The SEC has slowly become a dominant force in men’s college basketball. There have always been some blue bloods in the conference with legendary Kentucky and Florida programs, but this era of SEC basketball is characterized by something that it has never been known for: depth.
Eleven teams in the conference have a realistic shot at making a run to the tournament. Ole Miss is trying to reach the Big Dance in back-to-back years for the first time since 2002, and the strength of the league this season could end up helping with plenty of opportunity for quality win throughout league play.
Kentucky is at the top of the conference. The perennial powerhouse came into this year ranked No. 2 in the country and knocked off No. 1 Michigan State on Tuesday, in their first game of the season. The Wildcats forced 16 turnovers against an experienced Spartans squad that features point guard Cassius Winston, the only unanimous AP preseason All-American this year.
Freshman guard Tyrese Maxey was stellar off the bench, pouring in 26 points on 7-12 shooting. His deep three-pointer with a minute left iced the game and solidified his position as one of the premiere players to watch this season.
The Gators are expected to be one of the top teams in the country after a disappointing campaign last year.
They cruised by North Florida in their first game this season behind an impressive debut from transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. The former Virginia Tech forward scored 20 points and grabbed 10 boards while taking just 11 shots in the game. They will need consistent production from him if they want to earn one of the top seeds in the conference.
No. 22 LSU earned a No. 3 seed in the tournament last year behind a star-studded cast that included Naz Reid, Tremont Waters and redshirt senior Kavell Bigby-Williams, none of whom are on the team this year.
No. 24 Auburn is in an interesting situation heading into this season. Bruce Pearl’s squad lost their three best players last year in Bryce Brown, Jared Harper and Chuma Okeke. All three are now in the NBA’s G-League, leaving the Tigers with a scoring void. Much of that void will be filled by seniors Daniel Purifoy and J’Von McCormick.
First-year head coach Nate Oats takes over a much-improved Alabama program after the school parted ways with Avery Johnson. The team is without star Dazon Ingram who is now at Central Florida as a graduate transfer. They did bring in West Virginia transfer James Bolden, as well as a trio of four-star freshman guards. Sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr. is ready for a bigger role and should play well next to junior John Petty.
Mississippi State made the tournament for the first time in 10 years last season on the backs of the Weatherspoon brothers. Senior Quinndary and sophomore Nick both had solid seasons next to freshman standout Reggie Perry. Nick Weatherspoon and Perry both return, as well as senior guard Tyson Carter who poured in 23 points in the team’s opening win over Florida International.
Tennessee is expected to have perhaps the largest drop-off of any SEC team this season after last year’s veteran team was knocked down by Purdue in the Sweet 16. The Volunteers earned a No. 2 seed in the South region, behind strong campaigns from seniors Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander as well as juniors Jordan Bone and Grant Williams.
Anthony Edwards. Nothing else needs to be said about Georgia basketball this season. The No. 4 recruit in the class of 2019 is the real deal and a surefire lottery pick who starred in the Bulldogs’ 91-72 win over Western Carolina. He scored 24 points, the most by a Georgia freshman since Hall-of-Famer Dominique Wilkins dropped 26 against Troy in 1979.
Arkansas is a team to look out for this season. Not on the radar of most analysts, the Razorbacks are in a similar position as Ole Miss was last year with a veteran team headed by first-year coach Eric Musselman.
Texas A&M is another team with a new head coach trying to turn some heads. After five successful seasons at Virginia Tech, the Aggies hope Buzz Williams is the answer to their recent woes. With just two tournament appearances in the past nine years, A&M has been one of the more disappointing teams in the SEC since joining the conference in 2012.
Not all of these teams will make the tournament. At most, the conference will send eight teams, but these 10, along with the Rebels, are all fighting for those spots. College basketball is back, and the SEC is the conference to watch.