As the 2022-23 men’s college basketball season draws closer, ESPN.com’s panel of experts is predicting the order of finish for the nation’s top conferences. We’ve already looked at the mid-majors, American, Pac-12, Big East, and Big Ten. Now our focus turns to the SEC.
Anyone still believing the SEC is only a football conference hasn’t been paying attention to the preseason hype in men’s hoops. The same five teams are ranked in the top 20 in both the AP poll and at KenPom: Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Auburn and Alabama.
The last time you saw John Calipari’s Wildcats, they suffered a shocking upset in overtime at the hands of No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s in the round of 64. Now reigning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe is returning, along with enough veterans (Sahvir Wheeler, Jacob Toppin), top recruits (Chris Livingston, Cason Wallace) and key transfers (CJ Fredrick from Iowa and Antonio Reeves from Illinois State) to make the Wildcats a popular Final Four pick once again.
Then again, they’ll have their work cut out for it in a deep SEC. Arkansas likely has the league’s top NBA draft pick in five-star recruit Nick Smith Jr., while Tennessee returns several veterans from a team with one of the best defenses in the nation last season.
All of the above teams are hungry, because Alabama (2021) and Auburn (2022) have won the last two SEC titles outright. Let’s tip off 2022-23.
Myron Medcalf: Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky
Jeff Borzello: Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky
John Gasaway: Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky
Joe Lunardi: Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky
Medcalf: Nick Smith Jr., Arkansas
Borzello: Nick Smith Jr., Arkansas
Gasaway: Nick Smith Jr., Arkansas
Monday: Nick Smith Jr., Arkansas
Monday: If I had to bet a mortgage payment today, without seeing a minute of any game, Kentucky would be my pick for the national championship. The Wildcats have the Player of the Year favorite along with other proven veterans. They also have the usual immediate contributors coming in (but not too many so as to require a lengthy acclimation period). And, of course, they have the “chip on their shoulder” factor based on last season’s ignominious NCAA tournament exit.
Gasaway: Start with the fact that Kentucky is the first men’s team in 40 years to have a returning Wooden Award winner. That’s a good jumping-off point for any rotation, and Tshiebwe projects to wreak havoc on the SEC once again with his rebounding and putbacks. One question will be outside shooting. Calipari’s incoming transfers, Fredrick and Reeves, are expected to help there, and they had better — returning Wildcats made just 20 3s last year.
Borzello: I think the Wildcats will be in the Final Four and national championship conversation come March — although they were also in that mix last season, before some late-season struggles and ultimately, of course, the shocking upset at the hands of the Peacocks. But Tshiebwe is a game-changer on the interior and Wheeler is one of the best point guards in the country. Above all, I think Toppin’s performance will be key. He was a standout on the team’s preseason trip to the Bahamas, with a mix of length, explosiveness and inside-outside scoring ability unmatched by anyone else on the roster. If he hits his potential.
Medcalf: I think Calipari understands the stakes around this season and will do everything in his power to reach the Final Four. I also think Tshiebwe will capture another Wooden Award and follow Ralph Sampson as the only two-time winner. And he has enough of a supporting cast to get the Wildcats back to where their fan base believes they belong every year. But I’m still concerned about their 3-point shooting. Kentucky hasn’t hit more than 36% of its 3-pointers since 2016. Three of the past four national champions all topped 39%. Does Kentucky have the shooters to win it all? We’ll find out.
Arkansas is stacked with three top-15 freshmen, including projected top five draft pick Nick Smith Jr. How much of a challenge does this present to Eric Musselman, who previously used transfer-heavy rosters to reach back-to-back Elite Eights?
FULL highlights from our exhibition win over Rogers State pic.twitter.com/9DovTRVP6j
— #10 Arkansas Razorbacks Men’s Basketball 🐗 (@RazorbackMBB) October 25, 2022
Gasaway: Musselman’s been the maestro of transfers all the way back to his days at Nevada. Now he’ll have to muddle through with elite recruits. Poor Musselman! No, actually. Arkansas will be fascinating to watch. This roster, including transfers Ricky Council IV (Wichita State) and Trevon Brazile (Missouri), is both highly talented and (practically) all new. It reminds one a bit of Kentucky rosters of yore, when Calipari was churning through one-and-dones. If Musselman gets the level of D that last year’s band of veterans played, this group really will be special.
Borzello: Impact transfers are different from five-star recruits, especially when all three — Smith Jr., Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh — are projected first-round picks. But Musselman has been able to mix and match all sorts of rosters, and I think he’ll find a way with this ultra-talented group as well. Brazile might be the breakout player on this team. The Missouri transfer finished last season on a tear and has been earmarked for big things in the frontcourt this season. Aside from chemistry, the thing to watch early on in Fayetteville will be 3-point shooting. Who on this roster can consistently make shots?
Medcalf: I mean, Auburn had a bunch of talented young players, including Jabari Smith Jr. last season, and looked like it had Final Four plans until it ran into that miraculous Miami squad. I could see the same for Arkansas, and a possible Elite Eight repeat. But it will probably take more time for this group to figure it out than it did last season. And that’s fine. As others have mentioned, the presence of Council IV and Brazile will help. It’s important to note too that not all top 10 NBA prospects are created equal. But, everything that’s been said to date about Nick Smith Jr. suggests that he’s the real deal and capable of leading this team on a run.
Monday: The most important thing to remember is that it barely matters how the Razorbacks look in November, or even December. The college season is so (too?) much longer now that there is plenty of time for multiple versions of a team to emerge. Given the youth, Arkansas may be a sliver overrated as we start the year, but eventually underseeded come Selection Sunday. That didn’t stop the Hogs in either of the past two NCAA tournaments — or Nevada under Musselman in 2018.
Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee all performed well last season, but have also lost significant talent. Are any of them positioned to vie for the SEC championship this season?
Santiago Vescovi talks about his participation in Tennessee’s “VOLeaders” program this summer and getting to travel to different countries for community service.
Medcalf: He’s reached the NCAA tournament in four consecutive seasons. He’s won at least 26 games in three of those four seasons. His name is Rick Barnes, one of the most underrated coaches in college basketball. That’s why it has to be Tennessee. Who would be shocked if the Vols won the league crown? Not me. Santiago Vescovi is one of five seniors on this roster, and Barnes also has Julian Phillips, a top-15 recruit. He wins with teams that are built like this one, and I suspect he will win with this crew, too.
Gasaway: I’m picking Tennessee too. No team from the top tier of last season’s standings is returning as many possession minutes as the Volunteers. This rotation looks like it hits the sweet spot for blending experience (Vescovi, Josiah-Jordan James, Zakai Zeigler, Olivier Nkamhoua) and new talent (Phillips, Indiana State transfer Tyreke Key). I won’t be at all surprised if Tennessee finishes the season ranked No. 1 nationally for adjusted defense at KenPom. Plus, the rubber band effect could favor a team that finished dead last in SEC play last year for 2-point accuracy.
Borzello: I too have Tennessee picked the highest of that trio entering the season, although I still believe the Vols are a step behind Kentucky and Arkansas for the championship. Barnes’ team was playing incredibly well down the stretch last season, looking every bit of a Final Four contender, and brings back several key pieces from that group. If Phillips can provide some dynamism on the offensive end, the Vols might have the scoring necessary to make a run.
One more thing: I think Alabama might have the highest ceiling of this trio — if everything falls right for the Crimson Tide. That includes Jahvon Quinerly coming back healthy, Nimari Burnett regaining his high school form, elite freshman Brandon Miller living up to the hype and the other newcomers making an impact.
Monday: I don’t think Tennessee will win the SEC in 2022-23, but the Vols absolutely can. They were only a game off the pace last season, and return plenty of experience. The real issue in Knoxville is to transfer regular-season success to the NCAA tournament, where Tennessee has come up a good bit short of projections in its four trips under Barnes.
Who or what are we not talking nearly enough about across the SEC?
Texas A&M protects its homecourt with a big win over Oregon, sending the Aggies to the next round of the NIT.
Borzello: I think it’s worth noting the complete uncertainty across most of the league entering the season. Sure, college basketball is itself an uncertain sport to predict — but throw six coaching changes into the mix, and that’s what we face with the SEC. Matt McMahon (LSU), Lamont Paris (South Carolina), Todd Golden (Florida), Chris Jans (Mississippi State), Dennis Gates (Missouri) and Mike White (Georgia) are all taking over at new jobs, and only one of them (White) has experience as a high-major head coach. How does McMahon do with almost an entirely new roster? What should the expectations for South Carolina be with a first-round pick (GG Jackson) on its roster? Can Golden’s brand of basketball translate to Gainesville?
Gasaway: Texas A&M was the only Division I team ranked in the top 40 nationally for strength of record (SOR) last March that didn’t hear its name called on Selection Sunday. The Aggies were robbed, possibly because they recorded SEC tournament wins over Florida, Auburn and Arkansas at the 11th hour when the committee was facing its deadline. Now Buzz Williams is bringing back Henry Coleman III, Tyrece Radford, Wade Taylor IV, Manny Obaseki and Andre Gordon. A&M will or at least should be on a mission.
Monday: All due respect, Texas A&M wasn’t robbed of anything last March (and this from the guy who had the Aggies as his “last team in”). Every game counts, so any honest evaluation of the 2021-22 season must also include A&M’s eight-game SEC losing streak and “we told you so” nonconference schedule. This year’s nonleague slate is a little bit better, but not so much that we can be sure the Aggies were really paying attention to what hurt them the most. This was an issue for years in the SEC — long since solved, but apparently the memo never made it to College Station.
Medcalf: I mean, we haven’t really talked about GG Jackson, who decommitted from North Carolina, reclassified into the class of 2022 and committed to South Carolina this summer. This is the new NIL world. A top-10 recruit can be swayed by his own ambitions and the potential payoff for attending a school that lacks the pedigree of the powerhouse programs that wanted him. I don’t think Jackson only went to South Carolina due to NIL. But if the Tar Heels can lose a top player to a rival like this, it can happen to anyone in this new era. Also, I’m excited to see how Lamont Paris uses the NBA prospect in the first season on campus for both of them.
SEC 2022-23 conference champion predictions