It’s fair to say the SEC’s gravitational field was a little out of whack last year. At least for a season, the league didn’t orbit around Kentucky. Instead, it was Alabama who claimed its first SEC regular-season title in 19 years and its first tournament crown in 30.
Well, expect a return to order as the COVID-19 restrictions taper off and Kentucky reloads. After the Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, John Calipari assembled an impressive roster via transfers, recruiting and a few solid returnees like Keion Brooks Jr. to wash away memories of a 9-16 season.
The league as a whole figures to have balance behind the Wildcats with a few others challenging for the top spot. Tennessee and Arkansas have top-10 rosters in the preseason, while the defending champion Crimson Tide look like a wild card. Nate Oats has a team well-stocked with high-potential talent but one that lacks veteran experience.
Auburn also appears to be back on the scene after following up a 2019 Final Four run with a disappointing 13-14 record last year. Bruce Pearl restocked his locker room via the transfer portal.
In all, the SEC sent six teams to the tournament — one fewer than in 2019 — and only Florida, Tennessee and LSU made it both years. That shows either balance or instability. Six years is the longest NCAA Tournament absence for any league program (Georgia).
That said, Vanderbilt still feels like it’s a long way from reaching the neighborhood of the bracket chat after winning three SEC games last year.
The Wildcats weren’t going to stay down long as John Calipari reshuffled his coaching staff and rebuilt a roster that lost a good bit of production. If any program is equipped for a hockey-style line change, it’s the one in Lexington. Kentucky should be back near the top after an embarrassing season.
The Razorbacks turned to the transfer portal to replenish a talented but depleted roster. Eric Musselman has the Razorbacks going in the right direction after coming within a game of the Final Four last March.
The Vols lost star freshmen Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson to the NBA following a season that peaked in December. Rick Barnes went the more traditional route and brought in one of the best recruiting classes nationally once again.
Nate Oats’ third Crimson Tide team might be the biggest mystery in the SEC. Jahvon Quinerly will be the veteran voice with five-star freshman JD Davison entering along with former McDonald’s All-American Nimari Burnett and Furman transfer Noah Gurley.
The Tigers lost some consistency in a tough season, but there’s renewed optimism with the transfers Bruce Pearl brought in along with five-star forward Jabari Smith Jr.
6. Mississippi State
Consistency was an issue in a season-ending loss in the NIT title game, but the Bulldogs have some new talent that could put them back in the NCAA Tournament. Top scorer Iverson Molinar is back along with a few high-end transfers.
The Tigers were a shot from winning the SEC Tournament and gave No. 1 seed Michigan a scare in Indianapolis but lost the core of talent from a 19-10 team.
NFL Predictions: Week 5 Picks for Every Game
The Gators took a significant blow, losing stars like Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann to the NBA, but the Gators got a boost when Colin Castleton pulled his name from the draft just before the deadline.
The Tigers flashed last year with wins over top-10 teams like Illinois, Tennessee and Alabama but struggled down the stretch. The Tigers were in the bottom half of SEC recruiting this cycle but got a few players on the transfer market.
10. Ole Miss
The good news for a program with one NCAA Tournament win in eight years is the arrival of the school’s first McDonald’s All-American, Daeshun Ruffin.
11. Texas A&M
Last year was one disaster after another, from COVID-19 shutdowns to power blackouts. Newcomers will be important in Buzz Williams’ attempt to make his first NCAA Tournament trip from College Station.
12. South Carolina
The 2017 Final Four run is feeling more distant coming off a 6-15 season that included just one win after the first week of February.
This forgettable era in Commodore basketball includes a 12-58 league record in the last four years. The silver lining? Leading scorer Scotty Pippen Jr. opted to return.
Help came from the portal in the form of Jabri Abdur-Rahim (Virginia) and Aaron Cook (Gonzaga via Southern Illinois), but it’ll be tough sledding again in Year 4 under Tom Crean.