For those of us who are college hoops fans, the offseason is approximately seven months without basketball. If you're like me, you're probably switching your attention to baseball during this time, but there are also plenty of things going on off the court.
As the first part of our offseason coverage, here's my look at the SEC for 2015-16... based on what I know right now and what I think might happen in the coming months. Don't hold me to these predictions, though. I'll probably change my mind between now and October.
Until the next month or so plays itself out, Kentucky is #1 by default. But spoiler alert: the Wildcats probably aren't going to be as good as they were in 2014-15.
There are so many moving parts here that we really have no clue what Kentucky's roster will look like in 2015-16. There are no seniors (at least, if we're not counting the three walk-ons), but of course that doesn't mean Kentucky is losing nobody. Willie Cauley-Stein has already announced for the draft, and John Calipari himself expects as many as seven players to make the leap. If that happens, that would leave two returning players from Kentucky's rotation (plus Alex Poythress, who's recovering from an ACL injury.)
On the other end, Kentucky currently has the #1 recruiting class signed according to 247sports.com, but that's with only three players in the fold. I assume you're doing math here, and that would mean Kentucky would have approximately six players available next season if it stays that way (and that's before we get into potential eligibility issues with incoming freshman Skal Labissiere.) Of course, the Wildcats are in on pretty much every elite recruit who's still on the board, and Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins are still around in case Calipari whiffs on everybody. And there are persistent rumors that Calipari will jump back to the NBA, though I'm not really buying them. The roster is too much in flux because of all the potential early entries and additions to say anything for sure one way or the other with this team.
I swear, this isn't just a total homer pick. But now that we know Damian Jones is coming back for his junior year, I look at the Vanderbilt roster for next year (assuming there's nothing like the summerpocalypse of 2013 coming, oh please God tell me I didn't just jinx it), the Commodores probably have the fewest question marks of anybody in the conference... and yes, that includes Kentucky (did you read what I just wrote above?)
The only loss of any real significance is James Siakam, unless you think Shelby Moats or Josh Henderson count as "losses of any real significance." (Har!) While we all love Bamba, players like him are eminently replaceable, particularly when you not only have Luke Kornet coming back but also have a couple of talented big men (Samir Sehic and D'jery Baptiste) joining the fold. The all-freshman backcourt progressed nicely in the month of February. There's just so much promise here that I can write a "2" next to Vanderbilt with a straight face, and without imbibing any illicit substances. With all of the scholarships accounted for, I don't expect any late signing period action unless somebody exits the program.
3. Texas A&M
It's actually not entirely because the Aggies have the #3 recruiting class in the country. The returning talent here, assuming Danuel House doesn't get any ideas about going to the NBA Draft, is good enough to justify this ranking. And if House does go to the draft, that really just means A&M will need to rely on incoming freshman D.J. Hogg more than they're currently expecting to. But with the roster setup, the Aggies look to be pretty well set at four positions with Alex Robinson at the point, Alex Caruso moving off the ball, House on the wing, and Jalen Jones at the four. Kourtney Roberson is gone, but A&M has a couple of low-five-star/high-four-star bigs (Tyler Davis and Elijah Thomas) coming in to replace him.
Even after Antwan Space announced that he'd transfer, though, A&M is still one over the scholarship limit for next year so at least one more move is coming. (Hint: backup point guard Avery Johnson Jr. has a father who is now the head coach at another SEC school.) The Aggies may also add former Oregon point guard Dominic Artis to the mix. Billy Kennedy isn't finished filling out his roster for 2015-16, but all indications are that this is going to be a good team and it will be a surprise if they wind up in the NIT again. Which is a good thing for Kennedy, because not making the NCAAT next year will probably cost him his job.
Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin have both declared for the NBA Draft, which drops this team's talent level from "OH MY GOD NATIONAL TITLE CONTENDER" down to "eh, yeah, I won't be too surprised if they challenge Kentucky in the SEC." Basically, LSU has some pretty good returning pieces like Keith Hornsby and Tim Quarterman, is adding #1 recruit Ben Simmons and another five-star recruit in Antonio Blakeney (and is heavily invested in the Malik Newman sweepstakes as well), and... oh, yeah, they're still coached by Johnny Jones.
Look, I'm not going to lie. If this team were coached by, say, Mark Fox, I would probably be viewing them as a legitimate Top 10 team. It's hard to argue that Jones hasn't been a positive overall (assuming that they'd be better off without him relies on the faulty assumption that a different coach would have the same talent level at his disposal), but if we're being perfectly honest the 2014-15 version of LSU was very talented as well and that got them a 9-seed in the NCAA Tournament and a first-round exit. Yes, LSU will be very talented in 2015-16, but I'll believe that they're going to do anything with all that talent when I see it.
I have to admit, I really like what Mark Fox is doing at Georgia. The Bulldogs do have a couple of significant losses off this year's team with Marcus Thornton and Nemi Djurisic both exhausting their eligibility, but the underrated backcourt of J.J. Frazier, Kenny Gaines, and Charles Mann returns intact, and high three-star recruit Will Jackson only strengthens that group. Yante Maten showed enough potential as a freshman to think that he can soften the blow from losing Thornton.
There doesn't seem to be a ready-made replacement for Djurisic, though, but Fox has a scholarship left to give and he's all in on in-state product and future one-and-done Jaylen Brown. Brown pushes Georgia from fringe top 25 team to legitimate top 10 team, so it's hard to understate how important he would be for this program. That said, the returning cast is solid enough all around that Georgia shouldn't see a big dropoff next year.
I'm hedging a bit on this one. Bobby Portis has been rather noncommittal about whether he's going to the NBA. We're still assuming that he will, because it's kind of hard to see how he improves his draft stock with another year in college, but stranger things have happened. Portis returning would probably push the Razorbacks up to #2. Maybe even #1 if Kentucky's roster starts to look like a basket case. (We're also looking out for Michael Qualls, who has his own NBA ideas as well.)
Still, though, even if Portis does leave Mike Anderson should still have a good team. Qualls and Anton Beard will give Arkansas a solid backcourt. Moses Kingsley can at least do a good Portis impersonation on the defensive end (offense is a different matter.) And Arkansas should have a couple of four-star recruits (Jimmy Whitt and Ted Kapita) joining the mix. This isn't going to be a great team without Portis, but even without him this should be a NCAA Tournament bubble team at worst.
In case you missed it, last week Billy Donovan said that he'd listen to NBA coaching offers. I'm no mind-reader, but I think what Donovan basically said was "hey guys, just to let you know, if an NBA team offers me a head coaching job I'm taking it." I have my suspicions that Donovan has coached his last game at Florida, and now that the obvious replacement (Shaka Smart) is off the board, it will be interesting to see where Florida goes if Donovan does in fact leave. In addition, Michael Frazier has already announced for the NBA Draft. Frazier might not even get drafted, and I kind of suspect that Frazier just wanted out.
Part of the reason for Donovan's openness to the NBA might have been the 2014-15 team. I'm a firm believer that you need to trust the scouts sometimes, but there are some instances where that really gets put to the test. Chris Walker is one of those instances. According to scouts, Walker has the ability to be a dominating big man, but I'm really stretching to see it. And that about sums up the problem with projecting Florida for next year. On paper, this could be a good team, particularly with a bunch more talent on the way -- in addition to a four-man recruiting class, Brandone Francis and South Florida transfer John Egbunu will be eligible after sitting out this year. But if you watched Florida at all, your eyes tell you something completely different. It's kind of hard to imagine Florida being this mediocre two years in a row, but I'm hedging my bets a bit and calling for a middle-of-the-pack finish because of all the issues this group had in 2014-15.
8. South Carolina
Sometimes, rebuilding projects can take a while to see any real results. South Carolina visibly improved in Year 3 under Frank Martin, but that visible improvement only netted them one more SEC win than they got the year before. (At least part of that can be chalked up to the rest of the SEC getting better as well.) Yet once again, Martin goes into 2015-16 with almost everybody coming back -- or so we think. After picking up commitments from three-star recruits Jamall Gregory and Travon Bunch, to go along with top recruits P.J. Dozier and Chris Silva, the Gamecocks are currently two over the scholarship limit for next year. So we'll go ahead and assume that a couple of guys are on their way out, though it's not clear whom at this point.
In any case, there's quite a bit of returning talent for what wasn't a great team and more on the way. It's actually sort of hard to see how South Carolina doesn't get better next year. On paper at least this looks like it should be an NCAA Tournament bubble team -- but, hey, can these guys figure out how to shoot the ball?
9. Ole Miss
While Ole Miss snuck into the NCAA Tournament in 2015, that was accomplished with the SEC's most experienced roster. Stefan Moody's (assumed) return means that the Rebels won't completely fall off the map in 2015-16, but the departures of five seniors mean it's hard to look at this team and not see a dropoff. Sebastian Saiz and Dwight Coleby should give Ole Miss a pretty good interior defense, but it's totally unclear who will help Moody carry the scoring load. The incoming recruiting class -- a pair of high three-star freshmen and a couple of jucos -- doesn't look like it's going to be a huge help.
Basically, unless Andy Kennedy hits the pavement hard on the recruiting trail and brings in a transfer or two who can help immediately, it looks like Moody is going to have to carry the offense by himself. While that's not the worst thing in the world -- Moody actually being a pretty good player -- this seems like it will work out about like the 2013-14 version of the team, when Marshall Henderson was getting little help on an otherwise mediocre offense. I could see Ole Miss being better than this, but I'm having a great deal of difficulty seeing this as a better team than last year.
10. Mississippi State
The reasons for optimism aren't solely based on the arrival of Ben Howland -- who is, after all, probably a way more accomplished head coach than anyone Mississippi State has had since probably Babe McCarthy back in the 1960s. In Craig Sword, Gavin Ware, and I.J. Ready, the Bulldogs actually have a pretty decent returning core. There are some underclassmen with promise as well, and assuming Howland can hang on to Rick Ray recruit Quinndary Weatherspoon this could get even better.
And then there's Malik Newman. Newman, an in-state product whose dad played at Mississippi State, has always been a bit of a longshot for the Bulldogs, but Newman has kept State on his list all along and we'll see if Howland can close. A commit from Newman would completely change the trajectory of next year's Mississippi State team, taking them from an SEC also-ran to an NCAA Tournament team. We wouldn't hold our breath on it happening, but either way signs are pointing up for this program.
The second of three schools that's made a coaching change this offseason, Alabama hired former Mavericks and Nets head coach Avery Johnson to be their new head coach. Like Mississippi State hiring Howland, this seems like a splash hire, particularly after Alabama got rejected by Gregg Marshall. The questions about Johnson mostly revolve around the fact that he's never coached at the college level before, so people are concerned about recruiting, but "I used to coach in the NBA" hardly seems like it would be a negative to recruits. Neither does the fact that he has strong connections to his son's AAU team.
But for next year? Alabama hasn't seen any players transfer out of the program (yet); it likely helps them that a significant portion of the roster is from Alabama and thus are there for reasons that don't have to do with Anthony Grant. But they're losing a pair of efficient offensive players in Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper. There's enough talent left over on the roster that an accomplished coach like Johnson could make something out of it, maybe even an NCAA Tournament team, but there are so many unknowns with this team that it's hard to see it happening.
Did you think that Auburn's run to the SEC Tournament semifinals was a preview of things to come in 2015-16? Think again. Auburn had four seniors in the rotation, including the highly efficient KT Harrell, and so signs point more to next year being a rebuilding year than they do to it being a breakthrough year. Auburn does have Cinmeon Bowers returning, who's overrated but does have rebounding prowess, and Marshall transfer Kareem Canty will be eligible and might take over the reins at the point. But there are far too few proven commodities here to bet on Auburn being much better.
Auburn does have a highly-touted recruiting class coming in next year (ranked #12 in the country, and #3 in the SEC, according to 247sports.com.) But depending on non-one-and-done freshmen to make an immediate impact can be a very hit or miss proposition. Sometimes, the freshmen are ready to contribute right away and you wind up with something like Vanderbilt in 2014-15; sometimes, the freshmen aren't ready to go and you end up with Mizzou from 2014-15. Which about sums up my thoughts here: Auburn could go either way depending on how good the freshmen are from day one, but the simple fact that they're depending on this many freshmen to contribute does not make them a safe bet.
Donnie Tyndall got canned as soon as it became clear he was going to get hammered by the NCAA for some violations he committed while at Southern Miss, and Tennessee moved quickly to replace him with recently-deposed Texas coach Rick Barnes. Barnes' actual coaching ability is questionable (his recruiting ability is, of course, unquestioned), but he should bring some needed stability to a program that's now on its third coach in as many years. Barnes has said that he'll honor the scholarship of any player currently on the team who wants to stay, so I wouldn't expect an immediate roster makeover, but freshman Tariq Owens has already said he'll transfer (in part out of concerns that Barnes would recruit over him, so I'm not sure this hurts.)
While the Vols were better than expected in 2014-15, Josh Richardson masked a lot of problems with this team, and he won't be back next year. Next season, Tennessee will start feeling the effects of losing basically all of Cuonzo Martin's last two recruiting classes (with the exception of Robert Hubbs.) Armani Moore is a nice player, but hardly the type of player who you can realistically look to as a guy who can carry a team, and there just isn't a whole lot of talent on the team for next year unless Barnes can close really well on the recruiting trail.
Kim Anderson is basically the SEC basketball version of Derek Mason. While he didn't really show much in his first year, it's also true that he inherited a far worse situation than anyone realized at the time. Missouri lost nine players off its 2013-14 team (and only two of those were seniors); Frank Haith's rather startling inability to recruit high school players or keep them in the program hurt this team, but somehow landed him the Tulsa job before he inevitably would have been fired had 2014-15 occurred on his watch. And the news got somewhat worse when sophomore Johnathan Williams, the team's best player, decided to transfer out of the program.
With all that said, there's talent on the roster: even with Williams gone, there are four players projected to be on next year's roster who were four-star recruits coming out of high school. While recruiting experts are sometimes wrong (and sometimes very wrong), it at least suggests that the problem here isn't that the players are not SEC-caliber guys. And while I have Mizzou at 14th, it's at least in part a reflection of the fact that (right now) there isn't a clear-cut 14th-place team in next year's SEC. Even right now you could make a credible argument for Auburn or Tennessee here, and there's always the possibility of somebody else turning into a dumpster fire. It's simply difficult to see Missouri being this bad again in 2015-16, but it may not be enough to avoid the cellar.