but how difficult will it be to replace the scoring and leadership that Robert Hubbs III contributed on a nightly basis?

It’ll be intriguing to see how these three teams adjust to losing impact players. Overall though, there’s still a solid nucleus returning at all three programs.

The most improved players could be….

Obviously, I could go many ways with this. But for now, there are three players I want to zoom in on: Florida guard Chris Chiozza, Alabama guard Dazon Ingram, and Vanderbilt forward Jeff Roberson.

Last season, Chiozza became a player that opposing teams wanted no part of. That had less to do with his scoring and more to do with his relentless on-ball defending. But his scoring ability certainly got better as the year went along.

After hitting double-figures only twice in Florida’s first 21 games, Chiozza hit that mark nine times in the team’s final 15 games. He’ll be the leader on the court for the Gators next season, and it’s going to be fun to watch his senior season unfold.

As for Ingram, he’s set for a breakout season. In watching him at the SEC Tournament in Nashville in March, you could tell that things had clicked. And guess what? You better believe that Sexton is going to make him even better. Sexton’s ability to create offense will allow Ingram to get better shots than he did in Alabama’s struggling offense last season.

Many players will benefit from Sexton’s playmaker mentality, but Ingram might be the one that benefits the most.

And then there’s Roberson at Vandy. He’s the player that every team needs in that he’s good at so many aspects of the game. Considering that he’s been one of the most improved players each of the past two seasons, there’s no reason to believe that he won’t be yet again.

Backcourt depth

The guard play in the SEC this upcoming season will be stellar, and the numbers speak for themselves.

The number of returning or transfer guards that averaged double-figures last season? 18.

  • Ole Miss: Deandre Burnett (16.5 PPG), Terence Davis (14.9 PPG), Markel Crawford (12.8 PPG at Memphis)
  • Florida: KeVaughn Allen (14.0 PPG), Egor Koulechov (18.2 PPG at Rice)
  • Arkansas: Daryl Macon (13.4 PPG), Jaylen Barford (12.8 PPG)
  • Auburn: Mustapha Heron (15.2 PPG), Jared Harper (11.4 PPG)
  • Mississippi State: Quinndary Weatherspoon (16.5 PPG), Lamar Peters (10.7 PPG)
  • Missouri: Kassius Robertson (16.1 PPG at Canisius), Terrence Phillips (10.4 PPG last season)
  • Vanderbilt: Matthew Fisher-Davis (13.9 PPG), Riley LaChance (10.5 PPG)
  • Alabama: Dazon Ingram (10.6 PPG)
  • Texas A&M: Admon Gilder (13.7 PPG)
  • LSU: Brandon Sampson (11.6 PPG)

The number of guards rated at four stars or higher in the 2017 recruiting class? 13.

  • Quade Green, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jemarl Baker (Kentucky)
  • Collin Sexton, John Petty (Alabama)
  • Nick Weatherspoon (Mississippi State)
  • Davion Mitchell (Auburn)
  • Brandon Rachal (LSU)
  • Saben Lee (Vanderbilt)
  • David Beatty (South Carolina)
  • Blake Harris (Missouri)
  • Devontae Shuler (Ole Miss)
  • Jay Jay Chandler (Texas A&M)

And there are breakout guards like Chiozza, Rakym Felder, and many more that aren’t even included in either of those lists.

Putting it all together

I feel confident about the SEC’s top four teams next season, but power ranking all 14 right now is impossible. Transfers and undecided recruits could change the landscape for several teams, so we’ll let all that straighten itself out before diving into the full power rankings.

But I’ll say this: There are only two teams at the moment that I’d rule out at having a shot at an NCAA Tournament berth. You can play the guessing game on Twitter as to who those two teams are.

By the rules of basic arithmetic, that means I’ve got 12 different teams with a chance. All 12 of those teams won’t make the tournament, but seven or eight could.

The overall competitiveness of this league will be outstanding. Unlike last season where it felt like LSU and Missouri rarely had chances to win in conference play, this season should be different in that no one will be a complete pushover.

When three teams made the Elite Eight, the country finally realized what I said all last season: the SEC is nowhere near as bad as you’ve been led to believe.

Coaches are instilling a level of toughness in their programs that’ll be hard for many conferences to match. That’s why Florida and South Carolina played each other in a regional final at Madison Square Garden.

With all of that talent and toughness on display next season, the nation should finally recognize the SEC’s rebirth.

And that’s exactly why we’re talking about SEC basketball in May.

Blake Lovell is the founder of Southeast Hoops. He hosts the Marching to Madness podcast, which features interviews with coaches around the country. He also hosts a weekly college basketball show on WNSR 560AM/95.9 FM in Nashville. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Athlon Sports, Rivals, FanRag Sports, and many more.