Here's our preview of the opening games in SEC play. Rankings and records as of Dec. 23.
January is just brutal. I have no better way to describe it. Auburn could march through the entire month without a single win. Even so, if Auburn plays to the final whistle with everything it has -- and it has more than enough to outright win a few and enough guts to steal a few -- February should be a much better month for the Tigers.
Florida (9-2), Jan. 18, 3 p.m. CT
Notable Wins/Losses: losses to Wisconsin (No. 4 in the AP poll), UConn (15). Wins against FSU, Kansas (16), Memphis (17)
Yet again, Auburn is at home but playing to one of the better, if not the best, teams in the SEC. Florida was my preseason pick to win the conference, and even with two losses, I stand behind this. Why Florida and not Kentucky? Kentucky may have all the five-stars, but Florida has four seniors. There is something to be said for building a team versus assembling a collection of shooty hoops phenoms. Center Patric Young, guard Scottie Wilbekin, forward Will Yeguete and forward Casey Prather have weathered everything from injuries to suspensions. Prather and Wilbekin leave the team in scoring (18.5 ppg, 12.3 ppg, respectively), and Young and Prather are at the top for rebounds (bot hhave 64). I have never been jealous of anything 'Bama has, but I get a little green when I consider Florida and its basketball program. Three straight Elite Eights. In the last three seasons, no one else in the nation has done that. Not an ACC team, not a Big East team, only Billy Donovan and his Gators. #respect
Thoughts: I feel the same way about this game as I do the Mizzou game: Put forth solid effort and don't get blown out at home. Florida is the most complete team in the country. I am terrified of this game. //pours bourbon
At Mississippi State (9-2), Jan. 22, 7 p.m. CT
Notable Wins/Losses: losses to Utah St, TCU
//finishes bourbon. Oh, Mississippi State. The best win for the Cowbells is the Sunday win against South Florida (currently ranked 148th by kenpom.com). Other than that and the losses to Utah State and TCU, Mississippi State hasn't really faced stiff competition. However, there is something about this team -- plagued by injuries and suspensions last year, the Bullies still managed one more win than Auburn. This season hasn't been without more of the same: Jalen Steele did not return and Wendell Lewis was dismissed. Mississippi State will again rely heavily on its sophomores, guard Craig Sword (15 ppg, 21 steals) and forward Gavin Ware (10.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg). I will let it go that there are two kids (Sword and junior forward Roquez Johnson) from Carver-Montgomery on the roster. In-state recruiting must be really hard.
Thoughts: Of all the road games in January, this should be the most likely candidate for a W. Mississippi State doesn't have a strong presence around the perimeter and is making only 63.0 percent of its free throws. Based on where this game falls on the schedule, I feel like it might be do or die time.
At Arkansas (9-2), Jan. 25, 5 p.m. CT
Notable Wins/Losses: losses to California, Gonzaga (24). Wins over Minnesota, Clemson.
Arkansas, under Mike Anderson, is a team that plays best as home, as evidenced by its 35-5 home record in two seasons (and its 2-22 record on the road, more on that in a moment). The Razorbacks have gone five years without an NCAA bid. They enter this season without B.J. Young and Marshawn Powell, but have hope in junior forward Alandise Harris and freshman forward Bobby Portis. Sophomore guard Michael Qualls leads the team in scoring with 14.1 ppg, and freshman center Moses Kingsley is making his presence known with 20 blocks on the season. Junior guard Rashad Madden, senior forward Coty Clarke and sophomore guard Anthlon Bell round out the list of impact players.
Thoughts: I haven't had the chance to catch much of Arkansas this season, but most preseason predictions have the Hogs at the very least as an NIT team and at the most as a NCAA team. Time will tell. I do know that the two wins their 2-22 record on the road came at expense of Auburn. I want this game more than it probably really matters just for the mere fact of taking one in their house.
Alabama (5-6), Jan. 29, 7 p.m. CT
Notable Wins/Losses: losses to Oklahoma, Duke (9), Drexel, South Florida, Wichita St (10), Xavier
Without a doubt, the most important player on this team is senior guard Trevor Releford. He leads his team in scoring (17.0 ppg) and is second in steals for the season (19). Head coach Anthony Grant has to look elsewhere to fill the spots of a few key departures: Trevor Lacey left for NC State, five-start recuit Devonta Pollard withdrew in June and Moussa Gueye opted to spend his last year of eligibility at Valparasio. Grant is relying on junior guards Levi Randolph and Rodney Cooper and JUCO transfer Algie Key to maintain the back court. Junior forward Nick Jacobs is expected to step up in the absence of Pollard in the front court.
Thoughts: Alabama had the chance to make a strong statement in its non-conference schedule, but instead fell short against Oklahoma, Duke, Drexel, South Florida, Wichita State and Xavier. Maybe it is just me, but every season, there is always talk of how Alabama is expected to be one of the stronger SEC teams, and every year they fall short. Regardless, it is Alabama and this game is at home. Anything less than a win is disappointing when the Tide are concerned. Hopefully Cam will be able to make this game.