A way too early look ahead in the SEC

So that usual mass exodus that rolls around every April from Lexington?

Or how Kentucky coach John Calipari just imports another slew of highly-touted recruits to represent Big Blue Nation for a lone season before heading off to cash their own NBA paychecks.

Well, what happens if those guy stick around. And then another crop of McDonald’s All-Americans drops off their bags?

After taking a flogging for simply feeding the one-and-done machine, Calipari can smirk today. ‘Cause the gang that tore off a run to the national title game after being left for dead in at the start of March is back.

The twins of Andrew and Aaron Harrison? Sticking around, per Yahoo! reporter Adrian Wojnarowski. The guards also join big men Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress — yes, UK will have two seasoned juniors on the roster — and rising sophomore Dakari Johnson.

Oh, and four top-30 prospects will fill in the ranks, giving the Wildcats roster nine members who have played in a high school all-star game sponsored by America’s preeminent fast-food chain.

So, pure snark alone, here’s one scribe’s prediction for the SEC race next season: Kentucky and then everybody else.

Obviously, recruiting is still unfolding — the spring signing period ends in May — and there can always be transfers. Plus, Missouri is in the midst of a coaching search. Caveats aside, I’ll take a stab at my initial pecking order.

1. Kentucky: So, Julius Randle is gone, but the nation’s best team on the offensive backboards should be loaded in front court again. To wit: Cauley-Stein is an able rim protector. Poythress can play inside-out. Johnson, who had modest numbers, projects to a guy capable of 14.7 points and 11.2 rebounds in 40 minutes. Add in elite freshman KarlTowns and Trey Lyles, too. The result is six players taller than 6-8, five of whom were top-40 recruits. If Andrew Harrison’s rapid improvement during the NCAA tournament continues, there’s talent, brawn and experience to make the league’s other coaches shudder at the top choice to open the season atop the polls.

2. Florida: The loss of seniors Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC player of the year, Casey Prather, Patric Young and Will Yeguete smarts. The Gators, the first team to go undefeated in conference play, lose 61.2 percent of their scoring, 52.9 percent of their rebounding and 52.7 percent of their minutes. But coach Billy Donovan isn’t facing a barren roster. Point guard Kasey Hill, a McDonald’s All-American nicked up last season, will take Wilbekin’s mantle as a sophomore. Forward Chris Walker missed half the season as the NCAA looked into academic eligibility. He only averaged 1.9 points and 1.3 rebounds, but he was still considered a potential first round talent as a freshman, and Dorian Finney-Smith (8.7 points and 6.7 rebounds) remains in the fold. Guard Michael Frazier, a 44.7 percent three-point shooter, is a senior, too. That’s a decent core to build around with the nation’s No. 11 recruiting class arriving.

3. Arkansas: Coach Mike Anderson’s track record tends to peg his fourth year as a breakthrough. The Razorbacks have the pieces, on first glance, to contend. Freshman All-SEC forward Bobby Portis, who averaged 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds, stuck around. Alandise Harris (9.3 ppg, 3.3 rebounds) is a senior presence. Rashad Madden, who averaged 12.7 points and shot 40.0 percent behind the arc, can stretch defenses. Michael Qualls, who is adept at getting to the rim, rounds out a solid nucleus. By now, Anderson has his players in place and adequate depth to handle his preferred up-tempo pace, and the Hogs appeared to have shed their reputation for floundering on the road. An upset to South Carolina in the SEC tournament cost them a NCAA tournament bid, but expectations should be higher next season on The Hill.

4. Georgia: Nobody expected the Bulldogs’ third-place finish last season, but coach Mark Fox’s team won’t creep up on the conference this season. Bringing back their top five scorers helps. That includes the guard duo of juniors Charles Mann (13.9 ppg, 2.9 apg) slashing to lane and Kenny Gaines (13.0 ppg, 37.5 percent from 3-point range) launching from long range. Junior Brandon Morris and senior Marcus Thornton can pair up inside, while Nemanja Djurisic is a good floor spacer and able to knock down perimeter shots. Reserves Juwan Parker, J.J. Frazier and Cameron Forte give Fox a nice rotation to work with. More importantly, no team was better defensively, based on KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency figures, outside of Florida and Tennessee than UGA. The takeaway: There’s experience, reliable scoring and ability to defend that can still improve. Maybe Georgia did, indeed, play over their heads. For now, though, I’ll keep them in the mix.

5. LSU: On paper, the Tigers might have more talent than Arkansas or Georgia. But they did last season, too, and still finished seventh. So it’s hard to put them ahead of two teams who extracted more from their rosters and bring back most of their pieces. Still. The loss of back-to-back All-SEC forward Johnny O’Bryant III to the NBA was expected. Keeping the SEC All-Freshmen tandem of Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin, though, is a coup for coach Johnny Jones. Add in 7-footer Elbert Robinson, the No. 56 prospect in this year’s class, and LSU’s front court could be formidable.  Point guard Anthony Hickey’s steal numbers dipped after he was asked to take less risks, but he averaged 4.0 assists per game with a 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio after SEC play arrived. But Jones hopes UNC-Asheville transfer Keith Hornsby and four-star JUCO prospect Josh Gray, who averaged a whopping 33.8 points per game at Odessa college, can add size and scoring punch on the wing. The Tigers have to shed one scholarship player, but the bench should allow Jones to go eight or nine deep. After a NIT berth this season, expectations are for a NCAA tournament trip.

6. Alabama:  They lose leading scorer Trevor Releford. Fair point. But the Tide bring back every there other five top scorers, led by rising senior Levi Randolph. There’s also guard Retin Obasohan, who showed streaky scoring ability, while 1.8 steals per game and 4.0 steal percentage hint at potential defensive prowess. If not Obasohan, then Rodney Cooper, whose only slightly more efficient offensively, will have to step forward. Inside, rising sophomore Shannon Hale is back, and he can be a sneaky pick-and-pop threat on the perimeter in shooting 35.2 percent behind the arc. Forward Nick Jacobs, the Tide’s best rebounder is also in the fold. Alabama also gets the services Tulane transfer Ricky Tarrant, who put up 15.7 points per game before leaving the Green Wave. Coach Anthony Grant put a premium on finding shooters in the nation’s No. 27 recruiting class, which features three Rivals top-150 prospects, led by four-star point guard Justin Coleman. Here’s betting Grant’s team — consistently among the top three in the SEC for defensive efficiency — does a course correction on that end of the floor after finishing seventh in points allowed and 10th in field-goal percentage defense.

7. Ole Miss: Again, a SEC program losing its leading scorer. But guard Marshall Henderson was a volume shooter, needing 14.8 shots per game to score 19.0 points. And 77.4 percent of his attempts were 3-pointers, a penchant that could throw off the offense as much as help. Yet the Rebels get back Jarvis Summers, who averaged 17.3 points and 3.8 assists per game. Summers defines efficient: A 59.4 true shooting percentage and 1.45 points per shot. Rising senior LaDarius White has nice size at 6-6, 211 pounds, but has to get more efficient offensively after sporting a 47.0 true shooting percentage, per KenPom.com. Coach Andy Kennedy, though, hit the transfer market to find wing scoring, notably Tennessee-Martin guard Terrence Smith, who averaged 14.6 points and was third in the OhioValley with a 43.4 three-point field goal percentage. Kennedy also went back to South Plains (Texas) Junior College for guard Roderick Lawrence, whom Kennedy deemed a slashing threat on the perimeter. Ole Miss needs more from its big men, but the Rebels have fewer roster questions to address than their peers.

8. South Carolina: Last season, the Gamecocks’ youth was too much. Five of their top seven players in minutes were underclassmen, while dual-sport star Bruce Ellington — a steadying presence and scoring option — elected to enter the NFL draft. Still, coach Frank Martin’s team bounced back from a 8-15 start to go 5-5 down the stretch, which included reaching the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament. The group took its lumps, but there’s talent. Namely, SEC All-Freshman guard Sindarius Thornwell, who averaged 13.4 points despite shooting only 38.6 percent. Thornwell is a four-star in-state product, who was joined by fellow four-star center Demetrius Henry. In this class, Martin didn’t have to leave Columbia to find four-star point guard Marcus Stroman. Entering his third season, Martin has managed to upgrade the talent level, and he’s got the coaching acumen to maximize its gifts.  But Henry, center Mindaugas Kacinas and undersized forward Michael Carerra need to be reliable. Fellow guards Duane Notice and Tyrone Johnson, who combined to average around 20 points per game last season,  return, too. Putting them here might be a reach, but every investment portfolio needs a little risk.

9. Vanderbilt:  The story is well-worn by now. Defections and disciplinary moves left coach Kevin Stallings with seven scholarship players, a reality that left the Commodores tottering and stumbling to the finish line last season. Veteran stalwarts in point guard Kyle Fuller and stretch forward Rod Odom have moved on. But help is coming. Maybe. That is if guard Kedren Johnson, who was suspended last season following “very poor judgment” returns. Freshman center Damian Jones, who averaged 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds, should get more pub and is nice asset. Rising seniors Dai-Jon Parker (8.3 ppg, 2.1 apg) and James Siakam (7.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg) also saw heavy minutes. Matters are murky from there. Reserves Luke Kornet and Shelby moats are sure to see more minutes, but Vandy’s recruiting class features four-star guard Wade Baldwin. The wild card: Cornell transfer Nolan Cressler, who is eligible immediately after ranking fourth in the Ivy League with 16.8 points per game. I hate to doubt Stallings, and I won’t be surprised if they finish higher.

10. Texas A&M: There were two utter certainties with the Aggies last season: They could defend, but scoring was akin to putting a fifth-grader in a calculus glass. Heck, coach Billy Kennedy admitted the SEC’s worst offensive team needed shooting practice. Everybody of consequence is back, led by guard Jamal Jones (13.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and forward Kourtney Roberson (9.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg), and regulars such as guard Alex Caruso. Antwan Space transferred, but he was only a nominal member of the rotation. But the biggest addition is SMU transfer Jalen Jones, who is a bigger guard at 6-7, 220-pounds. He averaged 14.0 points and 7.7 rebounds for the Mustangs, and paired with Jones, who stands 6-7, Texas A&M will have some size and length on the wings. Plus, Kennedy and his bench coach parted ways this offseason, and maybe a change of approach — although, A&M will still grind out games — offensively can spur improvement.

11. Tennessee: The good vibes have dulled since a Sweet 16 run in March. Coach Cuonzo Martin bailed for the West Coast and Cal, skipping out a fanbase that never warmed to him and even petitioned for his ouster this season.  Jarnell Stokes jumped to the NBA, while staples in Jordan McCrae, Jeronne Maymon and Antonio Barton ran out of eligibility. So, here you go Donnie Tyndall, who came from Southern Miss this week with a rep for rebuilding. Yet all four members of the Volunteers signing class were granted releases from the letters of intent to weigh options moving ahead. If those defections stand up, Tyndall has a three-week window to plug the gap. On the bright side, the back court might feature a nice trio. Five-star recruit Robert Hubbs, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury, is back. Junior Josh Richardson averaged 10.3 points per game last season and could fill the void to a degree left by McCray. Rising sophomore Darius Thompson will have to prove a capable third leg of the tripod. Front-court depth, however, is a looming concern. We’ll get a good gauge early of just how quickly Tyndall can work any magic.

12. Auburn: Hiring Bruce Pearl has certainly generated buzz, and there’s no doubt Athletic Director Jay Jacobs made a step up over Tony Barbee. The roster, though, won’t let Pearl imitate the one-year turnaround orchestrated by football counterpart Gus Malzahn. The Tigers get back guard KT Harrell, who ranked sixth in the SEC at 18.3 points per game and sank 36.1 percent of his 3-pointers. Leading scorer Chris Denson is gone, and their only reliable players inside with Asauhn Dixon-Tatum and Allen Payne. Granted, Cinmeon Bowers, who is 6-7, 261, will show up as the nation’s No. 1 JUCO power forward. Meanwhile, Pearl is waiting word whether Marshall transfer Kareem Canty (16.3 ppg) will commit and be eligible immediately under the graduate-transfer exemption.

13. Missouri: There’s a reason Frank Haith skipped town for the security of a seven-year deal at Tulsa. The Tigers are in triage. Guards Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson defected to the NBA draft, while Earnest Ross exhausted eligibility. In total, 70.5 percent of Missouri’s scoring won’t be back. Even with that collection of talent, MU still finished ninth in the conference.  And the replacements? Well, highly-touted freshman Jonathan Williams III did average 5.8 points. In reality, Mizzou’s front court never provided help last season. Williams wasn’t ready for heavy minutes. Ryan Rosburg nobly tried as a glorified reserve. Meanwhile, Louisiville transfer Zach Price, who was supposed to help fix the problem, got booted after getting arrested twice by Columbia police in the same day this month. Freshman point guard Wes Clark foundered, too. Now Mike Alden is on his fourth coaching search in 15 years, while a pair of four-star recruits in shooting guard Namon Wright and power forward Jakeenan Gant wait to see who he hires. All total, the situation doesn’t look promising for the man Alden picks.

14. MississippiState: Rick Ray is trying. The Bulldogs coach has guard Craig Sword and a serviceable forward in Gavin Ware. Guard Trivante Bloodman and reserve big man Roquez Johnson try to fill in, but the collection of talent in Starkville hasn’t improved dramatically. A quartet of three-star players will arrive to join the ranks, but it’s hard to see Year 3 of the Ray era unfolding much differently than the first, considering State may just now be addressing depth issues that have left the coach little trouble but to play everybody.