Take Note: Ten Underrated Names to Watch in the SEC in 2018-19

Lee, Saben
Quietly, Vanderbilt’s Saben Lee had himself a strong freshman campaign in 2017-18, and he’s the Commodores’ top returning scorer this season. (Source: VandyMania.com) (Header: Knoxville News Sentinel)

SARNIA, Ont. — Once again, the SEC is loaded with talent in 2018-19.

Fans in the SEC will be all too familiar with the talent in the league, but several of the team’s top contributors have flown under the radar on a national scale throughout their careers. With the player turnover in the league following the 2017-18 season, there will be new faces of the conference this year.

The Kentucky Wildcats loaded up with several high-profile freshmen, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody. Teams like the Tennessee Volunteers and Mississippi State Bulldogs will rely on experience and talent to get them back to the NCAA Tournament. There is a healthy mix of experience and youth in the conference, which in turn will lead to excitement and an unpredictable race for the SEC title.

Looking ahead to the season, here are 10 names who have flown under the radar so far in their careers on the national scene that you will want to watch over the course of the 2018-19 campaign.

Note: Players like Tremont Waters, Grant Williams, Jalen Hudson, Jontay Porter, Quinndary Weatherspoon, and Daniel Gafford weren’t listed because people should be familiar with their names by now.

Skylar Mays – LSU Tigers

2017-18 Stats: 11.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.6 spg; 44.3% FG, 83.7% FT

Will Wade took over as the head coach of the LSU Tigers following the 2016-17 season after leading the VCU Rams to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. In Wade’s first season with the Tigers, he helped guide the team to an 18-15 record overall, which was an eight-win improvement on the season before. LSU earned an invitation to the 2018 NIT, where they advanced to the Second Round before their season came to an end. Sophomore guard Skylar Mays was a key piece to the puzzle for Wade in his first season, and he will look to build on things as a junior in 2018-19.

Mays saw his minutes increase last season from his freshman average, playing over 31 minutes per contest. He finished third on the team in scoring with 11.3 points per game, trailing Water and Duop Reath. Mays was effective from all areas of the floor, shooting 44.3% from the field, 35.1% from three-point range, and 83.7% from the free throw line. All three shooting percentages were improvements from his freshman totals. The hometown guard posted eight double-digit scoring performances over his last 10 games of the season, including both games in the NIT where he averaged 13.5 points per contest. The back court tandem of Waters and Mays will help LSU build off their 2017-18 season and continue to make positive strides in the second year of the Will Wade era in Baton Rouge.

Admiral Schofield – Tennessee Volunteers

2017-18 Stats: 13.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.5 apg, 1.0 spg; 44.7% FG, 39.5% 3PT

The 2017-18 season was an impressive one for the Tennessee Volunteers, and it left fans wanting more. Tennessee secured a share of the regular season SEC title with the Auburn Tigers after going 13-5 in conference play. The Volunteers secured a 3-seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, where they advanced to the Second Round before falling to the Loyola Chicago Ramblers. Looking ahead to the 2018-19 season, Rick Barnes has himself a veteran-heavy roster that many consider to be the favourites in the SEC. Back for another shot at a title is forward Admiral Schofield, who is one of several upperclassmen on this year’s roster.

Following the 2017-18 season, Schofield declared for the 2018 NBA Draft without an agent. After receiving feedback and gaining a better understanding of areas he can improve, the 6’5” wing from Zion, IL opted to return to Knoxville for his final season. Schofield finished second on the team in scoring last season, averaging 13.9 points per contest. His 6.4 rebounds per game were a team-high for the Volunteers. Schofield emerged as a legitimate three-point threat last season, hitting on over 39% of his attempts from beyond the arc. Schofield and junior Grant Williams have the Volunteers entering the 2018-19 season as one of the favourites to win the SEC title.

Saben Lee – Vanderbilt Commodores

2017-18 Stats: 10.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.2 spg; 46.2% FG, 72.6% FT

Despite their player losses from last season, the Vanderbilt Commodores enter the 2018-19 season with a heightened level of optimism surrounding the program. The Commodores welcome a pair of five-star recruits this season, as point guard Darius Garland and forward Simi Shittu committed to Vanderbilt over a slew of other programs across the NCAA. While the freshmen get acclimated to the college game, head coach Bryce Drew will lean on sophomore guard Saben Lee to guide the team in the early part of the season.

As a freshman, Lee flew under the radar on the national level despite being one of the Commodores’ impact players. He finished the season with an average of 10.6 points per game, which was good for the fourth-best mark on the team. Lee also averaged 3.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.2 steals per game for an all-around strong inaugural season at Vanderbilt. With the Commodores’ top three scorers having graduated after the 2017-18 season, Lee will take on an expanded role in 2018-19. He will also be seen as a leader for the young core that will enter the mix this season. The native of Phoenix, AZ posted 19 points and eight rebounds in just his second collegiate game last season, and he went on to post double-digit points in 17 games, including three with 20+ points.

Aric Holman – Mississippi State Bulldogs

2017-18 Stats: 10.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 0.8 apg, 1.8 bpg; 57.3% FG, 44.0% 3PT

For many, the Mississippi State Bulldogs are a trendy pick to win the SEC title in 2018-19. Head coach Ben Howland has himself a talented roster from top to bottom, headlined by senior Quinndary Weatherspoon and sophomore Nick Weatherspoon. With only one senior on their roster last season, the Bulldogs return all of their significant contributors from a season ago, and they will look to build off their seventh place finish in the SEC after posting 25 wins overall a season ago. Back for his senior season in 2018-19 is forward Aric Holman, who will be looking to build on his breakout junior season and help Mississippi State return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009.

Holman hasn’t averaged more than 23.3 minutes per game in a season over his three years with the Bulldogs, but he’s developed into a strong interior presence for Mississippi State. Last season, he put up a career-high 10.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, while shooting over 57% from the field and 44.0% from beyond the arc. Holman also averaged 1.8 blocks per game, down slightly from his 2.0 blocks per game average from 2017-18. Still, the 6’10” native of Owensboro, KY is an impact player on both ends of the floor for the Bulldogs, and that should continue into 2018-19 as Holman closes out his career. Over the season, Holman recorded seven double-doubles, including one in their NIT opener against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Over their four games in the NIT, Holman averaged 13.75 points and 7.75 rebounds per contest, both up from his seasonal averages.

Donta Hall – Alabama Crimson Tide

2017-18 Stats: 10.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 0.6 apg, 2.0 bpg; 72.6% FG

The Alabama Crimson Tide were a hot ticket last season, especially with the play of freshmen guards Collin Sexton and John Petty. Sexton grabbed the headlines with his intensity and athleticism, while Petty put together a solid freshman season himself for the Crimson Tide, who advanced to the NCAA Tournament. Lost a bit in the season was the play of big man Donta Hall, who put together a strong season up front in his own right, and was a key piece to the puzzle as Alabama advanced to the post-season.

Hall, Donta
Up front, senior forward Donta Hall will command your attention in 2018-19 as he looks to help lead the Crimson Tide back to the NCAA Tournament.

Hall gives the Crimson Tide a big body in the paint who can impact the game on both ends of the floor. The 2017-18 season was a career year for the 6’9” forward from Luverne, AL, as he posted career-highs in points (10.6 ppg), rebounds (6.6 rpg), blocks (2.0 bpg), assists (0.6 apg), steals (0.7 spg), and field goal percentage (72.6%). To put his shooting percentage into perspective, Hall finished second in the nation in the category, trailing only Udoka Azubuike (77.4%). Over the course of the season, Hall shot 70% from the field or better on 21 occasions, including six games in which he was perfect from the field. He went a perfect 9-of-9 from the field against the UCF Knights back in December, finishing with 20 points in the loss. With Sexton out of the picture in 2018-19, look for the Crimson Tide to go through Hall more in the paint and take some pressure off the back court.

Maik Kotsar – South Carolina Gamecocks

2017-18 Stats: 8.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, 0.9 spg; 42.6% FG

With his intensity and willingness to tell things how they are, Frank Martin is one of the top coaches in the SEC, a league full of marquee coaches. During his five years with the Kansas State Wildcats prior to coming to the SEC, Martin advanced to four NCAA Tournaments and made the NIT in the other. While the results haven’t been the same at South Carolina, he is still regarded as one of the better coaches in the NCAA. Last season was a down year for the Gamecocks, as they finished with  record of 17-16 overall, and ended the season tied for 11th in the conference. Frank Booker has graduated, which provides someone with an opportunity to step up and take on an expanded role in the back court. Up front, South Carolina boasts a formidable tandem of Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar, both of whom will look to expand their roles to help replace some of the production lost from Booker.

Last season, Kotsar averaged 8.0 points and 4.8 rebounds per contest, finishing third on the team in scoring and second in rebounding. His rebounding numbers stayed the same from his freshman season, while he improved his scoring average by close to 2.5 points per outing. At 6’10” and 260 pounds, Kotsar gives the Gamecocks a big body in the paint that has the potential to be an impact on both ends of the floor. With his size, he is a big body that is tough to move out of the paint. But, in order to be an impact big man, he needs to find a way to be more effective around the rim on the offensive end. Kotsar shot 42.6% from the field in 2017-18, which isn’t a bad number by any means. However, he shot 49.0% from the field as a freshman the season prior, so he will look to bounce back and get back close to the 50% mark as a junior.

KeVaughn Allen – Florida Gators

2017-18 Stats: 11.0 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.0 spg; 36.1% FG, 32.8% 3PT

The Florida Gators will be without some familiar faces in the lineup in 2018-19, but they also welcome back some of their key contributors who are ready to step into the spotlight and become the leaders of the team. The pair of Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov have graduated, leaving a pair of holes to fill in the back court for head coach Michael White. The addition of freshman Andrew Nembhard will help in that aspect, but they will need some returnees to expand their roles and help replace the lost production on both ends of the court. That’s where KeVaughn Allen comes in, as he will look to close out his collegiate career on a high note in 2018-19.

The native of Little Rock, AR has had himself a strong career with the Gators ever since he stepped on the court back in the 2014-15 season. Allen has averaged at least 11.0 points per game in each of his three seasons, with his junior season average being the lowest of his career. As a sophomore in 2016-17, Allen averaged a career-best 14.0 points per contest. The 6’2” guard may not blow you away with his shooting numbers, but he is highly effective from the free throw line and will make the most of his opportunities from the line. Allen hit on 90.6% of his free throw attempts this season, going 77-of-85 over the course of the season. The opportunity is there for Allen to take on an expanded role as a senior, and only time will tell how it all plays out.

PJ Washington – Kentucky Wildcats

2017-18 Stats: 10.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.5 apg, 0.8 bpg; 51.9% FG

Once again, John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats have loaded up with incoming freshmen on the recruiting trail. The recruiting class of 2018 may not be as high-profile as in year’s past, but the Wildcats will be bringing some marquee talent to Big Blue Nation. Four of their incoming freshmen are five-star recruits, while five are inside the ESPN Top 100 rankings. But, much like Vanderbilt and their situation with Lee, the Wildcats will lean on a returning sophomore to play a significant role with the program and help the newcomers get accustomed to the ins and outs of the NCAA. Sophomore PJ Washington opted to return to Lexington for another season, and he will be one of the focal points this season for coach Calipari.

Now, while Washington was the 12th-ranked recruit in the Class of 2017, and shouldn’t be considered underrated, he has flown under the radar since returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season. The 6’7”, 236-pound forward passed on the 2018 NBA Draft, opting for at least one more year at the college level before turning professional. With the losses of both Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to the NBA, Washington is the top returning scorer for the Wildcats from last year’s team. In just over 27 minutes per night, Washington averaged 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Washington shot 51.9% from the field, and was effective on his two-point jumpers. In a small sample size, he shot just 23.8% (5-of-21) from three-point range, which leaves plenty of room for improvement in year two.

Washington, PJ
Sophomore forward PJ Washington will be looked upon to provide some veteran leadership for the slew of incoming freshmen at Kentucky in 2018-19. (Source: Brett Davis – USA Today Sports)

Jared Harper – Auburn Tigers

2017-18 Stats: 13.2 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 5.4 apg, 1.2 spg; 36.0% FG, 82.2% FT

Despite the off-court distractions surrounding head coach Bruce Pearl and the FBI probe throughout last season, the Auburn Tigers weathered the storm and earned themselves a share of the SEC regular season title with Tennessee. The Tigers went 13-5 in conference play, and 26-8 overall. They advanced to the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament as a 4-seed, but were eliminated at the hands of the Clemson Tigers. Looking ahead to the 2018-19 season, and Auburn will be without three of its key contributors from a season ago due to transfer, as Desean Murray, Mustapha Heron, and Davion Mitchell all left for other programs. However, Pearl welcomes back a slew of  talent, including junior guard Jared Harper who will become a national household name in 2018-19.

After putting together an impressive freshman season in 2016-17, one that saw him average 11.4 points and 3.0 assists per game, Harper one-upped himself as a sophomore and the Tigers’ starting point guard. He finished second in scoring on the team with an average of 13.2 points per contest, while his 5.4 assists per game were a team-high. Harper recorded 185 assists to just 72 turnovers, an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.57-to-1. The native of Mableton, GA will look to help guide the Tigers to another strong season and get the Tigers back to the NCAA Tournament. The SEC will be talented once again in 2018-19, but Harper is among the best point guards in the league, and he is a player that fans across the country will be familiar with by year’s end.

Terence Davis – Ole Miss Rebels

2017-18 Stats: 13.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.1 apg, 0.9 bpg; 40.7% FG, 72.0% FT

This off-season, the Ole Miss Rebels landed one of the hottest head coaches on the market when they signed Kermit Davis to become their next head coach. Davis comes to the SEC after leading the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders to three NCAA Tournament appearances during his tenure. Most notably, he helped guide the 15-seed Blue Raiders to a major upset over the Michigan State Spartans in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, a win that is considered one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history. Now with the Rebels, Davis will have the bulk of the Rebels’ production back from last year. Deandre Burnett and Markel Crawford have graduated, but leading scorer Terence Davis is back to lead the way in 2018-19.

Davis led the Rebels in scoring last season despite averaging under 28 minutes of floor time per night (27.3). He recorded 23 games with double-digit points, en route to averaging 13.8 points per contest. Davis started the season with eight straight games with double figures, and he closed the season with four straight such performances. In addition to leading the team in scoring, Davis’ 6.2 rebounds per game were also a team-high. Davis can be streaky at times from three-point range, but he can score in bunches when he finds his stroke from beyond the arc. Look for Davis to put up strong numbers in 2018-19 as he looks to help the Rebels bounce back from a down year in 2017-18.

Five More to Watch

William Jackson II – Georgia Bulldogs
Kevin Puryear – Missouri Tigers
Keith Stone – Florida
Nick Weatherspoon – Mississippi State
Chris Silva – South Carolina

Follow along with each conference as it’s released on Twitter, as we have created a #TakeNote moment that will have each player listed as the articles are released.

– T. Bennett