SEC basketball is just hours away from tipping off its 2015-16 season. The league could be in store for a revival with the addition of a few big-name head coaches and some even more prominent recruits. Could this be the year the SEC achieves national relevance outside of Kentucky? The possibilities could be endless.
Who will cut down the nets in Nashville in March? Will one of the conference’s prolific freshmen capture the league’s Player of the Year honors? Who could knock off Kentucky? All of these questions, and more, will be answered in my SEC hoops predictions:
Team not named Kentucky that can win the SEC: Vanderbilt
Vandy is loaded and poised to get back to the respectable levels the program enjoyed a few years ago. The Commodores went 10-4 down the stretch and advanced to the NIT quarterfinals after their season appeared dead in January. Much of that team returns for more in 2015. Forward Damian Jones and streaky shooter Riley LaChance lead the pack, and Vandy will have six of its top seven scorers back from a year ago.
Biggest upset of the season: LSU knocks off Kentucky in Baton Rouge
LSU has a great shot at competing at the top of the conference and will earn a statement win on Jan. 5 in Kentucky’s first conference road game. LSU has freshmen Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney as well as veterans Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby, who should return from injury in time for this game.
Sleeper for SEC Player of the Year: Stefan Moody, Ole Miss
Simmons, fellow freshmen Malik Newman (Mississippi State) and Skal Labissiere (Kentucky) are the headliners for the award, but keep an eye on Stefan Moody this season. Moody will have to carry a depleted Ole Miss back to the NCAA Tournament and could steal the award if he can play efficiently.
First SEC player drafted by the NBA: Ben Simmons, LSU
Simmons was the top recruit in the class of 2015 and has the best shot at being drafted No. 1 overall in the NBA next summer. He has an unbelievable amount of talent and the opportunity to let display it for LSU.
Coach of the Year: Kevin Stallings, Vanderbilt
There are plenty of options for this award, and Calipari cannot be ruled out for his typical dominance. But Vanderbilt has plenty of upside this season and Stallings will get as much as he can out of this roster.
Biggest surprise team: South Carolina
Watch out for the Gamecocks this year. Frank Martin finally delivered a winning season a year ago, and South Carolina returns five of its six leading scorers plus its four best rebounders. Freshman P.J. Dozier, a 5-star recruit, may be the guy who takes South Carolina to the next level. If the Gamecocks shoot better, they will be NCAA Tournament bound.
Most overrated team: UGA
It’s tough to point out an overrated team in a conference that doesn’t get a ton of national recognition. But it’s hard to expect UGA to finish fifth in the SEC as the media predicted. The Bulldogs return their backcourt of Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann, but lack of size and a lackluster recruiting class could result in a step back.
Team that takes the biggest step back: Arkansas
The Razorbacks lost the heart and soul of their team, SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis, and Michael Qualls will also be sorely missed. Arkansas will spend much of its season finding ways to replicate their production.
Best team in the SEC East: Kentucky
No question here, although Vanderbilt could give the Wildcats a run for their money. Labissiere will be the next incredible center to play for Kentucky, while “veterans” Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress should contribute more this season. The Wildcats lost seven guys to the NBA, but will be loaded for another great season.
Best team in the SEC West: Texas A&M
A&M will have its big three of Danuel House, Jalen Jones and Alex Caruso back for their senior seasons. The Aggies will be determined to dance after falling apart down the stretch last year. This experienced group will propel A&M to the top of the West.
How many teams will make the NCAA Tournament from the SEC: 5
Kentucky and Vanderbilt appear to be locks to make the tournament while LSU and Texas A&M are pretty safe bets. The conference could get as many as six teams in, but there might be too much parity in the middle of the conference to find another team with a good enough resume. The fifth team will be South Carolina, which will find a way to stand out with strong defense and a better offense led by Dozier.
There are a couple of other teams that will be on the bubble: UGA, Mississippi State, Florida and Ole Miss will all be in the mix for a tournament bid.
Who will win the SEC: Kentucky
The Wildcats cannot be discounted until they show signs of falling off. This program will be stacked once again with future NBA talent. The names and faces change, but the one constant is Calipari, who always finds a way to contend on the national level.
The SEC will be deeper and much-improved, but this is still Kentucky’s conference.
Predicted order of finish:
- Texas A&M
- South Carolina
- Mississippi State
- Ole Miss