Football will always be king in the Southeastern Conference, but the basketball ain’t bad either.
After much speculation over the timeframe for this period’s arrival, the days of the SEC being the ultimate also-ran in college basketball’s power conference tier appear to have finally come and gone. Last spring the league produced at least one Final Four team for the fourth time in the last six years, made up 25 percent of the Sweet 16, and then followed up that successful tournament showing by bringing in three of the highest-profile coaching hires in the sport.
The conference’s climb into the conversation with the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten figures to continue in 2019-20. Multiple teams at the top of the SEC food chain appear fully capable of winning a national title, and it wouldn’t be a total shock if more than half of the league earned at-large bids on Selection Sunday.
Let’s run through the current hierarchy of the league as we inch closer to the season tipping off in November.
14. VANDERBILT COMMODORES
2018-19 Record: (9-23, 0-18)
2018-19 SEC Finish: 14th
The good news about being the only team in the history of the SEC to go 0-18 in league play (0-19 if you count the conference tournament) is that new head coach Jerry Stackhouse is kicking things off with the lowest possible bar to clear. He’ll rely heavily on a pair of returning double-digit scorers in Saben Lee (12.7 ppg) and Aaron Nesmith (11.0 ppg) to get the ball rolling in Nashville.
Things should get easier for Stackhouse after year one. Vandy is a top contender to land multiple top 100 players in the 2020 class, and Stackhouse has already added a pair of key transfers in D.J. Harvey from Notre Dame and Quentin Millora-Brown, who set program records for field goal percentage and blocked shots by a freshman in his one season at Rice. Both players will be eligible to suit up for the Commodores in 2020-21.
13. MISSOURI TIGERS
2018-19 Record: (15-17, 5-13)
2018-19 SEC Finish: 12th
It’s Cuonzo Martin’s third season at Missouri, which matches the amount of time he spent at each of his prior three head coaching gigs — Missouri State, Tennessee and California. To date, stint four for Martin has been defined by what might have been. A rash of injuries — most notably to brothers Michael and Jontay Porter in consecutive seasons — have derailed any hopes Tiger fans may have had about capturing real magic for the first time since the program joined the SEC in 2012.
Missouri’s size, most notably in the form of enigmatic junior Jeremiah Tilmon, will make it a matchup problem for multiple teams in the conference. Even so, Martin doesn’t have a roster that appears capable of threatening to take the Tigers to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.
12. TEXAS A&M AGGIES
2018-19 Record: (14-18, 6-12)
2018-19 SEC Finish: 11th
In a move that would have been a national surprise if not for the man making it, Buzz Williams left a Virginia Tech program that he had brought to arguably its most solid footing in program history to take over Texas A&M a year after the Aggies finished with an overall record four games below .500. This move came just six years after Williams left Marquette, fresh off three trips to the Sweet 16 in four years, to head up the Hokies, who had been to just one Sweet 16 ever. Williams’ first season in Blacksburg saw Tech go 2-16 in league play and finish dead last in the Sweet 16. A year later they won 20 games. A year after that they were in the NCAA tournament. Last March they came a missed uncontested layup away from upsetting No. 1 overall seed Duke and playing Michigan State for the East Region title.
Williams hopes the start won’t be quite as slow in College Station, but the groundwork for a similar progression certainly seems to be in place. Convincing Savion Flagg to come back was huge, but losing Admon Gilder to Gonzaga left Williams with a wildly uncertain backcourt. The Aggies will return to the NCAA tournament in short order under Williams, they just won’t do it in year one.
11. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
2018-19 Record: (16-16, 11-7)
2018-19 SEC Finish: T-4th
South Carolina has been anything but predictable under Frank Martin. Four seasons ago, the Gamecocks started 15-0 and still ended in the NIT. A year later, Martin and company turned a good, not great regular season into one of the more improbable Final Four runs in recent memory. Last season, USC was a dismal 5-7 in non-conference play, only to turn around and win 11 SEC games and finish alone in fourth place in the final league standings.
The point is, who knows what to expect from South Carolina. Martin has a solid young nucleus of talent to build around moving forward, but at the moment, replacing leading scorer and 2018-29 SEC defensive player of the year Chris Silva seems like an awfully tall task.
10. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
2018-19 Record: (11-21, 2-16)
2018-19 SEC Finish: 13th
There appears on paper to be a pretty noticeable gap between the bottom four in this league and the top ten, making this perhaps the least enviable spot in these rankings. The ten best teams in this conference all should be fully capable of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, and Georgia is no different. But someone has to go here, and the Bulldogs are the most difficult group of the nominees to pin down.
Five-star freshman guard Anthony Edwards is the type of talent Georgia basketball fans haven’t been privy to in a long time. Edwards will make the Bulldogs appointment television, but the question is whether or not Tom Crean can find enough quality pieces to put around the one-and-done talent — especially in the post — to make UGA a viable threat to finish in the top half of the league.
9. ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS
2018-19 Record: (18-16, 8-10)
2018-19 SEC Finish: T-9th
The Razorbacks are going to be everyone’s sleeper pick in the SEC, and it isn’t difficult to understand why. Eric Musselman arrives in Fayetteville after an overwhelmingly successful run at Nevada, and inherits a roster that should be able to play to his style pretty quickly. Daniel Gafford is gone to the NBA, but the guard tandem of Isaiah Joe (13.9 ppg) and Mason Joe (13.6 ppg) have the potential to flourish under Muss. The addition of SMU grad transfer Jimmy Whitt (12.3 ppg/4.0 apg) should also be a blessing. Combatting quality size could be an issue on some nights, but don’t be shocked at all if the Razorbacks pull multiple upsets over the three best teams in the league and are right there in the mix for an NCAA at-large bid deep into February.
8. MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
2018-19 Record: (23-11, 10-8)
2018-19 SEC Finish: T-6th
Bulldog fans aren’t going to like this, but someone in this league is going to have to underachieve. We’ll go with the team that will have to be heavily reliant on a player who was suspended for the last month of the 2018-19 season. Nick Weatherspoon’s sophomore season ended with him being sidelined for an undisclosed violation of team rules. He worked himself back into Ben Howland’s good graces and will now be asked to shoulder a decent chunk of the offensive workload his brother, Quinndary, left behind. Second-leading scorer Lamar Peters is also gone, which means Nick Weatherspoon, senior point guard Tyson Carter (10.4 ppg) and big man Reggie Perry — who flirted with an early exit to the NBA — are all going to need to produce their best collegiate seasons to date.
7. OLE MISS REBELS
2018-19 Record: (20-13, 11-5)
2018-19 SEC Finish: T-6th
There may not have been a head coach in college basketball who had a better first year at a new gig than Kermit Davis did at Ole Miss in 2018-19. The Rebels won 20 games, were near the top of the SEC standings from the start of conference play to the end, and made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015 in a year where no one had predicted such an accomplishment.
An adequate second act is the new task for Davis, and thankfully he has the SEC’s leading returning scorer to assist him. Breein Tyree (17.9 ppg) is the 2018-19 First Team All-SEC honoree who’s back in college for another round. Devontae Shuler (10.3 ppg) and Blake Hinson (8.3 ppg) are also back after solid seasons, but it might be the play of a pair of JuCo transfers — Bryce Williams and Khadim Sy — that determines whether or not the Rebels are able to equal or surpass last season’s accomplishments.
6. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
2018-19 Record: (31-6, 15-3)
2018-19 SEC Finish: T-2nd
The Willams/Schofield era has come and come, and the fact that it didn’t end with Tennessee’s first trip to the Final Four is still very much a bitter pill to swallow in Knoxville. Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden are too talented to let the Vols fall off the face of the college basketball earth, but it’d be foolish to not expect a sizable step backwards in 2019-20. That step could be smaller if intriguing Frenchman Yves Pons can realize his potential and allow his teammates to play through him in something resembling the fashion they played through Williams.
5. AUBURN TIGERS
2018-19 Record: (30-10, 11-7)
2018-19 SEC Finish: T-4th
Jared Harper and Chuma Okeke leaving early for the NBA pushed the Tigers out of everyone’s early top 10 rankings and seemingly tanked any shot Bruce Pearl had at a repeat trip to the Final Four. Pearl still has tools in the form of Samir Doughty, Austin Wiley, J’Von McCormick and Anfernee McLemore, but those pieces aren’t exactly a perfect fit for the run-and-gun mentality the Tigers carried all the way to Minneapolis last spring.
Pearl has said this summer that he expects Auburn to go from one of the fastest-paced teams in college basketball to a “normal pace” team this season. That adjustment could explain why the Tigers have a non-conference schedule that shouldn’t provide them with much of a challenge until deep into December.
4. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
2018-19 Record: (18-16, 8-10)
2018-19 SEC Finish: T-9th
The stage is set for Nate Oats to make the biggest splash of any first-year head coach in college basketball. Getting Kira Lewis Jr. to return to Tuscaloosa was Oats’ first major win after getting in from Buffalo, but it figures to be far from his last. He inherits a roster loaded with experienced talent. Lewis, John Petty, Herbert Jones and Galin Smith have all accumulated both experience and production in their college careers. Toss in one of the best grad transfers in the country in James “Beetle” Bolden (West Virginia) and there’s no reason for the Crimson Tide not to hit the ground running under their new leadership.
3. LSU TIGERS
2018-19 Record: (28-7, 16-2)
2018-19 SEC Finish: 1st
It’s still hard to know what exactly to do with LSU. Seven months ago, you could have made a small fortune if you found someone to give you odds on the likelihood of Will Wade and Javonte Smart both still being in Baton Rouge for the 2019-20 season. And yet, here we are.
Despite everything — including being suspended for his team’s run to the Sweet 16 last March — Wade is set to be back on the sidelines inside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center this winter, and he should have one hell of a squad following his directions. In addition to Smart, Wade also returns key contributors in the form of Skylar Mays (13.4 ppg), Emmitt Williams (7.0 ppg/5.4 rpg) and Marlon Taylor (6.7 ppg). If that weren’t enough, he went out and landed a five-star talent in the form of Trendon Watford, who figures to be a star in Baton Rouge from day one.
The outside “noise” might be the only thing capable of keeping LSU from a return trip to the tournament’s second weekend … and that noise may have to go from loud to deafening in order to do the trick.
2. FLORIDA GATORS
2018-19 Record: (20-16, 9-9)
2018-19 SEC Finish: 8th
With Andrew Nembhard returning to school and five-star freshmen Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann joining the fold, Florida already looked like a top contender for the SEC throne heading into the summer. Then Kerry Blackshear, the most highly sought-after grad transfer on the market, announced he was heading to Gainesville. Suddenly, Mike White had a roster capable of winning not just the SEC, but the national title.
The only reason to pump the brakes on the Gators being a legit top 10 team nationally is the program’s befuddling recent history of not being able to turn talented pieces into a successful whole. White’s most recent team had absolutely no business losing 16 games, and yet, that’s exactly what they did. So long as UF can avoid the “mysterious slump” bug that has bitten it a couple of times over the last few years, this should be White’s strongest Gator squad to date.
1. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
2018-19 Record: (30-7, 15-3)
2018-19 SEC Finish: T-2nd
I don’t need to tell you the drill here. Kentucky is loaded with young talent (Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney both have the potential to be lottery picks) and a smattering of returning players who seem to possess the ability to take another sizable step forward. Getting point guard Ashton Hagans to return for his sophomore season was a monster win for John Calipari. The Wildcats didn’t really hit their stride until Hagans assumed the reigns of the offense. Once that happened, UK transitioned from apparent underachiever to a 2-seed that came one shot away from a trip to the Final Four.
With P.J. Washington gone, the questions about this Kentucky team are all going to understandably revolve around the front-court. E.J. Montgomery was actually one spot ahead of Zion Williamson in 247 Sports’ final class of 2018 rankings. He fell far short of that lofty billing in his first college season, averaging just 3.8 points and 4.1 rebounds per contest. With Calipari losing out on 5-star big man N’Faly Dante to Oregon, the pressure is on either Montgomery or junior Nick Richards to step up their production significantly and become a serious threat in the post. Kentucky will be very good even if that doesn’t happen, but it’s hard to see them being national championship good.