My 2021-22 SEC basketball projections, tier-by-tier

So: I attended a college football game for the first time since August 2019 this past Saturday. Memphis played SMU at the Historic Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium in Memphis. (My future brother-in-law is the Memphis punter and kicker. Humblebrag!) The Tigers won, it was a fine and nice day, 62 degrees, all that. There were even points! 53 of ’em!

There were also commercials. Lots of ’em. Every time I watched the little man in the red hat take the field with a digitized sign that either read 3:05 or 3:25 depending on which car company needs to shove their newest $39,399 MSRP vehicle in my face, I felt just a little more internal groaning turn external. By halftime, I’d seen the Red Hat six different times, each for a commercial break that lasts longer than most songs on the radio do. If I remember correctly, there were 14 full commercial breaks, which means for a solid 45ish minutes of a gorgeous fall Saturday, you’re sitting there watching the Overseer of Advertising.

And this wasn’t even one of the bad games, because it only took about 3 hours and 15 minutes. The FOX Game of the Week seems to take four full hours every time out. This is where the beauty of college basketball, in all of its profound ugliness, lies: the longest regulation games basically never run longer than 2 hours and 20 minutes. Tennessee played an exhibition game against a Division II opponent with eight full media timeouts last weekend and it didn’t even crack the 1:50 mark. The average in-season game runs right at two hours. It’s one of the most economical viewing experiences a time-conscious viewer can have outside of European football/soccer.

This is a very weird and roundabout way of saying that I am looking forward to a capital-N Normal college basketball season like nothing else. Four months of interesting storylines, statistics, and coverage; the most perfect and ludicrous postseason format in existence; a profound lack of in-game Buick ads or the Kenny Chesney Tailgater of the Week when you’re in the arena. For all of this sport’s problems, it holds excitement and wire-to-wire intrigue for me unlike basically anything else. I recognize this probably says more about me than it does the actual sport, and I accept that. But I’m still pretty darn excited about all of this. It’s nice for normalcy to be back on a national stage.

Without further bloviating, the SEC is broken up into five tiers, with an explanation of each tier below its designation. There are 14 teams in all; at the bottom, there is a short list of awards and weird superlatives and whatnot. All rankings in (parentheses) are from the metrics composite I’ve been using for other posts.

Tier 1

Nothing surprising if one (or multiple) of these teams win the SEC regular season title or the SEC Tournament.

T-1. Tennessee (#14)
T-1. Kentucky (#15)
T-1. Alabama (#17)
4. Arkansas (#21)

Yes, this is a copout and whatnot; I also do not care. I genuinely think that all three of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama are pretty much dead even to the point that if you graded them on KenPom’s Adjusted Efficiency Metric I don’t think there would be even half a point of separation between the three. It’s fine. We can have a tie.

Tennessee has been consistently ranked somewhere between second and fourth by media members and ended up fourth in the SEC preseason poll, so it may be a surprise that I would rank them in a three-way tie for first. The media members that make up these polls do generally know their stuff and try pretty hard. That said, I’m simply siding with the computer numbers here; Tennessee has a tantalizing combo of returning talent (John Fulkerson, Josiah-Jordan James, Santiago Vescovi, etc.), high-end freshmen (Kennedy Chandler, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield), and a key transfer (Justin Powell via Auburn) that feels like the best regular-season mix for wins if I had to pick one.

The case against Tennessee is that none of the returning talent is an ideal #1 option offensively and that the best defensive player the program has had in a long time just left for the NBA. If Tennessee can’t figure out how to appropriately replace Pons defensively, it could be an unusual Barnes-era situation in that the team is relying on the offense to provide key wins. (Sort of a Pearl-era situation?) The interesting thing with Tennessee is that, of these four teams, you could make the argument that their floor is higher than everyone else’s…but the ceiling may be lower than both of the teams they’re tied with. Time will tell.

Kentucky is a curious case: they have the most proven coach of anyone in the SEC, of course, and John Calipari largely ditched his usual blue-chip recruiting strategy to go hard in the transfer market after a variety of fixes. (They also may get to add the #1 recruit in the 2022 class midway through the season, but that seems both up in the air and unlikely to actually help them all that much.) They’re the preseason SEC pick by most, and I totally get it; I think that of the four teams in Tier One here they’re kind of the obvious upside pick because if it all comes together correctly, they’ll be one of the 10 or so best teams when things actually matter, i.e. March.

However: this is Kentucky. That means several things. One of them is that “this is Kentucky” means that John Calipari, barring a 38-1 style level of talent, will probably lose a couple more games than expected from November-January only to properly round into form by mid-March. I feel somewhat backed up by this argument because Kentucky just got done defeating a middling Division II side by NINE POINTS in their exhibition game where everyone was available. Also, “this is Kentucky” means that objectively, Kentucky’s average star rating on this team (per 247’s Composite) only ranks 16th-best, the lowest that Calipari has offered since…well, probably 2012-13? That’s still a very good roster, of course, but both Tennessee and LSU rank ahead of the ‘Cats in this metric that is usually dominated by Calipari and crew. I’m very intrigued because this is the most un-Kentucky team of the Calipari era.

Alabama was en route to be a somewhat-clear #1 until Josh Primo left for the Draft and they had a couple unfortunate injuries (Nimari Bennett and James Rojas) that have done serious damage to their rotation. The factors in Alabama’s corner, however, are quite nice. One of them is that Nate Oats has done the massive, revolutionary thing of bringing Moreyball to the SEC and instantly turning a dormant Alabama program into a dominant force. (Yes, it is very funny that all Oats had to do was run the Houston Rockets offense to become a top ten team in college basketball. And his offense wasn’t even elite!) The other is that they got to bring back Jaden Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly while adding five-star JD Davison to the mix. It’s a really good roster.

The “but why they won’t do it” section is a little more hypothetical here but stick with it. Alabama’s amazing defense last season covered up the fact that the offense was…kind of not great? All of the Ball & Oates headlines ignored that it was the defense that finished the year in the KenPom top five. The offense barely cracked the top 30, and of the team’s eight best offensive outings, only two came after January 19. The team’s two best defenders (Herbert Jones and Primo) both left for the NBA; while I think the offense is probably a hair more well-rounded, the defense seems unlikely to repeat its amazing 2020-21. Can the offense’s progression make up for that in a manner that’s better than “well, we’re a 5 seed?”

Arkansas has the Sweating Screaming Energizer Bunny at head coach and a revolving-door of transfer market talent every year, so you generally know that every season is likely to follow a similar storyline. This year’s big addition is Chris Lykes, a 5’7” point guard from Miami who can score in bunches and has a surprisingly low turnover rate for a ball-dominant guard. There’s also Au’Diese Toney (Pittsburgh) and Stanley Umude (South Dakota), both of whom were quite excellent at their previous stops in lower-profile roles. Add J.D. Notae (also a ball-dominant guard) and Davonte Davis (hero of the Sweet Sixteen last year) back to the mix and you’ve got a team that everyone seems reasonably high on in the manner of Arkansas being back to yearly Top 25 status.

The downside to this is two-fold: eventually, you’re not gonna hit on all your transfers, and also, unless Jaylin Williams (not Auburn’s Jaylin Williams) or Connor Vanover (Slenderman video series) is able to step into an extended role late in the season, this is going to be a really small basketball team. Arkansas’s current lineup, per Torvik, projects at 5’7”/6’1”/6’3”/6’6”/6’6”. That’s kind of fine if you’re Arkansas State; it’s less great when you have Oscar Tshiebwe and Walker Kessler and Darius Days and the Mississippi State bigs and even John Fulkerson on your schedule. Vanover was played out of the rotation last March because he’s not mobile enough at all to handle ball-screen heavy offenses; Williams is much better in this regard but committed 4.8 fouls per 40 last year and was a turnover machine offensively. Can one of those two players become reliable enough to be playable for 20+ minutes a night in March, or will Arkansas simply have to find a way to win with a super small-ball center?

Tier 2

Either team could reasonably outperform preseason expectations and contend for the SEC title(s)…but either team also has the potential to underperform and end up near the NCAA bubble as a mid-pack squad.

5. Auburn (#28)
6. Florida (#26)

Auburn is ahead of Florida for three reasons:

  1. Their head coach is Bruce Pearl;
  2. Florida is coached by Mike White;
  3. Auburn’s schedule actually lines up very nicely for them to finish in the top four with a couple breaks.

But that’s being maybe a hair unfair to both sides. Let’s tackle the Auburn case first. The Tigers are exiting a rebuilding year where the team basically never played at full strength and you only got 12 games of Sharife Cooper thanks to a postseason ban. Auburn finished 60th in KenPom, their worst season since 2016-17 and essentially the first time since that year they haven’t been a serious SEC factor. But: their coach is Bruce Pearl, and that kind of makes up for a lot. There’s no direct 1-to-1 comparison between 2021-22 Auburn and any of Pearl’s Tennessee teams, but this group is straight-up more talented. Cooper is gone, but five-star freshman Jabari Smith enters, as does Georgia transfer K.D. Johnson (who was excellent in his first season) and Walker Kessler (you know who this is).

The Auburn Problem, as much as there’s an obvious one, is their lack of a standout defense under Pearl. When Pearl was at Tennessee, the Volunteers did post three Top 20 offenses, but it wasn’t until Tennessee finished the 2009-10 season 11th-best defensively that they touched the Elite Eight. Auburn’s been to a Final Four, obviously, but they haven’t topped being the 36th-best defense nationally under Pearl. The defensive rankings of the best KenPom SEC team over the last five years: 3rd, 52nd, 8th, 6th, 7th. Excluding the 2019-20 season when there were no excellent SEC teams, it’s pretty obvious that to be the best of the best, Auburn’s just gotta get better defensively.

Florida, meanwhile, is a way stranger case. Under Mike White, the Gators haven’t finished worse than 41st on KenPom, have made four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, own an Elite Eight bid, and have yet to finish sub-.500 in conference play. The problem is that Mike White is not Billy Donovan, and the Mike White Basketball Experience might be best summed up with a tweet I posted this summer.

Only Penn State offers a greater gap over the last five seasons between their expected record and their actual record. Objectively, Florida has played high-quality basketball over the full sample size of an average 30-40 game season. They win seven games a season against the toughest competition they play; only Kentucky has more Quad 1 wins. Yet Florida always finds a way to do one of three things: blow a close game, lose to an opponent they’re significantly better than, or blow a close game to an opponent they’re significantly better than. If you flip the result of, like, five games in the Mike White tenure, things might feel different than they do. But they don’t, and such is life.

This particular Florida roster is a pretty fascinating one. At a surface level, it’s roughly as talented as White’s 2018-19 squad that made the Round of 32 and was probably 2-3 wins better than its actual record. Myreon Jones transferred over from Penn State, where he averaged 15.3 PPG and seems to be the kind of scoring guard Florida desperately needs. All-SEC Colin Castleton is back. Tyree Appleby is back. The eight-man rotation projects to have six seniors in it. If you measured this team by objective talent, you’d say it’s a Top 25 roster. All it would take is one season where Mike White and crew catch a few lucky breaks and they’re suddenly in the thick of the SEC race. But…don’t you kind of have to see it to believe it at this point?

Tier 3

One, possibly two, of these teams will make the NCAA Tournament. Which ones? I’ll know in a few months.

7. LSU (#40)
8. Mississippi State (#52)
9. Mississippi (#65)

LSU is once again going to have an excellent offense (three straight in the top 15) and an awful defense (three of four years in the 100s in KenPom). The difference here is that this might be Will Wade’s most talented starting lineup ever. Xavier Pinson transfers over from Missouri and could easily hit 15-18 PPG; Darius Days is fabulously efficient; freshman Efton Reid seems awesome. If they could find even one or two decent bench players, they could easily outperform this ranking. But: until they have a good defense, I’m not gonna believe in them, and on a surface level, this looks to me like a team that will have about 6.5 playable guys in March.

Mississippi State got a strangely high amount of Top 25-adjacent buzz this offseason and ended up fairly high in Others Receiving Votes. Most seem to believe that this is the team Ben Howland has been building towards. Fair enough, whatever, I’ll hear it out. And when I saw Iverson Molinar, Tolu Smith, and Garrison Brooks all on the same roster, it seemed somewhat reasonable. Unfortunately, this is not 3-on-3 basketball, and I remain both unimpressed and confused by the rest of the team. I have three serious questions:

  1. Do people think Tolu Smith and Garrison Brooks, both 6’10”, both non-factors in the shooting department, can play together? This seems like a futile hope that basketball somehow returns to 2010, but then again, that’s how every Howland-era MSU team has looked to me.
  2. Do you think Rocket Watts and D.J. Jeffries will suddenly live up to recruiting expectations? Watts was a horrendous shooter in two years with one of the best coaches in America; Jeffries posted a 96 Offensive Rating with Memphis last season on a team that badly needed offense.
  3. Can you name the bench players? State’s likely bench options are Derek Fountain (okay-enough stretch 4), Shakeel Moore (NC State transfer with a 93 Offensive Rating), Cameron Matthews (bench player last year), and…uh…yeah.

If State answers these questions appropriately, then it seems reasonable that they end the season in the top 30-35 or so and maybe win a Tournament game. If they can’t, as I anticipate, this is an NCAA bubble team that will spend the entire year being talented enough to win some interesting games, yet frustrating enough to make you wonder why they just lost a can’t-lose game to South Carolina.

Mississippi is in another transition year under Kermit Davis, which is fine. They have a solid amount of talent and some intriguing players: Jarkel Joiner, Luis Rodriguez, Matthew Murrell. They run the most unique defense the SEC has to offer, a weird 1-3-1 that extends into a full-court zone press and can turn a generally-fine opponent into absolute sludge on the right night. The problem for Ole Miss, just like it was the last two seasons, is that I can’t tell you with any real feeling who their second scoring option is going to be. Joiner feels likely to get them somewhere between 13-16 a night, but who’s the #2? Do they have any #2? Torvik projects this offense 147th; KenPom has it 110th. Both feel pretty much spot-on. For Ole Miss to overachieve, either the defense has to be a top-five unit all year long or the offense needs to be at least in the top 75. Both seem a little lofty.

Tier 4

This ranges from “could reasonably make NIT” to “is bad, but not bad enough to avoid stumbling backwards into multiple upset wins.”

10. Vanderbilt (#88)
11. Texas A&M (#101)

12. South Carolina (#108)
13. Missouri (#111)

More quick-hitters here because, well, none of these teams project to be of ultra-serious importance. One or even two could become Tier 3 with a couple good breaks, but none seem possible to breach Tier 2.

Vanderbilt returns one of the nation’s most exciting players in Scotty Pippen, Jr. and juuuuuust enough interesting pieces (Rodney Chatman via Dayton, Liam Robbins via Minnesota) that you can talk yourself into Vanderbilt no longer being in Sickos Territory. They’ve been awful defensively in both Stackhouse seasons and I don’t see why that will change this year, but they’re no longer going to be the obvious doormat. They’ll have several reasonable shots to pull off a Top 25 win or two. Texas A&M has been excruciating to watch under Buzz Williams, which is The Point. Williams just hasn’t been able to find an offensive option that can get things going for his squad; through two seasons this is why they’ve ranked 203rd and 175th in offense nationally. Tyrece Radford (Virginia Tech) is their best hope yet in this regard, but the odds of Buzz running a smoke-and-mirrors campaign like he did in 2019-20 to get A&M to 10-8 in the SEC are not high.

South Carolina retained Frank Martin, and he repaid them by making precisely one significant addition in the transfer market: Erik Stevenson, a Washington guard who averaged 9.3 PPG for a 5-21 team. If I had to place a bet on which team in the SEC will have the lowest-ranked offense at season’s end, I would still choose Georgia, but South Carolina makes a depressingly strong argument. Missouri had a hot 2020-21 start, crashed to the ground, and lost over 80% of minutes and scoring while not really doing much recruiting-wise to replace it. Cuonzo Martin seems fine treating this as a transition/rebuilding year; finishing higher than 11th in the SEC with this roster would genuinely be the best accomplishment of his tenure.

Tier 5

This tier is reserved for one team: the worst roster on paper that I’ve seen from an SEC squad since 2012-13 Mississippi State.

14. Georgia (#185)

When the Bulldogs hired Tom Crean prior to the 2018-19 season, it was met with a lot of generic excitement. Here is a mostly-anonymous basketball program that hadn’t made headlines in almost two decades hiring a guy with a Final Four on his resume and a couple genuinely very good seasons at Indiana. Nothing to sneeze at, particularly when you consider what Georgia’s had in the past for coaches. Sure, they go 2-16 in the SEC in Crean’s first season; sure, they go 5-13 in the SEC with the #1 draft pick on their roster. It takes time.

Whatever time it’s taken has resulted in one of the worst high-major rosters I have seen in the time that I’ve been deeply following college basketball. It was already bad before Georgia’s lone notable returner, P.J. Horne, was announced as being out for the season with a torn ACL. That injury dropped Georgia to #237 on Bart Torvik’s site; no team has breached the 210+ range in the SEC in eight full seasons. It would be insane for any team to get that low.

This Georgia roster is stunning in all the wrong ways. Its leading scorer from any roster is Jailyn Ingram, a sixth-year super-senior who averaged 10.4 PPG at Florida Atlantic despite not starting in nearly half the team’s games. That’s the only double-digit scorer the roster has. The team’s next-best player is probably Jabri Abdur-Rahim, who failed to crack the rotation at Virginia. It’s extraordinarily dire.

Because it is really, really hard to lose every game in a conference season, Georgia should be able to stumble their way to 2-4 SEC wins. They may even end up in a position that isn’t last place, depending on how 10-13 shake out. But it is very, very hard to imagine Georgia playing a close game against any of the SEC’s top six, and it is almost as hard imagining them finding a win against an opponent higher than Tier 4. Torvik projects their final record as 9-21, 3-15 SEC; if that comes true, it would be beyond me how you’d give Tom Crean another chance at turning this thing around. 3-15 SEC would mean 17-55 SEC through four years. How would a fifth year fix that?

Some other various dumb predictions

SEC Player of the Year: Jahvon Quinerly (Alabama). Two things generally hold true with this award: it’s given to a higher-usage player (24% USG% or higher) and you have to at least be on one of the SEC’s four or five best teams to get it. That’s why I wouldn’t guess Pippen Jr. gets it, even if he is the actual best player in the conference. Quinerly projects to be the highest-usage player on a top-three SEC side and the one who will likely get the ball the most in late-game situations. Others receiving votes: Kennedy Chandler (Tennessee), Myreon Jones (Florida), uh…one of like four Kentucky players?

SEC Freshman of the Year: Kennedy Chandler (Tennessee). I think Jabari Smith at Auburn is a perfectly fine pick, too, and would not be surprised for him to win it. I just anticipate that Chandler probably will be a bigger focus of his team’s offense and, as projected, Tennessee figures to be a slightly better SEC team on the whole. That would be the tiebreaker if there is one. Others receiving votes: Jabari Smith (Auburn), J.D. Davison (Alabama).

Leading scorer: Scotty Pippen Jr. (Vanderbilt). Unless there’s a Cam Thomas waiting out there this would be Pippen’s ‘award’ to lose; it’s hard to find another player on the Vandy roster willing to take as many possessions as Pippen does and he’s going to be the main path to possible upsets. I’ll guess somewhere around 21-22 PPG.

Leading rebounder: Oscar Tshiebwe (Kentucky). If he can stay on the court consistently, Tshiebwe genuinely should average 10+ rebounds a night. Few were as dominant as he was on the boards at West Virginia.

Leading assist-er(?): Scotty Pippen Jr. I mean it all runs through him.

Sickos Game of the Season: South Carolina at Georgia, February 12, 2022. You could pick a non-conference game, but I restricted this award to SEC only. Georgia, obviously, is the worst team in the SEC. However: this ranks as their very best shot at an SEC win this season. They’re likely to be a slim underdog to a directionless South Carolina program. The loser of this game may fire their coach. The winner might also fire their coach.

Actual Best Game of the Season: uh…I actually think it’s Tennessee at Alabama, December 29, 2021? This is the very first SEC game for both of these teams, but with a 77.8 FanMatch rating, this is KenPom’s highest SEC vs. SEC rating given to a game all season. Clear your schedule!

Number of NCAA Tournament teams: 7. As you can guess, I think LSU is the seventh; whatever holes they have will be erased for long enough to get them in the field as a 9 or 10 seed.

Number of 1 & 2 seeds: 0. ZERO!!!! You get what you deserve! I’m kidding. The problem with having four legitimate Tier One teams and six teams that could win 12+ SEC games is that they’re all going to beat up on each other over the course of two months. Unless one of those four/six teams is considerably better than expected, every team in the SEC is going to end the season with at least four and probably five conference losses; if they don’t make up for those in November and December, it may collectively be too much to produce a top-eight side.

Your SEC standings projections: are below. There are a total of 126 wins to be collected among the 14 teams; whether they live up to these idiotic guesses is up to them.

T-1. Tennessee (13-5)
T-1. Alabama (13-5)
T-1. Kentucky (13-5)
4. Arkansas (12-6)
T-5. Auburn (11-7)
T-5. Florida (11-7)
T-7. LSU (9-9)
T-7. Mississippi State (9-9)
9. Mississippi (8-10)
10. Vanderbilt (7-11)
T-11. Texas A&M (6-12)
T-11. South Carolina (6-12)
13. Missouri (5-13)
14. Georgia (3-15)

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