2019-20 SEC expert picks, predictions, preview: Florida, Auburn capable of catching Kentucky

The SEC saw continued success last season, flaunting its depth and its development as teams like Tennessee, Kentucky and Auburn battled for the conference's top spot. Then, Auburn won the SEC Tournament and continued its fire streak in the postseason by advancing to the Final Four -- the seventh time an SEC team made the trip to the tournament's final weekend for since 2011. The SEC could do the same this season as basketball continues to ascend with top-tier players and coaches joining a conference where football is already king. 

Although the SEC produced seven first-round picks in the 2019 NBA Draft -- meaning a ton of its top talent departed for the pros -- the conference brings in five top-25 recruiting classes. Kentucky has the country's No. 2 ranked group of newcomers, Florida's freshmen sit at No. 8, Georgia brings in the No. 10 class headlined by the second-best overall recruit Anthony Edwards and Auburn and Alabama bring in the No. 20 and 21 ranked recruiting classes, respectively. With the influx of talent, things are expected to continue to trend upward in the south.

Could this be the season the SEC produces its first national champion since Kentucky took the crown in 2012? 

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Florida's Kerry Blackshear Jr., a Virginia Tech transfer, is the CBS Sports Preseson SEC Player of the Year. USATSI

CBS Sports Preseason SEC Player of the Year

Kerry Blackshear Jr., Florida: Mike White won the transfer lottery when he landed Blackshear. The former Virginia Tech big man is just the anchor the Gators' offense needed in the paint as they position themselves to climb the SEC. He's taken consistent steps forward throughout his college career and could be the conference's most dangerous weapon. He's already a CBS Sports Preseason All-America first team selection. The 6-foot-10 center averaged 14.9 points, 7.5 boards and 2.4 assists per game last season and his contributions could help the Gators make national noise.

CBS Sports Preseason SEC Coach of the Year

Mike White, Florida: Bringing in his best recruiting class to date in a pair of five-star recruits and the most highly-sought after grad transfer on the market in the same season were huge moves by White as he positions Florida to compete for the conference's top spot and a slot in the national conversation. The Gators have made it to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last three years, but what White should be able to accomplish this season will set his 2019-20 Florida squad apart from recent teams. White wasn't able to get as much out of his team last year as many thought he would, but he's got too much talent coming in to not take a major step forward this season.

CBS Sports Preseason SEC Freshman of the Year

Anthony Edwards, Georgia: There are a number of talented newcomers in the SEC, including the likes of Kentucky's Tyrese Maxey and Florida's Scottie Lewis, but Edwards has something really special. The highest-ranked prospect to ever sign with the Bulldogs and the program's first five-star commit since Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in 2011, Edwards is the conference's top-ranked newcomer, according to 247Sports. Edwards, a shooting guard, is expected to make an immediate impact in the backcourt as the beginning of a Georgia rebuild rests on his shoulders. He's an explosive athlete with Harden-esque handles, above-average passing abilities and great vision to go with tons of scoring potential. He can, and will, do it all for Georgia this season.

SEC predicted order of finish

1

This year's Kentucky squad isn't receiving as much prevalent preseason praise as plenty of previous posses under John Calipari, but how about the fact that UK returns two backcourt players, which is obviously uncommon for Calipari? Ashton Hagans, maybe a top-10 defender in college hoops, and Immanuel Quickley, who is going to irrefutably be better, give UK good strength and tempo in the backcourt. In comes a firecracker to join them, Tyrese Maxey, who will be the team's best player. Up front, more experience returns in E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards. Plus, former Bucknell big man Nate Sestina is in the mix.

2

The Gators got the biggest get on the transfer market, Kerry Blackshear, Jr., and set themselves up for a big-time season in Mike White's fifth year with the program. Blackshear will be set up by Andrew Nembhard, a low-blood pressure point guard who has length and headiness. Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson are sophomores, and they'll be bolstered by a pair of outstanding freshmen, Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann. For the first time since Billy Donovan was coaching in Gainesville, Florida will square up with Kentucky for the crown of the SEC and may even come out on top.

3

The Tigers rated as a top-20 KenPom team for the entirety of 2018-19. With the losses of Jared Harper, Chuma Okeke and Bryce Brown, we have to drop 'em a little. But perhaps this senior season will be a massive one for Austin Wiley, who's going to team up with Danjel Purifoy to give Auburn one of the stronger frontcourts in the SEC.

4

Reigning SEC champs. Got an important commitment in the spring from Trendon Watford, a five-star power forward who will help LSU keep up with a lot of talented teams in the SEC. Sklyar Mays is back, as is Javonte Smart. Will Wade remains coach after sitting out all last postseason. LSU will have its biggest question at point guard; Tremont Waters left after two seasons to chase an NBA career. 

5

Nate Oats replaces Avery Johnson as coach, but sophomore point guard Kira Lewis is the most important short-term member of this team. Lewis is a top nomination for a Ja Morant-type frosh-to-soph leap. With Lewis back (thanks in part to Oats convincing him), Alabama can realistically hope for the NCAAs in a year in which a new coach was hired, which is not normally the case. 

6

Few programs will have to press on this season and do so while looking to replace two of the 10 best players in program history. That's what Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams meant to Tennessee, though. You might not realize the strides Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner have made. UT won't consistently be in the top 25, but it's going to beat a handful of good teams and still be a tough out.

7

Seven commitments in the Class of 2019 for Tom Crean, who pulled in maybe the best talent out of all of them with Anthony Edwards. Dawgs should be on any list of the top 10 most interesting/curious teams of 2019-20. 

8

Salient backcourt mates Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler return, but Terence Davis graduated. Big metric/gauge game will come Nov. 23, when the Rebels play at Memphis. A win there would throw both those teams' outlook into new jet streams. 

9

The most overlooked freshman of 2018-19 was Reggie Perry, who could vault into top-five status in the SEC if he's able to get MSU into the top seven of the league. 

10

So begins year one under Eric Musselman, mostly because there are five transfers with a new coach in a new spot. So how will they manage to jell? Isaiah Joe, though, you should know. He's top-100 good.

11

The Gamecocks finished last season tied for fifth in the SEC. The only NCAA Tournament showing for Frank Martin at South Carolina came in 2017, the Final Four year.

12

Hard to see A&M staying down for long under Buzz Williams, but this year should be NIT-level for a group that brings back plenty but was not even NIT-good in 2018-19. Savion Flagg is the standout.

13

Plenty of bodies return from a 15-17 team that didn't get to the foul line a lot and turned the ball over more than any team in the SEC. Healthy this year, finally? Maybe?

14
One of the five-or-so most interesting programs with a new coach this season is Vandy, which opted to hire Jerry Stackhouse. Nobody has any true idea of if this will work or not, but it'd be a lot of fun if it did.

SEC expert picks

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