SEC basketball saw improvement this season, as five teams made the 2017 NCAA Tournament. However, several other teams were on the cusp of postseason play. Alabama and Georgia made the NIT.
While the five teams involved should keep building, the rest of the SEC is rising too. Several programs hired high-profile coaches recently, including Avery Johnson and Alabama and Bruce Pearl at Auburn. And on Wednesday, Missouri hired Cuonzo Martin away from California.
With an influx of talent, the conference should only continue to grow.
Building basketball programs takes less time than football just because of the small rosters and higher turnover. The results should start appearing soon.
Here are three SEC teams who have a shot to make the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Record: 19-15, 10-8 SEC
Top returner: Braxton Key
People remember Avery Johnson as the Dallas Mavericks coach. However, the Little General is quickly turning around a program that made one NCAA Tournament since 2006. The Crimson Tide earned a spot in the National Invitational Tournament after an encouraging season.
The Crimson Tide struggle to score the ball, but feature the No. 14 adjust defense in college basketball, per KenPom. Freshmen Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram both averaged double-digit scoring this season and will be back with a year of development.
But perhaps more importantly, the Crimson Tide will bring in one of the top five recruiting classes in the country — that sounds familiar. Point guard Collin Sexton, a 5-star prospect in 247Sports’ composite rankings, is the crowd jewel of the class. Shooting guard John Petty, also a 5-star prospect, should also contribute right away. If Sexton can improve the offense and the defense stays consistent, Alabama could push for an NCAA tournament berth.
Texas A&M Aggies
Record: 16-15, 8-10 SEC
Top returner: Tyler Davis
Two years ago, Texas A&M signed one of the best recruiting classes in the nation. The Aggies’ class was No. 4 in the nation, and included three top-50 players and five top-100 prospects in the 247Sports rankings. But at this point, the class hasn’t panned out. The Aggies limped to a 16-15 record a year after earning a spot in the Sweet 16.
The top recruit in the class, D.J. Hogg, shot just 39.8 percent from the field before a season-ending foot injury. Shooting guard Kobie Eubanks, who played a postgraduate year before arriving at Texas A&M, played only 117 minutes. Four-star center Elijah Thomas transferred after one semester in College State. Only center Tyler Davis (14.1 PPG, 7.0 RPG) and shooting guard Admon Gilder (13.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.9 APG) have lived up to expectations.
A transitional season was somewhat expected after losing three top seniors from last year’s team. Ultimately, the Aggies were too talented to miss all postseason tournaments. That doesn’t even count adding big man Robert Williams, who many think will be an NBA lottery pick in June. The program needs success in 2018.
Record: 18-14, 7-11 SEC
Top returner: Mustapha Heron
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was handed a tough slate. He took over a program that had not qualified for the NCAA Tournament in a decade, and only three times since 1988. In fact, no Auburn player has been in the NBA since 2013. The closest is Toney Douglas, who transferred to Florida State after a year at Auburn.
Pearl’s first recruiting class was pretty good, ranking No. 15 in the nation. It featured three 4-star prospects, including the No. 2 junior college player in the country.
The 2016 class launched the program to another level. Pearl signed forwards Mustapha Heron and Austin Wiley, both rated 5-stars and top 25 prospects in the nation. Heron took the conference by storm, averaging 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. In fact, the top four scorers on the 2016-17 team were all freshmen (Heron, Danjel Purifoy, Jared Harper, Wiley).
Auburn landed just outside of the NIT, but the Tigers are somewhat ahead of schedule. The 2017 recruiting class has the benefit of featuring several top talents, but not quite good enough talents that the players leave early for the NBA. Development breeds consistency, and added consistency should make Auburn dangerous next season in an SEC devoid of an upper middle class.