Sports, Thrill of Victory

10 random thoughts from SEC Tipoff ’17

Vanderbilt was picked 6th by the media in the SEC preseason poll. PHOTO BY BLAKE LOVELL

The 2016-17 college basketball season is upon us, and the SEC held its annual media day at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

Considering that every head coach and a lot of top players were on hand, there’s plenty to discuss heading into the season.

Here are some thoughts.

1. Moses Kingsley is a worthy choice as Preseason Player of the Year

The media voted Kingsley as the preseason player of the year, and it’s certainly justified.

He averaged 15.9 points per game and 9.3 rebounds per game last season, so his return after testing the NBA waters is certainly a huge boost for Mike Anderson’s team.

Moses Kingsley was named SEC Preseason Player of the Year. PHOTO BY BLAKE LOVELL

Moses Kingsley was named SEC Preseason Player of the Year. PHOTO BY BLAKE LOVELL

Along with sharpshooter Dusty Hannahs, the Razorbacks sport one of the most dynamic one-two punches in the league.

The question is, will they have enough help to make a run at an NCAA tournament berth?

2. Frank Martin not concerned with preseason predictions

It was classic Frank Martin. When asked about his team’s preseason media pick of eighth place, he responded as only he could:

“We’ve been picked 57th the last few years, so that’s progress.”

He’s right about the progress. South Carolina won 24 games during the regular season last year, including an 11-5 finish in the SEC. Unfortunately, the Gamecocks were left out of the NCAA tournament due to a poor strength of schedule.

Martin’s squad will be interesting this season. He’ll be led by the senior duo of Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice, with the latter earning SEC Six Man of the Year honors last season.

While many expect the Gamecocks to take a step back, a strong non-conference schedule (Michigan, Clemson, etc.) should erase any NCAA concerns if this team can repeat its ’15-16 success.

3. Mike White needs Gators to be a better shooting team

Florida was not a good shooting team last season, and head coach Mike White knows that the Gators must be better if they want to challenge Kentucky for the SEC crown.

The good news is that the Gators have a second team All-SEC guard in KeVaughn Allen, and White seems confident about him helping in the shooting department.

“I think he’s shooting the ball better than he ever has,” said White. “He’s grown and will be a very good player for us.”

White also adds a talented shooter in College of Charleston transfer Canyon Barry, who averaged 19.7 points per game and shot 33.3% from three last season.

Another shooting area where Florida must be better? Free throws. The Gators finished 323rd in the country last season at 64.7%.

4. Avery Johnson expecting big things from freshman Braxton Key

The Alabama Crimson Tide are in great hands with Avery Johnson. The team made significant strides last season, and Johnson himself stressed that the program was further along than he thought after winning 18 games in his first year.

And that progress should continue with the addition of freshman Braxton Key. Johnson spoke highly of Key’s ability and what he could mean to Alabama this season and beyond.

“He’s a guy we can put anywhere on the floor except for the 5-position,” said Johnson. “He has an NBA 3-man type of body, and he gives us a lot of versatility.”

Johnson also praised Key’s ability to help the Crimson Tide on defense, which will continue to be the staple of this Alabama program.

Next up? Solving the problem of only scoring 66.5 points per game a season ago.

Avery Johnson will turn Alabama into a serious SEC contender sooner rather than later. PHOTO BY BLAKE LOVELL

Avery Johnson will turn Alabama into a serious SEC contender sooner rather than later. PHOTO BY BLAKE LOVELL

5. Everyone loves Yante Maten

Georgia forward Yante Maten was a preseason All-SEC second team pick, which is great in and of itself. But several coaches around the league thought that was way too low.

“I’ll tell you this: The most underrated player in the SEC is Yante Maten,” said Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland.

“If Moses Kingsley wasn’t the Preseason Player of the Year pick, I’d go with Yante Maten,” said Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy.

While a whole lot of attention will be on dynamic guard J.J. Frazier, there’s no doubt that Maten will be a monster inside for the Bulldogs. He’s the SEC’s third-leading returning scorer at 16.5 points per game and simply does so many things well on both ends of the court.

Georgia is undoubtedly a team that can make a run at an NCAA tournament bid if Frazier and Maten stay healthy.

6. Antonio Blakeney and LSU looking for redemption

It’s safe to say that the ’15-16 season didn’t end like Antonio Blakeney and LSU expected it to. The Tigers were bounced from the SEC tournament in embarrassing fashion after a 71-38 loss in the semifinals, and Blakeney and company have used that as motivation during the offseason.

“It left a bad taste in our mouth,” said Blakeney. “It probably won’t get out until we take the floor for our first game.”

Obviously, things will look a bit different on the court when the Tigers play their first regular season game against Wofford on November 12. Ben Simmons is gone, as is on-court leader Keith Hornsby and current Portland Trail Blazers forward Tim Quarterman.

So, if there’s a positive for Blakeney and company heading into the season, it’s there’s less pressure and hype (the Tigers were picked 12th in the media poll) than last year.

7. The media might be underestimating Auburn

The Auburn Tigers were picked right in front of LSU at 11th in the preseason poll. On the surface, that may seem about right considering how bad Bruce Pearl’s team was at times last season.

But here’s the thing: There’s no chance that Auburn is that bad again this season unless an unpredictable string of bad luck hits again.

Auburn returns 41% of its scoring from last year, plus adds several highly-touted newcomers. Mustapha Heron is the first 5-star player in school history, and will immediately give the Tigers a boost in the backcourt.

There’s also two 4-stars added to the mix with Jared Harper and Anfernee McLemore, plus the additions of transfers Ronnie Johnson and LaRon Smith. And don’t forget that Danjel Purifoy finally gets on the floor as well.

I’m not saying Auburn will make the NCAA tournament. But I’d be surprised if they finished 11th.

8. Luke Kornet striving to be a better playmaker on both ends of the floor

With the loss of Damian Jones on the inside, there’s no doubt that Vanderbilt will rely heavily on center Luke Kornet. Although Kornet has the ability to stretch the floor and shoot the three, he expects to find himself in the paint a lot more this season.

Yet again, John Calipari has a Kentucky team that could make a run at a national title. PHOTO BY BLAKE LOVELL

Yet again, John Calipari has a Kentucky team that could make a run at a national title. PHOTO BY BLAKE LOVELL

“I’ll see a lot more time in there,” said Kornet. “It’s a little more on me to establish myself on the inside.”

Kornet also stressed his desire to become a better playmaker on both ends of the floor. Baldwin and Jones were certainly the top two playmakers for the Commodores last season, so that will be a necessity if Vandy is gonna make a run at the NCAA tournament.

Bryce Drew has a very intriguing roster in his first season, with shooters at a lot of positions.

However, there’s no doubt that Kornet will draw the most attention on both sides of the floor due to his size and ability. He’s definitely a first team All-SEC player if he stays healthy.

9. John Calipari has yet another special team in Lexington

It’s that time of year again. Yes, that time where we don’t question if Kentucky will be any good, but wonder just how good they’ll be.

By listening to head coach John Calipari, it’s clear that there may be something special about this year’s squad.

He has a fantastic freshman class, as evident by two of those players – guard De’Aaron Fox and forward Bam Adebayo – making first team All-SEC. Then there’s the returns of players like Isaiah Briscoe and Derek Willis.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Kentucky is likely far and away the best team in the SEC.

10. Preseason rankings are meaningless, but wildly entertaining

There was a common theme in talking to SEC coaches throughout the day: preseason rankings mean nothing. And they’re absolutely right.

But just because they mean nothing doesn’t mean they aren’t fun.

So, since everyone else is doing it, here’s my shot at predicting how the standings will shape up:

  1. Kentucky: The Wildcats are simply the most talented team in the SEC.
  2. Florida: All the Gators need is more consistent shooting in order to make the NCAA tournament.
  3. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost scoring and leadership, but Tyler Davis will be a beast inside.
  4. Georgia: JJ Frazier will be the most exciting player in the league, but we better not overlook Yante Maten.
  5. Vanderbilt: While losing Jones and Baldwin hurts, people are underestimating how good of a shooting team this could be.
  6. Arkansas: The Razorbacks will need talented transfers to compliment Moses Kingsley and Dusty Hannahs.
  7. Alabama: Have to find a way to score more points, but the defense will be outstanding.
  8. Auburn: The Tigers are a season away from NCAA contention. Still, they’re my SEC sleeper team.
  9. Ole Miss: Andy Kennedy might not have a Stefan Moody or Marshall Henderson, but he has good balance.
  10. South Carolina: I’m picking the Gamecocks lower than most, which means they’ll probably win 25 or more games again.
  11. Mississippi State: It’s hard to accurately predict a team that is made up of mostly freshmen and sophomores.
  12. LSU: The roster is intriguing, but it’s hard to pick the Tigers any higher right now.
  13. Tennessee: The Vols are still in rebuilding mode, however, Rick Barnes has them on the right track.
  14. Missouri: It’s difficult to pick them above anyone else.

Blake Lovell covers college basketball for Sports and Entertainment Nashville. Follow him on Twitter for more SEC basketball talk.