The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.
As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team's first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball's 32 conferences.
Here’s our look at the SEC:
Kentucky and Texas A&M traded blows all the way to the SEC tournament championship game last season, where the Wildcats would prevail over the Aggies.
Despite UK’s triumph, these teams were about as evenly matched as possible in 2015-16. Both squads went 13-5 in SEC play and finished within a half game of one another overall; the Wildcats fell to Indiana in the second round of the NCAA tournament, while the Aggies bowed out to in the Sweet 16 to Oklahoma.
A primary SEC storyline last season was The Ben Simmons Experience at LSU. Proper title intended. Simmons was an instant Vine sensation and filled up the stat sheet on a nightly basis, but it didn’t translate to Tiger wins. LSU finished 11-7 in conference play but missed out on the NCAA tournament, which was considered a major disappointment by many. In fact, just three SEC schools reached the tournament in 2016.
The SEC would love to see that number rise in 2017, but it could be in for more of the same.
Best player/best freshman
America, meet De'Aaron Fox.A 6-4 athlete with jaw-dropping end-to-end speed, Fox should thrive in John Calipari’s guard-friendly system. Coach Cal has molded players such as Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe and Tyler Ulis during his coaching career, and Fox figures to be the latest backcourt stud to emerge from the Calipari tree.
Fox has great size and athleticism for the point guard position, and he’ll make life difficult for SEC opponents with his physical tools and high motor. He still has some work to do on offense, but to deem Fox “raw” would be unfair; his skill level is solid, but it’s not quite on par with his athletic ability at this point. Blend that mix together, and you have an SEC Player of the Year candidate.
It would be reckless to go with anyone other than Kentucky at this point.
Given their crop of incoming talent, we don’t know what exactly the Wildcats will look like yet, but we’re pretty certain they’ll win a ton of games. For example: last season, Skal Labissiere was touted as the next Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns. As it turned out, he was neither of those guys; instead, he was a stretch center that thrived on the perimeter and struggled in the trenches. By the time Kentucky figured that out, it was March.
Even so, in a “down” year, Kentucky clinched a share of the SEC regular season crown and won 26 games. This year’s group figures to be even more talented than last, and there won’t be a scarier perimeter defensive trio in the country than Fox, Isaiah Briscoe and Malik Monk. Those three are fast, explosive, like-sized and most of all, hungry; if they can develop quick chemistry, they’ll be able to switch defensive assignments on the fly and stifle opposing attacks.
Kentucky’s frontcourt looks solid, too. Derek Willis returns and the Wildcats welcome freshman Bam Adebayo, a rim-running dynamo capable of sucking in two or three defenders per roll. This all sounds great on paper, and with Calipari at the helm, UK will win plenty of games. But any Kentucky team carries uncertainty before the season, and we don’t know how good the Wildcats can be just yet.
Oh look, an SEC team not named Kentucky! Florida has missed out on the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, but that could change this season.
The Gators lose Dorian Finney-Smith, but they welcome back five of their top six scorers, and first-year head coach Mike White had Florida playing competitive basketball last year.
Florida ranked No. 14 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency in 2015-16, per KenPom. That was the second-best mark in the SEC, and there’s no reason to think the Gators will slip on that end on 2016-17. John Egbunu (1.4 blocked shots per game) is back, and as long as he’s near the rim, opponents will have a tough time finishing inside. Graduate transfer Canyon Barry averaged 19.7 points per game at Charleston last season, and he should pop up the Gator offense to a respectable level.
Since the ‘best player’ was a freshman, we’ll add one more category for this SEC preview. Antonio Blakeney was inconsistent at LSU a season ago, but he’s going to have the green light this year. Brace yourselves, because this guy can score in bunches.
Blakeney scored 20 points or more eight times last season, but he also produced his fair share of duds. Expect more of the former this season. Blakeney is a three-dimensional scorer, and while he’s undeniably streaky, his volume will increase with Simmons off to the NBA.
It would not be shocking if Blakeney drops 40 in a game this season. Whether or not any of this means LSU will have a bounceback year remains to be seen, but regardless, Blakeney is primed to break out in 2016-17.