The 2015-16 SEC basketball season will be defined by big-name coaches and some of the stiffest competition the conference has seen in years.
Consider this: 11 of the 14 coaches in the SEC have made at least two appearances in the NCAA Tournament. These 11 coaches have combined for 86 tournament appearances and 10 Final Fours. Yes, Kentucky coach John Calipari accounts for 16 of those tournament appearances and six of the 10 Final Fours, but this crop of coaches has been widely successful.
Even the coaches who haven’t made the tournament have experienced great success.
Alabama coach Avery Johnson was the NBA’s Coach of the Year in 2006 and coached the Dallas Mavericks to the 2006 NBA Finals. Missouri’s Kim Anderson earned his job after leading Central Missouri to the Division II national title. Florida first-year coach Mike White guided Louisiana Tech to three consecutive seasons with at least 27 wins and three NIT appearances.
The revival of the SEC will start with the faces of its programs. Newcomers Johnson, Ben Howland (Mississippi State) and Rick Barnes (Tennessee) add some headliners to a conference that already featured widely renowned coaches in Calipari, Bruce Pearl (Auburn), Frank Martin (South Carolina) and Kevin Stallings (Vanderbilt) along with some coaches hoping to establish consistent winners.
The 2015-16 season could be the turning point for what has been a relatively mediocre conference over the years. Here’s what you need to know about every team in order of their predicted finish in the conference:
1. Kentucky Wildcats
How last season ended: The Wildcats won their first 38 games of the season before falling to Wisconsin in the Final Four. Kentucky will reload after losing seven players to the NBA and 85.7 percent of last year’s scoring.
Who’s back: Not a whole heck of a lot. Tyler Ulis, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee are Kentucky’s top returners.
Who’s coming in: Don’t worry, Calipari always reloads. The Wildcats reeled in the top recruiting class in the country according to 247Sports.com that includes several 5-star prospects. Center Skal Labissiere leads the way as the No. 2 player in the 2015 class. Shooting guard Jamal Murray and point guard Isaiah Briscoe are both top-15 recruits.
Why you should care: It’s Kentucky. This team has national title aspirations after coming just shy of a perfect season last March.
2. Vanderbilt Commodores
How last season ended: Vandy was one of the hottest teams in the conference by season’s end. The Commodores went 10-4 in the final two months of the season and reached the NIT quarterfinals.
Who’s back: Six of Vandy’s seven leading scorers return this season, including leading scorer and rebounder Damian Jones and streaky shooter Riley LaChance.
Who’s coming in: The Commodores brought in the 58th best recruiting class, according to 247Sports.com. The class will be led by small forward Joseph Toye, who was ranked the 23rd best player at his position nationally.
Why you should care: Vanderbilt is poised to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. This Commodores are a talented bunch that could have plenty of upside if everything comes together. The Dores are the best bet to end Kentucky’s reign atop the conference.
3. Texas A&M Aggies
How last season ended: The Aggies were poised to make the NCAA Tournament, but fell apart down the stretch. A&M lost three of its last four regular season games, then got dropped by Auburn in the second round of the SEC tournament. The Aggies finished 21-12 and lost in the second round of the NIT.
Who’s back: Texas A&M’s three leading scorers are all back for their senior seasons. Guard Danuel House and tweener Jalen Jones both scored in double figures, while point guard Alex Caruso averaged 9.8 points, 5.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 steals.
Who’s coming in: The Aggies welcome the sixth-best recruiting class in the country featuring a bunch of 4-star recruits. Power forward D.J. Hogg and center Tyler Davis could provide an immediate impact to A&M’s frontcourt.
Why you should care: A senior-laden group will be poised to avenge last year’s collapse. That experience could pair nicely with A&M’s talented recruiting class and may result in the Aggies’ first tournament appearance since 2011.
4. LSU Tigers
How last season ended: The Tigers were upset by Auburn in their first game of the conference tournament, but made it to the NCAA Tournament and lost 66-65 to NC State in the second round in their first appearance since 2009.
Who’s back: Veteran guards Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby were two of LSU’s four players who scored in double figures last year. Hornsby will miss the beginning of the season after undergoing a medical procedure. The Tigers will be without leading scorers Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, who were both drafted last summer.
Who’s coming in: Ben Simmons. In other words, potentially the National Player of the Year. But Simmons isn’t the only star recruit joining Johnny Jones’ program. Shooting guard Antonio Blakeney enters LSU ranked as the third-best player in the country at his position.
Why you should care: The Tigers could be the most electrifying team in the SEC with the potential first overall pick in next year’s draft. LSU is a dark horse to win the SEC if Hornsby can get healthy before conference play begins.
5. UGA Bulldogs
How last season ended: The Bulldogs earned a 10-seed in the NCAA Tournament and lost to Michigan State in the second round in its first March Madness appearance since 2011.
Who’s back: UGA won’t return much size this season, with only two players taller than 6-foot-8 on the roster. However, the Bulldogs do return a veteran backcourt consisting of Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann.
Who’s coming in: Coach Mark Fox brought four 3-star recruits into the program, including a couple of centers who could be thrown into action early.
Why you should care: UGA has the backcourt poised to make it back to the tournament, but the Bulldogs will be defined by their frontcourt.
6. Florida Gators
How last season ended: The Gators missed the big dance for the first time since 2009 and saw Billy Donovan leave for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Who’s back: Dorian Finney-Smith could be one of the best big men in the country, but the Gators return only two of its top five scorers from last season.
Who’s coming in: New head coach Mike White is the most important addition and he has some big shoes to fill. White led Louisiana Tech to three consecutive seasons of at least 27 wins and took LA Tech to the NIT three times. White managed to keep a top-25 recruiting class in place despite Donovan’s departure. Florida could get extended minutes out of each of its three incoming, 4-star freshmen.
Why you should care: The inaugural year of the White era at Florida will be an interesting one to watch. The Gators have a team that is capable of making the tournament, but will the change in system cost Florida that opportunity?
7. South Carolina Gamecocks
How last season ended: The Gamecocks had their first winning season in three years under Frank Martin at 17-16 and finished tied for 11th in the SEC.
Who’s back: South Carolina returns five of its top six scorers and its four best rebounders from last season. The backcourt tandem of Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell also returns after leading the Gamecocks in scoring last year.
Who’s coming in: Martin also brought in an impressive recruiting class to pair with his plethora of experienced players. South Carolina’s recruiting class ranked 33rd in the country and was headlined by 5-star shooting guard, PJ Dozier.
Why you should care: After a few dismal seasons, the arrow is finally pointing up for Martin’s Gamecocks. South Carolina could be dancing for the first time since 2004 if Martin can find a way to play Notice, Thornwell and Dozier together frequently. The Gamecocks will also need to become a more efficient shooting team. South Carolina may be the most surprising team in the SEC.
8. Mississippi State Bulldogs
How last season ended: The Bulldogs went 2-8 in their final 10 games and finished the season 13-19. Rick Ray was fired and Mississippi State hired former UCLA coach Ben Howland to lead the program.
Who’s back: Mississippi State will get five of its six top scorers back, four of which are seniors. Craig Sword and Gavin Ware will be two of Mississippi’s State’s most important players this year.
Who’s coming in: He won’t get as much publicity behind Simmons, but Howland brought in a potential lottery pick in his first recruiting class. Point guard Malik Newman was rated the No. 8 player in the nation and could make the Bulldogs a contender for an NCAA Tournament spot. Of course, Howland’s return to college hoops will be extremely entertaining.
Why you should care: The Howland era should be entertaining and especially with a bonafide stud in Newman running the offense. The Bulldogs will need Sword and Ware to develop into better players, but they could have a talented team capable of climbing into the top half of the conference.
9. Ole Miss Rebels
How last season ended: Ole Miss dropped three of its last four regular season games, then lost its opening game in the conference tournament, but slipped into the NCAA Tournament. The Rebels then staged an amazing comeback in the first round and lost to Xavier in the second round of the tournament.
Who’s back: A sleeper for conference player of the year, Stefan Moody is a natural scorer and will need to carry Ole Miss this season. The Rebels are quite depleted outside of Moody, as only three of the team’s seven top scorers will return.
Who’s coming in: The 2015 recruiting class features several 3-star guards and was ranked 67th by 247Sports.com.
Why you should care: Moody will be entertaining and could shoot a ton this season. He may lead the league in scoring and will have to carry the Rebels to the postseason.
10. Auburn Tigers
How last season ended: The Tigers won only four conference games during Bruce Pearl’s first season, but they ended the season on a good note. Auburn won three games in the SEC tournament before being dispatched by Kentucky.
Who’s back: Auburn will be without the conference’s leading scorer from a year ago, KT Harrell. But the Tigers will have a ferocious rebounder back in Cinmeon Bowers.
Who’s coming in: Pearl secured a top-20 class with several 4-star recruits. Power forward Horace Spencer and small forward Danjel Purifoy will lead Pearl’s first impressive recruiting class at Auburn.
Why you should care: The Tigers will spend this season filling Harrell’s void. A season with Pearl at the helm is always entertaining, but Auburn may be a year or two away from truly contending.
11. Arkansas Razorbacks
How last season ended: Now Chicago Bulls forward Bobby Portis won the conference’s player of the year award and Arkansas advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
Who’s back: The Razorbacks will be without its two leading scorers, Portis and Michael Qualls. Senior guard Anthlon Bell will be the top returning scorer and will need junior forward Moses Kingsley to step up in the frontcourt.
Who’s coming in: Guard Jimmy Whitt signed as a 4-star recruit, but that’s about it for Arkansas’ 2015 recruiting class.
Why you should care: No team in the conference may suffer from departures more than the Razorbacks, but Arkansas’ frantic style of play and rabid home-court advantage will keep it in games.
12. Tennessee Volunteers
How last season ended: Tennessee finished 16-16 and coach Donnie Tyndall was fired after one season and replaced by former Texas coach, Rick Barnes.
Who’s back: Six of Tennessee’s top seven scorers from last year are back and should improve under a very good coach in Barnes. The Vols are loaded with seniors who will try to bounce back from two tumultuous seasons.
Who’s coming in: Barnes and his 2015 class that features five 3-star recruits that could help bolster an experienced roster.
Why you should care: Rick Barnes made the NCAA Tournament in 16 of his 17 seasons at Texas. He may not take the Vols to the dance this year, but he will certainly make them better and entertaining to watch.
13. Alabama Crimson Tide
How last season ended: The Tide went 19-15 and advanced to the second round of the NIT, but fired coach Anthony Grant.
Who’s back: New head coach Avery Johnson won’t be inheriting much. The Crimson Tide will be led by returning junior forwards Shannon Hale, Michael Kessens and Jimmie Taylor.
Who’s coming in: Johnson’s first recruiting class was mediocre and consisted of three 3-star recruits.
Why you should care: Avery Johnson will bring some NBA flair to the SEC. See, even the second-to-last team in the conference could be intriguing.
14. Missouri Tigers
How last season ended: Kim Anderson’s first season ended with Missouri’s first single-digit win total since the Tigers won three games during the 1966-67 season.
Who’s back: Junior guard Wes Clark will be the guy in Columbia. He averaged 10.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists last season and should step up in his third season.
Who’s coming in: Missouri’s 55th-ranked recruiting class earned its place through a volume approach. Anderson signed three 3-star prospects and several other junior college recruits. The lead acquisition was point guard K.J. Walton, who was ranked as the fifth-best player in the state of Indiana.
Why you should care: Missouri has only one way to go: up. Clark should be an exciting player to watch and perhaps Anderson will strike gold on a junior college rental.