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2020-2021 SEC basketball preview and predictions

Aaron Torres11/03/20


Article written by:On3 imageAaron Torres
<small>© Randy Sartin | USATSI</small>

© Randy Sartin | USATSI

Over the last few months, America has almost been absolutely overwhelmed by sports – which of course is a great thing. But with the NBA playoffs, the Major League playoffs, the Stanley Cup final, major college football and the NFL all being played simultaneously, it’s easy to forget one thing: We are literally three weeks away from the start of college basketball season.

And while much is still up in the air (How many games will be played? Where? Will the NCAA Tournament take place in a bubble?), the one thing we do know is that games will be played – and soon.

So with tip-off now just a few weeks away, now seems like as good a time as ever to drop official preseason SEC basketball picks and rankings.

Also, I did a detailed breakdown of the league on today’s Aaron Torres Podcast, and also welcomed Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes to the show to talk about the Vols and the SEC as a whole. You can listen to the preview and interview by clicking here or below, where the show is embedded.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the preseason SEC basketball rankings.

1. Kentucky Wildcats

Key Returnees: Keion Brooks, Dontaie Allen
Key Departures: Immanuel Quickley, Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey, Nick Richards, EJ Montgomery, Johnny Juzang (transfer)
Key Additions: Davion Mintz (grad transfer), Olivier Sarr (transfer), Jacob Toppin (transfer), BJ Boston, Terrence Clarke, Devin Askew, Isaiah Jackson, Lance Ware, Cam’Ron Fletcher

It seems like just about everyone is in agreement that it’s either Kentucky or Tennessee for the top spot in the SEC this season. I give the slight edge to Kentucky for a few different reasons.

The first is of course, that history tells you if you pick Kentucky it’s a pretty safe bet – in the last six years, Kentucky has finished first in the SEC four times, and second once (ironically, when they tied with Tennessee two years ago). The only year they finished outside the top two was the 2017-2018 season, where their entire team was made up of freshmen and sophomores. This team is young, but not that young.

More importantly, I just like the talent on this roster. With Olivier Sarr now eligible, the Wildcats once again have a legitimate All-SEC caliber center down low, a guy who rim runs, plays hard and will be as good of a rim protector as anyone in the league. He’ll be joined by another elite rim protector in Isaiah Jackson, and Terrence Clarke and BJ Boston on the wing, forming what I believe will be Kentucky’s best defensive team since 2014-2015. Heck, I’ve been saying it since May.

I also believe that Clarke and Boston can turn into elite “bucket getters” on the offensive end, again, if only because history says John Calipari will make it happen. You know, like he did with Tyler Herro. And Jamal Murray. And Malik Monk. And Devin Booker. And those are just the wing players.

Therefore, to me, this entire season – and the ability for Kentucky to bring home the school’s ninth championship – really comes down to one simple thing: How well does the point guard combination of Davion Mintz and Devin Askew hold up throughout the season?

Still, with this team’s size, athleticism, defensive prowess and a newfound depth, they are the team to beat in my opinion in the SEC.

2. Tennessee Volunteers

Key Returnees: Yves Pons, Santiago Vescovi, Jon Fulkerson, Josiah Jordan-James, Olivier Nkamhoua, Uros Plavsic, Davonte Gaines
Key Departures: Jordan Bowden, Lamonte Turner, Jalen Johnson (transfer)
Key Additions: EJ Anisoke (grad transfer), Victor Bailey (transfer), Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson, Corey Walker

If you want to argue Tennessee over Kentucky to win the SEC, that’s fine with me. It’s like choosing between chocolate or vanilla ice cream. While I’m sure some people are really passionate about one side, you really can’t go wrong no matter what you pick.

Unless you pick chocolate. Then you’re an idiot.

Just kidding.

But if you do side with the Vols, your argument is probably that they have the one thing Kentucky lacks: Continuity. In an off-season where teams have less practice time than ever and zero exhibitions or preseason scrimmages continuity matters, and Tennessee certainly has a bunch of players who’ve been there before in the SEC. John Fulkerson and Yves Pons are both back down low, as is point guard Santiago Vescovi. Vescovi in my opinion had one of the most underrated seasons of anyone in the country last year, literally arriving to the United States in January, getting thrown into the lineup a few days later, and managing to average 11 points per game in SEC play. Does anyone understand how hard that is?

And when you factor in that Tennessee also adds two five-star recruits (Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson) with one of the top grad transfers in college basketball (EJ Anisoke) the Vols have the size, athleticism and depth to compete with anyone in college basketball.

Ultimately, my only real hold up with Tennessee is this: Are we giving the Vols a little too much credit, too soon? Look, Tennessee clearly finished the season strong last year (most notably, winning at Rupp Arena) but it isn’t often I can remember a team going from “not even being projected to make the NCAA Tournament” one season, to being the “league favorite” the next.

To me, Tennessee is a legitimate Top 15 team and absolutely good enough to win the league. I’m just not sold they’re definitively better than Kentucky.

(For those interested, you can listen to my interview with Rick Barnes below)

3. LSU Tigers

Key Returnees: Trendon Watford, Darius Days, Javonte Smart, Charles Manning Jr., Aundre Hyatt
Key Departures: Emmitt Williams, Skylar Mays, Marlon Taylor, Courtese Cooper (transfer)
Key Additions: Josh Leblanc (transfer) Shareef O’Neal (transfer), Bryan Penn-Johnson (transfer), Cam Thomas, Eric Gaines, Jalen Cook, Mwani Wilkinson, Josh Gray

Let’s not beat around the bush and get straight to the point: I’m not here to tell you what to think about Will Wade. If you don’t like him, that’s your prerogative. If you don’t believe he should have a job, again, your opinion.

I’m just here to present facts. And the fact is… this team is LOADED.

First off, the Tigers probably return more high-end talent than anyone in the league, after Javonte Smart, Darius Days and Trendon Watford all elected to return to college basketball this season. Smart has the chance to be the best point guard in the league after averaging just under 13 points and four assists last year, and Watford might end up as SEC Player of the Year. He surprised just about everyone when he elected to return, after averaging just under 14 points and seven boards per game last season. Days averaged 11 himself.

So LSU not only has the most high-end talent, but the real story is everyone else they brought in this off-season. They have a Top 10 recruiting class, highlighted by shooting guard Cameron Thomas, one of the best scorers in high school basketball. And they added a bunch of depth up front, with three transfers from the high major level: Shareef O’Neal (UCLA), Josh LeBlanc (Georgetown) and Bryan Penn-Johnson (Washington). All three are at least 6’7, and both O’Neal and Penn-Johnson stand 6’11 or bigger.

Put simply, when you look at LSU’s roster, there won’t be a single team that they’re at a physical mismatch against when they step in the gym. I’m not kidding when I say that the Tigers have absolute, Final Four talent (something I’m sure Mark Emmert is thrilled to hear).

4. Alabama Crimson Tide

Key Returnees: John Petty, Herb Jones, Jaden Shackleford, Alex Reese
Key Departures: Kira Lewis, Beetle Bolden, Jaylen Forbes (transfer), Javian Davis (transfer)
Key Additions: Jordan Bruner (grad transfer), Jahvon Quinerly (transfer), Juwan Gary (redshirt), James Rojas (redshirt), Josh Primo, Keon Ambrose-Hylton, Darius Miles, Keon Ellis

Alabama is another place where the roster turnover has been insane the last year or so, and where they have the talent to compete with just about anyone in college basketball.

Like LSU and Tennessee, the Crimson Tide were big winners at the NBA Draft deadline when John Petty (14 points per game, 44 percent shooting from three-point land) and Herb Jones, a versatile wing, both elected to return. They’ll be joined by sophomore Jaden Shackleford who averaged 15 points per game as a freshman last year.

Really the story is the talent upgrade everywhere else though, where, man are the Crimson Tide loaded. Former McDonald’s All-American Jahvon Quinerly is in to run the point after transferring from Villanova, and five-star guard Josh Primo should play alongside him in the backcourt. Up front, Jordan Bruner was the top big guy on Alabama’s board this off-season, as a big, athletic rim-runner, who grad transferred from Yale. Juwan Gary and James Rojas are both players that Nate Oats believed would’ve been contributors last year, had they not each suffered a season-ending injury.

For Alabama, the talent is there and so is the style of play. The Crimson Tide actually finished third in all of college basketball last year in scoring (behind only Gonzaga and Duke) and first in three-point attempts, creating a fun system that has clearly attracted interest on the recruiting trail.

Still, their ultimate success or failure this season will be on the other end of the court. Alabama gave up 80+ points 10 different times last season (in part because of the pace they play, in part because of bad defense). They went 3-7 in those games.

That needs to get better. And I’m guessing it will.

5. Arkansas Razorbacks

Key Returnees: Desi Sills, Ethan Henderson
Key Departures: Mason Jones, Isaiah Joe, Adrio Bailey, Jimmy Whitt, Jeantal Cylla, Jalen Harris (transfer), Reggie Chaney (transfer)
Key Additions: Vance Jackson (grad transfer), Justin Smith (transfer), Jalen Tate (grad transfer), Conor Vanover (transfer), JD Notae (transfer), Moses Moody, KK Robinson, Jaylin Williams, Davonte Davis

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The roster turnover has been surreal to watch the last year or so at Arkansas. Also, stop if you’ve heard this before as well: It has led to an insanely talented team that should be able to compete with anybody in the country.

Incredibly, Arkansas lost two NBA caliber players (Mason Jones and Isaiah Joe) and probably their two other best players from last season (Jimmy White and Adrio Bailey) yet should be more talented this year than last. New Mexico transfer Vance Jackson is a skilled wing, who can handle the ball and create on offense, and I believe will be All-SEC by the end of the season. Fellow transfer Justin Smith averaged double figures at Indiana last season and Conor Vanover and JD Notae are two more transfers who will play major roles for this team. They’re joined by a four-man, Top 10 recruiting class nationally, where Moses Moody and KK Robinson are the headliners. Moody specifically should be in the running for SEC Freshman of the Year.

Just about the only thing that needs to be figured out at Arkansas is role allocation, where unlike Tennessee, LSU and Alabama, the Hogs essentially return no one who played in this program last year outside of one guy (Desi Sills). My hunch is that the staff will figure it out, and this is a team that will compete for a top four spot in the league standings.

6. South Carolina Gamecocks

Key Returnees: AJ Lawson, Jermaine Couisnard, Keyshawn Bryant, Justin Minaya, Alanzo Frink, Jalyn McCreary, Trae Hannibal, TJ Moss
Key Departures: Maik Kotsar, Jair Bolden (transfer)
Key Additions: Seventh Woods (transfer)

So while just about everyone else in this league is flipping things over like an episode of “Property Brothers” (sorry, the wife has it on in the background a lot) here is Frank Martin, just hanging out in the corner, developing his roster, bringing guys and getting them better. AJ Lawson is a future NBA guy that has the potential to be SEC Player of the Year, and Jermaine Couisnard averaged 12 a game as a freshman a year ago.

The Gamecocks success here would also play into a trend that I just don’t think many people are aware of: This team has been really, really good in SEC play the last few years. In the last five seasons, South Carolina has finished in the top-four three times, and in the top six five times. For comparison’s sake, Florida has finished in the top six just three of the last five years.

So why doesn’t South Carolina get more credit? It’s because they only have one tournament berth over that stretch (where ironically, they got to the Final Four). And they only have one NCAA Tournament berth over that stretch, in large part because they take bad losses early, in the out of conference portion of the slate.

Whether the Gamecocks can get back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2017 remains to be seen. But in the SEC, expect them to be lights out as usual.

7. Texas A&M Aggies

Key Returnees: Savion Flagg, Quenton Jackson, Emmanuel Miller, Andre Gordon, Jay Jay Chandler, Cashius McNeilly
Key Departures: Josh Nebo, Wendell Mitchell
Key Additions: Kevin Marfo (grad transfer), Jaxson Robinson, Hassan Diarra

Because the pandemic has fried all of our brains the last six months, it’s easy to forget just how big of a surprise Texas A&M was last season. In their first year under Buzz Williams, the Aggies went 10-8 in SEC play (they went 6-12 the year before), which allowed Williams to win SEC Coach of the Year. I can tell you definitively that the Aggies arrived in Nashville for the SEC Tournament believing they had a team good enough to win it.

Then the pandemic hit, all hell broke loose and the season ended. Still, for comparison’s sake, Texas A&M finished ahead of Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas in the league standings a year ago, three teams that are getting significantly more hype coming into this season.

And while Texas A&M doesn’t quite (at least not yet) have the roster to match up with some of the top teams in the league, they do have talent and you know Williams will whip them into shape. The headliner is Savion Flagg (who averaged 11 points per game last year), with two Top 100 recruits joining him on this year’s team (Jaxson Robinson, Hassan Diarra). Also, Kevin Marfo, who led all of college basketball in rebounding last year at over 14 per game, has grad transferred in from Quinnipiac.

I still think the Aggies are a year away from serious NCAA Tournament consideration. But you can slowly start to see the foundation being built in College Station.

8. Florida Gators

Key Returnees: Keyontae Johnson, Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann, Noah Locke, Ques Glover, Omar Payne,
Key Departures: Kerry Blackshear, Andrew Nembhard (transfer),
Key Additions: Tyree Appleby (transfer), Samson Ruzhentsev, Niels Lane, Osayi Osifo

Ah yes, the Florida Gators. You were probably wondering when I’d get to them. They do have one of the more talented rosters in the SEC this year. Keyontae Johnson is a potential SEC Player of the Year, and Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann and Noah Locke are all former Top 50 prospects coming out of high school. Tyree Appleby got real buzz as a sit-out transfer last season.

The thing is though, Florida always has talent. And every year they largely disappoint.

Here are the Gators’ overall marks the last three seasons:

2017–18 Florida 21–13, 11–7 (SEC)
2018–19 Florida 20–16, 9–9 (SEC)
2019–20 Florida 19–12, 11–7 (SEC)

Therefore, while you can absolutely justify having the Gators higher, I guess I’ll believe it when I see it.

This league is too tough, with too many good teams, for me to trust Florida to finish much higher.

9. Missouri Tigers

Key Returnees: Dru Smith, Xavier Pinson, Mark Smith, Jeremiah Tilmon, Javon Pickett, Kobe Brown, Mitchell Smith, Torrance Watson
Key Departures: Reed Niiko, Tray Jackson (transfer)
Key Additions: Drew Buggs (grad transfer), Ed Chang (transfer)

This is it for Cuonzo Martin. This has to be the year. There are no more excuses. If he is ever going to put it together, and turn the Tigers into a potential NCAA Tournament team, this has to be it.

Overall, Mizzou returns a staggering 88 percent of their scoring off last year’s roster, including their top seven scorers from a season ago. Beyond that, they have experience as well. Of the top five scorers from that team last year, all five are seniors or juniors coming into this year.

In the end, I know Martin has dealt with all kinds of awful injury luck the last few years, but he’s really out of excuses in 2020-2021.

This is a roster that has the capability of getting to the NCAA Tournament. Let’s see if he can get them there.

10. Auburn Tigers

Key Returnees: Devan Cambridge, Jamal Johnson, Allen Flanigan, Tyrell Jones, Jaylin Williams, Babatunde Akingbola
Key Departures: Samir Doughty, J’Von McCormick, Austin Wiley, Danjel Purifoy, Ben McLemore, Isaac Okoro
Key Additions: Sharife Cooper, JT Thor, Chris Moore, Dylan Cardwell, Justin Powell

And on the opposite spectrum of Mike White and Cuonzo Martin is Bruce Pearl. I really don’t like the talent all that much on the Auburn roster. But if there is one guy who can coach them up and get them to overachieve, it feels like it would be Pearl.

Again though, this team has just lost so, so much. Overall, their top six scorers are all gone from last season, including five seniors who played on Auburn’s Final Four team two seasons ago. And while Pearl brought in a really good recruiting class, I’m not sold any of them are ready to be stars for this team. Sharife Cooper is probably the most obvious, and Chris Moore and JT Thor are both highly-rated guys who could develop into stars down the road but just aren’t there yet.

In Bruce Pearl, I trust. The problem is, I just don’t think he has that much to work with this season.

11. Ole Miss Rebels

Key Returnees: Devontae Shuler, KJ Buffen, Khadim Sy, Luis Rodriguez, Sammy Hunter, Austin Crowley
Key Departures: Breein Tyree, Bryce Williams (transfer), Blake Hinson (transfer)
Key Additions: Romello White (grad transfer), Dimencio Vaughn (grad transfer), Jarkiel Joiner (transfer), Matthew Murrell

Of every team on this list, the one I had the most trouble slotting was Ole Miss.

On the one hand, they finished 15-17 and in 12th place in the SEC last season. The year before they made the NCAA Tournament, but largely struggled the final two months of the season. After an 13-2 start, they went just 7-11 down the stretch.

Still, there is talent on this roster.

Four of the team’s top six scorers are back, including Devontae Shuler and KJ Buffen, who both averaged double figures a season ago. Romello White is legitimately one of the best transfers in college basketball (he averaged nearly a double-double at Arizona State last season) and Jarkiel Joiner was a sit-out transfer who Davis raved about all off-season.

In the end, if there is one team that can surprise people and inch towards the upper half of this league it’s the Rebels. I just need to see it, before I believe it.

12. Mississippi State Bulldogs

Key Returnees: Abdul Ado, DJ Stewart, Iverson Molinar
Key Departures: Reggie Perry, Robert Woodard, Nick Weatherspoon, Tyson Carter, Keyshawn Feazell (transfer), Prince Oduro (transfer), Elias King (transfer)
Key Additions: Jalen Johnson (grad transfer), Javian Davis (transfer) Tolu Smith (transfer), Devion Smith

Overall, I think you could argue that the top 11 teams in the SEC are all really good and I could see a scenario where all 11 compete for a tournament berth this year.

But from there, the bottom falls out fast… and it starts with Mississippi State. Two years after making the NCAA Tournament and a season after playing itself onto the bubble, this team just isn’t all that good.

The Bulldogs lost their top six scorers off their team from a season ago, leaving a roster that basically includes an energy big guy (Abdul Ado) and two sophomore guards who were good last year but will be asked to do more than they are really capable of (DJ Stewart and Iverson Molinar). That’s it. That’s all the returning production.

To make matters worse, in a league where Kentucky, LSU, Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss and others have hit the transfer market for true difference-makers, the Bulldogs largely came up empty. Jalen Johnson was a solid mid-major player, and Javian Davis actually left Alabama because he wasn’t going to get playing time. Those were Mississippi State’s big “wins” this off-season.

So yeah, there’s just not all that much here.

Ben Howland may eek out an extra win or two based on X’s and O’s alone. But that’s the best-case scenario.

13. Vanderbilt Commodores

Key Returnees: Scottie Pippen Jr., Maxwell Evans, Dylan Disu, Jordan Wright, Ejike Obinna
Key Departures: Aaron Nesmith, Saben Lee, Clevon Brown
Key Additions: DJ Harvey (transfer), Isaac McBride (transfer), Tyrin Lawrence

Speaking of “best-case scenario” here it is for Vanderbilt: Don’t finish in last place in the SEC for a third year in a row. And I think it actually might happen.

In a lot of ways, it’s hard not to feel bad for Vandy. Two years ago they signed Darius Garland, and got a grand total of five games of out the eventual top five pick before he suffered a season ending injury. Last year, Aaron Nesmith went down after just 14 games. Nesmith too is projected as a first round NBA Draft pick, meaning Vanderbilt essentially got 21 out of 64 total games over two seasons from a pair of potential first rounders.

This year there is no first rounder, but Scottie Pippen Jr. and Dylan Disu did show flashes last winter. DJ Harvey (Notre Dame) and Isaac McBride (Kansas) are also former high-end recruits in new homes.

Plus, at the end of the day, much like Ben Howland, I expect Jerry Stackhouse to eek out a few wins on X’s and O’s alone.

The cupboard isn’t exactly full, but Stackhouse has proven to be a solid in-game coach in his time in both the pros and his one season at Vanderbilt.

14. Georgia Bulldogs

Key Returnees: Sahvir Wheeler, Toumani Camara, Tye Fagan, Christian Brown, Jaykwon Walton,
Key Departures: Anthony Edwards, Rayshaun Hammonds, Jordan Harris, Tyree Crump, Donnell Gresham, Mike Peake (transfer)
Key Additions: PJ Horne (grad transfer), Justin Kier (grad transfer), Andrew Garcia (grad transfer), Mikal Starks, Jonathan Ned, KD Johnson

Then there is Georgia, and without rubbing salt in an open wound, it ain’t going to be pretty for the Dawgs.

I’ll spare everyone an extended, detailed breakdown and just ask this: If they went 16-16 and 5-13 in the SEC (good for 13th place out of 14 teams) with Anthony Edwards, what will they do without him? To make matters worse, it isn’t just him they lost, but four of the team’s top six scorers overall.

Therefore, what it really comes down to is a couple of fringe Top 100 recruits and grad transfers meshing together and overachieving in one of the toughest leagues in college basketball.

Call me dubious. I don’t see it happening.

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