Alabama and Arkansas arrived in 2020–21, while familiar face Kentucky took a rare back seat.
The 2020–21 men’s college basketball season is in the books, but it’s not too late to look back on the year that was. We’re going conference by conference within the high-major leagues to examine what went right—and what went wrong—along with a brief look ahead to 2021–22. We’ve done the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12. Last up is the SEC.
Most important thing we learned: Alabama and Arkansas have arrived
Remember 2020, when the Crimson Tide and the Razorbacks finished ninth and 10th in the league? Well, it’s taken just two seasons for Nate Oats and Eric Musselman to shift the paradigm and flip the SEC’s balance of power. Alabama and Arkansas finished first and second this time around, each making the Sweet 16 and succeeding in ways that feel sustainable. Oats continues to recruit as well as any coach in the conference. Musselman will always be a threat for top transfers. And the conference’s upper crust is as deep as ever for the foreseeable future.
Best game: Alabama 80, LSU 79 (SEC championship game)
The SEC title game lived up to its billing and boiled down to its final seconds when LSU narrowly missed three opportunities to win it. Both teams bombed threes in a frantic, high-quality contest—for the better part of 40 minutes, this was a one-possession game. Trendon Watford scored 30 for LSU and Jaden Shackelford led Alabama with 21 points. SEC Player of the Year Herbert Jones came up with the winning bucket with 21 seconds left.
Best player: Herbert Jones, Alabama
The SEC never lacks for talent, but it was Jones who spearheaded Alabama’s emergence with his efficient-but-unflashy approach, emerging as one of the best defenders in college basketball while also becoming a key playmaker and versatile scorer in his senior season. Jones’s counting stats (11.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.1 blocks) were solid, and his impact on both ends of the floor—and the versatility he offered his team defensively—were often the difference for his team. The steady progress Jones made over four years culminated with individual accolades and a conference championship for the Tide.
Best coach: Nate Oats, Alabama
This admittedly reads like an Alabama lovefest right now, but it’s hard not to give Oats credit for his part in the Tide’s remarkable turnaround, winning 10 more games than 2019–20 during a strange season after losing star guard Kira Lewis to the NBA. Alabama finished with the third-best defense nationally, per KenPom, and did so while still playing one of the fastest paces in the nation, which is no small feat. Poor free throw shooting was the difference against UCLA in the Sweet 16, but Oats and his program are clearly here to stay, and the style of play he’s cultivated—efficient, up-tempo and disciplined—is a real achievement.
Best newcomer: Cameron Thomas, LSU
There was a host of gifted freshmen in the SEC this season, but not one of them hit the ground running like Thomas, who shouldered an incredible amount of offensive usage, led the league in scoring with 22.6 points per game and was the principal figure in a top-five offense. Thomas’s style of play—shoot first, shoot second—has drawn some scrutiny at times, but there were few freshmen in the country capable of taking over a game the way he could. You can argue that much of what he accomplished was based on volume, but it takes a special player to simply shoulder that type of load at a high level out of the gate. He’s off to the NBA next season and projected as a first-round pick.
Biggest surprise: Davonte Davis breaks out in March
Davis was a four-star, back-end, top 100 recruit, but was far from a household name when he chose to stay close to home and play at Arkansas. Eric Musselman moved him into the starting lineup in February and he stepped up in a major way in March, scoring in double figures in six of his last seven games and all four NCAA tournament games, and giving the Razorbacks a major shot of energy. Davis is a raw guard who still lacks a well-defined position, but his sheer motor and impressive athletic range and explosiveness brought major entertainment value, and he was an x-factor in wins over Texas Tech and Oral Roberts. He may be in line for a big step forward as a sophomore.
Biggest disappointment: Kentucky
Pretty much nothing went right for John Calipari this season. The Wildcats lost six straight games early in the season and never fully recovered, with a hyped mix of freshmen and transfers struggling to coalesce as a unit under trying circumstances. Kentucky figures to rebound next season—Calipari is already shuffling his coaching staff—but the pressure on the program to bounce back to the top of the league is as high as it’s been in years.
Outlook for 2021–22
While most of the conference’s top individual players are off to the NBA, the SEC always reloads on talent and next season will be no different. Kentucky, LSU and Alabama all have quality recruits and/or transfers coming in. Auburn landed potential lottery pick Jabari Smith and UNC transfer Walker Kessler. Tennessee brings in top recruits Kennedy Chandler and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. The dust has yet to settle in terms of transfers and NBA decisions, so it would be a challenge for anyone to call their shot here. The quality of SEC hoops continues to trend in a great direction, and while all the roster turnover makes it increasingly tough to build a consistent winner, the success the top teams continue to have attracting quality players has the league in a good place. The fact that the conference feels totally wide open once again is a great thing.
More College Basketball Coverage:
• SI’s Way-Too-Early Men’s Top 25 for 2021–22
• The Many Disparities Between Men’s & Women’s College Hoops
• Holmgren Commit Marks a Gonzaga Inflection Point