NCAA Tournament or bust: Predicting the postseason plans for every SEC basketball team
The 2018-19 men’s college basketball season tips off Tuesday night, and there’s plenty of reason for optimism around the Southeast.
After eight SEC squads made it to March Madness last year, at least that many have their eyes on the field of 68 this season. However, some teams that made it last year might take a step back, while other squads leap ahead of them.
From Kentucky to Ole Miss, there’s at least one reason for every SEC fan base to be excited about the 2018-19 season, even if there’s little chance of making a postseason tournament.
That said, here’s what each team can realistically hope for in terms of postseason play this year:
Collin Sexton is in the NBA and Braxton Key left for Virginia, but beyond that, the Crimson Tide return most of their key contributors. Former 5-star recruit John Petty will be tasked with taking a step forward and leading this team, and he’ll have help from Donta Hall, Herb Jones, Dazon Ingram, Daniel Giddens and others.
Coach Avery Johnson also brought in a 4-star freshman in G Kira Lewis, and it’ll be interesting to see how he works into the rotation this winter. Even with Sexton, though, this team barely made the NCAA Tournament. Therefore, this looks like an NIT season.
After losing Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon and more from last year’s team, this squad is made up of Daniel Gafford and a bunch of other young players who need experience. They lost most of their scoring punch and ball-handling skills, so this is a rebuilding year for Mike Anderson’s squad.
However, with Gafford as a likely lottery pick next year, this team can still pull off some upsets, and that could end up translating to an NIT berth when all is said and done.
Auburn: Elite 8
Losing Mustapha Heron as a transfer hurts, but this team brings back every other key contributor from last year’s squad that won a share of the SEC regular-season title and made the NCAA Tournament. Adding to the excitement around this year’s team is that big man Austin Wiley has been cleared to play, giving the Tigers a big presence in the post.
Still, the strength of coach Bruce Pearl’s team will be the guards, with Jared Harper and Bryce Brown leading the way. They’re No. 11 in the preseason poll, and if they don’t make it at least as far as the Elite 8, the year will likely be considered a failure.
Florida: NCAA Tournament
The Gators lose star guard Chris Chiozza and key starter Egor Koulechov, and they’ll be tough to replace, but leading scorer Jalen Hudson and starters KeVaughn Allen and Keith Stone are back for coach Mike White.
Finding someone to run the point will be important to this team’s success, but there’s plenty of athleticism and scoring talent in Gainesville. This won’t be a team that will compete with Kentucky, Tennessee and Auburn, but it is still a solid squad that will be a tough matchup for anyone on any given night.
Year 1 under Tom Crean is set to be a learning experience for everyone involved. Gone are Yante Maten and Juwan Parker, but the cupboard isn’t entirely bare, as William Jackson II, Derek Ogbeide and Rayshaun Hammonds all return to the starting lineup.
Many have the Dawgs rated second-to-last in the SEC, but with Crean at the helm, this team could have enough excitement and grit to make an NIT run.
Kentucky: Final Four
This is one of John Calipari’s most interesting Kentucky squads, as it blends the usual young talent with a healthy dose of experience. Quade Green, PJ Washington and Nick Richards return from last year’s team, and Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis figures to be a key contributor, too.
Then there are the freshmen — Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, Keldon Johnson, EJ Montgomery and Tyler Herro. How Coach Cal balances his starting lineup will be interesting to watch, and the Wildcats will have a tough test early, starting the year on Tuesday night against No. 4 Duke.
At No. 2 in the preseason poll, the Wildcats have plenty of believers, and they’ll be tested during non-conference play. This team needs to reach a Final Four, or it’ll be considered a disappointing year in Lexington.
LSU: NCAA Tournament
The Tigers once again have an elite talent in big man Naz Reid, but having guys like that hasn’t exactly worked out for LSU. In the time the Tigers had Pete Maravich, Shaquille O’Neal and Ben Simmons, they reached exactly zero Sweet 16s, and missed the tournament entirely with Maravich and Simmons.
Coach Will Wade will try to change that with Reid this year, and with a star like Tremont Waters running the point, the team will be deeper than some of those other squads that revolved around the one big-name superstar.
Mississippi State: NCAA Tournament
Lamont Peters and Nick and Quinndary Weatherspoon for a trio as good as anyone’s in the SEC, and it’ll be interesting to see how those three guards grow coming into this season after going 25-12 last year. The Bulldogs return every single key contributor, meaning Aric Holman and Abdul Ado will man the post.
The problem last year was a garbage nonconference schedule, which kept the Bulldogs out of serious NCAA Tournament contention. This year, though, games against Cincinnati (which they lost to in their only good nonconference matchup last year), Arizona State, Clemson and BYU provide some bigger challenges.
It’ll be interesting to see how Ben Howland’s squad navigates that nonconference slate, because this team should be an NCAA Tournament team.
A couple of weeks ago, the Tigers had legitimate NCAA Tournament hopes, but with the news that star F Jontay Porter will miss the year with a knee injury, those hopes have been dashed.
Much like his brother Michael last season, Porter’s absence will be a big talking point, especially since the younger Porter probably could have been a first-round NBA Draft pick this year. With him out, and with Evansville doing some questionable things regarding transfer Dru Smith’s eligibility, this doesn’t seem to be the Tigers’ year.
Big man Jeremiah Tilmon will be fun to watch, though.
Ole Miss: Sit this one out
Look, everyone knows this is going to be a rebuilding year under first-year head coach Kermit Davis. Terence Davis and Breein Tyree are good players, but this squad needs a lot of help to compete in a loaded SEC.
Therefore, this will be a development year for Davis, so he can get his systems in place and get his recruits into Oxford. The Rebels will probably miss out on postseason tournaments this year, but good things could be coming down the road.
South Carolina: NIT
F Chris Silva is a preseason All-SEC player, but there’s not much talent there around him in Columbia. Coach Frank Martin needs some freshmen (perhaps guards AJ Lawson and TJ Moss) to step up in big ways.
With a guy like Silva, the Gamecocks need to take advantage of his senior season and make some sort of postseason tournament. However, it won’t be March Madness, so the NIT seems like a more realistic (albeit still optimistic) goal.
Tennessee: Final Four
With Admiral Schofield’s last ride and Grant Williams helping him lead the way, the Vols are projected to do big things this season. They’re the No. 6 team in the preseason AP Poll, and coming off a year in which they shared the regular season SEC title, there are major expectations in Knoxville.
The Vols return coach Rick Barnes and their entire starting lineup (Williams, Schofield, Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden and Kyle Alexander) and sixth man Lamonte Turner, so last season’s experience should pay off in big ways this year.
Texas A&M: Sit this one out
T.J. Starks had some big moments down the stretch as a true freshman last season, but without his entire frontcourt of Robert Williams, Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg returning, he won’t have much help this year.
Therefore, this is probably a rebuilding year. Starks is a good player, but the Aggies will need time to develop some more talent around him.
Vanderbilt: NCAA Tournament
The Commodores made a huge splash on the recruiting trails this year, picking up Darius Garland and Simi Shittu — both blue-chip prospects. Add in returning sophomore Saben Lee and this is probably coach Bryce Drew’s most talented team at Vanderbilt so far.
Expectations will be high this season, and after finishing 13th in the regular-season standings last year, Drew needs a much better showing now that he has some serious talent in Nashville.