The new year means conference play. Alabama will have one final non-conference game before entering league play at Ole Miss, where they will be the first opponent in the new Ole Miss basketball arena, The Pavilion at Ole Miss. Three of their first five league games are on the road, with one of the home games being Kentucky. Welcome to conference play, Avery Johnson.
January 2nd, 2016 - Norfolk State - In the last four seasons the Norfolk State program has won 86 games, and has advanced to the postseason in each of those seasons. Only 3 of the top 8 scorers return from the 14-15 squad so Norfolk will be challenged to maintain the consistency they've enjoyed. One major reason why they may still factor into the MEAC race is the return of their leading scorer from last season, Jeff Short, an All-MEAC player that averaged 19.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, and 1.9 apg. The other notable returner is D'Shon Taylor, with averages of 13.0 ppg and 5.0 rpg.
January 7th, 2016 - at Ole Miss - As mentioned above, Alabama will be the first opponent for Ole Miss in their new basketball arena, The Pavilion. Regardless how the season is going for Ole Miss, this promises to be a sellout crowd on hand to cheer against Alabama. Not the ideal way to open conference play, but that's the hand Alabama has been dealt. Ole Miss only returns 3 of their top 8 scorers from last season, but one of those three is one of the best, most exciting players in the league, Stefan Moody. If Ole Miss is going to return to the NCAA Tournament this season, Moody is going to have to do a lot of the heavy lifting. He was capable last season, but he won't have guys like Jarvis Summers and Ladarius White to draw the attention of opposing defenses; someone else will have to step up for this team. Andy Kennedy will have to hope an incoming class of transfers, juco and high school recruits can make it happen.
January 9th, 2016 - Kentucky - The Wildcats are expected to keep rolling despite losing 7 of their top 8 scorers to the NBA Draft. John Calipari has once again signed a top rated recruiting class to take the place of the departed. 5 star recruits Jamal Murray, Isaiah Briscoe and Skal Labissiere join 4 star recruits Charles Matthews and Isaac Humphries in the freshman class. Oh, and Calipari also signed a 4 star juco recruit - Mychal Mulder - and returns top flight talent in Tyler Ulis, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee. All those guys should assume larger roles. And the guys at the end of the bench (Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis) would be go-to guys for many programs in the country. Add it all up and it results in another UK team expected to contend for the SEC and national title. Alabama will play Kentucky twice during conference play.
January 13th, 2016 - South Carolina - There is anticipation among Gamecock fans for the 15-16 basketball season. Frank Martin enters his fourth season. The team returns 6 of their top 8 scorers from last season, and welcomes the best recruiting class of Martin's tenure, headlined by 4 star PJ Dozier. The team is a media favorite to make a jump in the league standings this season. Despite the young talent, it's the veterans that will have to carry this team. Duane Notice (11.8 ppg, 2.7 apg), Sindarius Thornwell (11.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.3 spg), Laimonas Chatkevicius (8.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.3 bpg), Michael Carrera (7.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg), and Mindaugas Kacinas (6.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg) will all need to elevate their games as veterans if Carolina is going to take that next step. Alabama will play South Carolina twice during conference play.
January 16th, 2016 - at Vanderbilt - Few venues have been as frustrating for Alabama basketball teams and their fans as much as Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville. That doesn't figure to change this season as Vanderbilt is considered one of the favorites within the conference to have a chance to challenge the Kentucky supremacy. 6 of the top 8 scorers return. Damian Jones is going to get most of the attention. 7'0, 245 lbs, Jones is considered one of the best big men in the country, and a 1st round draft pick if he has the type of season most expect. It wouldn't be Vanderbilt without shooters, and the Dores have plenty. Riley LaChance, Wade Baldwin, Luke Kornet, Matthew Fisher-Davis and Jeff Roberson all shot 38% or better last season, with all but LaChance shooting 40% or better. Head Coach Kevin Stallings also continues to recruit well. Anything less than a top four finish in the SEC standings and a return to the NCAA Tournament would be a crushing disappointment for this Vandy team.
January 19th, 2016 - at Auburn - Bruce Pearl enters his second season at Auburn, hoping to build off the momentum of a late-season run to the SEC Tournament Semifinal, after only posting 12 wins in the regular season. When Pearl was hired, few questioned that he would be able to improve the talent level at Auburn. His 2015 class was rated in the top 20, and he already has commitments for the 16 and 17 classes that includes 5 star rated players. Assuming Pearl sticks around, he's going to build Auburn into a contender in this conference. And the fact that Avery Johnson is also winning in recruiting means that the hardwood version of the Iron Bowl is going to be very interesting moving forward. In the short-term, how improved will Auburn be this season? They lose their top two scorers in K.T. Harrell and Antoine Mason, but do return Cinmeon Bowers (12.1 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.1 spg), Tahj Shamsid-Deen (who will miss some time due to a shoulder injury) and Jordon Granger, while adding transfers Kareem Canty (16.3 ppg, 5.5 apg as a freshman at Marshall) and Tyler Harris (9.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg as a junior at Providence) along with the aforementioned top 20 recruiting class. The talent level is higher at Auburn, and a postseason bid of some kind is very possible. As one of Alabama's "permanent" rivals, the two teams will meet twice during conference play.
January 23rd, 2016 - LSU - Few teams in this conference, outside of Kentucky, could lose 44% of their scoring and not expect a drastic decline the following season; however, LSU may be able to do exactly that. In fact, one could make the argument this team might be better, top to bottom, than it was a year ago, despite losing Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin to the NBA Draft. A big reason for that is Johnny Jones, despite mixed results on the court, has been recruiting as well as anyone in this league not named Calipari. As a result, LSU is reloading, not rebuilding. The 2015 class for LSU was ranked #3, just behind heavyweights Kentucky and Duke. The biggest score was the #1 rated recruit, Ben Simmons, the preseason SEC Player of the Year before he's played a single game, and an expected top 3 pick in the NBA Draft in June. The remaining members of the class aren't too shabby, Antonio Blakeney (5 stars) and Brandon Sampson (4 stars). And 6 of the top 8 scorers from last season return, including Keith Hornsby (13.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.1 spg) and Tim Quarterman (11.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.0 apg, 1.4 spg). So why isn't LSU receiving more love in the preseason? It has a lot to do with the fact that the program has underachieved, relative to its talent, in the last two years. The program has won 42 games and advanced to the NIT and NCAA Tournaments in the last two seasons, but it's also had three players drafted into the NBA in the last two years. The popular opinion is that Jones could have done more with those teams. With that in mind, despite the recruiting successes, there is some pressure that is starting to grow as the LSU fanbase expects more than NIT second rounds and NCAA Tournament 1st round exits. Anything less than an appearance in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and the criticisms of Jones may become louder. Maybe that's unfair, but that's the downside to recruiting 5 star players and raising expectations; fans expect more. LSU is another "permanent" rival, therefore Alabama will play them twice.
January 26th, 2016 - Tennessee - Since Bruce Pearl had a BBQ, and decided to lie about it to the NCAA, Tennessee basketball has been a roller coaster. The program under Cuonzo Martin had its moments (a Sweet 16 appearance in his final season), but there were head-scratching moments as well, which created an uneasy relationship between Martin and the UT fanbase, ultimately resulting in Martin fleeing to California. Enter Donnie Tyndall, who lasted a full season before shady dealings at his former job, Southern Miss, came back to haunt him, forcing Tennessee to show him the door. With all of this upheaval it would have been entirely plausible for Tennessee to fall even further down the rabbit hole. Instead, they made a great hire in former Texas coach Rick Barnes. In 17 seasons at Texas, Barnes took the program to 16 NCAA Tournaments, including a Final Four in 2003. He also had success at Clemson (3 NCAA tournaments in 4 seasons) and Providence (3 NCAA Tournaments in 6 seasons). There is rebuilding to do in Knoxville, but if Barnes is engaged and still passionate about coaching (he appeared to be burned out in his final few seasons in Austin), he should be able to resurrect the Tennessee program. His hire is one of many reasons that the next few seasons look so promising for SEC basketball on a national level. His first team in Knoxville returns 7 of their top 8 scorers from last season, but the one player they lost (Josh Richardson) accounted for 25% of the team's scoring a year ago. Who steps up in his absence? The leading returning scorers are Armani Moore (10.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.2 bpg), Kevin Punter (10.3 ppg, 1.6 spg) and Robert Hubbs III (7.2 ppg). Hubbs is a former 5 star recruit that has struggled to put together a complete season. Could this be the season he finally figures it out?