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The Kentucky basketball program will begin the season in the Associated Press top 10. John Calipari’s team, which is coming off a disappointing 9-16 year in 2020-21, will start the season at No. 10. Calipari was happy to see a good mixture of returning players, transfers and incoming recruits to this year’s team. Junior forwards Keion Brooks and Jacob Toppin, sophomore Lance Ware, graduate guard Davion Mintz and sophomore guard Dontaie Allen all returned for another season.
Kentucky dug into the transfer portal to add experience and talent following a down year. Guards were a big focus of the offseason as Calipari brought in four new backcourt players. Sahvir Wheeler (Georgia), CJ Fredrick (Iowa) and Kellan Grady (Davidson) came to Kentucky via the transfer portal. Five-star guard Tyty Washington was a big riser during his senior year and signed with Kentucky after being a long-time commit to Creighton.
The only addition from the transfer portal in the frontcourt was West Virginia transfer Oscar Tshiebwe. The former All-Big-12 standout transferred to Kentucky in January and practiced with the team this spring. Tshiebwe, Brooks, Toppin and Ware all have college experience, but incoming freshmen Daimion Collins and Bryce Hopkins should be in the mix for minutes as well. Collins, a five-star forward in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, is one of the most interesting players on the roster. He’s added some muscle since arriving at Kentucky but he’s still thin for a college big. His potential is highly thought of and some scouts think he could be a first round pick this season. But it’s possible that Collins doesn’t show enough this year — especially with Tshiebwe and Brooks likely to start in the frontcourt — and returns to Lexington for a sophomore season.
Kentucky opens the regular season in Madison Square Garden against Duke in the Champions Classic on Nov. 9.
Kansas is picked in the preseason as Kentucky’s toughest game this season. The Wildcats will travel to Lawrence for the first time since 2016 for a meeting in the SEC/Big 12 challenge. Bill Self’s team comes in at No. 3 in the preseason poll, marking the 10th straight season that Kansas has started at least in the top seven of the AP poll. The Jayhawks are led this season by All-Big-12 Second Team forward David McCormack. McCormack led the Big 12 in field goal percentage (51.5) and ranked 15th in scoring (13.4), 10th in rebounding (6.1), eighth in FT% (79.6), sixth in blocked shots (1.0) and third in double-doubles (6).
Another forward to watch is Jalen Wilson. The 6-foot-8 Texas native entered the NBA draft and received feedback but ultimately decided to return to college for another season. In the backcourt, Arizona State transfer Remy Martin could be one of the best guards in the country. The three-time All-Pac-12 member led the conference in scoring last year with 19.1 points per game. He also scored 19.1 points per game as a junior with Arizona State. He’ll come in and immediately be one of the focal points of Self’s offense. This is a talented backcourt with senior Ochai Agbaji also returning for another year. He’s started 77 consecutive games for the Jayhawks.
As was mentioned previously, Kentucky begins its season with a big test against the Blue Devils. But the narrative around the game will lead to even more buildup than normal for the Champions Classic. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski announced earlier this year that 2021-22 will be his final season with the Blue Devils. Coach K has been with the school since 1980 and has won five national championships and 12 Final Fours.
This year’s team should be strong as well. Duke brought in the No. 5 class in the 247Sports composite rankings, headlined by five-star power forward Paolo Banchero. Banchero is a first-team All-ACC preseason selection and the preseason ACC Player of the Year. Sophomore Wendell Moore was voted as a second-team All-ACC selection. The Blue Devils will have to navigate the early portion of the schedule without five-star forward AJ Griffin.
In terms of the future, Duke appears to be in good hands. Former Blue Devil and current assistant coach Jon Scheyer is the head coach in waiting and is off to a great start on the recruiting trail. Duke has three top-10 players committed in the 2022 class, headlined by five-stars Dereck Lively, Dariq Whitehead and Kyle Filipowski. The Blue Devils currently have the top class in the country according to 247Sports.
Alabama was picked to finish fifth in the SEC in the preseason. The Crimson Tide quickly proved to be the best team in the league and won the SEC regular season by two games with a 16-2 record. It was the first regular-season SEC crown for the Crimson Tide since 2002, but they followed it up with an SEC Tournament championship as well. Perhaps that was even more special for the fan base considering Alabama had not won the SEC Tournament championship since 1991.
Being overlooked won’t be an issue this season. Nate Oats’ squad is the second highest-ranked team in the league this year despite some substantial roster turnover. Herbert Jones, who was the SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, is gone along with John Petty, Josh Primo and Alex Reese. Jaden Shackelford is the lone returning starter and he should be one the Crimson Tide’s best players, but Oats will be relying on a big jump from former McDonald’s All-American Jahvon Quinerly this season. Five-star freshman JD Davison could start at point guard from day one. The program appears to be in great shape moving forward with Oats at the helm, but we’ll see if this year is a step back.
Arkansas’ proud basketball fan base once again had a reason to stand tall in 2020-21. Eric Musselman led the Razorbacks to their deepest postseason run in over 25 years as they finished just a game away from the NCAA Final Four. Arkansas’ season came to an end with an Elite 8 loss to eventual national champion Baylor. But that was just Year Two for Musselman, and fans in Fayetteville are optimistic about the heights that could be achieved under the energetic head coach.
The Razorbacks’ calling card was on offense. They averaged 82.4 points per contest, barely edging out SEC West rival LSU (82.1 ppg) for the top spot. Much of that damage was done by a trio of players who are no longer on campus. Freshman star Moses Moody led the way with 16.8 points per game, followed by Justin Smith at 13.7 points per game and Jalen Tate at 11 points per game.
This year’s team will rely on key returners like Davonte Davis, but several new transfers will also factor in. Miami transfer Chris Lykes (15.4 ppg) and South Dakota transfer Stanley Umude (21.6 ppg) were big additions this offseason and should find immediate roles. The AP voters see Arkansas as a top-15 team to start the season and one of the better teams in the SEC. Kentucky plays at Arkansas on Feb. 26.
Ohio State will be eager to get back on the hardwood this year following a disappointing end to its 2020-21 season. The Buckeyes were a two-seed in the NCAA Tournament but lost their opening game to 15-seed Oral Roberts in overtime. Oral Roberts would go on to make the Sweet 16, but Ohio State had hopes of reaching its first Final Four since 2012. Replacing Duane Washington Jr. (16.4 ppg) won’t be easy, but there is some experience returning that should help the Buckeyes remain near the top of the Big 10 standings.
Senior forward E.J. Liddell will likely be a first-team All-Big 10 selection. Look for incoming freshman guard Malaki Branham to make an immediate impact in the backcourt.
Tennessee continues to develop its program under head coach Rick Barnes, but it was another disappointing end last season. The Volunteers were a five seed but were knocked off in the first round by 12 seed Oregon State 70-56 in the opening game of the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee was led last year by a pair of standout freshmen guards in Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer. Both players were selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. In addition to those two, the Vols also lost forward Yves Pons to graduation.
But there’s a solid roster still in place for Tennessee this season. Forward John Fulkerson decided to come back for one more season and is joined in the frontcourt by five-star freshman Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. The most exciting addition, however, is five-star point guard Kennedy Chandler. Chandler decided to stay home and play for the Vols after being chased by many of the sport’s best programs. Tennessee also added Justin Powell, a Kentucky native, from the transfer portal. Powell was an intriguing player in limited games at Auburn. He missed most of the season due to a concussion but should prove to be a nice addition for the Vols’ backcourt.
Some other returning players to watch are Santiago Vescovi, Victor Bailey and Josiah-Jordan James.
Auburn has been one of the SEC’s better programs in recent years. Bruce Pearl led the Tigers to a Final Four in 2019 and followed that with a 25-6 regular season and would’ve made another NCAA Tournament had the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic not canceled March Madness. Last year was a down season as Auburn finished 13-14. Despite losing star point guard Sharife Cooper, Pearl added some impressive talent and should once again have a team that will hope to contend for the SEC title and make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler was a major win in the transfer portal, but former four-star recruit and University of Georgia guard KD Johnson enters the backcourt and so does EKU transfer Wendell Green. Green averaged 15 points per game for the Colonels last year. Add in top-five talent Jabari Smith and Auburn could field one of the more talented lineups in the conference.
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