New SEC faces get opportunity after offseason talent drain
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — There will be plenty of new faces with an opportunity to make an impact in the Southeastern Conference now that the upperclassmen who dominated the league last year have departed.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl is confident the league will remain strong, even after losing 12 of its top 13 scorers from last season.
"We had a terrific, terrific group of kids in this league a year ago," Pearl said Wednesday during the SEC media day event. "While I'm not sure the individuals list is as strong as it was, the coaching continues to get stronger and I don't think it will have any effect on the quality of teams. This is a really, really balanced league."
The SEC certainly will have a different look.
Twelve of its players were selected in the NBA draft, second only to the Atlantic Coast Conference's 13. No other league had more than six players drafted.
Those departed players had a major role in the SEC's recent resurgence. The SEC had seven NCAA Tournament invitations last season and eight in 2018, a huge step forward for a league that never got more than five bids in any year from 2009-17.
"I can remember when we'd get two to three in and I said our goal was to get eight or nine in and everybody laughed at me," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "Some of you that have been here a long time, you laughed at me. Now all of a sudden we're looking at trying to get eight or nine teams in every year."
Now it's up to some new players to continue that momentum.
Even the SEC's preseason player of the year is a newcomer of sorts, albeit one with plenty of experience elsewhere. Virginia Tech graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. selected Florida over a host of other SEC programs including Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas.
Blackshear averaged 11.2 points and 6 rebounds while playing in the ACC last season. The 6-foot-10 forward sees similarities between the SEC and ACC.
"I think the two conferences mirror each other a lot in terms of talent," Blackshear said. "It's going to be potentially one, two, maybe even three top-10 teams at one time in the AP poll. I think they compare in a lot of ways."
Upperclassmen formed the foundation of the SEC's success last year.
Auburn earned its first Final Four berth thanks largely to a backcourt featuring senior Bryce Brown and junior Jared Harper. Tennessee earned the No. 1 ranking for nearly a month and reached the Sweet 16 with junior Grant Williams earning first-team All-America honors while senior Admiral Schofield and junior Jordan Bone delivered all-conference performances.
Even Kentucky had Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis complementing its usual collection of talented freshmen.
None of those players are still in the SEC. The only first- or second-team Associated Press all-SEC selection from last year returning this season is Mississippi guard Breein Tyree, who ranked third in the league in scoring. LSU's Skylar Mays earned second-team all-conference honors from the league's coaches last year.
The league's freshmen will have to immediately deliver. The SEC signed eight of the nation's top 24 prospects in the most recent high school class according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports.
Anthony Edwards, ranked second in the 247Sports Composite, should spark a Georgia program that went 11-21 and finished ahead of only Vanderbilt in the SEC last season. Georgia coach Tom Crean says Edwards "can be not only an outstanding offensive player but he can be an elite defensive player without question."
"He doesn't even really have an idea of how fast he is, how good he can be," Crean said.
Kentucky, the preseason SEC favorite for a ninth consecutive year, signed three top-25 recruits: Tyrese Maxey (10th), Kahlil Whitney (11th) and Keion Brooks (24th). Other top-25 prospects to join SEC schools include Florida's Scottie Lewis (7th) and Tre Mann (21st), LSU forward Trendon Watford (18th) and Tennessee guard Josiah-Jordan James (22nd).
"There will be a lot of good new faces," Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. "Look at the recruiting in our league. It's really, really going strong, not just for Kentucky but for everybody."
Howland notes that the SEC also has a quality group of sophomores. That group includes preseason first-team all-SEC picks Reggie Perry of Mississippi State and Ashton Hagans of Kentucky plus second-team selections Kira Lewis Jr. of Alabama, Isaiah Joe of Arkansas, Andrew Nembhard of Florida and EJ Montgomery of Kentucky.
Coaches believe the league has grown to such an extent that it won't have to rebuild every time it suffers a major talent drain.
"This league is getting to the point where it's reloading every year," Howland said.