SEC Offseason Reset: Can Florida beat out Kentucky for a league title?

Scott Phillips
NBC Sports

The grad transfer market is still in full swing, but for the most part, we know what the meaningful parts for the majority of the teams around the country will be.

That means that it is time to start talking about what is coming instead of what was.

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With that in mind, let’s take a look at key personnel changes, the impact of the coaching carousel and the most important storylines heading into the 2019-20 season for each of college basketball’s top seven conferences.

Today, we are talking SEC.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

KENTUCKY RELOADS: In typical John Calipari fashion, Kentucky lost a lot of great players this offseason only to reload with six more players who could contribute this season. Nearly any team in the country would be cooked if they had to replace three first-round picks and Reid Travis. But the Wildcats under Calipari have turned yearly roster construction into a near-science as they once again have tons of good players entering the rotation.

The five-man freshmen class is headlined by five-stars Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks. Calipari also took quality four-stars in in-state guard Dontaie Allen and reclassified guard Johnny Juzang. And grad transfer forward Nate Sestina (Bucknell) was one of the best available bigs as he averaged 16 and 8 with 38 percent three-point shooting.

Kentucky still has to figure out how all of these new pieces will fit with returning players like Ashton Hagans, E.J. Montgomery, Nick Richards and Immanuel Quickley. But almost any program in the country would love to have a roster with this many five-star talents as Kentucky again looks poised to be in the SEC and national title conversations.

LSU SHAKES OFF A DRAMATIC END TO LAST SEASON TO STAY LOADED: Entering the offseason, LSU basketball was in an entirely uncertain place. Head coach Will Wade was suspended as the Tigers made a Sweet 16 run without him. Perhaps most importantly, the talent that took LSU to the sport’s second weekend was virtually all locked into the NBA Draft process.

Point guard Tremont Waters and big man Naz Reid opted to stay pro and leave school. But the Tigers dodged some major bullets when Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays, Marlon Taylor and Emmitt Williams all withdrew from the draft and returned to school. LSU also reloaded with the addition of McDonald’s All-American forward Trendon Watford as he should come in and start right away.

Seemingly overnight, LSU went from potential SEC doormat, looking for a new head coach, to returning many of the players that helped them win the SEC’s regular-season title last season. Smart and Mays have the potential to be All-SEC players while Williams should take a leap now that Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams have moved on. LSU has talent, size, athleticism and some depth. Watching them play with a chip on their shoulder in light of the mess at the end of last season should be interesting.

KERRY BLACKSHEAR’S TRANSFER TO FLORIDA SHOOK UP THE WHOLE SEC: The most important transfer of the offseason returned home to Florida as former Virginia Tech big man Kerry Blackshear will finish his college hoops career with the Gators.

By adding the 6-foot-10 double-double threat into the lineup, Florida vaults into the preseason top-10 as Blackshear gives the Gators much-needed stability and scoring on the interior. Blackshear was one of the few big men in all of college basketball last season where an offense could run through him and thrive. This is a dude who dropped monster double-doubles against Virginia (23 and 13), North Carolina (19 and 17) and Duke (23 and 10 AND 18 and 16) last season.

Perhaps most importantly in Blackshear going to Florida, however, is that the Gators kept the potential All-American away from looming conference threats like Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas A&M. While Texas A&M isn’t a threat to win the SEC, there was a chance Blackshear would follow his former coach, Buzz Williams, to the Lone Star State. The Gators winning Blackshear over the Wildcats and Vols completely changes the landscape of the SEC title race.

Kentucky would have been the league’s runaway favorite with Blackshear in the middle while Tennessee was very effective with talented frontcourt players like Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Instead, Blackshear gives the Gators a go-to scorer as his presence makes Florida one of the nation’s most intriguing teams.

THE SEC LOADED UP IN RECRUITING: Seven McDonald’s All-Americans, and a host of other top-100 prospects, will enter the SEC this season as the league did a great job of reloading through recruiting. And while most people associate Burger Boys and five-star talents with John Calipari and Kentucky, they only brought in three of those seven McDonald’s talents.

With 16 top-100 prospects (according to Rivals) joining the SEC, the league continues to increase its talent levels while also leveling the playing field. What used to be a top-heavy conference dominated by the Wildcats has become a deep and talented league where double-digit teams should be tough outs this season. Kentucky is still the class of the conference when it comes to high-end recruiting. But Anthony Edwards (Georgia) and Scottie Lewis (Florida) are both individually ranked ahead of any single Kentucky recruit as watching all of the talented five-stars clash should be a ton of fun.

FOUR NEW COACHES ENTER THE SEC: The SEC has four new head coaches in the fold this season as the conference has done a great job of holding basketball coaches accountable to create a winning culture that is similar to football. Nate Oats (Buffalo to Alabama), Buzz Williams (Virginia Tech to Texas A&M) and Eric Musselman (Nevada to Arkansas) all have proven track records at the college level as all three coaches are coming off of multiple NCAA tournament appearances.

That trio should also be strong on the recruiting trail. Oats deserves praise for convincing Kira Lewis, John Petty and three four-star prospects to stay with the Crimson Tide while Williams and Musselman have long been dangerous when it comes to landing premier talent.

All three will be fascinating to see at their new schools. Oats finally gets to coach at the highest level of the sport after doing so well in the MAC. Williams returns to his native Texas where he can establish a strong local recruiting pipeline. And Musselman turned Nevada into a consistent top-25 program with resources not nearly as plentiful as he’ll have in the SEC.

The wildcard of the new-coach quartet will be Vanderbilt’s hire of NBA veteran Jerry Stackhouse. While the NBA-to-college coaching game has been a dangerous one, Stackhouse brings a unique pedigree thanks to his time as an NBA assistant (Raptors and Grizzlies) and G-League head coach (Raptors 905). Stackhouse has also worked closely with his own AAU program, which produced a McDonald’s All-American and top-five pick in Brandon Ingram. So Stackhouse shouldn’t be coming into the college game completely oblivious about the expectations and work that comes in recruiting.

WHO’S GONE

  • P.J. WASHINGTON, TYLER HERRO and KELDON JOHNSON, Kentucky: The three leading scorers for the Wildcats all turned pro and got picked in the first round of the NBA Draft. Kentucky has survived this type of loss before and they’ll survive these losses as well.

  • TREMONT WATERS AND NAZ REID, LSU: Losing an elite point guard and McDonald’s All-American big man will be tough for the Tigers. Waters was an elite creator and scorer while Reid could take over a game when his motor was running high.

  • JARED HARPER, BRYCE BROWN, CHUMA OKEKE, Auburn: Following a surprising Final Four run, the Tigers lose their top three scorers and most versatile defender in Okeke. Auburn has to replace over 43 points of offense per game between these three next season.

  • ADMIRAL SCHOFIELD, GRANT WILLIAMS and JORDAN BONE, Tennessee: Losing the SEC’s best frontcourt and top three scorers will be tough to replace for the Vols. This is the main core that led Tennessee to an SEC title and Sweet 16 appearance.

  • DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas: Rim-running now for the Chicago Bulls, Gafford was an elite SEC big man the past two seasons. The Razorbacks will miss his rebounding and rim protection in a big way.

  • NICOLAS CLAXTON, Georgia: After leading the Bulldogs in scoring, rebound and blocked shots, Claxton parlayed a strong NBA Draft Combine appearance into being an early second-round pick.

  • DARIUS GARLAND and SIMI SHITTU, Vanderbilt: These two McDonald’s All-Americans were supposed to lead Vandy into the upper echelon of the SEC. Instead, Garland only played five games (knee injury) and became a lottery pick while Shittu didn’t live up to lofty expectations before also turning pro.

WHO’S BACK

  • ASHTON HAGANS and E.J. MONTGOMERY, Kentucky: The sophomore duo both have a chance to increase their production since Kentucky lost their top four scorers from last season. Hagans has to show more offensively while Montgomery won minutes at the end of the season.

  • SKYLAR MAYS and JAVONTE SMART, LSU: Both double-figure scorers and potential all-league players return for the Tigers as Smart and Mays will have the ball in their hands much more with Waters gone. If either of the duo improves on their 31 percent three-point shooting it would be huge.

  • LAMONTE TURNER AND JORDAN BOWDEN, Tennessee: Although the Vols lost four of their main six players from last season, the returning duo of Bowden and Turner should be very good. Both players can take over a game — particularly if the three-ball is going.

  • KIRA LEWIS and JOHN PETTY, Alabama: Both double-figure scorers nearly left before Nate Oats convinced them to stay for another season. With Lewis and Petty back, Alabama has a backcourt that is one of the most talented in the country.

  • A.J. LAWSON, South Carolina: Generating some pro buzz his freshman season, the 6-foot-6 sophomore showed flashes of brilliance last season. Capable of 20-point games on any night, if Lawson improves his efficiency he’ll be an All-SEC player.

  • RAYSHAUN HAMMONDS, Georgia: Making a big leap as a sophomore, the 6-foot-8 forward has all-SEC potential if his game continues to develop. Hammonds put up solid numbers (12.1 pts, 6.1 reb) in only 24 minutes per game.

WHO’S COMING

  • KERRY BLACKSHEAR, Florida: The nation’s top graduate transfer becomes an immediate candidate to win SEC Player of the Year after his transfer from Virginia Tech. The 6-foot-10 Blackshear is a nightly double-double threat who can take over a game.

  • ANTHONY EDWARDS, Georgia: Some believe this in-state, five-star shooting guard is the best prospect in the country and a future top-five pick. The 6-foot-4 Edwards reclassifying into 2019 gives Georgia a potentially elite scorer with big expectations.

  • SCOTTIE LEWIS and TRE MANN, Florida: This McDonald’s All-American duo should earn major PT right away. The ultra-athletic 6-foot-5 Lewis immediately becomes one of the team’s better defenders while he’s no slouch on offense either. The 6-foot-4 Mann can get buckets in a hurry as he helps Florida’s recent inconsistent perimeter shooting.

  • TYRESE MAXEY, KAHLIL WHITNEY and KEION BROOKS, Kentucky: Among Kentucky’s five-man freshman class, these are the three players who could come in and start right away. Maxey’s penchant for scoring makes him a nice counterpart to Hagans, Whitney’s athleticism should be used on both ends of the floor and Brooks is a productive frontcourt player with upside.

  • TRENDON WATFORD, LSU: Dynamic offensively, the 6-foot-9 Watford should be able to score, rebound and help with his passing right away. Watford is a different type of player than Naz Reid but he could be more of a consistent impact.

  • ISAAC OKORO, Auburn: A five-star prospect who is physically ready right away, the 6-foot-5 Okoro should defend multiple spots, help on the glass and aid the offense in transition. Okoro is a year of skill development away from being a potential monster.

  • JOSIAH JAMES, Tennessee: The McDonald’s All-American will be asked to play big minutes right away as he’s a physical lefty who can finish at the rim and defend multiple spots. The 6-foot-6 James has pro upside if he improves his perimeter jumper.

  • JAMES BOLDEN, Alabama: Helping Alabama on both ends of the floor will be this West Virginia grad transfer guard. “Beetle” was a double-figure scorer last season while he’s also experienced in Press Virginia’s turnover-focused approach on defense.

  • ARKANSAS TRANSFERS: The graduate transfer duo of shooting guard Jimmy Whitt (SMU) and forward Jeantal Cylla (UNC Wilmington) should come in and help right away as both averaged double-figures last season.

  • DRU SMITH, Missouri: The Evansville transfer is expected to come in and make a huge impact in the Tiger backcourt. As a sophomore, Smith put up 13.7 points, 4.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game on ridiculous shooting splits (57% FG, 48% 3PT, 86% FT).

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-SEC TEAM

KERRY BLACKSHEAR, Florida (SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR)
SKYLAR MAYS, LSU
ANTHONY EDWARDS, Georgia
KIRA LEWIS, Alabama
JAVONTE SMART, LSU

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. KENTUCKY: Once again the class of the SEC, Kentucky has more top-to-bottom talent than any roster in the country. Figuring out the rotation and how everyone gets along will once again be one of the things to watch with the Wildcats. The fit of returning guard Ashton Hagans and incoming freshman Tyrese Maxey is a good one as Maxey can go on scoring bursts while Hagans can continue to be a lockdown defender and floor leader. Kahlil Whitney showed flashes of brilliance late in his high school career and could thrive in Kentucky’s system. And the group of bigs remains as deep as ever as E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards are joined by Nate Sestina and Keion Brooks. As we’ve seen on some Kentucky super teams in the past, sometimes the pieces just don’t properly fit. But this group seems like they could play well together and do some serious damage.

2. FLORIDA: Things changed dramatically for Florida once Kerry Blackshear committed to the Gators. Without Blackshear, the Gators were a fringe top-25 team with major question marks inside. With Blackshear, Florida adds a go-to scorer and major factor on the interior. Returning guards Andrew Nembhard and Noah Locke also gain the benefit of adding two five-star talents in Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann into the rotation while Keyontae Johnson remains a promising wing forward. Perimeter shooting still needs to become more consistent. And Florida is asking a lot out of a young perimeter rotation. But the talent is in place for this team to compete for an SEC title and beyond.

3. LSU: Avoiding potential disaster, LSU still finds itself in the thick of another SEC race after winning last season. The Tigers will try to avoid the drama that surrounded the end of last season as Will Wade is back at the helm and many of last season’s key players return. The perimeter group of Javonte Smart, Skylar Mays and Marlon Taylor is strong and the addition of Trendon Watford means the Tigers have two former five-star prospects in the frontcourt as he joins Emmitt Williams. Shooting is something to watch for with this team as LSU only shot 32 percent from distance last season while losing a key shooter in Tremont Waters. This could be another special season for LSU. Or will the NCAA come down on Wade and change everything?

4. AUBURN: Although the Tigers made the Final Four last season and find themselves in the NBCSports.com Preseason Top 25, it will be a very different outfit for Bruce Pearl this season. Gone are the team’s top three scorers as the Auburn offense will need to find new go-to players. Thankfully, there’s a lot to like with returning role players. Samir Doughty, J’Von McCormick, Danjel Purifoy, Anfernee McLemore and Austin Wiley are all experienced upperclass players who averaged double-figure minutes. Five-star guard Isaac Okoro leads a six-man recruiting class that includes three additional top-100 prospects. Auburn needs to find a star but they’re deep, talented, experienced and athletic.

5. TENNESSEE: It will be a transition period in Knoxville as the Vols learn to play without the frontcourt of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Jordan Bone and Kyle Alexander leaving also means Tennessee needs to replace four of their top six. But the backcourt of Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden should excel in new roles while Josiah James is a worthy freshman who should play right away. Tennessee needs more development out of big man John Fulkerson and uber athlete Yves Pons, and perimeter shooting could be a question mark, but there’s still a lot to like about Tennessee returning to the Big Dance.

6. GEORGIA: The addition of Edwards gives the Bulldogs a very intriguing team for next season. A known developer of talent, head coach Tom Crean has to get a leap from veteran forward Rayshaun Hammonds and one of the two senior returning guards in Tyree Crump or Jordan Harris. And besides for Edwards, Georgia recruited four additional four-star prospects. The Bulldogs have talent but can they put it all together?

7. MISSISSIPPI STATE: There’s still a lot to like about the Bulldogs despite losing the top two scorers in Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters. Plenty of talent and scoring potential remains as Tyson Carter, Reggie Perry and Nick Weatherspoon should all step up. Robert Woodard and Abdul Ado give additional length and athleticism as Mississippi State’s entire starting lineup should be former top-150 prospects. If Perry can have a big year then this team might be even better than last season.

8. ALABAMA: The perimeter-oriented Crimson Tide will have to find some inside help if they want to be among the league’s top teams. The backcourt trio of Kira Lewis, John Petty and James “Beetle” Bolden are all known commodities who can score and make plays. Junior wing Herb Jones also has intriguing capabilities. But help has to arrive in an unproven frontcourt that features young or unproductive returning players. If Alabama figures out a four-guard lineup and gets some contributions inside they will be dangerous.

9. OLE MISS: Kermit Davis stunned the nation by taking Ole Miss from worst to NCAA tournament berth in his first season. The Rebels bring back some potential all-league guys and should remain feisty. Breein Tyree is a potential All-SEC first-teamer as he can put up points in bunches while Devontae Shuler is an adequate second option. Rising sophomores Blake Hinson and KJ Buffen also return and should bring more production. Replacing Terence Davis will be tough and Ole Miss needs to shore up a shaky defense.

10. ARKANSAS: New head coach Eric Musselman won with unique rosters at Nevada as he inherits some talent with the Razorbacks. The sophomore core led by Isaiah Joe is promising and junior Mason Jones and graduate transfer Jimmy Whitt (SMU) are proven double-figure scorers. Finding suitable frontcourt players to help offset the loss of Daniel Gafford will be something to watch for early. This team looks like it might be a year away from being a contender.

11. MISSOURI: The Tigers might be the hardest team to peg in this whole conference. They return some solid SEC contributors like big man Jeremiah Tilmon, guard Mark Smith and a host of role players. Transfer guard Dru Smith is expected to make a huge impact right away. It’s still hard to love this team without a go-to player and a struggling offense.

12. SOUTH CAROLINA: Outside of talented sophomore A.J. Lawson and wing Keyshawn Bryant, there isn’t a lot of proven SEC talent on the roster for the Gamecocks. After sitting out a season, George Washington transfer Jair Bolden will help on the perimeter. Senior center Maik Kotsar is one of the SEC’s most experienced players. It’s just hard to say how this roster will look since they’re relying on so many unproven guys.

13. TEXAS A&M: Buzz Williams returns to his native Texas as he hopes to bring the Aggies back to the postseason. The return of Savion Flagg is huge for Texas A&M as he was great to end last season. The Aggies also have some promising returning players around Flagg in Wendell Mitchell, Jay Jay Chandler and TJ Starks. But this group is probably a year away from being a major threat as Williams hopes to build with a positive spring recruiting haul.

14. VANDERBILT: Losing their two most talented players (Garland and Shittu) from an 0-18 team in the SEC means last place is likely inevitable for the Commodores. New head coach Jerry Stackhouse convincing double-figure scorers Saben Lee and Aaron Nesmith to return is positive news for the future while freshman forward Dylan Disu is a young piece to track.

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