SEC men’s basketball preseason power rankings

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SEC men’s basketball preseason power rankings

Fans storm the court after Vanderbilt defeated #16 Kentucky 74-62 February 27, 2016.

Fans storm the court after Vanderbilt defeated #16 Kentucky 74-62 February 27, 2016.

Fans storm the court after Vanderbilt defeated #16 Kentucky 74-62 February 27, 2016.

Fans storm the court after Vanderbilt defeated #16 Kentucky 74-62 February 27, 2016.

Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor

Good news: Basketball season is back.

Bad news: The SEC might be worse than ever.

After sending only three teams to the 2016 NCAA tournament and combining for just three tournament wins, the SEC hopes to bounce back in 2016-17. As many as seven teams have legitimate NCAA tournament hopes heading into the season, but only one (guess who) looks anywhere near a lock to make the Big Dance. Here are the Hustler’s first SEC power rankings of the season.

1. Kentucky (Last year’s finish: 2)

Did you know: Kentucky actually finished second in the SEC last year after accounting for tiebreakers, as the Wildcats tied Texas A&M with a 13-5 league record but lost the head-to-head matchup. Although coach John Calipari rounded up another impressive recruiting class, UK seems to lack the type of elite-of-the-elite star power it’s had in the past with freshmen like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. The ‘Cats start as SEC favorites and a Top 5 team nationally, but there’s potential for an underachieving season similar to what we saw from them last year. A lack of strong in-league competition, however, means UK looks like a lock to win the SEC regular-season title.

2. Texas A&M (Last year: 1)

The Aggies lost a ton of talent from last year’s Sweet 16 team, as they’ll have to replace four starters. A&M still has talent, however, as center Tyler Davis is an All-SEC player and wings Admon Gilder and D.J. Hogg look like difference-makers. As is the case with teams three through five on this list, point guard play could be a problem. Lipscomb transfer J.C. Hampton looks like the starter, but he doesn’t have much size and shot only 44.6 percent on two-point attempts in Atlantic Sun Conference play last year. A&M’s defensive pedigree might be all that’s keeping it ahead of Arkansas right now.

3. Arkansas (Last year: 9)

In a conference that’s as weak at the top as the SEC, having the best player in the league can take a team a long way. Arkansas has that type of player in center Moses Kingsley, who’s as well-rounded a player as there is in the conference. The Razorbacks’ 44.5 percent shooting inside the arc during SEC play ranked only 11th in the league, and getting that number up needs to be a priority. Perimeter defense will be another important key for Arkansas, as keeping opposing drivers out of the lane would go a long way toward keeping Kingsley out of foul trouble. If the Hogs improve on defense, their superior three-point shooting (best percentage in the league a year ago) should be enough to carry them to an NCAA tournament berth.

4. Florida (Last year: 8)

Florida didn’t look particularly good last year in finishing with a 9-9 SEC record, and it lost its best player in Dorian Finney-Smith. The Gators also still don’t have a point guard with a successful track record, but there’s so much talent on the wing and in the paint that UF might be able to make the NCAA tournament anyways. Another year of 31.9 percent three-point shooting won’t get the job done, however, so players like KeVaughn Allen and College of Charleston transfer Canyon Barry will need to put the ball in the basket. UF’s dearth of outside shooters means it’s the best candidate in the conference’s top six to finish .500 or worse in SEC play.

5. Georgia (Last year: 6)

The Bulldogs have a pair of studs in point guard J.J. Frazier and power forward Yante Maten, but the question is whether or not they’ll get enough from the supporting cast to crack the conference’s top four. Center Derek Ogbeide provides an intimidating defensive presence, and the return of guard Juwan Parker from injury will help. Frazier and Maten will draw plenty of attention from opposing defenses, so it’ll be on the other three Bulldogs on the court to knock down open shots when called upon. Whether UGA’s role players are capable of doing so will determine how successful the Bulldogs are this year.

6. Vanderbilt (Last year: 5)

Vanderbilt will hope that the old “addition by subtraction” cliche applies to its team this season, as the Commodores move on without stars Damian Jones and Wade Baldwin IV and must adjust to new coach Bryce Drew. The team’s chemistry should be much improved, however, after issues stemming from Baldwin and former head coach Kevin Stallings contributed to a less-than-desirable vibe within the program last year. On the court, the ‘Dores have plenty of talented wings like Matthew Fisher-Davis, Jeff Roberson and Joe Toye, who will all need score at or near double digits if Vanderbilt hopes to overcome its lack of a true point guard. Luke Kornet looks like the star and should thrive at center, but he needs to stay healthy in order to function as a real threat offensively. If either junior Riley LaChance or freshman Payton Willis can provide good minutes at point guard (a big “if”), Vanderbilt should be able to overcome its roster imbalances and make the NCAA tournament.

7. South Carolina (Last year: 3)

The Gamecocks have almost no perimeter shooting, and that’s going to be their downfall this year. Coach Frank Martin has some talented underclassmen as well as senior guard Sindarius Thornwell, but the roster fit isn’t any good. South Carolina once again should be one of the toughest defensive teams in the SEC with its length on the perimeter and Chris Silva’s shot blocking, but that isn’t enough. With guard Duane Notice as the only returning player to shoot better than 34 percent from three last year, expect every South Carolina game to be a defensive slugfest featuring poor offensive numbers from both teams. If you’re flipping through the channels and see the Gamecocks on, stay away.

8. LSU (Last year: 4)

Picked for 12th place in the league’s preseason media poll, LSU has way too much talent to finish that low. I’m fully aware of Johnny Jones’ less-than-stellar coaching skills and the underachievement he’s often presided over, but the Tigers easily have a top-five roster in the league in terms of pure talent. Antonio Blakeney, Brandon Sampson and Elbert Robinson III all have impressive physical skills and talent levels, while Craig Victor II is a proven, productive SEC player. I considered putting LSU ahead of South Carolina, and it’s a joke that it’s picked so low because the talent level in the conference isn’t great.

9. Auburn (Last year: 13)

Of all my picks so far, this most feels like the one that could come back to bite me. Auburn has replenished its talent after a number of lean years, but it has a huge amount of ground to make up to become a decent power conference team. The Tigers ranked No. 153 in Ken Pomeroy’s final team ratings last year and No. 189 two years ago. Despite the additions of high-scoring Houston transfer Ronnie Johnson, highly rated 2016 guard Mustapha Heron and redshirt freshman wing Danjel Purifoy, that No. 153 ranking represents a massive hole to climb out of. Auburn gets the nod over Alabama and Ole Miss here simply due to those teams’ lack of star power.

10. Alabama (Last year: 10)

Alabama’s depth should be solid, but the graduation of star point guard Retin Obasohan means the Tide need to find a new primary scorer. Obasohan was a plus defender as well, and the loss of 39 percent three-point shooter Arthur Edwards will hurt, too. Morehead State grad transfer Corban Collins will take over at the point, but he doesn’t look like an efficient primary scorer at the SEC level. Alabama’s defense should rank in the SEC’s top half, thanks largely to Defensive Player of the Year candidate Jimmie Taylor and his rim protection. But the Tide’s lack of a pure bucket-getter keeps them below Auburn for now.

11. Ole Miss (Last year: 7)

Similarly to Alabama, Ole Miss has decent depth but lost star scoring guard Stefan Moody. The good news for the Rebels is that Moody was never a super high-percentage scorer, so others should, in theory, be able to replace his high shot volume with adequate efficiency. The question is whether the remaining Rebels can create high-quality shots without Moody’s ability to draw defenses’ attentions. Also, they don’t have any shooting — Rasheed Brooks is the leading returner in terms of three-point shooting from a year ago, and he only shot 29.7 percent. Sebastian Saiz has quality experience in the paint, but I’m not yet sure how the pieces will fit together here.

12. Mississippi State (Last year: 11)

Mississippi State somehow got 14 votes in the preseason AP Poll. Maybe voters somehow meant to vote for Michigan State and ended up with the Bulldogs instead? Regardless, MSU does not appear to be any good. Guard Quinndary Weatherspoon (rightfully) got a spot on the preseason All-SEC second team, but there isn’t a whole lot else here in terms of proven commodities. Coach Ben Howland has brought in a bunch of highly rated recruits, but I think it’ll be another year before Mississippi State is ready to fight for a spot in the top half of the SEC.

13. Tennessee (Last year: 12)

Tennessee did not get 14 AP Poll votes, and for good reason: UT projects as a bad team. Robert Hubbs III appears to be the top scoring option after averaging 10.6 points per game last year. For Vanderbilt fans interested in experiencing some Friday night schadenfreude, fire up your computer and head to SEC Network Plus at 6 p.m. CT to see the Vols (probably) lose at home to Chattanooga, the pride of the SoCon.

14. Missouri (Last year: 14)

Poor Missouri. The ‘gers finished 3-15 in SEC play last year and then lost multiple rotation players as transfers. Forward Kevin Puryear and guard Terrence Phillips are the players to watch here, as well as freshman guard Frankie Hughes. It’s got to be tough for Mizzou fans to have to go from a (currently) 2-7 football team to this.

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