Texas A&M and Tennessee return stars, other teams load up with new faces in tightly bunched SEC

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Texas A&M and Tennessee return top players like Wade Taylor IV and Santiago Vescovi from NCAA Tournament teams.

Alabama and Arkansas mined the transfer portal to replace a departed pair of NBA first-round picks apiece. Then there’s Kentucky, where John Calipari raked in his latest impressive haul of Big Blue-chip prospects.

It makes for a potentially interesting ride for the Southeastern Conference, where five teams will enter the season ranked and harboring ambitions of becoming the first SEC team to make it to the Final Four since 2019. Calipari was far from alone in having to replace much of his roster.

“It’s exciting because it’s so new to you as a head coach," Calipari said. "But it’s also difficlt to get them all to come together. How quickly can you do it? We’re all battling the same thing now. Well, we have a couple in our league that have teams back and they have a big advantage, and they should. They’ve got a bunch of guys back.”

The ninth-ranked Volunteers are banking on Vescovi, point guard Zakai Zeigler and Josiah-Jordan James to build on their first run to the Sweet 16 since 2019.

“If you really think about it, these younger guys get a chance every day to practice against a team that went to the Sweet 16 last year,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I think it’s a huge advantage when you have older guys. I hope we always have older guys.”

The preseason poll shows how tightly bunched the pack could be with No. 14 Arkansas, No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 16 Kentucky and defending league champion Alabama at No. 24.

“The way this league has grown over the last couple of years and the depth in it, it’s going to be a dogfight,” Barnes said.

The Wildcats brought in four five-star prospects. Arkansas and Alabama landed two of the top six transfer classes, according to 247Sports. Both are replacing a pair of one-and-done first-round picks, including the top two college players selected in the Tide’s Brandon Miller (No. 2) and the Razorbacks’ Anthony Black (No. 6). Arkansas also had a second-rounder in Jordan Walsh.

PORTAL PICKUPS

There are too many immediate-impact transfers to mention, but a couple of top contenders are certainly relying on them. The Tide brought in a group that includes Grant Nelson (North Dakota State) and Aaron Estrada (Hofstra).

Arkansas’s crop was led by high-scoring newcomers El Ellis (Louisville) and Khalif Battle (Temple).

Kentucky added a key piece in West Virginia big man Tre Mitchell. Tennessee imported guards Jordan Gainey (USC Upstate) and Dalton Knecht, who led the Big Sky Conference in scoring for Northern Colorado.

TOP FRESHMEN

Kentucky landed three of 247Sports' top six prospects, including forward Justin Edwards, center Aaron Bradshaw and guard DJ Wagner, along with fellow five-star prospect Rob Dillingham. The Wildcats are having to replace No. 10 pick Cason Wallace and center Oscar Tshwiebwe, the national player of the year two seasons ago.

“There’s no one better in the country, probably no one better in the history of college basketball at coaching young guys,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said of Calipari. “I don’t think there’s even a close second.”

Auburn could have its new point guard in Aden Holloway, the only other five-star high schooler to land in the SEC, per the 247Sports composite rankings.

NEW COACH

Mississippi’s Chris Beard is the only new coach and his hiring immediately ratcheted up expectations in Oxford.

Beard was fired from Texas after facing felony domestic violence charges that were later dismissed. There’s no questioning his track record as a coach.

Beard has led three different programs to the NCAA Tournament since 2016, including an appearance in the 2019 championship game and an Elite Eight run the year before at Texas Tech. He is 237-98 as a head coach and 11-5 in the NCAA Tournament, earning AP national coach of the year honors in 2019.

Calipari has faced him before, recalling Beard’s Texas Tech team as defensively tough and offensively “ridiculously hard to guard.”

“When you have those as staples, you’re not going to be far behind even if you’re just getting started,” Calipari said.

BIG GAMES

Top 25 nonconference games abound for the most likely contenders.

Kentucky faces top-ranked Kansas on Nov. 14, followed by games against No. 13 Miami (Nov. 28) and No. 19 North Carolina (Dec. 16). Alabama has three nonconference games in December away from home against highly ranked teams (No. 3 Purdue, No. 8 Creighton and No. 12 Arizona). The Razorbacks host No. 2 Duke on Nov. 29.

Tennessee has games with North Carolina (Nov. 29) and No. 25 Illinois on Dec. 9. Texas A&M faces No. 7 Houston on Dec. 16. Auburn opens at No. 20 Baylor on Nov. 7.

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball