College basketball recruiting: Breaking down the SEC's early signing period classes

Jon Hale

The 2021 college basketball recruiting cycle looks like no other due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But even a ban on in-person contact between coaches and recruits and the cancellation of the normal summer-shoe circuits have not stopped coaches from adding talent for the future. That's the case in the Southeastern Conference, where several of the league’s programs have continued their recent recruiting success to push Kentucky for its traditional spot at the top of the conference.

Four of the top 25 prospects in the class are currently committed to SEC schools, and league teams remain in the running for a handful of other five-star prospects who could sign in the spring.

Here’s USA TODAY Sports’ breakdown of the early signing period efforts in the SEC:

A new approach for Kentucky?

Mar 3, 2020; Lexington, Kentucky, USA; Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari reacts during the game against the Tennessee Volunteers 
in the second half at Rupp Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the early signing period, Kentucky’s recruiting class occupied its normal spot atop the SEC rankings, but there were signals of a slight shift in strategy. Only one of the Wildcats’ three commitments is rated as a five-star prospect. Point guard Nolan Hickman is ranked outside the top 40. Kentucky has also offered three-star Wisconsin guard Brandin Podziemski. Perhaps those developments signal John Calipari is pursuing more multi-year players, or maybe those recruits would have been ranked higher if they had enjoyed a normal summer AAU season to perform. It is risky to assume any Kentucky player will stick around for multiple seasons, considering Tyler Herro and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander were four-star prospects who quickly blossomed into one-and-done stars.

Score one for Rick Barnes

Calipari likes to remind fans that Kentucky does not get every recruit it wants. They will need only to look to Knoxville, Tennessee, for proof of that next season as the Volunteers landed five-star point guard Kennedy Chandler, who was one of just a handful of 2021 recruits to land a Kentucky scholarship offer before the pandemic. Both Kentucky and Tennessee fell short in their pursuit of top-five recruit Paolo Banchero, who committed to Duke, but Chandler gives Rick Barnes a head-to-head recruiting win to go with his 7-5 record against Kentucky at Tennessee.

Alabama schools restocking

Entering the early signing period, rivals Alabama and Auburn hold commitments from the SEC’s highest-ranked pledges. Auburn pledge Jabari Smith is the SEC’s only commitment ranked in the top five nationally by the 247Sports Composite. The league’s other top-10-ranked pledge is Alabama point guard commitment JD Davison. Alabama signed four-star forward Langston Wilson, the No. 2-ranked junior-college transfer, on Wednesday. Auburn could add four-star guard Trey Alexander in the coming days.

More names to watch

With recruits currently prohibited from taking official visits to schools and coaches banned from recruiting travel due to the coronavirus pandemic, the decision-making process for many top prospects has been stalled. SEC schools remain in the running for several uncommitted five-star prospects. Kentucky is a leading contender for five-star guards and top-10 prospects Jaden Hardy and Hunter Sallis. Alabama holds all eight of the analyst predictions in the 247Sports Crystal Ball for the commitment of five-star center Charles Bediako. High school seasons will provide an opportunity for a host of other players like Texas A&M pledge Manny Obaseki, the highest-rated four-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite, to move into five-star range as well.

SEC’s top early signing period classes

There is plenty of work to be done before the spring signing period, but several SEC schools have already made an impact at the top of the national rankings. Kentucky will need to finish strong to maintain its traditional spot at the top of the league.

1. Kentucky: Most programs would be set with three top-50 pledges, but with Kentucky likely to lose at least four key players from the current team, more additions are needed. Keep an eye on five-star class of 2022 commitment Skyy Clark, who has been rumored to be considering a move to 2021.

2. Alabama: Davison, the top-ranked point guard in the class, is an excellent piece to build a class around, but Alabama’s class is more than one player. Wilson should make an immediate impact, and Bediako could put the Crimson Tide in contention for the top spot if he commits.

3. Auburn: A one-man class would not normally rank this high, but Smith is the top-ranked commitment of any SEC program. Alexander delayed his announcement from Tuesday but is still expected to sign with a school at some point in the next week.

4. Tennessee: Top-100 prospect Jahmai Mashack is an intriguing piece, but Chandler is talented enough to carry the class alone. The NBA draft decisions of current Volunteers Keon Johnson, Jaden Springer and Josiah-Jordan James will say much about how many players Rick Barnes needs to add in the spring signing period.

5. LSU: For now, LSU lacks a five-star signee like the ones who headlined its last three classes, but with top-50 prospects Alex Fudge and Jerrell Colbert in the fold, the Tigers should still finish the cycle among the league’s top classes. It would be silly to count out Will Wade in the recruitment of the handful of five-star prospects who still list LSU as a contender.

6. Texas A&M: Obaseki, already considered a five-star prospect by Rivals, could end up as the Aggies’ first five-star signee in the 247Sports Composite since 2007 with a strong senior year. Point guard Wade Taylor, who signed Wednesday, finds himself just outside of the top 100 entering his senior season.

7. Ole Miss: Four-star point guard Daeshun Ruffin gives Kermit Davis a top-50 signee to build around. His commitment comes at a position of need too, with Ole Miss set to lose point guard Devontae Shuler to graduation unless he takes advantage of the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility for winter sports athletes.

8. Florida: Shooting guard Kowacie Reeves, ranked 56th nationally by the 247Sports Composite, should be an early contributor, but he is Florida’s only commitment entering the early signing period. Without a senior on the current roster, the Gators don’t have room for many signees, but Mike White could lose Keyontae Johnson and Scottie Lewis to the NBA draft.

9. Arkansas: Four-star guard Chance Moore gives the Razorbacks a top-100 prospect to headline the class. Junior-college transfer Akol Mawein should add a veteran post presence, and the Razorbacks look like the biggest challenger to Auburn for Alexander’s pending commitment.

10. South Carolina: The Gamecocks should have a veteran-laden roster in 2021-22 with only one senior on the current squad, but Frank Martin has supplemented his depth with three three-star prospects expected to sign in the next week. Guards Devin Carter and Jacobi Wright, who both signed Wednesday morning, lead the way.

11. Missouri: With five seniors on his current roster, Cuonzo Martin needed depth in his 2021 class. He reached that goal with five pledges in advance of the early signing period, but none rank in the top 150 of the 247Sports Composite. Three-star guard Anton Brookshire (152), who signed Wednesday, is the highest-ranked player in the group.

12. Vanderbilt: Jerry Stackhouse has his work cut out to build Vanderbilt back into a contender, but four-star wing Gabe Dorsey should provide him another useful piece in that quest. He will need to add to the current two-man class with five seniors on the 2020-21 roster.

13. Mississippi State: The upcoming season looks like a rebuilding year. Ben Howland will hope several of his young players step up because with only three-star forward KeShawn Murphy in the 2021 class as of now, there does not appear to be much immediate-impact talent on the way.

14. Georgia: The only SEC program without a commitment entering the early signing period, Georgia remains in the running for several top-100 prospects but might not be the favorite for any. Tom Crean added three graduate transfers for this season and may need to mine the transfer market again in the spring. 

Top expected signings in early signing period

1. Jabari Smith(247Sports Composite: No. 5 nationally): The 6-foot-10 forward from Tyrone, Georgia, can stretch the floor to three-point range. He flirted with going straight to the NBA’s G League before committing to Auburn. College choice: Auburn

Briarcrest's Kennedy Chandler (1) pushes past Knoxville Catholic's Samuel Sompayrac (2) on Saturday, March 7, 2020, during the TSSAA Division II Class AA Boys State Basketball Championship game at Lipscomb University's Allen Arena in Nashville.

2. JD Davison(247Sports Composite: No. 9 nationally): The 2020 Gatorade Boys Basketball Player of the Year in Alabama has drawn comparisons to Russell Westbrook and elected to stay home for college despite a host of offers from blue-blood programs. College choice: Alabama

3. Kennedy Chandler(247Sports Composite: No. 13 nationally): A Memphis native, Chandler was also pursued heavily by Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and Memphis. He is ranked as the No. 2 point guard in the 2021 class, behind only Davison. College choice: Tennessee

4. Daimion Collins(247Sports Composite: No. 19 nationally): An elite shot-blocker, Collins was originally thought to be headed to a Big 12 program, but Kentucky’s hire of former Texas assistant Jai Lucas helped lure him to Lexington. The No. 5-ranked power forward in the class. College choice: Kentucky

5. Manny Obaseki(247Sports Composite: No. 26 nationally): A five-star prospect according to Rivals, Obaseki is the highest-ranked four-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite. The No. 4-ranked combo guard in the class, he can play with the ball in his hands or without it.