Way too early predictions: Three underrated teams in the SEC

Last season, the SEC earned just three bids to the NCAA Tournament (Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt). The conference was rather thin beyond Kentucky, as Ben Simmons and LSU fell flat on their faces, Malik Newman struggled mightily at Mississippi State, and the new coaches, Avery Johnson and Rick Barnes, dealt with rebuilding programs in year one.

In 2016-17, the SEC is expected to play by the same tune. Kentucky features one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, and everyone else is trying to catch them for that conference title.

A&M will take a bit of a step back after losing veterans, including Danuel House and Alex Caruso, while the Tigers won’t have their nightly triple double threat and will have to rely on the combustible Antonio Blakeney.

The SEC may only receive three bids to the Big Dance, but who are some underrated teams within this conference that might surprise us. It doesn’t mean they will make the NCAA Tournament, but it might mean they could pull off some upsets in conference play and finish higher than expected.

Georgia Bulldogs

Kentucky and Texas A&M should earn the first two NCAA Tournament bids in the SEC. The third bid is expected to come from a team who’s coach is supposedly on the hot seat, who is overlooked nationally, and who has some talented players returning.

The Bulldogs return their two leading scorers, J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten, while they maintain the presence of Juwan Parker.

Frazier can score from all over the floor, and Maten is a solid, physical big who is efficient and is a good rebounder.

In my opinion, Fox is a solid, intelligent coach who has led the Bulldogs to two NCAA Tournaments and two NIT appearances in seven years. He’s 126-103 as a head coach and Georgia has finished at least six games over .500 the past three seasons (plus they have been over .500 in SEC play).

The Bulldogs don’t have a star (which puts them under the radar nationally), but Frazier and Maten are two guys that could be even better in their senior and junior years respectively.

Book the Bulldogs for a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

These Bulldogs were projected to make the Big Dance last year after the addition of five-star recruit Malik Newman and head coach Ben Howland. But the chemistry wasn’t there, Newman was banged up for most of the season, and of course, it was transition for Howland to coach in the SEC.

In 2016-17, Mississippi State won’t have Newman (he transferred to Kansas), although, they will have Quinndary Weatherspoon, who had a breakout freshman season. Weatherspoon was the team’s third leading scorer at 12.0 points per game, shot 45 percent from the field, and even hit a buzzer beater versus Vanderbilt.

Weatherspoon should be Howland’s leading scorer next year after the departures of seniors Gavin Ware, Fred Thomas and Craig Sword.

Beyond Weatherspoon, point guard I.J. Ready and 6’10” big man Aric Holman returns.

But where the Bulldogs will really make their waves is with their newcomers.

Howland adds one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, including FIVE four-star recruits Eli Wright, Schnider Herard, Lamar Peters, Mario Kelger and Tyson Carter. He also reeled in three-star E.J. Datcher, and the Bulldogs will get Louisiana Tech transfer Xavian Stapleton (torn ACL) back for SEC play.

The silver lining with the departure of Newman is the clear path for the freshman to get quality minutes from day one. This will give them enough experience before SEC play, and certainly before the SEC Tournament in March.

I’m not saying Howland is going back to the Big Dance, but if everything gels, this team could be more on the cusp than we think.

South Carolina Gamecocks

The front court has pretty much been stripped thin.

Laimonas Chatkevicius. Gone.

Michael Carrera. Gone.

Mindaugas Kacinas. Gone.

But there is still power in the backcourt.

Former highly regarded recruit P.J. Dozier is long, athletic and is capable of finishing around the rim. He does need to work on his jump shot and get stronger, but he should be a force to be reckoned with as a ball handler and a pressure defender.

Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice, two seniors, also are back in Columbia. Thornwell averaged 13.4 points per game last season (second on the team), while Notice averaged 10.8 points per game (third on the team). Thornwell is not the best passer in the world and tends to turn the ball over a lot, but he can score the basketball when a bucket is needed. Notice is a bit more efficient, especially from three, but isn’t much of a playmaker as an off-guard.

Regardless of the areas they need to work on, a backcourt rotation featuring Dozier, Thornwell and Notice is dangerous, to say the least.

The Gamecocks have four-star 6’9″ Putnam Science Academy forward, Sedee Keita, joining the team as the member of the team’s recruiting class.

Frank Martin is also an excellent, fiery head coach who demands the best from his players.

The Gamecocks have a shot at an NCAA Tournament, but depth could be a major concern with Chris Silva and Jamall Gregory’s future up in the air.