SEC basketball may not be able to equal the unstoppable juggernaut of the conference’s football side—after all, what can?—but the league is pretty impressive on the hardwood, too. Top-ranked Kentucky is a favorite for another national title, and there’s plenty of talent beyond the traditional front-runners in Lexington and Gainesville.
One of the conference's up-and-coming programs is the LSU Tigers. As coach Johnny Jones enters his second season at his alma mater, he’s already brought in a nationally ranked recruiting class to supplement Johnny O’Bryant and a hard-working group of returnees.
Read on for more on LSU’s prospects for 2013-14, along with previews of every team in the SEC. You’ll also find projections for some of the league’s award winners (including Player of the Year) and a pick for who will be crowned conference tournament champion.
Top Newcomers: G K.T. Harrell, F Chris Griffin, G Malcolm Canada
Key Losses: G Frankie Sullivan, C Rob Chubb, G Jordan Price, F Shaq Johnson
When a last-place team loses its two best players (Sullivan and Chubb) and its top freshmen (outgoing transfer Price and dismissed Johnson), there’s not much hope to be found.
Harrell—a Virginia transfer—and JUCOs Griffin and Canada are little better than the returning Tigers, and with the exception of senior Chris Denson, that’s a sorry group.
Top Newcomers: G Jacoby Davis
Key Losses: C Wendell Lewis
Last year’s baptism-by-fire forced freshmen such as Craig Sword into key roles.
Now the youngsters have experience, but even with the addition of redshirt freshman Davis to run the point, there’s not enough raw talent here to survive in a power conference.
Top Newcomers: G Sindarius Thornwell, F Demetrius Henry
Key Losses: G Eric Smith, G Brian Richardson, F Lakeem Jackson
Frank Martin’s usually tough defense deserted him thanks to a weak roster, and he's not going to have much more to work with on that end of the floor in his second season in Columbia.
Thornwell (a coup for Martin as a 4-star recruit) will improve the offense, but key scorers Bruce Ellington and Brenton Williams both stand less than 6’0”. Even in the best case, the Gamecocks’ attack will be a feast-or-famine affair.
Top Newcomers: G Eric McClellan
Key Losses: G Kedren Johnson, G Kevin Bright
The summer departures of Johnson (dismissed) and Bright (now playing back home in Germany) gutted the backcourt, and Tulsa transfer McClellan can only replace one of them.
He and senior Rod Odom are about all the offense Vandy will get, and the defense is even less promising.
Top Newcomers: F Antwan Space
Key Losses: G Elston Turner, F Ray Turner
Without Elston Turner, the Aggie offense is in serious trouble. PG Alex Caruso is a solid playmaker (and the leader of a respectable D), but he doesn’t have a viable go-to scorer to feed.
Top Newcomers: F Cameron Forte
Key Losses: G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
The departure of KCP, the conference Player of the Year, costs the Bulldogs their only double-digit scorer and their best defender.
Donte’ Williams and the athletic frontcourt can salvage some of the defense, but unless JUCO transfer Forte is better than advertised at the D-I level, there aren’t enough scorers for it to matter much.
Top Newcomers: F Bobby Portis, C Moses Kingsley
Key Losses: G B.J. Young, F Marshawn Powell, C Hunter Mickelson
An experienced backcourt featuring Mardracus Wade will keep the defensive pressure high, but the offense is a blank slate without Young and Powell.
Freshmen Kingsley and (especially) Portis will need to provide big-time scoring punch for the Razorbacks to reach .500.
Top Newcomers: F Sebastian Saiz
Key Losses: F Murphy Holloway, F Reginald Buckner
Marshall Henderson escaped with a three-game slap-on-the-wrist for his summer of legal troubles, meaning that he’ll be the face (and mouth) of the Rebels program once again.
His long-range shooting will provide plenty of points, but without the toughness of Holloway and Buckner inside, both the defense and the offense will drop off appreciably.
Top Newcomers: G Jordan Clarkson, G Wes Clark, F Johnathan Williams III
Key Losses: G Phil Pressey, F Laurence Bowers, F Alex Oriakhi, G Keion Bell
What had been a great rebounding team will fall hard in the absence of Bowers and Oriakhi, a change that will also take its toll on the defense.
On the bright side, freshman Clark is a solid candidate to replace Pressey at the point, and he’ll have a good supply of scorers around him (including Tulsa transfer Clarkson and returning marksman Earnest Ross).
Top Newcomers: C Jimmie Taylor, G Algie Key
Key Losses: G Trevor Lacey, C Moussa Gueye, F Devonta Pollard
Freshman Taylor will make a good defense even better, and it will need to be, because the offense is suspect.
JUCO transfer Key might provide some help for star guard Trevor Releford, but the rest of the roster is dangerously short on scoring ability.
Top Newcomers: F Jarell Martin, F Jordan Mickey
Key Losses: G Charles Carmouche
Celebrated freshmen Martin and Mickey will add athleticism and shooting touch to an improving offense.
Defensively, PG Anthony Hickey is one of the nation’s top ball hawks, and Johnny O’Bryant III provides toughness and rebounding (if only marginal length as a 6’9” center).
Top Newcomers: G Antonio Barton, G Robert Hubbs
Key Losses: G Trae Golden, G Skylar McBee
Barton arrives from Memphis just in time to replace the volatile Golden (who’s headed to Georgia Tech) at the point.
All the new floor leader needs to be is serviceable because the rest of the Vols’ lineup—including scoring ace Jordan McRae and low-post behemoths Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes—will be outstanding.
Top Newcomers: G Kasey Hill, F Chris Walker, F Dorian Finney-Smith
Key Losses: G Kenny Boynton, F Erik Murphy, G Mike Rosario
Superlative freshmen Hill and Walker could both earn starting jobs (once the latter becomes academically eligible in January).
There isn’t much star power when it comes to point production, but this roster is deep in athletes who can play elite defense. In other words, when Patric Young and company can get out and run, they’ll be unstoppable.
Top Newcomers: F Julius Randle, G Andrew Harrison, G Aaron Harrison
Key Losses: C Nerlens Noel, G Archie Goodwin, F Kyle Wiltjer
Scoring PF Randle is the best of a mind-boggling six McDonald’s All-Americans arriving in Lexington. The Harrison twins, a matched set of combo guards, will solve last year’s ball-security problems with ease.
This roster is very nearly the equal of the 2012 national champs, and another title is entirely within reach.
Julius Randle is the No. 1 offensive option for a Final Four-bound Wildcats squad. The 6’9”, 250-pound PF can score as a jump shooter, driving into the lane from the mid-range or in the low post.
Randle will also be at or near the top of Kentucky’s rebounding charts this season, even with all the size the Wildcats will boast.
The only plausible way that Randle doesn’t take this prize is if teammate Andrew Harrison puts up even bigger numbers at PG, where he'll get to set up Kentucky’s wealth of scorers.
On the one hand, Kentucky will have (as usual) the most talent in the SEC, making a conference title no surprise for John Calipari.
On the other hand, few other coaches could turn six freshmen and two sophomores—even immensely talented ones—into a legitimate national title favorite.
Kentucky is so good that even with a high-powered schedule, the Wildcats could realistically get through the regular season with only one or two losses.
If things don’t go as smoothly as that in Lexington, don’t be surprised if Cuonzo Martin of Tennessee or LSU’s Johnny Jones snatch this prize instead, as both coaches are likely to guide their teams back to the Big Dance.
Once again, Julius Randle’s biggest competition here will come from his own roster.
Andrew Harrison, who will have to be a leader as a true freshman PG, is the most important Wildcat. But he’s not the best, and that’s why Randle will take home even more hardware.
Randle’s ability to play facing the basket will be a particular boon to a frontcourt that’s otherwise lacking in jump-shooting threats. However he gets his points, though, he’ll get so many of them (and in so many wins) that he won't be beaten for this prize.
When Anthony Davis and his Undeniables won the 2012 national title, one of the only blemishes on their record was an SEC title game loss to Vanderbilt.
The Commodores always play Kentucky tough, but they won’t be anywhere near the SEC finals this season. Indeed, anything other than a Kentucky-Florida final in this tournament will be a major upset.
The Gators and Wildcats—both serious Final Four contenders—are sure to play exciting games. In the end, though, Kentucky is perhaps the only team in the country that can beat Florida for both speed and length, and the ‘Cats have more scorers to boot.