SEC Basketball Preseason Conversation: UK's ceiling, sleepers, Taylor Swift-like coaching tenures and NCAA sacrificial lambs (and so much more)
As we try to partially turn the page to the college basketball season, a couple of our resident hoopsters, Joe Cox and Adam Spencer, drop in for a basketball conversation. Like a good December game, we have no idea where this is going, but it promises entertainment value.
1. Should we really buy-in on UT as the favorite for the league? Who else could challenge them?
Adam: I actually don’t have the Vols as the favorites to win the SEC, and neither do the AP Poll voters. Kentucky checks in at No. 10, with the Vols at No. 12 in the preseason poll. I tend to agree with that. That’s not to say I don’t like the Vols.
Joe: It is interesting that the AP and the coaches both put UK ahead of UT, but the SEC media and coaches both ranked UT over UK. My preseason take was to favor UT for the regular-season run and UK in the SEC Tournament. UT seems more like a team that’s going to be hot straight out of the gate, and as is usual, UK will have to build as they go.
Adam: I think this is going to be Rick Barnes’ second-best team at Tennessee, behind the Admiral Schofield-Grant Williams-Jordan Bone squad that won a share of the SEC regular-season title. But I also think this has the potential to be John Calipari’s second-best team at Kentucky, behind only the Anthony Davis title-winning team. BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke are studs. Devin Askew and Isaiah Jackson should also be impact freshmen. And Olivier Sarr should be in the mix for the SEC Player of the Year award by year’s end. The Vols and Wildcats should engage in a tight race for the regular-season title this year if Calipari is able to develop his young talent.
Joe: I’ll buy that. The big question for UT has to be whether they can get it done with something of a bullseye on their back. Meanwhile, as Calipari loves to note, UK will be everybody’s Super Bowl (a shot for all in the Cal Cliché Drinking Game)
2. Any particular reason to think this newcomer-heavy Kentucky team will fare any better or worse than any other newcomer-heavy Kentucky team? Is the ceiling high enough to please BBN?
Adam: I think the ceiling for this year’s Kentucky team is a national title. Is that a high enough ceiling for Kentucky fans?
Joe: Hopefully so! UK hasn’t been in the Final Four since 2015, when the unbeaten team was knocked off by Wisconsin. I’m not saying Big Blue Nation is looking for an unbeaten team, but a Final Four run is probably the goal … and in a parity-heavy sport, why not?
Adam: Yeah if the NCAA title is the ceiling, that says a lot about what I think about the Wildcats, but perhaps more about what I think about the college basketball landscape nationally. Gonzaga is No. 1 in the preseason poll. The Bulldogs lost their leading scorer, Filip Petrusev, and standout Killian Tillie off last year’s squad. And they’re still No. 1! That’s crazy! And, it just shows that there are no dominant teams this year. The Wildcats, in my opinion, have the most upside of any Top-25 squad.
Joe: It’s only November and we’re talking about upside. I love it.
3. Who’s the sleeper team that everybody’s overlooking?
Joe: The NCAA might not be overlooking them, but a fair number of people are still sleeping on LSU. Getting Javonte Smart, Trendon Watford and Darius Days all back was huge. And regardless of whether he is or isn’t making “strong-$$$” offers, Will Wade got some great recruits. Cameron Thomas is a big-time scorer and Shareef O’Neal is eligible, why not LSU? Everybody will focus on UT and UK, and the Tigers just might sneak in and nab the title.
Adam: Alabama is getting a fair amount of hype, but many analysts (myself included) don’t have the Crimson Tide in the top 4 of their SEC rankings. I have them at No. 5 in my preseason power rankings. But,of any team outside of the Kentucky-Tennessee-Florida-LSU group, Alabama is my pick to be atop the standings come March. I think Jahvon Quinerly is going to be a great point guard. He won’t score like Kira Lewis Jr. did, but he’ll be a solid distributor to elite shooters like John Petty Jr. and Jaden Shackelford. Nate Oats has the talent for his run-and-gun system to really take flight in Year 2 in Tuscaloosa.
4. Who got shortchanged in the All-SEC stuff?
Adam: Well, it’s hard to be too upset with the preseason All-SEC teams when 17 players made the cut for the first- and second-team honors. That’s too many. That said, with that many players named to the list, I was a bit surprised not to see Xavier Pinson on the list. I think the Mizzou guard is going to have a big year. The Tigers have a ton of experience returning and could finish in the top 6 in the final standings.
Joe: Yeah, my nitpicks are nitpickier. How on earth the media didn’t have Yves Pons on the first-team, I don’t know. And in the hurry to love on a random Kentucky freshman, Keion Brooks got overlooked for UK. And don’t forget Scottie Lewis, who was fairly awful last year but could be my informal SEC Comeback Player of the Year. He did get second-team from the coaches, but the media left him off entirely.
5. Are Bruce Pearl and Auburn insane to impose the postseason ban this year or was that a savvy call?
Joe: Considering that it’s almost like the 2020 sports season doesn’t count, I think it’s pretty savvy. If you have a chance to win a title, you stay in. The 2020 L.A. Dodgers will take this weird COVID season just fine. Ditto the L.A. Lakers. But nobody’s going to remember the mildly successful teams of 2020. Which feels like where Auburn fits.
Adam: Well, that all depends on the status of 5-star freshman Sharife Cooper. If he’s not playing and indeed goes overseas as it has been reported he’s considering, then Auburn is smart to get the postseason ban out of the way this year. Without Cooper turning into a superstar, this isn’t a team that will challenge for an SEC title or another Final Four. If you’re Bruce Pearl, you take the ban now, develop your young players this year and then cross your fingers the NCAA doesn’t hammer you further.
Joe: Or he could pull an LSU/Will Wade kind of thing and announce in mid-February that no, actually, they don’t sit the Tournament out. Part of me says that until the NCAA actually starts cracking heads, why take any penalty? But yeah, Cooper matters a lot.
6. How much will COVID mess with this season? Any particular team or style of team that it’ll benefit or hurt unduly?
Adam: You know how much we’ve been hearing about COVID-19 during the football season? Yeah, that’s going to continue into basketball season. With more games, though, come more opportunities to have games postponed or canceled. It’s going to be the big story all year. Games canceled, players and coaches testing positive, people getting upset every time it is mentioned. Buckle up, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Joe: It already is. I feel like since the conversation started, 50 games got canceled and another dozen teams shut down for a couple of weeks. The schedule-makers are the ones who really might just throw their hands up in the air and quit. Football has been a weird calendar, but basketball … all bets are off. We might end up with season standings with teams that play 5 or 6 more league games than other teams. The NCAA selection committee will love that.
Adam: As for the second part of the question, I do think it is an equal-opportunity disruptor. I don’t believe COVID will impact any team or style of play in particular. Sadly, everyone is capable of having 2 weeks of their season shut down by the virus. It’s going to be frustrating, but we need to just remember that any basketball is better than no basketball.
Joe: That is the thing, isn’t it? As bad as COVID chaos is, if we can make it to an NCAA Tournament and have a first day with a bunch of games and upsets, it’ll be some kind of minor miracle. Even if they end up all playing in the same place. Hinkle Fieldhouse has to be in there.
7. Can Mike White and the Gators find success with an up-tempo style after being a major disappointment last year?
Joe: I’m not sure there’s ever been an SEC coach I’ve been more hot and cold on than Mike White. I was not impressed with the hire. And then he won me over. And lost me back. White is like the no-good boyfriend who the hot girl keeps going back to. Part of us think he pulls it together, part of us know they’re breaking up next week.
Adam: White better hope the Gators find success with a new tempo. They kind of made Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Andrew Nembhard the scapegoats for last year’s struggles and I think that was unfair. White signed off on that slower style of play. If the Gators don’t look more consistent this year, I think White is in the most danger of any SEC coach of being fired.
Joe: Agreed. Those two NCAA titles definitely impact the expectations. And they should. This Florida season is like a Taylor Swift video, but with dunks. I think they’ll do well. Johnson and Lewis give them an excellent foundation. But I can’t lie. Part of me is waiting on the breakup.