The SEC – I’ll be the first to admit it — I love to make fun of SEC basketball. As good as they’ve been in football is how bad they’ve been in basketball (that’s a pretty stark contrast). However, this year, there are teams in the SEC other than Kentucky bringing in top-level talent. The most obvious of those is LSU – they’ll show up a little later on this list. On top of LSU, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Kentucky, Florida, Auburn, Arkansas, and Alabama all bring in ESPN 100 members as part of their freshmen classes this year. Mississippi State’s Malik Newman – a player that I think could be the next Tracy McGrady – will make an immediate impact the moment he steps on the floor for the Bulldogs. Last year, we saw the SEC start to ascend to an elite conference level, but the incoming class will do wonders to help keep that trend moving in the right direction. Who knows, maybe someone that isn’t Kentucky or Florida will win an SEC Championship in the next five years.
5. Maryland – As soon as freshman guard Melo Trimble announced he’d be returning, the rest of the Big Ten was immediately put on watch. Trimble was superb at the point last season for the Terps, frequently throwing his own name into the conversation of top freshman guards in the nation. But, it was the signing of center Diamond Stone of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Dominican High School) that will push the Terps to an all-new level this year. Stone will man the paint, allowing senior Jake Layman to return to his more natural position on the wing. Maryland was a dominant presence in the post away from being an elite team last year, and Stone will come in and provide the jolt they need to propel them to the next level. If the Terps are able to lure in Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon, as rumors might suggest they will, this team will find themselves competing not only for the Big Ten Championship, but the National Championship as well.
4. Louisville – It’s hard to imagine that a team losing two starters to the NBA, one to dismissal, and one to graduation would find themselves in a position to compete for an ACC title the following year. But, in the words of head coach Rick Pitino, the Cards aren’t looking to rebuild, they’re looking to retool. The Cardinals bring in two of the top graduate student transfers – Damion Lee (Drexel) and Trey Lewis (Cleveland State). Last year, Louisville struggled to score the basketball from outside, and both of these guards are more than capable of lighting it up from downtown. Nevertheless, Louisville also brings in four solid recruits, even though two of them are likely not to see the floor this season. The two that will have the biggest impact are Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel, both ESPN 100 members earning five-star rankings from Scout.com. With the addition of stout guards and the returning of big men like captain Mangok Mathiang, Jaylen Johnson, and Chinanu Onuaku, Louisville will be able to return to their press defense and sharpshooting ways that carried them to two consecutive Final Fours and a national championship.
3. Duke Blue Devils – Yes, I know what you’re asking – how can the defending National Champions be better next year than they were this year? Well, I’m not sure they’ll be better, but they will certainly have as good of a chance to become back-to-back champions as any team we’ve seen in recent memory. Sure, losing players like Jahlil Okafor, Quinn Cook, Justice Winslow, and Tyus Jones are going to be extremely difficult shoes to fill. But, if there’s any squad to do it, it’s the one Coach K will send on the floor this fall. When Duke cut the nets, it was their freshmen that lead the way; however, they’re biggest role players – Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones, Marshall Plumlee, and Grayson Allen (some might call him the catalyst for their title) will all be back for Duke. Adding on to the already solid base, Duke brings in the #1 SF – Brandon Ingram, the #4 C – Chase Jeter, the #3 PG – Derryck Thronton, and the #6 SG – Luke Kennard. All four of those players are good enough to start at 95% of division 1A programs and will help carry Duke back to the Final Four under the masterful guidance of Coach K.
2. California Golden Bears – When the #9 overall recruit, Ivan Rabb, chose Cal over Arizona, the basketball culture completely changed. This was before the #2 ranked SF – Jaylen Brown – announced that he’d be following Rabb to Cal. The Golden Bears weren’t a bad basketball team last year. They finished with an above .500 record, right in the middle of the very deep Pac-12 Conference. This year, they return all but one of their big-time players, including a set of 17 and 13 point per game guards in the form of Tyrone Wallace and Jordan Matthews. The Bears have three Final Fours in their program’s history, but the addition of Rabb and Brown, along with some transfers, to go along with their already stellar depth will find Cal very high in the preseason rankings, with their eyes turned towards pushing for their fourth Final Four.
1. LSU Tigers – ESPN’s Myron Medcalf doesn’t think Ben Simmons will live up to the hype. Coming in as the #1 player in the country, Simmons is an immediate threat to win the Wooden Award, be an All-American, etc. But, just as Medcalf points out, LSU head coach Johnny Jones does not have a phenomenal track record of developing players, as showcased by the lack of development in Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey this past season. Regardless, the one thing Medcalf neglects is that Simmons’ new freshman running-mate, Antonio Blakeney, could make just as large of an impact. Simmons is a 6’9” wing player with ball handling and jump shooting capability. When you watch his senior mixtape, it looks like he’s a man among boys. He’s wizardly with the basketball, and has guard skills with big-man size. His combination of size with ball handling and court vision makes him look like a modern day Magic Johnson. Blakeney, a 6’4” guard, was once a Louisville commit, until he opted to join LSU and Simmons down south. He could easily be the most explosive guard in this class, and he will be able to play off of Simmons, whose likely to draw the majority of the attention from opposing defenses. A lot of people are hating on the Tigers – not a stellar head coach, weaker conference, etc. My personal take? The SEC is stronger than it has ever been, coach Jones has a chance to prove himself, Simmons will be an All-American, and LSU will be a huge threat to take the SEC Title next March.