In 2014, Southeastern Conference members Kentucky and Florida reached the Final Four in the NCAA tournament, while Tennessee advanced to the Sweet 16. But last season the SEC took a step back. As the Wildcats rolled through the regular season undefeated, only four other teams earned NCAA tournament bids. Arkansas had the best seed of that group (No. 5), but by the second weekend of March Madness, the Wildcats were the only team still standing.
What does this season hold for a conference that’s known for its football prowess but has struggled to produce consistent basketball success outside Lexington, Ky. and Gainesville, Fla.?
Kentucky is still the overwhelming favorite, but the middle of the conference is on the upswing thanks to an influx of proven veteran coaches such as Rick Barnes (Tennessee), Bruce Pearl (Auburn) and Ben Howland (Mississippi State). Alabama made an intriguing hire in former NBA world champion and coach Avery Johnson. Altogether, six SEC teams brought in a top 25 recruiting class in 2015 and Auburn, Alabama, and of course Kentucky currently have top 10 classes in ESPN.com’s 2016 rankings.
In short, there's plenty of star power on the court, on the sidelines and on the way. Ponder these questions as the season approaches.
Will Kentucky’s defense take a step back this season?
Scoring inside against the Wildcats was a stiff challenge last season as twin towers Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein protected the rim. They ranked 1-2 in the nation in individual defensive rating, per sports-reference.com, and anchored a defense that limited opponents to 39.1 percent on 2-point attempts (2nd in nation). The Wildcats also blocked 18.2 percent of their opponent’s shots (2nd in the nation). Kentucky held SEC opponents to 0.88 points per possession, rolled into the Final Four undefeated and finished second in the KenPom.com adjusted defensive efficiency ratings for the second consecutive season.
Towns and Cauley-Stein were taken in the lottery of last June’s NBA Draft, leaving a hole in the middle of John Calipari’s defense. Well, not exactly. One of their replacements is 6-11, 225-pound freshman Skal Labissiere, an All-SEC preseason first team selection and strong candidate to be the overall No. 1 pick in next June’s draft. Labissiere, who draws some comparisons to former UK star Anthony Davis, has a 7-foot-2 wingspan and terrific mobility. He’ll get interior help from 6-8 senior forward Alex Poythress and 6-9 Marcus Lee, and the Wildcats have depth on the perimeter to apply ball pressure, but matching last season’s defensive dominance may be difficult.
How can Vanderbilt end its three-year NCAA drought?
The simple answer? Improve their defense. Vandy coach Kevin Stallings is one of the best offensive coaches in college basketball, and advanced statistics reinforced that notion yet again last season. The Commodores had the nation’s 19th most efficient offense (113.4 rating), and an effective field goal percentage of 54.4 percent (21st in the nation). In SEC games, they led the conference in 3-point shooting (39.3 pct.). A plethora of long range specialists return, and with 7-foot junior Damian Jones (14.5 ppg, 56.2 field goal percentage) operating on the low block, scoring baskets should not be a problem.
To improve a 21-14 overall record, 9-9 conference mark and join the 68-team NCAA tournament field, Vandy must upgrade a defense that was sixth in defensive efficiency in SEC games and 114th nationally. The pieces appear to be in place. Despite relying heavily on four freshmen last season, the Commodores led the SEC in 2-point defense in conference games (44.0 pct.). Luke Kornet, a 7-1 junior, returns to help Jones (2.0 blocks per game) protect the paint.
Which SEC programs are on the rise this season?
Besides the Commodores, who were picked second in the preseason poll, Texas A&M opens coach Billy Kennedy’s fifth season in position to crack the upper tier of the SEC standings and return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010-11. The Aggies were solid but not spectacular statistically in compiling a 21-12 overall record and 11-7 SEC mark last season. Point guard Alex Caruso (9.1 ppg, 5.5 apg) and forwards Jalen Jones (13.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and Danuel House (14.8 ppg) form one of the SEC’s best returning trios. A&M also welcomes a top-10 recruiting class.
South Carolina could also surprise if it shoots better (14th in SEC in 3-point percentage, 13th in 2-point percentage). Pegged for seventh place by the media, the Gamecocks add five-star point guard P.J. Dozier to a solid core that includes leading returning scorer Duane Notice (11.8 ppg). Sindarius Thornwell (11.1 ppg) battled tendinitis in both knees last season. His health could determine how it goes for coach Frank Martin, who is 15-39 in SEC games in three seasons in Columbia, S.C.
Who is the best player under the radar?
Ole Miss guard Stefan Moody.
A 5-foot-10, 179-pound guard, Moody has the highest offensive rating (111.8) of any returning high usage player in the SEC and was involved in 28.5 percent of Rebels’ possessions in 2014-15. Moody isn’t afraid to shoot - he took 30.4 percent of the team’s shots when he was in the game - and split his attempts evenly between 2-pointers and 3-pointers last season, when the Rebels slipped into the NCAA tournament, defeated BYU in the First Four, then lost to Xavier in the Round of 64. Moody averaged 16.6 points per game for coach Andy Kennedy and scored 20 points or more in 10 games, including a 26-point performance in the NCAA win over the Cougars. Clearest path to improvement for Moody? Better shot selection inside-the-arc (78 of 222 on 2-pointers, 35.1 pct.).
Who are the newcomers to know?
LSU welcomes the nation’s No. 1 recruit, versatile 6-10 forward Ben Simmons, an Australian product who is the popular choice for national Player of the Year. Any conversation of first-year SEC players continues in Lexington where Kentucky coach John Calipari, who has led the Wildcats to four Final Fours in the last five seasons, landed the No. 1 recruiting class yet again according to 247Sports Composite Team Rankings. In addition to Labissiere, the Wildcats also welcome dynamic five-star scoring guards Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe.
Mississippi State coach Ben Howland was quick to land in-state product Malik Newman, a 6-3 guard who made the preseason second team. Tyler Harris, who averaged 9.9 points for Providence last season, should make an impact as a graduate transfer at Auburn, as will fellow transfer Kareem Canty (Marshall). Sam Finley arrives at Ole Miss after averaging 12.5 points per game in one season at UC-Riverside.