The SEC built its brand in large and awesome football stadiums thanks to Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia all winning national championships in the past quarter-century. It's a great football league. And the amount of money that sport has created for its members has allowed every school to invest heavily in other sports -- most notably the sport of men's basketball.
That investment is paying off.
The SEC finished as the second-best men's basketball league last season, according to KenPom.com, and it projects as a top-two league again this season. That's a byproduct of the schools hiring great coaches who are enrolling elite talent. To wit, nine of the best 25 prospects from the Class of 2022 are set to compete in the SEC this season -- and those nine freshmen are at six different schools. So the talent is spread around the league in a way that will have five-star recruits playing against each other often.
CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm has seven SEC schools projected to make the 2023 NCAA Tournament, which would be the most since 2017. Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Auburn and Alabama (at least) all look like legitimate Final Four contenders. So the league is strong and will only get stronger when Texas and Oklahoma eventually make their way over from the Big 12.
CBS Sports SEC Preseason Player of the Year
Oscar Tshiebwe | C | Kentucky
Tshiebwe is the first consensus national player of the year to return to college since North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough did it in 2008, which makes him the only sensible option to be named SEC Preseason Player of the Year. The 6-foot-9 center averaged 17.4 points and 15.1 rebounds last season while shooting 60.6% from the field. He's the classic example of somebody who is awesome at this level but somewhat flawed for the modern-NBA. In a different era, he might now be a pro anyway. But the amount of money Tshiebwe can make at Kentucky via his name, image and likeness rights made it a no-brainer to return to UK, where he'll try to lead John Calipari's Wildcats to their first trip to the Final Four since 2015.
Four more players to watch
Colin Castleton | F | Florida: Castleton is the Gators' leading returning scorer and rebounder after averaging 16.2 points and 9.0 boards in 28 games last season. The 6-11 super-senior has played the past two years at Florida after starting his college career at Michigan.
GG Jackson | F | South Carolina: Jackson is the No. 6 prospect in the Class of 2022, according to 247Sports. He was listed as the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2023 (and committed to North Carolina) before reclassifying and enrolling at South Carolina.
Nick Smith | G | Arkansas: Smith is the No. 3 prospect in the Class of 2022, according to 247Sports. He's a 6-4 scorer who projects as a one-and-done lottery pick.
Santiago Vescovi | F | Tennessee: Vescovi is the Vols' leading returning scorer after averaging 13.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 35 games last season. The 6-3 guard has shot 39.7% from 3-point range on 6.1 attempts per game through three seasons at Tennessee.
CBS Sports SEC Preseason Freshman of the Year
Nick Smith | G | Arkansas
Smith is the highest-rated freshman entering the SEC and projects as the best player on an Arkansas team with Final Four aspirations. That makes him the most obvious pick for the league's preseason FOY -- but there's certainly competition in the form of GG Jackson (South Carolina), Cason Wallace (Kentucky), Chris Livingston (Kentucky), Julian Phillips (Tennessee), Brandon Miller (Alabama), Anthony Black (Arkansas), Jordan Walsh (Arkansas), Jaden Bradley (Alabama) and Yohan Traore (Auburn). Each of those players are five-star recruits, according to 247Sports. If you're wondering why the SEC could be -- and perhaps should be -- a top-two league again this season, that's a good place to start. The incoming talent is top-shelf.
CBS Sports SEC predicted order of finish
|Kentucky ended things poorly last season with a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament to Saint Peter's. It was one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history -- a real stunner. But the Wildcats still finished sixth at KenPom.com and were otherwise pretty great last season, and the fact that two starters from that team -- including CBS Sports National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe -- are back and combining with a top-five recruiting class is why John Calipari's Wildcats should be considered the preseason SEC favorite and a real threat to make the Final Four for the first time since 2015.|
|The Razorbacks lost every meaningful piece from last season's Elite Eight team besides Davonte Davis but should still be really good thanks to the way Eric Musselman and his staff attacked the Class of 2022 and transfer portal. Arkansas enrolled three five-star high school prospects -- most notably Nick Smith, a 6-4 combo guard who projects as a one-and-done lottery pick. With Davis, those freshmen and at least four impactful transfers, the Razorbacks should have a shot at their first trip to the Final Four since 1995.|
|The Vols are returning four of the top five scorers -- most notably Santiago Vescovi and Josiah-Jordan James -- from a team that won the SEC Tournament and got a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. So Rick Barnes should have Tennessee in its fourth straight NCAA Tournament, especially if five-star wing Julian Phillips makes an immediate impact the way top-15 freshmen usually do. Vescovi should have the best year of his already solid college career. He's the Vols' leading returning scorer and an All-American candidate after averaging 13.3 points last season while shooting 40.3% from 3-point range.|
|There's no way to replace a talent like Jabari Smith, who starred at Auburn last season before becoming the third pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. But Bruce Pearl is returning four of the top six scorers -- among them K.D. Johnson, Wendell Green and Allen Flanigan -- from a team that won the outright SEC title. They'll be joined by five-star freshman Yohan Traore and Morehead State transfer Johni Broome and should have a chance to win back-to-back SEC titles for the first time in school history.|
|The Crimson Tide lost a lot from last season -- most notably Jaden Shackeleford, Keon Ellis and JD Davison -- but still projects as a team that should make the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year thanks largely to the enrollment of an elite recruiting class that only ranks behind what Duke and Arkansas are enrolling. The most-heralded newcomers are five-star freshmen Brandon Miller and Jaden Bradley. Former McDonald's All-American Jahvon Quinerly is still recovering from an ACL tear and won't be available to start the season. But he should be back on the court in either December or January, at which point Nate Oats will have the pieces necessary to make a run deep into the bracket.|
|The Aggies are returning every relevant player -- besides Quenton Jackson and Hassan Diarra -- from a team that just missed the NCAA Tournament before advancing to the title game of the NIT. I have Texas A&M 19th in my Top 25 And 1, which suggests I believe in Buzz Williams' team a little more than the AP voters who have the Aggies first among others receiving votes. Either way, basically everybody agrees, Williams' fourth season at Texas A&M should result in a trip to the NCAA Tournament just like his fourth seasons and both Marquette and Virginia Tech did.|
|Most of the new coaches in the SEC are likely to miss the NCAA Tournament in their first season -- but Todd Golden probably shouldn't. The roster is intriguing. Colin Castleton is an All-American candidate who averaged 16.2 points and 9.0 rebounds last season. Kyle Lofton is a super-senior who averaged 13.9 points in four seasons at St. Bonaventure. Will Richard is a transfer from Belmont who averaged 12.1 points for the Bruins last season. Those are three rock-solid pieces that should make Florida's transition from Mike White to Golden a smooth one.|
|The Rebels finished a Kermit-Davis-era-worst 13-19 last season, which was obviously disappointing. But it should be noted that their two leading scorers -- Jarkel Joiner and Daeshun Ruffin -- were largely sidelined by injuries. Joiner only played 22 games. Ruffin appeared in just 14. That partly explains the 4-14 league mark. Ole Miss should be much better this season thanks to the return of Ruffin. Matthew Murrell, Nysier Brooks, Jaemyn Brakefield and Tye Fagan. They were five of the top six scorers on last season's team. So it'll be a surprise if the Rebels finish near the bottom of the SEC again. A trip to the NCAA Tournament is more likely than another losing record.|
|Chris Jans won four Western Athletic Conference titles in five seasons at New Mexico State and won more than 83% of his league games. It was incredible work that set him up to get a Power 5 job, and the one that he got -- Mississippi State -- seems like a great fit. He inherited three of the top five scorers from Ben Howland's last team and added four transfers who averaged double-figures in points last season at the Division I level. That should be enough to make the Bulldogs a tough out this season and possibly put them in position to compete for a trip to the NCAA Tournament.|
|It's reasonable to suggest no new power-conference coach had to scramble to put together a roster more than Matt McMahon had to scramble after leaving Murray State to replace Will Wade at LSU. It was quite the challenge. But McMahon convinced Adam Miller to exit the transfer portal and return to LSU, got Murray State stars KJ Williams and Justice Hill to follow him to the SEC, and actually assembled a respectable roster. Most are not projecting the Tigers to be a serious threat to make the NCAA Tournament, but it shouldn't be ruled out considering McMahon has coached in three of the past four.|
|Dennis Gates won back-to-back Horizon League titles at Cleveland State the past two years to create Power 5 options, and once he got the Missouri job he immediately started remaking the roster via the transfer market. He enrolled five transfers who averaged double-figures in points last season at the Division I level -- among them D'Moi Hodge and Tre Gomillion, both of whom followed Gates from Cleveland State to Missouri. So the Tigers have a chance to be competitive this season even if making the NCAA Tournament is still a long shot on paper.|
|Jerry Stackhouse is still trying to break through at Vanderbilt, where he is 13-39 in SEC games and has never cracked the top 10 of the league standings through three years. That's the bad news. But the good news is that he's improved the Commodores a little each season. Last season, they finished 64th at KenPom, which was the program's best finish in that computer ranking since the 2016-17 season. So things are trending in the right direction. But most remain skeptical that Vanderbilt will compete for a trip to the NCAA Tournament this season based on the lack of SEC-level talent in the program -- especially with all-league guard Scotty Pippen Jr. no longer on campus.|
|South Carolina is a historically tough job -- evidence being that an accomplished coach like Frank Martin only guided the Gamecocks to the NCAA Tournament once in 10 seasons. So eventually getting South Carolina to the top half of the league standings will be a challenge for Martin's successor, Lamont Paris, and he's pretty much starting from scratch considering the top six scorers from last season's team are gone. But the addition of five-star freshman GG Jackson should keep South Carolina on the national radar this season, at least a little bit, considering he was the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2023 before reclassifying and committing to the Gamecocks this summer.|
|Mike White realized last March that he would never completely win over Florida fans as Billy Donovan's good-but-not-quite-great successor and decided to jump to Georgia, where expectations and pressure aren't nearly as high. It was probably a smart move, all things considered. But this is a total rebuilding job considering the Bulldogs went 1-17 in the SEC last season, and there's little reason to think White will be able to get things turned completely around in Year 1 given the lack of SEC-talent in the program right now.|
SEC most overrated team
According to KenPom, Texas A&M is the team we've most overrated. I'm personally a believer in the Aggies, which is why I have them 19th in the Top 25 And 1. I think they're going to be really good and make the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Buzz Williams. But Texas A&M is ranked just 45th at KenPom and projected to finish ninth in the SEC. So each of us having the Aggies in the top five of the league standings is a reach relative to what Ken Pomeroy's computer is spitting out.
SEC most underrated team
According to KenPom, Missouri is the team we've most underrated. We have the Tigers projected to finish 11th in the SEC -- but KenPom has them listed as the eighth-best team in the league (and 41st nationally). If that ranking holds, Mizzou would have a chance to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, which would be an incredible achievement for Dennis Gates in his first season after replacing Cuonzo Martin.