By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Yves Pons is coming back to Tennessee. That in and of itself is reason to believe the Vols could be special this season. Tennessee assistant coach Desmond Oliver believes this year’s team is deeper than the one that tied the program record with 31 wins two years ago.
It’s not often Rick Barnes pumps up his own program, but it appears the hype train coming through Knoxville is too difficult to contain.
Pons wasn’t the only high-profile SEC player to announce he was returning to school. With the dust settling on the NBA Draft deadline earlier this week, here’s an early outlook on the league as a whole.
Jerry Steakhouse may eventually get things going in Nashville, but it’s going to take time. Leading scorers Aaron Nesmith and Saben Lee are gone, and the Commodores 2020 recruiting class sits at 58th nationally, 11th in the SEC. Kansas transfer Issac McBride won’t be eligible this year either, so if Stackhouse is going to start making progress in 2020, he’ll have to do it without much to work with.
The underachievement is Athens last season was hard to watch. The Bulldogs couldn’t win with Anthony Edwards averaging nearly 20 points on a nightly basis. Now Edwards, along with three more of Georgia’s top five scorers are gone. Tyree Crump and Jordan Harris graduated and Rayshaun Hammonds kept his name in the draft. Four-star commit K.D. Johnson is a nice addition, but it’s hard to envision more success for Georgia than it had last season with one of the best players in the nation on its roster.
The good news: Xavier Pinson, Mitchell Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon all withdrew from the draft and came back to school. The bad news: Missouri went 7-11 with those three in the lineup anyway. The Tigers have the worst recruiting class in the SEC with three-star Jordan Wilmore the only commitment. Missouri has the most upperclassmen of any roster in the Power 5, but there isn’t much indication this group can make a big jump with the rest of the league getting better.
11. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs’ top four scorers are gone after Robert Woodard II opted to keep his name in the draft. The 36th ranked recruiting class in the nation gets a boost with four-stay Deivon Smith to help make an early impact in the backcourt, but replacing All-SEC selection Reggie Perry up front will be difficult.
10. Texas A&M
A top 20 recruiting class will hopefully replace Wendell Mitchell and Josh Nebo, who both averaged double figures for the Aggies last season. Four star commits Hassan Diarra and Jaxon Robinson can provide early depth on the perimeter and 6-8 Quinnipiac transfer Kevin Marfo will be eligible immediately. Buzz Williams did an incredibly impressive job in year one, going 10-8 in league play despite losing T.J. Sparks at the start of the season. His roster’s losses combined with the depth of the league could make for a tough second act.
9. South Carolina
A.J. Lawson returning to school was big for the Gamecocks and Frank Martin tabbed a pair of three-star big men to help replace the graduating Maik Kotsar. This team scored wins over Virginia and Kentucky last season. It also lost to Boston University and Stetson. Martin finds a way to get a lot out of his team in league play, but the lack of consistency could cost South Carolina a couple spots in the SEC standings.
Arguably the most disappointing team in college basketball last season, the Gators graduated Kerry Blackshear Jr. and lost Andrew Nembhard to Gonzaga. Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann returning helps, but a lot of pressure will fall on Keyontae Johnson to have a breakout season as the seat under Mike White continues to get warmer.
Auburn’s top six scorers are gone—five to graduation and freshman Isaac Okoro is off to the NBA. A top-ten recruiting class is going to be asked to contribute and produce early. All eyes will be on five-star point guard Sharife Cooper. A tournament bid would be worthy of applause for Bruce Pearl, but he’s capable of pulling it off if he can develop his new talent quickly.
6. Ole Miss
The addition of Arizona State transfer Romello White and Radford guard Dimencio Vaughn has brought a lot of expectations to Oxford. Four-star guard Matthew Murrell from the IMG Academy in Bradenton is a big get for Kermit Davis, but this team is trying to rebound from a 12th place finish in the SEC and its late-game management has cost the Rebels several games over the past two seasons.
Mason Jones and Jimmy Whitt Jr. are gone, but Isaiah Joe’s return gives the Razorbacks a veteran presence to lead the offense. Desi Sills was also a double figure scorer last season and Eric Musselman brought in the nation’s 8th ranked recruiting class with four four-star commits and three incoming transfers that will all be eligible, including Justin Smith from Illinois. Arkansas went 7-11 in league play last season with eight of those losses coming by single digits. Rebounding could still be a liability, but this has the potential to be a good team by March.
John Petty Jr. announcing his return keeps the bottom from falling out of Alabama’s backcourt with Kira Lewis Jr. expected to be a late first round pick. Herb Jones and Jaden Shackelford are also expected back for the Crimson Tide. Nate Oats has put together a top-15 recruiting class, featuring three four-star commitments and Yale grad transfer Jordan Bruner is a fantastic addition to the frontcourt.
Darius Days, Ja’Vonte Smart and Trendon Watford all decided to come back. Leading scorer Skylar Mays is gone, but the rest of the core from last season is returning. Add five-star newcomer Cameron Thomas along with a pair of four-stars and LSU looks like a legitimate contender in the SEC.
The top five scorers are leaving for the NBA Draft, and the sixth-leading scorer, Nate Sestina is out of eligibility. However—and stop me if you’ve heard this before—Kentucky has the top recruiting class in the nation coming to Lexington. Two five-star guards in B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke, four four-star additions and three incoming transfers (Davion Mintz is eligible from Creighton, but Kentucky is still waiting to hear about Jacob Toppin and Olivier Sarr) give Jon Calipari plenty of ammunition to reload for 2020.
As loaded as Kentucky’s recruiting class is, the Wildcats will still be young and inexperienced. Tennessee is able to replace Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner with five-stars Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson. Josiah Jordan-James should be fully healthy after playing at less than a hundred percent for all of last season, Santiago Vescovi will have a full offseason under his belt and Oregon transfer Victor Bailey Jr. is now eligible. Pons will continue to compliment John Fulkerson up front while Sacred Heart grad transfer E.J. Anosike and newcomer Corey Walker will provide depth along with Drew Pember and Olivier Nkamhoua. Rick Barnes has put together a team capable of winning the SEC Tournament for the first time in more than four decades.