Predicting the 2016-17 SEC College Basketball Standings
As has been the case for the past two years, Kentucky will enter the 2016-17 college basketball season as the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC.
Frankly, it's hard to even find a challenger to the Wildcats—both because Kentucky is great and because there's not another surefire NCAA tournament team in the bunch.
Unable to compete with John Calipari on the recruiting market, many SEC coaches have blazed a trail on the secondary recruiting market: junior college. Kentucky has five of the top 25 freshmen in this year's class, but the SEC is also responsible for nine of the top 25 JUCO transfers, as rated by 247Sports. And because JUCO transfers are notoriously hit or miss, projecting the SEC standings proved to be an adventure.
There are an awful lot of "If Player X pans/breaks out, they could make the tournament" sentences on the following slides of analysis. But that's where we're at for a conference that has only averaged 3.5 teams in the NCAA tournament since expanding to 14 teams four years ago. And of those 14 bids since 2013, three were of the "First Four" variety and one was the No. 12 seed that Ole Miss earned for winning the SEC tournament in 2013.
We scoured the rosters and offseason transactions 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.
Read on to find out which teams are on the NCAA tournament bubble and which ones will be lucky if they can stay within 40 points in their inevitable loss(es) to Kentucky.
14. Missouri Tigers (10-21 overall; 3-15 in SEC)
Forget about competing in the SEC, this season will be a win for Missouri if it can get to the start of 2017-18 without any more transfers or scandals. By losing Wes Clark, Jakeenan Gant, D'Angelo Allen, Tramaine Isabell, Namon Wright and Martavian Payne as transfers, the Tigers only have a couple of returning players to help bolster a recruiting class devoid of 4- or 5-star players.
13. Tennessee Volunteers (15-19 overall; 6-12 in SEC)
The Vols lose Kevin Punter, Armani Moore, Devon Baulkman and Derek Reese to graduation, plus Ray Kasongo and Jabari McGhee as transfers. Unless Utah State graduate-transfer Lew Evans makes a gigantic splash, Rick Barnes' club is headed for at least one more rebuilding year.
12. LSU Tigers (19-14 overall; 11-7 in SEC)
There's no true point guard on the roster and the two options at center (Elbert Robinson and Darcy Malone) have both provided little-to-no value the past few years. Antonio Blakeney and Craig Victor will both put up good numbers, but there's not much else to see here.
11. South Carolina Gamecocks (25-9 overall; 11-7 in SEC)
The Gamecocks lose their entire frontcourt to graduation. Replacing Michael Carrera, Mindaugas Kacinas and Laimonas Chatkevicius will be nearly impossible, particularly with Chris Silva just about the only in-house option. Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice will be a nice 1-2 punch in the backcourt, but a projected 3-4-5 of PJ Dozier (a 5-star sophomore who had a disastrous freshman season), 4-star freshman Sedee Keita and Silva isn't much for opposing teams to fear.
10. Auburn Tigers (11-20 overall; 5-13 in SEC)
Maybe this is the year that Auburn finally breaks out, but I've grown tired of dying on that hill. I was punch drunk on Bruce Pearl kool-aid two years ago, projecting Auburn to finish fifth in the 2014-15 SEC standings. The following year, I dropped the Tigers to eighth, which was still more optimistic than most. They repaid my kindness by getting worse and worse, going a combined 26-40 in those seasons.
Mustapha Heron and Danjel Purifoy should be nice additions. Graduate transfers Ronnie Johnson and LaRon Smith will play significant minutes. But if you're buying stock in this team, you can have the shares I hoarded the past two years, provided you have enough tape or glue to piece them back together.
9. Mississippi State Bulldogs
2015-16 Season: 14-17 overall, 7-11 in SEC (11th place)
Key Players Lost: Gavin Ware (15.4 PPG), Craig Sword (13.0 PPG), Malik Newman (11.3 PPG), Travis Daniels (5.7 PPG), Fred Thomas (5.5 PPG), Johnny Zuppardo (3.2 PPG)
Key Players Added: Abdul Ado (4-star C), Eli Wright (4-star SG), Lamar Peters (4-star PG), Mario Kegler (4-star SF), Schnider Herard (4-star C), Tyson Carter (4-star SG), Xavian Stapleton (Louisiana Tech transfer), Joe Strugg (redshirt freshman)
Projected Starters: I.J. Ready, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Kegler, Aric Holman, Herard
Top Three Reserves: Wright, Peters, Ado
With six incoming 4-star freshmen, Mississippi State has one of the most loaded classes in the country. It doesn't compare to what Duke, Kentucky, Arizona, Michigan State or North Carolina State have in terms of "can't-miss" stars, but there are an awful lot of "should be good" options for Ben Howland.
Unfortunately, the Bulldogs lost their top two scorers and six of their top eight, so they need those six freshmen just to maybe be a little better than last year.
I.J. Ready is a solid, veteran point guard and Quinndary Weatherspoon could be headed for a monster sophomore season, but the entire frontcourt is unproven. Aric Holman is a sophomore who played 193 minutes as a freshman, and he is the most experienced forward or center on the roster.
If freshmen Schnider Herard and Mario Kegler hit the ground running, maybe the Bulldogs sneak into the top six of the SEC standings and flirt with a tournament berth. If either one needs more than a few weeks to reach his potential, though, they could be in some trouble.
8. Alabama Crimson Tide
2015-16 Season: 18-15 overall, 8-10 in SEC (10th place)
Key Players Lost: Retin Obasohan (17.6 PPG), Arthur Edwards (9.5 PPG), Justin Coleman (7.8 PPG), Michael Kessens (3.7 PPG)
Key Players Added: Corban Collins (Morehead State transfer), Braxton Key (4-star SF), Nick King (Memphis transfer), Ar'Mond Davis (JUCO transfer), Avery Johnson (Texas A&M transfer)
Projected Starters: Dazon Ingram, Collins, Shannon Hale, Riley Norris, Jimmie Taylor
Top Three Reserves: Key, King, Donta Hall
The record doesn't give an accurate portrayal of Alabama's season. The Crimson Tide were right in the mix for a spot in the 2016 NCAA tournament in mid-February, but they lost six of their final eight games, including getting blown out twice by Kentucky, and once by Creighton in the NIT.
But Retin Obasohan was Mr. Everything for that team.
After a hot-and-cold start to the season, he scored at least 15 points in each of Alabama's final 16 games prior to the NIT. He scored more than 26 percent of their points, as they had an average offense and played at a snail-like tempo.
Getting Dazon Ingram back (played just seven games due to injury) will help, as will the four transfers. Still, replacing Obasohan—not to mention Arthur Edwards and Justin Coleman—will be a challenge.
As his name would indicate, Braxton Key could be a pivotal freshman addition. If Corban Collins doesn't pan out in the leap from Morehead State to the SEC, the Crimson Tide may need to put Key right into the starting rotation.
They only have a couple backcourt options, though, and the 6'8" forward doesn't do much to help solve that problem. While most teams have adopted the stretch 4, Alabama may need to go the North Carolina route by starting a 6'8" small forward at shooting guard, just to get the five best players on the floor.
7. Ole Miss Rebels
2015-16 Season: 20-12 overall, 10-8 in SEC (tied for sixth place)
Key Players Lost: Stefan Moody (23.6 PPG), Tomasz Gielo (9.9 PPG), Anthony Perez (7.0 PPG), Sam Finley (5.1 PPG), Martavious Newby (4.9 PPG)
Projected Starters: Burnett, Neal, Rasheed Brooks, Marcanvis Hymon, Sebastian Saiz
Top Three Reserves: Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey, Tyree, Furmanavicius
Like Alabama, Ole Miss loses their Mr. Everything. Stefan Moody was one of the highest-scoring players in the country last season, scoring more than 30 percent of the Rebels' points. And in case that wasn't enough, they also lost their second-, fifth-, seventh- and eighth-best scorers.
Fortunately, head coach Andy Kennedy added some talented transfers.
Deandre Burnett had a decent freshman season at Miami, but rather than waste another year of eligibility behind Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan, he opted to transfer to a school that might actually need him—which Ole Miss definitely does.
The Rebels also landed New Mexico transfer Cullen Neal. He's a combo guard who can score in bunches but who has struggled with his efficiency. Getting him to cut down on turnovers will be crucial, as that was also the issue with Moody that kept this team from reaching its full potential last year.
Beyond that, Ole Miss is hoping and praying that Marcanvis Hymon has a big sophomore year. He wasn't a highly touted recruit two years ago, but the redshirt freshman averaged 13.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per 40 minutes in 2015-16.
If he doesn't have a strong season, the Rebels will be hurting for frontcourt options, and likely hurting for wins. If he does, this should be one of the better starting fives in the SEC.
6. Arkansas Razorbacks
2015-16 Season: 16-16 overall, 9-9 in SEC (tied for eighth place)
Key Players Lost: Anthlon Bell (15.7 PPG), Jabril Durham (6.2 PPG), Jimmy Whitt (6.1 PPG), Lorenzo Jenkins (3.0 PPG), Keaton Miles (2.9 PPG), Willy Kouassi (2.0 PPG)
Key Players Added: Jaylen Barford (JUCO transfer), Daryl Macon (JUCO transfer), Arlando Cook (JUCO transfer), Dustin Thomas (Colorado transfer), Brachen Hazen (3-star SF)
Projected Starters: Barford, Dusty Hannahs, Anton Beard, Cook, Moses Kingsley
Top Three Reserves: Macon, Thomas, Trey Thompson
Arkansas is putting all of its 2016-17 eggs in the JUCO basket.
According to the 247Sports ranking of the top JUCO transfers, Arkansas has not one, not two, but three of the top six in the country, including No. 1 overall Jaylen Barford. Playing for Motlow State, Barford averaged 26.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in 2015-16. Daryl Macon wasn't all that far behind at 23.9 PPG, and Arlando Cook averaged a double-double with 16.0 PPG and 10.1 RPG.
But JUCO rankings don't often amount to anything. Last year's top two guys (Dominic Artis and T.J. Dunans) did pretty well in their new homes. But rounding out the rest of the top six, Akolda Manyang, Igor Ibaka and Teyvon Myers barely touched the court while Luis Montero never even made it to South Florida amid transcript issues.
Lest you think that one year was a poor sample size, 2014 was almost identical with the top two guys (Cinmeon Bowers and Kadeem Allen) eventually making a solid impact while three of the top six saw limited minutes and another (Torian Graham) still hasn't played a D-I game.
Sometimes JUCO transfers pan out—like Jabril Durham did for Arkansas for the past two years—but the success rate isn't particularly high, even on the top-rated guys.
As long as one of the three performs admirably, though, Arkansas has a good chance to dance. With both Dusty Hannahs and Moses Kingsley back in the mix, the Razorbacks are one or two solid weapons away from posing a legitimate threat.
5. Georgia Bulldogs
2015-16 Season: 20-14 overall, 10-8 in SEC (tied for sixth place)
Key Players Lost: Kenny Gaines (12.8 PPG), Charles Mann (10.9 PPG)
Projected Starters: J.J. Frazier, Crump, Parker, Derek Ogbeide, Yante Maten
Top Three Reserves: Diatta, Mike Edwards, Kenny Paul Geno
Like Arkansas, Georgia brings back one high-scoring backcourt player (J.J. Frazier; 16.9 PPG) and one high-scoring frontcourt player (Yante Maten; 16.5 PPG).
But what do the Bulldogs have outside of that duo?
Derek Ogbeide had a better-than-expected freshman season, averaging 10.8 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per 40 minutes. That hardly makes him one of the better power forwards in the conference, but it could be a sign of a good sophomore year.
Getting Juwan Parker back from the torn Achilles that cost him half of the 2014-15 season and all of the 2015-16 season could be a nice boost, but he has only averaged 4.4 points and 3.3 rebounds per game in his career.
What the Bulldogs really need is a big freshman year from Tyree Crump.
He is, by far, their highest-rated recruit since convincing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to stay close to home back in 2011, and he has the potential to come in and immediately replace Kenny Gaines—and then some.
If that happens, Georgia is in business. They already have two quality scorers and a handful of role players, so a third legitimate weapon might put them in the running for the No. 2 seed in the SEC.
4. Vanderbilt Commodores
2015-16 Season: 19-14 overall, 11-7 in SEC (tied for third place)
Key Players Lost: Wade Baldwin (14.1 PPG), Damian Jones (13.9 PPG), Josh Henderson (3.5 PPG)
Projected Starters: Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Jeff Roberson, Brown, Luke Kornet
Top Three Reserves: Nolan Cressler, Joe Toye, Baptiste
A testament to how much of a crapshoot the SEC is aside from Kentucky at No. 1 and Missouri at No. 14, Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports had Vanderbilt at No. 12 in his SEC power rankings earlier this month and it wasn't completely crazy.
Though the Commodores did make the NCAA tournament last year, they were one of the most disappointing teams in the country. And that was before losing their two best players to the NBA draft. With little more than a low 4-star recruit joining the team, there's no question that the talent lost outweighs the talent gained.
From that perspective, sure, this team could be a bit of a train wreck.
But Vanderbilt still has a lot of talent. Riley LaChance and Matthew Fisher-Davis were both higher-rated recruits than Wade Baldwin and have been great assets—if you can forget about the brutal slump LaChance was in for just about the entirety of SEC play last season. Jeff Roberson had a big sophomore year and is only going to become more valuable under new head coach Bryce Drew.
If anyone knows how to best utilize Luke Kornet's three-point range as a 7'1" center, it's Drew, as he helped coach Alec Peters into one of the best (non-major conference) players in the nation.
All four of those players have been together for the past two years, which is plenty for Vanderbilt to have the most intact SEC roster from last season, even with the losses of Baldwin and Jones. That cohesion should go a long way, especially if Joe Toye is able to make an impact off the bench as a sophomore.
3. Florida Gators
2015-16 Season: 21-15 overall, 9-9 in SEC (tied for eighth place)
Key Players Lost: Dorian Finney-Smith (14.7 PPG), Alex Murphy (3.3 PPG; still hoping for sixth year of eligibility), Brandone Francis-Ramirez (2.0 PPG), DeVon Walker (1.6 PPG)
Projected Starters: Chris Chiozza, Barry, KeVaughn Allen, Devin Robinson, John Egbunu
Top Three Reserves: Kasey Hill, Justin Leon, Stone
In spite of two consecutive seasons tied for eighth place in the SEC standings, everyone seems to be convinced the Gators will come the closest to challenging Kentucky.
Though we do have them projected to finish in third place, we're not fully convinced this is a NCAA tournament team.
They did nothing to address their point guard situation—Chris Chiozza and Kasey Hill were both highly rated recruits, but neither one has provided much value—and John Egbunu is their only true big man who has proved much of anything. Losing leading scorer and rebounder Dorian Finney-Smith didn't help matters, either.
But they do have some great incoming weapons in Canyon Barry and redshirt freshman Keith Stone.
Though he wasn't efficient, Barry averaged 19.7 points per game last season. His under-handed free-throw form will be what gets people buzzing about him, but he can contribute for a team that was downright dreadful from three-point range last season.
And Stone becomes just one of Florida's many options at power forward. There's also Justin Leon, Kevarrius Hayes, both of their 3-star freshmen and Devin Robinson. Several of those options are more stretch 4s than conventional power forwards, but Finney-Smith filled that role nicely, so that's little to worry about.
The only real concern is at point guard. They bounced back and forth between Chiozza and Hill in the starting five last season, but never found a lineup that worked. If either of those veteran guards decides to take the bull by the horns this year, though, Florida might finally get back to where it belongs in this conference.
2. Texas A&M Aggies
2015-16 Season: 28-9 overall, 13-5 in SEC (tied for first place)
Key Players Lost: Danuel House (15.6 PPG), Jalen Jones (15.3 PPG), Alex Caruso (8.1 PPG), Anthony Collins (4.5 PPG)
Projected Starters: Caldwell, Admon Gilder, DJ Hogg, Tonny Trocha-Morelos, Tyler Davis
Top Three Reserves: Hampton, Williams, Tavario Miller
The Aggies lost four starters, don't add a single player ranked in the top 60 of this year's class and are still projected to finish second in the SEC.
Suffice it to say, we're not expecting many SEC teams to make the NCAA tournament this year.
But Texas A&M should be one of those dancing squads. Despite everything Billy Kennedy lost, he still has a solid core in Admon Gilder, DJ Hogg, Tonny Trocha-Morelos and, especially, Tyler Davis.
Though the Aggies didn't ride the freshman hard, Davis was one of the more consistent big men in the country. With Danuel House and Jalen Jones no longer around to demand more than half of the team's shots while on the floor, Davis should have a huge year.
As with Florida, though, the big question here is at point guard.
Last year, that was the least of their concerns. Alex Caruso and Anthony Collins racked up assists and led this team with veteran poise. But they both graduated, which means it will likely fall to a freshman (J.J. Caldwell) to become the primary ball-handler.
Lipscomb transfer J.C. Hampton is also an option, however, at nearly five field-goal attempts per assist last season, he's no more of a point guard than Austin Rivers was for Duke a few years ago.
If Caldwell plays well enough to remain a starter, the Aggies will spend some time in the AP Top 25. It's just too bad they couldn't convince Alex Robinson to stick around. He showed a lot of promise as a freshman point guard, but they burned that bridge by bringing in Collins as a graduate transfer, leading Robinson to transfer a few days after the regular season began.
He could have been the answer to ensure A&M opened the season as a ranked team.
1. Kentucky Wildcats
2015-16 Season: 27-9 overall, 13-5 in SEC (tied for first place)
Key Players Lost: Jamal Murray (20.0 PPG), Tyler Ulis (17.3 PPG), Alex Poythress (10.2 PPG), Skal Labissiere (6.6 PPG), Marcus Lee (6.4 PPG), Charles Matthews (1.7 PPG)
Projected Starters: Fox, Monk, Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis, Adebayo
Top Three Reserves: Gabriel, Killeya-Jones, Dominique Hawkins
The SEC landed six of the 26 5-star recruits (excluding Thon Maker and Terrance Ferguson) in this year's class, but five of them ended up in Lexington, per usual.
Just like every year, Kentucky lost most of its top scorers, yet remains one of the top candidates to win the national championship because of its phenomenal freshmen.
Of the quintet, the big trio is De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo. Those three are stone-cold locks to start from day one and become first-round draft picks next June—and Wenyen Gabriel could get into both of those conversations with a strong showing in preseason.
There's significantly less returning talent for the Wildcats than there has been the past two years, though, as Isaiah Briscoe and Derek Willis are just about all they've got. Isaac Humphries could be a break-out candidate, but at 1.9 PPG last season, he's no sure thing.
But aside from the year with that infamous loss to Robert Morris, when has that mattered?
John Calipari is in a constant state of reloading and he usually hits the mark. The lack of returning talent just means they can't have another Skal Labissiere type of disappointment in this year's mix. But as long as Fox, Monk and Adebayo even remotely live up to the hype, Kentucky might clinch the SEC by Valentine's Day.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.