Predicting the 2014-15 SEC College Basketball Standings
In continuing our summer series of major college basketball conference projections for the 2014-15 season, this Friday we're diving into the SEC.
For the bulk of the past decade, the SEC has been Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and a bunch of cannon fodder. Alabama is the only other team in the SEC that has won at least 57 percent of its conference games in more than one of the past eight seasons—and the Crimson Tide didn't even make the NCAA tournament in either of those two 12-win seasons.
But for the first time in a long time, there's hope on the horizon.
Kentucky and Florida will still finish at the top, but the SEC could legitimately send seven teams to the NCAA tournament this year. Considering 2007-08 was the last time that even six SEC teams went dancing, that would be an incredible feat.
And oddly enough, neither Tennessee nor Vanderbilt is one of those seven candidates.
In ranking the teams from No. 1 through No. 14, we looked at outgoing players, incoming freshmen, D-I transfers, JUCO transfers, redshirts and projected starting fives. For better or worse, no stone was left unturned.
We look forward to your civilized disagreements about the order in which these teams will finish.
Other conferences previously covered in this summer series:
14. Mississippi State Bulldogs (3-15 last year)
They don't lose much of anything from last season, but they aren't gaining anything worth mentioning either. That means we're basically going to see the same team that lost games to both TCU and Utah State by double digits before also losing the final 13 games of the regular season.
13. Vanderbilt Commodores (7-11 last year)
Of the 31 games that the 'Dores played last season, 23 were decided by single digits. But from that perfectly average team, three of the top four scorers left this summer. Even if Nolan Cressler is ruled eligible to play immediately after transferring from Cornell, Vanderbilt still has a lot of holes to fill.
12. South Carolina Gamecocks (5-13 last year)
Frank Martin is gradually turning this program around. I don't think South Carolina will flirt with making the NCAA tournament this year, but this is a young team that will be led almost entirely by sophomores and juniors. Watch out for the Gamecocks in 2015-16 and don't be too flabbergasted if they win 18-20 games this year.
11. Missouri Tigers (9-9 last year)
Three starters and a key reserve are gone. Their head coach bolted for the job at Tulsa without even bothering to say goodbye.
This roster still has some solid pieces—especially in the second semester when Cameron Biedscheid is eligible to play—but there has been way too much turnover to reasonably expect greatness this season. Like South Carolina, though, Missouri should be strong in 2015-16. Incoming transfer Keith Shamburger is the only noteworthy player on the team who will be a senior this year.
10. Texas A&M Aggies
2013-14 Record: 18-16 (8-10 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Jamal Jones, Fabyon Harris, Shawn Harris, J-Mychal Reese
Key Incoming Players: Alex Robinson, Jalen Jones*, Danuel House**
Projected Starting Five: Alex Caruso, Jordan Green, Davonte Fitzgerald, Antwan Space, Kourtney Roberson
*Unless he gets a waiver, Jones won't be eligible until the second semester.
**No word yet on whether House will be immediately eligible after transferring away from Houston this summer.
Whether Billy Kennedy can finally get to the NCAA tournament in his fourth season with the Aggies will depend on the mercy of the powers in charge of transfer waivers.
If House and Jalen Jones can play right away, Texas A&M has at least a snowball's chance in College Station of dancing. But if neither one is playing in November, this season could spiral out of control in a hurry.
Actually, the season is already in disarray. Not only are the Aggies losing their top scorer (Jamal Jones) from last season to the transfer market, but he didn't exactly have kind words for his former team, saying on Twitter, "I left A&M cause I wanted to. If you dumb ppl knew wat was going on inside of the program you would've left too."
(Jones hasn't yet announced where he will be going next season, but this isn't his first transfer rodeo. He spent one season at Ole Miss before transferring to JUCO's Lee College for one year, and he spent just one season at A&M. Penn State appears to be one of the front-runners to acquire his services.)
It's rather ironic that the Aggies are losing a leading scorer named Jones and replacing him with a leading scorer named Jones.
Jalen Jones' decision to transfer away from SMU in November after leading the Mustangs in scoring during the 2012-13 season was a curious one, but he should also be a welcome one for a team that doesn't have a single returning player who averaged double digits in scoring last season.
In addition to an immediate impact from transfers who may or may not actually be eligible to play, the Aggies need increased production from their returning players. Caruso is one of the more underrated point guards in the country, but the rest of the starting five leaves something to be desired.
Both Fitzgerald and Green were extremely erratic shooters, combining to shoot 42 percent from the field and less than 30 percent from three-point range. Space was a better-than-average rebounder but a total liability on the offensive end of the court. Roberson was by far the team's most efficient scorer but didn't do nearly enough to capitalize on that skill.
But keep an ear to the ground for news on those transfers. Should House and Jones both be able to play, feel free to vault Texas A&M into sixth or seventh place.
9. Tennessee Volunteers
2013-14 Record: 24-13 (11-7 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Jarnell Stokes, Jeronne Maymon, Jordan McRae, Antonio Barton, A.J. Davis, Darius Thompson, Quinton Chievous
Key Incoming Players: Ian Chiles, Eric McKnight, Kevin Punter, Detrick Mostella
Projected Starting Five: Josh Richardson, Chiles, Robert Hubbs III, McKnight, Derek Reese
The only real difference between the situations at Missouri and Tennessee is that the Volunteers were perched a few notches higher before their mass exodus began.
Just look at this thread from VolNation.com and try not to feel bad for Tennessee fans. It was barely three months ago that they were talking themselves into a starting five that only contains one player actually on the roster.
They knew Maymon, McRae and Barton were graduating, but they were hopeful that Stokes would stay for his senior season, optimistic that M.J. Rhett would transfer from Tennessee State to Tennessee, unaware that Davis and Thompson would transfer, and unprepared for the departure of Cuonzo Martin, which would quite directly lead C.J. Turman and Philip Cofer to decommit.
As a result, the Volunteers not only lost four starters from last year's team but lost their head coach and an additional five players who were expected to play key roles this season. It was also announced last month that 6'10" Rawane Ndiaye suffered a torn ACL and will almost certainly miss the entire 2014-15 season.
Donnie Tyndall did well to land key transfers in Chiles and McKnight, but Tennessee is pinning a lot of hopes on a shooting guard who shot 28 percent from three-point range before having shoulder surgery (Hubbs) and a center who barely even played last season (Reese).
Unless a few of their unheralded freshmen come in and dominate, it could be a long season for the Volunteers.
8. LSU Tigers
2013-14 Record: 20-14 (9-9 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Johnny O'Bryant III, Shavon Coleman, Andre Stringer, Anthony Hickey, Malik Morgan
Key Incoming Players: Keith Hornsby, Elbert Robinson, Josh Gray
Projected Starting Five: Gray, Hornsby, Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey, Robinson
There sure are a lot of middling SEC teams losing players as transfers and early entries to the NBA, eh?
Coleman and Stringer both graduated, but LSU's plans for the 2014-15 season took a pretty big hit when O'Bryant left for the second round of the draft and Hickey decided to transfer to Oklahoma State—huge boost for the Pokes, by the way.
Morgan wasn't a huge factor last season, but he probably would have been a key piece of this season's rotation.
On the bright side, the Tigers did retain Martin and Mickey.
Mickey joined Anthony Davis as the only players in the past four seasons to record at least 250 rebounds and 100 blocks as freshmen. Martin didn't do anything quite so spectacular, but the 6'9" forward did score better than 10.0 points per game while shooting 33.3 percent from three-point range.
Likely joining that dynamic duo in the starting rotation are three players new to the team through different channels.
Robinson is a 6'11" incoming freshman who should immediately contribute in the frontcourt with Martin and Mickey. Hornsby comes via D-I transfer after averaging 15.0 points per game for UNC-Asheville during the 2012-13 season. And Gray is one of the top point guards coming over this season from the JUCO ranks.
There's no telling how well or how quickly they'll fit into Johnny Jones' system at LSU, but there's little question that they'll all be expected to be huge contributors, with Tim Quarterman's 26.4 percent shooting from the field serving as the next best option off the bench.
7. Georgia Bulldogs
2013-14 Record: 20-14 (12-6 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Donte' Williams
Key Incoming Players: None
Projected Starting Five: Charles Mann, Kenny Gaines, Brandon Morris, Nemanja Djurisic, Marcus Thornton
Georgia is one of the only teams in the conference that actually resembles the squad it put on the court last season. Mark Fox gets all five of his leading scorers back from a team that shocked most of us by winning 12 SEC games a year ago.
On the one hand, that means Georgia will be one year older and one year stronger.
On the other hand, the Bulldogs went 1-7 against teams that made the 2014 NCAA tournament—getting blown out in every game against Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee. And that one win came against a Wofford team that really had no business being in the tournament.
Is this a good team that never got the respect it deserved, or did Georgia have an inflated record because of the mathematics of someone needing to win games in the SEC?
Tough to say.
What we do know, though, is that the Bulldogs are losing the player on their team with the highest O-rating—according to KenPom.com, subscription required—without adding much of anything in his place. And while they're more or less standing still, teams like Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss are going to be much better than last season.
Gaines and Mann were the team leaders last season, but neither is particularly on the fast track to a career in the NBA or anything like that. Georgia is a situation where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts but not so much greater as to expect another 12-6 record in the SEC.
Look for the NIT Season Tip-Off—featuring Gonzaga, Minnesota and St. John's—to be a good barometer for what to expect from Georgia this year.
6. Alabama Crimson Tide
2013-14 Record: 13-19 (7-11 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Trevor Releford, Nick Jacobs, Algie Key
Key Incoming Players: Michael Kessens, Ricky Tarrant, Christophe Varidel, Justin Coleman, Riley Norris
Projected Starting Five: Tarrant, Varidel, Levi Randolph, Kessens, Jimmie Taylor
The Crimson Tide had a dreadful record last season, but they deserved better. They were 6-13 in games decided by 10 or fewer points, including close losses to Duke, Florida (twice), Kentucky, Oklahoma, UCLA, Wichita State and Xavier.
Based on that list of foes, it shouldn't be a surprise that Alabama's strength of schedule was the fourth-toughest in the country.
That much-better-than-its-record team is losing its leading scorer with Releford graduating this summer, but it is adding a ton of quality players who will help soften the blow.
Tarrant averaged 15.3 points and 3.4 assists during his two seasons at Tulane before sitting out this past season on Anthony Grant's bench. Joining Tarrant on the pine was Kessens. The 6'9" forward averaged 13.7 points and 8.8 rebounds in his one season with Longwood before transferring.
Completing the transfer trifecta is Varidel. He spent last season at Chaminade, but it's more likely that you remember him as one of the key reserves during Florida Gulf Coast's magical tournament run two years ago. The sharpshooter who scored 42 points against Baylor in last year's Maui Invitational will likely start at shooting guard.
Kessens is the most important of Alabama's transfers, though.
This was one of the worst rebounding teams in the country last season. If the Crimson Tide could have done a better job of grabbing offensive rebounds or preventing their opponents from doing so, at least a couple of those 13 losses by 10 or fewer points would have been wins.
In order to win any games against the likes of Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, LSU and Ole Miss, Alabama will need to be much better on the glass this season.
5. Auburn Tigers
2013-14 Record: 14-16 (6-12 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Chris Denson, Allen Payne, Asauhn Dixon-Tatum
Key Incoming Players: Antoine Mason, K.C. Ross-Miller, Cinmeon Bowers
Projected Starting Five: Ross-Miller, Mason, K.T. Harrell, Bowers, Matthew Atewe
Allow me to open up the defense for this slightly insane prediction by pointing out that there has been quite the precedent established for at least one SEC team to experience a meteoric rise from one season to the next:
2008-09: Tennessee and Mississippi State each improve by four games
2009-10: South Carolina improves by five games, Auburn by six games and LSU by seven games
2010-11: Florida and Georgia improve by four games, Alabama improves by six games
2011-12: LSU improves by four games, Kentucky improves by six games
2012-13: Two conference games added, but Florida, Georgia, Arkansas and Ole Miss all win four more games than the previous year
2013-14: Florida improves by four games
(On the flip side of that coin, at least one SEC team has suffered at least four more conference losses than the previous season for 10 straight years, "highlighted" by LSU's plummet from 13-3 in 2008-09 to 2-14 the following year. So, you know, good luck, Missouri and Tennessee.)
So why Auburn?
For starters—and with all due respect to Tony Barbee—upgrading to Bruce Pearl was one of the best coaching moves to happen this summer. Pearl has a career winning percentage at the D-I level of .700 (231-99) and has never had a losing season.
And because of Pearl, the Tigers landed quite possibly the two best transfers in the entire country.
Only Doug McDermott scored more points last season than Mason, and Bowers is regarded as the best JUCO transfer in the country—the 6'7" power forward averaged 12.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game last season at Chipola College. Ross-Miller is no scrub either, as the point guard averaged 3.5 assists last year for New Mexico State while shooting 39.3 percent from three-point range.
Those three transfers figure to join Harrell (18.3 PPG in 2013-14) in the starting lineup.
If the fifth piece of Auburn's rotation was more of a sure thing, we would even consider moving the Tigers a spot or two higher. However, it seems as though Pearl will have little choice but to go with some conglomeration of Atewe, Alex Thompson, Benas Griciunas, Jordon Granger and Jack Purchase as the team's second big man.
Should one of those players emerge as a legitimate starter in the next six months, a 12-6 conference record for Auburn is absolutely in play.
4. Ole Miss Rebels
2013-14 Record: 19-14 (9-9 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Marshall Henderson, Derrick Millinghaus, Demarco Cox
Key Incoming Players: M.J. Rhett, Terence Smith, Stefan Moody, Rod Lawrence
Projected Starting Five: Jarvis Summers, Lawrence, Smith, Rhett, Aaron Jones
Ye olde Ewing Theory strikes again.
Henderson was the Rebels' top offensive option last season, so clearly the team is going to get worse without his 4.3 made three-pointers per game, right?
To the contrary, they should be better off without him and his 8.3 missed three-pointers per game.
More touches for Summers is bound to be a good thing, and Andy Kennedy added two of the best immediately eligible transfers this summer in Smith (14.6 PPG for Tennessee-Martin) and Rhett (10.9 PPG and 9.1 RPG for Tennessee State). If they can even remotely maintain that production while transitioning from the OVC to the SEC, this should be a tournament team.
The other key incoming players both rank among the top JUCO shooting guards making the leap to D-I ball. 247Sports has Lawrence ranked at No. 3 and Moody at No. 7.
One of those JUCO guards will start, and the other will join a bench that only trails Kentucky in the SEC in terms of depth and strength. Dwight Coleby, Anthony Perez and Sebastian Saiz will all provide quality frontcourt minutes, while Ladarius White and Martavious Newby serve as great backcourt reserves.
As long as they can figure out the team chemistry, the Rebels have more than enough talent to put together the type of 27-9 season they had in 2012-13.
3. Arkansas Razorbacks
2013-14 Record: 22-12 (10-8 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Coty Clarke, Fred Gulley III, Kikko Haydar, Mardracus Wade
Key Incoming Players: Anton Beard, Jabril Durham, Keaton Miles
Projected Starting Five: Durham, Rashad Madden, Michael Qualls, Alandise Harris, Bobby Portis
While the rest of the conference lost key players left and right, the Razorbacks managed to retain one of the top returning players in the country when Portis decided to play (at least) a sophomore season at Arkansas.
The 6'10" monster averaged 18.2 points and 10.0 rebounds per 40 minutes last year as a freshman, serving as one of Arkansas' best scorers and rebounders. ESPN rated Portis as the 16th-best incoming freshman last summer—though, that incredibly only put him in ninth place in the SEC—and big things will be expected in his second season.
But Arkansas is much more than just that one man.
Madden and Qualls both averaged about a dozen points per game last season and could feasibly have careers in the NBA before all is said and done. Harris' future prospects aren't anywhere near that bright, but he's a solid forward who merely needs to cut down on careless turnovers to increase his value.
The biggest question mark for the Razorbacks—especially with Clarke now out of the picture—is rebounding. According to KenPom.com, they allowed their opponents to get an offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their misses.
Of the 351 teams in the country, they ranked 342nd in that category.
Though they somehow won both games in overtime, they had 45 defensive rebounds in their two games against Kentucky, allowing the Wildcats to pull down 41 offensive rebounds. Giving up that many second-chance opportunities is hardly a sustainable winning strategy.
To combat that weakness, I could see Mike Anderson going with Madden and Qualls in the backcourt and moving Moses Kingsley, Jacorey Williams or Keaton Miles into the starting rotation. If nothing else, it might be a good idea to tinker with that lineup in one of the games against the huge frontcourts of Kentucky and LSU.
2. Florida Gators
2013-14 Record: 36-3 (18-0 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete
Key Incoming Players: Devin Robinson, Brandone Francis, Jon Horford, Alex Murphy, Chris Chiozza
Projected Starting Five: Kasey Hill, Michael Frazier, Dorian Finney-Smith, Horford, Chris Walker
In summation, Billy Donovan is losing four starters and bringing in three very talented freshmen but will still finish in second place in the SEC despite not starting any of those freshmen.
Must be nice.
Though Wilbekin was the man last season, Hill got a lot of reps at point guard and proved capable of handling the job. Frazier was one of the best shooters in the country last season. Walker was one of the highest-rated incoming players last summer and should be outstanding now that the academic woes are (hopefully) behind him.
There's certainly a debate to be had about what the Gators will look like at the forward positions, but that's a matter of deciding which good players end up on the bench as opposed to figuring out which below-average player has the best chance of turning into a winning lottery ticket.
The Gators aren't going 18-0 again. They almost definitely won't be winning the conference again. But their drop from first place will be a minimal one.
They have been to four consecutive Elite Eights, and I see every reason for that trend to continue this season.
1. Kentucky Wildcats
2013-14 Record: 29-11 (12-6 in conference)
Key Players Leaving: Julius Randle, James Young
Key Incoming Players: Karl Towns Jr., Trey Lyles, Devin Booker, Tyler Ulis
Projected Starting Five: Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Marcus Lee, Towns, Dakari Johnson
In addition to all the names listed above, John Calipari also has Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Derek Willis at his disposal.
This roster is so ridiculous that it's a little surprising Kentucky wasn't listed as one of the finalists in the LeBron James sweepstakes all week.
It's not even a question of whether Kentucky will win the SEC or open the regular season ranked No. 1 in the nation. We're just waiting to see whether that 40-0 printing press needs to be fired back up.
Unlike the past few years in which the Wildcats were expected to be great, this is now a team that has played together and fought its way through the learning curve to become one of the best teams at the end of last season. Rather than relying on a ton of freshmen, we're talking about sophomores coming back on a mission.
I've said this before and will probably say it again before the summer ends, but you could split Kentucky's current roster into two separate teams and have both of those squads finish in the top three in the SEC.
Keep them all together, though, and it's almost impossible to suggest that someone should be able to beat this team at any point during the season.
It'll happen. Kentucky's schedule is roughly 75 times harder than the one Wichita State played against last season. The Wildcats will lose a couple of times during the season—maybe even to one or two of these SEC teams.
But if Kentucky fails to win the SEC during the 2014-15 regular season, it would be one of the most shocking things to happen in the past decade of college basketball.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.