January brings a new year and conference play. Once again, Kentucky is projected to be king. Who follows them is anyone's guess; the league is expected to be wide open. There will be opportunities for each program to move up or down the standings.
Tuesday, January 3rd - at Mississippi State - Ben Howland has done a great job so far recruiting talent to Starkville. His 2016 class is ranked in the top 10 according to 247 Sports. Tyson Carter, Lamar Peters, Eli Wright, Mario Kegler, Schnider Herard and Abdul Ado (it's unknown if he will play as the NCAA is reviewing his eligibility status) are all 4 star recruits. Notable returning players are Quinndary Weatherspoon (12.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.3 spg), who is expected to be one of the best players in the league as a sophomore, I.J. Ready (the lone senior on this team), Aric Holman (former 4 star recruit, expected to play bigger role as a sophomore) and Xavian Stapleton (Louisiana Tech transfer who is expected back by the end of December as he rehabs a knee injury). This will be one of the youngest teams in the conference, but also one of the most talented.
Saturday, January 7th - Vanderbilt - The Commodores are one of the more intriguing rosters in the SEC this season. New head coach Bryce Drew inherits proven college basketball players in Matthew Fisher-Davis (9.7 ppg, 44% 3pt), Jeff Roberson (9.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 43% 3pt), Luke Kornet (8.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 3 bpg) and Riley LaChance (6.9 ppg, 2.5 apg). Also returning are up-and-coming players, Joe Toye and Camron Justice. Keep an eye out for redshirt freshman, Djery Baptiste. A physically imposing big man (6'10, 240 lbs), Baptiste could be a diamond in the rough for this Vandy team. Like many teams in the SEC this season, Vandy could go either way. They've got the talent to get back to the NCAA Tournament, but they could just as easily find themselves in the NIT when all is said and done.
Tuesday, January 10th - Florida - The Gators were picked 2nd in the preseason media poll. They return an experienced core led by KeVaughn Allen (11.6 ppg, 1.1 spg), a preseason second team All-SEC selection. Other notable returning players are John Egbunu (11.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.4 bpg), Kasey Hill (9.1 ppg, 3.3 apg, 1.4 spg), Devin Robinson (9.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Chris Chiozza (7.2 ppg, 4.3 apg, 1.0 spg) and Justin Leon (the best 3-pt shooter last season at 37%). The Gators also added Canyon Barry (son of Rick Barry), a graduate transfer from College of Charleston. Barry averaged 19.7 ppg in his final season in Charleston. Keep an eye out for sophomore Kevarrius Hayes and redshirt freshman Keith Stone. Both could be emerging talents.
Saturday, January 14th - at LSU - Johnny Jones enters this season on the hot seat following a mediocre 15-16 season despite the presence of Ben Simmons, the top-rated high school player and eventual number one draft pick. Fortunately for Jones, he still has talent on this roster. Antonio Blakeney (12.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg) is primed for a big season, along with Craig Victor II (11.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg). The key for LSU will be whether other guys will step up to help Blakeney and Victor. Candidates include Jalyn Patterson (4.7 ppg), Brandon Sampson (4.0 ppg), Elbert Robinson III (7-1, 290 lb JR, former 4 star that has struggled to earn minutes), Aaron Epps (6-10, JR, long, athletic, but hasn't played much). Jones may turn to freshman guard Skylar Mays (a 4 star recruit) to play point guard.
Wednesday, January 18th - Missouri - Speaking of hot seats, Kim Anderson's may be the hottest in the league following an abysmal two year stretch in which the Missouri program has only won six conference games. Expectations are not high entering year three as a rash of players transferring out of the program has kept the roster young, inexperienced and devoid of proven talent. As a result, Missouri has been picked last in the preseason media poll. In order to surprise this season, Anderson will need a core of young players to lead this team. The likeliest candidates are Kevin Puryear (11.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, voted to the SEC All-Freshman Team), Terrence Phillips (7.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.5 apg), K.J. Walton (5.3 ppg) and Jordan Barnett (a transfer from Texas and a former top 100 recruit).
Saturday, January 21st - at Auburn - The first two seasons of his tenure at Auburn did not show Bruce Pearl to be a miracle worker as the program tallied 40 losses, but thanks to strong recruiting, it appears that Auburn may be primed to take a turn in Pearl's third season. The program returns two of the top four scorers from last season in T.J. Dunans (11.6 ppg, 3.3 apg, 1.0 bpg, 1.5 spg in only 16 games played due to injury) and Bryce Brown (10.1 ppg). Other notable returners are TJ Lang (7.1 ppg) and Horace Spencer (5.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg). Pearl added two graduate transfers LaRon Smith (Bethune-Cookman) and Ronnie Johnson (Houston) to address depth and size needs. Auburn also adds a top 25 recruiting class, headlined by 5 star guard Mustapha Heron. 4 star freshman guard Jared Harper will compete to start at point guard.
Wednesday, January 25th - at Georgia - Mark Fox and the Bulldogs have been steady (20 wins for three straight seasons, including an NCAA Tournament bid), and it appears that will continue with the return of J.J. Frazier (16.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.4 spg) and Yante Maten (16.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.7 bpg), two of the best players in the league last season. The question is will those two guys be enough to get the program back to the NCAA Tournament? The popular opinion is that Georgia needs a third (or even fourth) man to step up. Derek Ogbeide (4.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg) had his moments last season, and Juwan Parker (4.9 ppg in 14-15) returns after missing last season with an achilles inury. The burden may fall on a recruiting class that includes two 4 star recruits (Tyree Crump, Jordan Harris).
Saturday, January 28th - Mississippi State - The first month of conference play concludes with the second meeting with Mississippi State. It was a Bulldog victory in Coleman last season that began the slide that removed Alabama from NCAA Tournament consideration. Next season, Alabama will end January in the Big 12/SEC Challenge as they (along with Mississippi State, South Carolina and Missouri) will be rotated into the event.