Fall sports, from college football to the NFL, have been bizarre. Covid outbreaks, schedule adjustments and the need for endless flexibility. There's little doubt, bubbles will be burst far before Greg Gumbel has the chance to announce the bracket - if there is such a selection show this year.
Preseason predictions are less relevant than ever before. The sports landscape is secondary to those of national health and safety. We may see dramatic interruptions, and depending on how or when those interrupt, different teams will rise or fall as a result.
Nonetheless, we push forward. Our conference previews will look at only the six power conferences throughout the NCAA: ACC, Big East, SEC, Big Ten, Big Twelve and Pac-12.
From an individual talent and NBA scouting perspective, the SEC was the place to be last year. Although a bit of a bloodbath in terms of the standings, the experience and recruiting prowess of all these coaches is quickly raising SEC hoops into the conversation for best conference in the country.
Leading the way is traditional blueblood Kentucky with their one-and-done, talent-grabbing nature. It rarely fails, meaning most teams chase them. Rick Barnes at Tennessee and Mike White at Florida are running programs based on continuity, a nice changeup to Calipari's tactics. With recruiting wizards Ben Howland (Mississippi State), Tom Crean (Georgia), Cuonzo Martin (Missouri), Bruce Pearl (Auburn) and Will Wade (LSU) establishing footholds, the rest of the league is consistently rising.
Let's not overlook those unique spots, either. Frank Martin has coached South Carolina to deep runs in March, and he'll have an experienced group returning. Nate Oats has injected tempo into Alabama's program and is a proven winner. Eric Musselman is not shy in Arkansas and Texas A&M is always better than you think with Buzz Williams at the helm. As the bottom of the league rises, there are few easy outs and even fewer easy predictions to make. The SEC may not lead the country in number of ranked teams, but there are at least ten schools who have the talent to clearly be ranked this season.
14. Vanderbilt Commodores - 3-15 last season. Projection: 2-16
The Jerry Stackhouse experience hasn't been as advertised. Injuries to their two best players each of the last couple of seasons handcuffed their success. Saben Lee was left alone as a one-man wrecking crew, lacking supporting talent to help. Now Lee is gone, too, and Stack is serving under a new AD who isn't as keen on looking the other way to Stack's recruiting tactics. Sophomore point guard Scotty Pippen Jr. will take the reigns of the offense and should put up strong numbers. Still, the Commodores are small, don't have a star freshman, and would need major leaps forward from their sophomore class to gain steam in the conference. Vandy is the toughest place to win, and if injuries and internal administration are going to undermine efforts, it's hard to imagine them not bringing up the rear.
13. Georgia Bulldogs - 5-13 last season. Projection: 5-13
Anthony Edwards and Rayshaun Hammonds were the program's two most athletic and talented players a season ago. Tom Crean couldn't turn that into success, surprising given his consistent mediocrity with NBA guys. The shot in the arm the Bulldogs hoped for when they hired Crean hasn't happened yet. Instead of blazing the recruiting trail, Crean has opted for the safer route through transfers. PJ Horne from Virginia Tech should start right away, while scorers Justin Kier (George Mason) and Andrew Garcia (Stony Brook) factor on the wings.
The best hope for Georgia is that sophomore point guard Shavir Wheeler takes a massive step forward now that he's not forced to play off-ball next to Edwards. Wheeler is a dynamite athlete who should excel in a spread scheme, something the Bulldogs didn't play last year. Add a step forward from swing forward Christian Brown and there's still talent in Georgia. They'll bank on the collective fit finally coming together to see an increase in wins.
12. Mississippi State Bulldogs - 11-7 last season. Projection: 7-11
Ben Howland has a really, really young group in Starkville. A .500 record would be an absolute success for the rebuilding Bulldogs, who lost Reggie Perry and Robert Woodard III to the NBA. The experience comes in the frontcourt, with two redshirt seniors (Abdul Ado and Louisiana transfer Jalen Johnson) and talented Alabama transfer Javian Davis (6.0 points, 3.8 rebounds). Complimenting their rebuilt frontcourt are two 6'7" swing freshmen, Keondre Montgomery and Cameron Matthews. Neither are close to ready, so the other three have to carry the mantle.
The backcourt lacks SEC experience but has talent, which is why I'm fairly optimistic on a seven-win campaign. Iverson Molinar and DJ Stewart both started as freshmen and are poised to take a larger load in year two. Expect Stewart to be the team's leading scorer. Deivon Smith, a super-bouncy 6'0" point guard, could be a four-year starter in Starkville. I'm really high on him. There's no depth here, so Smith has little choice but to produce. Wins may be hard to come by in Starkville, but there's interesting young talent here.
11. Ole Miss Runnin' Rebels - 6-12 last season. Projection: 7-11
The coup of the century, and what keeps the Runnin' Rebels afloat in the daunting SEC, was getting Arizona State transfer Romello White. White, who averaged 10.2 points and 8.8 boards a season ago, is an unbelievably sturdy interior presence that is sorely needed. With 6'2" guard Devontae Shuler ready to run the point, Ole Miss has a solid pick-and-roll combo developing under Kermit Davis.
Matthew Murcell, the highest rated recruit in school history, is one of many names in a glut in-between. He's clearly the most talented, though will he be ready? Kermit needs to win to stave off clamors for his job, so he may take the safe route and let some transfers or older guys get the run. 6'7" 4-man KJ Buffen is solid at his post. There's a lot of "good, not great" options in Ole Miss. They're a trendy team to push for an NCAA bid, though what scares me about their depth is the uncertainty around who their main guys actually will be.
10. Arkansas Razorbacks - 7-11 last season. Projection: 8-10
Arkansas had two good players last year. When they were together and healthy, the Razorbacks were very good. When they weren't, and SEC play got intense, the Razorbacks were very bad. Both good players left for the NBA in Isaiah Joe and Mason Jones. This will finally be the rebuild on the shoulders of Eric Musselman, where he's judged on the recruiting prowess that helped secure him the hire two years ago.
I'm not as sold on this iteration of the Razorbacks going too far right away. Only one regular returns from an up-and-down season: Desi Sills (10.6 points, 1.2 assists). The 6'1" combo guard played off-ball a lot and isn't prepared for playmaking duty in the tough SEC. A really strong recruiting class is headlined by 6'6" Isaiah Moody and 6'10" Jaylin Williams. Moody should start right away and should be a first-round pick next year with a ton of natural ability, while Williams will battle New Mexico grad transfer Vance Jackson and 7'3" Cal transfer Connor Vanover at the starting 5. Stretch-4 Justin Smith will help their offense–and we know the Razorbacks will not be shy in transition or from deep. If they can get consistent play at the point, they'll be a solid, middle-of-the pack SEC team.
9. Missouri Tigers - 7-11 last season. Projection: 8-10
When you're a mediocre team, continuity can go one of two ways. It can be the needed gel and maturity that helps a team win a few more close games while they collectively improve their talent. Or it can be the excuse that makes you think a better season is on the horizon without making necessary improvements. Cuonzo Martin, a deft recruiter and underwhelming tactician, will have to show his in-game acumen with this group. Only one freshman is on the roster, and he's unlikely to play a big role this year.
Martin has shooters in theory, though the Tigers didn't knock down shots a year ago. Mark Martin is their leading sniper, while Xavier Pinson and Dru Smith can score from the backcourt. 6'10" senior Jeremiah Tillmon is one of the league's better posts, a solid but unspectacular producer. There's a lack of jolt or excitement around an otherwise-solid team. Pinson is fast as hell, Smith is great off screens, Tillmon can score down low -- there's a lot Martin can do with this team if he's tactically prepared. If 6'5" junior Javon Pickett can take the next step and be a piece, and Tillmon can stay on the floor, the Tigers could climb a little higher than many expect.
8. Texas A&M Aggies - 10-8 last season. Projection: 9-9
As a staunch Buzz Williams supporter, I will be optimistic that the Aggies piece together a solid season. They'll defend and be tough like typical Williams teams, but offense is tough to come by. This is a poor-shooting team that is hopeful their many freshmen are part of the rotation in some form. Savion Flagg (10.4 points) is the returning scoring leader, as he and fellow senior Quenton Jackson (a defensive standout) man the 2 and the 3. If sophomore Andre Gordon or freshman Hassan Diarra (I'm a big Diarra guy) perform adequately, the Aggies will at least have a consistent backcourt.
They'll need to manufacture easy buckets to offset the lack of a sniper from deep, though. Two freshmen can help in those areas: Jaxson Robinson and Cashius McNeilly. The gravy on top would be stealing minutes for shooting specialist Hayden Hefner, a freshman who few expect to make an impact. Sophomore forward Emanuel Miller takes care of the dirty business at the 4, while Quinnipiac grad transfer Kevin Marfo will clean the glass inside. The perimeter and wings are where all the offense comes from. If you like this incoming group as much as I do, you see a pathway for the Aggies to have enough scoring that their defense can carry them to wins.
7. Florida Gators - 11-7 last season. Projection: 10-8
When Mike White took the job in Gainesville, I expected the Gators to become an instant offensive juggernaut. The up-tempo styles from Louisiana Tech have dissipated, and now White's team is more of a half-court, slow-down group. They still have had success, though the electricity expected isn't quite there. Andrew Nembhard transferred, leaving a hole at the point that is really noticeable. A disappointingly mediocre record from last year will be difficult to improve upon without him.
The Gators still have talent. Sophomore Scottie Lewis, once thought of as a high-level NBA prospect, will need to make major strides to carry the offense. My expectations aren't high. Guards Tre Mann and Noah Locke are solid, and Cleveland State transfer Tyree Appleby should factor into the backcourt rotation. 6'5" undersized junior Keyontae Johnson (14.0 points, 7.1 rebounds) is the perfect 4-man for the Gators and plays his sack off. Their season hinges upon the impact Michigan transfer Colin Castleton can make. He and Omar Payne are the centers, and Payne isn't cut out for more than 12-16 minutes a night. Castleton will be imperative in their run to March, and with a rumored return to high-tempo basketball, this could be the type of Gators team we enjoy watching.
6. LSU Tigers - 12-6 last season. Projection: 10-8
Will Wade rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Shedding the sleazy recruiter label by actually keeping some of his best players in Baton Rouge, this will be Wade's deepest team yet. Point guard Ja'Vonte Smart (12.5 points, 4.2 assists) will run the show, with star freshman Cam Thomas expected to start with him. Those two make up a big backcourt, and Thomas' scoring prowess will be on display all year. The returns of Trendon Watford and Darius Days up front (combined 24.7 points and 14.0 rebounds) solidify the Tigers as having one of the SEC's best frontcourts.
Pairing Thomas with Smart and Watford gives LSU as good of a Big Three as this conference's top-tier can boast. If Shareef O'Neal can play solid backup minutes and Georgetown transfer Josh LeBlanc drills shots on the wings (both of whom become eligible for the second semester) the Tigers will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament. Before that point, they'll have to manufacture depth with the rest of their freshman class. Don't worry about the wins and losses as much as getting the team to the dance. If they make it there, the depth from those transfer additions should make the Tigers a tough out in March.
5. South Carolina Gamecocks - 10-8 last season. Projection: 10-8
With AJ Lawson (13.4 points) and Jermaine Couisnard (12.1 points) back to man the backcourt, Frank Martin has exactly the type of team he likes. Three upperclassmen start next to them, and North Carolina transfer point guard Seventh Woods should play a role as a facilitator and speedster off the bench. Martin can apply defensive pressure with that many good guards and trust his back-line will do their jobs thanks to the experience. A plethora of sophomores off the bench have enough seasoning not to piss away the important minutes when Lawson rests. Martin will look to live in transition to compensate for their lack of half-court scoring, and he has the dogs to do so.
That half-court offense could be their undoing against tight teams. Close games against great opponents are usually one in those settings. If Lawson takes another leap to become a bonafide option to create his own, the Gamecocks could spring into the top-four. Frank Martin teams always overachieve. Ten wins not being a step forward speaks to the rest of the league, not the Gamecocks. This is an NCAA Tournament team.
4. Auburn Tigers - 12-6 last season. Projection: 11-7
The Tigers lost a lot from last year. There's no hiding that. Outside of Kentucky, the best freshman in the conference is Sharife Cooper, a 6'0" point guard who can simply take over games. Cooper is a likely one-and-done, though he's different than the other star freshmen under Bruce Pearl. Their success hinges on his eligibility; if he's deemed ineligible, the Tigers will struggle to score enough to win games and will be a middle-lower team in the SEC. Also expected to start at the 5 is freshman J.T. Thor, an undersized 5 who has long arms and the ability to facilitate. The offensive talent of the two will change the dynamic of this Auburn team.
Pearl is a defensive-minded coach. Instead of recruiting to his strengths, he's amassed young, offensive talent and is banking on how he can coach the rest. I love this mentality and approach and think it will serve to limit the drop-off the Tigers experience from losing so many seniors and high-achievers. Devan Cambridge highlights the returners who can take a giant step forward, and sophomore Jaylin Williams will be counted on at the 4. There's enough talent here for the depth to be SEC-caliber, but the onus is on this top-4 working out. I'm a believer in Cooper and Cambridge in the backcourt, while Thor's unique ability gives schematic advantages over a post-heavy SEC. Don't sleep on Auburn this year (if Cooper is eligible).
3. Tennessee Volunteers - 9-9 last season. Projection: 12-6
Rick Barnes is the most overlooked winner out there. He doesn't lose, and with the reshaping of his offense since arriving at Rocky Top, the Volunteers are always a threat. 9-9 was disappointing a season ago, though they get Yves Pons back. Pons could be SEC Player of the Year. He does everything and is a freak athlete who guards so many spots. He and big man John Fulkerson (13.7 points, 5.9 rebounds) are the interior anchors and interchangeable pieces to the offense that allow Barnes' motion to bury opponents for easy looks.
The best freshmen they've had in a while are here. 6'4" scorer Jaden Springer is a great athlete and makes plays happen, while 6'5" Keon Johnson oozes talent. They'll be nice security blankets to sophomore facilitator Santiago Vescovi and do-it-all wing Josiah-Jordan James. Oregon transfer Victor Bailey Jr. gives them depth and shooting; with all this talent on the wings, it's really hard to imagine the offense won't solve itself this year. I'm not sure if I see this as a top-10 team again, but top 25 for sure. Pons and Fulkerson are really good down low. If the guards can get them the ball and play adequate defense, they have potential for a late-March run.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide - 8-10 last season. Projection: 12-6
Alabama is an interesting team that shouldn't be overlooked. They lose potential lottery pick Kira Lewis Jr., but get Villanova transfer Jahvon Quinerly, a once highly-regarded recruit who fits in Nate Oats' up-tempo, wide open style. Quinerly is a scorer at heart and has the shooting around him to keep the floor open. Sophomore Jaden Shackelford can fill it up in a hurry, John Petty is an elite shooter and Herb Jones is amongst my favorite guys in the SEC at the 4. Yale grad transfer Jordan Bruner (10.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists) is really talented and should make an impact right away at the 5. Top to bottom, that's as much talent as you'll find in a starting group.
Only 6'9" senior Alex Reese logged any minutes for them last year on the second unit. I'm really high on freshman point guard Josh Primo, he and Quinerly are a dynamic duo at the point. Two injuries cost last year's prized newcomers some burn. If James Rojas and Juwan Gary return to form, the Crimson can run nine deep with talent top-to-bottom. That's a big if. Quinerly has questions, Bruner may struggle in the SEC initially and the injured guys are unproven. 12-6 is a big step forward, and that only happens if the cards align. But man, do I love this group.
1. Kentucky Wildcats - 15-3 last season. Projection: 15-3
A step ahead of the pack are the Kentucky Wildcats, and John Calipari has the most NBA-resembling squad since Karl-Anthony Towns was in Lexington. Done are the days of figuring out how to navigate too many point guards and non-shooters. Having only one or two returners is par for the course for Coach Cal. Keion Brooks is a wildly streaky and super-talented offensive piece. Brooks is the perfect switchy, athletic, scoring-minded wing to go alongside their two prized recruits, BJ Boston and Terrence Clarke. Boston, a potential top-three pick next year, is the most like a point guard who thrives with the ball in his hands. Clarke is the better slasher and all-around athlete. If Cal decides to switch matchups with those 3, the Wildcats will be really tough on defense once again. They just need to manufacture points on a Kentucky team without a shooting specialist, something Cal has become accustomed to for the last decade.
The interesting battle is for starting center, where Wake Forest grad transfer Olivier Sarr (13.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.2 blocks) combines experience, offensive acumen and up-tempo play to perfectly fit with this squad. Calipari doesn't often hit the transfer market, but with several unexpected departures, he nailed the attempts this year. 6'9" athletic freak Isaiah Jackson will push for minutes in a Willie Cauley-Stein kind of role, and we know Calipari knows how to use them. Yes, Kentucky is finally without much leadership or returning guidance after seeing key holdovers return the last few years. The design of this group is seamless; they play and look like an NBA team. The experience of Sarr and the need of value from young freshman DJ Askew will be important factors, but there's plenty of talent here.