CBS Sports’ Clark Kellogg names SEC’s biggest surprises, predicts team primed for deep NCAA Tournament run

Mark your calendars for the madness.

National Signing Day has past, so it’s time for college basketball to shine. In case you’ve been distracted by reading the college football recruiting tea leaves, the SEC is stellar in men’s basketball, with Auburn and Tennessee among the top surprises. Don’t be surprised if the SEC makes noise when the spotlight is at its brightest next month.

The regular season is in its final weeks, and the SEC Tournament is scheduled to start March 7 in St. Louis. Recently, CBS Sports college basketball analyst Clark Kellogg spoke with SEC Country about a variety of topics related to SEC basketball. He offered his reflections on the season, his predictions for the dramatic days to come and more.

What are your overall thoughts about what we’ve seen in SEC play this season?

I think it has been the best it has been in probably a decade or so overall. And I try to evaluate conferences top, middle and bottom. And you look at quality of players, and that’s a huge part of your conference strength.

And then you look at the quality of the coaches, which is outstanding. I think the SEC made a commitment a few years ago to enhance the nonconference schedule, and that has started to pay dividends now in terms of recruiting and the quality of play. Really, a strong year. And much like the other Power 5 conferences, it’s pretty compressed. Nobody is running away with these power-conference races.

Who are some of the best players in the conference in your eyes?

Oh, wow. [Alabama’s Collin] Sexton is really impressive as a first-year player. Mustapha Heron and [Jared] Harper down at Auburn, I think, have been really good. Grant Williams at Tennessee. I had Florida and Missouri earlier. I really like what I’ve seen from [Missouri’s] Jontay Porter. I know Michael Porter Jr. got all of the hype, and deservedly so. He has been unable to play because of the injury. But Jontay Porter has been really good, along with [Missouri’s] Kassius Robertson. I think he has been pretty impressive.

You could pick a number of guys from Kentucky, because they have had flashes. But [Shai] Gilgeous-Alexander is the kid who catches my eye the most. I know he has been a little inconsistent, but his skill set is really impressive. But I don’t necessarily have one standout guy.

What’s your biggest surprise in the SEC?

Well, I would start with Auburn in terms of a team, just because of the cloud of the FBI investigation and how that hit them directly. And then to see this team do what it has been able to do has really been one of the more surprising stories in college basketball. I think as a league, I just think the competitiveness, particularly in the upper two-thirds, has been quite impressive.

I guess Georgia … I would have anticipated that they would perhaps be a little better. … Auburn, to me, it’s just kind of hard to overlook that [success], and Tennessee [as well] to a lesser degree. They’re a group that has just been extremely competitive since the start of the season, even in its nonconference schedule, which was pretty strong. They showed they would be a team to be reckoned with.

Is Auburn’s Bruce Pearl your pick for the SEC’s best coaching job? Or does Rick Barnes stand out at Tennessee?

It’s an easy default to go to Auburn. Typically, it’s the team that surprises beyond expectations. Clearly, Auburn and Tennessee would fall into that category. Sometimes, I like to look at teams that have endured some real struggles. You look at Texas A&M and how good that team looked early on and then hit the headwinds with some injuries and player suspensions. And now they seem to be kind of finding themselves a bit. … A guy like [Texas A&M’s] Billy Kennedy would merit consideration, in my mind, for that conversation.

What’s your prediction for how many SEC teams will make the NCAA Tournament?

I think you’ve got five pretty solid tournament teams. I would go Auburn, Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky and A&M. If I had to do an initial ballot like the committee does when they walk into that room on Wednesday or Thursday of Selection Sunday weekend, Auburn, Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky and A&M look to me like teams that would probably be worthy of the first ballot.

Then you’ve got Bama, Missouri, Mississippi State, Arkansas that in different ways are maybe more on one side of the bubble or the other. But I would say that you’re probably going to end up with seven [NCAA Tournament teams]. I’m looking at nine potential [teams], meaning that you could probably end up with seven of those.

Who’s your pick from the SEC to go deepest in the NCAA Tournament? Is there the potential for another South Carolina-like surprise run to the Final Four?

I think Texas A&M would be the most tournament-capable [team] as long as they can adjust to [Duane] Wilson’s absence. The young guards would have to do a little bit more. They’ve got the size, the balance, the athleticism, shooting, reasonable depth. I think they’re the most balanced and tournament-ready if they’re whole.

After that, I would probably go Auburn. And then Missouri is an interesting crew to me. If they get Michael Porter Jr. back in some form of productivity, that would be an interesting crew. And Kentucky is just a wild card. … In the SEC, I would think Texas A&M whole is the most complete, tournament-ready team when you look at all the factors. And then I would say Auburn after that.

Speaking of Auburn, what’s your prediction for Pearl? Will he survive the events surrounding the FBI investigation? What does his future look like to you?

It’s hard to say, because you’re not sure what’s out there, what else is going to bubble up. It was two years plus before we got what we got in September. The investigation was ongoing, the information being accumulated, then all of the sudden it is released, and you see the damage done to a handful of players indirectly and coaches and others directly.

So it’s hard to say. It really is. If I had to guess, I’d err on the side of survival just because I’m an optimist, and I’m hopeful that would be the case. But there’s no way of really knowing where it’s going to lead and where it’s going to end.

What are your thoughts on the respect the SEC has gained as a basketball conference?

Very impressive. It has been a strategic approach. Clearly upgraded the nonconference schedule, because the committee really values who you play, where you play and what your results are. And so the SEC made a concentrated effort to raise the level of the nonconference schedule. The Big 12-SEC challenge is part of that. But also, they challenged their coaches and held them to the fire in terms of the scheduling. And that pays dividends, especially when you get your share of wins against those tougher opponents. So I think that really drives home what the essence of the approach has been over the last couple of years. You’ve added some nice, young coaches over there.

You’ve had an influx of not only enhancing the nonconference schedule, but you’ve added some quality coaches across the board. And if you get those two things moving in the right direction, usually you’re going to end up landing good players, too.

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