- With SEC play starting this week it’s time for some previews of every team in the conference before the Gators take them on. This is the second of a two-part series, and if you haven’t read the first part where I covered South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Georgia, and Texas A&M, I’d suggest you do that after reading this. In this article I will address the final seven teams I didn’t touch on in the first piece.
Former Middle Tennessee State coach Kermit Davis took over the Rebels this offseason and because of the coaching change they put together a schedule that hasn’t been particularly taxing, but they have been taking care of business against lesser opponents never letting a low or mid-major take them down to the wire. Wins over Baylor and San Diego are their current best and they’ve taken losses to Butler and Cincinnati, nothing that has hurt their resume. Breein Tyree (17.3 points, 3.3 assists) and Terence Davis (15.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists) are a tremendous SEC backcourt that carries a lot of the offensive load for the Rebels and if you remember correctly those two dominated the Gators last year. Though improved defensively from last year if this team is going to win big games it’s going to be with their offense and Tyree and Davis can make that happen. The Gators will have to slow that duo down to have a better fate against the Rebels than they did last season.
Overwhelming most of their competition with size and athleticism this Kentucky Wildcats team plays just the way you’ve come to expect the last few seasons. Keyontae Johnson’s high school teammate Keldon Johnson is leading the way in scoring with 16.4 points per game on 52.9% shooting but they’ve got a fairly balanced attack with Reid Travis going for 14.6, Tyler Herro putting in 13.3, and PJ Washington adding 12.6. While Johnson and Herro have provided some perimeter skill the Wildcats were lacking last year this is still a team built around physicality on defense and on the glass. They’re one of the best rebounding teams in the country and the extra possessions they get by battling on the glass gives them plenty of opportunity to score. Ashton Hagans is a tremendous defender at the point guard position and he can blow up an offense singlehandedly with his ball pressure. His matchup with Andrew Nembhard when the Gators take on the Wildcats will be one to watch.
Coach Bruce Pearl has been able to build on his surprise success from last season with a great start to the year including a game where they almost knocked off Duke. Currently 11-2 with a strength-of-schedule that isn’t great their best win is currently against Arizona on a neutral floor, but when you watch them play they pass the eye test with flying colors. Offensively they share the ball extremely well and Jared Harper is one of the best passers in the country with 6.8 assists per game. His running mate in the backcourt Bryce Brown has been a reliable go-to scorer when the Tigers need a bucket and the addition of Austin Wiley after he sat out last season gives them size down low they were previously lacking. Though their run-and-gun offense gets a lot of the attention it’s their defense that I find particularly impressive with their ability to swat away shots at the rim and pressure ball handlers into sloppy turnovers. They are currently first in the country in blocked shots and second in steals, showing how much hustle they have on their end of the court. Playing the Tigers isn’t going to be fun this year and they should pick up a lot of major wins in the SEC.
A devastating injury to Darius Garland only 5 games into the season really changed expectations for a Vanderbilt team that had high hopes with a star-studded recruiting class but the wheels haven’t totally come off for the team without their elite point guard. In convincingly knocking off an Arizona State team that might win the Pac-12 81-65 the Commodores showed they haven’t given up on the season and they could give teams some tough games, especially on their home floor in the mysterious Memorial Gym. Their other top-15 recruit Simisola Shittu has been the player to watch for Vanderbilt as he’s been filling up the stat sheet with 14.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, using his developed physical frame to overwhelm smaller opponents. He’s going to get his down low and keep possessions alive with his length and leaping ability and Vanderbilt is going to need him to stay productive if they’re going to make noise in the SEC. Matt Ryan and Joe Toye have been solid 3-point shooting threats on the outside but losing such a great offensive initiator in Darius Garland is going to be tough to overcome.
Collin Sexton’s departure for the NBA draft was a big loss but freshman Kira Lewis has stepped in and been an excellent scorer for a Crimson Tide team that struggled to put the ball in the hoop last year. This team still isn’t great offensively but Lewis has been doing his part with 15.0 points and 3.1 assists per game, pressuring defenses with his big-shot making ability and fluidity when driving the basketball. After him, Coach Avery Johnson relies on everyone to contribute a little bit with Donta Hall, John Petty, Tevin Mack, and Dazon Ingram about equal in terms of offensive impact. Still searching for a bit of an offensive identity this is a team looking to win games with their toughness and a will to win from their fiery athletes. They rebound well and put tons of pressure on officials to blow their whistles and it has resulted in a lot of free throws, so all in all you’ll need to be ready for a fight when you take on Alabama.
Will Wade’s team had some big expectations entering this season returning Tremont Waters at point and enrolling high-level recruits Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams, and Ja’Vonte Smart, and though they haven’t quite reached the heights in the non-conference that many expected they’ve still been a solid team that could continue to get stronger as the young studs gain college basketball experience. With Reid, Williams, and Kavell Bigby-Williams providing lots of size in the frontcourt this team is built on pounding the ball down low and getting physical layups. Some opponents will be challenged to match the size of LSU’s big men and playing small could mean giving up a lot of inside buckets and rebounds. One hole in the Tigers’ game is definitely how loose they are with the ball. Waters can be an excellent passer as evidenced by his 5.5 assists per game but you can’t overlook the fact he’s also turning the orange over 4.2 times per game. Reid, Smart, and Williams also have been turnover-prone at times and teams great at turning their opponents over like the Gators could have a field day coming up with loose balls. The Tigers are a matchup-dependent team that is probably going to pick up a lot of big wins while also having a lot of head-scratching losses. They’ll add a lot of intrigue to the SEC, that’s for sure.
Much like Vanderbilt the Missouri Tigers had a crushing injury early in the season with big man Jontay Porter going down to a season-ending knee injury in October before the team had even played it’s first game of the season. After an extremely productive freshman campaign Porter was expected to be the centerpiece of Missouri’s offense and his loss definitely changed the way the Tigers had to play. Jeremiah Tillmon has still provided some punch on the inside with 10.8 points per game but this team mostly plays through the perimeter tandem of Jordan Geist and Mark Smith. Neither is an electric scorer or an elite distributor and that has caused this team to struggle offensively. Averaging 3 more turnovers than assists per game the Tigers can be easily frustrated on offense and opposing teams shouldn’t have much fear of them filling it up. They are actually an excellent three-point shooting team when the shots present themselves but the Tigers just aren’t efficient enough to regularly get good looks. If they happen to go cold from deep they are going to be even more challenged to score so taking away the long ball should be the number one priority for anyone taking them on. They’ll hit enough shots to get a few surprising wins this year but I think the Porter injury is just too devastating for them.