As the countdown continues toward the start of the 2019-20 college basketball season on Nov. 5, ESPN.com's panel of experts is making its predictions. With the ACC, American, Big East, Big 12, Pac-12 and mid-major picks on the record, we move on to the SEC. Kentucky has the talent to end its Final Four "drought," but Florida and others could provide a challenge.
Among most observers, Kentucky and Florida are a clear 1-2 in the SEC entering the season. Are you buying or selling the Gators as legitimate, consistent threats to the Wildcats going forward?
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I think Florida is a top-five team nationally heading into the season, so I think the Gators will be a legitimate, consistent threat to Kentucky -- at least in 2019-20 (whether the Gators will be able to replace Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Scottie Lewis next season is a different conversation). This season, I think Florida is right there.
Andrew Nembhard's stellar freshman season at the point guard spot flew under the radar nationally, and early returns on incoming freshman Tre Mann are overwhelmingly positive. Lewis is a two-way impact player and a one-and-done talent. Blackshear is arguably the best player in the league. There are certainly going to be some kinks to work out early on, with two freshmen and a transfer likely starting. But this is a team that has won at least one NCAA tournament game in three straight seasons and a program that has advanced to the Elite Eight in five of nine seasons. Success isn't foreign to Gainesville.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I'm buying. Mike White's Florida squads have finished 14th, fifth, 24th and 16th in adjusted defensive efficiency (per KenPom) in his four years with the program. Now he adds Blackshear and Lewis, two players who should help the Gators battle Kentucky and the rest of the SEC. Florida could end this season with a national title. All the pieces are there. But competing against Kentucky in the John Calipari Era has come in waves for teams within the league. As long as Calipari is in Lexington, he'll continue to sign top-three recruiting classes. White is positioned, however, to keep pace with Kentucky as he continues to strengthen an excellent program that could take the next step by making the Final Four this season.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: It's more like there's a strong "hold" being issued to my investors on the Gators. Mike White's team is going to be much better than it was last season, and I picked this group to finish second in a strong SEC. Still, it seems like there's a November forecasting tendency to want to reimagine even significant improvements as downright metamorphoses. Those do happen on occasion (see Tennessee two years ago), but at the end of the day, this is still a Florida team that didn't shoot as well as its SEC opponents last season. Blackshear should help redress that imbalance, and I trust that White will work up yet another lopsided turnover advantage.
So "legitimate, consistent threat to the Wildcats"? Far stranger things have happened, but those are strong words, and the Gators aren't quite there yet (assuming UK pans out in its own right).
Kentucky is in a (gasp!) four-year drought without reaching a Final Four. How surprised would you be to see that end this season? Which previous Calipari team does this one remind you of?
Medcalf: Calipari often relays something Kelvin Sampson once told him: "You have a chance to win the national championship every year." That's true, so I wouldn't be surprised by a Final Four run this season.
Two years ago, De'Aaron Fox & Co. lost on a buzzer-beater to North Carolina in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats suffered a loss to a strong Kansas State squad a year later in the Sweet 16 and stumbled against Auburn, the hottest team in the country at the time, in last season's Elite Eight. But this group might be similar to the 2015-16 squad because this is a team that should be wing-centric, I think, with Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney as catalysts while employing enough length, albeit without a dominant post presence, to challenge shots around the rim (the 2015-16 squad held opponents to a 42.7% clip inside the arc, a top-15 mark). But the pick-and-pop possibilities with Nate Sestina also make this a mixture of talent that lacks a true comparison under Calipari.
Gasaway: I would not be at all surprised because this group reminds me, demographically, of last season's team -- the one that would have gone to the Final Four if it had scored one more point in regulation against Auburn in the Elite Eight. Calipari has more or less the same amount of experience coming back as he did a year ago, meaning we're looking at two consecutive rosters that have been unusually "old" in Kentucky terms.
The only question I have with this UK rotation regards size at the rim on D. Calipari's annual haul of top-100 freshmen didn't include anyone taller than 6-foot-7 this time, and 6-foot-9 Bucknell transfer Nate Sestina was but the sixth-best shot-blocker in the Patriot League last season. It's time for Nick Richards and/or EJ Montgomery to log heavy minutes and shine.
Borzello: I actually think it's a fairly unique Calipari group. There isn't a ton of size, so I don't think they're going to be a dominant offensive rebounding or shot-blocking team like most of Calipari's previous Kentucky iterations. The Wildcats also don't have a bunch of shooters, so they aren't going to be a knockdown perimeter team like in 2011, Calipari's worst offensive rebounding team.
But I also think, with Hagans, Maxey, Quickley and Whitney, they're going to play faster than pretty much all of his past Wildcat teams. Perhaps the closest comp, based on those factors, would be the 2016-17 team that had De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk running the show and won 14 straight games before falling to North Carolina on a Luke Maye buzzer-beater in the Elite Eight. I think this team will go one step further than that group did, ending the drought and making the Final Four.
LSU won the SEC last season. Auburn represented the league in the Final Four. Both programs are surrounded by lots of smoke in the FBI probe and NCAA inquiries. Which program is going to emerge with the most (any?) long-term damage, and how do you feel about these sets of Tigers on the court in 2019-20?
Gasaway: I suspect neither program will suffer long-term damage, at least not in terms of outcomes significantly more painful than what we've seen in recent history. A postseason ban, for example, would simply replicate what both programs went through for the balance of the past decade until 2018 or 2019. The fans in Baton Rouge and Auburn have had to develop tough basketball callouses for the lean years. As far as on the court in 2019-20, I like the look of Will Wade's Tigers. They were a hair better than Auburn on a per-possession basis in SEC play last season, they have more experience coming back (Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart are still here), and Wade added top-20 freshman Trendon Watford.
Borzello: It's so hard to tell if any program is going to suffer long-term damage as a result of the FBI and NCAA investigations. Kansas seems to be the litmus test for the rest of the programs, so we'll have to wait and see what happens to the Jayhawks. I guess I would say I don't see either Auburn or LSU getting crushed long-term.
For this season, I have LSU a few spots ahead of Auburn nationally and one spot ahead in the SEC rankings. I have concerns about how the Auburn Tigers will replace Jared Harper and Bryce Brown in the backcourt, and Bruce Pearl might have to rely on his frontcourt pieces more than in the past.
LSU did lose Tremont Waters and Nazreon Reid, but Smart and Mays are both back, Watford is a potential one-and-done forward, and Emmitt Williams or Darius Days should be expected to take a step forward. There's positive early buzz surrounding freshman guard James Bishop, too. I think there's a massive drop-off from Kentucky and Florida to the rest of the league, but I think LSU is next in line.
Medcalf: What Jeff and John said. Here's the thing: The on-court success of the previous season actually helps LSU and Auburn if the NCAA tries to hit Will Wade and/or Bruce Pearl with lengthy show-cause penalties that end their tenures at their respective schools. I mean, we're talking about LSU and Auburn, a pair of football schools that won big last season. It can be done in men's basketball, which isn't something we've said about either program in a long time. If the coaches are replaced, a new coach would have to clean up whatever off-court issues the NCAA found to exist, but he would also come in with momentum and tangible proof of concept.
On the court, I think they've both lost a lot. And you can't ignore that. But I also think LSU with Mays and Auburn with Austin Wiley have a couple of returnees who can lead them back to the NCAA tournament and 20-win seasons. Both programs have enough pieces to enjoy successful seasons again.
There isn't a more interesting group of new coaches in any league this season. Of Nate Oats (Alabama), Eric Musselman (Arkansas), Buzz Williams (Texas A&M) and Jerry Stackhouse (Vanderbilt), who will make the quickest impact, and who is best set up for long-term success?
Gasaway: It might turn out that Musselman landed in and then created the best 2019-20 situation of any of these new guys. Daniel Gafford is gone, of course, but the new coach inherits no fewer than five players who started at least eight games last season. Isaiah Joe is already an outstanding high-volume perimeter shooter as a sophomore, and Jalen Harris is a solid pass-first point guard.
Then throw in the fact that, of course, Musselman's gotta Musselman, meaning he went out and got transfers Jimmy Whitt Jr. (SMU) and Jeantal Cylla (UNC Wilmington). The Hogs were destroyed on the glass at both ends of the floor last season, but if that changes, there are a lot of other pieces that seem to be at least somewhat in place in Fayetteville.
Borzello: On paper, I like Alabama's team the best, meaning I would lean toward Nate Oats making the quickest impact. Kira Lewis Jr. and John Petty form an excellent backcourt, and West Virginia transfer Beetle Bolden should add some shooting pop. There are frontcourt questions, however.
As John mentioned, though, Arkansas might not be getting enough credit heading into the season. The Razorbacks were just as good as Alabama last season (if not better), according to most metrics, and they bring in two impact graduate transfers.
As far as long-term success, we haven't seen anyone besides Buzz Williams do it for more than a few years. Oats and Musselman were at Buffalo and Nevada, respectively, for four seasons, and Stackhouse has never coached in college. Buzz, on the other hand, did it for six years at Marquette and five at Virginia Tech. I think once he gets his own players to College Station and gets his culture into the program, A&M is going to be a consistent factor in the SEC.
Medcalf: I think Musselman, Williams and Stackhouse will all need some time to take the next steps with their programs. But to Jeff's point, Oats has John Petty, a former five-star recruit who is ready to blossom in his third season. Kira Lewis made a solid 36% of his 3-point attempts and 49% of his shots inside the arc. He can boost those numbers and help this Alabama team finish in the top half of the league. The Tide never cracked the top 100 in adjusted offensive efficiency under Avery Johnson. Oats' Buffalo squads finished 34th and 21st in that category in 2018 and 2019.
Long-term, I'd pick Williams based on his track record. He has had two sub-.500 seasons in his career: his first season at Virginia Tech in 2014-15 and his season at New Orleans in 2006-07, when he coached a team on a campus that was recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
SEC 2019-20 predicted order of finish
SEC 2019-20 superlatives
Player of the Year
Medcalf: Anthony Edwards, Georgia
Borzello: Kerry Blackshear, Florida
Gasaway: Kerry Blackshear, Florida
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: Anthony Edwards, Georgia
Borzello: Kerry Blackshear, Florida
Gasaway: Anthony Edwards, Georgia