The SEC conference is expected to take a major step forward in basketball this season. I think it's fair to say that Alabama benefited from their conference schedule last season (six of their ten conference wins came against LSU, Missouri and Mississippi State, which were the three worst teams in the league, per the standings). That will not be the case this season. Alabama will play league contenders Florida and Texas A&M twice, travel to Rupp to play Kentucky, and their three permanent opponents (Auburn, Mississippi State and LSU) should all be improved. It's going to be a challenge for our guys.
Tuesday, January 2 - at Vanderbilt - Bama's first road game in conference play will be to that house of horrors, Memorial Gym. Those of us who keep up with this stuff know how difficult it's been for Bama to win there (one victory in the last 27 years). Vandy finished last season 19-15. Thanks to one of the most difficult schedules in the country, the Commodores made the NCAA Tournament, but fell in the first round to Northwestern. Returning players include Matthew Fisher-Davis (13.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.0 apg), Jeff Roberson (10.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.7 apg) and Riley LaChance (10.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.9 apg). The big question mark for this team will be in the middle where the absence of Luke Kornet (13.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.2 apg, 2.0 bpg) is sure to be felt.
Saturday, January 6 - at Georgia - Big season for Georgia head coach Mark Fox. There were rumors at the conclusion of last season that moves were being made to let him go, but those rumors fizzled once the media ran the story. Fox has been to two NCAA Tournaments in eight seasons. Even at Georgia that's going to be a problem with the fanbase. Fortunately, Yante Maten (18.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.5 apg, 1.5 bpg) decided to return to Georgia for his senior season. Maten is one of three players selected as Preseason SEC Player of the Year by the media. The biggest question for Georgia is who will step up to help Maten? Likely candidates are Juwan Parker (9.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.8 apg), Derek Ogbeide (7.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.1 bpg) or perhaps top 50 freshman Rayshaun Hammonds, a 4-star forward.
Tuesday, January 9 - South Carolina - What a season for the Gamecocks. Despite losing six of their final nine games entering the tournament, Carolina went on a fantastic run, making it all the way to the Final Four before losing a hard fought game to Gonzaga. Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice wrapped up their college careers, while PJ Dozier elected to enter the NBA draft. The result is the Gamecocks lost three of their top four players from last season. As a result, they could be looking at a rebuilding year. Chris Silva (10.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.4 bpg) is the impact returner. Also keep an eye out for Maik Kotsar (5.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Delaware transfer, Kory Holden (17.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 4.2 apg in his final season at Delaware).
Saturday, January 13 - at LSU - The Johnny Jones era came to a merciful end for LSU hoops fans. The program hired Will Wade from VCU. Wade previously coached two seasons at Chattanooga and two seasons at VCU where he averaged 22 wins in those four seasons. He's done a fabulous job so far in putting together a competitive team for this forthcoming season, and he's already secured commitments from three top 100 players in the class of 2018. While LSU has been picked to finish last in the conference this season, recruiting could change the program's fortunes in a short time. There's also plenty to like about this team. Top returning players include Brandon Sampson (11.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.4 apg) and Duop Reath (12.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.5 bpg). Wade signed the 16th ranked recruiting class for 2017 headlined by a trio of 4-star talents in Tremont Waters, Brandon Rachal and Galen Alexander. Wade also signed Southern Utah graduate transfer Randy Onwuasor, a top five national scorer (23.5 ppg) last season.
Wednesday, January 17 - Auburn - I hope the team has this game circled after being swept by the Tigers last season. While there is some uncertainty for Auburn in the wake of the Chuck Person mess, there's a lot of talent on this Auburn roster. If players remain eligible, and the team can block out the distractions, the Tigers may finally break out in Bruce Pearl's fourth season. But what the future holds beyond this season is still to be determined. Top returning players include Mustapha Heron (15.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.3 apg), Danjel Purifoy (11.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.4 spg), Jared Harper (11.4 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.2 spg) and Austin Wiley (8.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.3 bpg). Auburn also welcomes another good recruiting class (headlined by 4-star recruits Chuma Okeke and Davion Mitchell), a D-1 transfer from Presbyterian that averaged 20 ppg in his final season there (DeSean Murray), and a juco recruit (Malik Dunbar) that had interest from the likes of Memphis, Ole Miss and Texas. The FBI distractions aside, I'll be shocked if this Auburn team doesn't at least make the NIT.
Saturday, January 20 - Mississippi State - Is year three the season the Bulldogs break out under Ben Howland? The talent is there for improvement. Quinndary Weatherspoon (16.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.7 spg) returns along with Lamar Peters (10.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.1 spg) and Aric Holman (8.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.0 bpg). Keep an eye on 4-star freshman, Nick Weatherspoon (Quinndary's brother); I think he could be an impact guy. Also keep an eye on sophomore, Eli Wright. He played sparingly last season, but Howland has been vocal about his improvement. The postseason should be a fair expectation for this team. What could hurt them is Howland put together one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country. They will likely win a lot early, but they'll have to do some serious damage in league play to have a postseason resume that gets them into the NCAA tournament..
Tuesday, January 23 - at Ole Miss - I think the Rebels are one of the more intriguing teams heading into the season. They will have a group of guards that will be as good as any in the league in Deandre Burnett (16.5 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.0 spg), Terence Davis (14.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.4 spg), and Breein Tyree (7.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.9 apg). In addition, Memphis graduate transfer Markel Crawford (12.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.4 spg), and 4-star freshman Devontae Shuler could also make an impact. Ilya Tyrtyshnik, a freshman who comes to Oxford from a prep school in the Czech Republic, is an unknown. The big question is can Ole Miss find someone to replace the production of Sebastian Saiz? Drake transfer Dominik Olejniczak and juco recruit Bruce Stevens will likely get first crack at it.
Saturday, January 27 - Oklahoma - A non-conference game in January? I can dig it. The Sooners travel to Alabama for a game that could loom large in March. This is part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge so it's also big for national perception. Oklahoma struggled through a rebuilding season in 2016-17, just one season after making it to the Final Four. The Sooners finished 11-20 last season, but my guess is a Lon Kruger coached team won't have back-to-back bad seasons. Oklahoma returns roughly 60% of their scoring from last season, but did lose their best player, Jordan Woodard. The hope for Sooner fans is that 5-star recruit Trae Young will be able to step in immediately to help fill Woodard's shoes. The top returning players for Oklahoma include Kameron McGusty (10.9 ppg, 2.2 rpg), Rashard Odomes (10.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.0 spg) and team leader Khadeem Lattin (8.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.2 spg, 2.1 bpg).
Wednesday, January 31 - Missouri - Alabama completes a busy January with a visit from the team that many expect to be the most improved in the league. After a dreadful three seasons (9 total conference/conference tournament wins) under Kim Anderson, Missouri was forced to make a move, hiring former Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin from Cal. Cuonzo has made an immediate splash with a top five recruiting class committed for this season, which includes the number 2 ranked recruit in 2017, Michael Porter, Jr., his brother Jontay Porter, also a 5-star rated player that reclassified from the 2018 class to play with his brother for, presumably, one year. Also in that class is 4-star Jeremiah Tilmon. Add in quality returning players Jordan Barnett (12.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Kevin Puryear (11.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Terence Phillips (10.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.4 apg, 1.4 spg) and it's easy to see why Missouri fans are excited for this season to begin.