SEC basketball: Kentucky, Arkansas lead a rising league

By John Fanta
FOX Sports activities Faculty Basketball Author

Whereas followers are at present centered on soccer in Tuscaloosa, Auburn, Knoxville, Fayetteville and elsewhere, it is a good time to set the desk for what may be an enormous yr of basketball within the Southeastern Convention. As for Lexington, we’ll let Mark Stoops and John Calipari maintain sorting that out.

The SEC has made main strides since sending simply three groups to the NCAA Event in 2016, however there may be extra work to be accomplished, and a displaying in March is critical. This previous season, after six groups punched a ticket to the large dance, solely Arkansas made it to the second weekend of the event. The excellent news? The Razorbacks supplied a significant assertion win for the convention by upsetting Gonzaga, and at the least one SEC group has reached the Elite Eight in 4 of the final 5 tournaments. 

That pattern ought to proceed within the 2022-23 marketing campaign, but it surely shouldn’t be the one objective. The league ought to have a few groups that possess a sensible path to reaching the Remaining 4 in Houston subsequent April. On the identical time, there’s additionally the wrinkle of excessive teaching turnover within the SEC. Six hires had been made within the spring:

— Todd Golden, Florida

— Mike White, Georgia 

— Matt McMahon, LSU

— Chris Jans, Mississippi State

— Dennis Gates, Missouri

— Lamont Paris, South Carolina

That’s quite a lot of motion, and people packages can be making an attempt to take a step ahead within the upcoming season.

Of probably the most intriguing storylines within the SEC? The perfect participant within the nation headlines main returning expertise, maybe probably the most fascinating roster in faculty hoops and a bevy of highly-touted freshmen. 

Right here’s a whip-around of what to observe from the convention’s prime groups in 2022-23.

Oscar Tshiebwe is again, and Kentucky eyes an enormous March 

For the primary time since Tyler Hansbrough in 2008, the reigning Nationwide Participant of the Yr is returning to highschool. After averaging 17.4 factors and a national-best 15.1 rebounds per sport, Tshiebwe’s return to Kentucky is nice for each the Wildcats and the game. Between his big-time talent set, pleasant persona that has resonated with Huge Blue Nation, and the power to profit off his NIL, it’s a house run.

On the court docket, Kentucky’s 2022-23 season can be about avenging the loss to Fifteenth-seeded Saint Peter’s this previous March, simply the second time the Wildcats didn’t get out of the primary spherical of the NCAA Event since 1987. Whereas Calipari has had an enormous summer time on the recruiting path and the longer term is powerful, this stays an important season for Kentucky, which has not gained an NCAA Event sport since 2019.

Past Tshiebwe, the Wildcats welcome again level guard Sahvir Wheeler, who was third within the nation and led all power-conference gamers final season with 6.9 assists per sport. The senior can be counted on to be the engine of Kentucky’s offense, initiating and making performs for others.

These two gamers present the very best certainties for the Wildcats. What may find yourself figuring out Kentucky’s ceiling is the manufacturing stage of a pair of five-star freshmen within the backcourt, Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston. Headlining the nation’s sixth-ranked recruiting class based on 247 Sports activities, the duo stood out from the perimeter on UK’s international tour within the Bahamas, combining to shoot 12-for-25 from 3-point vary and scoring 20.3 PPG throughout 4 contests. 

Based mostly on stories, it doesn’t appear to be the sturdy perimeter play of Wallace and Livingston is sudden. If these star prospects can mesh off of Wheeler, that might show to be a deadly mixture for Kentucky, particularly with Tshiebwe proudly owning the paint.

One other issue for the Wildcats is the offseason development of senior Jacob Toppin. The 6-foot-9 ahead and youthful brother of Obi has continued to construct up his physique as he tries to climb up the NBA draft boards. On the group’s Bahamas tour, Toppin averaged 16.8 factors, 5.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and a pair of.0 blocks, all whereas taking pictures a formidable 57% from the sector.

The supporting forged consists of Illinois State switch Antonio Reeves, who showcased his sturdy perimeter contact whereas profitable the group’s MVP award within the Bahamas. He could possibly be one other key weapon past the arc. The prime breakout candidate for Kentucky? That is 6-foot-9 sophomore ahead Daimion Collins, whose potential to play above the rim is flat-out particular. 

One other fascinating piece to Kentucky’s puzzle can be redshirt senior CJ Fredrick. The Iowa switch missed all of final season after present process surgical procedure on his left hamstring. Named All-Huge Ten Honorable Point out within the 2020-21 season, Fredrick shot 47% from 3-point vary as a sophomore and was introduced in to ship that spark from downtown in Lexington. The Wildcats are easing him again into issues, and what precisely he provides this season is unsure.

Kentucky has the items to contend for a nationwide title, and it’s clear that Calipari and workers have tried to arrange choices to play off Wheeler and create other ways of scoring. The Wildcats ought to be the convention front-runners.

Arkansas has probably the most fascinating roster in faculty basketball

Eric Musselman is as sturdy of a program builder as there may be in America. On the heels of back-to-back Elite Eight runs, the Razorbacks possess the second-ranked recruiting class within the nation based on 247 Sports activities. Simply take into consideration this for a second: Arkansas had not even reached the Candy 16 since 1996, and now the “Muss Bus” has been a win shy of the Remaining 4 in two consecutive seasons. It’s been fairly a renaissance for this system, and whereas the Razorbacks have quite a lot of youth, something is feasible with this group.

What makes the Arkansas roster so fascinating? This system welcomes six freshmen and 5 transfers! That’s an enormous overhaul, however there’s no denying the star-studded expertise coming in.

How does all of it mesh collectively? That’s the large query for Musselman and firm to reply. Whereas Jaylin Williams, Au’Diese Toney and JD Notae have all departed, there’s a wealthy quantity of reinforcements which have entered this system. 

Three freshmen — Nick Smith (No. 3 recruit per 247 Sports activities), Anthony Black (No. 18) and Jordan Walsh (No. 19) — may find yourself beginning for the Razorbacks.

When it comes to returning expertise, 6-foot-4 junior guard Davonte Davis ought to tackle an elevated function and manufacturing for the Razorbacks. When he was the primary man off the Arkansas bench final season, the group went 14-3.

It will likely be fascinating to see how minutes are managed between the incoming transfers. There ought to be a contest within the frontcourt between Jalen Graham (Arizona State), Trevon Brazile (Missouri) and twin brothers Makhi and Makhel Mitchell, who each transferred from Rhode Island. Brazile often is the chief within the clubhouse after he shined on the group’s journey to Spain and Italy, going for 28 factors on 13-for-15 from the sector in a single sport. 

The opposite key switch is 2022 AAC Sixth Man of the Yr Ricky Council IV, a 6-foot-6 wing who averaged 12.0 factors and 5.4 rebounds per sport final season. There’s loads of depth and choices for Musselman to work with. 

How minutes are distributed, and simply how a lot Smith does together with an incredible freshman class, can be must-see faculty basketball.

Rick Barnes has good core, top-20 recruiting class at Tennessee

Whereas Kennedy Chandler is off to the NBA, the consensus is the Volunteers ought to be ranked within the prime 15 when the preseason polls are launched. Protection shouldn’t be a query for Tennessee. The Vols have completed third and fifth, respectively, in KenPom adjusted defensive effectivity within the final two seasons.

Scoring effectively is extra of a query, however there’s a top quality returning core and a robust incoming class in Knoxville.

All-SEC first-team choice Santiago Vescovi is again for his senior season after averaging 13.3 factors and three.2 assists per sport final yr. Having shot over 40% from past the arc within the 2021-22 marketing campaign, there’s no query that the 6-foot-3 guard from Uruguay is among the finest within the SEC. Elsewhere within the backcourt, Zakai Zeigler is poised for a breakout yr after coming off the bench as a freshman.

The massive addition to this system is 6-foot-8, five-star small ahead Julian Phillips, who’s the Thirteenth-ranked recruit within the nation based on 247 Sports activities. Together with his size and wingspan, Phillips has scouts very intrigued at his potential, and he ought to match proper into Barnes’ system. His potential to complete on the rim stood out in highschool, and he ought to reach transition alternatives. The important thing space for Phillips to develop? His perimeter sport. He ought to step proper in and begin for Tennessee.

Within the frontcourt, the Volunteers have their prime two inside scorers again in seniors Josiah Jordan-James and Olivier Nkamhoua. Whereas the stable presence of John Fulkerson is gone, Tennessee ought to be A-OK within the paint with 7-footer Uros Plavsic additionally obtainable off the bench. 

Talking of the reserves, it is going to be fascinating to see what Barnes will get from his guys outdoors the beginning 5. A pair of four-star freshmen, BJ Edwards and DJ Jefferson, may get some alternatives to contribute. It’s at all times difficult to gauge what a few recruits outdoors the top-100 rankings will do, but when Barnes and his workers can develop a stable reserve core, Tennessee may make a deep March run. That’s one thing this system is on the hunt for, having made the second weekend of the large dance simply as soon as throughout Barnes’ seven years in Knoxville (2019). 

Jabari Smith is gone, however Auburn ought to be close to the highest

Whereas dropping within the second spherical of the NCAA Event was disappointing for Auburn, the Tigers nonetheless gained an SEC regular-season championship and compiled a 28-6 report.

When it comes to returning expertise, Auburn has loads of that within the backcourt with Wendell Inexperienced, Ok.D. Johnson and Allen Flanigan. The important thing for Bruce Pearl’s guards can be their effectivity. Final season, turnovers had been a significant downside for Inexperienced and Johnson, because the duo mixed for 138 giveaways. One other yr of expertise mixed with an offseason that’s featured a international tour to Israel ought to solely assist deliver that determine down, however the turnover depend could possibly be the only largest measurable that determines Auburn’s success.

Within the frontcourt, no person’s going to offer Auburn precisely what No. 3 total draft decide Smith delivered final season, but it surely’s fairly clear that Pearl and his workers had an excellent sport plan for all times after the one-and-done celebrity. Auburn is loaded with depth and flexibility within the frontcourt. 

The Tigers usher within the nation’s Fifteenth-ranked recruiting class, per 247 Sports activities, headlined by five-star prospect Yohan Traore. The 6-foot-10 massive man from Glendale, Arizona was a star on the Tigers’ latest tour of Israel, main the group in scoring within the first two video games. Morehead State switch Johni Broome will be a part of Traore in what is going to seemingly be the beginning frontcourt. Broome averaged 16.8 factors and 10.8 rebounds per sport in his second season of faculty basketball and appears greater than able to make the bounce to high-major competitors. 

When it comes to reserves, the Tigers have a duo that registered a mixed 47 video games of expertise final season in shot blocker Dylan Cardwell, in addition to Jaylin Williams. 

It will likely be fascinating to see what a completely wholesome Flanigan can usher in his senior season. The 6-foot-6 versatile wing missed the primary a part of the season as a result of an Achilles harm and handled the consequences of that at occasions within the 22 video games he did play. We’ll see if a traditional offseason and lead-up to the marketing campaign will assist him turn into a extra harmful weapon.

There’s a brand new wave of expertise for the Crimson Tide

Three of Alabama’s prime 4 scorers are gone, and level guard Jahvon Quinerly’s return timeline is up within the air after he suffered a torn ACL within the NCAA Event this previous March. That mentioned, the Crimson Tide may nonetheless be a top-25 group within the upcoming season. Why? As a result of Nate Oats welcomes within the nation’s fifth-best recruiting class based on 247 Sports activities.

The headliner prospect within the group is 6-foot-8 ahead Brandon Miller, a five-star recruit from Tennessee who has made an amazing first impression in Tuscaloosa. On the Tide’s international tour in Spain and France, Miller led the group with 22.7 PPG. He may very nicely be within the combine in a loaded race for SEC Freshman of the Yr.

For all of the losses within the backcourt, Alabama did reel in Ohio switch Mark Sears, who’s returning to his house state for his junior yr. The 6-foot-1 guard led the Bobcats with 19.6 factors, 6.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists final season. He’ll provide a wanted veteran presence. 5-star freshman Jaden Bradley also needs to be a key a part of the backcourt, whereas four-star guard Rylen Griffen additionally enters this system. 

One other switch who may begin is fifth-year senior Dominick Welch of St. Bonaventure, who posted 12.3 factors and 6.0 boards per sport final season. Down low, seven-footer Charles Bediako will improve his function on the middle place. He was named to the SEC All-Freshman Crew final season, main Alabama with 51 blocks and 43 dunks. 

The Tide could have a really completely different look and a few inquiries to reply, however Oats has confirmed his potential to place collectively a profitable group. Anticipate Alabama basketball to be a event group and one that might make some noise if Miller delivers on the excessive expectations. 

Texas A&M appears to be like to construct on momentum

Buzz Williams and the Aggies want to be remembered subsequent March for a distinct cause than this previous March. Even after compiling 12 wins over SEC opponents and reaching the convention championship sport, Texas A&M was neglected of the NCAA Event discipline. That led to a nine-minute rant from Williams following the Aggies’ first-round win within the Nationwide Invitational Event.

The Aggies made their level, profitable 4 video games to advance to the NIT Championship Recreation earlier than falling to Xavier.

Now, the Aggies have three of their prime 4 scorers again within the fold. Whereas Quenton Jackson (professional) and Hassan Diarra (UConn) are gone, Williams retooled his roster primarily by including transfers. Fifth-year senior Dexter Dennis (Wichita State) ought to present a veteran increase to the backcourt, whereas Arkansas switch KK Robinson and Mississippi State switch Jalen Johnson may present depth.

Within the frontcourt, 6-foot-8 junior Henry Coleman ought to proceed to extend his manufacturing stage after averaging 11.0 factors and 6.2 boards. Transferring from Duke after his freshman season, Coleman had some massive performances in his first season beneath Williams, going for 16 and 10 in an upset win over Auburn within the SEC Event. Elsewhere within the paint, Julius Marble transferred in after averaging 6.4 factors and three.3 boards as a junior at Michigan State.

A giant title to observe on this roster is Tyrece Radford. Transferring in final yr from Virginia Tech, the 6-foot-2 guard confirmed his scoring prowess and potential, ending third on the group with 10.9 PPG and tying for the group lead with 6.2 RPG. That’s fairly a formidable rebounding common for somebody of his stature, but additionally a mirrored image of Williams’ fashion of play. The veteran coach might very nicely go four-out, one-in this season based mostly on the best way the Aggies are constructed.

Texas A&M has not made the NCAA Event since Andy Kennedy was patrolling the sidelines in 2018. As Williams begins Yr 4 on the helm, it’s a vital season for him and this system. The Aggies have the items to make it to the large dance. They should again it up and get there.

John Fanta is a nationwide faculty basketball broadcaster and author for FOX Sports activities. He covers the game in a wide range of capacities, from calling video games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Community to offering commentary on The Area of 68 Media Community. Comply with him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

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