1 goal I have for every SEC basketball team in 2020
If you’re like me, SEC hoops snuck up on you like Thanksgiving in 2020. I mean, the season tips off today. Being fully entrenched in all things SEC football amidst this wild season will do that to a guy. I realize this.
The good news for you, reader of this column, I did my homework. And, well, I was fully entrenched in SEC hoops when things shut down.
(Side note: If you’re not following our new @SDSBasketball Twitter account run by Adam Spencer, you should be. You’ll become a much more informed college hoops fan than the dude who watches conference tournament championships and pretends he knows every team on his bracket.)
My goal in 2020 is to become a better homeowner and learn some things. That, however, differs from my goal for each SEC basketball team in 2020:
Alabama — A historic Sweet 16 appearance
I hate putting a ton of pressure on a Year 2 coach at a program without a ton of historical success, but this year feels like a big one for Nate Oats. Sure, he lost Kira Lewis, but when you return John Petty with some of the pieces that Alabama has, suddenly it doesn’t seem crazy to think big. A Sweet 16 appearance would be thinking big for Alabama, which hasn’t made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2004. Like, Nick Saban’s entire decade (plus) of dominance happened since that last Sweet 16 berth.
You know that Nate Oats is going to have a fun, high-scoring brand of offense. Improving on the defensive side, where Alabama ranked dead last in the SEC in terms of scoring, is what’ll allow for 2020-21 to live up to some high expectations.
Arkansas — That Year 2 jump
Speaking of Year 2 coaches with some major preseason aspirations, how bout the Hogs? Eric Musselman got off to that great start and looked like the SEC Coach of the Year until February hit and his team played its way out of a no-doubter NCAA Tournament berth. The issue for Musselman is that unlike Oats, who had one of his key contributors surprisingly stay, both of his (Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones) left for the NBA. Credit to the second-year coach for being active on the transfer market, especially for adding the coveted Indiana transfer Justin Smith. Landing the nation’s No. 8 recruiting class will help, too.
So what does that Year 2 jump look like? Avoiding that midseason lull will be big. The DNA of this group suggests it could have a slow start with a variety of moving pieces, and that instead of fading in February, it should hit its stride. This should be an NCAA Tournament team and perhaps a dark horse to make a late push in the SEC title race.
Auburn — Limited use of the word “rebuilding”
Look, I get it. Basically, that entire Final Four team is gone. It’s a very new group than the one that won 55 games in a 2-year stretch. But the best testament to Bruce Pearl’s program would be looking like a team that has an identity and is playing in the NCAA Tournament at season’s end.
Check that. Now that Auburn self-imposed a postseason ban as a result of its pending NCAA investigation, the goal should be for Pearl’s program to look like it would’ve been worthy of making it to the Big Dance.
That won’t be easy with all of that talent gone — Auburn’s top returning scorer averaged 4 points per game last year — but signing a top-10 class could provide immediate relief. Can 5-star freshman point guard Sharife Cooper, if he’s ruled eligible, be the second coming of Jared Harper in Pearl’s high-octane offense? That feels like it’ll have a major impact on how far this team can go.
Florida — Mike White proves he’s worthy of sticking around
How long has White been on the hot seat? Since Billy Donovan left Gainesville? Not really, but sometimes it seems like it. The Florida coach didn’t meet some high expectations in 2019-20, but he got another chance to win with one of the league’s most talented teams. The question now is if White can have one of those “how do you like me now” seasons and win an SEC title. He certainly has the talent to do so.
The somewhat disappointing transfer Kerry Blackshear is gone, as is the frustratingly inconsistent Andrew Nembhard. The good news is that White returns leading scorer and SEC Preseason Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson from a team that struggled to score last year, and there’s young talent who could thrive with increased roles. Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis are former 5-star guys from that loaded 2019 class and borderline 5-star wing Samson Ruzhentsev is a wing who can score from anywhere, which Florida needs.
The bar is higher at Florida than it is at most places in the SEC, but White keeping the Gators in the SEC race into March and winning multiple NCAA Tournament games could be the goals to reach in order to get another year in Gainesville.
Georgia — Anthony Edwards doesn’t become an excuse
Tom Crean is in Year 3 now. Yes, he just lost one of the most talented players in program history. It’s not every day you have to move on without the No. 1 overall pick. But consecutive 13th-place finishes — he has Vandy to thank for that — isn’t really a place to take a step back from. Crean’s recruiting has never been in question. Lord knows he did plenty of that at Indiana (spend roughly 30 seconds with him and you’ll probably hear about him recruiting Dwyane Wade to Marquette). Edwards is proof of that.
But Edwards’ inconsistency in his lone season in Athens shouldn’t have necessarily made him an irreplaceable piece. Georgia is still in rebuild mode, but sooner or later, the Dawgs can’t be a yearly doormat who has the 1 random superstar. Year 3 would be a good time for Crean to turn that narrative around.
Kentucky — Find more of an early-season identity
Is this wishful thinking? Probably. The Cats are always the young team who hit their stride in February and become the opponent nobody wants on their side of the bracket in March. But last year, they had 3 losses before the new year, one of which being the infamous Evansville loss. They struggled with game-to-game consistency until February.
With another loaded schedule to start off the year for a team who, as usual, lost a ton of talent, John Calipari might actually be in a better position to figure out his team. He was active on the transfer market by bringing in Creighton transfer Davion Mintz, Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr and Rhode Island transfer Jacob Toppin (brother of lottery pick Obi Toppin). Continuity could be an issue early on again, but perhaps adding some veterans will prevent Kentucky from following that typical slow start.
LSU — Trendon Watford becomes the SEC Player of the Year
There’s a lot of excitement in Baton Rouge that the former 5-star recruit can make that Year 2 jump and become a dominant SEC player. Alongside Javonte Smart, Will Wade doesn’t lack talent returning, though Skylar Mays might be one of the toughest players to replace in all of college basketball. But if LSU is going to win an SEC title, it’ll be on the heels of Watford becoming a force. That is, an even bigger one than last year:
— Courtside Films (@CourtsideFilms) February 14, 2020
Can the former 5-star recruit become a more consistent shooter? Can he be a consistent 20-10 guy? Can he take on the role of go-to guy late after losing Mays? Perhaps the most important area where Watford can make a difference is on the defensive end, where LSU struggled mightily last year. The award feels like it’s wide open, and on an LSU team who loves to get up and down the court, perhaps it’s Watford who stands the best chance to emerge as the conference’s top player.
Mizzou — Win Braggin’ Rights at home … and maybe half of those SEC games?
The Tigers won a coin toss to host Illinois in the annual nonconference rivalry for the first time since 1978. Winning that for a 3rd consecutive year would be big for recruiting purposes, but more importantly, Cuonzo Martin needs to start showing that year-to-year improvement. In Year 4, progress would be getting somewhat close to that 2017-18 level again when the Tigers were 10-8 in conference play.
That would be rising above expectations for a Mizzou team who was picked to finish 10th in the SEC. The question is a familiar one for Mizzou — can its talented weapons stay healthy? Last year, highly touted Jeremiah Tilmon missed half the season. He’s one of several key contributors back for a Mizzou team who is still searching for its first NCAA Tournament victory since 2009. This group, which is more experienced than any that Martin has had, might have an outside shot to do it.
MSU — Stretch the floor significantly better
While some teams in the SEC lived by the 3 and died by the 3 (Auburn), MSU was the opposite. The Bulldogs were dead last in the league in made 3-pointers per game, and they ranked No. 13 in 3-pointers attempted per game. Now, MSU replaces its top 4 scorers, including Tyson Carter, who accounted for 1/3 of last year’s made 3-pointers. Can D.J. Stewart become a reliable deep threat? Stewart and Iverson Molinar are the only returning MSU players who made double-digit triples in 2019-20, and incoming freshman point guard Deivon Smith isn’t known for his sharp-shooting, either.
Historically speaking, that’s never really been a major strength of Ben Howland’s MSU teams, but in order to avoid taking that expected big step back, it might not be a bad strategy until he finds those guys who can create their own shot.
Ole Miss — Find that Breein Tyree replacement early
The prolific scorer is finally out of eligibility for Ole Miss, which means Kermit Davis needs a new go-to option late in games. Devontae Shuler figures to be that guy as a senior, and Arizona State transfer Romello White had 927 points in 3 seasons in the Pac-12. KJ Buffen also showed flashes of being that guy, especially in the first half of 2019-20, and Matthew Murrell comes in as a highly touted freshman guard out of IMG Academy (Fla.).
Whoever it is, Ole Miss’ schedule won’t provide any early favors. On the nonconference slate are Memphis, Dayton and Wichita State. This should be a bounce-back year for Ole Miss, but finding that big-time shot-maker could be what determines whether Ole Miss gets back to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in 3 years.
South Carolina — Just get back to the NCAA Tournament
I like Frank Martin. I do. He’s the type of coach I’d want my future kid to play for. But at the same time, we just saw Will Muschamp get the boot for another disappointing season in Columbia. Could that be the case for Martin if he doesn’t get the Gamecocks to the NCAA Tournament? This is Year 9, and Martin has 1 NCAA Tournament appearance to speak of. Granted, going to the Final Four isn’t just your standard NCAA Tournament appearance.
But with the money at stake now in SEC basketball, you’re not guaranteed a decade at the same place if your team continues to come up short of the NCAA Tournament. South Carolina returns plenty of production from last year’s group, which pulled off a winning SEC record after a slow start. Martin would get a major boost by making the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since that Final Four run 4 years ago.
Tennessee — A different kind of “1 and done”
For the record, I’m not referring to what we see at Kentucky and Duke. “One and done” at Tennessee means 1 year of rebuilding and being done with that. After a down year in 2019-20, the Vols have sky-high expectations this year as the media pick to win the league. Why the expected year-to-year turnaround? Rick Barnes has a wealth of returning production alongside the anticipated arrival of 5-star freshmen Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson.
A Tennessee team that was young and inexperienced last year returns the preseason first-team All-SEC selection John Fulkerson, as well as Santiago Vescovi and Yves Pons, who showed promise in a bigger role last year. That sets up for a potential return of one of those great Tennessee-Kentucky showdowns like we got a couple of years ago.
One would think that a Tennessee team with more continuity would be set up well for a deep March run. That could come down to the emergence of Springer and Johnson in this decorated freshmen class.
Texas A&M — Buzz Williams wins SEC Coach of the Year
He was certainly in the running last year after being picked to finish 12th in the league pulling off a winning conference record. This year? Williams’ squad was picked to finish … 11th. In other words, that’s the perfect setup for a potential SEC Coach of the Year run for Williams. He does return the veteran Savion Flagg, who should provide some stability in the frontcourt.
Look around the league and you’ll see other guys like Oats and Musselman who have higher Year 2 expectations than Williams. Perhaps even A&M having one of its best football seasons of the 21st century will keep eyes off the basketball program in College Station. I get the feeling that’s where Williams is going to thrive and outproduce another low preseason finish prediction.
Vanderbilt — The 2019-20 regular season finish really is a turning point
Remember that time when the Commodores ended the regular season with — wait for it — a winning streak? It might’ve felt like a lifetime ago, but Jerry Stackhouse’s team ended the SEC slate with respectable wins against Alabama and South Carolina before an early SEC Tournament exit (technically everyone had an early SEC Tournament exit). That was for a program that had 1 SEC win in the previous 2 years.
But the good news is that Stackhouse is getting plenty of reinforcements via transfer. After sitting out a season per NCAA rules, Vandy will add transfers D.J. Harvey (Notre Dame), Quentin Millora-Brown (Rice) and Issac McBride (Kansas). That should provide depth for a team who had to replace another lottery pick in Aaron Nesmith, as well as second-rounder Saben Lee. Scotty Pippen Jr. showed promise down the stretch as a true freshman, as did 6-9 forward Dylan Disu.
Perhaps that means Vandy’s streak of last-place finishes in the SEC will come to an end in 2021.