The SEC was down last season with only four schools projected to make the NCAA Tournament and zero finishing in the top 25 at KenPom. So even though Kentucky recorded a shiny 15-3 league mark to win the sixth regular-season title of John Calipari's career, the Wildcats were still unlikely to get a top-three seed in the NCAA Tournament had the field of 68 ever been announced.
Computers had the SEC as the worst Power 5 league.
Also not good.
But the conference will be noticeably better this season thanks to the fact that three of the nation's top six recruiting classes, and six of the nation's top 12, belong to SEC schools, according to 247Sports. Three SEC members (Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU) are in my Top 25 And 1. Three others (Alabama, Florida, Arkansas) are knocking on the door. So the SEC should get at least six bids to the 2021 NCAA Tournament — and possibly more. And though there are clear-cut favorites in leagues like the AAC and Big East, no such thing exists in the SEC, where reasonable minds can disagree on whether Tennessee or Kentucky should be considered the favorite heading into what will be an unusual and complicated season played during a pandemic.
SEC Preseason Player of the Year
Keyontae Johnson, Florida
Most people assumed, this time last year, that Kerry Blackshear Jr., a graduate-transfer from Virginia Tech, would be Florida's best player in the 2019-20 season. But he wasn't. Instead, it was Keyontae Johnson, a 6-foot-5 forward who averaged a team-high 14.0 points and 7.1 rebounds in 31.3 minutes per game. When he announced in April that he was returning for his junior season, it was a great development for the Gators. He's the biggest reason Florida is expected to finish in the top four of the SEC standings for what would be the fourth time in a five-year span under Mike White, who is entering his sixth season at the school.
SEC Preseason Coach of he Year
Rick Barnes, Tennessee
It took a few years for Rick Barnes to get things going at Tennessee. But now that he has things going, he really has things going, and there's a chance this season's team could be his best at UT yet, and I write that knowing full well that his 2017-18 team won the SEC and 2018-19 team made the Sweet 16. These Vols have three former five-star prospects, two of whom project as possible one-and-done players, and enough experience to compete at the top of the sport. So while I'm not necessarily predicting that Barnes is about to take Tennessee to its first Final Four in school history, I'm definitely not ruling it out.
SEC Preseason Freshman of the Year
BJ Boston, Kentucky
Kentucky will likely have multiple one-and-done players, as is normally the case. But the best of the group, at least on paper, is BJ Boston. The 6-6 McDonald's All-American from California's Sierra Canyon School was ranked fifth in the Class of 2020, according to 247Sports. So he's a guard with size who can shoot from the perimeter and finish at the rim, which is among the reasons most believe he'll be Kentucky's leading scorer and John Calipari's next NBA Draft lottery pick.
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SEC predicted order of finish
|The Vols unsurprisingly slipped last season after the departures of Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone. They finished 9-9 in the SEC and 68th at KenPom, meaning the only way they would've made the NCAA Tournament would've been by winning an SEC Tournament that was never played. So why is Tennessee picked first in the SEC this season? It's because Rick Barnes is returning four of his top five scorers and enrolling a top-five recruiting class featuring two five-star prospects -- namely Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, both of whom project as possible one-and-done first-round picks in the 2021 NBA Draft. In other words, Tennessee has a perfect balance of experience and high-end talent, which has proven to be a recipe for success in college basketball. So the Vols, led by John Fulkerson -- a 6-9 forward who averaged 20.8 points in UT's last four games last season -- should finish in the top two of the SEC for the third time in four years and compete for what would be the program's first trip to the Final Four.
|Kentucky, per usual, is basically starting from scratch after the top six scorers from last season's team either entered the NBA Draft or exhausted their eligibility. Only one player, Keion Brooks, is back. And he only averaged 4.5 points and 3.2 rebounds in 15.1 minutes per game. But there's no need to feel too sorry for John Calipari because, once again, he's enrolled the nation's top-ranked recruiting class, one that's highlighted by five-star guards BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke . So, sure, the Wildcats will be heavily reliant on first-year players, which sometimes makes the season a bit of a rollercoaster. But Kentucky will simply be able to out-talent much of its competition -- especially now that Olivier Sarr, a transfer from Wake Forest, has received a waiver from the SEC to play immediately. He'll provide a veteran presence in the frontcourt that otherwise would not exist.
|It's possible the FBI investigation that preceded an NCAA investigation will someday damage Will Wade's program, and maybe even cost him his job. But so far it's just full-speed ahead for LSU, which continues to enroll heralded prospects, one after another, despite a scandal that's created headlines for years. The latest recruiting class is ranked sixth nationally and highlighted by five-star guard Cameron Thomas, who picked LSU after also visiting Auburn, NC State and UCLA. He'll fit in nicely with a returning core of Trendon Watford, Ja'Vonte Smart and Darius Days, each of whom averaged double-figures in points last season for a team that finished tied for second in the SEC.
|Six of the top eight scorers from a Florida team that was disappointing, but still projected to make last season's NCAA Tournament, are back — most notably Keyontae Johnson, who is the CBS Sports Preseason SEC Player of the Year. So Mike White has the pieces necessary to keep his string of NCAA Tournament appearances alive despite the fact that Andrew Nembhard's decision to transfer to Gonzaga cost the program a starter who averaged 11.2 points and 5.6 assists in a team-high 33.2 minutes per game last season. If the Gators meet expectations, it'll likely be the result of former McDonald's All-Americans Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis performing like their status as five-star prospects coming out of high school suggests they should. Last season, neither met the hype. But if they have impressive breakthroughs as sophomores, Florida might be able to compete for the SEC regular-season title.
|Four of the top six scorers from Nate Oats' first team at Alabama are back -- most notably Jaden Shackelford and John Petty, a pair of starters who combined to average 29.5 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game for a team that was better than its 16-15 record suggested. Will the Crimson Tide miss Kira Lewis? Of course. He was a super-productive two-year point guard who now projects as a lottery pick in the 2020 NBA Draft and there's no great way to replace somebody like him. But former five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly is eligible after sitting out last season following a transfer from Villanova . So Alabama will once again have talent in the backcourt. And Jordan Bruner, a grad-transfer from Yale, will serve as a nice frontcourt addition. He averaged 10.9 points and 9.2 rebounds per game in the Ivy League last season.
|Up until the last minute, Isaiah Joe, Arkansas' sharp-shooting guard, insisted he was returning to school for at least one more season of college basketball. But then, in mid-August, Joe reversed course and entered the 2020 NBA Draft, for better or worse, which knocked the Razorbacks out of the CBS Sports Top 25 And 1 because they'll now be without six of the top seven scorers from last season's team that finished 47th at KenPom. That's not ideal. But don't be surprised if Arkansas still competes for a trip to the NCAA Tournament in its second season under Eric Musselman because the recruiting class, bolstered by the transfer market, is ranked eighth nationally. Freshmen Moses Moody and KK Robinson are both four-star prospects who should make immediate impacts. But it's transfers like Justin Smith (Indiana), Vance Jackson (New Mexico) and Jalen Tate (Northern Kentucky) -- each of whom has already averaged double-digit points at the Division I level -- who should be the key to keeping the Razorbacks in the top half of the SEC.
|All five starters from last season's team that began the season with 15 straight wins, and finished tied for second in the SEC, are gone -- most notably Isaac Okoro, the one-and-done wing who is now expected to be selected in the lottery of the 2020 NBA Draft. So it's reasonable to assume Auburn will slide in the league standings after finishing in the top four of the SEC in three straight seasons. But Bruce Pearl still has a chance to land in the top half of the league, and compete for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, thanks to a top-10 recruiting class headlined by five-star point guard Sharife Cooper, who pledged to Auburn over Kentucky in September 2019. The ball will be in his hands from Day One. And his most talented teammate might end up being JT Thor, a four-star forward who committed to Auburn in April to give the Tigers a frontcourt piece who should help offset the loss of Austin Wiley.
|Frank Martin has not returned South Carolina to the NCAA Tournament since guiding the Gamecocks to the Final Four in 2017. But this season's team should give him his best opportunity to do exactly that considering three of the top four scorers from last season's team are back, among them AJ Lawson, a 6-6 guard who averaged 13.4 points and 3.7 rebounds in 29.1 minutes per game. In fact, eight of the 10 players who averaged at least 11.5 minutes per game last season remain in the program. So the Gamecocks will be one of the most experienced teams in the SEC. And if they can improve enough offensively, finishing in the top half of the league standings while earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament is very much a possibility.
|Ole Miss was the SEC's biggest surprise in Kermit Davis' first season in Oxford when the Rebels finished tied for sixth in the league standings despite being picked last. That's why Davis won SEC Coach of the Year in 2018-19. But Ole Miss took a step back last season, lost more than it won, and generally struggled, especially on offense. So Davis is in need of a bounce-back season. And if he gets it, it'll likely be tied to a breakout year from Devontae Shuler, a former grassroots teammate of NBA stars Zion Williamson and Ja Morant who averaged 11.7 points per game last season while shooting 35.5% from 3-point range.
|Missouri underachieved last season relative to preseason expectations. But it should be noted that two of the top four scorers -- Mark Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon -- combined to miss 21 games because of injuries, which served as a big obstacle for Cuonzo Martin 's Tigers. The good news is that the top seven scorers from that team are back, including three double-digit scorers. And everybody is healthy right now. So Missouri will be more experienced than most and theoretically better. But jumping into the top half of the SEC standings still seems unlikely given the talent throughout the rest of the league.
|Anybody doubting that Buzz Williams will eventually turn Texas A&M into a program that consistently competes for trips to the NCAA Tournament didn't pay attention to what he previously did at Virginia Tech. He'll get this job done. But, just like it took time in the ACC, it will take time in the SEC too. His Aggies actually overachieved last season, which is why Williams won SEC Coach of the Year honors in his first season in the conference. But two of the top three scorers from that team are gone. So Texas A&M will have to overachieve again, this time behind Savion Flagg, the team's leading returning scorer, to match the 10-8 league mark it recorded last season.
|Ben Howland 's Bulldogs finished 11-7 in the SEC last season, and 48th at KenPom, meaning they entered the SEC Tournament with a reasonable chance to make the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. Getting there this season, though, seems like an unlikely proposition because the top four scorers from that team are gone -- including Reggie Perry , Robert Woodard and Nick Weatherspoon , all of whom entered the NBA Draft early. That's just a killer for a program like Mississippi State. So Howland will spend this season rebuilding more than reloading. It's why the Bulldogs, despite the enrollment of a promising freshman point guard named Deivon Smith, are expected to finish outside of the top seven of the SEC for the first time since 2017.
|Projected top-five pick Anthony Edwards didn't really do anything to damage his NBA stock at Georgia last season -- but he also didn't really help Georgia accomplish much. The Bulldogs finished 16-16 overall, 5-13 in the SEC. And while I personally believe they'll be better this season, the odds of them being good enough to compete for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament seems unlikely considering Edwards and Rayshaun Hammonds, the only two players who averaged more than 9.0 points per game last season, are both gone. Keep in mind, it took Tom Crean four years to win an NCAA Tournament game at Marquette, then four years to win one at Indiana. Such will likely be the case at Georgia too. So though this season might be another rough one for the Bulldogs, fans can take solace in the fact that their coach has never not (eventually) gotten things rolling even if it has always taken Crean a few years to establish what soon becomes a consistent winner.
|The highlight of last season at Vanderbilt was the Commodores breaking what was a 28-game losing streak in games against SEC opponents. But what immediately followed was another seven straight losses to SEC teams, which led to Vanderbilt finishing 3-15 in the league. That was the worst record in the SEC by two games. And though the return of Scotty Pippen Jr., and the addition of Notre Dame transfer D.J. Harvey, are both good things, the truth is that anything other than the Commodores finishing 14th in the SEC for the third straight year would be a somewhat surprising development.