January means the beginning of conference play (at least until the league expands to a 20-game schedule). In recent years the conference has done a great job in repairing the perception of the conference. The depth of coaches in the league is unmatched in my opinion, and that strength in the coaching ranks has led to increased recruiting success. In 18-19 the league had seven teams selected for the NCAA Tournament. Five of those seven teams won at least a game, while four of the seven teams advanced to the second weekend. While I don't predict the league to be as top-heavy as it was last season (UK, UT and LSU lost a combined eight games), I do think the middle and, more importantly, the bottom of the league will be improved.
Saturday, January 4 - at Florida - 5:00 P.M. CT - TV: TBD: Alabama will start its conference schedule with a bang as it travels to Gainesville to face a Florida team that was picked to finish second in the league preseason poll. The Gators return three starters (Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson, all sophomores), add the second-ranked recruiting class in the league (and eighth in the country), and add the top transfer in the country, Kerry Blackshear Jr. (14.9 pts, 7.5 rebs) from Virginia Tech. The Gators are good enough on paper to not only win the league, but advance deep in March. To do that, they will have to be a better offensive team this season (61st in offensive efficiency, 344 in tempo, and 291 in possession length). For what it's worth, Alabama has won in its last two trips to Gainesville.
Wednesday, January 8 - Mississippi State - 6:00 P.M. CT - TV: SEC Network: After a ten year absence, State returned to the NCAA Tournament last season. While that was obviously an accomplishment after a decade-long dry spell, it was difficult not to view their season as a disappointment. On paper they had a roster capable of winning the league, but uneven performances, particularly on the defensive end, kept them from reaching that potential. To cap it all off, State fell in the first round of the tournament to Liberty in the dreaded 5/12 game. This season, State is picked to finish seventh in the preseason poll. The team returns five of the top eight scorers, including preseason all-conference selection Reggie Perry (9.7 pts, 7.2 rebs), potential breakout candidate Robert Woodard (5.5 pts, 4.1 rebs), and steady guards in Tyson Carter (10.4 pts) and Nick Weatherspoon (if he can get out of the doghouse after being suspended for the final ten games last season and the first ten this season for a violation of team rules). State is one of the tougher teams to predict. The talent is there, but questions about the backcourt and the overall depth will need to be answered positively for State to finish higher than their preseason standing.
Saturday, January 11 - at Kentucky - 11:00 A.M. CT - TV: ESPN: Having to travel to Gainesville and Lexington in the first three games of the conference schedule is not ideal, but Alabama will only have to play both conference favorites once during the season. As always, Kentucky is expected to be among the best in the country (2nd in the preseason AP poll) and in the conference (1st). The program lost three players to the draft, but return four key players in Ashton Hagans, Nick Richards, Immanuel Quickley and EJ Montgomery; welcomes the top ranked class in the league headlined by top 10 recruits Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney; and for the second year in a row, Calipari welcomes a grad transfer in Nate Sestina, formerly at Bucknell. I think this is a more dynamic Kentucky team than we've seen the last couple of years, and that likely spells trouble for the rest of the league.
Wednesday, January 15 - Auburn - 8:00 P.M. CT - TV: TBD: There was never a question that Bruce Pearl would win at Auburn, but I'll admit I never anticipated the program would make a Final Four under his watch. Seeing a program with virtually no history of success in the sport make it to the mountaintop of the sport while the program we pull for was floundering and seeking its third coach in ten years was a tough pill to swallow to say the least. However, with that success came the inevitable roster turnover. The top three players (Jared Harper, Bryce Brown and Chuma Okeke) all departed the program. In addition, role players Malik Dunbar and Horace Spencer also finished their college careers. The Auburn program is obviously in a good place, but Harper, Brown and Okeke brought skill, leadership and other intangibles to that program. I don't think you can just replace those guys. That said, there's plenty of experience and talent returning. Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore, Danjel Purifoy, J'Von McCormick and Samir Doughty are all seniors, while Jamal Johnson, a transfer from Memphis, is a redshirt sophomore. Auburn also adds the fourth-ranked recruiting class in the conference. Media are still high on Auburn this season - they were picked fourth in the preseason poll. Not sure I'd pick them that high (for some context: last season's team finished fifth in the standings), but the success over the last two seasons has earned them the benefit of a doubt. This is one of those games this season that Nate Oats needs to win. The Final Four was bad enough, but Auburn has swept Alabama in two of the last three seasons. And recently, Anfernee McLemore told media that Coleman was his favorite road game because he likes to see the disappointment on fans faces when Auburn beats Alabama. To be clear, there are goals for the Alabama program far beyond beating Auburn. Nevertheless, shutting them up, at least temporarily, would be welcomed by Tide fans.
Saturday, January 18 - Missouri - 2:30 P.M. CT - TV: SEC Network: All things considered, Cuonzo Martin's first two seasons in Columbia have been better than you'd think. Injuries to star recruits Michael Porter Jr. and brother Jontay Porter in back-to-back seasons could have torpedoed Cuonzo's tenure before it really began. Instead, his first team made the NCAA Tournament. In year two, his team was unable to overcome Jontay's injury, finishing two games under .500. In addition, Mark Smith, arguably the team's best player the first half of the season, was lost for the season after playing in nineteen games. If not for his injury, Missouri probably finishes at least with a winning record. The Porters are a memory, but Smith does return along with a seasoned cast of players headlined by big man Jeremiah Tilmon and a trio of guards (Xavier Pinson, Torrence Watson and Javon Pickett) that were forced into action last season as freshmen. That experience should serve them well this season. Keep an eye on Evansville transfer Dru Smith (13.7 pts, 4.6 assts, 3.5 rebs and 2 stls in his final season at Evansville in 17-18) as a potential impact player. The Tigers were picked 13th in the preseason poll, but I think they're being undervalued.
Wednesday, January 22 - at Vanderbilt - 8:00 P.M. CT - TV: SEC Network: Last season was historically bad for the Vandy basketball program as they won only nine games overall and didn't win a game in conference, finishing 0-18. Vandy had no choice but to send Bryce Drew packing. The decision to hire Jerry Stackhouse was curious (you replace one head coach with limited college head coaching experience with another head coach with no college head coaching experience), but there's nowhere to go but up for the Dores after last season. The problem for Vandy is that the talent from 1-13 is arguably not on par with the rest of the league. Aaron Nesmith (11 pts, 5.5 rebs, 1.4 asts) is a legitimate talent entering his sophomore season, and he's going to have to carry a lot of the weight if Vandy is going to escape the cellar. Saben Lee (12.7 pts, 3.8 asts, 3.3 rebs and 1 stl) is a seasoned player. Beyond those two guys, there are a lot of unknowns with this roster. And then there is the question if Stackhouse is up to the challenge in a league that no longer allows for a quick and easy turnaround if you're not a legit coach and recruiter.
Saturday, January 25 - Kansas State (SEC/Big 12 Challenge) - 5:00 P.M. CT - TV: ESPN2: The 18-19 Wildcats team had a breakthrough of sorts under head coach Bruce Weber as they won 25 games and tied for the Big 12 regular season title. Repeating that accomplishment will be a tall task as K-State lost their top three scorers from last season, all seniors. The floor leadership of this team will likely fall on the shoulders of senior Xavier Sneed (10.6 pts, 5.5 rebs, 1.9 asts, 1.4 stls) after he elected to return to school after entering the draft process. Assuming Sneed has the type of season many expect, he'll be an all-conference selection at the close of the season. Aside from Sneed, Weber will be counting on returning role players (Carter Diarra, Makol Mawien, Mike McGuirl) to step up their roles and he'll need the incoming class to produce from day one. K-State is likely not going to finish atop the Big 12 standings again, but if Sneed has an all-conference type of season and the newcomers are impactful, K-State could find itself in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight season.
Wednesday, January 29 - at LSU - 6:00 P.M. CT - TV: TBD: With a likely NCAA investigation on the horizon, LSU is one of the biggest enigmas in the country as the season looms. In its current form LSU returns plenty of talent from a team that won the conference regular season title a season ago as well as the head coach that led them there. However, should the NCAA investigation begin in earnest this season, what will be the status of players eligibility or the status of the coaching staff as that investigation unfolds? My gut feeling is that a hammer blow is coming to the LSU program and the current coaching staff at some point in the future, but whether it happens this season or beyond is impossible to predict. Assuming that the worst of that is in the distant future, LSU returns five of their top eight scorers from last season, including Javonte Smart (11.1 pts, 3.3 rebs, 2.4 asts, 1.3 stls; averaged 20 pts in the last four regular season games) and Skylar Mays (13.4 pts, 3.3 rebs, 2.1 asts, 1.9 stls). Those two should be a formidable duo. The biggest question marks for LSU will be can they improve their perimeter shooting, and will they have enough production near the rim with Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams (an under-appreciated member of that team) moving on? Assuming they figure it out and the NCAA gears grind slowly, the talent is there for LSU to contend for the conference crown again.