COVID-19 shut down the college basketball seaspon just as conference tournaments were heating up a season ago, depriving us of March Madness for the first time since 1939. In SEC circles, that might have been a blessing in disguise: The SEC was down last season, with only 4 of the league’s programs (Kentucky, Florida, Auburn and LSU) projected to make the field and only Kentucky expected to have a good chance of lasting beyond the first weekend. Computers ranked the SEC as the worst of the Power 6 (basketball includes the Big East) conferences.

Things should change dramatically in 2020. Joe Lunardi’s most recent and final preseason bracketology, released Tuesday, has 7 SEC teams in the field, with at least 4 programs (Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida and LSU) all projected to advance to at least the round of 32 based on seeding. Computer aggregates rank the SEC No. 2 among Power 6 leagues in the preseason, trailing only the B1G. And KenPom, the metrics gold standard in the sport, ranks 3 teams in the preseason Top 25 (Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida). Only the B1G and ACC have more.

In other words, this should be a banner year for basketball down south, as teams that were “too young” a season ago grow up and learn from last year’s growing pains.

Meanwhile, the league continues to be white-hot on the recruiting trail, with SEC programs signing 6 of the nation’s top 11 recruiting classes, including 2 programs, Kentucky and Tennessee, in the top 5. Exciting freshman will dot the landscape of the SEC, with 5 programs signing at least 1 top-50 player, per the 247 composite, along with a legion of top 300 recruits.

Here’s a look at the top incoming freshman at each program ahead of the 2020-21 season.

Alabama: Josh Primo, Wing

This was a tough call. The highest-rated recruits in Nate Oats’s second full recruiting class, which ranked 11th in the country, were Primo and big man Alex Tchikou, the No. 59 and 60 overall recruits in the 247 composite, respectively. Tchikou will play, but he is young in his basketball journey and lacks ideal physicality. A year in a strength program will be key for him.

Primo, on the other hand, is a 6-6 and ready to play wing from Toronto who is ideal for Oats’s up-tempo system. He has big-time range on a nice looking jumper and the length to be disruptive in Oats’s ball-pressure man defense. On a roster full of wings, Primo stands out as the best two-way candidate among the underclassmen.

Arkansas: Moses Moody, Combo Guard

Eric Musselman could sell ice to Aleutians, so selling restoring Arkansas basketball to its rightful place among the SEC elite has been no problem thus far for the second-year head coach.

Moody, a combo guard from basketball factory Montverde Academy, selected the Hogs over Florida and should immediately enter the starting 5 after the departure of sharpshooter Isaiah Joe, who was selected in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers last week. Moody isn’t an elite shooter, but he’s competent at everything and has the versatility Musselman loves in his modern switching defense.

Moody also plays with tremendous poise and is a plus secondary ball-handler, which the Hogs will need with Joe and Mason Jones both gone from the program.

Auburn: Sharife Cooper, Point Guard

Bruce Pearl’s best teams, whether at Tennessee or at Auburn, have been veteran units that create havoc defensively and know how to close games late. This Auburn team will be a little different, but it’s also buoyed by a top-10 recruiting class that shows just how far Pearl has taken this Tigers program since arriving in 2014.

Sharife Cooper is the gem of the class, a consensus Top 25 player and 5-star recruit who fills the enormous shoes of two-headed point guard monster J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty. Cooper is a classic playmaker, a kid with swag and the ball-handling skills to create for his teammates in style. He’ll be an instant fan-favorite, and I’d expect him to be one of the best point guards in the SEC by March. He is a legitmate SEC Freshman of the Year candidate.

Florida: Niels Lane, Wing

Gators fans may have expected to see Samson Ruzhentsev in this spot, the latest top-50 recruit to sign for Mike White. That makes sense, as Ruzhentsev is an electric wing who should provide offensive punch to Florida thanks to a silky jump shot and through the roof athleticism.

But Lane will be the freshman who makes the biggest impact.

Lane, a 6-6 guard with a body similar to a freshman version of Florida star Keyontae Johnson, would have been a top-100 recruit out of basketball factory Roselle Catholic but for the fact he caught mononucleosis as a senior and was limited by illness. He dropped to a high 3-star recruit, but arrived in Gainesville with a chip on his shoulder and has had a spectacular camp, per multiple program insiders.

Lane will fight and claw offensively, but what he mainly adds is a tenacious wing defender to a team that really needs to improve on that side of the floor. White’s offense was among the top 10 in the country in conference-play last season. Getting stops consistently limited the Gators. A player like Lane, who can guard just about everywhere on the floor and has the length to disrupt the passing lanes and the quickness to play in the press, should help the Gators significantly. Ruzhentsev, for all his natural talent, has a long way to go defensively, which gives Lane the edge here.

Georgia: KD Johnson, Point Guard

Year 3 of the Tom Crean era has been a good one at previous Crean stops, as he went dancing with Marquette and laid the foundation for a Sweet 16 run at Indiana in Year 4 with 4 starters he played in Year 3. This team loses top NBA Draft choice Anthony Edwards, but the Dawgs will be a more veteran group and Crean is finally playing with his guys, rather than a combination of young players and holdovers from the Mark Fox era.

The key to this team might be 4-star point guard KD Johnson, who is strong and physical despite limited size (think Cassius Winston in terms of build and ability to attack defenses). Johnson should start by midseason, as returning point guard Sahvir Wheeler’s 27.6% turnover rate doesn’t inspire much confidence, even if his 5-10 stature and jitterbug style endear him to Bulldogs fans.

Kentucky: BJ Boston, Wing

The preseason pick for SEC Freshman of the Year, Boston is the best of Calipari’s annual crop of McDonald’s All-Americans. On a team that returns only 5 points per game of last season’s output, Boston should lead this team in scoring. He can score from anywhere. Along with fellow McDonald’s All-American Terrence Clarke, Boston is also good enough to handle the basketball for stretches too, which should help a team that will search for consistency at the point guard spot with talented but very young Devin Askew and veteran underachiever Davion Mintz as the only true point guards on the roster.

Boston is going to be the next Kentucky lottery pick, and while he won’t get the usual lengthy nonconference slate to work out the college adjustment kinks, he’s almost as good a pure shooter as Tyler Herro when you watch him on film and he’s a beyond his years finisher at the rim. A one-and-done star.

LSU: Cam Thomas, Guard

The latest Will Wade 5-star recruit, Thomas comes to Baton Rouge as the all-time leading scorer from storied Oak Hill Academy, which has produced the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Ron Mercer and Jerry Stackhouse, among others.

Thomas will start and attempt to replace the massive shoes of Skylar Mays, who finished a marvelous career and was selected in the 2nd round of the NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks. While Mays’ leadership is irreplaceable, Thomas isn’t overly athletic, and at 6-3 and 170 pounds soaking wet with rocks in his pants, he’s not particularly big and strong. He just gets buckets. Lots of them. With defenses collapsing on Trendon Watford, Thomas should put up tremendous numbers, especially in a backcourt with the savvy moneymaker Ja’vonte Smart.

Mississippi State: Deivon Smith, Point Guard

Another big-time point guard recruit, Smith isn’t the biggest at 6-0 but he’s an explosive athlete with Kira Lewis type speed who will be a handful for every team in the country in transition. He also plays extremely hard defensively and was a high steals guy in high school, something that should carry over at the next level given his motor. He’s not a very polished long-range shooter, but his quickness and ability to play in the paint despite his lack of size will help Miss State recover from losing All-SEC talent Reggie Perry, who was selected by the Brooklyn Nets in the second round of the NBA Draft.

Missouri: Jordan Wilmore, Center

The best freshman for the Tigers will be their only one, the 7-3 giant Jordan Wilmore. Wilmore is very raw offensively but he gives Mizzou a space-eater who can be an effective rebounder and shot deterrent in the paint. In a frontcourt that is star Jeremiah Tilmon and a bunch of question marks, there’s no reason Wilmore can’t earn quality minutes over the very average Mitchell Smith or undersized pieces Parker Braun and JUCO transfer Ed Chang.

Ole Miss: Matthew Murrell, Guard

Kermit Davis signed only 1 freshman to one of the most veteran teams in the SEC, but Murrell is a perfect complement to the rest of the personnel on what very well could be one of the nation’s most underrated teams. The IMG Academy product is the highest-ranked signee in Rebels history, a 4-star, top-40 prospect who chose Ole Miss over Vanderbilt and Florida. He’s an incredibly smart player, who is adept at moving off the ball and getting open and is lethal off the catch, boasting one of the prettiest jumpers in the 2020 class. He may not start to begin the season, but the idea of him playing off transfer Jarkel Joiner and the splendid Devontae Shuler should give Davis a lot of backcourt firepower for his third team at Ole Miss.

South Carolina: Patrick Iriel, Center

Iriel is intriguing, a big man with great feet and big-time offensive upside who might have gone under the radar due to a lack of super athleticism. That might have been an oversight, and Iriel’s offer sheet, which includes the likes of perennial NCAA Tournament programs Butler, Cincinnati and Wofford bears that out. The kid can play, and mainly, he can score, which gives Frank Martin yet another big who offers plus-offense as the program moves on from the All-SEC forward Maik Kotsar. The Gamecocks have a very good backcourt returning, led by Jermaine Couisnard and AJ Lawson, both of whom will eventually play professionally. But the frontcourt is a question, and Iriel’s ability to occupy defenders and score with his soft hands and midrange jumper makes him a threat for extended playing time this season in Columbia.

Tennessee: Jaden Springer, Combo Guard

Rick Barnes’ top-5 recruiting class features a number of exciting pieces, led by Springer, the McDonald’s All-American out of Charlotte who chose the Vols over Memphis, UNC, Michigan and Florida. Springer is a dynamic athlete who can score, both as a driver who can draw contact and as a kid with a very good, albeit weird-looking, midrange jumper.

He can guard multiple spots on the floor, using NBA-level length to disrupt passing lanes and recover if he’s beaten off the bounce. He also gives Tennessee yet another tremendous rebounder, which will be a strength of a team that doesn’t seem to have an obvious weakness. Along with fellow freshman Keon Johnson, Springer will push the likes of BJ Boston for SEC Freshman of the Year.

Texas A&M: Jaxson Robinson, Combo Guard

Buzz Williams is an outstanding coach, and the Aggies proved that last season, at least when you look at metrics.

The Aggies’ shot selection was among the best in the sport, per Hoops Lens, but the ball didn’t go in much. Despite taking the best shot on a really good 72% of possessions, the Aggies ranked 203rd nationally in offense per KenPom offensive efficiency. With Savion Flagg the team’s only reliable scorer, Buzz knew he had to go sign a freshman who could fill it up.

Enter Robinson, a 6-5 combo guard out of Ada, Oklahoma, who will provide instant buckets. Robinson has a good first step off the bounce and a quick release, allowing him to score at all 3 levels. A late-bloomer, he might be a guy who is better than his top-75, 4-star ranking implies, similar to Florida’s Keyontae Johnson, who received a lot of late attention as a recruit and has blossomed into one of the league’s best players.

Robinson is a 3- to 4-year kid who should be one of the faces of Williams’s rebuild in College Station.

Vanderbilt: Myles Stute, Wing

Jerry Stackhouse’s first season saw the Commodores win 3 conference games, which was a big improvement from the winless campaign that forced out Bryce Drew after the 2018-2019 campaign. The challenge now, however, is replacing NBA draft picks in the departed Aaron Nesmith, who went in the first round to the Boston Celtics, and Saben Lee, whom the Detroit Pistons gobbled up in the second round.

Stute, a 6-7 wing from the outstanding Gonzaga Prep in Washington, DC, was Stackhouse’s first signee in the 2020 class and while he won’t be the scorer to replace Lee and Nesmith’s production, he will be the glue guy the program has lacked in recent memory.

When you think of the best Vanderbilt teams, there’s always an impactful scorer, like a John Jenkins or a Matt Freije. But there’s almost always a big-time glue guy too, whether it’s Jeffery Taylor or Will Perdue or Shan Foster or even more recently, Jeff Roberson.

Stute, who has elite length, is a marvelous rebounder and plays with relentless energy, will be that guy. It’s unlikely he plays ahead of Notre Dame transfer D.J. Harvey and cracks the starting five as a freshman, but he should be the first wing off the bench to spell Harvey or the very active worker Dylan Disu, who has less upside.