Who could take down Kentucky basketball in the SEC this season?
Given Kentucky’s history and reputation, it’s understandable that the Wildcats figure to be substantial favorites in the 2018-19 SEC race. But if Kentucky has learned any lessons from its beloved thoroughbred industry, it’s that the favorite doesn’t always win the race. Who could take down UK? Here are four possible candidates, and what makes each of them dangerous.
Sure, if you’ve followed SEC basketball for any length of time, you remember Tennessee teams that were long on talent and potential, but short on results. Last season should have served notice that the script has changed with a new sheriff in town. Rick Barnes is both a superb recruiter, and a talented Xs and Os coach. Tennessee gave Kentucky a great matchup in the SEC Tournament final, and there’s no reason to think the Vols couldn’t do it again.
UT returns its top six scorers from last year’s co-SEC regular season champs. Included in that haul is SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and streaky forward Admiral Schofield. Add in center recruit D.J. Burns and the Vols have as much talent as anybody not named Kentucky.
Before the last month of last season, pretty much everything that applies to Tennessee applied to Auburn. Granted, the Tigers finished the season in a swoon after the untimely injury to forward Anfernee McLemore. But Bruce Pearl is a coach who has already had his matchups with Calipari and has held his own. Pearl’s helter-skelter defense is the kind of thing that could cause a more talented Kentucky team to turn the ball over, play sloppy, and lose a game or two.
Meanwhile, it’s not exactly like Auburn is left with chopped liver itself. Sure, Mustapha Heron is gone, but the Tigers return six of their eight top scorers from last season, including Brice Brown and Jared Harper. They added transfer guard Jamal Johnson from Memphis. If Pearl can get more consistent contributions from his post players than he did last season, the Tigers could make the SEC interesting.
Year after year, the Tigers recruit a squad full of talented players and most years, they go absolutely nowhere. It has had less to do with the talent than the lack of talent on the sideline. It’s still inexplicable that Johnny Jones didn’t somehow get sued for malpractice for turning a roster of Ben Simmons and a couple of other 4-5 star recruits into absolutely nothing. But again, things have changed. Will Wade is one of the best young coaches not only in the SEC, but in the nation.
Wade is bringing in a great haul, including seven-footer Naz Reid and fellow five star recruit Emmitt Williams. Four of 247sports.com’s top 62 recruits ended up in Baton Rouge. Meanwhile, the Tigers return gritty guard Tremont Waters, who was one of the surprises of last season. LSU is going to be very good soon, and it could be as soon as this season.
The Bulldogs don’t have any one area in which they are likely to compete with Kentucky, but they’re solid across the board. Start with the returning talent, where the guts of a 25-win team from last season will return, including All-SEC forward Quinndary Weatherspoon and his brother Nick, who was also a double-figure scorer as a freshman.
Ben Howland is not a glamour guy as a head coach, but the man has been to two Final Fours, and he knows how to coach defense. State’s recruiting class isn’t on the same level as Kentucky’s, but it’s not exactly something to sneeze at. Forward Reggie Perry is a legitimate 5-star talent, and Howland’s other three signees landed this class in the top third of SEC recruiting. State isn’t a glamorous pick, but they’ve getting more solid every season, and they could surprise.