Predicting the 2015-16 SEC College Basketball Standings
Kentucky is still the team to beat in the SEC for the 2015-16 men's college basketball season, but there might be some teams in that conference actually capable of beating the Wildcats this year.
Texas A&M and Vanderbilt are at or near the top of everyone's list of breakout teams to watch this season. Despite missing the 2015 NCAA tournament, both the Aggies and the Commodores are strong candidates to open the upcoming season ranked in the AP Top 25.
LSU did go dancing last year and should be a better-than-average team again this year, replacing two excellent departed forwards with one of the nation's best recruiting classes.
Don't sleep on Florida either. Coach Billy Donovan or not, the Gators are loaded with talent and should bounce back nicely from an uncharacteristic sub-.500 season.
We scoured the rosters, offseason "transactions" and unbalanced conference schedules to make an educated guess at each team's primary eight-man rotation and where it will stack up against every other team in the SEC.
This conference should send as many as six or seven teams to the 2016 NCAA tournament. Read on to find out which ones are fighting for a No. 1 seed and which ones might be jostling for position on the bubble.
The Cellar Dwellers
14. Missouri Tigers (Last Season: 3-15)
After spending the entire 2014-15 season battling Rutgers for the title of "Worst Major Conference Team in the Country," Missouri will be right back in the thick of that race again this season. Of the Tigers' four leading scorers, one graduated, two transferred and the other missed the final month of the season after suffering a dislocated elbow. It might be a few years before this team is relevant again.
13. Alabama Crimson Tide (Last Season: 8-10)
The Crimson Tide lost their head coach (Anthony Grant), three leading scorers and three other role players. New head coach Avery Johnson should be a good addition in the long run, but he isn't going to turn this program around overnight. Look for Alabama to be a popular sleeper in 2016-17, though.
12. Tennessee Volunteers (Last Season: 7-11)
It's hard to feel bad for a guy about to enter his 28th consecutive season as the head coach of a major-conference program, but the first season of Rick Barnes' tenure at Tennessee likely won't be a very good one.
Josh Richardson did pretty much everything for this team last season, but he ran out of years of eligibility, meaning someone such as Derek Reese or Robert Hubbs III is going to need to step up in a huge way in order to keep Barnes from enduring just the third sub-.500 season of his career.
11. Ole Miss Rebels (Last Season: 11-7)
The Rebels had one heck of an offensive attack last season but lost six players this summer to graduation or transfer. Stefan Moody should be one of the best scorers in the conference, but one-man attacks only go so far. Even Marshall Henderson had Jarvis Summers and Murphy Holloway helping him out.
10. Arkansas Razorbacks (Last Season: 13-5)
With Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls declaring for the draft and Alandise Harris and Rashad Madden graduating, it was already going to be a tough season for Arkansas. It got even tougher when news broke in late July that Anton Beard, Jacorey Williams and Dustin Thomas have been suspended from the team indefinitely after being arrested for allegedly using counterfeit bills.
If they are ineligible to play this season, a short rotation devoid of NBA prospects would get only that much shorter. We're even assuming they'll be able to play and still projecting the Razorbacks for a 10th-place finish. Unless Anthlon Bell suddenly evolves into an All-SEC stud, it's going to be a long season for the Hogs.
9. Georgia Bulldogs
2014-15 Season: 21-12 overall, 11-7 in SEC (tied for third place)
Key Players Lost: Marcus Thornton (12.3 PPG; graduated), Nemanja Djurisic (11.0 PPG; graduated), Cameron Forte (4.0 PPG; transferred)
Key Players Added: None
Projected Starters: Charles Mann, J.J. Frazier, Kenny Gaines, Derek Ogbeide, Yante Maten
Top Three Reserves: Juwan Parker, E'Torrion Wilridge, William Jackson
I believe in head coach Mark Fox.
This roster, on the other hand...
Losing Marcus Thornton, Nemanja Djurisic and Cameron Forte in the same offseason is absolutely brutal for Georgia's frontcourt. Three players on the entire roster converted on better than 50 percent of their two-point attempts last season, and those were the three.
As a result, the Dawgs are left with Yante Maten—a fine shot-blocker and above-average rebounder who shot 41.9 percent from inside the arc—and not much else. Houston Kessler is the only other player on the roster taller than 6'6" who scored a point last season, and he tallied fewer points scored (26) than games played (29).
Georgia will be forced to rely heavily on a few 3-star freshmen while also hoping that Maten has a breakout year as an offensive weapon.
That's why we're projecting the Bulldogs for the bottom half of the 2015-16 SEC standings.
The reason they nearly made it into the top half is because of their great backcourt. J.J. Frazier led the team in O-rating last season while shooting nearly 40 percent from three-point range, per KenPom.com. Kenny Gaines is their second most efficient returning player and will probably lead the team in both points and steals this season.
Still, the frontcourt was arguably Georgia's biggest strength over the past several years, especially on defense. Unless some of the new guys drastically exceed expectations, it's tough to see this team posting a .500 or better record in the SEC for the fifth time in six years.
8. Auburn Tigers
2014-15 Season: 15-20 overall, 4-14 in SEC (13th place)
Key Players Lost: K.T. Harrell (18.5 PPG; graduated), Antoine Mason (14.4 PPG; graduated), K.C. Ross-Miller (7.1 PPG; graduated), Malcolm Canada (5.7 PPG; graduated), Alex Thompson (2.7 PPG; transferred)
Projected Starters: Canty, Dunans, Purifoy, Cinmeon Bowers, Harris
Top Three Reserves: Spencer, Tahj Shamsid-Deen, Jordon Granger
Perhaps it was a bit overzealous to think that Bruce Pearl could transform Auburn overnight via the transfer market, but can we really bet against Pearl two years in a row?
Last year, he made some great additions in the form of Antoine Mason and K.C. Ross-Miller, but this year's incoming class beats the tar out of that one.
Kareem Canty was one of the most sought-after transfers last summer after averaging 16.3 points and 5.5 assists per game as a freshman at Marshall. Tyler Harris was a darn fine graduate-transfer pickup as well. The 6'10" forward averaged better than 10 points per game in his two years at Providence and should spell Cinmeon Bowers nicely.
The best addition, though, might be JUCO transfer T.J. Dunans. Bowers was rated as the top JUCO transfer in the country last season, and he didn't disappoint for Pearl. This year, Dunans is rated No. 1 after putting up 22.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game for Columbia State.
As far as transfer backcourts go, good luck finding a better one than Dunans and Canty.
The Tigers have a very solid start to their rotation, but it's tough to say how deep or strong they'll go. If Danjel Purifoy shines as a freshman small forward or if Trayvon Reed can make more of an impact this year as a sophomore center, this could be an NCAA tournament-caliber starting five.
However, with Bowers serving as the only particularly noteworthy player from last year's roster, we'll have to see how Auburn does in the team-chemistry department after failing to click as a unit in 2014-15.
7. Mississippi State Bulldogs
2014-15 Season: 13-19 overall, 6-12 in SEC (tied for 11th place)
Key Players Lost: Roquez Johnson (9.3 PPG; graduated), Trivante Bloodman (3.8 PPG; graduated)
Projected Starters: I.J. Ready, Newman, Craig Sword, Fred Thomas, Gavin Ware
Top Three Reserves: Holman, Weatherspoon, Travis Daniels
Can a once-great new coach and a very good incoming player fix a program in one offseason?
Last year, the answer was a resounding, "Not even close."
Houston replaced James Dickey with Kelvin Sampson and added Devonta Pollard and Eric Weary Jr. (and was supposed to add Torian Graham) only to finish four games worse in conference than the previous season. Similarly, Auburn hired Bruce Pearl and brought in a ton of transfers before losing two more SEC games than it did in 2013-14.
Ben Howland will look to break that curse this season with Mississippi State and should be in great shape to do so with the addition of Malik Newman.
To say that the Bulldogs have a lot of improving to do, though, would be an egregious understatement.
Since the SEC expanded to 14 teams before the 2012-13 season, Mississippi State hasn't done better than 12th place. And aside from just barely finishing ahead of Texas A&M two years ago, the Bulldogs have ranked dead last in the conference in adjusted offensive efficiency in each of those three seasons.
Newman should be extremely good, but for one player to take that type of recent history and lead the team to the NCAA tournament, he might need to be the best freshman in the entire country.
The Bulldogs will be better than they have been. It would be almost impossible for them to not improve to at least some degree. But "fringe tournament team" with a 10-8 SEC record might be about the upper limit for realistic expectations.
6. South Carolina Gamecocks
2014-15 Season: 17-16 overall, 6-12 in SEC (tied for 11th place)
Key Players Lost: Tyrone Johnson (9.5 PPG; graduated), Demetrius Henry (6.0 PPG; transferred)
Key Players Added: Perry Dozier (5-star freshman)
Projected Starters: Duane Notice, Dozier, Sindarius Thornwell, Michael Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius
Top Three Reserves: Mindaugas Kacinas, TeMarcus Blanton, Marcus Stroman
Could this finally be the year that head coach Frank Martin turns things around for South Carolina?
After winning at least 21 games in each of his five seasons at Kansas State, most assumed that Martin would be able to quickly foster some of that winning tradition with the Gamecocks. Very slowly and almost surely, they have improved each season. They won two SEC games in Darrin Horn's final season and have gone 4-14, 5-13 and 6-12 since Martin's arrival.
And now, they finally have a star to help put them over the top.
Martin has landed a few solid recruits in his brief time at South Carolina—Sindarius Thornwell and Demetrius Henry, in particular—but Perry Dozier is the first 5-star guy he has signed since getting Michael Beasley and Wally Judge to play at Kansas State.
For the sake of Gamecocks fans, hopefully Dozier is much more Beasley (26.2 PPG as a freshman) than Judge (5.8 PPG in 115 games).
To be sure, South Carolina was not a bad team last year. The Gamecocks played great defense and beat multiple tournament teams (Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Georgia twice). However, they couldn't shoot if their life depended on it. They ranked 320th in the nation in three-point percentage and 279th from inside the arc.
Needless to say, it's a good time to be adding the sixth-best freshman shooting guard in the country.
Also, don't forget about TeMarcus Blanton. The small forward was their top-rated player in last year's recruiting class, but he missed the entire season after undergoing hip surgery in October.
The Gamecocks have a ton of names that are tough to say, but try not to be surprised when they are pronounced the SEC sleeper of the year by a lot of analysts.
5. LSU Tigers
2014-15 Season: 22-11 overall, 11-7 in SEC (tied for third place)
Key Players Lost: Jarell Martin (16.9 PPG; went pro), Jordan Mickey (15.4 PPG; went pro)
Projected Starters: Keith Hornsby, Blakeney, Tim Quarterman, Simmons, Elbert Robinson III
Top Three Reserves: Josh Gray, Darcy Malone, Jalyn Patterson
Now we're getting somewhere.
The No. 6 through No. 9 middle tier is fairly indistinguishable on the preseason bubble. Auburn has some great transfers. Mississippi State and South Carolina each add an outstanding freshman. Mark Fox is one of the more underrated coaches in the country. Any one of those four teams absolutely could make the NCAA tournament, but I wouldn't bet on any of them unless I'm getting great odds.
These top five are the teams to watch out for, starting with LSU.
However, here's the big question for anyone who thinks the Tigers belong in the preseason Top 25: Do you realize how much they lost from last year's roster?
Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney should be phenomenal college athletes, but Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey already were phenomenal college athletes. The frontcourt duo scored 42.8 percent of LSU's points last season and was responsible for 47.3 percent of the team's rebounds.
Head coach Johnny Jones added a great point forward in Simmons and a great shooting guard in Blakeney, but who's getting those 18-plus rebounds per game and replacing the 11.8 made two-point field goals that Martin and Mickey provided? Elbert Robinson and Darcy Malone, who barely even managed to get on the court last season?
I'm not saying the Tigers will be terrible—they are in the projected top five after all—but a repeat of last season's 11-7 SEC record and No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament is probably about what we should expect.
And keep an eye out for do-it-all small forward Tim Quarterman as a potential All-SEC player. LSU likely won't have a dominant center, but between Quarterman, Blakeney, Simmons and Keith Hornsby, the Tigers have four projected starters with incredible court vision. It should be a lot of fun to watch this offensive attack in action.
4. Vanderbilt Commodores
2014-15 Season: 21-14 overall, 9-9 in SEC (seventh place)
Key Players Lost: James Siakam (9.2 PPG; graduated), Shelton Mitchell (4.3 PPG; transferred)
Key Players Added: Nolan Cressler (Cornell transfer)
Projected Starters: Wade Baldwin, Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Luke Kornet, Damian Jones
Top Three Reserves: Cressler, Jeff Roberson, Joseph Toye
As we've recounted on more than a few occasions this offseason, Vanderbilt had dreadful luck in close games in 2014-15. The Commodores went 9-0 in games decided by 13 or more points, 16-2 in games decided by nine or more points and 1-9 in games decided by five points or fewer.
Whereas annual bottom-feeders such as Auburn and Mississippi State need to improve a ton of things to finish in the top half of the SEC standings, Vanderbilt might become a Top 25 team just by getting one year older.
Of last year's eight leading scorers, five were freshmen and two were sophomores—which may at least partially explain their inability to seal the deal in close games. But now, in addition to the in-house increase in experience, Vanderbilt also adds a veteran in Cornell transfer Nolan Cressler. He led the Big Red in scoring two years ago and shot better than 40 percent from three-point range as a freshman in 2011-12.
Despite losing starting forward James Siakam to graduation and backup point guard Shelton Mitchell to Clemson, Vanderbilt could be even better than it was last season and should boast one of the best seven-man rotations in the conference.
The real key to everything, though, is Damian Jones.
Jason McIntyre of the Big Lead recently posted his list of the top 50 players for the 2015-16 season, but apparently whiffed on Jones, noting at the bottom that he only added him as an honorable mention after the list went up—aka after multiple people asked (politely, I'm sure) how he could have possibly overlooked Jones.
As far as where he actually belongs on that list, I had Jones in my list of the top 20 Player of the Year candidates a few weeks ago.
The big man averaged 14.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks last season, but he is the only true post presence in the primary rotation. (Luke Kornet is 7'1", but he attempted more than half of his shots from three-point range last year.) If Jones struggles for any reason, the team probably will as well.
If the 7-footer has a repeat of last season or better, though, look for the Commodores to spend much of the season ranked in the Top 25.
3. Florida Gators
2014-15 Season: 16-17 overall, 8-10 in SEC (tied for eighth place)
Key Players Lost: Michael Frazier (12.1 PPG; went pro), Eli Carter (8.8 PPG; transferred), Jon Horford (6.5 PPG; graduated), Chris Walker (4.7 PPG; went pro), Jacob Kurtz (4.0 PPG; graduated)
Key Players Added: John Egbunu (South Florida transfer), KeVaughn Allen (4-star freshman), Keith Stone (4-star freshman), Kevarrius Hayes (4-star freshman), Justin Leon (JUCO transfer), Brandone Francis (4-star freshman academically ineligible last year)
Projected Starters: Kasey Hill, Francis, Devin Robinson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Egbunu
Top Three Reserves: Allen, Chris Chiozza, Hayes
This is where we'll likely differ considerably with most other sites when they start posting their projected standings in a couple of months, but I can't help but buy stock in the Gators bouncing back this year.
Losing Billy Donovan will be tough, but it's not exactly a precipitous drop to new head coach Michael White. He was widely regarded as a great assistant coach during his seven seasons at Ole Miss, and he was a darn fine head coach for his four-year stint at Louisiana Tech, winning 71.6 percent of his games.
So, let's go ahead and operate under the assumption that Florida still has a captain and commander who knows a thing or two about basketball and solely judge the Gators on a very solid roster construction.
Despite losing several key pieces, Florida is arguably deeper with talent than any other SEC team this season. The Gators aren't "Kentucky Platoon System" deep. But give me their first five guys off the bench against the same subset from any conference foe, and I love my chances.
Though the team didn't accomplish much last season, keep in mind that Dorian Finney-Smith was a 5-star recruit in the class of 2011, Kasey Hill was a 5-star point guard in 2013 and Devin Robinson was a 5-star stud in last year's class. Brandone Francis didn't get to play a game, but both he and Chris Chiozza were on the cusp of a 5-star rating last year, both earning spots in the top 50 in the country.
The amount of raw talent on this roster is undeniable, and John Egbunu just might be the missing link that makes Florida a contender again.
Also remember, Chris Walker was supposed to be the primary post presence for the Gators last season, and, well, that never happened. Former team manager Jacob Kurtz ended up playing considerably more minutes than the former 5-star big man.
Poor shooting and turnover issues from both Eli Carter and Kasey Hill didn't help matters, but a reliable double-double threat could have made a massive difference for a Florida team that lost 11 of its 17 games by a margin of seven points or fewer.
If Egbunu—who averaged 12.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 40 minutes as a freshman at South Florida—can anchor them in the paint, the Gators will be right back near the top of the SEC standings, per usual.
2. Texas A&M Aggies
2014-15 Season: 21-12 overall, 11-7 in SEC (tied for third place)
Key Players Lost: Kourtney Roberson (8.8 PPG; graduated), Jordan Green (6.1 PPG; graduated), Antwan Space (4.2 PPG; transferred), Davonte Fitzgerald (3.5 PPG; transferred)
Projected Starters: Alex Caruso, Collins, Danuel House, Jalen Jones, Davis
Top Three Reserves: Hogg, Thomas, Alex Robinson
Texas A&M was very likely going to be a tournament team in 2015 right up until the Aggies gave it away in their final three games of the season, suffering consecutive losses to Florida, Alabama and Auburn.
Despite the sour taste they left in our mouth, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't think the Aggies will finish top three in the SEC this year.
Unlike Vanderbilt, which should be considerably better than last year's 21-win team simply by retaining most of its key pieces, Texas A&M should be drastically better than its 21-win version in 2014-15 by both hanging on to a bunch of crucial players and adding nearly as many more.
The Aggies lost a couple of moderately important pieces, but they still have their primary trio of Alex Caruso, Danuel House and Jalen Jones, picked up potentially one of the best graduate-transfers in the country in Anthony Collins and absolutely loaded up on top-50 big men in Tyler Davis, D.J. Hogg and Elijah Thomas.
A&M was one of my sleeper teams heading into last season, and with this potent roster, the Aggies just might be a Final Four sleeper this year.
In fact, here's how strongly I feel about head coach Billy Kennedy finally leading this team back to the tournament for the first time since 2011: If you forbade me from putting Texas A&M at No. 2 in these rankings, it would be more tempting to vault the Aggies to No. 1 than to drop them to No. 3.
After all, they did take Kentucky to double overtime in last year's only meeting between the two schools. Perhaps A&M will get the better of the Wildcats this year and win the conference.
(Relax, Big Blue Nation. I said perhaps.)
1. Kentucky Wildcats
2014-15 Season: 38-1 overall, 18-0 in SEC (first place)
Key Players Lost: Aaron Harrison (11.0 PPG; went pro), Karl-Anthony Towns (10.3 PPG; went pro), Devin Booker (10.0 PPG; went pro), Andrew Harrison (9.3 PPG; went pro), Willie Cauley-Stein (8.9 PPG; went pro), Trey Lyles (8.7 PPG; went pro), Dakari Johnson (6.4 PPG; went pro)
Projected Starters: Tyler Ulis, Briscoe, Murray, Alex Poythress, Labissiere
Top Three Reserves: Matthews, Marcus Lee, Mulder
Even if they're only 75 percent as good as last year's Wildcats, that should still be enough to win the SEC.
Try not to take that as disrespect for the conference this season, though. Rather, it's reverence to just how great Kentucky was last season.
Unfortunately for this year's squad, 38 wins is where the bar has now been set, as head coach John Calipari has led two of his past four teams (and three of his past eight if you count the season at Memphis that the NCAA does not) to that many wins. And while the Wildcats could absolutely win the national championship, that's a nearly impossible standard to live up to.
Still, they'll give it the ol' college try, and they'll do so with plenty of ammo. Calipari signed at least three 5-star recruits for a sixth consecutive season, including a strong early candidate for the Wooden Award in Skal Labissiere.
As was the case with both Vanderbilt and Florida, it's the big man who figures to dictate how high Kentucky flies.
This backcourt is simply unbelievable. Between Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray, Kentucky will have three starters who handle the ball better than the Harlem Globetrotters. The Wildcats might not lead the nation in assists, but I'd put money on them recording the most "hockey assists" if such a statistic were kept. And when they need to go to the bench, Charles Matthews and Mychal Mulder will be two of the best backup guards in the nation.
But even with reports of Isaac Humphries reclassifying and signing on for the 2015-16 season, according to CBS Sports' Gary Parrish (h/t Wildcat Blue Nation's Shelby Caudill), the frontcourt is pretty shallow.
Even if Alex Poythress is fully healthy and Marcus Lee is finally ready to play a key role, it's really just three guys for two positions with Derek Willis and Humphries occasionally supplying minutes as necessary. One way or another, Labissiere will be expected to go 30 minutes per night.
If he is all he's cracked up to be, no problem. Kentucky dominates the SEC, spends the entire season ranked in the top 10 and enters the NCAA tournament as (one of) the title favorites.
If he's anything less than 2016 No. 1 pick material, well, Kentucky probably still wins the SEC, but you can rule out the possibility of a third straight season with someone going 18-0 in this conference.
Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.