While a veteran-laden Alabama ran away with the title, a crop of talented underclassmen stepped forward to headline contenders across the conference.
On Tuesday, the SEC announced its litany of postseason awards, highlighted by Dru Smith earning first-team All-SEC recognition and Jeremiah Tilmon landing on the second team. Rock M Nation’s staff — and by that, I mean myself and Sam Snelling (who really was only a consultant) — also dole out (unofficial) honors.
The procedure, however, differs. First, we limit our selections to five for the first- and second-teams. Second, we use those slots to build something resembling a lineup that could step foot on the floor.
Additionally, picks can seem a little less diplomatic. For example, even if AJ Lawson is South Carolina’s best player, his efficiency and impact on the Gamecocks’ team performance aren’t all that great. As Sam would note: Someone has to be a scorer on bad teams. The question is where they fit into the broader conference picture.
Now, let’s take a look at the honorees.
All-SEC First Team
Three choices were clear-cut: Alabama’s Herb Jones, Arkansas’ Moses Moody, and LSU’s Cam Thomas. They also slid easily into their respective slots.
Thomas is wired to score in almost every way imaginable but is incredibly crafty with the ball in his hands, whether it’s carving out space for pull-ups or drawing contact off the dribble. Moody’s fluid jumper optimizes him as a floor-spacer, while his length — the freshman has a 7-foot wingspan — can be problematic on the defensive end. Jones’ offensive skill set isn’t complex, but his chops as a switch defender earned him a place.
Each trio member posted glittering net ratings, but their impact on their team’s respective net ratings was also among the best in the conference. (While Thomas’ defensive prowess isn’t always steady, his consistency as a scorer more than offsets it.)
The intrigue comes at lead guard and on the block, and the debate involves tandems from Missouri and Florida. In the end, though, the Gators’ duo of Tre Mann and Colin Castleton just eked out the nod.
If we handed out an award to the SEC’s most-improved player, Mann would be the obvious pick. The sophomore saw nearly three-fold jumps in his scoring (15.7 ppg), rebounding (5.7 rpg), and distributing (3.4 apg) — desperately needed production after Florida lost Keyontae Johnson for the season. And while he’s not quite as adept at turning over opposing ball-handlers, Mann’s defensive work (0.628 points per possession allowed) grades out well compared to Smith (0.757 PPP allowed) this season.
So, a little more scoring punch, a bit more rebounding, and steady defense meant Florida’s net rating was slightly higher with him on the floor (plus-7.5) than Dru Smith’s (plus-4.9) for Missouri.
As for Castleton and Tilmon, flip a coin. Florida sported a plus-3.5 net rating with the junior on the floor compared to the plus-2.8 figure for Tilmon and Missouri. Both were similarly rated defensively, but Castleon’s offensive efficiency (1.10 PPP) pushed him past MU’s big man. Now, you could argue Tilmon’s ability on the glass draws them level, but Castleton’s overall net rating is a sufficient rebuttal. It’s that close.
All-SEC Second Team
Given the narrow margins by which Tilmon and Dru Smith missed first-team accolades, the Tigers’ duo headlines this group.
It’s also of little surprise to see Alabama wing John Petty here, too. The senior’s shooting behind the arc dipped this season but still settled at 38.6 percent, and he was especially dangerous when opponents failed to find him on the break, averaging 1.30 point per possession when running the floor in transition. And quietly, Petty’s a capable enough defender (0.773 PPP allowed), even if he occasionally has lapses chasing his man around screens.
Our biggest break with consensus, though, comes at combo guard. And frankly, it’s a little stunning that Mississippi State’s Iverson Molinar missed the cut. The sophomore tripling his scoring output to 16.4 points per game is persuasive, but his offensive efficiency (0.956 PPP) trumped teammate D.J. Stewart. Meanwhile, a cursory look at the offensive ratings of Vanderbilt’s Scotty Pippen, Jr. (109.2), Ole Miss’ Devontae Shuler (104.2), and Georgia’s Sahvir Wheeler (93.0) support the idea that Molinar merited the spot.
Not only that, but Molinar was second-stingiest (0.612 PPP allowed) among the conference’s high-usage defenders, per Synergy tracking data. Whether it was closing down shooters or navigating ball-screens, Molinar held his own. While Stewart also made a leap this season, Molinar’s emergence on both ends helped coach Ben Howland avoid a turbulent reset campaign in Starkville.
Our bias for two-way players continues at combo forward, where we tabbed Arkansas Justin Smith over LSU’s Trendon Watford or Tennessee’s Yves Pons. Listen, Watford fits the bill for a modern four. Not only can he spot-up comfortably, but his handle is tight enough to exploit mismatches on guards on the wing or drive on slower-footed bigs from the elbow. However, his attention drifts at times defensively, and if you subtracted him off the roster, LSU Coach Will Wade would still have Thomas, Ja’vonte Smart and Darius Days at his disposal.
As for Pons, the Tennessee senior deserves credit for fleshing out his game, polishing up his jumper to play in pick-and-pops, and honing a crafty fall-away jumper from the mid-post. But Pons earns his keep defensively and is deep in the running for the conference’s player of the year at that end of the floor.
So, we come to Smith, who arrived in Fayetteville as a graduate transfer from Indiana. In Eric Musselman’s up-tempo system, he’s dangerous sprinting the wide channels and getting to the rim, where he converted 70 percent of his attempts. And when the Hogs did operate against a set five, Smith didn’t need to be the focal point of action to average almost 13 points per game, thriving as roller, cutter, and offensive rebounder. While he didn’t eat souls like Pons defensively, Smith, who is 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, was athletic enough to guard every position on the floor, and he was vital in pick-and-roll coverage — protecting Connor Vanover from playing in space.
Most telling, though, is that Arkansas’ net rating is plus-21.5 points better per 100 possessions with Smith on the floor — well-ahead of Watford (plus-5.2) and Pons (plus-15.2) at their respective homes — and explains why the Hogs scuffled to a 1-3 mark when he missed time with an ankle sprain.
Ole Miss’ strong close to the regular season pushed Davonte Shuler and Romello White into this group. While we opted for Molinar at combo guard on the second-team, the debut campaign by Jaden Springer made for stiff competition. Sahvir Wheeler’s passing prowess is outstanding, but you can’t overlook the sophomore’s struggles at the defensive end. And while Scotty Pippen Jr. and AJ Lawson are stars for their respective programs, neither could drag their teams toward respectability.
Not many surprises here, either. The only slight tweak is moving out Mississippi State post Abdul Ado to create room for Mann at combo guard. With Smith and Mann out front, this group possesses the size and strength to confront almost any opposing guard, and each is crafty enough to poke the ball away and spur the break.
The strength of this quintet, however, is at the second level of the defense. Pons and Jones are built to handle switches out of ball-screens, while their length enables them to force tough finishes at the rim or contest shots in recovery mode. Oh, and Isaiah Jackson lurks around the restricted to rotate over and turn away drivers. Now, Jackson’s build is slender, but that’s where Pons’ strength is useful. He can hold ground against more traditional bigs.
Conventional wisdom prevails again. This is also Sharife Cooper’s only appearance, and it’s fitting. Auburn’s rotation made sense with him on the floor, and his usage (34.3 percent of possessions) underscores how much the Tigers’ relied upon him to drive its attack. That said, Cooper’s approach tilted toward volume scoring. (He finished with a 42.7 effective-field-goal percentage.) But a 51.5 assist rate speaks to how well he could create for others. This lineup will never see the floor together, but it’s fun to imagine how Cooper and Thomas might co-exist alongside each other.
Player of the Year
In early February, two candidates vied for SEC Player of the Year: Herb Jones and Cam Thomas, and, to some degree, the debate seemingly locked in on that pair. There was also a clear contrast — Thomas as a bucket-getter against Jones’ defensive flexibility and offensive renaissance.
Around the same time, though, Moody signaled the start of an insurgent campaign with a 26-point outing against Vanderbilt and a hyper-efficient 17-point performance in a loss to Oklahoma State. Over Arkansas’ final eight games, the North Little Rock native had six games where his offensive rating eclipsed 100, including three — Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina and Texas A&M — where it cleared the 140-mark. And in his final four games, he averaged 24.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists.
Moody’s momentum also helped power Arkansas, which started 2-4 in SEC play, on an 11-game winning streak and a second-place finish.
Sure, Thomas was equally prolific, and his offensive efficiency (1.044 PPP) was on par with Moody (1.047 PPP) at the season’s end. What separates them is the defense. Moody ceded just 0.728 PPP, well ahead of Thomas’s 0.845 PPP. Both of those figures aren’t in the same ballpark as Jones (0.602 PPP), but the Crimson Tide senior regressed over the latter half of SEC play. Outside of tallying 21 points against Georgia, Jones didn’t crack the 10-point barrier after February arrived.
In other words, Moody combines the best of what Thomas and Jones have to offer and consider what would happen if you subtracted each off their roster. When Moody is on the floor, Arkansas posts a plus-18.5 net rating, which is slightly ahead of Jones (16.3) and almost doubles Thomas (10.8). LSU could still turn to Javonte Smart, Trendon Watford, and Darius Days, and the Tide’s backcourt still has capable hands in John Petty and Jaden Shackelford.
Freshman of the Year
Suiting up at storied Oak Hill Academy, Thomas carved out a reputation as the prep level’s best pure scorer. The question was whether it would translate quickly upon his arrival in Baton Rouge. The 6-4, 210-pound guard’s rebuttal was cracking the 20-point barrier in each of his first three collegiate outings. He’s pulled that feat off 14 times in SEC play, and he finished the season on a 10-game run where he scored 21 points or more.
Now, we could nitpick Thomas jump shooting (30.5 3FG%), but he offsets that with a refined sense of how to initiate contact and earn trips to the foul line, where he shoots 87.6 percent. As we mentioned earlier, he’s like any freshmen and inconsistent at times defensively, but he scores at such as efficient clip (104.4 PPP) that you’re willing to make the trade-off and ask questions later.
Defensive Player of the Year
For three years, Jones epitomized the cliche of being so underrated he was overrated. The only way to earn floor time alongside high-usage talents such as Colin Sexton, Kira Lewis, John Petty, and Jaden Shackelford was to supply a commodity those stars lacked at times:
- Off-ball defense
- Timely rotations
- Sitting in gaps to tip passes
- Getting on the glass
Often, you’d find yourself wincing at the way Jones threw his lean torso all over the floor.
Within Nate Oats’ version of the Pack Line, Jones has found his ideal niche. The Tide shrinks gaps and funnels drivers toward help. However, they only use one semi-traditional big in Alex Reese, and Jordan Bruner is an undersized forward. The Tide can get away with that by utilizing Jones length.
He not only runs shooters off the 3-point line, but he’s giving up just 0.454 points per possession when they attack closeouts. He switches deftly in pick-and-rolls, can wall-up if posted on the block, and is agile enough to trace shooters around screens. All the while, he’s still disruptive enough (3.34 steal percentage) to help kickstart the Tide’s transition offense.
Closing down shooters, stifling play-making point guards, supplying extra rim protection, and yanking down rebounds — all of it falls in his portfolio. And it’s that diversity that deserves plaudits.
Coach of the Year
Nate Oats | Alabama
Listen, we know the Crimson Tide’s offense is the topic du jour. A college program mimicking the Houston Rockets is bound to stir conversation, and make no mistake, Alabama has shown it’s capable of firebombing quality opponents. When the Tide pushes the ball and shooters are sprinting to spots, opponents experience a waking nightmare.
But here’s the irony: Oats’ supposed death machine is less efficient than his first season at the helm.
Instead, it’s a massive improvement on the defensive end that secured a regular-season crown and a likely No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Currently, Alabama ranks third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency — a 111-spot improvement. A better job contesting shots inside the arc, using their length to force takeaways and a marginal improvement at keeping opponents off the glass helped seed that transformation.
It might also be the best insurance a team like Alabama can possess. Its offensive philosophy opens the Tide up to the whims of variance. A poor shooting night can create myriad problems, such as long rebounds that allow opponents to push quickly on a secondary break. Having a top-five defense is the best hedge for nights when shots don’t drop — and it’s a credit to Oats the Tide quickly acquired it.