In the last week or so we finally got a start date for college basketball (November 25th) and the first dates for SEC league play (December 29th and 30th). I’ve been holding off on starting my outlook for the 2020-2021 season, but with the key information starting to come out, I figured I could go ahead and release my “way too early” preseason power rankings for the SEC.
These are not my preseason predictions for the SEC, because I firmly believe in only releasing those once a full schedule is announced for each team and I can predict the year game-by-game. However, with all buy a few transfer waiver announcements remaining and barring any SEC basketball players decide to opt-out, I think I have enough information to be confident in my preseason power rankings.
That being said, I still opted to slot teams into tiers to start the year because until we see actual basketball played there are certain groups of teams that have negligible differences to me at this point. I still went ahead and assigned a ranking to each team, which means if I was forced to say which is better going into the year I would side with the higher-ranked team, but teams in the same tier are too close enough for me to confidently say they’ll be better or worse than other teams in their same tier.
I hope to convey all of my initial thoughts and reasoning in this post, but just to get ahead of the blowback/disagreements, if you have questions or want clarification on some of my reasoning, or just want to tell me I’m wrong, I welcome friendly discussion on Twitter. In fact, with football season starting to dominate the timeline, I’d love a nice break with a good college basketball discussion.
Tier 1: Favorites
This tier contains the teams that I think have the best chance to finish the season without seeing the schedules. While a slightly easier schedule could lead me to pick some of the teams in lower tiers to finish better than these teams, at this moment I think that the teams in this tier will be the best overall teams in SEC basketball this season.
Last Season: 17-14 (9-9), 8th in the SEC
There are three big reasons I think Tennessee will be the best team in the SEC next season and has a chance to be one of the best teams in the country. The Volunteers took a step back last season, mostly due to key injuries and it being a rebuilding year of sorts after key departures after the 2018-2019 season. However, under Rick Barnes, Tennessee has been a serious contender for each of the past few seasons.
In addition to a proven record of competing for, and winning, regular-season titles, Tennessee also comes into the season with a highly impressive combination of returning talent and a top-ranked recruiting class. The Volunteers get Yves Pons and John Fulkerson back and add the nation’s fourth overall recruiting class including 5-star, top-20 players Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson.
Last Season: 25-6 (15-3), 1st in the SEC
Kentucky is a preseason favorite to win the SEC and will once again be a young, talented team. Shocking, I know. My only real concern with Kentucky is their frontcourt depth if the SEC decides to end up denying Oliver Sarr’s eligibility waiver after the big man transferred from Wake Forrest. If Sarr gets cleared, as he should, then Kentucky seems to have no weaknesses on paper, unless almost none of the freshmen pan out and live up to their high school rankings.
Despite being dead last in every major returning contribution category, like John Calipari usually does, Kentucky is replacing all of that contribution with a bunch of new, highly rated, fresh faces. Kentucky finished with the best overall recruiting class in the country and has five top-50 players including 5-stars BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke. The Wildcats could have been even better if sophomore EJ Montgomery had decided to stay for one more season in Lexington, but I think they will still have plenty of talent and depth to compete at the top of the league like they almost always do.
Tier 2: Contenders
This next group of teams is coming in with plenty of talent on paper, but each presents a few concerns in my mind and isn’t quite on the same level as the top two where I can safely predict that they will be the best in the league. Each of these teams will rightfully garner plenty of national attention, but I think there is still enough between them and the top two to put them in the same tier.
Last Season: 21-10 (12-6), 3rd in the SEC
Like Tennessee, Will Wade has made LSU a contender in the SEC for each of the past few seasons. Despite losing several key players, I think this season will be no different and the sixth-ranked recruiting class will give the Tigers enough to reload and challenge for the top of the league.
Trendon Watford opting to remove his name from the NBA Draft and return for his sophomore season was great news for LSU. He and Darius Days should lock down the frontcourt and 5-star guide Cameron Thomas has the opportunity to immediately help out alongside Javonte Smart. I’m a little concerned that LSU is going to only rely on stars from last season and six freshmen, but the talent is still there to be a contender, even if I’m not confident enough to call them a favorite.
Last Season: 16-15 (8-10), 9th in the SEC
Alabama is a popular pick to be one of the most improved teams this season and they should be exciting. Nate Oats did a good job of getting a mixed roster of his guys and players leftover from Avery Johnson to buy into a new fast-paced style of play. Another year of practice in this system and even more players recruited specifically for the system should make the attack even more dangerous.
John Petty and Herb Jones returning for Alabama were huge. Add in Jaden Shackelford, who had an impressive freshman campaign, Jahvon Quinerly, who has been eagerly waiting to get back on the court, and a top-15 recruiting class, and Alabama once again looks very good on paper. My only hesitation is that I feel like we’ve heard this before. I believe in Nate Oats way more than Avery Johnson, but it’s still hard to see Alabama as an SEC favorite when they have only finished higher than 9th once in the last seven seasons.
Last Season: 19-12 (11-7), 5th in the SEC
Another team that I have a hard time buying into the preseason hype of others is the Florida Gators. There are still key players returning like Keyontae Johnson and Scottie Lewis, but I’m not confident that only a 38th ranked recruiting class with just one top-50 player can make up for the loss of Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Andrew Nembhard.
I also have less and less faith in Mike White. He got the team to buy in and be competitive in SEC league play last season, but they went into the year as a favorite and popular national team and ended up with less than 20 wins overall and just a 5th place finish in the SEC. Mike White’s level of success would be welcomed at several other SEC schools, but this might be his last chance to prove he can surpass expectations before he finds himself on a serious hot seat. I think he has another roster good enough to contend on paper, but I still think he could be the one person that holds them back.
Tier 3: Maybe
There’s a chance that teams in this tier could still finish at or near the top of the league, but I still think there are either still too many questions with them or they’re just a year away from being one of the best.
Last Season: 25-6 (12-6), 2nd in the SEC
Auburn has had a truly impressive run the last three seasons and two of those seasons had lower expectations going into the year. Despite losing six key players from last season’s team, I trust Bruce Pearl enough to have Auburn surprise people again. While the Tigers return the second and third least amount of contribution in each major area, they have the benefit of still brining back guys that did have some significant chances to play.
Players like Jaylin Williams and Devan Cambridge had bursts that showed their potential while spending most of their time in the shadows of all the senior talent and future lottery pick Isaac Okoro. I think that a small amount of experience will make this less of a total rebuilding year, especially when paired with the ninth-best recruiting class that includes 5-star guard Sharife Cooper. Auburn has thrived on lower expectations, and I think they’ll still be good this season, but more teams in the SEC have caught up and this does seem to be a “down” year compared to recent success.
Last Season: 19-12 (7-11), 11th in the SEC
Until Isaiah Joe re-declared for the NBA Draft, I would have had Arkansas in the top-5 of these power rankings. Before that, I saw the Razorbacks in a very similar situation as Alabama as both teams had great recruiting classes with just enough firepower returning to lead it all under head coaches that show tons of promise already.
But without Isaiah Joe, Arkansas will now rely on just Desi Stills and Ethan Henderson from last season plus six new or newly eligible transfers and four 4-star recruits. All of the newcomers leave plenty of options for guys to become great players, but I think when all of the expectations lie on newcomers it’s not a good bet to assume they’ll work out well enough to compete at the top of the league.
8. Ole Miss
Last Season: 15-16 (6-12), 12th in the SEC
Ole Miss loses high scoring guard Breein Tyree to graduation and Blake Hinson’s choice to transfer will hurt a little bit, but overall, I think Ole Miss returns enough contribution to give Kermit Davis plenty of weapons to work with. I still want to believe that Kermit Davis is one of the best in-game coaches on any given night, but this would be the perfect season to solidify that.
Davontae Shuler and KJ Buffen will be the main candidates to replace Breein Tyree, but they’ll have more help all around them with the rest of the seven returning players and the addition of three transfers and 4-star, top-40 guard Matthew Murrell. The Rebels aren’t introducing the same amount of new talent as Arkansas, but the returning talent could play a bigger role and help them finish towards the top of this tier instead or possibly even the next tier.
Tier 4: Dark Horses
I don’t think that these teams will compete for the SEC title, but they each have enough to shock some people and compete for the top half of the league for various, unique reasons.
9. South Carolina
Last Season: 18-13 (10-8), 6th in the SEC
Never count out a Frank Martin coached South Carolina team, especially when he returns ten players and some of the most contribution from last season. For the Gamecocks to climb the rankings, AJ Lawson and Justin Minaya will need to take their game to another level and be the definitive leaders for this team.
The addition of North Carolina Seventh Woods after a year of sitting out for transfer could also make a big difference in talent on the floor. While this season could be another year South Carolina competes near the top, it’s also not their last opportunity since they’ll have just one senior on next year’s team and the 2021-2022 campaign could be even more promising for Frank Martin’s squad. But that’s getting a little ahead of myself…
Last Season: 15-16 (7-11), 10th in the SEC
Like South Carolina and Ole Miss, Missouri also returns almost all of the contributors from last season. The trio of Smiths all return and Xavier Pinson is also back to anchor the backcourt along with Dru Smith. I think that Cuonzo Martin has the coaching ability to make this roster work, but if he can’t serious questions will have to be asked about Missouri returning to their former level.
I want Missouri to be good in basketball again because I think they can make the SEC even better when they’re back competing. They return the most contribution in points, rebounds, assists, and minutes so if they’re going to be good, next year is the year.
11. Texas A&M
Last Season: 16-14 (10-8), 7th in the SEC
The Aggies didn’t get off to a hot start in non-conference play last season but then Buzz Williams got his team to rally and manage to finish with a winning record in the SEC. Texas A&M is losing their best player from last season, Josh Nebo, to graduation, but Savion Flagg, Quenton Jackson, and JayJay Chandler will attempt to fill in as the three returning seniors.
A late reclassification by Jaxson Robinson into the 2020 class also gives Buzz Williams two 4-star, top-75 freshmen to work with. Texas A&M will need to show me more at the beginning of the season for me to fully buy-in, but Williams’s track record and the results of SEC play last season give me enough reason to think that Texas A&M has a chance to get back into the top half of the league this season.
Tier 5: Not Likely
Out of all these tiers, there is probably the biggest gap between tiers four and five. Barring some miracle, I don’t see any of these teams being very competitive and give them almost no chance to finish near the top of the league.
Last Season: 11-20 (3-15), 14th in the SEC
Everyone should be hoping that Vanderbilt doesn’t experience another season-ending injury to their top player this season. In reviewing stats for last season, the SEC missed out on what Aaron Nesmith could have done to the league if he didn’t follow the unfortunate fate of Darius Garland and end his season just one game into SEC play.
Clevon Brown getting another year of eligibility could be a big bonus for Vanderbilt and he’ll join Scottie Pippen Jr. as the expected top players next season. Maybe Jerry Stackhouse can work some magic and move even further up the rankings, but to start the year, I think there is at least enough talent to give Vanderbilt a chance to not finish last this season, and that would at least be an improvement on the last few years.
13. Mississippi State
Last Season: 20-11 (11-7), 4th in the SEC
Mississippi State loses eight scholarship players from last season and only one of those had to leave because of graduation. Ben Howland will be rooting for Nick Weatherspoon, Robert Woodard II, and Reggie Perry to make it in the NBA because all three leaving for second round aspirations doesn’t leave a ton of talent to work with in Starkville.
All is not lost with Abdul Adu returning for a fifth year in Maroon and D.J. Stewart Jr. looking to build on a promising freshman campaign. 4-star, top-60 freshman Deivon Smith gives the Bulldogs some solid fresh talent, and out of the four other 3-star recruits, Ben Howland could have found a gem or two to help out. Overall, Mississippi State loses way too much talent and doesn’t have the newcomers to make up for it. Baring this team outplaying their expectations significantly, we might have already seen the peak of Ben Howland at Mississippi State, and I don’t think he’s lived up to the success that Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes have achieved in a similar timeframe.
Last Season: 15-16 (5-13), 13th in the SEC
Last season Georgia had likely the top NBA Draft pick playing for them and other talented players surrounding him. However, the Bulldogs still managed to finish at the bottom of the league just one spot ahead of another disappointing Vanderbilt team. If that was the result of Tom Crean coaching that much talent, I don’t see an improvement with even less talent.
Georgia will have three grad transfers from George Mason, Stony Brook, and Virginia Tech to provide some helpful experience and some freshmen showed brights spots like Toumani Camara and Sahvir Wheeler, but I don’t think it will be enough. I think Georgia’s best outcome for next season is this team overachieves enough and Tom Crean can bring in another top recruiting class and the Bulldogs can aim for a competitive year in 2021-2022.
Writing all of this up just makes me even more excited for the basketball season. It’s still early and I plan to do a closer look at each SEC basketball team once schedules are announced and rosters are fully finalized, but these are my initial expectations for how the SEC will stack up.
It should be another good year of SEC basketball, so hopefully, the quality teams on the court make up for what will likely be an odd season with minimal or no fans. Hopefully, everything stays on track and we get to declare a champion next spring, even if I’m way off and it’s not one of my top teams now.