SEC basketball looks to compete as the top conference in college basketball next season. But which direction are certain teams trending?
SEC basketball had a poor showing in the NCAA Tournament last year, only producing one Sweet Sixteen team (Arkansas) and having two 2-seeds lose in the first two rounds. The offseason was just as hectic for the conference, with six teams hiring new coaches. Four teams, however, are notably in better or worse situations than at the end of the season.
Going in the Right Direction:
The Aggies should have and would have made the big dance last year had it not been for an eight game losing streak halfway through the year. The Aggies’ record outside of that slump? 27-5. Losing big man Kevin Marfo to Quinnipiac and Emanuel Miller to TCU before the season could not slow Buzz Williams’s squad down, as a hot start to the season had the Aggies at 15-2 through 17 games.
Looking ahead to next year, the momentum should carry over, given that Tyrece Radford and Henry Coleman III return, two of three double digit scorers for the team last year. Yes, Quenton Jackson is gone and 15 points per game is hard to replace. But any NIT finalist with three of four leading scorers returning (Wade Taylor IV) is bound to have momentum heading into the next year.
Another storyline to look out for next year is the possible emergence of former four-star Manny Obaseki. Recruiting-wise, Solomon Washington is a huge pickup. Only rated a high 3-star by 247, Washington has almost everything needed to be a star. A physical defender and with all the physical traits to match up with SEC basketball athletes already, the league will have to watch out if he picks up a solid outside shot.
How can a team that loses a player like Scotty Pippen Jr. be on the up and up? The answer is simple: Jerry Stackhouse is beginning to recruit SEC basketball talent to Nashville. A top 30 class in 2022 brings in three top-120 recruits in Lee Dort, Noah Shelby, and Colin Smith. Both Shelby and Dort come from Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, providing some chemistry in the locker room before practices even start for the year. Yes, Bryce Drew recruited well and couldn’t win. But as cliche as it sounds, the culture that Stackhouse is building is something that hasn’t been seen in Nashville in quite a while. Just watching the Commodores last year, they play with a confidence and flair that has been missing from Memorial Gymnasium for decades.
How do you replace a 34% usage rate of Pippen’s? A more balanced offense centered around Jordan Wright and UTEP transfer Keonte Kennedy. Pippen’s dominance makes it easy to forget that the Commodores had a pretty solid supporting cast last year. Wright averaged over 12 points per game and big men Liam Robbins and Myles Stute both return after picking their games up a level towards the end of last year.
Teams on the Decline:
As much as the SEC basketball coaching carousel turned this offseason, this was one change I did not agree on. Despite a 12 game improvement from the COVID-19-impacted 2020 season and a T-5th spot in the SEC standings, Frank Martin was let go after 10 years in Columbia. While missing the NCAA tournament should never be considered a good year in the SEC, it was certainly a sign that the program was not in shambles.
With a strong rapport with the number one recruit in the nation, (GG Jackson) and most of last year’s starting five slated to return, the Gamecocks could have had a bit of momentum going into next season. But, Martin was fired and eventually replaced with UT-Chattanooga head coach Lamont Paris. While I believe the Paris hire was a good one, and I will get into that, there was no reason to make a change given the current circumstances surrounding the program. Since Martin was let go, starting guards Devin Carter (SEC All-Freshman), Jermaine Cousinard (former SEC All-Freshman), and Erik Stevenson (11.6 points per game) all transferred out. In all, the top six leading scorers from last season are all out of the program, despite five of them having eligibility remaining. As volatile as the transfer portal is, the likelihood that those five players all transfer out with Martin still coaching is much lower.
As previously mentioned, I don’t believe the hire itself was bad. Paris had success recruiting at Wisconsin under Bo Ryan and Greg Gard, as well as building a roster on his own accord at Chattanooga. Already, Paris has brought in double-double machine Hayden Brown from The Citadel, although time will tell if Brown’s game can make the jump from the SoCon to the SEC or if he gets locked down defensively in conference play. My money is on the former.
Paris has a set roster-building strategy and knows what he wants from every player he brings into his program. He’s developed NBA talent as an assistant coach for Wisconsin, which has historically been a weakness for the South Carolina program. While there are major differences between Paris’s and Martin’s coaching styles, the two major tells of success at the program will be if Paris is able to recruit in-state talent and build a roster capable of scoring points at a high level. As for now, however, any time a program loses its top six leading scorers, it’s going to be on the decline the next season.
This may seem like a bit of a shock. But, a deeper dive into the stats of last year’s team shows the Tigers have quite a bit of replacing to do on both the offensive and defensive ends of the ball. Offensively, they’ve got to replace their best three point shooter, (at a 42% rate) their leading scorer, (16.9 points per game) top offensive rebounder, (2.6 rebounds per game) highest two point shooter, (a 70% rate) and top two in box plus/minus. The kicker? All of those stats come from either Jabari Smith, Walker Kessler, or both.
While two of the top four leading scorers from last year return, (K.D. Johnson and Wendell Green) they ranked 9th and 10th in FG% out of 11 players who logged more than five minutes a game. Simply focusing the offense more on Green and Johnson this year won’t produce the same numbers that last year’s team did. Especially with defenders no longer having to focus so much defensive energy on Kessler and Smith, it’s hard to believe that there’s any way that the offense can reach the levels of production from last year, even with Morehead State transfer Johni Broome (16.8 points per game).
Defensively, it’s impossible to replace the highest block percentage in NCAA history, even though Broome’s 3.9 blocks per game mark from last year is a sign that rim protection will still be at least somewhat of a strength. The top two leading rebounders from last year (yet again, Kessler and Smith) are gone, and the duo both averaged double the rebounds than the third leading rebounder (Green, at 3.7). Where are the boards going to come from? Will Broome be able to single-handedly replace the 19.1 rebounds per game vacated by the losses of Smith, Kessler, and Devan Cambridge? He’ll need help from 5-star freshman Yohan Traore to man the frontcourt, as well as returning rotation player Dylan Cardwell. It’s a lot to ask a freshman, an OVC transfer, and a solid player but with limited minutes last year to immediately follow in the footsteps of Smith and Kessler in the suddenly-deep SEC.
On paper, this is a team that struggles to shoot, will struggle to score, but likely rank near the top of the conference in defense. In a nutshell, even with three of five starters returning and a recruiting class ranked 13th nationally by 247, there is no doubt Auburn will take a big step back next season. The Tigers ranked 29th in the country in three pointers attempted last year, which wouldn’t be an issue if they hit their shots. But they also ranked 274th in 3PT% (31.8%). With Smith gone, where are the threes going to come from? Green, Jaylin Williams, and Johnson all hit below team average 31.8% on shots behind the arc, and there’s no three-point specialist coming in through the portal. This team will fall far below expectations, but if there’s one positive surprise to look forward to, it’s going to be Dylan Cardwell. Cardwell only averaged three points per game last year, but he was extremely efficient when he was on the floor, shooting 69% from the floor, grabbing three rebounds per game and 1.2 blocks in just 11.5 minutes. If anyone’s capable of getting close to Kessler’s numbers last year, it’s Dylan Cardwell.