2015-16 was a disappointing year for the Southeastern Conference on the hardwood. 2016-17... might not be any better.
As much of a bad look as it is to wind up with only three teams in the NCAA Tournament (and one of those -- do I need to call them out by name? -- just barely sneaking in and promptly losing by 20 in the opening round), and needing an utter gift from Northern Iowa just to get a team to the second weekend, at this moment there doesn't seem to be much reason to think next season will be a great deal better. There are still plenty of developments to come that could change these cursory rankings -- NBA draft decisions being the biggest, but also transfers and the late signing period -- but outside of the obvious team, next season looks to be yet another transition year for the league.
On to the rankings! (These are bound to look dumb a few months from now, so of course putting them in print is a great idea.)
...you were expecting? The Wildcats are losing Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere to the draft, and they'll probably lose Tyler Ulis as well, and there may be a couple more guys who go through the combine and decide to stay in the draft... but have you seen their recruiting class? Okay, okay, I realize this describes Kentucky every year. But there also aren't a whole lot of viable alternatives in this league.
The Gators were actually pretty close to making the NCAA Tournament this year -- they wound up getting a 2-seed in the NIT after fading late in the season -- and here's the best part for them: they only had one senior on the team, and they don't have any underclassmen who are really on the NBA's radar (though it's worth watching if sophomore Devin Robinson decides to stay in the draft; my gut tells me he'll return.) That senior was Dorian Finney-Smith, but everybody else should be back.
As much as we're freaking out that Wade Baldwin IV is entering the draft, and Damian Jones may join him, let's take a deep breath: Luke Kornet, Matthew Fisher-Davis, and Jeff Roberson are pretty good players. Those three should be back, as should Joe Toye. There will be question marks at the point, and depth could be a question mark as well, but there is enough talent here for Bryce Drew to make the NCAA Tournament in his first year.
I get the sense that most preseason predictions won't have them this high, which is fine. They'll be underrated because they don't have any clear replacements for departing seniors Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines, but you can bet Mark Fox will get the most out of his team, and he has two good players in J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten as well as a bunch of young big men with upside.
5. Texas A&M Aggies
I've seen them popping up in way-too-early top 25's at other outlets, which seems to be a reach. They do have to replace four starters, and as of right now there are eight players on scholarship for next year, so depth could be a big issue. And likely the only point guard on the roster will be a freshman (unless Billy Kennedy adds a grad transfer.) So the upside is there, but right now there are too many question marks to say they should be a top 25 team.
Mike Anderson is certainly recruiting like he needs to have a big year. The inside-outside combo of Moses Kingsley and Dusty Hannahs is a nice starting point, and Anderson has signed three top junior college transfers to join them. If this jells quickly, Arkansas could be back in the tournament again.
The Tide loses all-everything guard Retin Obasohan, and they've lost a couple of role players to transfer already, but there is an influx of talent coming: Memphis transfer Nick King (formerly a four-star recruit) is eligible next season, and they'll also get talented freshman Dazon Ingram back after he missed most of this season due to injury. They overachieved a bit in 2015-16, though, so maybe we shouldn't place expectations too high just yet.
There's a lingering question with the Gamecocks: five underclassmen were suspended from the team last month (and two have since been dismissed), and while they mostly just look like spare parts, that group does include promising freshman big man Chris Silva. South Carolina could have solid guard play next year, but if Silva isn't reinstated they will have very little size up front except for a pair of incoming freshmen. This seems like it could go in a number of different directions, so just placing them smack in the middle works for now.
9. LSU Tigers
If you're keeping score at home, Ben Simmons, Tim Quarterman, and Antonio Blakeney have all declared for the NBA Draft (though Blakeney hasn't hired an agent, LSU fans seem not to be expecting him back.) Keith Hornsby also graduated, which leaves... Craig Victor and not a lot else. This ranking actually seems a little high, believe it or not, but the holdovers -- even if they were mostly role players or benchwarmers this season -- do at least have some talent, but will Johnny Jones get anything out of it?
10. Ole Miss Rebels
There are two ways to spin the loss of Stefan Moody. If you're optimistic, Moody was a ball hog who didn't get his teammates involved enough and frequently shot the Rebels out of games, and they'll be better off without him. If you're pessimistic, Moody took that many shots because he pretty much had to with the Rebels not having many other good options. There's probably some truth to both viewpoints, but aside from Sebastian Saiz, the Rebels don't appear to have much going for them heading into next year. But then Andy Kennedy always figures out a way to finish somewhere around .500 in the SEC.
11. Auburn Tigers
Odds are that one of these teams, if not both, is going to do better than this. Both of them figure to be talented but very young -- frighteningly young in Mississippi State's case, as the Bulldogs will have eight freshmen and either three or four sophomores depending on whether Malik Newman keeps his name in the draft. Both of them also have coaches who have proven that they can win. I'm guessing that they're both a year away, but it would not be a shock if they made a push toward respectability, and maybe even threaten an NCAA Tournament bid.
13. Missouri Tigers
How should they feel about the fact that four players have left the program since February? If you want to put a positive spin on it, the players who left weren't buying in and this is an instance of addition by subtraction. Supporting that argument is the fact that Missouri wasn't very good with them so really, how much worse could they be without them? And the current crop of freshmen -- Kim Anderson's first full recruiting class -- did show some promise in 2015-16. Missouri also gets Texas transfer Jordan Barnett eligible at midseason, but it's hard to get too optimistic about this team.
Rick Barnes is clearly playing the long game here, figuring he can trade a rebuilding year for more upside down the road; nine of the eleven players projected to be on the Vols' roster next year will be underclassmen. The difference between them and Mississippi State/Auburn is that here, the five incoming freshmen are all three-star recruits. Barnes seems to know what he's doing, but next year could bring a last-place finish. But with the situation he inherited, it was either this or bringing in a bunch of JUCOs to finish in 10th place.