The SEC is back.
The league that had been much dominated by Kentucky and Florida for a spell is now as deep as it’s been in years with the possibility that a minimum of two-thirds of the league can feel like they have a legitimate shot to be in the NCAA tournament.
Of course, that number may dwindle, based on non-conference resumes, but it gives renewed hope on campuses throughout the league. There’s no reason why the SEC can’t always be a major player in college basketball beyond a handful of teams. The resources, talent and interest is in place for everyone of the 14 teams to be successful.
Here are the 14 storylines that have me intrigued heading into the fall semester:
1. How will Reid Travis, P.J. Washington and Nick Richards all work together? They all seemed to blend quite well on the Wildcats’ trip to the Bahamas. So this may be a non-issue. And these are the types of problems John Calipari likes to have where he has to mesh talent of all sorts. Travis is the most interesting of the lot. The Wildcats have done their best work when they have at least one veteran to lean on in the locker room. Travis is a seasoned college player who can be a double-double lock like he was at Stanford. Travis could end up being the most important grad transfer ever if he helps deliver a national title for Kentucky.
2. How will Tennessee handle expectations of being a favorite in the conference? The core of the Volunteers all return. This was a Tennessee team that surprised everyone in the SEC with a run to the top of the standings and a share of the conference championship with Auburn. Now, the expectation is to do it again. Grant Williams was the SEC player of the year, which wasn’t predicted in the preseason. He will be in the mix to win the honor again— but this time as one of the favorites in a loaded individually-talented league.
3. How does Auburn learn to play with Austin Wiley again? Wiley was suspended for last season, yet the Tigers were able to shock — like the Volunteers — the SEC and win a share of the title. It may have been Bruce Pearl’s best coaching job. He had to adapt and try different combinations despite injuries and attribution due to suspension. The 6-11 Wiley averaged eight points and nearly five boards in just 18 minutes a game two seasons ago. Those numbers will surely climb this season. He could be one of the most important bigs in the SEC outside of Kentucky’s Reid Travis if he can have an impactful season.
4. How does the big four at Mississippi State handle the pressure to deliver a bid? Nick Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters, Quinndary Weatherspoon and Aric Holman all could have left the Bulldogs for some sort of professional career. They considered it. But all returned, giving Mississippi State its top four returning scorers from a team that went to the NIT semifinal. The schedule has more quality games, the team should be much improved and the expectation is that Mississippi State will be a contender in the SEC and a lock for the NCAA tournament. Now the Bulldogs’ big four has to deliver.
5. How can Florida replace Chris Chiozza? There weren’t too many players who defined their teams as much as Chiozza did for the Gators the last few seasons. He was their bail-out guard, the player who could create shots, score and help out in a tight situation. He was also a tough player to keep in front of an opposing defender. But his eligibility is up, and now Mike White’s crew will have a new identity. It’s probably time for KeVaughn Allen to emerge as much more of a player of record on the Gators. His production dipped last season, but he has the tools to be more of a go-to guy for Florida this season.
6. What will LSU’s vaunted recruiting class do for the Tigers? LSU has one of the more under-appreciated players in the league and the country in Tremont Waters. The sophomore guard returns to be a potential all-American and certainly All-SEC guard. But if LSU is going to get to the NCAA tournament then it will have to rely on the big-time class of Nazreon Reid, Emmitt Williams, Javonte Smart and Darius Days. This foursome offers size, athleticism and plenty of intrigue for the Tigers to make hoops a happening again in Baton Rouge. Ben Simmons couldn’t deliver a bid. Can this group?
7. Who will dominate Alabama? Collin Sexton was one of my favorite players to watch last season. He left and will be an impact for the Cavaliers as a rookie. The Tide have talent back in Donta Hall, Dazon Ingram and John Petty to just name a few. Let’s assume this team is healthy after being riddled with injuries last season. If that’s the case, then Avery Johnson’s crew may not be dominated by one player exclusively, and that’s okay. There may be much more depth with this crew and options for Johnson. He may not have as exciting and tough a defensive player as Sexton, but this team should be back in the mix for a bid based on its overall depth.
8. How will Jontay Porter handle all of the attention at Mizzou? Michael Porter Jr., Jontay’s brother, isn’t coming back. He’s in the NBA, and there’s no reason to discuss his presence, injury or anything this season. Jontay stepped up and filled the void last season with a surprising season (maybe not to him or coach Cuonzo Martin). Porter flirted with joining his brother in the draft but comes back after averaging 9.9 points and 6.8 boards. The 6-11 Porter can be an anchor for Mizzou, rim protector and shoulder much more of the load. He has the chops to help get the Tigers back to the NCAA tournament.
9. Could South Carolina’s Chris Silva be the SEC player of the year? There’s a chance. If the Gamecocks can get the scoring they need on the perimeter and solid point guard play, then Silva could be free to put up monster numbers. Silva has seen his numbers climb each of his three seasons. He has done what most players do under Frank Martin — continued to improve. His rebounding numbers got better each of his first three seasons. He knows how to handle the rigors of the SEC. If the Gamecocks can compete for an NCAA tournament berth, then Silva will be the reason and in the mix for the player of the year honor.
10. How soon before Vanderbilt’s recruiting class pushes the Commodores up the SEC standings? Bryce Drew has worked tirelessly to put the Commodores in position to land quality players and be a threat in the league over the past year. He landed Darius Garland, Simi Shittu and Aaron Nesmith, a point guard and two forwards, respectively. This Commodores team will be young but much more talented than a year ago. And the Commodores rise means the SEC gets even deeper.
11. How will Texas A&M handle the talent drain? Losing Tyler Davis and Robert Williams is a big hit. But the Aggies have been able to withstand transition under Billy Kennedy. And there is plenty of reason to believe TJ Starks and Savion Flagg can be the anchors to keep the Aggies relevant throughout the season. There is a lot to replace here, but the Aggies haven’t disappointed under Kennedy in terms of versatility and active players around the rim. This will be one of those SEC teams that should clearly be a much different product in February than what you see in November.
12. How will Daniel Gafford handle being the BMOC for Arkansas? Gafford could have flirted with leaving, but his return for his sophomore season gives Mike Anderson an anchor to build around this season. The 6-11 Gafford averaged nearly a dozen points and six boards a game. He averaged two blocks a game. He only took on average seven shots. That has to and will likely increase. If he can be a player who commands the attention and thrives off it, then the Hogs should be a postseason team.
13. How soon before Georgia fits Tom Crean’s style? I’ll say early and often. Crean has been going at warp speed since he arrived in Athens. That shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. He will want to get up and down with the Bulldogs, play up tempo and wide open. But the players have to be in condition and ready for a shift. If social media is any indication, then Crean has the buy-in already. Adjusting the talent always takes a bit of time, but he should have this crew ready to be all in from day one. Georgia should be one of the more intriguing teams to watch in the SEC. They’ve always had loads of potential – maybe this season they’ll maximize on that talent. because there has always been loads of potential.
14. How soon before Kermit Davis leaves his imprint on Ole Miss? Davis is already doing that this summer with the Rebels’ trip to Canada. Ole Miss is going through a transition of talent, something that was already occurring under Andy Kennedy. Look, AK had to deal with poor facilities and then benefited at the end of his tenure with new arena. But sometimes schools believe a change is needed for a new jolt. Davis can deliver that. He has maximized talent at every stop, always doing a lot with a little. Kennedy was one of the more entertaining and quotable coaches in the SEC. And Davis was extremely complimentary to Kennedy during a chat with NCAA.com earlier in the summer. There’s no reason to believe that the success Kennedy had at Ole Miss at times can’t be duplicated by Davis. And with time to recruit to the new facilities, possibly exceeded.
NCAA bound: Kentucky, Tennessee, Auburn, Mississippi State, Florida, LSU, Alabama.
On the bubble: Missouri, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Arkansas.