SEC Burning Questions: Finding the Sleepers

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 5th, 2015

Surprise, surprise: Kentucky is once again the overwhelming favorite to win the SEC. But one thing that makes the league a little more exciting this year is that a handful of other teams could emerge as the biggest threat to the crown. Several teams figure to be best-equipped to assume that role:

Once again, Coach Cal and Kentucky are the league favorites. (AP)

Once again, Coach Cal and Kentucky are the league favorites. (AP)

  • Vanderbilt (#2, SEC preseason media poll), led by Damian Jones and a slew of quality guards, landed at #18 in the preseason AP poll. The Commodores finished last season on an 8-3 run and return most major contributors from that improving team.
  • LSU (#4) checked in at #21 nationally behind dynamite freshman and likely top-five pick Ben Simmons and an experienced backcourt duo in Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby. The jury may still be out on the coaching talents of Johnny Jones, but his Tigers have talent.
  • Texas A&M (#3) has an enviable trio of seniors with distinct roles in Danuel House (perimeter shooter/scorer), Jalen Jones (low post threat) and Alex Caruso (distributor). Billy Kennedy also welcomes in an outstanding five-man recruiting class.
  • Florida (#6) may be rebounding from a sub-.500 season and the loss of coaching stalwart Billy Donovan, but Michael White was able to keep the gems of Donovan’s recruiting class intact by retaining KeVaughn Allen and Keith Stone. He also inherits a team with elite defensive potential.
  • Georgia (#5) gets the benefit of the doubt after 41 wins over the past two seasons, especially when the heart of those successful seasons (Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann) are still around Athens.

But this post is about sleepers, not the teams that received some love in the preseason media poll. The pessimist might see mediocrity in the SEC’s unproven jumble of wannabe Wildcats, but the optimist sees opportunity, and the following three teams have the necessary elements to climb the SEC ladder this season. If everything goes right, they might even ascend so quickly that an NCAA invitation becomes a distinct possibility.

Can Stefan Moody shoot an unproven Rebels team into contention? (

Can Stefan Moody shoot an unproven Rebels team into contention? (Getty)

  • South Carolina. All of the main contributors other than point guard Tyrone Johnson are back from a team that looked poised for a breakout season heading into SEC play last year. The bottom fell out, however, after a big non-conference win over Iowa State, as the Gamecocks lost eight of their first 10 conference games. Despite those struggles, South Carolina was an excellent defensive team (Kenpom #26) all season long, holding the opposition to 65 points or fewer in half of their 12 conference losses. His continuity in personnel should allow head coach Frank Martin to roll out another stout defensive unit. The core of guards Sindarius ThornwellDuane Notice and forward Michael Carrera has been together for two seasons now, and that should work in the Gamecocks’ favor. Notice and Thornwell will be joined McDonald’s All-American P.J. Dozier on the wing, giving Martin three big-bodied players who can score from the perimeter. The key to the season, however, might be whether sophomore Marcus Stroman (3.1-to-2.0 ATO) emerges as a steady hand at point guard. Even though there are some depth concerns in the frontcourt, the Gamecocks are intimidating on the perimeter and have great experience in this system. Martin is simply too good a coach for South Carolina to post another underwhelming year — can he take advantage of a relatively wide open conference race?
  • Mississippi State. We wrote earlier this week that Ben Howland will likely have the biggest impact of the league’s first year coaches. For those same reasons, the Bulldogs could be a sleeper to finish in the league’s upper tier and grab a sneaky NCAA Tournament bid. Craig Sword enters the year as the league’s active career leader in points scored, and Gavin Ware does the same with rebounds. That underscores the experience this team returns, and when you add in a respected and proven coach along with elite freshman Malik Newman, you have the makings of a balanced, competitive team. A sleeper within a sleeper is Travis Daniels, who started 26 games last year as a JuCo transfer and flashed scoring potential (21 points against Saint Louis). The additions of Newman and fellow freshman Quinndary Weatherspoon might push Daniels down the rotation, but it shows that the Bulldogs have quality depth this season and may not be operating at a talent disadvantage on most nights.
  • Ole Miss. Don’t forget the other team residing in the Magnolia State. Even with Jarvis Summers still in the fold, little was expected in the Rebels’ first year removed from the Marshall Henderson experience a year ago. But all Andy Kennedy did for an encore was add another dynamic three-point chucking JuCo guard in Stefan Moody — a better all-around player than Henderson anyway — and win a game in the NCAA Tournament. The senior enters this season as arguably the conference’s most exciting and talented scorer, and he will be flanked by graduate transfer forward Tomasz Gielo, a player from Liberty who has shot over 40 percent from three-point range the last two years. It is true that there isn’t much other proven production on the team, so Kennedy will need to find another gem in a guard-heavy recruiting class and hope that big men Sebastian Saiz and Anthony Perez take big leaps forward in the paint. But when a conference is as full of opportunity as the SEC is this year, why not take a flyer on a team with an elite offensive talent like Moody?
Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) (231 Posts)

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2 responses to “SEC Burning Questions: Finding the Sleepers”

  1. Gary Bryson says:

    Frank Martin has his best team yet at South Carolina. If they stay healthy, I expect them to have a good year and make a post-season tournament.

  2. Agreed. The nice thing for Frank is that everything doesn’t rely on Dozier. There are quality players around him, and with Notice and Thornwell he doesn’t have to be “the guy” from day one.

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