As I stood inside Davis Wade Stadium and watched Nick Fitzgerald put the finishing touches on Mississippi State's win over Auburn Saturday night, there was only one thing that I could say or think in that moment, it's officially Basketball Season on the Plains!
For all intents and purposes, it's time to start paying attention to Auburn Basketball as the season tips off 29 days from now!
Get ready to see one of the most talented (if not most talented) roster that Auburn Basketball has ever assembled. This Auburn team is a veteran-laded team that will go 10 deep, run up and down the court, and above all else, be a fun team to watch! They will also be a Preseason Top 10 team according to most media outlets. But we will dissect this team more in the coming days and weeks. Today (and tomorrow), I wanted to talk about the rest of the conference and the road Auburn has to face if they want to repeat as SEC Champions in Basketball.
Last season, I had a bright idea to rank each SEC team on a weekly basis and I thought it would be a lot of fun to do. As you all know, the SEC was really good and competitive last year and made this a very difficult task. If you recall, the #1 team on my Power Rankings changed each week for the first six weeks because each team would take a loss that week. That's how competitive the league was last year. If you thought the SEC was good last year, wait until this year. It might be the best conference of basketball, especially if you look at this league from to top to bottom. Games against teams at the bottom of the conference will be difficult games for teams to navigate through. Now that we've had an offseason to reflect on last year, that's what made Auburn's season even more special last year and the fact they won the league from start to finish. Bruce Pearl has made no bones about it how special a regular season SEC Championship is (and STOP with the sharing, we beat Tennessee head-to-head on their court, case closed). But the banner has been risen at Auburn Arena, the championship rings have been handed out and it's time to turn the page to this upcoming season.
These rankings will serve as my prediction for the finishing order of SEC teams this season. I can't wait to see how wrong I probably will be at the end of the season. Last year I started this once non-conference play ended but this year we will be doing this for the entire season! With a lot on my mind, I decided to break this up into two parts. Today, in Part 1, we will look at Teams 8-14. While these are considered to be the teams that should be in the bottom part of the conference, each of these teams are capable of beating anyone on any given night. And who knows, one of these teams could make an Auburn-esque run and win the SEC this year. Never forget that Auburn was picked finish 9th in the conference and 4-14 by one writer last season?
Well, we had to start with somebody at the bottom and Ole Miss has been given that distinct honor this year. Ole Miss hired Kermit Davis away from Middle Tennessee to take over the Rebels program, replacing longtime coach Andy Kennedy. Kermit won multiple NCAA Tournament games over the past 3 years in Murfreesboro and was a great hire to try and restore the Ole Miss basketball program. Deandre Burnett has graduated but Terence Davis and Breein Tyree return to an Ole Miss team that will play at Butler and Illinois State and face Baylor in Destin, Florida in non-conference play.
Mark Fox had worn out his welcome with the Bulldogs and so Georgia decided to go out and make a splash with their next basketball coach. Insert this guy....
Tom Crean is the new man in charge in Athens and his biggest task in Year 1 is to find a way to try and replace Yante Maten, who scored nearly 20 points a game last year and was the team's only double-digit scorer. Georgia's year will come down to how Turtle Jackson runs the point and can Rayshaun Hammond and Derek Ogbeide fill the role left by Maten. Georgia will host Arizona State and play at Georgia Tech and may see Clemson and Creighton in the Cayman Islands.
One of South Carolina's biggest issues last year was scoring. The team scored just above 70 points a game last season. The good news is Chris Silva is back for his senior year. Silva averaged 14.3 points and 8 rebounds a game last year and looks poised to be one of the SEC's best players. Can he get the help around him and can the team score more to improve their position in the league? I'm not sure, but I won't doubt Frank Martin, one of the genuinely good guys coaching in the SEC. His legit happiness for Bruce and Auburn at the end of last year's final regular season game was special to see and first class. The Gamecocks played Auburn really tough last year and I expect no less this year. As for their schedule, they host Virginia and Clemson and will play Michigan at least once in Ann Arbor, and possibly a second time on a neutral court.
Here's a team that lost a lot of last year's team which is why they're down at 11. Last year's team was quite a mystery as they had all the talent in the world and couldn't put it all together due to suspensions and injuries (until they played Auburn of course, and at the end of the year). And yet despite their inconsistencies, the Aggies got to the NCAA Tournament and made a run to the Sweet 16 stomping North Carolina in the process. Robert Williams is gone. So is D.J. Hogg and Tyler Davis. However, T.J. Starks is back, he had 23 points in that Auburn game, as is Admon Gider. While they have experience in the backcourt, they will break in a brand new frontcourt, so we'll see how far Starks and Gilder can carry the Aggies this year. A&M plays at Gonzaga before facing Minnesota and possibly Washington in Vancouver. They will host Marshall, Boston College and play Oregon State in Portland.
Comparing last year's teams to this year's teams around the SEC, the Hogs were hit the hardest with graduation. That's why they have fallen all the way to bottom half of this year's predictions. This year's team will be led by Daniel Gafford who elected to stay for Mike Anderson's team this season. Gafford is a block and dunk machine as evidenced by the Auburn game in Fayetteville last year. Gafford had 21 points (7 dunks), 10 rebounds, and 7 blocks against the Tigers in the 91-82 Razorback win in late February. The Hogs will have a lot of young pieces that they will try and work in this year but will they have the offense firepower they had last year? They averaged 80.5 points per game, 2nd in the SEC behind only Auburn's 81.9. We'll see. The Hogs open with the Armed Forces Classic against Texas in Fort Bliss, near El Paso. They also host Indiana and Georgia Tech.
Oh what could have been for Missouri last year if Michael Porter Jr. was healthy. But we'll never know and he's off to the NBA after 1 year in Columbia. His little brother Jontay, however, decided to stay at Mizzou and will be the focal point of Missouri's team this year. Cuonzo Martin took a team at the bottom of the league a year before and put them back into the NCAA Tournament. They went out with a whimper against Florida State there and it will tough but not impossible for them to make the tournament again this year. Mizzou hosts Xavier, UCF, and Temple and travels to Iowa State while possibly meeting up with Kansas State in the Paradise Jam.
Vanderbilt had a very difficult year last season and lost 3 of their core seniors from that team. So why are things looking up in Nashville? Because Bryce Drew has been killing it on the recruiting trail. This year's Vanderbilt team will be young, but extremely talented. The freshmen to watch on this team is Darius Garland, a five-star recruit, who will be handed the keys right away to the Vandy offense. Saban Lee also returns to form a formidable guard combo for Vandy. The Commodores will have plenty of chances to impress early in the season with a rigorous non-conference schedule. Vandy travels to USC, hosts Arizona State, plays N.C. State in Miami and Kansas State in Kansas City. A win or two against these four opponents would go a long way into the SEC possibly getting at least 8 teams into next year's NCAA Tournament.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 when I reveal my Top 7 Basketball teams for the upcoming basketball season. War Eagle!