College Basketball Betting Preview for SEC: Who Can Crash Kentucky’s Party?
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- Kentucky didn't make the NCAA Tournament last season, but it is the favorite to win the SEC this year.
- Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Auburn could be dangerous for the Wildcats, though.
- Jim Root breaks down the conference from top-to-bottom.
“It just means more.”
Those oft-derided words have mostly been associated with SEC football over the years. However, as more SEC programs heavily invest in hoops, basketball is starting to mean more, as well.
As recently as 2016 and 2020, the league ranked sixth in KenPom’s conference ratings, the lowest of the “power conferences” in basketball.
Entering this year, though, the SEC sits third. An influx of talented transfers and freshmen continue to elevate the league’s status.
That coincides with the marked improvement SEC teams have seen on the sidelines. Within the past five years, the league has brought in Nate Oats, Eric Musselman, Will Wade and Ben Howland, all of whom have clearly elevated their programs over their predecessors.
Tom Crean and Buzz Williams, who have had plenty of success in their careers, cannot even get their teams off the ground because of the intense competition.
It may not win the NCAA title, but the SEC clearly means more on the national stage at this point.
No way around it: Kentucky floundered badly last year. It was the Wildcats’ first under-.500 season since 1988-89, as the team’s youth and injuries combined to destroy any hope of a postseason appearance.
That futility fooled no one, though. Kentucky enters this season as the SEC favorite, both in the league’s preseason poll and in betting markets (+300 at WynnBET).
Such a frustrating campaign may have prompted John Calipari to alter his approach.
Yes, he still brought in an elite recruiting class — Kentucky is one of just six teams to add multiple five-star talents, per 247Sports. But the true talent mining was done in the caverns of the transfer portal.
In West Virginia’s Oscar Tshiebwe, Georgia’s Sahvir Wheeler, Davidson’s Kellan Grady and Iowa’s CJ Fredrick, Kentucky has loaded up on veteran productivity. Oh, and capable returnees Keion Brooks Jr. and Davion Mintz are back, as well.
This is easily the most experienced team Calipari has ever had in Lexington. Whether that leads to a resurgence atop the SEC standings is still in question, though.
Alabama and Oats stepped into the void atop the league in 2020-21. Now, the squad lurks at +500 for this season.
The Tide finally weaponized Oats’ analytics-friendly philosophy, though it was not the incessant 3-point barrages that elevated the Tide to champions.
Instead, Alabama morphed into a defensive juggernaut, finishing third in KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency rating. This squad should tilt more towards offense, potentially aiding over bettors.
Two states over, Eric Musselman is constructing a steamroller of his own at Arkansas (also +500). The original transfer portal gangster, Musselman has once again assembled a deep and versatile roster.
Several vital pieces are gone from last year’s Elite Eight team, however.
The Razorbacks struggled mightily against Division II foe East Central in an exhibition game, squeaking out a 77-74 win after trailing for most of the contest.
The machine may not be finely tuned to start the season.
Tennessee (+600) is a somewhat polarizing team this year after Rick Barnes and the Volunteers flamed out quickly in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
A severe lack of offensive creativity undermined Rocky Top, meaning a heavy burden falls on freshman point guard Kennedy Chandler.
Even without wrecking ball Yves Pons, the Vols’ defense should still be the strength of this squad.
Also, keep an eye out for a healthy Josiah-Jordan James. The former five-star recruit should finally be himself after battling nagging injuries so far in his career.
The final team I see as capable of usurping Kentucky is Auburn (+600), which could end up having the nation’s best frontcourt.
For various reasons, freshman Jabari Smith and UNC transfer Walker Kessler have slid under the radar somewhat, but both have dazzling upside and complement each other well.
Injured Swiss Army knife Allen Flanigan will miss time to start the year, meaning transfer guards Wendell Green (Eastern Kentucky) and KD Johnson (Georgia) will need to be good right away.
Green and Johnson dealing with extended minutes and shouldering more of the load could ultimately benefit the Tigers once Flanigan returns, though.
It gets messier in the tier below. Florida (+800) looks overpriced to me without any idea if (or when) Keyontae Johnson will return.
The Gators retain Colin Castleton, but lost Tre Mann, Noah Locke, Scottie Lewis and Omar Payne of last year’s roster.
Like Florida, LSU (+1000) looks overpriced to me, especially after the Bayou Bengals lost Illinois transfer Adam Miller to a torn ACL.
The Tigers could end up being a “fade” team early on. A scarcity of ball-handling/creation choices could undermine a normally lethal offense.
If you are looking for value in a title contender, Mississippi State (+2000) is probably your best bet.
The Bulldogs brought in a hailed transfer class, most notably Garrison Brooks from UNC and Rocket Watts from Michigan State.
An argument could be made that D.J. Jeffries (Memphis) and Shakeel Moore (NC State) might actually be the more important pieces, though.
Add in all-conference point guard Iverson Molinar and double-double machine Tolu Smith, and the Bulldogs could make some noise in the league race.
Be wary early, though, as Smith and Watts will both miss the start of the season with injuries.
Mississippi State’s Egg Bowl rival, Ole Miss, sits right behind them at +2500.
The Rebels do not appear to have the ceiling to make that wager interesting, unfortunately.
Maybe Next Year
The bottom five of the conference looks pretty set in stone.
It’s shocking for me to type this, but Vanderbilt might actually be the most intriguing of that group.
Scotty Pippen Jr. is a maestro on the ball. Despite Vandy landing 13th in the media poll, Pippen Jr. was named preseason Player of the Year.
The Commodores could be a “bet on” team once center Liam Robbins gets healthy, which reportedly should be sometime in November. While Robbins is out, keep an eye on overs, as he’s a huge loss defensively.
Georgia, meanwhile, looks like a “sell, sell, sell” squad. Due to transfers and an injury, the Dawgs lost their top eight scorers from last year.
On top of that, the Dawgs’ newcomers lack the pop of their SEC foes.
More concerningly, Crean’s team lost an exhibition game to Charlotte. This could end up being the worst power conference team in the country.
Texas A&M has been an under machine under Williams. 29 of the Aggies’ 48 games in his tenure have stayed below the total (60.4%), per TeamRankings.com.
He still has a dearth of offensive firepower, so expect more of the same in year three.
The WynnBET regular season title odds are largely spot on, in my opinion.
If forced to take one, I would probably be vanilla and lock in Kentucky +300.
You can, however, find Tennessee as high as +1200 elsewhere. That intrigues me more than any of the prices.