Saturday, January 5 - 11:00 A.M. or Noon CT - Kentucky (TV: ESPN) - Alabama opens conference play with a big one. The Wildcats had a down season by their standards a year ago. Kentucky finished the 17-18 season with a record of 26-11 (10-8), and a final KenPom ranking of 17. The Wildcats did win yet another SEC Tournament title and advanced to the Sweet 16. But for a fanbase that demands final fours and national titles, the season didn't quite measure up. This season is expected to be more along the lines of what we've come to expect from Kentucky. They will likely be ranked 1st or 2nd in the country when the first polls are released. As usual, the Wildcats lost a number of players to the NBA draft (three of their top six scorers departed). But they also return three key players from last season (PJ Washington, Quade Green and Nick Richards), add the 2nd-ranked class in 2018, and also added arguably the top transfer in the country, Reid Travis (averaged 19.5 ppg and 8.7 rpg last season at Stanford). Kentucky is loaded....again.
Tuesday, January 8 - 8:00 P.M. CT - at LSU (TV: SEC Network) - The Tigers are one of the more intriguing teams on paper in the conference. Will Wade's first season in Baton Rouge was considered a success. LSU finished the 17-18 season with a record of 18-15 (8-10), and a final KenPom ranking of 66 despite being picked to finish 14th in the league in the preseason. The Tigers advanced to the second round of the NIT. Will Wade signed a top five recruiting class for 2018. LSU also returns star guard Tremont Waters. In my opinion Waters was the second-best freshman in the league last season, just behind Collin Sexton. Combine Waters and a top five class, and expectations are high in Baton Rouge.
Saturday, January 12 - 2:30 P.M. CT - Texas A&M (TV: SEC Network) - The Aggies have quietly become one of the more successful programs in the SEC over the last three seasons. In that span, A&M has won an SEC title and advanced to the Sweet 16 twice, including last season. Texas A&M finished the 17-18 season with a record of 22-13 (9-9), and a final KenPom ranking of 29. The Aggies do return what should be one of the better backcourt pairings in TJ Starks and Admon Gilder, but the program did lose three key players (Tyler Davis, Robert Williams and DJ Hogg) to the NBA draft. While I believe Starks is primed to be a star player in this league, I'd be shocked if A&M doesn't take at least a slight step back this season.
Wednesday, January 16 - 8:00 P.M. CT - at Missouri (TV: SEC Network) - Not a bad first season for Cuonzo Martin in Columbia. Despite losing star freshman Michael Porter, Jr. to an injury two minutes into the season, Missouri finished the 17-18 season with a record of 20-13 (10-8), and a final KenPom ranking of 40. The program also received its first invitation to the NCAA Tournament in five seasons. As expected, Porter, Jr. entered the NBA draft; however, his brother Jontay returned after testing the waters. Unfortunately for the Tigers, their top two scorers departed along with Porter, Jr. The return of Jontay Porter gives Missouri a potential All-Conference player, but it remains to be seen if there's enough balance around Porter to make it all work. For what it's worth, Cuonzo Martin announced at SEC Media Days that the program has applied for waivers for a pair of D1 transfers that would certainly boost the team's outlook if they're cleared to play this season. I wouldn't be surprised if they are cleared. The rule of having to sit out for a season after transferring appears to be on its last legs as the NCAA does anything it can to improve the perception of the organization from the outside world.
Saturday, January 19 - 1:00 P.M. CT - at Tennessee (TV: TBA) - Turns out Tennessee hit a homerun when they hired Rick Barnes. In Barnes' third season, the Vols program won a share of the SEC title and returned to the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee finished the 17-18 season with a record of 26-9 (13-5), and a final KenPom ranking of 13. With the top six scorers from last season returning, Tennessee is not only a contender to repeat as league champs, but are a preseason top 10 team.
Tuesday, January 22 - 8:00 P.M. CT - Ole Miss (TV: TBA) - 2017-18 was a forgettable season in Oxford that resulted in Andy Kennedy stepping down. Ole Miss made what I believe is a good hire in Middle Tennessee's Kermit Davis. In sixteen seasons at Middle Tennessee, Kermit won 332 games, won five league titles, took the program to three NCAA Tournaments (advancing in two of them), and only had one losing season. The guy can coach. Ole Miss finished the 17-18 season with a record of 12-20 (5-13), and a final KenPom ranking of 108. While expectations are not high for the Rebels this season, Kermit Davis will have some talent to work with (four of the top six scorers return), and it wouldn't surprise me if they finish higher in the standings than expected.
Saturday, January 26 - 11:00 A.M. CT - at Baylor (TV: TBA) - Alabama steps out of conference for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge in sunny Waco, Texas. Baylor finished the 17-18 season with a record of 19-15 (8-10), and a final KenPom ranking of 34. Baylor was one of the first four teams left out of the NCAA Tournament, but head coach Scott Drew has led the program to seven NCAA Tournaments (including two Elite Eights and two Sweet 16's) and an NIT title. He doesn't seem to get a lot of credit from some basketball fans, but Drew has done a really good job in Waco. Even better when you remember the state the program was in as a result of a scandal revolving around the murder of a player by another player, drug use among players, and assistant coaches handing out payments to players like candy. Only one of the top five scorers returns from last season so Baylor will be leaning on newcomers this season to succeed.
Tuesday, January 29 - 7:30 P.M. CT - Mississippi State (TV: SEC Network) - January concludes with the first of two games against what should be a very good Mississippi State team. The program had a breakthrough of sorts in head coach Ben Howland's third season. State finished the 17-18 season wtih a record of 25-12 (9-9), and a final KenPom ranking of 54. The team advanced to the NIT Final Four before losing to eventual champ, Penn State. The top six scorers return from that team, plus Howland added a recruiting class that I believe will be very good. This is by far the best team that Howland has had on paper during his tenure in Starkville. Nothing less than a return to the NCAA Tournament will be considered a success. But I really like their roster, and wouldn't be surprised if this team won the league.