BettorIQ’s College Basketball Betting Preview: SEC
While Big East preseason talk is dominated by the return of its two biggest stars, the story of the SEC is one of change and transition. Twelve players from this conference were selected in the NBA draft this summer. Moreover, of the 16 players named to 2018-19 All-SEC teams, only two (Breein Tyree and Skylar Mays) return this season. Across the conference there is a vacuum of talent and leadership waiting to be filled by the next group of stars. Let’s take a look at a few of the SEC’s biggest programs, and how they might fare.
No program in America is more used to dealing with player turnover than the one found in Lexington. Year after year, John Calipari’s NBA training camp funnels talented youngsters to the professional ranks, only to turn around and do it all over again. As usual, Kentucky has a lot to replace. Gone are P.J Washington, Tyler Herro, and Keldon Johnson – the 12th, 14th, and 29th overall NBA draft picks. These three were the top scorers for Kentucky last year, and helped lead the Wildcats to an Elite Eight berth, where they were defeated by conference rival Auburn.
As per BartTorvik.com, Calipari’s group ranks 310th in returning minutes which equates to only 36.8%. Amazingly however, that’s actually a sign of greater continuity for Kentucky compared to past editions. That figure represents the highest such total for the Wildcats since the 2014-15 season. Leading the returning group is preseason first-team All-SEC point guard Ashton Hagans. Following in the tradition of John Wall, Tyler Ulis, and De’Aaron Fox, Hagans is perhaps the fastest player in the SEC, if not the nation. Hagans has earned the trust of the coaching staff in Lexington, and will emerge as a leader for this young team. Ulis was the last point guard to return for a sophomore season at Kentucky and when he did, his role and production grew exponentially. After a freshman season averaging 5.6 ppg and 3.6 apg, he exploded for 17.3 ppg and 7.0 apg. Hagans finds himself in a very similar situation, and the returns could be in keeping with Ulis’ spectacular sophomore year. With the trust of his coaches, Hagans is likely to oversee an offense that is more uptempo this season. Kentucky were only 284th in tempo last season, and with Hagans taking a much bigger role, they will climb those charts. There could be early value on going over the total with this higher-paced Wildcat offense.
As usual, Kentucky’s lofty preseason ranking (2nd this year) is substantially based on another great recruiting class. While it lacks in some of the star power of years past, Calipari is still bringing in four top-40 recruits, headlined by Kahlil Whitney and Tyrese Maxey, ranked 12th and 13th respectively. Maxey in particular should help increase scoring, as he’s a high quality wing who can also provide secondary ballhandling. Cal has compared the freshman stud to Jamal Murray. If Maxey and Hagans can come even close to replicating the Ulis–Murray back court from 2016, this team will be more explosive than last year’s.
All that said, Kentucky will still feature a dominant front court. Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery both return and should assume starting roles. Despite combining for only 27.2 mpg last season, their pedigree is unquestioned. These former 5-star recruits will cause serious matchup problems for conference opponents. Montgomery was named to the preseason All-SEC second-team, and has the ability to dominate smaller front courts. Kentucky have been picked to win the SEC this season, and it’s difficult to see past them. Many of their challengers are having to deal with the loss of a ton of departing talent, and Kentucky is far better suited to plug and play than the likes of Tennessee, Auburn, and LSU.
It would appear that if anyone was going to take a crack at keeping Kentucky from a regular season conference title, it’s Head Coach Mike White’s talented group in Gainesville. Last season was a transition year for the program, as they cobbled together a 9-9 conference record, upset mid-major darling Nevada in the opening round of the NCAA tournament before bowing out to a superior Michigan team in the Round of 32. Coach White is elated with his team’s potential. To the Athletic, White said, “In full transparency, this is the most excited that I’ve been about a team this time of year — on paper. But I’m also hesitant to allow myself to go there because we haven’t really gotten to work yet.”
Indeed, the Gators check all the boxes when it comes to looking for a team primed to take a leap. They are buoyed by a bevy of key contributors returning to the fold. Most importantly, point guard Andrew Nembhard is back after flirting with the pros. He’ll be joined by a fellow sophomores Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson. Last season, having those three share the floor paid real dividends. When in the lineup together, the Gators registered 1.11 ppp, as opposed to 0.99 with any other combination. The incoming freshman is led by potential one-and-done Scottie Lewis is the 10th ranked recruit according to ESPN, making him the second-highest ranked freshman in the conference. Vitally, the Gators will be helped inside by the addition of highly-desired transfer target Kerry Blackshear, who joins from Virginia Tech. Blackshear is a natural leader, and at 22 years old, he brings experience and poise that will be essential during the grind of the conference season and a potential run deep into March.
There could be plenty of betting opportunities when it comes to playing the over. Last season, the under hit in their games at a preposterous 69.4% clip. Head Coach Mike White has historically been a fan of a high-paced offense. In his previous stint at Louisiana Tech, his teams averaged 39th in tempo over his four years. Last year, the Gators ranked 344th. Look for a serious correction here, as White has been given a roster built to run. White’s greater task than simply upping the pace, is to bring this group together. Chemistry can often be an issue when this much talent, returning and incoming converge on campus. Nembhard is clearly wanting to increase his profile so that he can get to the NBA as soon as possible. Scottie Lewis wants to show enough to have the option to take off after the season. Blackshear chose Florida, but he’ll want to see why Florida chose him. Throw in a bevy of other prospects, and there are a lot of mouths to feed. Striking a balance will be critical in order for Mike White to have a real chance to bring Florida back to national prominence. Florida are ranked 6th in the preseason AP poll and will be favored to win the vast majority of their games. This isn’t necessarily cause for concern, as the team is a solid 54-40-3 ATS as a favorite since Mike White took over.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Bruce Pearl and the Tigers. A phenomenal run to the program’s first ever Final Four ended with a heartbreaking defeat against eventual champion Virginia. That senior-laden squad played fantastically against the Cavaliers, and led by two with 1.5 seconds remaining. Virginia guard Kyle Guy was fouled on a missed three-point buzzer beater attempt, and the rest is history.
It is difficult to imagine how this Auburn program can recover this quickly from a defeat of that magnitude. However, if there’s a man for the job, it’s motivational speaker supreme Bruce Pearl. He has done a magnificent job in building an Auburn program that now ranks among the nation’s most important. It is a testament to Pearl and the culture he’s created that a team that is losing its top three scorers (Jared Harper, Bryce Brown, Chuma Okeke) in addition to key rotation pieces Malik Dunbar and Horace Spencer, that the Tigers were still picked to finish 4th in the SEC this season. And, that’s without a single representative in either of the preseason All-SEC teams. Just how they’re going to do this, is a bit of a mystery.
This feels like a spot where we could see some regression, at least until Pearl has had some time to put his stamp on proceedings. The Tigers return only 37.3% of their minutes, which is particularly hurtful for a team that had featured such continuity. Last season, the Tigers returned 65.5% of its minutes. There is the talent to keep the Tigers competing though. A strong recruiting class is highlighted by Isaac Okoro. Okoro is that rare multi-dimensional defensive piece that could become a nationally-renowned defender as a freshman. He’ll be helped along by some underrated players such as Danjel Purifoy and team-first role player Anfernee McLemore. There’s hope that highly talented big Austin Wiley can reach his potential as he becomes a greater focus for the team’s offense. He averaged almost seven points and over a block per game in only 13 minutes, and a summer in the national program could do wonders for the budding Auburn star.
Ultimately, this will come down to Bruce Pearl’s ability to adapt. His half-court offense was poor last season, and he will not have the luxury of Harper and Brown to prop it up. The team is not built to run the way it has in year’s previous. Pearl himself has suggested he will, however, continue to push the pace, so it could be sloppy, especially in the early going. The under presents itself as a possible investment throughout the season, as Pearl at least understands that the strength of this team is going to be on the defensive end of the floor. The public perception of Auburn is one of a free-scoring, loosely-defending, high-paced bunch. Since Pearl arrived for the 2014-15 season, the Tigers have gone 84-76-1 O/U, good for second in the SEC. A regression could be in play.