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By Chris DePew
Nov. 5, 2018
Last season, Alabama broke into the NCAA tournament field despite 15 losses and a losing record in SEC play. What put the Crimson Tide over the top was playing the nation’s third-toughest schedule as measured by RPI. And once again the schedule will pack a punch, although that comes mostly from a loaded SEC slate this time around.
The non-conference campaign has a handful of opportunities for building a tournament resume, but no games guaranteed to grab national attention. Arizona is the biggest name, but the Wildcats lost all five starters and suffered mightily in recruiting in the fallout of the federal probe into agents paying players across the sport. Penn State won the NIT last spring but isn’t a lock to take the next step up in the crowded Big Ten, and Baylor is still another bubble team, albeit one far more dangerous in Waco.
The Tide will be seeking revenge at UCF, which has emerged as a tournament contender out of the American, while a Dec. 30 trip to Stephen F. Austin was a strange last-minute addition seemingly designed to game the ratings indexes by picking up a road win while limiting the risk of an upset.
The key to the non-conference slate may be Northeastern in the first round of the Charleston Classic. The Huskies are preseason favorites in the Colonial and decent resume material themselves, but beating them unlocks a likely NCAA tournament rematch with Virginia Tech in the second round and a final game against either Purdue, Wichita State or Davidson. VT and Purdue in particular offer top 25 games that otherwise aren’t available until conference play.
Conference play begins right at the top of the projected standings with a visit from perennial SEC favorite Kentucky. The Wildcats have their usual crop of hand-selected five-star freshmen, led by point guard Ashton Hagans, but John Calipari’s best teams have been those that had some veteran experience mixed in. P.J. Washington, Quade Green and Nick Richards are all back from last year’s Sweet 16 squad, and Reid Travis is a graduate transfer who was an All-Pac-12 forward at Stanford last season.
Basketball is Back!
Thursday: Where does Alabama really stand entering a transition year?
Friday: Tide looks to thrive with old-school roster built from inside out
TODAY: A closer look at the schedule and what’s in store for the SEC
Tuesday: Preview and postgame wrapup from the season opener vs. Southern
Auburn and Tennessee shocked the league as co-champions last winter, and both are consensus top 20 teams this time around. The Tigers not only return the bulk of last years team but welcome back Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, who were exiled for a season after being named in the FBI probe. If those two play as well as they did two seasons ago without disrupting team chemistry, Auburn is a legitimate Final Four contender.
Tennessee returns virtually intact and is led by the returning SEC player of the year (Grant Williams) and coach Rick Barnes, who has done the best on-court coaching job in the league since arriving on Rocky Top. But the Vols still have no proven size beyond 6-foot-11 Kyle Alexander and Barnes’ ability to get his guys to overachieve may not be enough to avoid a step back in a league that grows more talented every year.
Mississippi State, LSU and Vanderbilt all have highly-touted recruiting classes that they expect to get them back in the big dance after missing out in 2018. MSU has a decade-long NCAA drought but the Bulldogs are in the best shape of the three since they return an already-promising, if underachieving, core group of Lamar Peters, Aric Holman and Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon.
LSU returns just three players who were on scholarship last season, but one of them is outstanding sophomore point guard Tremont Waters, who scored 15.9 points a game, dished out an average of six assists and now will be surrounded by a top 5 recruiting class that may be the equal of Kentucky’s. Vandy will be the most dependant on its freshmen and only signed three of them (plus a couple of transfers), but center Simisola Shittu and guards Darius Garland and Aaron Nesmith are the most highly-touted class in Commodores history.
Florida looked like the class of the league and possibly the nation after the first month of last season but injuries and chemistry issues kept it from ever truly gelling, culminating in a second-round NCAA exit. The Gators lose a hard-nosed leader and their all-time assists king in Chris Chiozza but bring in five-star point guard Andrew Nembhard to fill his shoes. If one or more of the freshmen-dominated teams disappoint, Florida is the most likely to rise up in the standings.
South Carolina went from the 2017 Final Four to a 16-loss team last season and now the Gamecocks have emerged as the most polarizing team for SEC prognosticators. USC returns All-SEC forward Chris Silva and three other starters but lost most of its depth and brought in a middling recruiting class. Texas A&M returns a couple of nice guards in Admon Gilder and T.J. Starks but lost too many other pieces to avoid a bottom-half finish.
Missouri fans never got to see what No. 1 prospect Michael Porter could do when healthy but his decision to sign with the Tigers was a magnet that drew in enough other talent to lead them out of 20-loss purgatory and back to the NCAAs. Getting back there this season was supposed to depend on younger brother Jontay Porter taking another giant leap to replace three double-digit scorers, but he is out for the season after tearing ligaments during a late October scrimmage. Between that and an unproven backcourt, Mizzou fans should be grateful if they limp into the NIT.
Arkansas got a pleasant surprise when center Daniel Gafford returned, but everyone else of note is gone from Fayetteville. Gafford can score and grab rebounds at a prodigious clip but must prove he can stay on the floor longer than 20-25 minutes a game if the Hogs are to escape the basement.
Georgia and Ole Miss have new coaches because the old ones left the cupboard bare. The Bulldogs have a little more ability but never seem to have a coherent roster that distributes talent evenly across positions. The Rebels return some experience, but mostly they’ve experienced being mediocre or worse, and the way they laid down for Andy Kennedy last winter does not portend good times ahead in Oxford.
Follow Chris DePew on Twitter @TideFansChris
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