The Southeastern Conference has a handful of legitimate contenders this season, such as Kentucky, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, and Tennessee. Kentucky is the preseason favorite according to almost everyone, and are many experts’ preseason #1. The Wildcats return several key members from last year, such as P.J. Washington, Nick Richards, and Quade Green. They bring in the #2 recruiting class in the nation, including 5-stars E.J. Montgomery, Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson, and Immanuel Quickley, as well as stud 4-star Tyler Herro. UK also adds highly-coveted Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis, who averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds last season. Auburn is also ranked around the top 15 in almost every preseason top-25. Their best player, Mustapha Heron, transferred to St. John’s to be closer to family, but the Tigers still have a lot of talent returning. Auburn tied for the regular season conference championship last season and shouldn’t be too far back this season. LSU has a lot of preseason hype and for good reason. Crafty point guard Tremont Waters will look to build on his stellar freshman season in which he averaged 16 points and 6 assists. Also, an excellent recruiting class has been brought in to support him. This class features 5-star big men Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams along with combo guard Ja’vonte Smart. Lastly, Mississippi State will be a tough opponent this year as well. They are an experienced team that brings back their top six rotation members from last season and bring in 247 Sports’ #31 recruit Reggie Perry.
But every one of these teams has a major flaw. Kentucky lacks shooting in a major way, Auburn will struggle to replace Heron, LSU is inexperienced and does not have a deep bench, and Mississippi State is just frankly not good enough yet. One team will emerge from the SEC: the Tennessee Volunteers.
The Volunteers enter their fourth season under head coach Rick Barnes and should continue to improve. They tied Auburn for the regular season conference championship last season and eventually lost to Final Four-bound Loyola-Chicago on a last-second shot in the round of 32. Tennessee brings back their top six minutes leaders from last season’s team that finished the season #13 in the KenPom rankings.
The best of these returning players is Grant Williams. Williams is a 6’7 forward who won the 2018 SEC Player of the Year award. Williams is extremely physical, very fundamentally sound, and is an excellent defender. He was a 3-star recruit out of high school and will likely never play a minute of NBA basketball, but he plays the game the right way and could contend for National Player of the Year this season.
Also returning is 6’6 forward Admiral Schofield. He can play down low but will likely log most of his minutes on the wing like last season. Schofield is big and physical and too strong and athletic for most defenders. He’s also a good three-point shooter, knocking down the second most threes on the team last year at a 39.5% percentage. He was second-team All-SEC last season while averaging 14 points and 6 rebounds.
Lamonte Turner came off the bench last season but was fourth on the team in minutes per game. He won the SEC co-Sixth Man of the Year award last season while finishing third on the team in points per game, putting up 11 a night. Turner is a great shooter with excellent range. He shot 39.5% from three last season and is deadly off the catch. He spaces the floor very well and is a pesky on-ball defender.
Jordan Bowden is a 6’5 guard who is good for a bucket whenever needed. He averaged 9 points, 2 assists, and 4 rebounds last season while shooting 39.4% from beyond the arc. He is a good finisher around the rim and an excellent shooter, especially off the dribble.
Rounding out the rotation are Kyle Alexander and Jordan Bone. Alexander is the starting center and defensive anchor for the Vols while Bone is a 6’3 guard that led the team in assists last season. I do not think it is a coincidence that Tennessee lost in the tournament when Kyle Alexander was injured. Also, sophomores Yves Pons and Derrick Walker will have a chance to expand their roles and prove themselves this season.
Rick Barnes is a terrific coach and fits this team very well. Tennessee must have realized this as well because they recently extended Barnes through 2023-24. Since Barnes took over in 2015, the team has improved every year. Last season’s SEC Coach of the Year is very experienced, evidenced by the fact that he has coached in twenty-three NCAA tournaments.
The Vols are a talented team. They are one of the best defensive teams in the country, as they were #6 in KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency last season. They shoot the three very well and their excellent floor spacing allows Grant Williams room to operate on the block. Also, this team is extremely experienced. Williams is a junior, Schofield is a senior, Turner is a redshirt junior, Bowden is a junior, Alexander is a senior, and Bone is a junior. That experience is unmatched across the conference and by few teams across the nation. The Volunteers will also have some great non-conference games early in the season to prepare them for a grueling conference schedule. They’ll play either Kansas or Marquette at a neutral site in the NIT Season Tip-Off, they play Gonzaga at a neutral site in what should be one of the best non-conference games of the season and possibly one of the best games of the season overall, and then they play at home against West Virginia. They should be able to enter conference play playing at a high level and ready to build off of last season. Do not be surprised when Tennessee racks up one tough road win after another against teams that can’t match their shooting, defense, coaching, and experience, or when they eventually lock up the SEC regular season championship.