Kentucky has ruled the SEC ever since John Calipari arrived in 2009. The Wildcats have won the SEC regular season and conference championships five different times under Coach Cal, including the last three years in a row -- double-dipping as both the regular season and conference tournament champs.
But other schools are coming. South Carolina just made the Final Four. To get there, it had to beat Florida in the Elite Eight. Missouri may have the most exciting crop of freshmen in the country. Texas A&M figures to have a bounceback year, while Alabama could make the tournament for the first time under Avery Johnson.
Here are five SEC games you need to watch this season.
*Jan. 31: Missouri at Alabama
Missouri hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2013. Alabama hasn’t made it since 2012.
They both have a shot in 2018.
With Michael Porter, Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon on board, the Tigers are instantly formidable. Outside of Kentucky, no SEC school can match Mizzou’s combination of size and skill. Yes, experience is an issue. Those guys are freshmen. But it’s not as if the Tigers are bereft of veteran contributors. Grad transfer Kassius Robertson is an elite shooter. Jordan Barnett and Kevin Puryear have valuable experience.
Alabama is a mystery, too, but its arrow it pointing up. The Crimson Tide have finished above .500 the past two years. Despite missing the tournament, its two leading scorers, Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram, were freshmen. Johnson will add more talented youngsters while not losing anyone of major significance. Those factors put Alabama in the tournament hunt.
These programs are in similar spots. Success has been rare, but the best is yet to come. Their matchup will be fascinating.
*Feb. 10: Florida at South Carolina
You know Florida will be amped for this one after losing to South Carolina in the Elite Eight.
Both of these teams play suffocating defense. The Gamecocks and Gators ranked third and fifth on that end, respectively.
These squads will look much different, but their philosophies won’t change. Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier are gone. So are Devin Robinson and Kasey Hill. South Carolina’s offense will likely struggle with all the new faces, but Frank Martin is a defensive whiz. Same with Mike White.
If you want each team to go for 100, this isn’t the game for you. But if you’re someone who appreciates college basketball and football, this is perfect. It will be physical. It will be ugly. But most of all, it will be ultra-competitive, and these programs have won at a high level lately.
Bring it on.
*Feb. 3: Kentucky at Missouri
This might be the best collection of young talent we’ll see at once all year.
We just touched on Tilmon and the Porters for Missouri. Kentucky has its usual assortment of awesome young guys, led by Nick Richards, Jarred Vanderbilt and Shai Alexander. Sophomore Wenyen Gabriel is the oldest player who’s likely to start for the Wildcats.
But here’s the difference. Kentucky is used to being young. Sure, this is unfamiliar territory for the players, but the coaches have been through this countless times.
You can’t say the same thing about Missouri. The question is, how much does that matter? Or is it all about the talent and scheme?
This game will likely be sloppy, but it’ll also likely be high-scoring. It’s guaranteed to be fun, especially when Kentucky visits Columbia. Mark this one on the calendar.
*Feb. 17: Texas A&M at Arkansas
These programs are interesting for different reasons. Texas A&M was a 3-seed in the 2016 NCAA tournament but missed the dance last year. That said, the Aggies have Robert Williams, who might be the best player in the league. He’s a springy forward with a burgeoning mid-range game who can do just about anything on a basketball court.
Then there’s Arkansas, which made the NCAA tournament last year and was a few minutes away from beating North Carolina in the second round. Arkansas isn’t sexy, but it wins. Mike Anderson has won 26 or more games in two of his last three seasons. That’s a huge number. Frankly, it’s not one you’d expect to see from the Razorbacks.
Texas A&M and Arkansas have both had their moments in recent years, but consistent success has eluded them. The Hogs won 16 games in between those two big seasons. As mentioned earlier, the Aggies just missed the tournament.
This is a big year for both programs. Their performance may dictate whether we consider them a regular power or an occasional menace. That’s why this matchup is significant.
*March 3: Kentucky at Florida
The top two teams in the SEC since the turn of the century square off in the last weekend of the regular season.
Florida is extremely tough to beat in Gainesville. Even for Kentucky. The Gators downed the Wildcats by 22 there last season. Florida may not have the same talent level as a year ago, but it should hover around the top 25. KeVaughn Allen figures to have a monster season, Chris Chiozza was an overqualified backup guard as a junior, and John Egbunu is set to return.
We don’t know exactly what Kentucky is, but the Wildcats generally fare better later in the conference schedule. That’s expected with such a young roster. They’ll have the talent edge, but Florida will have home court, and most likely, a lot to play for. This matchup could have a big impact on tournament seeding.
When Kentucky visits the swamp, all eyes will be peeled on the Wildcats and the Gators.