Blake Lovell | @theblakelovell | 06/11/20

It’s been a unique offseason in college basketball.

The NBA Draft withdrawal deadline is currently scheduled for sometime next decade, making it impossible to get a true read on what a lot of teams will look like next season.

To quote a wise college basketball philosopher: This is June.

The roster questions are a main theme in the SEC, where the return or exit of a variety of top talents could be the difference in a team challenging for a conference title or finishing in the bottom half.

Either way, I feel confident about the SEC’s resurgence. Last season was always going to be a transition year, but the expectation is that the league should return to getting at least half its teams in the NCAA Tournament.

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Which brings us to the power ranking tiers. They’re exactly what they sound like: different tiers consisting of different teams for different reasons. Teams aren’t included in alphabetical order within their specific tier, so don’t mistake that for a number ranking unless stated otherwise.

As a reminder, I do these for fun. With roster changes, injuries, and other things like that, these power ranking tiers are likely to change before the start of the season.

So, sit back, grab a cold one, and get ready to fire up a hate tweet about why I’m disrespecting your favorite team.

Just kidding, I love you guys. Please don’t hate tweet me.

Let’s get to the early SEC basketball power ranking tiers for the 2020-2021 season.

The Favorites Tier – Kentucky, Tennessee

Kentucky is one of the favorites to win the SEC next season. There, I said it.

The question is, are they the favorite to win it? The answer will differ depending on who you ask.

If Yves Pons withdraws from the NBA Draft and returns to Tennessee, the Vols are probably my pick to win it. That’s one man’s opinion, but it doesn’t seem all that outlandish considering what Rick Barnes is gonna have on his roster next season.

Pons was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and him coming back would be a game-changer. Not only because of what he brings to the table, but also because of all the people sitting around him at the table.

John Fulkerson transformed himself into an All-SEC caliber player last season. Santiago Vescovi’s potential was obvious. Josiah Jordan-James had his ups and downs as a freshman, but in playing 30 minutes per game, he should be able to use that experience to be more consistent as a sophomore.

In addition to that trio and other returners like Uros Plavsic and Olivier Nkamhoua, Barnes brings in the nation’s No. 4 recruiting class, with two top-20 players in Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, and a top-75 player in Corey Walker. As if that weren’t enough, Sacred Heart grad transfer EJ Anosike averaged a double-double last season while Oregon transfer Victor Bailey Jr. joins the mix as an excellent shooter.

With Pons, I think the Vols are Final Four and/or national championship good as long as they don’t Coach Duggs it if they get there. Sorry, Big Cat.

Speaking of cats, Kentucky is is gonna be good too. John Calipari did lose nearly every impactful player on his roster, but that’s nothing new. He’s got the best recruiting class in the country coming in, and Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr’s waiver situation remains the biggest question mark.

Yes, Kentucky may start slow while everyone is adjusting to each other. But Calipari’s track record suggests that he’ll have them playing their best basketball in February and March when it matters most.

Six SEC teams appear in way-too-early ’20-21 bracketology

The Top Challenger Tier – LSU

While LSU is who I’m putting here at this point, I’d like to reserve the option to rotate every team in the next tier in this spot before the start of the season.

Why the Tigers? Admittedly, it’s based around a lot of assumptions. And you know what happens when you assume.

The first assumption is that no distractions take center stage before or during the season. After Oklahoma State received its punishment from the NCAA for its involvement in the FBI scandal, many assumed that teams like Arizona and LSU are up next. Those rumors will continue until there’s some sort of response from the NCAA. But when it comes playing the prediction game with the NCAA, your guess is as good as mine.

The second assumption is probably more important for this particular season, and that’s who stays and who goes. While the Tigers are set to feature the No. 6 recruiting class in the country, having that type of talent join the likes of Trendon Watford, Javonte Smart, and Darius Days is much different than that talent coming in having to replace those guys. Skylar Mays, one of the SEC’s most underrated players throughout the years, also graduated.

I say all that to say this: A lot has to go right for the Tigers for me to keep them as the top challenger.

If it does and the roster looks like most expect it to, not putting them in the Favorites Tier with Kentucky and Tennessee may prove to be a mistake.

The Prove It Tier – Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida

Love all these teams. Love them.

However, the criteria for the Prove It Tier is teams that have talented rosters and high expectations, but still need to prove they have the intangibles to challenge for a league title.

Florida surprisingly lost Andrew Nembhard to transfer, and that not only puts pressure on Tre Mann and others on offense, but also on Mike White. The Gators need to win big and win big now to ease some of the pressure on the sixth-year coach. Luckily, Keyontae Johnson is an SEC Player of the Year candidate, and Scottie Lewis’s return helps as well.

Alabama and Arkansas are somewhat similar in that they have second-year coaches who have quickly added a bunch of talent. Of course, they’ve also each lost their best player from a season ago to the pro ranks, and filling the shoes of Kira Lewis and Mason Jones won’t be easy. But did I mention both teams have some ridiculous talent? Getting Isaiah Joe and John Petty back would be an added bonus.

And then there’s Auburn. The raw data: The Tigers lose five seniors and their top six scorers from last season, 67.1 points from a team that averaged 78.0 points per game, and a potential top-five draft pick in Issac Okoro. Whew. Replacing them is a solid group of returners and a super talented top-10 recruiting class headlined by The Next Great Auburn Point Guard (trademark) in Sharife Cooper. But this is undoubtedly going to be one of the youngest teams in college basketball.

If I had to choose one from this group right now to either join or replace LSU in the Top Challenger tier, it would probably be Florida.

50-word Top 25: Way-too-early college basketball rankings

The Why Am I Putting A Frank Martin Team This Low Tier – South Carolina

We do it every year. We pick South Carolina to finish in the bottom half of the league and then boast about how right we were when they talk lose a few head-scratching games in non-conference play.

And then, of course, Martin works his magic and they improve to the point of being a team that no one wants to play.

So, let’s do it all over again.

AJ Lawson returning to school would be significant for a team that had just one senior. Assuming Lawson is back, Martin also returns three other players who averaged around eight or more points per game – Jermaine Couisnard, Keyshawn Bryant, and Justin Minaya.

Replacing Maik Kotsar could be a task, but this looks like another year where the Gamecocks do their thing and become a chore to play against midway through the season.

The Party Spoiler Tier – Missouri, Ole Miss, Texas A&M

This tier consists of three teams that are hard to read, but if they reach their potential, a top-half finish is well within reach.

Texas A&M was the surprise of the SEC in the 2019-20 campaign after looking like the worst team in the league in non-conference play. However, the Aggies went from losing to Fairfield in December to creating palpable buzz in March having won five of their last seven games during the regular season. Savion Flagg returns to lead the way, and Buzz Williams brings in a top-20 recruiting class to the mix.

Ole Miss lost its best player in Breein Tyree, and how they approach replacing him is going to be intriguing early on in the season. Cal State Bakersfield transfer Jarkel Joiner is eligible after sitting out a season ago, and Kermit Davis also landed two dynamic transfers in Arizona State forward Romello White and Rider guard Dimencio Vaughn. And let’s not forget that the Rebels add a top-40 freshman in 6-4 shooting guard Matthew Murrell. The more I look at it, the more I think Ole Miss is being pretty undervalued here.

Then there’s Missouri, the team that’s likely to feature the most experience in the SEC assuming the early NBA Draft entrants return. The addition of Hawaii grad transfer Drew Buggs should also give the Tigers a much-needed boost on offense, which was an area of frustration for them last season. I was higher than most on Missouri a season ago, and my Rock M Nation friends will probably talk me into doing it again this season. I like the makeup of the roster but want to see the offense take a big step forward.

If I had to pick the most likely sleeper of the three? I’d pick Ole Miss. Actually, make it Texas A&M. Better yet, let’s go with Missouri.

You won’t find that kind of analysis anywhere else, folks.

The Unknown Tier – Georgia, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt

Roster turnover defines the teams in this tier, and that leaves a lot of unknowns about their potential to be major players in the SEC this season.

Mississippi State lost a ton of players to transfer and the NBA Draft, but there is still a good assortment of talent for Ben Howland to work with. Georgia lost a surefire top-three draft pick in Anthony Edwards and its only other double-digit scorers in Rayshaun Hammonds. Vanderbilt lost its own lottery pick with Aaron Nesmith headed to the pros, but it was the exit of Saben Lee that could prove to be just as significant due to his skills and leadership.

Given what this trio of teams has to replace, it’s hard to put them anywhere else at this point, and they’ll all be picked in the double-digit range in the conference in the preseason.

Then again, one recurring theme in SEC basketball is that a team picked low in the preseason is sure to make everyone look silly.

Maybe that trend will continue for another season with one of these three teams, but they’ve got a lot of work to do to get there.

Blake Lovell is a national college basketball writer for Heat Check CBB and the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. His work has been featured on The New York Times, Athlon Sports, Rivals, and many more. He hosts the Marching to Madness podcast, which has featured over 400 interviews with coaches around the country. He’s also a USBWA member. You can follow him on Twitter @theblakelovell