SEC Basketball: Preview and Predictions for 2016-17 Season

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistNovember 8, 2016

SEC Basketball: Preview and Predictions for 2016-17 Season

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    The Southeastern Conference has a longstanding reputation as one of the best leagues in the country...in football. Its basketball renown isn't nearly as strong, and in many years the SEC gets grief for its lack of quality and success.

    Other than Kentucky, that is. The Wildcats have been a perennial national championship contender under coach John Calipari, but after that things in the SEC get a lot murkier.

    With the 2016-17 season just a few days away, here's a breakdown of what to expect from the SEC over the next five months.

Top Storylines

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    Is there a race?

    Though the league didn't include numbers for how the voting from a "select panel of SEC and national media members" went, it's fair to say Kentucky was the overwhelming preseason favorite to win the league. It's much harder to speculate how close the teams behind the Wildcats in that preseason poll were, or if there's any belief there will be competition for first place.

    Kentucky and Texas A&M tied for first last season with a 13-5 record, but the Wildcats look much deeper across the board, while the Aggies lost a fair amount of talent. And with no members of the 2015-16 all-conference first team coming back, it could end up being a much more heated battle for second, third and fourth than to the top spot.

    Anything can happen, though, since Kentucky is relying heavily on freshmen once again.

    How many bids?

    With 264 appearances in the NCAA tournament—including those by current members from when they were in other leagues—the SEC has sent the third-most teams into March Madness. Kentucky has gone 55 times and has the longest active streak at three, while no other school has made the NCAA tourney more than Arkansas' 30 times.

    The league managed just three bids in 2015-16 after having five the year before. The SEC's most entrants came in 2008 when six made the field.

    Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller projects only three SEC schools (Florida, Kentucky and Texas A&M) but thinks Arkansas, Georgia and Vanderbilt have a chance, while ESPN's Joe Lunardi lists three as well with that same trio among his first four out.

The Favorites

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    Florida

    Michael White was thrown into the fire in May 2016 when hired away from Louisiana Tech after the late departure of longtime coach Billy Donovan to the NBA. That made for a first season in which he spent as much time learning his players' names as getting the Gators in a position to win, and they finished tied for eighth in the SEC.

    Expect a big jump in 2016-17 with Florida returning six of its top seven scorers and adding impact transfer guard Canyon Barry from College of Charleston. It might be a little bumpy early, with the O'Connell Coliseum renovation leading plenty of road and neutral-site nonconference games, but by March the Gators could be back to their old level of success.

    Kentucky

    The names on the back of the jerseys are almost completely different from a year ago, but that's become the status quo for Big Blue Nation under John Calipari. Kentucky regularly goes through a major roster turnover because of early NBA departures, and this past season was no different, but as is Calipari's approach he's simply reloaded with another batch of standout freshmen.

    This latest crop, a five-man group in which each was rated among the country's top 27 players by Scout.com, was rated the country's No. 2 class behind Duke.

    Just as important are the Wildcats' few veterans, which in this program is what any returning players (regardless of class) are considered. Guard Isaiah Briscoe, wing Derek Willis and big man Isaac Humphries will be just as important to Kentucky's push for a league title as the newcomers.

    Texas A&M

    Last year's co-SEC champs with Kentucky graduated three of its top four scorers but brings back some tremendous young players in rising sophomores Tyler Davis, Kobie Eubanks, Admon Gilder and DJ Hogg. Having highly regarded freshman guard J.J. Caldwell declared ineligible hurts, as does losing top assistant Rick Stansbury to Western Kentucky, but coach Billy Kennedy has the pieces in place to get the Aggies into the NCAA tournament for a second straight year.

The Challengers

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    Arkansas

    It was a down year for the Razorbacks in 2015-16, finishing .500 overall and in the league after making the NCAA tournament the previous season. But coach Mike Anderson has replenished the cupboard with numerous transfers, both from junior colleges and other Division I schools, and he also has arguably the best big man in the SEC coming back in 6'10" senior Moses Kingsley.

    Georgia

    Mark Fox has piloted the Bulldogs to three straight 20-win seasons and a fourth one looks doable with the inside-out duo of J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten back for another year. In order to get into the upper tier of the conference, though, Georgia will need contributions from the rest of the team and keep it from being a two-man show.

    Vanderbilt

    Bryce Drew is the lone new SEC coach, but he's far from being inexperienced. He spent five seasons at Vanderbilt, winning 124 games with two NCAA tournaments and an NIT runner-up finish in 2015-16. Previous coach Kevin Stallings (now at Pittsburgh) left behind some promising guards in Matthew Fisher-Davis and Riley LaChance and 7-footer Luke Kornet.

The Bottom Feeders

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    LSU

    Remember when the Tigers had do-it-all freshman Ben Simmons in 2015-16 and still lost 14 games, including to College of Charleston, Tennessee and Wake Forest? Yeah, LSU would kill to be that good this season. Johnny Jones couldn't win with Simmons and Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby, all of whom are gone, leaving Antonio Blakeney and Craig Victor to try to avoid the cellar.

    Missouri

    Mizzou won 23 games in each of its first two SEC seasons before coach Frank Haith bolted to Tulsa, leaving behind a dumpster fire Kim Anderson hasn't been able to put out. The Tigers have gone 3-15 in consecutive seasons and will be lucky to do much better than that this year.

    Tennessee

    Rick Barnes' first year at Tennessee was a wash, going 6-12 in the league and 15-19 overall. Three of the Volunteers' top four scorers have moved on, and the roster is very young with only three upperclassmen.

Best Rivalry

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    Florida vs. Kentucky

    SEC basketball rivalries aren't anywhere near as heated as those in football, but when both Florida and Kentucky are good, their games tend to be appointment television. They've met 136 times, with Kentucky holding a 99-37 edge, but when the Gators were at their best under Billy Donovan, the series was far more even.

    Because the SEC has 14 schools, there aren't many home-and-home series left in the league, though Florida and Kentucky have still met at least twice each season (and sometimes three times, adding a clash in the conference tournament) every year since 1970.

    This year's meetings are set for Feb. 4 in Gainesville and then Feb. 25 in Lexington, with both games likely to be sellouts.

Coaches Under the Most Pressure

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    South Carolina's Frank Martin
    South Carolina's Frank MartinChristopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

    Mike Anderson, Arkansas

    Anderson went to the NCAA tournament three times in four seasons at UAB and three more times in five years at Missouri, but so far he's managed to get Arkansas into the tourney just once (2015) in five seasons. The Razorbacks' chances in 2016-17 hinge on being able to win outside of Fayetteville, where Anderson is 81-11 compared to 15-39 in true road games and 6-14 at neutral sites.

    Frank Martin, South Carolina

    The nation's 184th-rated nonconference schedule, per KenPom.com, contributed to the Gamecocks missing out on the NCAA tournament last March despite ending up with a school-record 25 wins. So did a late collapse, something Martin has to avoid in his fifth season if he wants to avoid being considered a bust after having success at Kansas State.

    Bruce Pearl, Auburn

    Pearl can recruit like few other college basketball coaches, managing to convince transfers and blue-chip prospects to play for a program that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2003. But so far that's only translated into a 26-40 overall mark with just nine league wins in two seasons.

Best Backcourt

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    Kentucky

    What does a coach do when losing a pair of incredible guards in Jamal Murray? Simply pick out another pair from the recruiting trail and plug them in next to a holdover from last season who's ready to become the veteran in the backcourt.

    De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are a pair of human highlight reels ready to explode in John Calipari's guard-friendly system, while Isaiah Briscoe goes from being the third wheel as a freshman (albeit one who averaged 9.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game) to the elder statesman and floor leader. And for good measure there are seniors Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder, who only combined for 339 minutes last season but should be more involved in the rotation this time around.

Best Frontcourt

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    Texas A&M

    It's not as strong as in 2015-16, when Danuel House and Jalen Jones were helping out down low, but Tyler Davis is a pretty good big man to build a frontcourt around.

    The 6'10", 270-pound sophomore was A&M's No. 3 scorer and second-best rebounder a year ago while doing the bulk of the shot-blocking work. His 65.5 percent field-goal shooting was a huge boost, and the Aggies figure to feed him the rock more often than his paltry 6.4 shots per game as a freshman.

    Tonny Trocha-Morelos and DJ Hogg complement Davis up front after solid performances last season, while 6'9" freshman Robert Williams could be a surprise breakout player.

Freshmen to Watch

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    Kentucky's next batch

    There's a spot on this slide reserved each year for John Calipari's annual prospect haul, which this time around brings five of the nation's top 27 recruits to Lexington. At least two of them (guard De'Aaron Fox, forward Bam Adebayo) will start, while guard Malik Monk will either be a super sixth man or a third guard depending on the opponent.

    Forwards Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones aren't as polished as their fellow freshman teammates, but that might mean they'll stick around beyond one season. It's not likely Adebayo, Fox or Monk will since DraftExpress projects each as first-round NBA draft picks in 2017.

    Mustapha Heron, Auburn

    An example of the higher level of prospect Bruce Pearl has been able to lure to Auburn, Heron is a 6'5" wing who had offers from other SEC schools as well as those in the ACC and Big East. Lightning-quick and willing to drive into traffic, he might lead all freshmen in Division I in free-throw attempts.

    Mario Kegler, Mississippi State

    A 6'7" wing from Mississippi who prepped at Oak Hill Academy, Kegler was rated 60th overall in the country but could play his way to freshman All-American status if coach Ben Howland lets him loose. He had 18 points (including four three-pointers) and eight rebounds in MSU's exhibition against Delta State.

All-Conference Teams

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    FIRST TEAM

    De'Aaron Fox, G, Kentucky

    The latest standout ball-handler John Calipari has coached at the college level, the 6'3" Fox can dish it out but also call his own number with great speed and agility.

    J.J. Frazier, G, Georgia

    Frazier's 16.9 points per game in 2015-16 is the most of any returning player in the SEC. He's only 5'10" but plays bigger and draws plenty of contact on the way to shooting 82.4 percent from the line.

    Bam Abebayo, F, Kentucky

    The biggest flaw in the Wildcats' lineup a year ago was the lack of a reliable post player, something Adebayo figures to make a non-issue this time around. At 6'10" and 260 pounds, he's got the size to dominate.

    Moses Kingsley, F, Arkansas

    SEC media members picked him as the preseason player of the year after averaging 15.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game as a junior. The 6'10" Kingsley knows his place is on the blocks, and he handles that spot adeptly.

    Tyler Davis, C, Texas A&M

    Davis wasn't a major part of the Aggies offense as a freshman, but he did his part on the boards, leading the SEC with 106 offensive rebounds. The 6'10" Davis also shot 65.5 percent and should see plenty more touches in 2016-17.

    SECOND TEAM

    KeVaughn Allen, G, Florida

    Antonio Blakeney, G, LSU

    Malik Monk, G, Kentucky

    Luke Kornet, F, Vanderbilt

    Yante Maten, F, Georgia

Regular-Season Standings

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    1. Kentucky
    2. Florida
    3. Texas A&M
    4. Arkansas
    5. Georgia
    6. Vanderbilt
    7. South Carolina
    8. Alabama
    9. Mississippi State
    10. Auburn
    11. Ole Miss
    12. Tennessee
    13. LSU
    14. Missouri

    All statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com, unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.