It’s the most wonderful time of the year! College basketball is here and we can only hope that it is here to stay. The COVID-19 pandemic rages on and it will absolutely change the college basketball season. The season has been shortened, protocols are in place, and fans in attendance will be very limited or non-existent in some places.
In a sad, sick way that is what makes this college basketball season so interesting. How will teams fill gaps when players miss games due to positive tests or contact tracing? How will assistant coaches do in 1 or 2 game stints taking on the head coaching duties? How many games will be cancelled? Will conference tournaments happen? What will the NCAA Tournament Bubble look like? The list of questions go on and one.
What cannot be questioned is how incredible of a job Arkansas Head Coach Eric Musselman has done at flipping the roster in these past 19 months. This could be the most talented Arkansas has seen in over a decade, but this roster flip has come at a cost. The Hogs will have 10 new scholarship players touch the floor this year. Only Desi Sills and Ethan Henderson return from last year’s team. There’s no questioning the talent, but chemistry could be a factor.
After watching the Red/White game, I don’t think chemistry will be a problem, but that is just a glorified scrimmage. What about when you give up a 12-2 run on the road against a pesky Texas A&M team? What happens when Bruce Pearl gets the Auburn fans fired up after an alley-oop dunk on the Plains? How do you respond when Kentucky gets 8 straight calls in Rupp? How will they respond then?
Those are questions that we can’t even make educated guesses on. Not until the ball is tipped and we see what this team is really made of.
Here is the Arkansas schedule and my predictions for each game.
2020-21 Arkansas Basketball SEC Schedule and Predictions
Nov. 25 – Mississippi Valley State Jan. 20 – Auburn
Nov. 28 – North Texas Jan. 23 – @ Vanderbilt
Dec. 02 – Texas-Arlington Jan. 27 – Ole Miss
Dec. 05 – Lipscomb Jan. 30 – @ Oklahoma State
Dec. 08 – @ Tulsa Feb. 02 – Mississippi State
Dec. 12 – Central Arkansas Feb. 06 – Texas A&M
Dec. 20 – Oral Roberts Feb. 09 – @ Kentucky
Dec. 22 – Abilene Christian Feb. 13 – @ Missouri
Dec. 30 – @ Auburn Feb. 16 – Florida
Jan. 02 – Missouri Feb. 20 – @ Texas A&M
Jan. 06 – @ Tennessee Feb. 24 – Alabama
Jan. 09 – Georgia Feb. 27 – LSU
Jan. 13 – @ LSU Mar. 02 – @ South Carolina
Jan. 16 – @ Alabama
Wins: MVSU, NT, UTA, Lipscomb, @ Tulsa, UCA, Oral Roberts, ACU, Missouri, Georgia, Auburn, @ Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, @ Oklahoma St, Mississippi St, Texas A&M, Florida, @ Texas A&M, LSU
Losses: @ Auburn, @ Tennessee, @ LSU, @ Alabama, @ Kentucky, @ Missouri, Alabama, @ South Carolina
Record: 19-8 (10-8)
SEC Preview and Predictions
Tier 1 – The Best of the Best
#1 - Kentucky
I know what you’re thinking. “Ben, how could you pick those dirty Wildcats to win the SEC? What about Tennessee? Or LSU?” Well the answer is simple. It’s Kentucky. It’s always hard to bet against them. Especially this year. The Wildcats have reloaded. Kentucky brought in the #1 recruiting class this year and added 3 solid transfers highlighted by star big man Olivier Sarr. B.J. Boston and Terrance Clarke highlight the freshman class. I expect this Kentucky to play very fast. Maybe faster than any previous Calipari-led Kentucky teams. In a year where games will be cancelled and players will be out, I’ll take the staff has succeeded over and over again. Give me Kentucky as the SEC winners.
#2 - Tennessee
The buzz couldn’t be louder in Knoxville. A real Final Four contender is hooping in Rocky Top this year. Santiago Vescovi was either really good or really bad last season. Not much in between. He’ll cut down turnovers and be even more effective this year. Yves Pons and John Fulkerson provide the leadership and experience. Josiah Jordan-James is a 5-Star who will have immediate impact and grad transfer E.J. Anosike will eat up the rebounds. They won’t have any trouble with the length or athleticism. This is going to be an elite team. Rick Barnes really has things going. Texas fans must be sick and I don’t blame them.
Tier 2 – The Contenders
#3 - Alabama
This has the potential to be the best Alabama team of the 21st Century. Nate Oats has things rolling in Tuscaloosa. Kira Lewis Jr. will be missed, but the Tide have Villanova transfer Jahvon Quinerly at the point this year. John Petty and Herb Jones are back for another year. Their leadership will be key this season. Yale grad transfer Jordan Bruner will solidify things in the paint and star sophomore Jaden Shackelford round out what could be the starting 5. Like LSU, Alabama couldn’t guard anybody last year. They ranked 336th in points allowed per game. They must defend in order to meet the expectations placed on them.
#4 - LSU
Will Wade brings back two of the best players in the conference in Trendon Watford and Javonte Smart. The Tigers recruited a top 10 class and added transfers Shareef O’Neal and Josh LeBlanc. Like all Will Wade teams, this group will be able to score. The Tigers will miss the steady leadership of Skylar Mays and skilled big man Emmitt Williams, but the Tigers have reloaded. The big question mark will be how well can LSU defend. That has been a common inconsistency under Will Wade. His teams just don’t play defense. They have been really good and even won the SEC regular season title 2 years ago, but lost by 17 in the Sweet 16. In order for the Tigers to take the next step up as a program, defending has to be a new priority.
#5 - Arkansas
I have the Hogs higher than most at this point. Yes, they are my team, but I will pose a few others points as to why I have them 5th. When Isaiah Joe was still a member of this team, Arkansas was unanimously a Top 25 team. Experts everywhere were high on the Hogs! The overall chemistry would still be an issue. The 10 newcomers were still new. Now don’t misunderstand me, Isaiah Joe is a huge piece and a great asset. His floor spacing and shooting will be dearly missed, but the talent on this team is still very high. With that said, the loss of Joe drops them from 3rd or 4th in the conference to 7th or 8th?? That just doesn’t make any sense to me. The biggest factor here is Eric Musselman though. When you really dissect last year’s Arkansas roster, it was pretty bad. Very top heavy. Yet Musselman had the Hogs squarely on the bubble. What he does with a roster full of talent is yet to be seen, but I am confident that Arkansas will be a top 5 team in the SEC this year.
Tier 3 – Good, Not Great
#6 - Florida
The Gators had their 3rd straight underwhelming season and 2019-20 may have been the worst of them all. Florida brought in a great recruiting class, had a strong point guard in Andrew Nembhard, and the best graduate transfer in the nation in Kerry Blackshear. Despite that, the Gators went just 19-12. How disappointing. Now with his seat scorching hot, Mike White is gearing up with a more fluid, fast-paced offense. Star guards Keyontae Johnson and Noah Locke are back. Tre Mann and Ques Glover both have a year under their belts and transfer Tyree Appleby is eligible. Appleby is a scoring machine and should fare well in Gainesville. A lot like South Carolina, the Gators are set in the backcourt, but have a questions to be answered in the paint. If Florida can find consistency on offense then the Gators will be one of the best teams in the conference.
#7 - South Carolina
This is a team I may regret having this low. South Carolina is just so hard to predict each year. Frank Martin’s teams always find a way to have 2 or 3 really bad losses in November and December then look like a different team in SEC play. Maik Kotsar graduated and Jair Bolden transferred to Butler. Both have been key contributors for Frank Martin in recent years. A.J. Lawson is the real deal though and he is back along with Jermain Couisnard. Former UNC Tar Heel Seventh Woods is now eligible for the Gamecocks. They are loaded in the backcourt, but still have questions to be answered in the frontcourt. If a combination of Alanzo Frink, Wildens Leveque, Trey Anderson, and Justin Minaya can figure things out in the paint then SC can be a NCAA tournament team.
#8 - Auburn
Auburn lost a lot. There’s no denying that. 6 scholarship players and every one of them contributed. This is a rebuilding year for the Tigers, but when you bring in a high-rated 5 star like Sharife Cooper anything is possible. Yet as I am writing this, news breaks that Auburn has self-imposed a postseason ban for the Chuck Person case in 2017. There are still many questions about the entire situation and no one knows what the NCAA may decide to do. Either way, this was going to be a rebuilding year for Bruce Pearl. I really like the young pieces they have. There is talent there, but too much inexperience and youth to overcome in my opinion.
Tier 4 – The Long Shots
#9 - Missouri
While Missouri is in my Long Shots tier, I think they may be the biggest sleeper in the SEC. The Tigers won 15 games last year while 2 of their best players spent much of the season hurt. Sharpshooter Mark Smith missed 7 games in SEC play while big man Jeremiah Tilmon missed 14 games with 11 in SEC play. The Tigers still won 7 SEC games and they return almost everyone. Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson stepped up in their absence. While the injuries were frustrating for the Tigers, it really could pay off in the long run. 8 deep that are all very experienced. Watch out for Missouri!
#10 - Ole Miss
This spot for Ole Miss may be one I regret. Several in and around college basketball see the Rebels finishing much higher. I just can’t get there. They were a team that couldn’t finish games last year and they lose their closer Breein Tyree. The star carried the Rebels in 2019-20, but maybe that is why they will be better this year. The roster seems to be more balanced. The transfer portal was good to Kermit Davis. Iowa State transfer Romello White and Rider transfer Dimencio Vaughn both are experienced players who can score and rebound. K.J. Buffen and Khadim Sy are both back and should be much improved. Davis did damage in the high school recruiting ranks as well with top 40 freshman Matthew Murrell. They definitely have some pieces to make some noise, but can they finish?
#11 - Texas A&M
Buzz Williams got things going in a hurry in College Station last season. The Aggies lost games to Harvard, Temple, and Fairfield in November, but finished SEC play at 10-8. What an unbelievable turnaround. Josh Nebo and Wendell Mitchell both graduated, but Williams has arguably his best player back. Savion Flagg produces night in and night out. A&M added the nation’s leading rebounder in Kevin Marfo. At guard is where Buzz Williams will need to find consistency. The Aggies were 263rd last season in turnovers at 14.1 per game. We know Buzz will have them playing tough, physical defense, but can they score enough?
Tier 5 – The Bottom
#12 - Georgia
There were a lot of eyes on Athens last year. Anthony Edwards captured the attention of the country. And for good reason! Edwards was picked first by the Minnesota Timberwolves last week. So where does Tom Crean turn now? The Bulldogs didn’t just lose Anthony Edwards. Sophomore big man Rayshaun Hammonds also was ready for pro ball. The departure of Hammonds will sting more than Edwards. Everyone knew the #1 pick would be a one and done, but Hammonds leaving was surprising. He was a solid player and would have been the cornerstone of this Georgia team. Instead, they turn to point guard Sahvir Wheeler. He will be the heart and soul of this team, but he’ll rely on Virginia Tech transfer P.J. Horne and George Mason transfer Justin Kier. Horne and Kier have a lot of experience and both were very productive at their previous stops. Tom Crean needs to exceed expectations this season or his seat will likely start to heat up.
#13 - Mississippi State
Ben Howland moves on to life after Reggie Perry. Hog fans will never forget the big man. The high ranking 4-star was once committed to Arkansas, but flipped to Mississippi State seemingly out of the blue. Perry was a special player. He and Robert Woodard were both selected in last weeks’ NBA draft. The Bulldogs are starting over and that’s putting it nicely. Yes, they return Iverson Molinar, D.J. Stewart, and Abdul Ado, but they lost 8 scholarship players. Perry, Woodard, Nick Weatherspoon, and Tyson Carter were the best 4 players on the team last season. The replacements just aren’t the same caliber. Ado will be relied on more than ever. Freshman top 60 recruit Deivon Smith and grad transfer Jalen Johnson will need to have an big impact early. It should be a long year in Starkville.
#14 - Vanderbilt
Year 2 with Jerry Stackhouse leading the way. He made some staff changes and looks to build around Scotty Pippen Jr. who was a star last year. The Commodores return 4 starters who should be healthy and ready to go this year. Vanderbilt has dealt with so many injuries the last few years. First round draft picks Aaron Nesmith and Darius Garland would have made huge impacts on the floor in the black and gold, but injuries hampered them both. While the talent is thin in Nashville, you have to set reasonable goals. For Vanderbilt, stay healthy and avoid Wednesday Night Sadness at the SEC Tournament. Finish in the top 10 in the league. That would be quite the feat! I don’t see it happening, but I hope the best for them. Their fans don’t deserve what has happened to their athletic programs.
As always, thanks for reading!
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