Yesterday, we kicked off our basketball coverage by looking at my projected Bottom 7 teams in the SEC this year. Today, we’re going to break down the Top 7 teams. I think the SEC gets 8 teams into the NCAA Tournament this year (all 7 of these teams and either Vanderbilt or Missouri). Where do I have Auburn on this list? Well find out below....
Collin Sexton may be gone but Alabama got almost everyone else back for this season. In a late move, Alabama found its replacement for Sexton in point guard in Kira Lewis Jr. who reclassified to be eligible to play this year. They also added Tevin Mack, a transfer from Texas to the fold. Herb Jones, John Petty, Dazon Ingram and Donta Hall all return but the one thing that the Tide will have to do this year is shoot the ball better, especially on the road. I think they will find their way into the NCAA Tournament and their fantastic non-conference schedule should help their cause. The Tide host Arizona, Penn State, and Murray State, play in the Charleston Classic, and travel to play at UCF and Stephen F. Austin, one of the best mid-majors in the country.
6. Mississippi State
I think 6 SEC schools are worthy of being a part of the Preseason Top 25. Mississippi State is the first of those schools we will talk about. Ben Howland has done a terrific job rebuilding the program in Starkville. Both of the Weatherspoon brothers return as does Lamar Peters, shot blocker Abdul Ado and Aric Holman. The Bulldogs were close to returning to the NCAA Tournament last season and finished the year making the Final Four of the NIT. One of the biggest negatives about Mississippi State last year was their dreadful non-conference schedule. That’s not the case this year as the Bulldogs will host Cincinnati and BYU, play at Dayton, play Clemson in Newark, New Jersey and travel to Vegas to play Arizona State and possibly Saint Mary’s.
LSU made one of the best hires in the country last year when they hired Will Wade to replace Johnny Jones. I constantly sang Wade’s praises last year and he’s got an even better squad this year in his second year with the Bayou Bengals. These Tigers are led by sophomore guard Tremont Waters who may be one of my favorite players in the league for his ability to score and make all of his teammates better around him. LSU also has an extremely talented freshmen class coming in as well. The biggest (literally) of these freshman is 6’10” Naz Reid who has a 7’5” wingspan that will cause matchup nightmares for most teams. The matchup between him and Austin Wiley will be a fascinating one to watch to say the least. In addition, the Tigers added 6’11” transfer Kavell Bigby-Williams from Oregon. LSU will play this season with a heavy heart after the tragic loss of Wayde Sims who was shot and killed in Baton Rouge a few weeks ago. As for LSU’s schedule, the Tigers host Memphis, play at Houston, play Saint Mary’s in Las Vegas and participate in the AdvoCare Invitational at Disney World where they could matchup with Florida State and Villanova.
I have Florida higher than most folks but the Gators also seem to find a way to finish in the Top 4 of the conference and I think they will again this season. Guard play will be their strength this year as seniors Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen return for Florida and Mike White continues to bring in elite talent to Gainesville. Keep an eye out for freshmen Andrew Nembhard, a five star recruit who could be one of the best point guards in the SEC this year. Many wondered how White would do taking the place of Billy Donovan but White has done an outstanding job keeping this program at the top of the SEC. The Gators host Michigan State and Butler and play West Virginia in New York City. The Gators also play in the prestigious Battle 4 Atlantis where they will face Oklahoma and possibly Wisconsin and Virginia. They also have one of the best opening games as they travel to Tallahassee to play Florida State on Opening Night.
The last time we saw Tennessee last year was against Sister Jean’s Team in which the Ramblers knocked the Vols out of the tournament in the Round of 32. The Volunteers return all five starters from last year’s team including SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield (who I swear was there when Bruce coached at Tennessee), Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bone. The Vols have a great non-conference schedule as they will matchup with Gonzaga in Phoenix, Louisville in Brooklyn and either Kansas or Marquette in Brooklyn as well. They also travel to Memphis to play a rejuvenated Memphis Tigers team. As Bruce Pearl has done here in Auburn, Rick Barnes has built a great program in Knoxville and the Vols will be one of the SEC’s multiple contenders at a Final Four.
Like Tennessee, Auburn will have a veteran-laden team this season, something that you don’t see all too often in college basketball anymore. The reason I have Auburn over Tennessee is the return of Austin Wiley to this Tigers team. I fully expect Wiley to have a monster season in the SEC and he has plenty of motivation after having to sit out all of last year. With 90% of the primary rotation consisting of seniors and juniors, along with a team that has NCAA Tournament experience, the hashtag Unfinished Business is fitting for this year’s team. This team has the talent and the ability to make the program’s first ever Final Four. The biggest question marks for this team will be team chemistry and defense. Last season, the chemistry was spectacular throughout the majority of the season. Will Auburn have the chemistry on the same level as last year? That will be a tall task. Also, will Auburn play with the same defensive intensity that they played with for the majority of last season? The other fascinating question going into the season is what will the rotations be like, who’s going to play where and how much? Auburn can go big or go small at any point and seeing how Bruce uses the depth he has on this team is one of the most fascinating things I’m looking forward to watching.
And the team I’m picking to win the SEC this year is...…
Yes, I put Kentucky above Auburn and here’s the reason why.. this should be John Calipari’s best team since they won it all with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in 2012. Kentucky isn’t starting from scratch like they have the past several years with numerous freshmen. While Kentucky lost several one and done players like Kevin Knox, they returned Quade Green, PJ Washington and Nick Richards. But the biggest addition for the Wildcats comes from the graduate transfer market as Kentucky grabbed one of the best graduate transfers available in Reid Travis. Travis averaged 19.5 points a game and 8.9 rebounds and was a member of the Pac-12 2nd Team last year at Stanford. Travis will provide the Cats with veteran leadership that Kentucky hasn’t had in quite some time. As usual, Kentucky brings in a terrific freshman class with point guard Ashton Hagans, and former Auburn commit E.J. Montgomery among the two expected to make a big impact. We’ll learn a lot about Kentucky opening night as they’ll play Duke in Indianapolis in the best opening night game this year. The Cats will also play North Carolina in Chicago, Seton Hall in New York City, at Louisville, while hosting Utah as well.
And there you have it. Let me know what you think of these rankings! In the coming days and weeks I will be doing more of an in-depth preview of Auburn Basketball so be on the lookout for those articles. We’ll have actual college basketball FOUR weeks from tonight! War Eagle!