The 2014-15 NCAA men’s basketball season officially tips off on Friday night with numerous top teams in action. Following one of the more exciting NCAA tournaments in recent memory, teams around the country nowlook to capitalize on their nonconference schedules and head into January still in contention for this year’s edition of March Madness. The SEC landed three teams in the Sweet Sixteen last season, as well as two in the Final Four. What does this season have in store for the conference? Before we find out, here is my preseason Top 25.
NCAA men’s basketball preseason Power Rankings:
7 Wichita State
10 North Carolina
15 Ohio State
16 Iowa State
19 Kansas State
23 San Diego State
24 Michigan State
Stay tuned throughout the season as VandyRadio will release our official Bracketology immediately before the start of the SEC slate as well as after the SEC tournament. Of course, tune in to The Homefield Advantage from 5-6 central time every Monday, as Max Herz and I will be talking Vandy basketball each week. Speaking of the SEC, I’ve ranked each team in my predicted order of regular season finish.
Key losses: Forwards Julius Randle and James Young
Key returners: Guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison; Forward Alex Poythress; Centers Willy Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson
Key additions: G Tyler Ullis; Forwards Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles
Kentucky returns the starting backcourt from their 2014 National Runner-Up squad, and also returns loads of experience at center. Much like last year, UK should be one of the nation’s elite rebounding teams, and Willy Cauley-Stein provides an intimidating presence for opposing offenses to deal with at the rim. Freshman F/C Karl-Anthony Towns should be a high lottery pick in 2015 and can complement Cauley-Stein with his advanced perimeter skillset. College basketball is typically a guard-dominated game, however, and further improvement from the Harrison twins will be crucial to the Wildcats’ success. Aaron Harrison’s increased efficiency during the NCAA tournament was highlighted by his game-saving threes against Michigan and Wisconsin. His twin, Andrew, will need to improve on a ghastly 35.7% from the field if Kentucky hopes to win the NCAA tournament. I have never been particularly impressed by the Harrisons, but even without much improvement from them the Wildcats can still be a top 5 team. I will stick them behind Arizona for now, at #2 in the country.
Key losses: Guard Scottie Wilbekin; Forwards Casey Prather and Will Yeguete; Center Patric Young
Key returners: Guards Michael Frazier II, Eli Carter and Kasey Hill; Forwards Dorian Finney-Smith and Chris Walker
Key additions: F/C Jon Horford; F Devin Robinson
Florida loses four starters from their 2014 Final Four team, all of whom were seniors. The Gators should be excellent defensively once again, but for Billy Donovan’s squad to make a deep NCAA tournament run a number of players will have to step up offensively. Junior guard Michael Frazier is arguably the SEC’s best shooter, but rising sophomores Kasey Hill and Chris Walker will have to increase their scoring output to complement Frazier. Dorian Finney-Smith was extremely inefficient in his first year at Florida after transferring from Virginia Tech, and will probably need to boost his 3-point percentage by at least six points (29% last year) if the Gators hope to have decent spacing on offense. Transfer F/C Jon Horford, the brother of Gator great Al, will add leadership and stability at the 5 for Florida after receiving inconsistent playing time on some deep Michigan teams. Florida should still be the second best team in the conference by a fair amount even if they struggle offensively, but this team will contend for second consecutive Final Four appearance if everything pans out.
Key losses: F Coty Clarke
Key returners: F/C Bobby Portis; Guards Rashad Madden and Michael Qualls
Key additions: F Trey Thompson
It’s impossible to list all of Arkansas’s key returners, because the Razorbacks return almost everyone from a 2014 team that probably would have made the NCAA tournament if not for a late-season collapse. Bobby Portis has been mentioned as a potential first round pick, and at 6’11”, his well-rounded offensive game is impressive for a player with his size. If sophomore C Moses Kingsley can stay efficient with increased playing time, Portis could potentially slide over to the 4, thereby eliminating a position of weakness for Arkansas and providing a lineup with NBA size that will be difficult for opponents to deal with. If the Razorbacks get consistent point guard play and improve their defense (214th in Division I in points allowed per game last season), this team could potentially pass up Florida and contend for a 4 or 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. At the very least, Arkansas is a pretty safe bet to finish third in the conference and to receive somewhere between a 7 and 10 seed from the tournament committee.
Key losses: Forwards Brandon Morris and Donte’ Williams
Key returners: Guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines; Forwards Nemanja Djurisic and Marcus Thornton
Key additions: None
Unfortunately for the SEC, UGA’s 2013-14 season showed just how weak the league has become outside of the top two or three programs. The Bulldogs finished their nonconference slate at 6-6, with multiple bad losses near the beginning of the season. Georgia then surprised just about everyone by finishing 12-6 in the SEC and winning 20 games overall. Guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines were ultimately able to step in adequately for lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the experienced Georgia rotation will look similar this year. UGA looks like a potential bubble team as of now, and picking up a win or two at the NIT Season Tip-Off could help put this team over the top. Georgia will have to capitalize on its three opportunities against Kentucky and Florida, but a NCAA tournament berth is within reach if they can reach 21 or 22 wins. Ultimately, I suspect a strong nonconference schedule will put UGA over the top and place the Bulldogs on the right side of the bubble, and potentially in the First Four.
Key losses: Forwards Johnny O’Bryant III and Shavon Coleman; Guards Andre Stringer and Anthony Hickey
Key returners: Forwards Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey
Key additions: Guards Keith Hornsby and Josh Gray
Projections for LSU have been quite optimistic, based largely off of the potential of sophomore big men Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey. Martin and Mickey both had productive freshmen seasons and both have the size, athleticism and skill to develop into dominant SEC big men. Whether the Tigers have enough talent around these two is the question. Transfer guards Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby have little experience at LSU and have little depth behind them. If freshman Jalyn Patterson can provide quality minutes backing up Hornsby at the point, it will make everything easier for Johnny Jones. LSU will also need someone to step up at the small forward position, as they appear to have a big hole in their lineup at the 3 right now. With the talent LSU has, this team should finish in the top half of the league, but a lack of backcourt depth leaves significant downside for this team as well. An NCAA tournament berth is not out of the question, but Martin and Mickey will have to dominate to make it happen.
6 Ole Miss
Key losses: Guards Marshall Henderson and Derrick Millinghaus
Key returners: Guards Jarvis Summers and LaDarius White; F/C Aaron Jones
Key additions: Guards Terence Smith and Stefan Moody
With the loss of the mercurial Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss returns only one proven three point shooter in Jarvis Summers. However, the Rebels do rid themselves of Henderson’s poor shooting efficiency and high shot volume, while transfer guard Terence Smith is known as a strong outside shooter who can help space the floor. If the Rebels’ frontcourt trio of Aaron Jones, Sebastian Saiz and Anthony Perez continues to improve, Ole Miss could sneak into the NCAA tournament if the team shows more consistency in SEC play. The Rebels’ nonconference schedule is unimpressive, so Andy Kennedy’s squad must steal a win against Kentucky or Florida and must avoid any bad losses to any of the conference’s bottom four or five teams. Despite the brilliance of Jarvis Summers, I think that Ole Miss will come up short and finish with a record similar to Arkansas’s last season.
7 Texas A&M
Key losses: F Jamal Jones; Guards Fabyon Harris and Shawn Smith
Key returners: Guards Alex Caruso and Jordan Green; F Davonte Fitzgerald
Key additions: F Jalen Jones; G Alex Robinson
Texas A&M has been making waves recently with their recruiting, but unfortunately for coach Billy Kennedy he will not have the services of these top recruits available for this season. The Aggies, however, return five players from their eight-man rotation last season and add a top transfer in former SMU Mustang Jalen Jones, whom will be eligible immediately. Right off the bat, Jones becomes easily the best scoring threat the Aggies have, as the team’s anemic offense (308th in Division I in ppg last season) prevented them from making significant noise in the SEC last season. Losing last year’s leading scorer Jamal Jones does hurt, but Jones was very inefficient inside the arc and his production (13.6 ppg) should be replaced rather easily replaced by improvements from the rest of a relatively young roster. Freshman point guard Alex Robinson should give the Aggies another ball handler who can run a team, and even average offensive output could make Texas A&M a solid team considering how strong their defense is. For now, however, A&M remains on the far periphery of NCAA tournament talk.
Key losses: Guards Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson, and Earnest Ross
Key returners: F Johnathan Williams III; G Wes Clark
Key additions: G Deuce Bello; Forwards Montaque Gill-Caesar and Jakeenan Gant
The SEC appears to be split into 3 tiers, and Missouri constitutes the beginning of the bottom tier. It’s hard to know what to expect from this team, as the Tigers have a new coach in Kim Anderson and also lost about two-thirds of their scoring from last season. Williams and Clark are promising young players who may take a step forward, while multiple talented freshman will have to play significant roles. Deuce Bello did not do much at Baylor, but was stuck behind some extremely talented players on some very good Baylor teams. Bello may be the favorite to start at shooting guard, and could be one of the big surprises in the conference this season. A .500 record in SEC play would be an overachievement in my eyes, but this ranking has more to do with the lack of quality of the teams ranked below Mizzou than the quality of Mizzou itself.
Key losses: F Rod Odom; Guards Kyle Fuller and Dai-Jon Parker
Key Returners: C Damian Jones; F James Siakam
Key additions: Guards Shelton Mitchell and Matthew Fisher-Davis
Vanderbilt loses three of its top four scorers from last season, but for those who watched closely, this is not as big a deal as it seems. This may be a case of addition by subtraction, as Rod Odom little besides shooting and Kyle “Zoom” Fuller dominated the ball for long stretches of time. Coach Kevin Stallings will rely on a strong recruiting class to contribute early, as three freshmen will likely start for the Commodores, with all five incoming recruits playing significant minutes. The development and the utilization of big man Damian Jones will be the key to success this season. How much Jones has improved will determine how much space his teammates will have on the perimeter, and how often Jones’s teammates can get him the ball will determine how efficient this team will be offensively. Regardless of how this season goes for Vandy, the influx of talented youth from the classes of 2013-15 should set this program up to return to prominence barring more of the unforeseen departures that have plagued the Commodores over the last few years. With so many question marks, Vandy could realistically finish anywhere from 6th to 13th in a league that is wide open apart from the top two or three spots.
10 South Carolina
Key losses: G Brenton Williams
Key returners: Guards Sindarius Thornwell, Tyrone Johnson, and Duane Notice
Key additions: None
After starting conference play 1-9, South Carolina quietly finished 4-4 in their last eight regular season SEC games before winning two games in the conference tournament. Well-regarded head coach Frank Martin will begin his third season in Columbia with plenty of experience in the backcourt, but greater offensive efficiency is necessary for South Carolina to take any steps toward respectability in the SEC. Thornwell, Johnson, and Notice bring plenty of playmaking to Martin’s team, but all three shot under 40% last season. If South Carolina cannot improve on last season’s average defensive efficiency (170th in NCAA) and their horrid defensive rebounding (319th in NCAA), this team could struggle to keep up with the more potent SEC offenses. Aside from their frontcourt pairing of Lithuanians Mindaugas Kacinas and Laimonas Chatkevicius, the Gamecocks have little quality size and certainly do not have depth. As such, South Carolina should struggle once again in conference, but solid guard play should keep this team out of the cellar.
Key losses: G Chris Denson; F Allen Payne; C Asauhn Dixon-Tatum
Key returners: Guards KT Harrell and Tahj Shamsid-Deen
Key additions: G Antoine Mason; F Cinmeon Bowers; C Trayvon Reed
After losing leading scorer Chris Denson, one of the few efficient stars from the bottom-tier of SEC last season, Auburn would likely have faced grim prospects for Bruce Pearl’s first year. The addition of the Niagara transfer Antoine Mason, however, gives the Tigers a potential second star as the nation’s leading returning scorer looks to help keep Auburn out of the SEC danger zone. Top juco prospect Cinmeon Bowers will have little to no help up front for the Tigers, as 7’1” 2014 recruit Trayvon Reed is unlikely to play this season as an indirect result of some legal issues. Auburn’s main problem will be a lack of quality depth, and that is a killer in a conference such as the SEC. Good times are ahead with the recruits that Pearl will bring in, but Auburn is too thin in the frontcourt to pose a threat in the SEC this year.
Key losses: G Trevor Releford; F Nick Jacobs
Key returners: Guards Levi Randolph, Retin Obasohan, and Rodney Cooper
Key additions: Guards Ricky Tarrant and Justin Coleman
The 2013-14 season was a disappointing one for Alabama, as a sixth place preseason projection turned into a nightmare 7-11 conference mark. Worst of all for the Tide, star guard Trevor Releford has graduated, leaving coach Anthony Grant on the hot seat and no apparent centerpiece to build his team around. Junior guard Retin Obasohan may provide Grant with the best chance of finding a strong building block, but the Belgian showed little improvement offensively last season despite taking four more shots per game than he had in 2012-13. Highly regarded freshman guard Justin Coleman may need to step up for Alabama and provide Tide fans with some hope, or else Grant may be on his way out after what is likely to be another losing season for Alabama.
13 Mississippi State
Key losses: None
Key returners: G Craig Sword, Forwards Gavin Ware and Roquez Johnson
Key additions: None
The good news for Mississippi State is that the Bulldogs return almost everyone from last year’s squad. The bad news is that last year’s squad was the laughing stock of the SEC, losing 13 straight conference games leading up to the conference tournament. During that string of games, quality SEC opponents generally had their way with the Mississippi State defense, but the offense might have been even worse with six games of less than 60 points. Projecting some growth on the part of juniors Sword, Ware, and Fred Thomas suggests that State should at least be able to outperform last season’s showing, but that isn’t saying much. It is at this end of the standings that the SEC needs to make inroads if the conference wishes to get anywhere near what the ACC, Big Ten, and Big 12 have. The bottom half of the SEC could be, quite frankly, absolutely awful barring unforeseen overachievement from the likes of Vandy, Bama, or South Carolina.
Key losses: Everyone but Josh Richardson
Key returners: Josh Richardson and maybe Robert Hubbs III
Key additions: Guards Ian Chiles, Detrick Mostella, and Kevin Punter
It will not be so great to be a Tennessee Vol this coming season. After a great run in the 2014 NCAA tournament, head coach Cuonzo Martin bolted for Cal in a move that was widely seen as a result of the rocky relationship between Martin and Volunteer fans. Tennessee was already going to lose a lot of talent as Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes moved on, but controversy surrounding possible NCAA violations by new head coach Donnie Tyndall while he was at Southern Miss has now put this program in an even more precarious position. The bottom line is that Tyndall has little talent to work with, both now and in the near future. It would help if top recruit Detrick Mostella proves his worth immediately, but the Vols have absolutely nothing to work with up front, as they have no quality size. This Tennessee basketball program is in big trouble moving forward.