Kentucky Basketball: Where Wildcats' Projected Starters Rank vs. SEC Competition
You'll be hard-pressed to find a prediction for the forthcoming SEC basketball season that doesn't put the Kentucky Wildcats in first place. Those who dare to downgrade the talented Cats are quickly deluged with feedback berating them for trying to be "shocking" or "controversial."
Of course, that same feedback was plentiful last year, and it was Florida, not UK, that steamrolled the rest of the conference. Evaluated on a piece-by-piece basis, it's unlikely that the Gators would have been picked to dominate as thoroughly as they did.
We've all learned by now that teams will frequently add up to more or less than the sum of their parts, but it's still fun to break the projected starters out by position and weigh them against a group of their peers.
This sort of project has two steps: 1) Identify the potential starters for each team in the conference; and 2) rank each group by position. We're well aware that some players may be listed out of position (e.g. a natural shooting guard in with the small forwards), but as three-guard lineups become more and more prevalent, these guys have to be listed somewhere.
At the end, we'll total the rankings for a purely unscientific look at the relative strength of each team's starting lineup. While there are so many more moving parts in the SEC season, these rankings may just resemble your expected final standings.
With a team as talented and as deep as Kentucky, there are countless potential lineup combinations. This writer's bounced between at least half a dozen already.
Therefore, this sort of exercise can be repeated over and over with your chosen players and positions.
Feel free to volunteer other possibilities in the comments.
PG Andrew Harrison: 2nd
It took until the middle of March for John Calipari to rein in his point guard's daring—some would say foolish—tendency to attack the basket and all who stood in front of it.
A full third of Andrew Harrison's shots—110 of 330—were taken at the rim, but according to Hoop-Math.com, he made a mere 54 of those attempts, or 49.1 percent. That's an ugly figure for a player who measures in the area of 6'5" and 215 pounds. True, he drew 208 free throws, but officials will only call so many fouls before encouraging an offense to try something different so the game doesn't take six hours.
Once Andrew curbed those impulses and began behaving as a true distributor, Kentucky caught fire.
It just happened to be the postseason by the time those two things occurred. If Andrew starts out with the mindset to create for others, he'll contend for All-SEC honors at the minimum.
1. Jarvis Summers, Ole Miss
Summers is the SEC's No. 2 returning scorer, the steady and efficient backbeat behind the frantic dervish of wild three-pointers that was Marshall Henderson. If Summers is as solid without Henderson as he was with, he's a potential SEC Player of the Year.
2. Andrew Harrison, Kentucky
3. Kasey Hill, Florida
In only 21.9 minutes per game, Hill dished 3.1 dimes a night, good for 10th in the SEC. He had seven games with more assists than shots, with his 10-assist Sweet 16 game against UCLA a highlight.
He'll contend for the assist crown this season, as UF's defense should be more of a worry than the offense.
4. Ricky Tarrant, Alabama
A two-time All-Conference USA performer for Tulane, Tarrant steered the 2012-13 Green Wave to the school's only winning season in the last six. Crimson Tide coach Anthony Grant needs a sequel to save his job.
5. Josh Gray, LSU
Gray was a productive distributor and defender for a year at Texas Tech, then proved he could be a dominant scorer by dropping 34.7 PPG at Odessa Junior College. If he can put it all together, he'll play LSU into a long-awaited tournament return.
6. Charles Mann, Georgia
Mann made plenty of improvement to his overall efficiency last season, but his shooting—41 percent from the floor, 31 percent from deep—still needs work. He could see time at a wing position if other potential replacements for the dismissed Brandon Morris don't take.
7. K.C. Ross-Miller, Auburn
The New Mexico State transfer is one of only three SEC floor generals to have started a game in the NCAA tournament. He would have made it two if he hadn't gotten suspended for nearly inciting a brawl against Utah Valley. Ross-Miller could be especially dangerous if he can equal last season's 39.3 percent clip from three-point range.
8. Tyrone Johnson, South Carolina
Much like Andrew Harrison, Johnson loves to attack the rim. He'll need to make more than last year's 37.3 percent at close range if he wants to help the Gamecocks compete. Overall, he shot only 27 percent in his two-plus conference games before a foot injury ended his season.
9. Keith Shamburger, Missouri
Like Tarrant, the well-traveled Shamburger has shown he can win even as part of a perennial doormat. His freshman year at San Jose State was the Spartans' only winning season since 1994. The career 34.9-percent shooter is another SEC point guard who is much better at setting up others than scoring on his own.
10. Alex Robinson, Texas A&M
Robinson is a consensus 4-star recruit out of Arlington, Texas, who'll break opponents off regularly with his array of dribble moves and sheer pace. Where he'll need to prove himself is as a shooter and defender. If he adapts quickly in those areas, he may help the Aggies pull a couple of major upsets.
11. Anton Beard, Arkansas
Beard is a 4-star prospect according to ESPN, one who occasionally suffers from over-aggressiveness. If he doesn't commit a host of foolish turnovers and get burned gambling for steals, he should be a solid floor leader for the Hogs.
12. Shelton Mitchell, Vanderbilt
Another 4-star recruit, Mitchell spurned Wake Forest after Jeff Bzdelik's firing. More gifted mentally than physically, he could be a four-year starter for Vandy coach Kevin Stallings.
13. Ian Chiles, Tennessee
Nothing against Chiles, who was a dangerous scorer for IUPUI, but he was playing shooting guard in the Horizon League. No matter how dire you think SEC basketball is these days, SEC point guard is a much tougher job than Horizon 2-guard. His shooting efficiency fell off drastically after a very strong freshman year.
14. Trivante Bloodman, Mississippi State
Senior Trivante Bloodman will have to beat out sophomore I.J. Ready for the starting role. Bloodman established himself as a more consistent scorer, but Ready is more dangerous from the perimeter. Or coach Rick Ray could move shooting guard Craig Sword to the point and send both to the bench.
About all we know for sure is that Dee Bost is not walking through that door.
SG Aaron Harrison: 2nd
Where twin brother Andrew could stand to drive the ball a bit less, Aaron Harrison could benefit from attacking the rack just a bit more.
While a string of clutch jump shots made Harrison an NCAA tournament hero, he was an unreliable shooter during the season. Aaron had made only 30.6 percent from deep going into the SEC tournament.
Overall, though, fewer than a quarter of Aaron's shots came from near the rim (23.6 percent, per Hoop-Math). He sank 67 percent of them, making him a much more reliable finisher than his brother. To boot, he led the Cats with a 79 percent conversion rate at the free-throw line.
If both twins play more to their strengths, the UK offense could become nearly unstoppable by season's end.
1. Michael Frazier, Florida
Yes, Frazier is extremely one-dimensional. More than 75 percent of his career shots have been threes. Still, he's one of the best in the nation at that one dimension. It's hard to argue with 45-percent accuracy from deep against SEC athletes.
2. Aaron Harrison, Kentucky
3. Ky Madden, Arkansas
Madden asserted himself as a perimeter threat last season, not just a slasher. He entered last season as a career 22.6 percent three-point shooter, but his accuracy ballooned to 40 percent in his junior year.
4. Kenny Gaines, Georgia
Gaines is one of the SEC's best three-and-D players, but he showed a much more diverse offensive game last season. His shooting percentage on mid-range jumpers rose nearly 15 points from his freshman year, according to Hoop-Math.
5. Antoine Mason, Auburn
Even if it was in the MAAC, 25.6 PPG is nothing to sneeze at. Over his career, he's even averaged 19.2 in six meetings with power-conference opponents.
The problem is that he shot only 35.4 percent to score those points. Mason's scoring figures may stay strong in his new home, but his efficiency could suffer.
6. Craig Sword, Mississippi State
Sword or "Chicken," as he's known in Starkville, is a true combo guard who led the Bulldogs in both scoring and assists in each of his first two seasons. He may slide over to the point for most of his minutes this season, but he's MSU's focal point in either position.
7. Levi Randolph, Alabama
Randolph is the Tide's top returning scorer and most prolific three-point shooter. He finished strong last season, averaging 16.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals over Bama's last six games, sinking 44.4 percent from three. A full season like that will certainly help the Tide chase down the elusive tournament bubble.
8. Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
Thornwell sank 37 percent from the three-point arc but only 39 inside of it. If he tightens up his ball-handling and improves that shooting efficiency, he's an All-SEC candidate. Thornwell spent some time at the point last season, but he's a much more comfortable 2-guard.
9. Keith Hornsby, LSU
Hornsby cracked 20 points nine times in his sophomore season at UNC-Asheville. Those nine games—including efforts against NC State and Ohio State—weren't accomplished through mindless volume-chucking, either. He shot 56 percent in those nine games, 57.7 from three-point land.
Much like his father, Bruce, Hornsby has some serious range.
10. Terence Smith, Ole Miss
A transfer from Tennessee-Martin, Smith was a double-figure scorer in all three of his seasons. He was by far his most efficient last season, though, sinking 43.8 percent from deep to rank third in the OVC. Florida State was the only nonconference opponent to hold him to single-digit scoring.
11. Namon Wright, Missouri
New Tigers coach Kim Anderson scored big by keeping Wright and forward Jakeenan Gant in the fold after taking over from Frank Haith. A top-75 recruit per Scout and Rivals, Wright is a good bet to lead Mizzou in scoring if he can handle the physical demands of college ball.
12. Alex Caruso, Texas A&M
Caruso led the SEC in assists and ranked second in steals as the Aggies' point guard last season. He could slide over to make room for Alex Robinson, and perhaps more of a scoring role could free Caruso to do filthy things like he did to Marshall Henderson back in March.
13. Dai-Jon Parker, Vanderbilt
Jack of all trades Dai-Jon Parker is the Commodores' lone backcourt upperclassman. He's another who finished the season strong, averaging 14.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists while shooting 48.4 percent over the season's final six games.
Of course, he ended his sophomore year in similar fashion and still started slowly as a junior. If Parker stays aggressive, he should be a consistent 12- to 14-PPG scorer.
14. Kevin Punter, Tennessee
Punter can play at either guard position, and the Vols will certainly be able to use his versatility. Ian Chiles isn't a veteran at the point, and erstwhile 5-star prospect Robert Hubbs is coming back from shoulder surgery that shut him down after 12 games last year.
Punter likely can't shoot 57 percent from the floor as he did last year in junior college, but his 37 percent three-point mark should be replicable.
SF Devin Booker: 5th
So with all Kentucky's plentiful frontcourt depth, why start a three-guard lineup?
Consider freshman Devin Booker's perimeter shooting ability a hedge against Aaron Harrison regressing to the mean. If the sophomore is unable to shoot the way he did in the NCAA tournament, players like Alex Poythress and Trey Lyles won't be able to pick up that slack.
But Booker can.
At 6'5" Booker won't be a vertical liability against most wings, although some may be able to push his 185-pound frame around quite easily. If need be, one of the Harrisons could come and defend most small forwards.
1. K.T. Harrell, Auburn
Harrell is the SEC's top returning scorer. His average may take a hit, but it's one that he and new coach Bruce Pearl may gladly accept. With better talent around him, there's less need for Harrell to score 20 points every night, and most games will be much more winnable than the same matchups were in 2013-14.
2. Dorian Finney-Smith, Florida
Finney-Smith is a terror on the glass, especially for a guy listed at only 212 pounds. All he's done is rank in the top 10 on both the ACC and the SEC rebounding charts in his first two seasons of action. If he can ever shoot with any consistency, he's a dark-horse All-American candidate.
3. Josh Richardson, Tennessee
Richardson's always been a lockdown defender, but he showed offensive flashes in his junior year. He dropped 20 in UT's colossal December blowout of eventual ACC champion Virginia, then averaged 19.3 PPG in the NCAA tournament.
The Vols may need something close to that average to contend for the top half of the SEC table.
4. Jarell Martin, LSU
Martin battled nagging injuries and an unfamiliar wing role early in the season but rallied to shoot 37 percent from three-point land over the Tigers' final 10 games. He'll need to step up stronger against better competition after averaging only 7.3 PPG against NCAA tournament teams last season.
5. Devin Booker, Kentucky
6. Michael Qualls, Arkansas
Always a superb athlete, Qualls added a jumper to his arsenal last season. He drained 42 triples after only making six as a freshman. He's a SportsCenter moment waiting to happen as long as he avoids any repeats of last year's brief suspension.
7. Jakeenan Gant, Missouri
A natural power forward, Gant has the ability to attack the basket off the dribble and drain a nice mid-range jumper. If Kim Anderson needs to make a change, Gant can easily find himself back in the 4 spot, especially if he can bulk up his 215-pound frame.
8. Michael Carrera, South Carolina
Having a 6'5", 210-pound man lead your team in rebounding either says that that man is a tough individual or that the rest of your team is full of, shall we say, not-so-tough individuals. Carrera's numbers backslid from his freshman year, but he's still led the Gamecocks on the glass two years in a row.
9. Cameron Forte, Georgia
The 200-pound Forte has a power forward's game in a small forward's body. He shot 59.1 percent from the floor last season, including a ludicrous 79.2 percent at the rim, per Hoop-Math. With Brandon Morris' dismissal, Forte will see a lot more than last year's 8.8 minutes per game.
10. Fred Thomas, Mississippi State
Thomas knocked in 46 threes last year, more than potential starting guards Craig Sword, I.J. Ready and Trivante Bloodman combined. He knocked in 13.5 PPG over MSU's last six outings, making 39.5 percent from the arc.
11. Anthony Perez, Ole Miss
Perez can fall in love with his jumper, but he's also not above drawing some contact. He attempted 96 free throws on 167 field-goal tries, a solid 57.5 percent.
12. Matthew Fisher-Davis, Vanderbilt
Speaking of free throws, the 6'6" Fisher-Davis sank an absurd 97 percent as a high school senior. Combine that with 49 percent from the arc, and you have the kind of stroke that Vandy needs on the court as much as possible.
13. Rodney Cooper, Alabama
Cooper brings tremendous experience, but someone has to rein in his shot selection. He's a career 28 percent shooter from deep, but he's still hoisted 243 tries over the last two years.
14. Jordan Green, Texas A&M
Green won his team's defensive MVP award, but his shooting needs tweaking at the opposite end. He's only a 49.8 percent true shooter for his career, according to Sports-Reference.com.
PF Karl Towns: 3rd
Who can guard Karl Towns? A 7-footer with legitimate NBA three-point range, he'll pull some big men much farther from the basket than they've ever had to defend before.
At 235 pounds, he's not the most muscular post player in America, but he's surrounded by plenty of bigs with the kind of strength to keep UK strong on the glass. Most of Towns' rebounds and a bunch of defensive stops will come about by means of his 7'3.5" wingspan.
If he bulks up to approximately 250 pounds this season, he'll be virtually unstoppable.
1. Bobby Portis, Arkansas
Speaking of 7-footers, Portis could nudge that magic mark by the time he leaves Fayetteville—and that may happen this coming spring. If he gets more comfortable with a half-court offense running through him, the Little Rock native will play his way into the NBA draft lottery.
2. Jordan Mickey, LSU
Jarell Martin got all the attention in last year's LSU freshman class, but it was Mickey who stormed onto the league's all-freshman team. The SEC's leading shot-blocker and top returning rebounder will also help make up for some of the departed Johnny O'Bryant's scoring. Mickey shot a solid 39.3 percent on mid-range jumpers, per Hoop-Math.
3. Karl Towns, Kentucky
4. Chris Walker, Florida
Walker played less than five minutes per game as a freshman, so we're taking this ranking on faith. Based on what he's been posting to Instagram, however, Walker does appear to be putting in the work. Don't be surprised if he's listed substantially heavier than 220 pounds this season.
5. Cinmeon Bowers, Auburn
Bowers will provide the kind of nasty streak on the glass that the Tigers have lacked in recent years. He's also a physical offensive player who will spend a lot of time trudging to the foul line. If he converts consistently, he can easily be a double-double man for Auburn.
6. M.J. Rhett, Ole Miss
The Tennessee State transfer has always been an SEC-caliber athlete, but he's spent his career in the OVC. His 14 double-doubles were among the most in the nation last year.
7. Nemanja Djurisic, Georgia
Djurisic was the SEC's perfect illustration of a stretch 4 before Towns' arrival. Still, the Bulldog senior gives the Wildcat freshman something to aspire to, as he drained a cool 43.2 percent from beyond the arc last season.
8. Michael Kessens, Alabama
Another potential impact transfer, ex-Longwood forward Kessens will have to adapt quickly to the step up in competition. Only a sophomore, he's got three years to catch up to the 13.7 points and 8.8 rebounds he averaged in the Big South. The major question is: Does coach Anthony Grant have time for the Swiss forward to find his way?
9. James Siakam, Vanderbilt
Siakam was a seldom-used reserve before blossoming as a junior. His 5.3 RPG placed him second on the team. His 72.4 percent shooting at the rim led all Commodores who took 100 or more shots, according to Hoop-Math. And he ranked 10th in the conference at 1.3 blocks per game.
A solid workman.
10. Johnathan Williams III, Missouri
With Jakeenan Gant in the fold, Williams will need to fight to even keep a starting role. The sophomore is the SEC's returning leader in offensive-rebounding percentage (13.8).
11. Mindaugas Kacinas, South Carolina
Kacinas averaged 6.8 points and 6.2 rebounds over the Cocks' final 13 games, a strong finish for a guy who slumped his way out of a starting role in January. He'll need more games like the double-double he posted against arch-rival Clemson.
12. Roquez Johnson, Mississippi State
Johnson has primarily served as a sixth man for the last two years, and he'll have to beat out junior college transfer Johnny Zuppardo for a starting role now. To his credit, Johnson did score in double figures in both meetings with Kentucky and averaged 14 points and six rebounds in three games against Ole Miss.
13. Armani Moore, Tennessee
A player distinguished more by toughness than talent, Moore is one of UT's upperclass leaders and could become an emergency frontcourt option if none of new coach Donnie Tyndall's long, lanky freshmen can stake a claim to a starting role. Moore won't shy away from guarding anyone.
14. Antwan Space, Texas A&M
Space only seemed to show up in the clutch last season, sinking late, game-winning threes to beat Tennessee not once, but twice. He made four of seven from deep against the Vols, nine of 44 against everyone else. One encouraging sign may be that Space put up 12.7 points and 6.7 rebounds per game in the postseason.
C Dakari Johnson: 1st
A lineup with Booker and Towns could use an offensive presence in the paint, and that's where Dakari Johnson comes in. The 265-pound man-child took some time to find his way during his freshman year, but when the games got their biggest, Johnson was up to the task.
From the Sweet 16 on, Johnson established himself as a highlight on the scouting report, not just a couple of bullet points. He notched averages of 9.5 points and five rebounds against Louisville, Michigan, Wisconsin and UConn.
During UK's summer trip to the Bahamas, Johnson has even more of a chance to establish himself as a starter, since junior Willie Cauley-Stein and freshman Trey Lyles won't be traveling. That extra time will be invaluable for all the Cats, but none more so than a man who faces competition both older and younger.
1. Dakari Johnson, Kentucky
2. Damian Jones, Vanderbilt
Jones made a strong debut in Nashville, producing a solid 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. He's Vandy's returning leader in both categories. With more experience, we'll see him look even more like a guy that Duke, Kansas and Florida were chasing.
3. Elbert Robinson, LSU
Robinson is a massive human being, one who played his senior year at 330 pounds. He's living in the weight room this summer in an attempt to get himself down to 275 so he can hit the ground running for the Tigers rather than sit on the bench panting.
4. Gavin Ware, Mississippi State
Ware is the SEC's No. 2 returning rebounder. He'll need to become a more consistent scoring threat if the Bulldogs are to compete this season. Ware scored in double figures only seven times in 20 conference games, including the tournament.
5. Kourtney Roberson, Texas A&M
Roberson has made nearly 60 percent of his career shot attempts, but he doesn't see nearly as many looks as that success should dictate. In 2012-13, his conference numbers were slightly stronger than his overall averages, but they regressed last season.
6. Aaron Jones, Ole Miss
Jones is one of three returning players who ranked in the SEC's top 10 in both blocks and rebounds last season. The others are Bobby Portis and Jordan Mickey.
That's good company, but Jones is nowhere close to their level as a scorer.
7. Marcus Thornton, Georgia
Thornton managed to stay healthy through a full season, and he even had a nice four-game run (13.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.8 blocks per game) going as February turned into March. Now, he's got to keep it going over a full campaign.
8. Jon Horford, Florida
The graduate transfer from Michigan is a Gator legacy. While he's not likely to dominate the way his brother Al frequently did, Horford will make a fine replacement for nonstop energy machine Will Yeguete.
9. Moses Kingsley, Arkansas
Despite Bobby Portis' best efforts, the Hogs were among the nation's worst defensive rebounding teams last season, ranking 10th from the bottom, per Ken Pomeroy (subscription required). More minutes for the 6'10" Kingsley could aid the cause, as teams like Kentucky just keep getting bigger.
10. Ryan Rosburg, Missouri
Rosburg could struggle to keep his starting job if coach Kim Anderson elects to try Johnathan Williams in the pivot and Jakeenan Gant at the 4. Not a scoring threat, Rosburg can earn his keep by crushing the defensive glass harder. He's already a solid offensive board man.
11. Jimmie Taylor, Alabama
Taylor put up 7.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per 40 minutes as a freshman last season. The Tide would love to see numbers like that per 25 or so minutes this season. Bama fans can be encouraged by Taylor's 19 points and 11 rebounds against Arkansas and LSU late last season, but should be concerned about his nine fouls in 50 minutes over those two games.
12. Laimonas Chatkevicius, South Carolina
Speaking of per-40 numbers, Chatkevicius carded impressive averages of 14.9 points and 12.6 boards. His 10.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game were key to the Cocks' surprising run in the SEC tournament.
13. Tariq Owens, Tennessee
The 6'10" Owens is the tallest player on the Vols roster after Rawane Ndiaye tore his ACL. The problem is that he arrives carrying only 175 pounds on that frame. He's got great shot-blocking instincts, but he'll need bulk.
And a lot of it.
14. Matthew Atewe, Auburn
Atewe underwent surgery on his left shin in April but is expected to make a full recovery in time for the season. If he can't go, Bruce Pearl may be fine with using the 6'7" Cinmeon Bowers in the middle.
Just for Fun: Team-by-Team Totals
Now, let's examine the totals of each school's rankings:
1. Kentucky 13
2. Florida 18
3. LSU 23
4. Arkansas 30
5. Auburn 32
T6. Georgia 33
T6. Ole Miss 33
8. Alabama 43
9. Mississippi State 46
T10. Missouri 47
T10. South Carolina 47
12. Vanderbilt 48
13. Tennessee 56
14. Texas A&M 57
We can probably all agree about the top two, correct? It's hard to envision Kentucky or Florida falling too far, unless either team simply forgets how to play defense.
The next five or six could all be NCAA tournament candidates with a fortunate break here and there, but the bottom half of the conference is a jumbled mess.
Mississippi State is probably too high here, and Vanderbilt is too low if their freshmen guards excel early. Tennessee could finish in the top half if everyone gels or could justify this ranking if the chemistry isn't right.
There's a lot to watch in SEC basketball this season, but outside of the Wildcats and Gators, a lot of it may once again be rather unappealing.