A look at some key statistics that will impact the race for the SEC title. Hint: Kentucky will win.
The SEC isn’t exactly the country’s strongest conference. — there are six conferences in the country with at least two teams currently ranked in the AP top 25, and they’re not one of them. However, the SEC has one good, strong team which stands out among the rest, and that is Kentucky.
Head coach John Calipari secured yet another top-two recruiting class this offseason, and the absurd amount of freshmen talent the Wildcats have yet again, combined with returning starter Isaiah Briscoe and key-reserve-turned-starter Derek Willis, makes Kentucky the far and away favorite to win the SEC in 2016-17.
Will they have any viable challengers? There are a few teams that will try and compete with the Wildcats. Although the Gators struggled through much of last season before falling in the NIT quarterfinals, they return the bulk of their rotation, giving them much needed experience in Mike White’s second year since taking over for Billy Donovan. Defensive-oriented Texas A&M and Georgia will also push to finish near the top of the conference, but both possess significant flaws. The Aggies lost the majority of their best offensive players from last season, and the Bulldogs brought back their two best players but have little else to offer in terms of skill.
This season looks a lot like 2014-15 when Kentucky eviscerated its SEC competition, though it’s still early in the year, and there is plenty of hope to go around if you’re one of “everyone else” teams. Let’s take a look the numbers to see whether or not this hope is at all realistic.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
120.6: This was Kentucky’s adjusted offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) last season according to KenPom.com, the fifth-best mark in the nation and by far the best mark in the SEC. Because Kentucky lost its three best scorers from that team to the NBA Draft, it would make sense for the Wildcats to lose a step offensively heading into this season.
Let me rephrase. It would make sense if not for the fact that this happens to Kentucky every single year, and Calipari continues to replace his remarkably talented players with even more high talented players.
Kentucky had either the nation’s best or second-best recruiting class this offseason depending on who you asked, with four players ranked in ESPN’s top 14. Edrice “Bam” Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, and Wenyen Gabriel all bring a different set of skills to Lexington this season, and all four will play significant minutes right away for the Wildcats.
All of these kids are astounding, young talents, and they will get to work with two key contributors from last season’s squad who returned to help bring this year’s Kentucky team some veteran leadership.
Isaiah Briscoe averaged 9.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.1 assists last season and will look to take on more responsibility this season as both a scorer and facilitator. Briscoe will obviously want to find more opportunities to put the ball in the basket himself, but he’s smart enough to know he’ll have to keep the ball moving to make sure all of these freshmen gets theirs, too.
Willis will serve as a key role player alternating with Gabriel in the front court. He’ll more than likely average just more than 20 minutes per game and, as a senior, will hopefully be able to instill some perspective into this young squad. Willis was a sophomore on the 2014-15 Kentucky team that was undefeated until it fell to Wisconsin in the national semifinals.
Kentucky will put on a show week in, and week out. There are only a handful of teams in the country that could consistently hope to compete with the Wildcats this season and none of them are in the SEC. This will be another Kentucky-dominated season down south, with everyone else fighting for second place.
Zero: The number of top-20 recruits that committed to an SEC program other than Kentucky is zero. In fact, the Wildcats signed as many top-15 recruits (four) in the Class of 2016 as the rest of the SEC signed recruits in the top 60.
Every few years, for one reason or another, the pieces don’t fall into place and Kentucky plays below expectations. That allows one or two other SEC teams to vie for conference supremacy. In Calipari’s seven years in Lexington, Kentucky has finished at least tied for first four times, and has finished worse than second just once. It’s not that other SEC programs emerge as dominant — with the exception of the 2013-14 Florida team — it’s just that occasionally, the Wildcats have a down year, and a couple teams ride veteran leadership to contention.
This will not be one of those years.
Kentucky is simply too good and there are no other transcendent players hiding on teams throughout the conference. Some of the teams are stacked with veterans, and that will help their cause. But as I said before, their cause will be to fight for second place and a decent seed in the NCAA tournament, not for an SEC championship.
91.4: For comparison’s sake, this represents Texas A&M’s adjusted defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) last season according to KenPom.com, the best mark in the SEC and the ninth-best in the country. The Aggies have to hope that they can continue to play at such a high level defensively this season, because they lost their two best scorers from 2015-16 and don’t appear to have any significant replacements this year.
Danuel House Jr. and Jalen Jones, who combined for 30.9 points and helped lead A&M to the 37th-best AdjO in the country and second-best in the SEC, are gone and it will be up to the likes of Tyler Davis and DJ Hogg to fill the void.
Davis was the Aggies’ third-leading scorer in 2015-16, averaging 11.3 points per game to go along with 6.2 rebounds per game, and Hogg averaged 6.2 points and 2.9 boards last year as a role player off the bench. Both are front court players, however, so the question remains where the contributions will come from in the back court.
Sophomore Admon Gilder and senior JC Hampton look to be the two leading candidates to take the mantle in the back court, but neither inspire too much confidence.
If Texas A&M wants to try and mimic the success it had last season when it finished regular season co-champions with Kentucky, it is going to have to slog out wins with suffocating defense and aggressive front court play. It won’t be enough to actually win the conference, but it might be enough to finish runner-up and grab a five- or six-seed in the tournament.
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Four: Florida returns four starters on its roster this season. On top of that, the Gators bring back six of their top-seven scorers from the 2015-16 campaign. Thanks to that depth and experience, Florida will more than likely pose the biggest threat to Kentucky throughout the year.
That one starter the Gators lost, though, was Dorian Finney-Smith, the last vestige of Florida’s dominant 2014 Final Four team and their leading scorer and rebounder last season. He’ll be tough to replace, but it will certainly help that all of that responsibility won’t fall on one person.
Sophomore KeVaughn Allen, senior Kasey Hill, and junior Chris Chiozza will man the front court, and junior John Egbunu, junior Devin Robinson, and senior Justin Leon will take charge of the front court. The back court will also receive additional assistance from graduate transfer Canyon Barry who played the last three years at the College of Charleston.
That’s a deep and experienced rotation that Mike White gets to work with throughout the year as he tries to piece together which players will play best in different situations, and which player will emerge as the crunch-time replacement for Finney-Smith.
And if this team plays defense as well as it usually does — Florida ranked 14th nationally in AdjD last season — this team will at the very least be very frustrating to compete with this year.
106.9: Georgia’s adjusted offensive efficiency last season wasn’t great, as they ranked 117th in the nation and 11th in the SEC. For reference, there are only 14 teams in the SEC, and the three teams that finished below Georgia in the SEC — Missouri, Auburn, and Alabama — finished a combined 39-56 overall and 16-38 in the conference.
For Georgia to actually take a significant step forward and finish among the best SEC teams this season, it is going to have to get more offensively out of the players not named Yante Maten and J.J. Frazier.
In 2015-16, Maten averaged 16.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game, and Frazier averaged 16.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 1.4 steals per game. The Bulldogs has two other players, Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann, that finished averaging double-digit points, but both of those players graduated. Outside of those four, the next highest scorer was Derek Ogbeide who averaged 4.0 points per game.
Redshirt junior guard Juwan Parker returns this season from an achilles injury that sidelined him for all of last year, and the Bulldogs hope that he’ll be able to contribute immediately. Outside of those three players, though, where the points will come is a mystery. Which former role players will assert themselves as the year progresses?
For the Bulldogs to get out of the middle of the pack, someone unexpected is going to have to step up and provide consistent offense.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
The SEC is Kentucky’s to lose, and it’s unlikely that will happen. There is too much talent on that roster and not enough on the rest of the rosters in the conference for someone to truly rise up and match the Wildcats.
By the time the postseason roles around, Kentucky will claim its rightful place atop the SEC, but hopefully for entertainment’s sake some teams can give the Wildcats a bit of a push along the way.
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