Southeastern Conference basketball produced a boffo 2017-18, placing eight teams in the NCAA Tournament, besting the Big 12 beasties in the head-to-head January challenge, and finishing a strong fourth in the computer rankings.
Get this: It could be even better in 2018-19.
That’s true even with the departures of Kentucky’s Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Alabama’s Collin Sexton, Texas A&M’s Robert Williams and Tyler Davis, and Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr., just to name a few.
Those losses should be offset by a group of prominent returnees who opted to delay their NBA Draft entries in favor of another year of college hoops. Add in some strong recruiting classes by league members and SEC hoops should continue its recent rise.
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A closer look:
Tennessee: Jon Rothstein’s too-early top 25 for FanRag Sports has the Vols at No. 3 in the nation after Admiral Schofield opted to return to a lineup that already includes reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams. After surprisingly tying for the regular-season title last season, Rick Barnes’ Vols won’t sneak up on anyone this winter.
Auburn: Austin Wiley, Jared Harper and Bryce Brown all opted to return to the lovely village on the Plains. Better still, head coach Bruce Pearl will have the 6-foot-11 Wiley available after the center sat out last season because of the FBI probe. Leading scorer Mustapha Heron is transferring to St. John’s, but CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish has the Tigers at No. 10 in his early top 25.
Kentucky: Yes, John Calipari is losing five one-and-dones off last season’s Sweet 16 team, but PJ Washington’s decision to return cushions that blow. Cal’s 2018 recruiting class is ranked No. 2 behind Duke by both Rivals and 247 Sports, and the Cats are reportedly the favorite for the services of Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis.
Mississippi State: This could be the year Ben Howland gets his Bulldogs to the Big Dance for the first time since 2009. Getting both Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon back was huge for MSU. The former could be an SEC Player of the Year candidate.
LSU: Second-year coach Will Wade celebrated the return of point guard Tremont Waters, who will be teamed with a recruiting class ranked third by both Rivals and 247Sports. Newcomers Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams figure to help the Tigers make the leap to conference title contenders.
Florida: The Gators might take a dip from the teams that reached the Elite Eight in 2016 and finished third in the league in 2017, but the return of leading scorer Jalen Hudson gives Mike White a solid anchor. Rivals ranked Florida’s incoming class as 16th best in the nation.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores nose-dived to 6-12 in the league last year, but third-year coach Bryce Drew welcomes a recruiting class ranked 11th by Rivals and 12th by 247Sports. Newcomers Simisola Shittu and Darrius Garland are considered top-15 talents.
Arkansas: In one of the bigger postseason surprises, Daniel Gafford didn’t even test the NBA waters. The 6-foot-11 center averaged 11.8 points and 6.2 rebounds as a freshman last year for the Razorbacks. Had Gafford opted for the draft, he was a possible first-round selection.
Missouri: Porter Jr.’s departure was a foregone conclusion, but head coach Cuonzo Martin was able to convince Michael’s not-so-little brother Jontay to return to Columbia. Jontay averaged 9.9 points and 6.8 rebounds after re-classifying to 2017 so he could play his sibling.
South Carolina: According to Ken Pomeroy, Chris Silva was one of the five best players in the SEC last season. The 6-9 forward did not get an invitation to the NBA Draft Combine, however, which apparently convinced Silva to return to Columbia for his senior season. He averaged 14.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game for the Gamecocks a year ago.
Ole Miss: New head coach Kermit Davis Jr. accomplished his first task by convincing Terence Davis to return to Oxford for another season. Davis averaged 13.8 points and 6.2 rebounds for the Rebels, who hope to climb out of the cellar under Davis, who won a pair of NCAA Tournament games during his five years at Middle Tennessee.