It's a bit of a departure from the usual review of the last couple of weeks. With the regular season over, how did I do?
Some of my picks looked genius; others looked, well, not so much. The usual weekly rankings are here, but I'm also noting where I picked the team in the preseason.
1. Kentucky (31-0, 18-0)
The obvious answer to the question of what could trip up the Wildcats is chemistry. While the platoon system is a novel idea, here's to guessing that most of the McDonald's All-Americans and NBA prospects on the roster did not sign up to play 20 minutes a night. Calipari, of all coaches, is probably best equipped to handle the problem of too much talent, but you simply never know when a player or two is going to decide that his draft status is more important than the team.
And, let's just say that didn't happen. In the preseason, I thought Kentucky was a clear-cut pick to win the SEC, and the Wildcats would be a bona fide national title contender. If anything, I actually underestimated Kentucky. It became clear in November and December that winning the SEC championship was a given, and by now it's probably better than a 50-50 proposition that Kentucky is cutting down the nets on April 6.
2. Arkansas (24-7, 13-5)
There's really no question that this is going to be the best team Mike Anderson has had since he's been in Fayetteville. At least on paper, there's too much talent here for Arkansas to struggle, and unlike in years past Anderson isn't dealing with talented players who nonetheless are poor fits for his system.
I was basically right about Arkansas; picking them third, rather than second, was more a result of me whiffing badly on Florida (more on that in a minute.) Bobby Portis improved from his freshman year to his sophomore year, and the result is a team that's going to make the NCAA Tournament and quite possibly make a deep run once they get there. The bigger question is where Arkansas goes from here with as many as four starters (if both Portis and Michael Qualls go to the NBA) leaving after the season.
3. LSU (22-9, 11-7)
And while several of the previous teams have similar possibilities, in Martin's case the potential is great enough and the possibility of him hitting it good enough that it's a pretty reasonable expectation. The questions on this team -- guard play and depth -- aren't as big as some of the teams projected lower; the guards are both new but have Division 1 experience and plenty of talent, while even if depth continues to be an issue there are no real holes in the starting five.
I thought in the preseason that this team could be very good, and at times, it has been. What separates LSU from Arkansas is not their talent level, but their consistency. LSU is scary good on some nights, and on others they're capable of losing to Auburn or Mississippi State or Missouri. The only thing I can really say I was mistaken about was Elbert Robinson, who I projected to join Martin and Mickey for a lethal frontcourt combination -- and instead, he hasn't played at all in SEC play.
4. Georgia (20-10, 11-7)
For one, Georgia last year wasn't that good: better than expected, to be sure, but nobody seriously believed they were the second- or third-best team in the SEC. For another, maybe I'm putting too much stock in how Georgia's players were rated as recruits, but last year's Georgia team looked like a team that was pretty close to maxing out its potential. You didn't watch Georgia last season and think, wow, these guys are just scratching the surface of their potential. You watched Georgia last season and thought, wow, how are we losing to this team?
Well, Georgia did get better from 2014 to 2015. They still strike you as overachievers, but this season Georgia took the next step and morphed into a legitimately good team. What I missed here is that while Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann didn't make big improvements, J.J. Frazier certainly did, and freshman Yante Maten -- who was an unheralded recruit -- turned out to be a nice rebounder and shot blocker to take some of the pressure off Marcus Thornton up front.
5. Ole Miss (20-11, 11-7)
For Ole Miss, the sheer volume of transfers and young, projectable bigs is the reason for optimism. The teams below either are hoping for freshmen to come in and play well, don't have a lot of proven talent and/or are hoping for one or two guys to step up their games. Kennedy has a solid scoring point at his disposal in Summers and a solid defensive stopper in Jones, and also has two jucos and two graduate transfers as well as two young bigs (Saiz and Perez) with potential. Basically, Kennedy is that guy buying ten scratch-and-win lottery tickets at the corner store because when you buy that many, one or two of them have to be a winner, right?
I'd say Kennedy found a winner in Stefan Moody. In the preseason, I was correct in my notion that Jarvis Summers could not carry an offense by himself -- but incorrect in that I assumed Ole Miss did not have an adequate replacement for Marshall Henderson. The result of Moody joining the team and improved inside play (not only from Sebastian Saiz and Dwight Coleby, but also from grad transfer M.J. Rhett) was a team that was better than I expected. It just goes to show the difficulty in projecting teams that are relying on a bunch of newcomers. Sometimes, like here, the newcomers take. Other times, they don't.
6. Texas A&M (20-10, 11-7)
The talent is here for Kennedy to put together a pretty good team. But like much of the middle of the pack in the SEC, there's plenty of reason for skepticism as well. In his career, Kennedy has almost never been able to put together a truly good offensive team; the Elston Turner-led 2013 team was decent offensively in spite of Turner being a good scorer, and other than that he had a 2010 Murray State team that had Isaiah Canaan on it. Basically, Kennedy can't seem to coach an offense unless he happens to have a player who's so good that even Kennedy can't screw it up.
In fairness to myself, ranking A&M ninth in the preseason was predicated on the assumption that Danuel House would be sitting out. It wasn't until a couple of games into the season that House was ruled eligible to play for the Aggies this year, and that by itself could explain a jump from ninth to sixth. And therein lies another problem with projecting teams that have a lot of newcomers: sometimes, before the season starts, you don't even know whether transfers will play, much less what their impact on the team will be.
7. Vanderbilt (19-12, 9-9)
While some around here may disagree, I actually think 11th is a pessimistic projection for Vanderbilt. Barring a repeat of 2013-14, having Damian Jones and James Siakam, by itself, should be plenty to keep the Commodores out of the cellar (also: Tennessee is going to be rebuilding, and Mississippi State still exists), and while there's obviously almost no experience in the backcourt, the freshmen are talented enough that Vandy should be able to get some pretty decent guard play. And if they don't... well, they could always just pound the rock inside to Jones over and over again.
If projecting teams with a bunch of transfers is hard, projecting teams that are relying on a bunch of freshmen is even harder. As it turns out, 11th was pessimistic, even if it looked about right through the first half of SEC play. Instead, the freshmen grew up before our eyes, and barring another summerpocalypse like we had in 2013 Vandy should only get better from here.
8. Florida (15-16, 8-10)
Yes, the senior foursome from last year were talented, but the players replacing them are just as talented, if not moreso. The recruiting rankings are nice, but remember that Donovan can win even with a player like Wilbekin who wasn't all that highly regarded coming out of high school. Much like the past couple of years, guys who played supporting roles like Frazier and Finney-Smith, or reserve roles like Kasey Hill and Chris Walker, will simply step up their game to account for all the departed production.
Oops. It turned out that Hill and Walker really didn't step up their game this year. Neither, for that matter, did Frazier and Finney-Smith, who were basically the same players that they were in 2013-14. Freshmen Devin Robinson and Chris Chiozza are talented, but at least this season they were too inconsistent to make much of a difference. This was one of my biggest whiffs of the preseason, but in fairness, almost nobody saw Florida being merely a middling SEC team this year.
9. Alabama (18-13, 8-10)
And so it is as Grant enters his sixth and possibly final year in Tuscaloosa. Grant is actually in a fairly similar situation to Andy Kennedy at Ole Miss, in that he's generally been able to put good teams on the floor (last year excepted) but only once has he been able to get over the hump and get the Tide to the NCAA Tournament. With an experienced and talented roster, if Grant can't win with this team, then you've basically run out of arguments that he's going to get it done at Alabama.
And, yes, we've run out of arguments in Anthony Grant's favor. The injury bug did bite the Tide down the stretch, but they were a middling team even before that. And with players like Levi Randolph, Rodney Cooper, and Ricky Tarrant on the roster (although the last one hasn't played in a while), and talented youngsters like Jimmie Taylor and Shannon Hale -- Alabama should be better than this. But they're not. And that's why they will probably have a new coach in a few weeks.
10. South Carolina (15-15, 6-12)
Basically, just looking at the roster and the coaching situation, it's almost a given that South Carolina will be a better team than they were last year; the only question is how much better. If Notice or Johnson, or maybe even Stroman, can step up and become a consistent scoring threat alongside Thornwell, this team should be fine. If one of the bigs can provide consistent offense, this team could actually be pretty good -- maybe even good enough to get on the NCAA bubble.
In the preseason, 8th place seemed like a bit of a reach given that most people were picking the Gamecocks lower than that; but for a time in December, 8th place looked like I was underestimating the Gamecocks. And then January happened. In fairness, though, the South Carolina of December or the South Carolina of the past couple of weeks might well have finished 8th, or even better. The South Carolina of January and the first part of February was lucky to avoid last place.
11. Tennessee (15-15, 7-11)
Instead, Tyndall enters his first year with a few talented wing players, but virtually nothing inside and trying a natural shooting guard at the point. The best case scenario for this team might be something like last year's Missouri team, albeit with less offense, with a few scoring wings but unable to stop anyone on defense. As for the worst-case scenario? Richardson struggles as the first option, Hubbs doesn't live up to his press clippings, and nobody else steps up to handle the scoring load; in that case, I would not be surprised if Tennessee finishes last in the SEC.
It was a rebuilding year for the Vols, but perhaps not as bad as I thought it would be. Josh Richardson handled the transition to featured scorer much better than I thought he would, and some of the supporting players from the year before -- specifically, Armani Moore -- turned out to be better than I gave them credit for. The danger, though, is that Richardson alone papered over a lot of problems with this team and he's gone next year. And the Vols will start feeling some effects of Cuonzo Martin's last couple of recruiting classes -- save for Robert Hubbs -- leaving the program, as there's minimal talent coming up behind the current upperclassmen.
12. Mississippi State (13-18, 6-12)
Of the three bottom-feeders in the SEC last season, Mississippi State probably has the least reason for optimism: unlike South Carolina, the Bulldogs don't have a future first-round draft pick on the roster; and unlike Auburn, they didn't just hire an experienced and accomplished head coach. You'll notice that of the seven scholarship players that Ray had available in his first year in Starkville, five are still on the roster; and while I'm quietly applauding Ray for not running players off in order to engineer a quick turnaround, it also suggests that he hasn't really upgraded the talent level here. While all the newcomers mean that Ray will finally have a full roster at his disposal in his third year in Starkville, none of the newcomers are all that highly regarded; the best player in Mississippi State's recruiting class is rated lower than all but one of Vanderbilt's newcomers, for instance.
It wasn't so much that picking Mississippi State to finish last was wrong, per se. The Bulldogs were about what I thought they would be this season, but avoided the cellar because Auburn and Missouri happened to be worse. They were still pretty bad, though, and the newcomers into the program didn't provide much help.
13. Auburn (12-19, 4-14)
The good news here is that Pearl can generally be counted on to get the most out of the talent available, and that's why there is some reason for optimism even this season. The bad news is that Auburn struggled on the defensive end last year, particularly on the perimeter, and that hasn't really been addressed. Pearl produced good defenses at Tennessee and generally did so by forcing turnovers, but that wasn't really a strong suit for Auburn last year and this may not be an ideal roster for Pearl to set up the defense he wants to run.
There were some back in October who were projecting an immediate turnaround under Pearl, and that was clearly insane. Unlike when he took over at Tennessee, Auburn didn't have the roster to even be a middling SEC team, much less a tournament contender. Pearl wasn't bringing in transfers in hopes of a turnaround; in hindsight, he was bringing in transfers just to field a team. Barbee left this program such a mess (3 of 12 high school recruits from 2011-13 suited up for Auburn this year) that even Pearl couldn't win with this roster. It's shuddering to think just how bad Auburn would have been this year if Barbee had continued to be employed.
14. Missouri (9-22, 3-15)
The questions surrounding Anderson have more to do with whether or not he can recruit at a high level, and while the early returns aren't that promising -- Missouri currently only has two low three-star recruits committed for next season, though he did manage to keep Wright in the fold and land Gill-Caesar -- in the near term, that's not going to be an issue. Haith certainly didn't leave the cupboard bare when he left for Tulsa; indeed, Haith's issue was that he could recruit but couldn't get the most out of the talent he brought in.
What the actual fuck? I picked Missouri sixth?!?!?! Okay, Florida definitely wasn't my biggest whiff. It turned out that Haith actually did leave the cupboard bare. Johnathan Williams and Wes Clark were the best holdovers, and while neither of those players are bad, the talent around them consisted of a bunch of freshmen and spare parts. I am still kicking myself for not seeing this coming.