2018-19 SEC expert picks: Predicted order of finish, overrated and underrated teams at mid-term
The SEC isn't Kentucky and everybody else anymore
Kentucky was the preseason pick to win the SEC -- and even some folks' selection to cut nets at the Final Four in Minneapolis after securing what would be the second national championship of John Calipari's career. Regardless, Mississippi State coach Ben Howland insisted all along that Tennessee was actually the "team to beat."
"[Tennessee is] the best team in our league going into the season, in my opinion, because of all the experience returning," Howland said back in October. "There's no doubt they're the team to beat in our conference."
At this point, Howland looks more right than wrong.
Heading into the start of league play, Tennessee is the highest-rated SEC team in the AP poll, Coaches poll, Top 25 And 1 and KenPom. That's among the reasons why, as you can see via the table below, Matt Norlander, Jerry Palm, Chip Patterson and I have all picked the Vols to win back-to-back SEC championships. The only holdout is Kyle Boone -- who went with Auburn over Tennessee just one year after hilariously, and famously, projecting the eventual SEC co-champs to finish 4-14 in the league. Bruce Pearl made shirts. But if BP's Tigers need extra motivation this season, they'll have to find it elsewhere.
Kyle Boone is now on board.
Kentucky probably still has the highest ceiling in the SEC because of all of the five-star prospects on the roster. But when a school that won a share of the SEC title last season returns every important piece, and then looks awesome in November and December, it's probably right to label that school the favorite to win another SEC title as conference play gets underway -- especially after Kentucky lost its opener by 34 points. So that's why Tennessee is the pick here. It might not prove to be right. But it is the most sensible pick.
I don't think anybody is really "overrated" in the SEC. But Florida being in the top 30 at KenPom all season -- even when the Gators were 5-4 with zero wins over current top-50 KenPom opponents -- has has always felt a little high. To be clear, that doesn't mean Florida can't or won't eventually prove to be a top-30 team; the Gators have won three straight and just blasted Butler. But they're still only 1-4 to date vs. schools ranked in the top-45 at KenPom.
Almost everybody considered Kentucky a contender for the national championship in the preseason; now barely anybody talks about the Wildcats that way -- which, I think, is probably a mistake considering just about all of the things folks liked about UK in the preseason are still in place. Put another way, that 34-point loss to Duke has affected the perception of John Calipari's team too drastically. No, they wouldn't be my first pick to win it all because Duke is my first pick to win it all. But if Kentucky eventually develops into something that looks like it could win six games in the NCAA Tournament, that will not shock me in the least.
Player of the Year: Grant Williams, Tennessee
Williams, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, seems likely to add a second such trophy. The 6-7 junior is averaging a team-high 20.1 points, a team-high 8.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 31.3 minutes per game -- which means his points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, field goal percentage (59.0) and 3-point percentage (41.9) are all up from last season. In other words, Williams is undeniably better than he was last season -- AND HE WAS THE SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR LAST SEASON! So, again, another trophy is likely in his future as long as he continues to perform at this level or anything close to it.
Freshman of the Year: Keldon Johnson, Kentucky
Duke's freshmen, in general, are better than Kentucky's freshmen -- and it was obvious in the Champions Classic. But Johnson has lived up to his preseason hype and probably exceeded it. The 6-6 wing was ranked 13th in the Class of 2018, according to 247Sports; that made him UK's third-best incoming freshman. But he's been the best first-year player so far by far while averaging a team-high 16.4 points and 5.5 rebounds (and shooting 43.2 percent from 3-point range). In short, barring a surprise, Johnson will be the next in a long line of Kentucky players selected in the lottery of the NBA Draft.
Coach of the Year: Rick Barnes, Tennessee
Barnes is the obvious pick for SEC Coach of the Year because he's built Tennessee into a true national title contender that's been terrific to date. The Vols have beaten Gonzaga 76-73 -- and their other 10 victories have all come by double-digits; the lone loss is an overtime loss to Kansas. So the resume, at this point, is worthy of a No. 1 seed. It's why UT is No. 1 in the CBS Sports Top 25 And 1.
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