SEC Team Capsules: Middle Tier (#9-#5)

Posted by Keith Hatfield on November 7th, 2016

Every league has teams that are more talented than those fighting to stay out of the cellar yet not quite poised to challenge for a spot at the top of the standings. Some of the squads situated in that position are rising programs looking to take another step forward. Some are programs rebooting to attempt to recapture past success. What they all have in common is the goal of getting into the conference’s upper echelon and contention for an NCAA Tournament bid. On Friday, we published capsules on the SEC’s bottom tier of teams (#14-#10). Today we tackle the middle tier.


#9 Alabama Crimson Tide

Avery Johnson has a long way to go to get anywhere near Nick Saban, but he has Alabama basketball headed in the right direction (Credit:

Avery Johnson has a long way to go to get anywhere near Nick Saban, but he has Alabama basketball headed in the right direction (Credit:

  • 2015-16 overall record (SEC) 18-15 (8-10)
  • Key Returnee: Shannon Hale 10.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG
  • Key Newcomer: Braxton Key 6’8″ forward
  • Team Analysis: Avery Johnson’s initial season has to be viewed as a success. Energy was restored to the program and the team was surprisingly in contention for an NCAA Tournament bid down the home stretch. The loss of Retin Obasohan makes a repeat of last season’s performance, however, a tall task. The return of Shannon Hale and the presence of a healthy Dazon Ingram gives the Tide a nucleus upon which to build. Johnson will have to coax significant production from freshman Braxton Key and Memphis transfer Nick King to match or surpass last season’s record.
  • Burning Question: Can Avery Johnson maintain the early momentum he has created in Tuscaloosa? Avery Johnson has rekindled interest in basketball at Alabama — no small feat at a football-mad school. His first team performed better than expected and he has significantly elevated the program’s profile on the recruiting trail. The trick now is to maintain the interest that has been manufactured and continue to improve the roster’s talent level. Early indications from the classes of ’17 and ’18 indicate the recruiting piece will be covered. Making Coleman Coliseum a winter destination for the Tide faithful will be much easier if Johnson continues to haul in quality talent.

#8 Ole Miss Rebels

  • 2015-16 overall record (SEC) 20-12 (10-8)
  • Key Returnee: Sebastian Saiz 11.7 PPG., 8.7 RPG
  • Key Newcomer: Deandre Burnett 6’2″ guard
  • Team Analysis: Andy Kennedy‘s program has been a model of consistency for several years. The Rebels are perennial 20-plus game winners and find themselves entrenched in the top half of the conference. With the departure of all-SEC star Stefan Moody, though, meeting those standards might be difficult this season. Sebastian Saiz provides some inside punch and transfer Cullen Neal will bring some experience in the backcourt, but the development of Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey will be a key to this team’s success.
  • Burning Question: Can Andy Kennedy strike jump-shooting gold again? It seems as if Ole Miss is always able to find a gunslinger through the transfer market. Over the last four seasons, Rebel transfers such as Marshall Henderson and Stefan Moody lit up scoreboards across the SEC. Kennedy now turns to Deandre Burnett in the hopes of capturing similar magic. While 20 points per night might be a bit ambitious, 15 PPG from Burnett would go a long way toward pushing the Rebels’ win total near its customary number of 20 or more.

#7 Mississippi State Bulldogs

Ben Howland Begins

Ben Howland Begins Year Two in Starkville (USA Today Images)

  • 2015-16 overall record (SEC) 14-17 (7-11)
  • Key Returnee : Quinndary Witherspoon 12.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG
  • Key Newcomer : Mario Kegler, 6’7″ forward
  • Team Analysis: Ben Howland‘s first season in Starkville did not go exactly as planned. Uber-recruit Malik Newman did not mesh with the senior class and the Bulldogs failed to live up to their considerable preseason buzz. That class has obviously exhausted its eligibility and Newman has chosen to reboot his career elsewhere (Kansas). That leaves Quinndary Witherspoon and a star-studded recruiting class, led by Mario Kegler and Schnider Herard, to lead Mississippi State going forward. Chemistry is likely to be better and its says here that the Dogs could be the surprise team in the league.
  • Burning Question: Can Quinndary Witherspoon make the leap from promising freshman to all-SEC star? Malik Newman arrived in Starkville with all of the hype, but Witherspoon outplayed his more celebrated teammate and was Mississippi State’s best player by the end of the season. The sophomore guard will now be asked to take on leading man status for a very young but talented team. The prediction here is that Witherspoon flourishes with the added responsibility.

#6 Vanderbilt Commodores

  • 2015-16 overall record (SEC) 19-14 (11-7)
  • Key Returnee : Luke Kornet 8.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG
  • Key Newcomer : Payton Willis 6’4″ guard
  • Team Analysis: The Kevin Stallings era in Nashville ended in disappointing fashion. Despite the presence of talented players like Wade Baldwin and Damian Jones, the Commodores barely snuck into the NCAA Tournament and were summarily eviscerated by Wichita State. Stallings left shortly thereafter to fill the Pittsburgh vacancy. Enter new head coach Bryce Drew. The former Valparaiso leader inherits a group of players who were cast in complementary roles to Baldwin and Jones last year. Luke Kornet, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Riley LaChance, and Jeff Roberson will now be asked to take on more of the workload. How they respond to the added responsibility will dictate the course of Drew’s first season.
  • Burning Question: How will the Commodores adapt to a new offensive approach? Kevin Stallings was always noted for his motion-type system that emphasized spacing and catch and shoot principles. Bryce Drew will bring elements of the dribble-drive offense to West End. It will be intriguing to see how the returnees perform in a system of which they were not recruited for.

#5 Arkansas Razorbacks

Expect a Big Year From Kingsley in Fayetteville (USA Today Images)

Expect a Big Year From Moses Kingsley in Fayetteville (USA Today Images)

  • 2015-16 overall record (SEC) 16-16 (9-9)
  • Key Returnee: Moses Kingsley 16.5 PPG, 9.3 RPG
  • Key Newcomer: Jaylen Barford 6’3″ guard
  • Team Analysis: Mike Anderson‘s team was on the cusp of a really nice season, but the Razorbacks’ inability to close out tight games — they lost eight games by four points or fewer — relegated them to .500 status. Moses Kingsley and Dusty Hannahs are as productive of an inside-outside duo as there is in the SEC. A mix of returnees and newcomers gives Anderson the depth needed to execute his high octane system. It would not be a surprise to see the Hogs finish two or three spots higher than fifth this season.
  • Burning Question: Who steps up as the third scorer for the Razorbacks? Kingsley and Hannahs are proven commodities. The task for Mike Anderson will be to develop a third option to complement his two scoring stars. High scoring junior college transfer Jaylen Barford is likely to get the first crack at filling that role. If he can do so, Arkansas will be a force in the SEC.
Keith Hatfield (2 Posts)

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