Kernel staff writer Ben Jones makes his predictions for the SEC basketball season.
1. Florida Gators
Last year: 21-12 overall, 9-7 Southeastern Conference, lost in NCAA opening round
The entire starting five from last year’s NCAA tournament team returns, and Billy Donovan adds a top-10 recruiting class to bolster his chances at an SEC championship. There are holes on this team, like Kenny Boynton’s 3-point shooting and the lack of a single dominant player in the post, but there’s a lot to like here. Florida, UK and Tennessee aren’t that far apart, but the Gators’ talent and experience pushes them over the top.
2. Kentucky Wildcats
Last year: 32-2 overall, 14-2 SEC, lost in NCAA Elite Eight
The Cats lost five players to the NBA last year, though another class of talented freshmen is already on campus. Still, if stud pivot Enes Kanter is out for a significant period of time, the Cats will be relying on nine scholarship players. Only two of those have made measureable contributions on an NCAA tournament team. The talent is there for a run similar to last year’s NCAA quarterfinal exit, but whether the team can mature and learn Calipari’s offense as quickly as last year’s remains to be seen.
3. Tennessee Volunteers
Last year: 25-8 overall, 11-5 SEC, lost in NCAA Elite Eight
A wave of suspensions on the team last year forced new blood into the starting rotation, and while they weren’t starters for the entire year, all five starters from the NCAA tournament are back. Now it’s time for Kentucky native Scotty Hopson to take over and show he can be one of the elite scorers in the conference. Freshman Tobias Harris will be a star at some point, but we’ll have to see if he a one-and-done talent who can boost this program to the next level.
4. Georgia Bulldogs
Last year: 14-17 overall, 5-11 SEC, did not make tournament
Trey Thompkins will miss the first few games with an ankle injury, but when the preseason SEC player of the year returns, he figures to try and lead the Bulldogs back to the NCAA tournament. He won’t be alone. Guards Travis Leslie and Dustin Ware are also back, and in his second season, Mark Fox figures to have a roster full of players who are more comfortable with his system. Even if the Dawgs fall short of the Big Dance, they’ll be a handful for whoever they play.
5. Vanderbilt Commodores
Last year: 24-8 overall, 12-4 SEC, lost in NCAA opening round
John Jenkins, Brad Tinsley and Jeffery Taylor are back, but leading scorer Jermaine Beal and leading rebounder A.J. Ogilvy are gone. That said, without Ogilvy clogging the middle, the Commodores have the potential for an exciting, guard-oriented offense. Tinsley and Jenkins both shoot better than 40 percent on 3’s. Vanderbilt is going to take a step back this year, and how they respond to that could determine how far they slip.
6. South Carolina Gamecocks
Last year: 15-16, 6-10 SEC, did not make tournament
Devan Downey was everything to the Gamecocks for the last few years, and now he’s gone. Darrin Horn is going to need some magic to make the NCAA tournament in his third season, and after winning 21 games in his first year, there might be some rumblings in Columbia this year. The closest thing to a marquee player on the roster is senior Sam Muldrow, who averaged 10 points and six rebounds last year while shooting an ugly 43 percent.
1. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Last year: 24-12 overall, 9-7 SEC, lost in NIT second round
The strength of the conference lies in the East, but the Bulldogs could roll when Dee Bost and Renardo Sidney become eligible. Bost entered the NBA draft, pulled his name out late and is trying to return to school, while Sidney will start the season on the bench after missing all of last season for accepting extra benefits in high school. Still, he’s one of the top talents in the country, and Ravern Johnson is back to spread the floor with his deadly long-range shooting.
2. Ole Miss Rebels
Last year: 24-11, 9-7 SEC, lost in NIT semifinals
Everything starts with Chris Warren, a spunky 5-foot-10 guard who clawed his way to over 17 points per game last year. He’s worthy of the preseason All-SEC honor he was given, but there are a lot of questions after him. Andy Kennedy’s next best player is senior guard Zach Graham, who can shoot the lights out. The Rebels need a post presence, though, and it remains to be seen if there is one on this team.
3. Arkansas Razorbacks
Last year: 14-18 overall, 7-9 SEC, did not make tournament
UK alum John Pelphrey and the Razorbacks endured a strange season marked with injuries, suspensions, and upsets in the nonconference. Losing Courtney Fortson to the NBA will hurt, as evidenced by their improved play after his return last year, but Rotnei Clarke and Marshawn Powell are both big-time players in the SEC. If Pelphrey can piece together a supporting cast and generate a strong defense, Arkansas will be able to hang with anyone.
4. Alabama Crimson Tide
Last year: 17-15 overall, 6-10 SEC, did not make tournament
JaMychal Green is back, and should make the all-conference team after averaging 14 points and seven rebounds as a sophomore. We learned last year that Anthony Grant can coach in the SEC, and he’ll get a shot to move up in the world if the Tide can build off last year’s moderate success. With a soft nonconference schedule and 10 league games against West opponents, Alabama has plenty of opportunity on the horizon.
5. Auburn Tigers
Last year: 15-17 overall, 6-10 SEC, did not make tournament
Tony Barbee’s first year and a new arena are the big storylines for the Tigers, and that should deflect some attention away from what happens on the court. The Tigers lost a slew of seniors, but return Frankie Sullivan and Brendon Knox as an inside-outside combo. Auburn isn’t going to make the NCAA tournament this year, but there should be some signs of life from the team and the fan base.
6. Louisiana State Tigers
Last year: 11-20 overall, 2-14 SEC, did not make tournament
The Bayou Bengals lost Tasmin Mitchell and Bo Spencer, the two best players from last year’s pitiful squad. Storm Warren averaged 12 points a game last year and was one of the most improved players in the conference, but after him, there’s not much returning. Dennis Harris is the next biggest contributor coming back, and he only averaged 4.6 points and 3.1 rebounds last year. It looks like another long year for Trent Johnson.