The SEC sent eight schools to the 2023 NCAA Tournament. No league sent more. And this season should be a lot of the same as the conference that brags about it just meaning more continues to invest in the sport to the point where the level of coaches and resources in the league has arguably never been better.
The conference title seems completely up for grabs with Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas A&M comprising a group from which most believe a champ will emerge. The ballot I submitted had Arkansas first -- but the Razorbacks actually finished fourth when our panel's votes were counted. That suggests, again, that things could reasonably go a variety of different ways in the top half of the SEC.
The biggest SEC storyline?
It's John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats, I think.
UK hasn't made a Sweet 16 since 2019 or a Final Four since 2015 despite enrolling a top-two recruiting class in eight of the past nine years. Calipari has now gone eight years at Kentucky without reaching the Final Four despite never going eight years at UMass or Memphis without reaching a Final Four. That's among the reasons pressure is building and why Calipari needs a strong season to keep the locals calm.
CBS Sports SEC Preseason Player of the Year
Wade Taylor IV | G | Texas A&M
Taylor is a sub-100 prospect from the Class of 2021, according to 247Sports, who has developed into one of the sport's best guards. The 6-foot junior averaged 16.3 points, 3.9 assists and 1.7 steals last season while shooting 35.6% from 3 and 87.8% from the free throw line. He was the biggest reason the Aggies secured a No. 7 seed in the 2023 NCAA Tournament. In a league filled with established veterans and talented freshmen, Taylor is the player most deserving of this honor heading into the season. That's the way I voted, and most of our panelists agreed.
Four more players to watch in SEC
Trevon Brazile | F | Arkansas: Brazile averaged 11.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 1.0 steals and 1.0 assists in 27.1 minutes per game last season before tearing the ACL in his right knee in early December. The 6-10 forward is expected to be 100% to start the season and headline the Razorbacks' frontcourt.
Johni Broome | F | Auburn: Broome averaged 14.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 26.5 minutes per game last season while making a smooth transition from Morehead State to Auburn. The 6-10 forward's return to school should have Auburn in the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year.
Grant Nelson | F | Alabama: Nelson averaged 17.9 points and 9.3 rebounds in 30.6 minutes per game last season at North Dakota State. The 6-11 forward's enrollment at Alabama helped offset the loss of Brandon Miller and give the Tide a chance to compete for what would be a third SEC title in a four-year span.
Santiago Vescovi | F | Tennessee: Vescovi averaged a team-high 12.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 32.9 minutes per game last season while helping Tennessee secure a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The 6-3 guard is a reliable 3-point shooter who should finish his college career by playing in a fourth straight NCAA Tournament with the Vols.
CBS Sports SEC Preseason Freshman of the Year
Justin Edwards | F | Kentucky
Edwards is the highest-rated recruit entering the SEC and a strong contender to be the No. 1 pick of the 2024 NBA Draft. The 6-7 wing projects as a difference-maker on both sides of the court who will give UK a chance to make the Final Four before becoming Calipari's latest one-and-done lottery pick. UK's DJ Wagner and Rob Dillingham, Auburn's Aden Holloway, and Arkansas' Baye Fall are other players who could compete for FOY honors. But, heading into things, Edwards is the obvious choice.
CBS Sports SEC predicted order of finish
|The Vols are returning three of the top four scorers -- Santiago Vescovi, Zakai Zeigler and Josiah-Jordan James -- from a team that finished tied for fourth in the SEC before securing a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. As a result, they're ranked as high as fifth in some preseason computer rankings and thus a reasonable pick to win what would be a second SEC title for Rick Barnes, who is entering his ninth year at Tennessee after spending the previous 17 seasons at Texas. How healthy and effective Zeigler is after tearing his ACL last February could be the difference between Tennessee having a good or great season. When he played well last season, the Vols were good enough to beat anybody with their overwhelming and relentless defense. Without him, they struggled to score and lost half of their final six games.
|Buzz Williams placed himself on the list of coaches who have guided at least three different schools to the NCAA Tournament when he took the Aggies there last season after going 15-3 in the SEC. Four starters from that team are back, most notably Wade Taylor IV, a 6-0 guard who averaged 16.3 points, 3.9 assists and 1.7 steals as a sophomore while scoring at least 25 points in a game four different times. Tyrece Radford, a 6-3 guard, is the Aggies' other returning double-digit scorer. He averaged 13.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists last season playing beside Taylor and could be among the keys to Texas A&M maybe winning its first conference title this season since 2016.
|No SEC coach is dealing with more pressure entering this season than John Calipari, who guided Kentucky to four Final Fours in his first six seasons but has now failed to get back there in eight consecutive years. Twenty-two different schools have made the Final Four since the last time Kentucky made the Final Four -- among them fellow blue bloods Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and UCLA, but also traditional mid-majors Florida Atlantic and Loyola Chicago. It's something Calipari will carry with him until he gets the Wildcats back to the Final Four. Whether he can do it this season will largely be determined by heralded freshmen like Justin Edwards, DJ Wagner, Aaron Bradshaw and Robert Dillingham. There's no denying that the Wildcats are talented enough to be among the best teams in the country. The only question is whether veterans Antonio Reeves and Tre Mitchell will provide them with enough experience to actually be one of the best teams in the country.
|The Razorbacks are returning four of the top eight scorers -- Trevon Brazile, Davonte Davis, Makhi Mitchell and Jalen Graham -- from a team that advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Eric Musselman has supplemented that core with two five-star prospects (Baye Fall and Layden Blocker) and six interesting transfers (Tramon Mark, Khalif Battle, El Ellis, Jeremiah Davenport, Keyon Menifield and Chandler Lawson). Of the transfers, Mark is widely considered the best. The 6-6 guard averaged 10.1 points and 4.9 rebounds for a Houston team that secured a No. 1 seed in last season's NCAA Tournament. He could be the key to the Razorbacks making the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight year and Final Four for the first time since 1995.
|The Crimson Tide lost five of the top six scorers from last season's team that secured the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, among them Brandon Miller, a consensus First Team All-American who was the No. 2 pick of the 2023 NBA Draft. That's a lot to replace. But Nate Oats has won the outright SEC title in two of the past three seasons, and the expectation is that he should at least finish in the top five of the league standings for the fourth straight year thanks in part to the addition of proved transfers Grant Nelson (North Dakota State) and Aaron Estrada (Hofstra).
|Bruce Pearl has turned Auburn into a legitimate player on the national level and Neville Arena into one of the best homecourt advantages in the sport. His Tigers have advanced in four of the past five NCAA Tournaments, including the 2019 NCAA Tournament in which Auburn advanced to the Final Four for the first time in school history. The return of all-league forward Johni Broome and arrival of five-star guard Aden Holloway gives the Tigers arguably the best 1-5 combo in the SEC. Their presence is why Auburn should make the NCAA Tournament once again despite losing two of the top four scorers from last season's team.
|I had Mississippi State in the Top 25 And 1 right up until Tolu Smith suffered a foot injury earlier this month that's expected to sideline the Bulldogs' leading returning scorer (15.7 points) and rebounder (8.5 boards) until at least January. That's a bummer. But Chris Jans should still have a good team to start the season given that four of the other top five scorers from last season's team are back and healthy, most notably Shakeel Moore and D.J. Jeffries. That's why anything less than a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament will be disappointing, and with a fully recovered Smith in March the Bulldogs could perhaps make the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1996.
|Dennis Gates exceeded all expectations in his first year at Mizzou by taking over a program that won just 12 games in the previous season and guiding it to 25 victories and a trip to the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament. Can he get there again? Maybe. But it won't be easy considering the top four scorers from last season's team are gone, including Kobe Brown and D'Moi Hodge. John Tonje (Colorado State), Caleb Grill (Iowa State) and Tamar Bates (Indiana) are among the interesting additions via the transfer portal. If Gates gets from them what he got from his last batch of transfers, he'll be back in the NCAA Tournament. For what it's worth, my money has him making it.
|Todd Golden's first year at Florida (after leading San Francisco to a rare NCAA Tournament appearance) didn't go as planned. The Gators finished below .500 for the first time since 2015, in part because Colin Castleton, Florida's best player, missed the final six games with a broken right hand. This projection suggests the Gators are viewed as something of a bubble team heading into the season, and if they break through it'll likely be because of the return of Will Richard and Riley Kugel, plus the addition of transfers like Tyrese Samuel (Seton Hall), Zyon Pullin (UC Riverside) and Walter Clayton Jr. (Iona), the last of whom averaged 16.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists last season while playing for Rick Pitino in the MAAC.
|Ole Miss weighed the pros and cons of hiring Chris Beard after he was fired for cause at Texas following a domestic incident with a woman who was his fiancé at the time. Ultimately, school officials decided that having someone who is regarded as one of the best coaches in the sport was worth whatever backlash the move might create. So Beard's career will continue in Oxford -- and even though this projection suggests he'll fall short of the NCAA Tournament in Year 1, I personally wouldn't rule out Ole Miss making it this season thanks to the return of Matthew Murrell and Jaemyn Brakefield, and the addition of experienced transfers like Moussa Cisse (Oklahoma State), Allen Flanigan (Auburn), Jaylen Murray (Saint Peter's), Brandon Murray (Georgetown) and Jamarion Sharp (Western Kentucky).
|It's easy to forget that LSU started 12-1 last season with wins over Arkansas and Wake Forest because the Tigers finished last in the SEC with a 2-16 league mark. But LSU did start 12-1 last season and looked competent until things fell apart in January. The top three scorers from that team are gone and have been replaced by a slew of transfers, among them Daimion Collins (Kentucky) and Jalen Cook (Tulane), the latter of whom averaged 19.9 points last season playing for Ron Hunter in the American Athletic Conference. Those are nice additions. But LSU might still be at least a year away from returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Will Wade was fired.
|Vanderbilt still has zero NCAA Tournament appearances under Jerry Stackhouse, who has been coaching in Nashville for four years. But the Commodores have made the quarterfinals of the NIT in each of the past two seasons, and they actually finished tied for fourth in the SEC last season, which is often overlooked because, despite that respectable finish in the league standings, they really weren't even on the NCAA Tournament bubble in advance of Selection Sunday after damaging their resume by starting 5-6 with losses to Grambling State and Southern Miss. Tyrin Lawrence and Ezra Manjon are both back from that team, giving Vanderbitl two returning double-digit scorers. That's a solid core. But the Commodores will still have to overachieve relative to expectations to get Stackhouse to the NCAA Tournament for the first time as a coach.
|Mike White added five transfers to Georgia's roster in response to losing the top three scorers from last season's team. So the Bulldogs will look a lot different. But will they be a lot different? Probably not, based on this projection. They went 6-12 in the SEC last season and are expected to produce a similar league record this season unless the newcomers -- Noah Thomasson (Niagara), Jalen DeLoach (VCU), Russell Tchewa (South Florida), RJ Melendez (Illinois) and RJ Sunahara (Nova Southeastern), the last of whom is the reigning Division II National Player of the Year -- are collectively better than the appear to be on paper.
|The Gamecocks were a mess in Year 1 under Lamont Paris. They went 11-21 overall and 4-14 in the SEC while finishing 221st at KenPom. It was South Carolina's worst league record in a decade and worst final KenPom ranking in the database's 25 years of existence. Improving on all of that is possible, if not probable; I actually think South Carolina will be better thanks to the return of Meechie Johnson and addition of experienced transfers like Ta'Lon Cooper (Minnesota), Stephen Clark (Citadel), Myles Stute (Vanderbilt) and BJ Mack (Wofford). But anything other than the Gamecocks being at the bottom, or at least near the bottom, of the SEC standings still seems like an unlikely outcome as Paris' goal of building South Carolina into a contender for the NCAA Tournament probably won't be achieved until at least Year 3.
Most overrated team
Our panel's predicted order of finish isn't much different than my individual ballot -- evidence being that literally zero teams are more than one spot higher in our panel's predicted order of finish than they are in my personal predicted order of finish. So I'm not sure I could honestly call any SEC team "overrated" heading into this season. Somebody will earn that label as things get underway, obviously. But, on paper, heading into the season, no SEC team actually stands out in that regard.
Most underrated team
Arkansas: I have the Razorbacks ranked 11th in the Top 25 And 1 -- ahead of every other SEC team. I have them winning the league in advance of making what should (at least) be a fourth straight trip to the Sweet 16. Simply put, nobody has proven better in recent years than Eric Musselman at taking a bunch of talented pieces that have never played together and molding them into a quality basketball team that looks the part in March. I'm merely assuming the 58-year-old former NBA coach will do it again and possibly lead the Razorbacks to their first conference championship since 1994.