For SEC basketball fans, the months-long wait for the return of college hoops over. Every school in the conference kicks off its schedule this week, while some SEC programs already have one matchup in the books. In preparation for Vanderbilt’s showdown Wednesday night against Southeast Missouri State, here is the first edition of our SEC basketball power rankings:
1. Kentucky Wildcats
The Wildcats begin the season as the favorites in the SEC with hopes of reclaiming the regular season title they have failed to win the past two years. Coach Calipari’s squad will be driven by returnee Ashton Hagans, who will be one of the best point guards in the country, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. Per usual, Kentucky has an elite recruiting class that will seek to replace last year’s top four scorers. Leading Kentucky’s freshman class are guard Tyrese Maxey, who will combine with Hagans to form an elite backcourt, and forward Kahlil Whitney, whose athleticism should cause havoc on both sides of the ball. Kentucky has a solid mix of returnees and freshmen that will give them a balanced roster that could dominate SEC basketball. The Wildcats opened up their season with a seven-point win over the #1 team in the nation, Michigan State. They look poised to claim the top seed in college basketball next week.
2. Florida Gators
This year’s Florida Gators are coming into the season as the team that is most expected to battle with Kentucky for the conference title, as they will start off as the sixth-ranked team in the nation. While last season was considered a disappointment by many, this year’s Gators are hoping to live up to the expectations. The Florida backcourt will be led by primary playmaker Andrew Nembhard and sophomore Noah Locke, who was their second leading scorer last year. While Florida boasts a solid returning class, they also have a top-10 recruiting class that will be propelled by 5-star guards Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann. Yet, the team’s biggest addition could be transfer Kerry Blackshear, a scoring big man who was one of the best players in the ACC last year. The Gators already started the season with a win over North Florida; let’s see what head coach Mike White can do with arguably the most talented roster he’s had at Florida.
3. LSU Tigers
The LSU Tigers are expected to regress and be a tier below the Southeastern Conference’s top two, but there should be no doubt that they will compete with everybody. Last year’s SEC regular season champions will play with a chip on their shoulder as they will want to retain their title and get past last year’s controversy that nearly cost Coach Will Wade his job. LSU lost arguably their two best players from last year in point guard Tremont Waters and power forward Naz Reid, but shooting guard Skylar Mays decided to come back for his senior season and he could be one of the SEC’s top scorers. Mays and sophomore guard Ja’vonte Smart should combine nicely in a formidable guard duo that will score in bunches. These two, along with 5-star forward Trendon Watford, will power a team that seeks to repeat at SEC champs.
4. Auburn Tigers
Fresh off a Final Four appearance, Auburn will try to find that magic again and make a run at the SEC title, but expect the Tigers to play more like the team that finished conference play last year at 11-7. Coach Bruce Pearl will always have his team ready to face any opponent, but it will be tough for the Tigers to make up for the loss of their three leading scorers. Seniors Samir Doughty, Anfernee McLemore and Austin Wiley will have to step up for Auburn to make some noise in the conference. Incoming freshman shooting guard Isaac Okoro will make an immediate impact with his scoring and physicality and could be one of the most exciting prospects in the conference. The Tigers earned a hard fought win over Georgia Southern in their first game of the new season.
5. Tennessee Volunteers
The Tennessee Volunteers were probably the best overall team in the SEC the past two years. But, after losing three of the SEC’s best players to the NBA, the Volunteers will drop in the standings. Despite these losses, they will be one of the most interesting teams to watch in the conference. The squad still has several impact players in guards Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner, as well as a formidable big in Kyle Alexander. They also have a solid recruiting class that will try to fill in the massive holes left by Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone. Coach Rick Barnes has a tough year ahead of him, but he’s shown the ability to develop stars while at Tennessee; Volunteer fans will have to hope he can continue to do so. The Volunteers secured their first win of the season in a 78-63 blowout over UNC Asheville.
6. Alabama Crimson Tide
The Alabama Crimson Tide could be a team that takes a big leap this year. After signing one of the nation’s most coveted Power Five head coaching candidates Nate Oats over the offseason, Alabama is hoping to become a conference power. Not only was Oats, the former Buffalo head coach, able to convince guard Kira Lewis Jr.– one of the SEC’s best freshman last season– to not transfer, but he was able to secure guard James Bolden as a grad transfer to play alongside Lewis Jr. The Crimson Tide also have several valuable upperclassmen who will lead one of the conference’s most experienced teams. Even though the Crimson Tide lost their first game of the season in a one-point loss to Penn, Coach Oats and his squad will be a fascinating team to follow this year.
7. Ole Miss Rebels
One of the Southeastern Conference’s biggest surprises last season was the Ole Miss Rebels. In head coach Kermit Davis’ first year at the helm, the Rebels finished in the top half of the SEC thanks to their unorthodox zone defense and a variety of talented scorers on the offensive end of the court. The Rebels will again rely on senior guard Breein Tyree– the conference’s top returning scorer– and on junior guard Devontae Shuler, who together will form one of the SEC’s most formidable backcourts. Ole Miss hopes to improve on last year’s success, but it will catch no one by surprise this time around.
8. Arkansas Razorbacks
Another team that hopes to jump in the standings is the Arkansas Razorbacks. Arkansas is also a school that was able to snag one of the most sought-after coaches this offseason in former Nevada head coach Eric Musselman. Besides bringing excitement back to Arkansas basketball fans, Coach Musselman was also able to to recruit grad transfer guard Jimmy Whitt Jr. and keep the team’s best returning players in Fayetteville. Guard Isaiah Joe will be the team’s primary scorer, while guard Jalen Harris will also be expected to create plays after he was fifth in the SEC with 189 assists last season. The Razorbacks will be an intriguing team to watch in the future, and they started their season with a 48-point win over Rice.
9. Georgia Bulldogs
The Georgia Bulldogs enter the season hungry to improve from their second-to-last place finish in the conference last year. If the Bulldogs do jump several spots in the standings, it should not be a surprise. Coach Tom Crean is entering his second year on the job, and he was able to recruit a top-15 freshman class that will give the squad a boost. Shooting guard Anthony Edwards is the class’s headliner, and the projected top-5 pick could be the best freshman in the Southeastern Conference, and maybe even the country. Edwards averaged 25.7 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in high school. If Edwards plays as well as expected, it’ll be up to forward Rayshaun Hammonds and the rest of the roster to push the team further. The Bulldogs’ season began with a comfortable 72-91 win over Western Carolina.
10. Mississippi State Bulldogs
After winning 23 games and finishing sixth in SEC last season, the Mississippi State Bulldogs seem likely to regress this season. The Bulldogs must make up for the loss of guards Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters, their two leading scorers and a top-duo in the SEC. Returning guards Nick Weatherspoon and Tyson Carter will have to step-up if they want to look anything like the Bulldogs of the past two seasons. In the frontcourt, they’ll rely heavily on Reggie Perry, who made the SEC All-Freshman team last year after averaging nearly ten points and seven rebounds per game. The Bulldogs defeated Florida International by a mere eight points in their opening game, which isn’t too promising for Coach Ben Howland’s squad.
11. South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina had the tenth best overall record in the SEC last year, but they showed signs of promise in conference play. Their conference record told a completely different story, as they tied for fourth in SEC. The Gamecocks have frequently overachieved in Coach Frank Martin’s tenure, but this year, a repeat performance will pose a much tougher task. The team has much less talent than in the past, as two of their most valuable players– Chris Silva and Hassani Gravett– graduated last season. They’ll need new leaders like sophomore guard A.J. Lawson to build on last year’s impressive second half. After an impressive freshman campaign, Lawson will have to shoulder the load of the Gamecocks’ scoring. The Gamecocks will enter the season with low expectations, but remember– Coach Martin and his squad have surprised us before.
12. Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M made one of the offseason’s most surprising moves by luring Coach Buzz Williams away from Virginia Tech. While the program’s future looks bright under Coach Williams, their present is a work-in-progress. Most of the team’s top-scorers have returned, but even last year, that wasn’t enough: the team finished 14-18 overall and 11th in conference play. Savion Flagg, the conference’s returning top rebounder, was the Aggies best player last year, and he’ll be expected to be the squad’s most valuable player once again. Coach William’s first season at the helm may be a long one, but the Aggies are certainly in a position to succeed next year.
13. Vanderbilt Commodores
On Wednesday, the Vanderbilt Commodores finally get the chance to start a new era. The Commodores made one of college basketball’s most surprising hires in April, as Athletic Director Malcolm Turner entrusted Jerry Stackhouse with Vanderbilt’s struggling program. The team’s offense will rely heavily on junior guard Saben Lee and sophomore forward Aaron Nesmith to produce, with forwards Matt Moyer and Clevon Brown hoping to expand on their roles from last season. Freshmen forward Dylan Disu and guard Scotty Pippen Jr. played well in their one preseason exhibition, but it’s tough to expect an immediate impact from the young duo. Last year was a historically bad one, but Commodore fans should be excited to see what the Stackhouse era will bring.
14. Missouri Tigers
This is a crucial year for third-year head coach Cuonzo Martin and his Missouri Tigers program. His first season was decent at-best, but last season his squad underperformed heavily. While untimely injuries certainly played a role last season, Coach Martin has struggled to recruit outside of the state. Jordan Geist, last year’s leading scorer, has graduated and left the team with a noticeable hole in both leadership and offense. If the Tigers want to make any noise in the conference, Coach Martin will need juniors Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith to raise their games.