As the countdown continues to the start of the 2021-22 college basketball season on Nov. 9, an ESPN panel of experts is making predictions for all of the nation's top leagues. So far we've taken a look at Gonzaga and the best teams from the mid-major conferences (Atlantic 10, C-USA, Ivy, MAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, SoCon, Sun Belt and WCC), followed by Memphis, Houston and the AAC, the Villanova-dominated Big East, UCLA and the resurgent Pac-12 Conference and a Big 12 with a second straight national title in its sights. We continue our series with the SEC, where 10th-ranked Kentucky continues to dominate the headlines, even on the heels of an unthinkable 9-16 season.
John Calipari and the Wildcats have drastically retooled the roster, with an eye toward reclaiming SEC supremacy and making what has recently become an elusive trip to the third weekend of the NCAA tournament. But they'll have competition near the top of the SEC -- the reigning conference champ Alabama Crimson Tide, a well-stocked Arkansas Razorbacks squad that comes off an Elite Eight run, and mega-talented Tennessee Volunteers and Auburn Tigers squads are among the programs that are unlikely to go quietly in the 2021-2022 SEC title race. Beneath those squads, 2021 NCAA tournament teams including the LSU Tigers, Florida Gators and Missouri Tigers still linger in an increasingly strong top-to-bottom conference.
With that in mind, ESPN's writing team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello and John Gasaway sized up all the top teams and storylines in the league, including their predictions (which wildly differ in some cases) for where the SEC's 14 current teams will finish.
SEC 2021-22 superlatives
Player of the Year
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: Jabari Smith, Auburn
Borzello: Jabari Smith, Auburn
Gasaway: Jabari Smith, Auburn
SEC 2021-22 writer roundtable
This April will mark the 7-year anniversary of Kentucky's most recent trip to the Final Four, and 2015 was also the last time the Wildcats earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Can you make a case for either of those droughts ending this season?
Medcalf: Both droughts can end if Kentucky reaches its ceiling this year. I don't think this group has an overwhelming pool of talent when compared to a Gonzaga, Kansas or Texas. But I also think it has eight or nine players who could all crack the starting rotation at some point. This is a Kentucky squad that could have a veteran bench, if CJ Fredrick (once he's healthy) or Davion Mintz (last year's leading scorer) play with John Calipari's second unit. The depth -- more than the talent -- is Kentucky's ticket to a top seed and the Final Four, and it has the pieces to be a great team by season's end.
Calipari's best squads since the 2012 national title run -- the 2015 (Final Four) and 2017 (Elite Eight) teams -- were stacked with undeniable NBA prospects. While TyTy Washington is a potential star and Daimion Collins is an equally intriguing prospect on a team with other players who could evolve into pros, I don't think they'll have the edge that 2015 and 2017 had in talent in most games. That 2015 squad beat six top-50 KenPom squads in the nonconference season -- five by double digits. This team will get a shot at four top-50 KenPom squads (per preseason rankings) before SEC play. We'll know a lot more about their potential to capture a No. 1 seed and make a deep run after these Wildcats complete that portion of their slate.
Borzello: I think Kentucky is just outside that top tier of Final Four contenders, so I think it's certainly possible to see the Wildcats playing in New Orleans come early April. It's a roster built differently to the freshmen-heavy teams we've seen Calipari utilize in the past, but it's still loaded with newcomers -- which makes role allocation and chemistry two of the bigger questions entering the season. But if Calipari figures those things out, Kentucky has the personnel to win the SEC and push for a high seed on Selection Sunday.
Kentucky's biggest issues last season came on the offensive end, with turnovers and outside shooting near the top of the list. Calipari has addressed those issues. Washington is one of the best point guards entering college; Georgia transfer Sahvir Wheeler led the SEC in assists, and the veteran Mintz is back. To improve shooting, Calipari went out and landed high-scoring Davidson transfer Kellan Grady and the Iowa transfer Fredrick, arguably the best shooter in the portal. There's more experience than usual in Lexington. There's plenty of size in Oscar Tshiebwe, and Collins and the upgrades on the perimeter will be felt immediately.
Gasaway: A Final Four run may be more likely for UK than securing a No. 1 seed. We've seen this program pull that trick before, right? The Wildcats reached the national semifinal as a No. 4 seed in 2011 and as a No. 8 in 2014. As for the recent Final Four dry spell, in nine tournament runs at Kentucky, Calipari has won 11 more games than would be expected based on seeding alone. This is also where I point out that since 2015 the Cats have played into the 40th minute in the Elite Eight twice (2017 and 2019) only to go 0-2.
Calipari can coach my team in the field of 68 any day, but I'm not sure the SEC as a whole is going to produce a No. 1 seed in 2022. In the specific case of the Wildcats, the last time we saw them they missed the tournament and were ranked dead-last in 2-point accuracy in SEC play. True, like everyone else, I expect a big improvement in Lexington this season. Tshiebwe may well lead the nation in offensive rebound percentage, and Washington could be the latest in a rather incredible first-year tradition of Calipari point guards. But a No. 1 seed feels like a stretch.
Of the league's other preseason Top 25 teams -- Alabama (No. 14), Arkansas (No. 16), Tennessee (No. 18) and Auburn (No. 22) -- which do you believe can make the most serious run, and which do you have the most concerns about?
Borzello: I have Arkansas the highest of that quartet, so I tend to lean toward the Razorbacks as the team that will be the biggest threat in March. I have ultimate faith in Eric Musselman figuring it out when it comes to transfers and keeping players happy and getting them to buy in. He'll need to do it again with three big-time transfers -- Stanley Umude, Chris Lykes, Au'Diese Toney -- joining a team that made last season's Elite Eight. Davonte Davis, one of the NCAA tournament's breakout stars, is also expected to take the next step and be a consistent offensive threat.
I have Auburn the lowest among the four, but I actually think the Tigers have the highest ceiling if Allen Flanigan comes back healthy and Wendell Green Jr. is the guy at the point guard spot. So for a team with concerns, I'll go with Tennessee. The Volunteers have a lot of pieces, but they're putting a lot on Kennedy Chandler's shoulders. Arguably the best point guard in the 2021 high school class, Chandler is terrific -- but he'll have to run the show from day one and also be the team's best player. That's a lot for a freshman. If he does that, though, Rick Barnes has surrounded him with enough complementary pieces for Tennessee to be a second-weekend factor.
Gasaway: In an alternate universe where Alabama's able to do better than 2-of-6 at the line in the last 150 seconds of regulation and thus defeats UCLA in 40 minutes to reach the 2021 Elite Eight, I suspect the Crimson Tide would be the league's highest ranked team in the 2021-22 AP preseason poll. They were the best team in the SEC by a fair margin last season, and Nate Oats brings back roughly the same percentage of possession minutes (i.e., not many) as the league's other ranked teams. Quinerly's 3-point accuracy may come back to earth a bit this season, but if by chance it doesn't, the rest of the conference will really have a problem on its hands.
On the flip side of this coin, I'm eminently persuadable but taking a wait and see stance on Auburn. Jabari Smith is my pick as newcomer of the year, and I expect he will have a significant impact. The key to whether that impact translates into a run at the league title will be whether Smith or his teammates or all of the above can do something about the volume of shots attempted by opponents. Last year in conference play the Tigers didn't force turnovers and were overpowered on their defensive glass.
Medcalf: I like the blend of talent and experience that Rick Barnes has at Tennessee. With Victor Bailey Jr., John Fulkerson and Josiah Jordan-James on the court together last season, the Vols forced turnovers on nearly one quarter of their opponents' possessions and they made 37 percent of their 3-point attempts on offense, according to hooplens.com. You add Kennedy Chandler and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and I think you have a squad that has a combination of young talent and veterans that Barnes could lead to the second weekend.
I wonder about Auburn. The Tigers were 7-12 in their final 19 games last season, and Bruce Pearl's last two squads have resembled his early Auburn teams that were plagued by turnovers and poor shooting from beyond the arc. You lose Sharife Cooper, who tore up the NBA Summer League and earned a roster spot with a contending Atlanta Hawks squad. You're basically counting on Jabari Smith to play some otherworldly basketball to raise this team's ceiling. That's a lot to ask of any freshman, even one with Smith's skill set.
The following coaches could use some momentum within this really difficult league -- Tom Crean (Georgia), Buzz Williams (Texas A&M), Frank Martin (South Carolina) and Jerry Stackhouse (Vanderbilt). Which of those programs is most likely to turn the corner in 2021-22?
Medcalf: Yes, every team in the country was impacted by COVID-19. Few teams, however, endured what Williams faced in year two at Texas A&M. The Aggies didn't play from Jan. 30 to March 3. They were struggling when that pause began, but this is a team that never got the chance to get better. That should change this season. The transfers Williams has added, including Wyoming star Marcus Williams, should help a team that will have a fresh start. Williams is in the best spot, among the coaches listed, to make a move after a bizarre last year.
Borzello: It was only two seasons ago that Williams and Texas A&M went 10-8 in SEC play and finished above .500 overall. So it's really only been one down year for Williams since moving to College Station. I think the Aggies are capable of moving back up the standings this season. They saw a few players, including leading scorer Emanuel Miller, enter the transfer portal, but they also dipped into it to land two immediate impact pieces in Williams and Tyrece Radford (Virginia Tech), along with three other high-major transfers. That group is added to three players who played key roles down the stretch of the season, led by double-figure scorer Quenton Jackson.
Gasaway: This year in the SEC we may find that there are varying definitions of turning the corner. Vanderbilt at least appears capable of jumping out of the league's cellar and into its, well, lower midsection? That's an improvement, and Scotty Pippen Jr. is my choice as SEC POY. Stackhouse actually put an SEC-level average offense on the floor last season, but leaky defense and a disastrous 1-7 record in conference games decided by single digits translated into that unsightly 3-13 league record. The 'Dores are due.
Who's the team in the SEC that not nearly enough people are talking about?
Borzello: I had Mississippi State on the periphery of my preseason top 25 all offseason, and while the Bulldogs are on the outside looking in entering the season, I think Ben Howland's team can be a real threat in the SEC. All-SEC guard DJ Stewart is gone, but Iverson Molinar and Tolu Smith are both back from a team that reached the NIT Championship game last season.
The real reason for optimism in Starkville centers on the incoming transfer class. Garrison Brooks (North Carolina), Rocket Watts (Michigan State), D.J. Jeffries (Memphis) and Shakeel Moore (NC State) have all made impacts at big programs, and three of them could start off the bat. Watts is going to be the key. He was a high-level scoring guard at the high school level, but never really got going with the Spartans. If he can facilitate offense while also making some shots from the perimeter, Mississippi State will be in good shape.
Gasaway: Hey, Borzello! At least Mississippi State got five votes in the preseason AP poll. My choice, on the other hand, was not named once by any AP pollster. Zero votes! That goose egg's going to look awfully silly when Florida makes a fifth consecutive NCAA tournament with room to spare. Tyree Appleby and Colin Castleton are seniors who just earned a No. 7 seed, and they're being joined by Penn State transfer Myreon Jones. The Gators' opponents are unlikely to miss as many 3s as they did last season, but there's still a lot to like with a rotation that makes its 2s and is headed up by three seniors.
Medcalf: With LSU, I think it's always important to note that the NCAA infractions case against Will Wade and the program could reach its conclusion through the Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP) at any moment. Until then? LSU will play, and the Tigers have some interesting pieces, including Darius Days, who will anchor this group after withdrawing from the NBA draft. You get Xavier Pinson (13.6 PPG at Missouri last season) and a true big man with five-star recruit Efton Reid. Shareef O'Neal, it seems, is finally healthy going into a collegiate season. He'll turn 22 this season. He hasn't had the reps on the court due to health issues and injuries, but this could be his year to take the next step. The Adam Miller season-ending knee injury was devastating news. But this still looks the part of a group that could climb into the top of the SEC and compete for a spot in the field of 68.
SEC 2021-22 predicted order of finish
2. Alabama (tie)
2. Tennessee (tie)
6. Mississippi State
9. Ole Miss
10. Texas A&M
11. South Carolina