SEC Basketball 2017-18 Conference Preview

More seasons than not, the SEC is viewed as “Kentucky and then everyone else,” by those unfamiliar to the conference. Even when teams like Florida have been good, or McDonald’s All-Americans like Malik Newman have been in the conference, Kentucky has always been heads above the rest of the conference. That will remain true this season, but on a smaller level. The SEC will be very good this season, and have loads of talent all across the board.

Projected Finishes

  1. Kentucky – This Kentucky team has the talent in the freshman class that rivals Wall/Cousins/Bledsoe, Davis/Kidd-Gilchrist & Towns/Booker/Lyles. The issue is this Kentucky team has ZERO upperclassmen. The Wildcats have one returner who played significant minutes last season. That will cause some growing pains initially. Eventually, I expect the trio of Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo and Quade Green to run this team. Calipari is great at getting players to buy into their roles and Kentucky is littered with guys who serve specific roles.
  2. Florida – Nipping on the heels of the young Wildcats will be Mike White’s Florida Gators. The Gators return a back court of KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza, who each serve different purposes on the floor. Allen led the team in scorring, while Chiozza is more defensive minded. The Gators also add two Top 100 recruits to a front court that brings back John Egbunu and Kevarrius Hayes.
  3. Texas A&M – The Aggies have my Player of the Year pick in Robert Williams. Williams impacts the game on both ends of the floor and I think will take a giant step forward this year. A&M gets back most of it’s production from last year. Joining Williams, Tyler Davis, DJ Hogg and Admon Gilder bring back a strong core from last season. Freshman JJ Caldwell and Savion Flagg only add to the depth of this team.
  4. Alabama – Alabama could be the third best team in the SEC, but uncertainty regarding Colin Sexton forces me to put them below A&M. Sexton is a tremendous and exciting player. If deemed eligible, he we be one of the best players in the conference. In addition, Alabama returns basically everyone from last year and is one of the more veteran teams in the conference. Add to the mix another Top 100 player in John Petty and Alabama will be good. A cleared Sexton will make them great.
  5. Missouri – Missouri is one of the most interesting teams in the country, let alone conference. Obviously they have Michael Porter Jr, potential #1 pick and the 1A/1B recruit in the country with Bagley. The challenge will be mixing a strong freshman class, which also includes Jeremiah Tillmon, Blake Harris and Johntay Porter, with returning players like Kevin Puryear and Terrence Phillips. The talent is there for Mizzou to compete, the question is will they?
  6. Arkansas – Arkansas showed everyone last year that they are a tough out. They’re chaotic defense causes fits for opponents, as Seton Hall learned, and UNC was lucky enough to escape. That defense will remain a constant this season. The Razorbacks also have a good tandem in Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford to lead the charge.
  7. Vanderbilt – Vanderbilt was an NCAA Tourny team last year, and should have won their first game if not for some late mishaps. The Commodores bring back a trio set on not making the same mistake twice. Seniors Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis and Jeff Roberson will give Vandy strong leadership to compete in a tough SEC. And with the home court advantage they have, that’s all they can ask for.
  8. Auburn – This is an important year for Bruce Pearl and Auburn. For one, they have the FBI Investigation looming over them. Next, they have multiple players suspended indefinitely to start the season. Third, Auburn has under performed despite strong recruiting classes the past two years. Bruce Pearl has brought in five Top 100 recruits during his time as head coach, and he will bring in two more this season. This should add up to wins eventually, but it hasn’t yet.
  9. Mississippi State – Similar to Bruce Pearl and Auburn, Mississippi State returns a great 2016 recruiting class that featured four Top 100 recruits. Ben Howland has another Top 100 recruit in Nick Weatherspoon coming in. Add to this youthful mix, All-SEC second team Quindarry Weatherspoon and you should expect the Bulldogs to make a jump from last season.
  10. Ole Miss – Andy Kennedy sees his leading scorer return in Deandre Burnett. Burnett will get assistance on offense from Terence Davis, who averaged 15 points a game last year. Those two should be able to handle a the timely baskets, and Memphis transfer Markel Crawford should pitch in as well. Combined, these three should ease the pain of losing Sebastian Saiz.
  11. Georgia – The Bulldogs have one of the best players in the conference in Yante Maten. He’s a SEC Player of the Year candidate despite a Georgia being so lowly ranked. The problem is behind Yaten there isn’t much of anything. JJ Frazier is gone and unless someone else steps up, it’ll be a one man show in Athens.
  12. South Carolina – South Carolina’s run last year was nothing short of incredible. With Frank Martin inspiring on the sidelines, you can expect Carolina to compete on a nightly basis. The issue is the talent. The gamecocks lost a lot from last year’s Final Four club. Chris Silva is their most experienced returner but he was not a go to scorer on offense. There is a lot of opportunity for players to step up this year.
  13. LSU – Will Wade is turning LSU around, but he may need another year to really make an impact. Antonio Blakeney leaving hurts for this year, but LSU does have scorers coming back in Duop Reath and Brandon Sampson. Newcomers Tremont Waters (ESPN #34 recruit) and Randy Onwuasor (So. Utah transfer) will help as well, but LSU is a year away from making a significant jump in the conference.
  14. Tennessee – Tennessee returns two of its top four scorers, but combined they account for 20 points a game. Tennessee lacks size. Their three biggest players are a junior (Kyle Alexander) who averaged 3 points and 4 rebounds last year, and two freshman (Zach Kent and John Fulkerson). Struggle to score and lack of size does not bode well against the Kentuckys, Floridas and Texas A&Ms of the world.

Projected Awards

Player of the Year – Robert Williams (Texas A&M)

Maten and Porter Jr will be names tossed around for this award all year, but I’m going with Williams making a big jump in his second year. He passed on the NBA to return and better his draft stock. Dominating a on both ends in what is a much better SEC Conference will surely do that. His ability to block shots at a high rate, as well as bring in double-doubles nightly make him more than qualified to be POY.

Freshman of the Year –  Michael Porter Jr (Missouri)

Kevin Knox and Colin Sexton are going to be tremendous to watch. They are not Michael Porter Jr. The hybrid 3/4 will be dynamic for Missouri. This Tigers group is in need of a leading scorer, someone who can take over. Porter will be that guy and as the season goes on, he will get more and more sets run for him specifically to break down his defender and score.

Coach of the Year – Mike White (Florida)

Finishing behind Kentucky is no easy task, when A&M and Alabama are as good as they are this year. The difference between one and four is as minimal as its ever been in the SEC. I think White will have his Gator team behind Kentucky all season. I think he’ll cause fits defensively for the conference’s diaper dandies and have Florida marching into the tournament ready to make a run.

Projected All SEC Teams

First Team *

Robert Williams – Texas A&M

Yante Maten – Georgia

Michael Porter Jr – Missouri

Kevin Knox – Kentucky

Quindarry Weatherspoon – Mississippi State

Second Team

Colin Sexton – Alabama

Austin Wiley – Auburn

KeVaughn Allen – Florida

Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky

Matthew Fisher-Davis – Vanderbilt

*Pending Sexton’s eligibility, if cleared sooner than later, he will be First Team All-SEC

Avoiding the Sophomore Slump This Season

The sophomore season is an interesting year for players in college basketball. For some freshman, it’s a year to build on what may have been a underwhelming first year. For others, it’s an attempt to avoid a sophomore slump, after breaking onto the scene and dazzling from the very start. The seven players below had very different freshman campaigns, but they all have one thing in common. They must avoid the hyperbole sophomore slump in order to help their respective team win this year.

Payton Pritchard – Oregon

Payton Pritchard is one of the few returning players from the Duck’s Final Four team last season. Playing a limited scoring role last season due to the heavy back court depth, Pritchard finished eighth in assists in the Pac 12 with 3.6 assists a game. Pritchard will take on more of a scoring role this season, but will likely not be Oregon’s go-to scorer. That role will go to incoming freshman Troy Brown. With Brown taking a bulk of the scoring, Pritchard will be in charge of facilitating the offense and being the Duck’s number two scorer. After spending the summer playing on the U19 FIBA World Cup team, I expect Pritchard to be a leader for the Ducks in his second year.

VJ King – Louisville

Everyone knows about the coaching change at Louisville, which will affect the team this season. Also a factor is the suspension of incoming freshman Brian Bowen. Bowen was a heralded recruit, expecting to take over a bulk of the scoring left by Donovan Mitchell. Now with Bowen’s status for the season uncertain, a hole is left on the wing. Enter VJ King. King is expected by many to be the team’s breakout player this year. Starting in seven games, he led the team in free throw and three-point percentage, but his attempts were low. Louisville is notorious for having good front court depth, but often lacks the ability to spread teams out from deep. Incoming freshman Jordan Nwora was brought in to help, but if King can lead the Cards in these shooting categories again, while putting up more volume, he will fill a big hole for Louisville this season.

 

Temple Gibbs – Notre Dame

Gibbs served a modest role last season, rotating in with upperclassmen Matt Farrell, Steve Vasturia and VJ Beachem. With Farrell the only one in that group set to return, expect Mike Brey to demand a lot more out of Gibbs this season.  Notre Dame has a reputation of guard development. Matt Farrell and Demetrius Jackson are two of the more recent examples of players who improved vastly year over year at ND. Gibbs looks next in line to follow this lineage. With 27 points per game needing to be accounted for between Beachem and Vasturia, the Irish will need Gibbs to step up and handle a portion of that.

Miles Bridges – Michigan State

This seems like an obvious one seeing as Brides was an assumed one-and-done player. Not many counted on him sticking around, as he was expected to be a lottery pick in this past draft. The freshman wing showed an unmatched athleticism last season, and has a body that is ready for the NBA. After deciding to come back for a sophomore campaign, Bridges’ presence has catapulted Sparty to a Preseason Top 5 team. Last year Michigan State was young and inexperienced; this year they are mature and, talented and deep. Bridges is the key to a Final Four run for Tom Izzo’s club this year.

Andrew Jones – Texas

There was a lot to be excited about in Austin thanks to the recruiting class Shaka Smart brought in. That excitement elevated when Andrew Jones withdrew his name from the NBA Draft. Jones was the Longhorn’s second leading scorer last year, not including Tevin Mack who was suspended after 15 games. He led the team in 3-point percentage and will be a leader on a team that will rely heavily on the contribution of their newly arrived freshman. I expect Jones to raise his scoring efficiency this year and be the center point of the Longhorn’s offense. If not, Texas will fail to see the Big Dance yet again.

Robert Williams – Texas A&M

Williams was another player who some thought would jump to the NBA after one year due to this great play as a freshman. The Louisiana native took home SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors, as well as Second Team All-SEC. Williams averaged just shy of 12 points per game last year and led the Aggies with 8 rebounds per contest. His efficiency and defensive prowess will make for a good career at the next level, when the time comes. Williams owns any paint he’s in. His near 2.5 blocks per game to go along with those 8 rebounds prove that. He will need to build on his 55% shooting and continue to be efficient on offense for Texas A&M to succeed. With a non conference schedule that includes West Virgina, USC and Arizona, Williams needs to be big for the Aggies this year.

Amir Coffey – Minnesota

Minnesota enjoyed one of its best seasons in recent years despite a first round NCAA Tournament upset in which many viewed them as the underdog. The Gophers bring back a lot of last year’s team, including senior Nate Mason. While Mason was the team’s leading scorer, Amir Coffey will be a key piece to a second straight tournament appearance. Coffey was the perfect “complimentary” piece next to Mason last year. He finished second on the team in scoring, assists and steals per game. He led the team in scoring on several occasions last season. With Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan all losing big pieces to last year’ teams, there is a chance for Minnesota to finish in the top three of the conference. Coffey will need to repeat, if not increase that production for Minnesota to finish near the top of the Big ten.

Honorable Mentions:

Bruce Brown (Miami) – Brown will be a stud at Miami this season. With the return of Ja’Quan Newton and a (hopefully) healthy Lonnie Walker, he will not be leaned on as heavily as the guys above.

Maceij Bender (WVU) – Bender only played 6 minutes a game last season, but will play a huge role for West Virginia while Esa Ahmad sits the first half of the season due to suspension. 

Ty Jerome (Virginia) – London Perrantes finally graduated (really, he did). Tony Bennett will give the keys to Jerome now to drive the Cavaliers through an always rigorous ACC schedule. 

Rawle Alkins (Arizona) – Alkins will miss the beginning of the season due to a foot injury. His injection into the line up mid year could catapult the Wildcats at the right time, and Sean Miller might finally get into a Final Four. 

Jeff Dowtin (Rhode Island) – Dowtin came on strong down the stretch for coach Danny Hurley and Rhode Island. I expect him to be an even better distributor than he was last year, and Rhode Island to dance again in March.