SEC Basketball Tiers - Version 1.0 (Preseason)

Brandon Ramseyby:Brandon Ramsey11/02/23

BRamseyKSR

You can almost hear the squeaking of the shoes and the bouncing of the ball in the distance. Monday, November 6th is almost here. There will be nearly 200 games featuring a Division I program tipping off on that opening night.

However, the season will somewhat ease into the real fun. For many folks, the Champions Classic on November 14th is the real start to the college basketball season. Others may wait until the great tip-off tournaments that take place around Thanksgiving. Regardless, there will be basketball back on our televisions very, very soon. For SEC Basketball fans we will obviously have to wait a bit for league play, but that doesn’t mean we can’t prognosticate where everyone stands entering the 2023-2024 season. Remember, it just means more.

In recent years the Southeastern Conference has been on the rise on the hardwood. Even as the Kentucky Wildcats have faced a decline, other programs have found their footing. Coach Nate Oats at Alabama and Coach Eric Musselman at Arkansas have taken college basketball by storm. Texas A&M has built a strong program under Coach Buzz Williams. Coach Rick Barnes has Tennessee rolling as does Coach Bruce Pearl at Auburn. SEC Basketball is producing NBA talent left and right. Gone are the days of this just being a football conference.

During the season we will revisit this list every month or so to take a reset of where things stand. For now, as we get set to begin the season, it’ll serve as our unofficial preseason rankings. Who can win the league? Which teams will outperform expectations? Who are the cellar-dwellers? We will cover all of that and more here in Version 1.0 of our SEC Basketball tiers.

Tier 1 – The Clear Favorite

1. Tennessee Volunteers – In the past three seasons, the Volunteers have finished in the top five of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Last year, the Vols were the best defensive team in the country. Coach Barnes should once again have one of the top defensive units in college basketball. Zakai Zeigler will need to be healthy for Tennessee to win the SEC, but they proved themselves even without Zeigler and Santiago Vescovi in a charity exhibition win over Michigan State. Northern Colorado transfer Dalton Knecht adds some elite three-point shooting and junior big man Jonas Aidoo appears ready to make a leap.

Tier 2 – SEC Championship Contenders

2. Texas A&M Aggies – The Aggies have become a media darling heading into this season. They were the surprise of SEC Basketball last season rattling off a 15-3 league record to finish second place. Coach Williams returns four starters and eight rotation players. That alone means you probably deserve to be picked second. However, Texas A&M won 11 games last season when scoring less than 70 points. That is generally not a sustainable recipe for success. The Aggies are a poor shooting team that also forces opponents to take a lot of threes. Calling them lucky last season would be unfair, but there was some luck to winning 17 of their last 20 regular season games.

3. Kentucky Wildcats – There is likely no team in the SEC that has a higher ceiling than the Kentucky Wildcats. Coach Calipari has an elite crop of freshmen, returned Antonio Reeves, and landed Tre Mitchell in the transfer portal. However, five-star center Aaron Bradshaw and high-upside shot blocker Ugonna Onyenso are currently injured. Additionally, late addition Zvonimir Ivisic from Croatia hasn’t been granted NCAA eligibility yet. Without any of those three, primarily Bradshaw, the ‘Cats likely are not a contender to win the SEC. With two or all three of those names though they would be right with Tennessee atop the projected standings.

4. Arkansas Razorbacks – Nobody has played the transfer portal like Coach Musselman. This season will be no different as the Razorbacks will feature up to six transfers in their rotation. There are also some returning pieces, including a healthy Trevon Brazile, who have very high expectations. If Brazile is the All-SEC performer that some expect him to be it’ll lead to Arkansas punching up towards the top of the SEC standings.

Tier 3 – NCAA Tournament Teams

5. Florida Gators – If you want an SEC Basketball team to buy stock in, look no further than the Florida Gators. Year one didn’t go great for Coach Todd Golden, but he was a sneaky winner of the transfer portal and returns sophomore Riley Kugel who could emerge as an All-SEC type of player this season. Walter Clayton Jr. was the MAAC Player of the Year at Iona last season and should take over point guard duties in Gainesville. Down low, Tyrese Samuel (Seton Hall) and Micah Handlogten (Marshall) will look to fill the shoes of Colin Castleton. UC Riverside’s Zyon Pullin will add some more dynamic playmaking in the backcourt as well. There is a lot to like about this team on paper.

6. Auburn Tigers – Betting against Coach Bruce Pearl is not a winning proposition. He is always going to put a talented backcourt on the floor and returns a very good, deep frontcourt. Johni Broome could be a First-Team All-SEC guy after averaging 14.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game last season. Jaylin Williams, Dylan Cardwell, and Chris Moore are all back as well. At guard, there will be some new faces next to K.D. Johnson. Incoming freshman Aden Holloway could take the reins from day one at point while FIU transfer Denver Jones brings in 20.1 points per game. As always, this will be a fun team to watch.

7. Alabama Crimson Tide – There is a ton of turnover in Tuscaloosa. Brandon Miller and Noah Clowney went #2 and #21 respectively in the NBA Draft. Those are obviously tough, or impossible, shoes to fill. In total, eight of the top 10 scorers from last season’s Alabama team are gone. Furthermore, Coach Nate Oats had to hire a completely new assistant coaching staff as all three earned head coaching opportunities. That doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare though. Mark Sears returns and the Crimson Tide landed two of the biggest prizes in the transfer portal in Aaron Estrada (Hofstra) and Grant Nelson (North Dakota State). There is enough talent here, coupled with their style of play, to make it to March Madness for the fourth straight season.

Tier 4 – Knocking on the Door

8. Mississippi State Bulldogs – If Tolu Smith was fully healthy this team would likely make the NCAA Tournament. The 6’11” fifth-year player is one of the best frontcourt pieces in the SEC. It sounds like he may be out until around the first of the year. Then, it got worse as backup forward KeShawn Murphy will miss time as well. The addition of Andrew Taylor will give the backcourt an additional punch including some much-needed shooting. There are several versatile pieces on the perimeter that will still make the Bulldogs a competitive team. However, the uncertainty surrounding Smith and his health makes it hard to envision enough early-season success for this team to survive into March.

9. Missouri Tigers – Coach Dennis Gates had an excellent first season in CoMo. He took over a 12-21 team and flipped it into a 25-10 season and a second-round trip to the NCAA Tournament. There is a lot to replace, including All-SEC performer Kobe Brown. However, Coach Gates hit the portal hard and brought in five guys to fill in the gaps. There is a chance the Tigers starting five features all graduate students. Missouri will be old, but will they be talented enough? Only time will tell. Caleb Grill (Iowa State) and John Tonje (Colorado State) will likely determine Mizzou’s ceiling.

10. Ole Miss Rebels – An ugly exit from Texas notwithstanding, Coach Chris Beard is one of the best basketball minds in the sport. He joins the SEC Basketball scene as yet another well-known, successful coach for year one in Oxford. Productive starters Matthew Murrell and Jaemyn Brakefield return, but otherwise, Coach Beard wasted no time upgrading through the transfer portal. Awaiting waivers for Brandon Murray and Moussa Cisse puts the ceiling very much in question though. Jaylen Murray, Allen Flanigan, Jamarion Sharp, and Austin Nunez will be contributors, but the Rebels will need the NCAA to unlock their two most talented transfers. With them, they belong at the top of this tier. However, until then, they will live here at the bottom.

Tier 5 – Life in the Cellar

11. Vanderbilt Commodores – Ezra Manjon and Tyrin Lawrence are a good enough backcourt to win some SEC Basketball games. Are transfers Evan Taylor (Lehigh) and Ven-Allen Lubin (Notre Dame) enough to move the needle forward? Probably not with Coach Jerry Stackhouse’s roster getting depleted from graduation and the portal. Five primary rotation players are gone including two that transferred to rival SEC programs.

12. South Carolina Gamecocks – Coach Lamont Paris was always going to take some lumps in year one. He did the same in his first two seasons at Chattanooga before going 65-29 in his final three years. The Gamecocks have a veteran roster and some legitimate SEC-level talent. Former Ohio State transfer Meechie Johnson was very good last season averaging 12.7 points and 3.6 assists per game. Minnesota transfer Ta’Lon Cooper will help take some playmaking pressure off of him this time around. Cooper averaged 6.3 assists per game in the Big Ten last season. Meanwhile, three more transfers will likely start for South Carolina. Myles Stute, an excellent catch-and-shoot threat from Vanderbilt, along with Stephen Clark from The Citadel and BJ Mack from Wofford down low. Those two 6’8″ graduate transfers averaged 16.3 and 16.6 points per game respectively at their previous stops.

13. LSU Tigers – The first and most important news came on Wednesday as the NCAA denied Jalen Cook‘s two-time transfer waiver. After beginning his career in Baton Rouge, Cook averaged 19.9 points per game as a junior at Tulane. That will force Coach Matt McMahon into a point guard by committed situation. Jordan Wright (Vanderbilt), Will Baker (Nevada), Carlos Stewart (Santa Clara), and Daimion Collins (Kentucky) were the other transfer portal additions for LSU. There are just too many backcourt questions to have a very positive outlook for the Tigers this season.

14. Georgia Bulldogs – Georgia will be betting heavily on transfers and freshmen in 2023-2024. One of the more intriguing pieces is reigning Division II National Player of the Year RJ Sunahara, who provides some real versatility as a 6’8″ wing. Can he make the transition from DII to SEC Basketball? Illinois transfer RJ Melendez is another higher-upside piece that could get Georgia out of the cellar. However, relying on Niagara transfer Noah Thomasson and returning senior guard Justin Hill in the backcourt just doesn’t move the needle much against other SEC backcourts.

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