I was watching ESPN's SEC college basketball preview and can honestly say I'm not sure if I've seen a more blatant case of pandering and peddling from The Worldwide Leader in a long time.
ESPN, which owns the SEC Network, has a clear financial stake in promoting what is by far and away the worst of the "Big Six" college conferences. So I expected some smoke to be blown. But then Dino Gaudio and Seth Greenberg started their intro and…I…yeah.
Gaudio (career record: 129-155) and Greenberg (who never met a feeble nonconference schedule he couldn't agree to) were our hosts and "experts". And they were falling over themselves about how "up and coming" this league is and how "potentially dominant" it could be on a national level. They were fawning over what a great conference season this was going to be - in the same vein as all preview shows are hilariously optimistic - when Gaudio hits the viewer with this gem:
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"I wouldn't be surprised if the SEC had eight or nine teams in the NCAA Tournament this year."
The SEC is garbage. The dirty little secret about Kentucky's recent dominance is that it comes in an absolute joke of a conference. As recently as 2013 this was the No. 7-rated league in college basketball, behind the Mountain West and a few thousandths of a point ahead of the Missouri Valley. That was actually the second time in the last five years that this league logged in at No. 7 in the national rankings.
This year the SEC will start the season as the No. 6 conference in the country. And if you took out Kentucky, the remaining 13 teams would be in the same statistical neighborhood as the Atlantic 10.
Eight or nine teams? The SEC hasn't sent nine teams to the NCAA Tournament in the last two seasons combined! They've sent an average of just four teams to the Big Dance over the last seven years, and three times in that stretch they've sent three teams three times. Seven of their last 10 participants have been a No. 8 seed or lower.
So no, don't believe any of the drivel that ESPN tries to sell you on the SEC this year. This league is trash. Yes, there are some big-name coaches. But these are football schools. People in the South do not give a damn about basketball, I promise you. And the product on the court reflects it and will do so again this year.
Here are Doc's Sports 2015-16 Southeastern Conference college basketball predictions (with projected odds to win the conference title in parentheses):
The Favorite: Kentucky (+125)
Before you go pouring all your money into Kentucky as the shoo-in winner of the SEC this year, you should remember: the Wildcats haven't won two straight outright SEC championships in 20 years, last pulling the back-to-back in 1995-96. It's tough to predict that anyone will knock off the Wildcats this season. But that speaks to the weak quality of the SEC in general rather than the relative strength of UK. The Wildcats simply lost too much talent for me to take them seriously as a national title contender. I get it: "they do the same thing every year". UK loses NBA picks and then brings in another crop of top freshmen and wins some more. I get it. But in 2012-13, after winning 38 games the year prior, the Wildcats flopped their way to just 21 wins and an NIT loss to Robert Morris. They also came up short of 30 wins - Kentucky's graded on a different scale - in 2010-11 and 2013-14, so the Cats aren't some unstoppable force. I have yet to see Kentucky's freshmen, and I don't care. I will be betting against this team, which doesn't have any veteran guards, and I think it'll be a money pit for backers this year.
The Challenger: LSU (+250)
Kentucky isn't the only team that's banking on a sick freshman class to come in and dominate. Forward Ben Simmons is the No. 1 freshman in the country and a likely one-and-done star. However, as good as Simmons is, I don't think that he alone can fill the void left by the early departures of Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, who combined to average 32.3 points and 19.1 rebounds a night. LSU has two starting guards back: shooter Keith Hornsby and slasher Tim Quarterman. They are also hoping that senior Josh Gray can overcome the inconsistencies that have plagued him and lead this team. Freshman guards Antonio Blakeney and Brandon Sampson are other slick freshmen expected to play right away. This group has a lot of talent. But they don't have a lot of help for Simmons underneath and are short on experience overall. It's tough to know how they'll shake out.
The Dark Horse: Vanderbilt (+800)
It's not often that a team that finished in seventh place in a major conference one year would come back the following season as one of the favorites to win the league. Especially when that seventh-place team didn't add any superstar freshman. But Vandy is rock solid and a definite player in the SEC this season. They have four starters back, including stud 7-footer Damian Jones. Vandy added an intriguing transfer in Nolan Cressler to support sophomore Riley LaChance in the backcourt. Throw in two other quality 7-footers and some nice role-playing guards and Vanderbilt has a tight eight-man rotation. They are big enough to bang with Kentucky and LSU and more experienced and cohesive than either. The trick will be getting their guards to play above themselves when it matters most and finding a second gear to bury weaker opposition.
The X-Factor: Texas A&M (+500)
It is time for Billy Kennedy to step up or step off in College Station. This is Kennedy's fifth season since coming over from Murray State, and the Aggies are still searching for his first NCAA bid. This is the team to get him there…if everyone can figure out how to play together. A&M is a hodgepodge team, but there is talent everywhere. Their three best players are back. That includes veteran point guard and league assist leader Alex Caruso, first-team SEC guard Danuel House, and smooth low-post option Jalen Jones. A&M's four-man freshman class is stocked with highly-touted players inside and out. And transfer Anthony Collins brings NCAA Tournament experience and savvy to the bench. Again, Kennedy has a lot to work with here. But how well he puts the pieces together will determine whether or not they can go dancing next March and maybe whether or not he's still here next season.
The Disappointment: Mississippi (+1200)
It is tough to pick one team that I think is going to take a step back in the SEC this year. Originally I had Arkansas in this space. Then I realized everyone already knows they'll be awful this year. I don't think Ole Miss is going to be awful. But after a decade-long NCAA Tournament drought the Rebels have gotten used to dancing by making the field in two of the last three years. They won't make it this year. Andy Kennedy has crafted a nice system team down in Oxford. But he still needs guys to plug in. And this year he just doesn't have enough. Lead guard Stefan Moody is legit. But the Rebels lost six guys - including four seniors - from one of the 25 most experienced rosters in the nation. Moody won't be enough.
Georgia (+800) - Mark Fox has done a great job building up this Bulldogs program. He has installed an intricate offense and backs it up with solid team defense. Fox will lean on an experienced starting backcourt of Charles Mann (72 starts) and Kenny Gaines (61 starts) this season. Toss in returning starters Juwan Parker and J.J. Frazier and the Bulldogs have a wealth of perimeter options. Unfortunately, they lost their three best post players and don't have ready-made replacements. They'll lean on sophomore Yante Maten inside. But they don't have any help for him. So it will be on the guards to up their scoring output if they want to keep up in this league. And regardless, I think Georgia will be a dead 'over' wager this winter.
Mississippi State (+1200) - Usually when teams go 13-19 and only win six games in the weak-sister SEC, then replace their coach in the offseason, it signals a rebuilding year and another lost campaign. But the Bulldogs have some legit potential heading into the season. They have four starters back, three of them in their third year of that role, and one of the best recruiting classes in school history. Mississippi State somehow landed three Top 100 recruits, led by Malik Newman, who actually spurned Kentucky and Kansas for Starkville. He'll join underrated Craig Sword and point guard I.J. Ready in the backcourt. The Bulldogs also have two returning post players and another 6-10 freshman ready to contribute. Oh, and the new coach is Ben Howland, who took UCLA to three straight Final Fours. MSU won't be a pushover and should notch their first winning season in four years.
South Carolina (+1500) - Maniac head coach Frank Martin has his best team in Columbia. But if he can't get this group over the hump in his fourth season then I don't know that it will ever happen for him here. South Carolina has a trio of three-year starters leading the way, including junior wing Sindarius Thornwell. He and point guard Duane Notice are the team leaders. Rugged forwards Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas do the dirty work on the inside and will get some help from four-star recruit Chris Silva. Freshman P.J. Dozier is just the fourth McDonald's All-American to attend USC, and he could be the difference-maker for a team that was close, but not close enough, to making a breakthrough last year.
Florida (+2000) - Florida's fall from national power to conference afterthought has been swift. Just two years ago they won 36 games and had one of the best teams in the country. Then last year they couldn't even get to .500, and prior to this season coach Billy Donovan split for the NBA. Now Mike White, one of the youngest coaches in Division I and formerly of Louisiana Tech, is left to pick up the pieces. There aren't many pieces thanks to the disastrous losses of Michael Frazier and Eli Carter. But Dorian Finney-Smith is an anchor, Alex Murphy is a talented swing forward, and guards Kasey Hill and KeVaughn Allen have upside. Florida still isn't very good. But I'll be surprised if the Gators don't find their way into one of the second-tier tournaments next March.
Arkansas (+5000) - The Razorbacks were finally able to snap a six-year hiatus in the NCAA Tournament, earning a No. 5 seed and winning a game in last year's dance. But the Razorbacks lost as much production as any team in the country. Four 1,000-point scorers and five of their top seven players are gone. Their top two players went to the NBA, and now coach Mike Anderson will be forced to employ his running, trapping, pressing style with a bunch of very young players. Anderson brings in two ballyhooed freshmen, and his inexperienced athletes have plenty of room to develop. But this year could be ugly, and I can see this team getting run off the court on the road more than a couple times this year.
Auburn (+1500) - Bruce Pearl has succeeded in bringing energy and interest to the Auburn hoops program. And he showed his coaching ability in the SEC tournament when he coaxed three wins and a mini-run in the SEC Tournament out of last year's charges. But Pearl still has work to do in terms of building his roster to his expected talent level. Forward Cinmeon Bowers is a unique play. But he doesn't have much help. Keep an eye on Providence transfer Tyler Harris, who I am a big fan of. There are a lot of other random pieces on the perimeter: Marshall transfer Kareem Canty, freshman Dan Purifoy, and enigmatic junior Tahj Shamsid-Deen come to mind. But with so few established holdovers and so many new pieces coming from all over the country, the biggest problem will be cohesion. Pearl is getting there. And I expect this team to again be a tough draw when March rolls around.
Tennessee (+5000) - Rick Barnes is one of the worst in-game coaches in college basketball. The guy squandered as much talent as any coach in the country during his time in Texas. But the fact that he is a dynamite recruiter that can get talent to begin with means he will always be employed. And he's found a new home in Knoxville as the fourth Vols coach in the last five years. Barnes inherits a better-than-average roster. They lost do-it-all guard Josh Richardson, and he is irreplaceable. Three other starters return, including seniors Kevin Punter and Armani Moore, and they really have the rest of their team back. But what Barnes can squeeze out of this group, and how players he didn't recruit will fit into his system, remains a mystery.
Alabama (+2000) - Anthony Grant's tenure in Tuscaloosa is over and has to be considered an abject failure. Avery Johnson has been brought in to pick up the pieces. This is Johnson's first college coaching effort, and we'll see how (and how fast) his vast NBA experience will translate to this level. The cupboard is pretty bare here. They lost their three leading scorers, who were also the primary ball handlers, and only one returning player averaged more than six points per game (Shannon Hale at 8.2 PPG). I think Johnson will be a strong recruiter, and in two or three years we'll see what he can do. But this team will be relegated to a "try hard" roster who's best hope is avoid any embarrassing nonconference losses and pull a minor upset or two in league play.
Missouri (+5000) - I can't help but think back to March of 2013. It was just over two years ago. Missouri was the Big 12 tournament champion, a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and a sleeper pick for the Final Four with a stacked backcourt. They lost to No. 15 seed Norfolk State, abandoned the Big 12 for the SEC, and now the program is the shell of its former self. Kim Anderson has cleaned house and is dedicated to a youth movement in Columbia. They have 10 freshmen and sophomores on the roster, and this team isn't going to be competitive on most nights, even in the terrible SEC. Of course, they weren't very competitive last year while going 9-23 overall and 3-15 in league play. This program is a mess, and until we see signs of life (or even a plan) this is a team to play against.
Projected SEC Standings:
4. Texas A&M
7. South Carolina
8. Mississippi State
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and has an unmatched streak of nine straight winning nonconference seasons and nine straight winning regular seasons. Robert's $100-per-Unit clients have banked $12,130 in profit with his sides and totals the last two years alone and he has raked in a remarkable $60,600 in the last nine years with his nonconference picks (November and December) alone. There is no better moneymaker in the nation and Robert is looking forward to another amazing season. You can sign up for his college basketball picks and get more information here.
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