Jimmy Carter's preseason All-SEC team, poll

By: Jimmy Carter
Published: Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Texas A&M forward Robert Williams (44) grabs a rebound away from Kentucky forward Wenyen Gabriel (32) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, March 4, 2017, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)
Photo by Associated Press
Texas A&M forward Robert Williams (44) grabs a rebound away from Kentucky forward Wenyen Gabriel (32) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, March 4, 2017, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

— The SEC office asked writers to turn in their preseason All-SEC basketball ballots and predicted order of finish Friday, Oct. 13.

I sent mine in late Thursday evening, shortly before midnight.

A large reason for the eleventh-hour timing is the ongoing FBI investigation looming over the college basketball landscape, including the SEC. Alabama’s director of basketball operations preemptively resigned after the initial charges were leveled, while Auburn assistant Chuck Person was arrested.

Who knows if or when players potentially involved, like Auburn’s Austin Wiley, will be impacted by the investigation and its findings. A star player being ruled ineligible could change the power structure within the conference and we’ve been led to believe the initial charges were only the beginning of what could be a lengthy process.

But the scandal wasn’t the only reason I took so long to send in my stuff. Predicting the SEC is tough this year. Some prognosticators project six or seven teams from the league securing NCAA Tournament bids, a massive step up after being viewed as an inferior basketball conference in recent years. Personally, I think six make it.

The depth of the league is outstanding. You could slide a lot of these teams around a few spots and I wouldn't protest too much. It should be a fun year. Here’s how I voted.

ALL-SEC TEAM

Yante Maten, Georgia — F, Sr., 6-8, 240

The Bulldogs might've made the NCAA Tournament a year ago if Maten didn’t miss all or most of the season’s final six games with a knee injury, but he also might've gone pro early. He averaged 18.2 points and 6.8 rebounds, establishing himself as one of the best inside-out presences in the conference. He’s capable of going off for 30-plus on any night and should be even more of a perimeter threat as a senior after shooting 48.8 percent on 43 3-pointers last year. The only senior on my first team, he just turned 21 in August, which should help his NBA Draft stock.

Robert Williams, Texas A&M — F, So., 6-9, 237

It’ll be interesting to see if Williams’ decision to return to school pays off. He was a potential top-10 pick in the 2017 draft based on his elite athleticism, freakish 7-4 wingspan and the signs he showed of a developing skill set. Now, the pressure will be on him to display a much more well-rounded game in year two. Obviously his decision to come back was a coup for the Aggies. He’s a game-changing rim protector and a big-time finisher around the basket.

Michael Porter Jr., Missouri — F, Fr., 6-10, 215

He’ll enter the year on the short list of candidates to be selected No. 1 overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, with the college basketball world watching to see if he fares better than the previous two top picks, LSU’s Ben Simmons and Washington’s Markelle Fultz, who both failed to lead their teams to the NCAA Tournament in their only collegiate seasons. Blessed with the size of a power forward and a guard’s perimeter skills, expectations will be sky-high for Porter. His game kind of reminds me of Harrison Barnes.

KeVaughn Allen, Florida — G, Jr., 6-2, 193

He was arguably the best player on the Gators’ Elite Eight team last year and will be asked to do more with the departures of Devin Robinson and Kasey Hill, among other key contributors. He plays the game with a smoothness and skill level that make his athleticism underrated. If he were 2 inches taller, he’d have been in the NBA by now. Mike White is thankful he’s 6-2. I think there's a case to be made for Daryl Macon over Allen, but went with the North Little Rock native by a whisker.

Collin Sexton, Alabama — G, Fr., 6-3, 190

He is my preseason pick for SEC Player of the Year. A consensus top-10 prospect in recruiting rankings, he’s also projected as a top-10 selection in next year’s draft. The Crimson Tide have a lot of pieces, but Sexton is the player who can weaponize them and allow the program to take a big step forward. He’s a supremely talented scorer, but can also function as a high-end playmaker. He’ll probably be the best guard in the conference.

This was my predicted order of finish for the 14 teams.

1 KENTUCKY

Last year: 32-6

Conference: 16-2 (1st)

NCAA Tournament: Elite Eight

Starters returning: 0

John Calipari’s ninth team in Lexington doesn’t appear to have the kind of surefire, megastar freshmen he typically does, like he had last year in De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. But he does have an insanely athletic team that should be able overwhelm most competition.

Consider these freakish freshman measurements: Guard Hamidou Diallo was the best athlete at the NBA Draft combine this spring and is now 6-6 with a 7-foot, 1/4-inch wingspan and a 44.5-inch vertical. Forward P.J. Washington is 6-7, 234 with a 7-3 (!) wingspan and a 43-inch vertical. Forward Kevin Knox is 6-9 with a 7-foot, 1/4-inch wingspan and 36.5-inch vertical. Injured forward Jarred Vanderbilt has tested out at 6-9, 218 with a 7-1 wingspan and 39.5-inch vertical. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is 6-6 with a 7-foot wingspan and 36-inch vertical. He’s a point guard. Center Nick Richards is a little taller than 7-feet with a 7-5 wingspan and 35.5-inch vertical.

My. Goodness. Good luck getting quality shots off in the forest when these guys are dialed in. Kentucky still has questions: when Vanderbilt can come back from a foot injury, will Quade Green and Gilgeous-Alexander be able to run the team effectively, is there enough perimeter shooting and is the lack of an apparent superstar-type player (no ESPN projected 2018 lottery picks) going to hurt a star-driven program? But the Wildcats are crazy long, scary athletic and can throw out massive lineups that will give teams fits. They may have some weaknesses, but they’re the top dog in the SEC until proven otherwise.

2 TEXAS A&M

Last year: 16-15

Conference: 8-10 (t-9th)

NCAA Tournament: N/A

Starters returning: 4

The Aggies will be without redshirt freshman point guard J.J. Caldwell for the first five games this year after he was suspended for a DWI, which is a shame, because he is the reason Texas A&M could contend for its second SEC title in three years. The electric 6-1 freshman is a supreme shot creator with an elite handle and quickness that he combines with excellent vision, a recipe that should lead to a lot of lobs in College Station and could very well make him an All-SEC caliber player by season’s end.

He is what the Aggies were lacking last year. His playmaking will mesh perfectly with the conference’s best frontcourt in future lottery pick Williams and 6-10, 266-pound junior Tyler Davis. Caldwell’s presence allows junior Admon Gilder to slide to the 2 and relieves 6-9 junior wing D.J. Hogg of some of the ballhandling duties he was forced into out of necessity last year. Both players’ experiences last year should pay off, allowing them to function better as secondary ballhandlers, but there are no questions about who’s running the show.

Billy Kennedy will need to the Aggies to push the pace more after ranking 312th nationally in adjusted tempo last year. A break led by Caldwell with Williams and Hogg in tow is a scary sight.

3 ALABAMA

Last year: 19-15

Conference: 10-8 (t-5th)

NCAA Tournament: N/A

Starters returning: 4

This needs to be the year 'Bama turns the corner under Avery Johnson, who deployed one of the nation’s best defenses in his second season in Tuscaloosa last year. The Crimson Tide ranked 10th in the nation, allowing just 92.2 points per 100 possessions. The problem: They couldn’t score. In SEC play, they managed a measly 98.6 points per 100, 13th in the league, while playing at a crawl.

Enter Sexton, a dynamo scorer and capable playmaker who should transform the Crimson Tide. And he’s not alone: Johnson signed the No. 8 recruiting class in the nation, per ESPN (all recruiting rankings reference are ESPN). John Petty, a 6-5, four-star guard, is athletic, has great range on his jumper and should work well as an off-ball compliment to Sexton. Alabama also adds Daniel Giddens, a 6-11 Ohio State transfer who will add size and rebounding.

There’s a lot to like about the Crimson Tide’s returnees, too. Versatile 6-8 sophomore Braxton Key can operate as a kind of point-forward, 6-5 sophomore Dazon Ingram is a capable shooter and 6-9 junior center Donta Hall is an athletic rim protector projected to be a potential draft pick after this season. Those are good supporting cast players and allowed Alabama to match Kentucky's size and athleticism last year. They didn't have the offensive punch to go blow-for-blow with the Wildcats, but Sexton and Petty should change that.

4 FLORIDA

Last year: 27-9

Conference: 14-4 (2nd)

NCAA Tournament: Elite Eight

Starters returning: 2

Mike White is one of the SEC’s better coaches and had a breakout year last season. The Gators are a popular pick to finish second in the conference and have even been ranked in some preseason top-10s, but they have some question marks. Gone are speedy floor general Kasey Hill, versatile athlete Devin Robinson, underrated glue guy Justin Leon and shooter Canyon Barry. Fifth-year senior center John Egbunu is one of the more talented bigs in the SEC, but is coming off ACL surgery.

But there’s a lot to like about Florida, too, with key pieces returning from what was an elite offense (116.9 points per 100, 24th nationally) and defense (89.4, 5th). Allen is a cold-blooded smooth operator who should be even more assertive as a junior. The Gators will miss Hill, but Chris Chiozza ensures they won’t lack for speed at point guard. Junior Kevarrius Hayes is a good rim protector and solid insurance policy if Egbunu has a setback.

White will count on Rice grad transfer Egor Koulechov to step in and contribute in a big way on the wing after averaging 18.2 while shooting a sizzling 47.4 percent from deep last year. He may very well be a step up from Robinson on offense, but he doesn’t posses the ability to impact the game on defense like his predecessor, who was an ultra-valuable swiss army knife, a key to why the Gators were so dominant on that end of the court. Florida should comfortably make the tournament again, but the top-10 hype may be a bit much.

5 MISSOURI

Last year: 8-24

Conference: 2-16 (t-13th)

NCAA Tournament: N/A

Starters returning: 4

Everyone is pumped for the Great Porter Expiriment, myself included. Cuonzo Martin’s hire and the draw of playing with Porter mean Missouri went from being the least-talented team in the league to arguably in the top two. Porter and his brother, Jontay, a 6-11, 240-pound lefty ranked the No. 25 player in the country after reclassifying, are top-tier talents and will give Missouri one of the conference’s most imposing frontcourts along with fellow freshman Jeremiah Tilmon, a 6-10, 252-pounder ranked the nation’s No. 46 recruit.

Point guard Blake Harris was a top-100 prospect, while fellow freshman C.J. Roberts is an athletic scorer who may have flown under the radar a bit. Cansius grad transfer Kassius Robertson averaged 16.1 while shooting 41 percent from 3 last year. For as much as the Tigers struggled last year, junior forward Kevin Puryear and senior wing Jordan Barnett have the potential to be solid role players in lessened roles.

Getting all the pieces to gel and play at a high level as a cohesive unit will be Martin’s big task. He took Tennessee to a Sweet Sixteen in 2014 before jumping to Cal, where NBA scouts weren’t always impressed with the development of big-time recruits like Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. Martin’s Cal teams typically operated at a slow pace and shunned 3-pointers, so seeing how he does or doesn’t adjust the way this team plays will be interesting. On paper, they have the pieces to be a surefire NCAA Tournament team.

6 ARKANSAS

Last year: 26-10

Conference: 12-6 (t-3rd)

NCAA Tournament: Second Round

Starters returning: 2

Every year, Arkansas seems to outperform preseason prognostications under Mike Anderson, so I'm prepared to accept the backlash when they finish in the top four again come March. This looks like it could be the year Arkansas ends a decade-long stretch of failing to make consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, but the Razorbacks will have to replace Moses Kingsley, Dusty Hannahs and Manny Watkins. Luckily for Anderson, uber-efficient Daryl Macon and ultra-aggressive Jaylen Barford will comprise arguably the SEC’s best backcourt and make life easier on the rest of their teammates, where there is less certainty.

Guard Anton Beard and Trey Thompson, both seniors, are the only other players who’ve proven themselves as consistent SEC contributors. Arkansas will depend on sophomores Adrio Bailey and C.J. Jones to break out. Both are athletic, with Bailey providing rim protection and rebounding and Jones providing shooting that should help replace some of what Hannahs brought to the table.

Springy 6-11 freshman Daniel Gafford will impact around the basket on both ends of the court and do a lot of what Kingsley did. His ceiling is very high. Darious Hall is a versatile wing and gives the Razorbacks the kind of rangy defender they didn’t have last year. Arkansas will need to improve on defense, because there isn’t as much shot creation on this team as a year ago, even with Barford and Macon. A tough schedule could present some challenges, but Anderson has a lot of options to work with on this roster.

7 MISSISSIPPI STATE

Last year: 16-16

Conference: 6-12 (12th)

NCAA Tournament: N/A

Starters returning: 3

Here's a potentially foolhardy prediction: Lamar Peters and Quinndary Weatherspoon will make a case for being the best backcourt in the SEC this season. The duo convincingly outplayed Barford and Macon, maybe their main competition, head-to-head a year ago and both will be much-improved. Peters is a super-athletic lefty sophomore who can drain off-the-dribble 3s and is coming off a highly impressive showing at the Adidas Nations this summer (footage below). ESPN projects him as a first-rounder in 2019. Weatherspoon was one of the best scorers in the league last year even while being hampered by a nagging wrist injury. His game is butter.

Weatherspoon’s younger brother, Nick, is a 6-2 guard who was nearly a 5-star recruit. Combining him with 'Q' and Peters equals a dynamic backcourt, at least on the offensive end. The Bulldogs must be better on the other side of the court after allowing 104.5 points per 100 possessions in league play a year ago. Their frontcourt is a question mark: MSU ranked 12th in the conference in defensive rebounding and sent opponents to the line way too often. Aric Holman is a decent rim protector and should be better as a junior. Whether redshirt freshman Abdul Ado, a 6-11 center with a 7-5 wingspan, has put knee issues behind him will be key.

But can Ben Howland maximize this group? Some NBA personnel believe he impinged the incredible talent he had at UCLA with a stodgy offense. He’s been open about his distaste for the way the game is trending smaller and toward the 3-point shot, but the Bulldogs did hoist plenty of 3s last year and are suited to do so again with the current roster. Allowing his guards to play at a faster pace could unlock a lot of potential. If it breaks right, the Bulldogs challenge for a tourney bid.

8 AUBURN

Last year: 18-14

Conference: 7-11 (11th)

NCAA Tournament: N/A

Starters returning: 5

I’m going to be the last lost soul on Bruce Pearl Island, I can already tell. Even for me, it’s getting tough not to bail. The Tigers are in the center of the FBI allegations. It’s already impacted their staff, their recruiting and could affect this year’s team if players like Austin Wiley are deemed ineligible. But the Tigers return five starters and have a lot of talent if everyone can suit up and players can block out noise. Those are obviously both huge ‘if’s,’ but everyone was still on the team when I turned in my ballot. With everyone present, the Tigers are a talented bunch.

Wiley is a throwback, back-to-the-basket scorer. Mustapha Heron quietly had a very strong freshman year. Danjel Purifoy is a skilled wing. Jared Harper should be more consistent as a sophomore and will have help running the team from athletic freshman Davion Mitchell.

The Tigers are fun offensively: they play super fast and shoot a ton of 3s. But they’ll have to buy-in on the other end, where they posted a horrid 112.7 defensive rating, second-to-last in the SEC. The unrest on the plains kept me from slotting them at least a spot higher. The talent on the roster kept me from sliding them lower.

9 GEORGIA

Last year: 19-15

Conference: 9-9 (8th)

NCAA Tournament: N/A

Starters returning: 4

The Bulldogs return four starters, but the graduation of electric point guard J.J. Frazier leaves a big void. Maten is one of the best players in the conference, but he can’t do it alone.

Freshman wing Rayshaun Hammonds, ESPN’s No. 40 recruit in the 2017 class, should be able to help immediately. He brings athleticism and a smoothness to the game and will be able to play either the 3 or 4.

The onus will fall on junior William Jackson and sophomore Tyree Crump to replace Frazier. Both look like decent players, but Georgia will undoubtedly miss Frazier’s shot creation and scoring ability.

10 VANDERBILT

Last year: 19-16

Conference: 10-8 (t-5th)

NCAA Tournament: First Round

Starters returning: 3

The Commodores could finish higher after a strong first season under Bryce Drew, a rising coaching star. But replacing a 7-footer who averages 13 and 6, knocks down 3s and finishes third in the conference in blocks is a tall task. Luke Kornet unlocked a lot of what made Vanderbilt go.

Still, the returnees are talented. Matthew Fisher-Davis, Jeff Roberson and Riley LaChance are proven starting-caliber SEC players, while skilled Fayetteville native Payton Willis should take on a bigger role as a sophomore. There’ll be a lot of pressure on 6-9 freshman Ejike Obinna to contribute right away.

Vanderbilt plays an aesthetically pleasing style of basketball. Nearly one-half of the Commodores’ shots were 3-pointers a year ago, which ranked sixth in the nation, while they share the ball well. Losing Kornet may make it tough to repeat last year’s success, but their wing chemistry and smarts should help keep them competitive.

11 OLE MISS

Last year: 22-14

Conference: 10-8 (t-5th)

NCAA Tournament: N/A

Starters returning: 1

Guards Deandre Burnett and Terence Davis could make a push for the top scoring one-two punch in the conference. They combined for 31.4 per game last year and could approach 35 this year. Burnett can do it all, while Davis is getting looks from NBA personnel for his combination of shooting and athleticism.

Memphis transfer Markel Crawford and junior-college shooter Bruce Stevens will add to what should be a solid backcourt rotation, but up front is a big question mark thanks to the graduation of All-SEC center Sebastian Saiz. Polish 7-footer Dominik Olejniczak, a Drake transfer, will have big shoes to fill, along with 6-11 Latvia native Karlis Silins.

Andy Kennedy teams are typically competitive, but expecting the Rebels to jockey for a March Madness spot may be an unrealistic ask.

12 TENNESSEE

Last year: 16-16

Conference: 8-10 (t-9th)

NCAA Tournament: N/A

Starters returning: 4

Like Vanderbilt, Tennessee played one of the tougher schedules in the nation a year ago and did so with a young roster. Rick Barnes must replace leading scorer Robert Hubbs, but returns a lot of youth that isn’t as green anymore.

Grant Williams is a fun, undersized big who uses positioning and guile to thrive in the paint despite being just 6-5. Keep an eye on freshman Frenchman Yves Pons, an athletic 6-6 wing with a 7-2 wingspan. He’s easily the best pro prospect on the team. Barnes needs a few of the following guards to pop: sophomores Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner, Howard transfer James Daniel and JUCO star Chris Darrington, who Arkansas had some interest in during the spring.

Generating offense with Hubbs was a chore — Tennessee’s 46.8 effective field goal percentage ranked 313th nationally last year. Without him, the Vols could have trouble keeping pace.

13 SOUTH CAROLINA

Last year: 26-11

Conference: 12-6 (t-3rd)

NCAA Tournament: Final Four

Starters returning: 2

Last season’s magical run to the Final Four was incredible. No one saw coming it after the Gamecocks stumbled down the stretch before the NCAA Tournament began, but Frank Martin’s bunch got on a roll and rode stingy defense and the playmaking of Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier to Glendale.

Thornwell graduate and Dozier left school early, which means said defense will have to be elite again. Only problem, the dynamic duo got it done on both ends of the court. Their length on the wing was a big part of the reason South Carolina was so good, ranking third in the nation with an 88.1 defensive rating and first in SEC play with an absurd 93.3 mark.

Junior forward Chris Silva is talented, but will be the center of attention now. Delaware guard transfer Kory Holden will get all the shots he can handle. Martin is a good coach and will return the Gamecocks to relevancy quickly if they find a way to sign Palmetto State native Zion Williamson, but this year could be a struggle.

14 LSU

Last year: 10-21

Conference: 2-16 (14th)

NCAA Tournament: N/A

Starters returning: 2

Will Wade walked into a tough situation when he left VCU for LSU, inheriting the worst program in the conference and losing what would have been his best returning player, guard Antonio Blakeney, to the draft. The Tigers were obscenely bad on defense a year ago, ranking 280th in the nation for the year and posting a 119.8 rating in SEC play that would’ve ranked 350th out of 351 teams if expanded over the course of the season.

But Wade has brought energy to Baton Rouge and is off to a fast start on the recruiting trail. The Tigers inked the No. 14 class in the nation, headlined by point guard Tremont Waters, a late signee ranked the No. 34 player in the nation. He and athletic 6-4 sophomore Skyler Mays are a very intriguing backcourt duo moving forward. Wade has made inroads in the 2018 class, securing pledges from five-star power forward Nazreon Reid (No. 18 nationally) and 6-4 guard Javonte Smart (No. 34).

LSU may very well be back in the mix in the near future, but it won’t be this season.

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