Now that all the talk of an undefeated season has left Lexington—and really, how helpful was that in retrospect?—Kentucky can relax just a bit and work its way through the annual ritual of replacing NBA-caliber studs with more NBA-caliber studs.
The Wildcats are again the class of the SEC, but other teams like LSU, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M are going to make the race to a conference title a bit closer than it was last season. The addition of Rick Barnes at Tennessee and Avery Johnson at Alabama, and a coaching change at Florida, has breathed new life into this conference. This should be a fun year as everyone once again takes aim at swatting down mighty Kentucky.
SEC Basketball Preseason Rankings
1. Kentucky Wildcats
Yeah, we know John Calipari. Your team isn't very good. We don't believe you. Kentucky may have lost a boatload of talent, the kind that would devastate any other program. But seeing seven players from last year's Final Four team bolt early for the NBA won't really impact UK much, especially with Tyler Ulis, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress—three NBA-caliber talents in their own right—returning. That group will be joined by five-star recruits Jamal Murray, Isaiah Briscoe and Skal Labissiere (if he becomes eligible), and the Wildcats should once again be favorites in the SEC. Oh, and a national championship is a definite possibility if everyone gets on the same page as the season progresses. Lowered expectations for this year should help take pressure off Kentucky's kids.
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2. LSU Tigers
This is the year LSU makes some noise in the SEC race and possibly the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers bring back plenty of experience from last season—six returners averaged better than 25 minutes a game last year—and the addition of the No. 1 player in the Class of 2015, forward Ben Simmons, should push LSU to a new level. But Simmons isn't alone. Five-star guard Antonio Blakeney and four-star guard Brandon Sampson will make an immediate impact, and the Tigers will feature a roster that is athletic, deep, talented and experienced. Let the good times role at LSU.
3. Vanderbilt Commodores
Vanderbilt didn't reach the NCAA Tournament lasts season and was seen as a bit of a disappointment last year, but Kevin Stallings welcomes back a pile of talent that is hungry to put last year behind it. Center Damian Jones provides a big presence in the paint who has NBA-caliber talent, and the offense will flow through him. Teamed with guard Riley LaChance, who can score from anywhere on the floor, and the Commodores have a one-two punch that will create headaches for opponents. Solid balance behind that group will help late in games, and Vandy's perimeter shooting is going to push it to some wins this season. This is a sleeper in the SEC.
4. Texas A&M Aggies
Opinions on A&M are all over the board. Some people see them as being a top 25 team that will challenge for an SEC title, and others are just waiting for a disappointing season. We lean toward the top 25 argument, especially since Daneul House and Alex Caruso are both under-the-radar guys who will surprise some teams. Jalen Jones is an explosive scorer who will have his moments this season, and head coach Billy Kennedy welcomes some talented freshmen who can provide balance to the lineup.
5. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Following last season's disappointment, Rick Ray was sent packing, and new head coach Ben Howland is ready to make his presence felt. He also doesn't exactly have a bare cupboard. Seniors Gavin Ware, Fred Thomas and Craig Sword have been itching to have someone push them to wins, and freshman Malik Newman is the kind of game-changer who will give the Bulldogs a boost late in games. This won't be the most consistent team in the SEC, but it will be dangerous on any given night.
6. Florida Gators
Billy Donovan's departure leaves the Gators in a transition year, but new head coach Mike White hopes that transition can go as smoothly as possible. Florida welcomes back Dorian Finney-Smith for his final go-around, and he hopes to bounce back from a disappointing junior year. A new voice in the locker room could help. He's also not alone. Devin Robinson and Kasey Hill, plus a host of other talent, should have Florida challenging in the SEC if everyone gets on the same page early.
7. Georgia Bulldogs
Experience and talent in the backcourt are positives for the Bulldogs. Kenny Gaines is a longtime started and averaged 11.2 points a game, and Charles Mann can do a little bit of everything on the court. J.J. Frazier showed potential in the backcourt, too. But a lack of depth upfront is going to be an issue in the talented SEC, and although Georgia won't be a pushover, head coach Mark Fox will have a tough time coaxing an NCAA Tournament run out of this group.
8. Ole Miss Rebels
Ole Miss disappointed late in the season last year, and losing Ladarius White and Jarvis Summers won't help the Rebels bounce back quickly. That said, Ole Miss fans have to be excited about Stefan Moody, who averaged 16.6 points as a freshman and is ready to take the next step. Moody can score inside and out, and he has the skills to drop in far better than 20 a game this year. The question is whether he will get much help. The Rebels' guards are solid, but head coach Andy Kennedy is lacking some quality size with any consistency, and finding a way to play small will be a challenge.
9. South Carolina Gamecocks
If you're looking for depth and experience, you've come to the right place. The Gamecocks welcome back every key player from last year's team, and six players averaged better than 20 minutes a game. The problem, of course, is minutes don't equal wins, and although there is good balance in the lineup, the lack of a go-to scorer is an issue. Frank Martin always does a great job with his teams, and the addition of P.J. Dozier should provide an injection of talent.
10. Auburn Tigers
Nobody can argue that Bruce Pearl isn't bringing excitement to Tigers basketball, and although the team has lost some experience, there still is talent to be found. Cinmeon Bowers showed potential last season in nearly averaging a double-double, and Pearl's work on the sideline will allow Auburn to pull off a couple of upsets. Look for sophomore guard Tahj Shhamsid-Deen to make some noise this season as he takes on a bigger role.
11. Tennessee Volunteers
Change has come to Knoxville with Rick Barnes taking over for the departed Donnie Tyndall, but Barnes will have to play without Josh Richardson, who was Mr. Everything for the Vols last year. Still, there are some intriguing players on the roster. Armani Moore and Kevin Punter both have shown flashes, and Detrick Mostella has the skills to be a special point guard. Size will be an issue, and just getting his guys to play with consistency will be key for Barnes. This isn't an NCAA Tournament team, but look for the Volunteers to put up a fight every night.
12. Alabama Crimson Tide
New head coach Avery Johnson welcomes back a trio of starters from last year's team, but he lost the top two scorers and will need someone to step into a bigger role quickly. Forward Jimmie Taylor is one option. He is tall and rebounds and defends, but he has been inconsistent offensively. A more likely choice is Shannon Hale, who averaged 8.2 points last season and is ready to step into the spotlight. Still, this is a group that is missing pure athleticism and sheer talent compared to its SEC foes, which will make this another year of struggle as Johnson establishes his program.
13. Arkansas Razorbacks
Mike Anderson has done a great job of breathing life into the Razorback program during his first four years in the gig, and last year's 27-9 finish showed plenty of potential. Losing four starters from last year will obviously hurt, and Arkansas is going to take a step back this season. You don't easily replace a talent like Bobby Portis, but it's time for Anderson's four-star recruits to step up. Offseason issues have to be put in the rearview mirror quickly, as well.
14. Missouri Tigers
Last year was a nightmare for the Tigers as turmoil pulled this team apart and sent head coach Frank Haith packing. New head coach Kim Anderson is hitting the reset button, but he has a challenge after losing leading scorer and rebounder Johnathan Williams III to transfer. Two players—Jakeenan Gant and Montaque Gill-Caesar—have some talent, and Gant, in particular, seems ready to step into the spotlight. Still, there will be a lot of growing pains this season, and Missouri is going to struggle to find an identity on the court as Anderson's new system finds its footing.
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