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WATCH: TJ Starks’ 3-pointer gives Texas A&M win at buzzer

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — After trailing for nearly the entire game, Texas A&M had a chance to defeat Alabama on the road.

With 3.4 seconds left, TJ Starks caught the inbound pass, which was lobbed over his head because Alabama was pressing, sprinted right outside the 3-point arc, and with his momentum still going toward the baseline, floated a shot that banked in for an 81-80 victory .

It was the Aggies’ first SEC and road win of the season.

“Hopefully, this (win) gives us some energy and confidence,” Texas A&M coach Bill Kennedy said.

The winning possession was set up by Alabama’s struggles from the free-throw line. With the Crimson Tide leading by a point, Kira Lewis Jr. went to the line and made only 1 of 2.

“Even if he would have made it, we would have tried to tie the game up with a 3,” Starks said. “It did give us a little bit of life once he missed the free throw.”

Up to the final possession, Starks had struggled, shooting just 3 of 16 for nine points. The Aggies turned to the combination of Savion Flagg and Josh Nebo to score on the inside with a combined 37 points.

They both finished with seven rebounds, which led the team.

“They had a stretch there, where for whatever reason, we were just out of position on post defense, especially on Nebo,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. “He got the ball where he wanted to.”

The Aggies outscored the Crimson Tide by 48-30 inside the 3-point line.

Of the 40 minutes of the game, Alabama led for 36 minutes.

John Petty had his best game of the season for the Crimson Tide, scoring 22 points off six 3-pointers. Donta Hall recorded his seventh double-double of the season, finishing with 14 points and a season-high 16 rebounds.

Alabama has struggled holding onto a lead, and Saturday wasn’t any different. It built an 11-point lead by the end of the first half, and early in the second half, led by 12. Halfway through the second half, its lead was down to three, and it gave up its first lead of the game at the 7:34 mark.

“I just feel like they went on a run down the stretch,” Alabama forward Tevin Mack said. “Time ended up being on their side. We didn’t have enough time down the stretch for us to make our run.”

BIG PICTURE

Texas A&M: The Aggies won their first SEC game this season, ending a three-game losing streak.

Alabama: Petty, the team’s best 3-point shooter, found his stroke. The sophomore hit a season-high six 3-pointers.

STAT OF THE NIGHT

Hall finished with four blocks, tying his season high. His first block of the game was his 200th of his career, making him the seventh player in Alabama history to pass 200.

QUICK COMPARE

Texas A&M shot 22 of 30 for 73 percent from the free-throw line, while Alabama shot 18 of 29 for 62 percent.

UP NEXT

Texas A&M: Returns home on Wednesday to face No. 11 Auburn.

Alabama: Plays at Missouri on Wednesday.

Mack, Alabama upset No. 13 Kentucky 77-75 in SEC opener

AP Photo/Vasha Hunt
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Tevin Mack made six first-half 3-pointers on his way to 22 points, and Alabama held off No. 13 Kentucky 77-75 on Saturday in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.

Dazon Ingram scored all 11 of his points after halftime, including some key free throws in the Crimson Tide’s fifth consecutive win. The Wildcats gave them a big scare in the final seconds after surging back from 11 points down.

Ingram made two free throws with 23 seconds left in between back-to-back layups by Ashton Hagans. Hagans’ second cut it to 76-73 with 16 seconds left. Alabama (10-3) got the ball across midcourt but Hagans came away with the ball on a steal from Ingram.

PJ Washington scored on a dunk with 5 seconds to play and Kentucky (10-3) quickly fouled John Petty, who made one of two from the line.

Tyler Herro’s 3-point try for the win at the buzzer bounced off the rim.

Kira Lewis Jr. had 12 points for the Tide, which had five players score in double figures. Donta Hall had 11 points and 10 rebounds. Herbert Jones finished with 10 points, eight rebounds and six assists.

Washington led the Wildcats with 15 points and they also had all five starters reach double figures. Keldon Johnson finished with 13.

Herro, Reid Travis and Hagans all scored 12. Hagans also had six assists and three steals.

Hall scored on a tap-in to push Alabama’s lead to 72-61 with 3:12 left. Johnson answered with a 3-pointer for the Wildcats, who whittled away at the lead but could never quite catch up.

Herro’s 3-pointer cut it to 74-69 with 40 seconds left after Travis grabbed the offensive rebound. The Wildcats forced a turnover on the inbounds play and Hagans drove for a layup.

Alabama scored the first eight points after halftime to take a 46-40 lead. The Wildcats were called for three offensive fouls in the first two minutes.

It was the first time Kentucky played in Coleman Coliseum since Feb. 11, 2016.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: Couldn’t sustain the momentum after wins over Utah, North Carolina and Louisville. Made 5 of 18 3-pointers.

Alabama: Withstood late threats to keep the winning streak alive and snap a 10-game skid against Kentucky. Made 10 of 23 3-pointers.

SEC Reset: Has Tennessee usurped Kentucky as favorites?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?

What is still left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the SEC.

MIDSEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Grant Williams, Tennessee

The reigning SEC Player of the Year now finds himself firmly in the National Player of the Year discussion after a stellar start. Williams is averaging 20.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 blocks per game on the season as he’s improved nearly every facet of his game.

While the 6-foot-7 junior was mostly an interior force last season, he’s improved his range to become a decent perimeter shooter (41 percent from three on a small sample size). Passing has also been a revelation for Williams, as he’s made the Vols’ offense a lot better with his ability to create for teammates.

Zion Williamson still finds himself as the current NPOY favorite, but Williams is doing everything he can to close the gap.

THE ALL SEC FIRST TEAM

  • Grant Williams, Tennessee
  • Admiral Schofield, Tennessee: Schofield has been nearly just as good as Williams in a dominant Tennessee frontcourt. Putting up 18.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, Schofield is a matchup nightmare who can make plays all over the floor.
  • Daniel Gafford, Arkansas: The sophomore big man has become a force on the interior. The NBA Draft prospect is averaging 17.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game on 66 percent shooting.
  • Keldon Johnson, Kentucky: On a loaded Kentucky team, Johnson has emerged as the team’s best player as he’s now considered as a potential lottery pick. The freshman guard is averaging 16.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the field and 43 percent three-point range.
  • Quinndary Weatherspoon, Mississippi State: The senior leader of a dangerous Mississippi State team, Weatherspoon has helped the Bulldogs to a strong start. Weatherspoon is averaging 17.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Tennessee, Auburn, Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi State, LSU
  • NIT: Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Alabama, Missouri
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: South Carolina, Texas A&M, Georgia
(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. The SEC race is wide open

Not that this should come as any sort of surprise, but the SEC race is wide open at this point in the season. Defending co-regular season champions Auburn and Tennessee have returned to top-15 form from last season. Kentucky is starting to figure things out while looking like the potential juggernaut many believed they could be.

Mississippi State, LSU and Florida also have the look of very dangerous teams who could be sleepers in the SEC race. And the second tier of the SEC (Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Alabama, and Missouri) are all off to decent starts.

Besides for Georgia, Texas A&M and South Carolina, seemingly every team is a threat in the league this year.

2. Auburn and Tennessee both have teams capable of repeating as SEC champions

Defending co-SEC champions Auburn and Tennessee have lived up to lofty preseason expectations so far as both teams find themselves ranked in the top 15 in the country.

The Vols and Tigers both sport top 35 offenses and defenses on KenPom and both have passed the all-important eye-test by playing well against elite teams. Tennessee has knocked off Gonzaga while hanging tough with Kansas while Auburn fought hard against Duke and knocked off teams they were supposed to beat like Washington, Xavier and Arizona.

Both veteran teams look like they’re well-positioned to be near the top of the SEC standings once again this season thanks to veteran teams that have won plenty of games.

3. Kentucky is starting to figure things out

After the opening night dominance of Duke over Kentucky in the Champions Classic, there were some serious questions about the Wildcats. More questions returned once Kentucky suffered a surprising loss to Seton Hall.

Over the last several weeks, the Wildcats have answered many of those concerns with notable results.

Kentucky is starting to figure out its rotation while also clamping down more on defense. The transfer of point guard Quade Green helped alleviate some perimeter logjams that have enabled sparkplugs like Ashton Hagans to come in and earn more minutes. That’s provided more stability for Kentucky overall while enhancing their perimeter defense quite a bit. Kentucky also has the luxury of having multiple guys who can take over a game as we’ve seen Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro have big recent outings against quality competition. The frontcourt play of Reid Travis and P.J. Washington remains solid as well.

Kentucky still has to get by Auburn and Tennessee to be the SEC’s premier team, but they’re in as good of a position as they could have hoped for given how embarrassing the season started.

(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. Can Auburn and Tennessee reintroduce key pieces into the rotation?

For as good as Auburn and Tennessee have been this season, both programs are still trying to reintroduce double-figure scorers back into their rotations.

Auburn finally gets forward Danjel Purifoy back into the lineup after his suspension for his alleged involvement in the FBI’s college basketball corruption scandal. The Tigers don’t need Purifoy to be great, but if he’s able to provide another lift in the frontcourt, then it adds another scary element to Auburn’s rotation.

Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner has also been sidelined most of this season as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery. The SEC’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year might be the Vols’ most important perimeter scorer as he would help the backcourt of Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden immensely by adding another playmaker.

It’s not a guarantee that either of these guys make a huge impact. Purifoy hasn’t played for a season and a half and Turner is clearly having issues with a surgically-repaired shoulder that has given him trouble before. But if either of these guys can regain previous form then it makes these two teams even more of a threat for the rest of the season.

2. Do any middle tier teams separate themselves from the pack and make the NCAA tournament?

At the start of 2019 the SEC had five teams ranked in the top 20 on KenPom with a sixth team, LSU, coming in at No. 40. Barring an extremely bad conference season, those teams should all be aiming to make the NCAA tournament.

It’s the second tier of SEC teams that will be intriguing to follow.

Ole Miss, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Missouri are all in the top 75 on KenPom after positive starts to the season. None of those teams are currently guaranteed NCAA tournament entry based on current standing. But all of them are going to have ample opportunities to earn huge wins since so many SEC teams are ranked and sitting in Quadrant 1 territory.

Last season saw the SEC create a basketball resurgence with eight NCAA tournament bids. Some work still needs to be done, but with the Pac-12 as down as it is, there is ample opportunity for the SEC to make another major push for the same number of NCAA tournament bids.

3. Can Mississippi State push the SEC’s elite?

Among the SEC’s four ranked teams, Mississippi State is by far the most unproven of the bunch.

Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee are all coming off of NCAA tournament appearances with deep and talented rosters. And although the Bulldogs have earned some notable non-conference wins over teams like Cincinnati and Clemson, they haven’t competed against elite national competition like the other top SEC teams.

Since the Bulldogs haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2009, they’ll need to earn the trust of everybody by proving themselves against top-flight teams. After years of building, it finally looks like Ben Howland has a veteran team who can take him back to the NCAA tournament. Quinndary Weatherspoon leads a team with five double-figure scorers. The Bulldogs have depth at multiple spots. Aric Holman has been tremendous in spurts. Mississippi State has a top-45 offense and defense. If this program is ever going to make a run for the top of the SEC, this is the time to do it.

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. The SEC gets seven teams in the NCAA tournament (and has a more successful March)

Last year was a banner year for the SEC when they had eight of its membership make the Big Dance. Although the SEC top-to-bottom doesn’t appear to be as strong as last season, it’s looking like the SEC should still have plenty of numbers in March. And more teams should also be poised for a deeper run.

The key will be if the middle-tier teams can pick off the ranked teams during conference play as happened last season. If the top SEC contenders run away with the league, and only lose to each other, then it significantly hurts the SEC’s chances for overall quality wins. But if the league is a bloodbath like last year, with no team clearly separating from the pack, then we should see plenty of SEC teams back in the field.

Either way, the SEC should fare better than only one Sweet 16 team from last season. Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Tennessee are all in potential position to earn great seeds and make runs and there are plenty of dangerous second-tier teams who could get hot at the right time.

2. Tennessee captures the SEC title

The SEC race is going to be a close one given how talented the league is at the top. But Tennessee has the difference of having arguably the two best players in the conference in Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield.

The key for Tennessee could come down to guard play. Jordan Bone has been better than last season but he’s still struggling to shoot from the perimeter. Jordan Bowden has actually been slightly worse than last year — particularly shooting the ball from deep. And the SEC’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Lamonte Turner, has only played in three games this season as he continues his recovery from shoulder surgery.

As long as Williams and Schofield keep playing at this level, and Tennessee’s perimeter attack can make some timely plays and shots, then the Vols should be in position to claim another SEC regular season title.

3. Florida makes a big push after a strange start

One of this season’s most perplexing teams has been the Florida Gators. Sitting at 8-4 with tremendous computer numbers thanks to a challenging non-conference schedule, it’s tough to get a read on Florida at this point in the season.

We know that Florida is one of best defensive teams in the country. The Gators turn you over and throw waves of bodies at you thanks to their depth and athleticism. It’s offense that’s the issue. Florida doesn’t have a go-to scorer and nobody on the roster seems like a natural takeover guy.

There are currently an astounding eight players averaging between 10.3 points and 6.6 points per game on this roster right now. If a veteran guard like KeVaughn Allen or Jalen Hudson starts to figure things out as a scorer, then Florida should elevate to another level.

Both Allen and Hudson have averaged at least 14.0 points per game over a full college season before, so it’s certainly possible. I believe that Florida gets one of those guys rolling and becomes a dangerous team heading into March.

Bracketology: Duke leads opening field of 68

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With a new year upon us, the countdown to Selection Sunday is officially underway.

Through two months of play, Duke reigns over the NCAA’s new NET rankings (No. 1 through games on January 1) and also reigns over our opening in-season bracket.

The Blue Devils are joined on the top line by Kansas (Midwest), Michigan (South), and Tennessee (West).

Virginia, Gonzaga, Nevada, and Michigan State are next in line.

With conference play just beginning, we’re at an awkward stage.

Some teams have tested themselves against tough schedules.

Others have largely filled up their resumes with holiday cupcakes.

We’ll learn lot more about both groups in the next two months.

UPDATED: January 3, 2019

FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
EAST REGION VCU vs. UCF
SOUTH REGION Purdue vs. Temple
EAST REGION Morgan State vs. Niagara
MIDWEST REGION Abilene Christian vs. St. Francis (NY)

EAST Washington, DC              MIDWEST – Kansas City
Columbia, SC Tulsa
1) DUKE 1) KANSAS
16) MORGAN ST / NIAGARA  16) AB-CHRISTIAN / ST. FRANCIS 
8) Villanova 8) Iowa
9) Maryland 9) LSU
San Jose Des Moines
5) Mississippi State 5) North Carolina
12) OLD DOMINION 12) UNC-GREENSBORO
4) HOUSTON 4) Wisconsin
13) LIPSCOMB 13) TEXAS STATE
Tulsa Hartford
6) NC State 6) BUFFALO
11) VCU / UCF 11) Kansas State
3) Texas Tech 3) Ohio State
14) SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 14) PENN
Columbus Salt Lake City
7) SETON HALL 7) Louisville
10) Clemson 10) Florida
2) Michigan State 2) GONZAGA
15) NORTHERN KENTUCKY 15) SOUTH DAKOTA ST
WEST – Anaheim SOUTH – Louisville
Columbia, SC Columbus
1) TENNESSEE 1) MICHIGAN
16) TEXAS SOUTHERN 16) LEHIGH
8) Minnesota 8) St. John’s
9) Iowa State 9) TCU
Salt Lake City Des Moines
5) Marquette 5) Virginia Tech
12) CHARLESTON 12) Purdue / Temple
4) Oklahoma 4) Kentucky
13) NEW MEXICO ST 13) BELMONT
Jacksonville Jacksonville
6) Auburn 6) Cincinnati
11) Texas 11) SAINT LOUIS
3) Indiana 3) Florida State
14) UC-IRVINE 14) VERMONT
Hartford San Jose
7) ARIZONA STATE 7) Nebraska
10) Creighton 10) Washington
2) Virginia 2) NEVADA
15) RADFORD 15) MONTANA

BUBBLE NOTES
Last 4 Byes Last 4 IN      First 4 OUT Next 4 OUT
Clemson VCU Vanderbilt Butler
Washington UCF Syracuse Ole Miss
Texas Purdue Arizona Notre Dame
Kansas State Temple Missouri Alabama

TOP SEED LINE: Duke is the No. 1 overall seed followed by Kansas, Michigan, and Tennessee.

Breakdown by Conference …

Big 10 (10): Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Maryland, Purdue

ACC (8): Duke, Virginia, Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, NC State, Louisville, Clemson

SEC (6): Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Auburn, LSU, Florida

BIG 12 (6): Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa State, TCU, Texas, Kansas State

Big East (5): Seton Hall, Marquette, St. John’s, Villanova, Creighton

American (4): Houston, Cincinnati, UCF, Temple

Pac 12 (2): Arizona State, Washington

Atlantic 10 (2): Saint Louis, VCU

Mountain West (1): Nevada

West Coast (1): Gonzaga

ONE BID LEAGUES: Southern Illinois (MVC), Niagara (MAAC), Old Dominion (C-USA), Texas State (SBELT), Penn (IVY), Montana (BSKY), Northern Kentucky (HORIZON), Abilene Christian (SLND), UNC-Greensboro (STHN), UC-Irvine (BWEST), Buffalo (MAC), Lipscomb (ASUN), Belmont (OVC), Charleston (CAA), Radford (BSO), Morgan State (MEAC), South Dakota State (SUM), New Mexico State (WAC), Vermont (AEAST), Lehigh (PAT), St. Francis-NY (NEC), Texas Southern (SWAC)

VIDEO: Georgia State caps 22-point comeback win at Alabama with buzzer-beating three

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Georgia State stormed back from a 22-point second half deficit to knock off Alabama 83-80 on a walk-off 3-pointer from forward Malik Benlevi.

With 25 seconds left, Georgia State (6-3) milked the clock with the game tied at 80. The ball swung around the perimeter until it found a wide-open Benlevi who swished a 3-pointer as time expired. The refs went to the monitor to review it, but it was clear Benlevi got the ball out of his hands in time.

Benlevi was one of four Georgia State players to score in double figures, putting in 16 points and grabbing 8 rebounds. Georgia State guard D’Marcus Simonds had a game-high 23 points. Georgia State’s Jeff Thomas and Kane Williams added 14 and 12 points, respectively.

After scoring 31 points in the first half, Georgia State scored 44 in the final 14 minutes to close Alabama out.

“Wow,” Georgia State coach Ron Hunter said. “Really, really proud of our kids. What a great win for us.”

Four Alabama players scored in double digits in the losing effort. Freshman guard Kira Lewis Jr. led the Tide with 19 points, including knocking down five 3s on the night. Junior Dazon Ingram had a strong showing off the bench with a season-high 17. Senior forward Donta Hall recorded his third double-double of the year with 11 points and 11 rebounds, while junior forward Tevin Mack started in his first game this season and put in 12 points.

Alabama (5-3) came out hot for the first 20 minutes, shooting 59 percent from the floor and 42 percent from three, making 8 of 19.

The Crimson Tide jumped out to an 18-9 lead. Georgia State cut the lead to five before Alabama used a 17-2 run over a 3:34 stretch to increase its lead to 47-29. The Tide led going into halftime, 52-31.

Georgia State came out sluggish in the opening half, but turned up the defensive pressure in the second. Alabama shot just 29 percent in the second half, making only seven shots and just 2 of 9 from distance.

Georgia State outscored Alabama 52-28 after halftime. The second half saw Georgia State capitalize on a long offensive drought from Alabama. The Crimson Tide was unable to hit a field goal for a span of 9:18 over the course of the second half.

Alabama coach Avery Johnson called it a “tale of two halves.”

“I’m the coach, and I’m the one responsible,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. “Not the players. It’s me.”

BIG PICTURE

This is the type of loss that can kill a team’s resume when it comes time to earn an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. Alabama had a golden opportunity to beat a potential tournament team, but picked the worst time to go cold from the field. That’s now back-to-back tough losses after Alabama lost to UCF in Orlando last week.

For Georgia State, the win is a good boost for the team’s confidence, but even Hunter acknowledged that is doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things. Hunter said it’s all about getting ready to play in January and February when it’s time for the Sun Belt Conference tournament. The win helped Georgia State rebound from a 78-52 loss at Liberty last week.

2018-19 SEC Preview: Can Kentucky beat out Tennessee, Auburn?

Chet White | UK Athletics
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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the SEC.


Known mostly as a football (or even baseball) conference for many years, the SEC is starting to come into form as a deep and respected basketball league.

The SEC’s stable of coaches has improved dramatically over the last decade, and with that, has come an influx of talent and top programs.

This season’s SEC boasts three serious contenders along with a bevy of second-tier teams who are dangerous enough to make deep postseason runs if things really come together.

The SEC features elite coaches, McDonald’s All-American freshmen, and a lot of returning talent from successful teams.

It should be another fun year for a league that was once a basketball afterthought.

Let’s get into it.



FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. The SEC should send a bunch of teams back to the NCAA tournament

Last season was a banner year for the SEC. The league sent a record eight teams to the NCAA tournament. The SEC had tons of top-50 caliber teams. This isn’t just a football conference anymore. The SEC has some serious depth on the hardwood.

We all know about Kentucky’s yearly influx of elite talent. It’s the other conference regular season leaders like Auburn and Tennessee who are the returning teams to keep an eye on. Both co-SEC regular season champions return most of last season’s teams. Then there are others like LSU, Mississippi State, Florida and Vanderbilt who have loads of young talent coming in. That should make for another deep year of SEC NCAA tournament teams. Even the group of teams just after the second tier shouldn’t be slept on. The depth of coaching and talent in the SEC is as good as it has ever been.

It should make for some unpredictable action in the conference this season as it will be very difficult to earn wins on the road.

2. Kentucky has as much depth as its had in years

We can usually count on Kentucky having a freshman-heavy team of elite recruits. That’s the case with five top-40 recruits — four of them five-star prospects. What makes this Kentucky team especially unique is that three McDonald’s All-American sophomores return in P.J. Washington, Nick Richards and Quade Green. Stanford graduate transfer Reid Travis put up monster numbers last season as he’s immediately eligible of the Wildcats.

This is perhaps the deepest and most balanced Kentucky team we’ve seen since the Final Four team in 2015 as this Wildcat team has the potential to go nine or 10 deep. Freshmen like Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans help Kentucky’s ball-handling and perimeter defense while guards Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro should help provide scoring on the wing. E.J. Montgomery is a great option to have in the frontcourt to spell Richards, Washington or Travis.

If the exhibition trip to the Bahamas is any indicator of how talented and deep Kentucky is, then the Wildcats could be a major national title contender and the favorite in the SEC. They have a bit of everything this season, and the upside is scary.

Grant Williams (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

3. Returning SEC champion Tennessee returns most of its team

For as good as Kentucky is on paper, Tennessee will still be a force to be reckoned with. The Vols return basically the entire roster from a team that won a share of the SEC regular season title. SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams is back. He’s surrounded by four returning upperclass starters. SEC Sixth Man of the Year Lamonte Turner also returns for his junior season.

Tennessee returns a talented and cohesive top six that are all upperclassmen. The key could be the team’s play at point guard. We know Williams and Admiral Schofield as the team’s top two players. Senior big man Kyle Alexander is a solid glue guy who can protect the rim. The up-and-down play of Jordan Bone, Turner and Jordan Bowden at point has to get stronger.

Bone is the starter and steady for most of the time. Turner comes off the bench as a heat-check scorer who can also distribute. Bowden usually defends the other team’s top perimeter threat and adds some other elements as well. But all three of those guys shot just below 40 percent from the field. If that trio gets stronger, and becomes more efficient, then Tennessee has even more room to grow from last season and a Sweet 16 is very possible.

4. Auburn returns two key players suspended after the FBI investigations last season

Tennessee isn’t the only returning SEC regular season roster with a talented returning roster. Auburn shouldn’t be counted out either. The Tigers return a lot of contributors while returning two key players who sat out last season. Expectations will be huge for Auburn after last season’s unexpected success.

Although the Tigers lost Mustapha Heron to transfer and Desean Murray is gone as well, they gain forward Danjel Purifoy and center Austin Wiley. VCU transfer Samir Doughty is also eligible, as he’ll provide some rotational depth at guard.

Bryce Brown (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

With Auburn returning six rotation players from last season’s team, they should have plenty of options to choose from this year despite the losses. Auburn’s frontcourt depth will be superior to last season, as Purifoy and Wiley make the Tigers much bigger and more athletic. If Auburn goes with Chuma Okeke at the three, then they’ll have the size to go against some bigger lineups like Kentucky or Tennessee.

And Auburn’s guards are already well-established as Bryce Brown and Jared Harper are proven upperclass scorers. With that duo having Doughty and senior Malik Dunbar behind them, Auburn appears to also have solid depth on the perimeter. Integrating Wiley and Purifoy back into the rotation and changing how Auburn’s lineup might play could take an adjustment period. But this new-look lineup also lends itself to more versatile looks and size on the interior. Auburn should stay right in the SEC race if their two lineups can blend together.

5. LSU, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Alabama are all capable of making it to the NCAA tournament

The race for the SEC’s regular season title is going to be very fun to watch this season. There are also a group of second-tier SEC teams worth keeping track of. This league, once again, looks like it will have a lot of depth this season.

It’s clear that Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee look like the three favorites of the league this preseason. But the second group of teams in the conference shouldn’t be taken lightly. LSU, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Alabama are all capable of making it to the NCAA tournament thanks to deep rosters of talented players. Missouri would also very likely be in that group of second-tier SEC teams if they didn’t lose Jontay Porter for the season with a torn ACL.

Although the three favorites look like top-15 teams this season, don’t be surprised if one of these second-tier teams ends up making a deep tournament run, or even finishing in that top three of the regular season standings.

John Calipari (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

The reigning SEC Player of the Year has the same team back around him this season as the Vols have big expectations. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound Williams is a load to handle on the interior thanks to his natural strength as he’s able to play through contact while handling double teams.

An underrated passer out of the post, Williams can find shooters and wings for easy looks as he’s a huge part of Tennessee’s inside-outside game. The junior put up 15.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game last season while shooting 47 percent from the field.

THE REST OF THE SEC FIRST TEAM

  • P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky: Big expectations are on tap for Washington after a promising freshman season. The 6-foot-7 forward put up 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game last season. If he improves his 23 percent three-point shooting then Washington could be a matchup nightmare for opponents.
  • REID TRAVIS, Kentucky: It’s doubtful Travis matches the 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game he put up at Stanford. But Travis will also have more talent around him, as he won’t get as many double teams. And his natural strength is elite at the college level, as he should rebound at a high level.
  • BRYCE BROWN, Auburn: The senior guard is the SEC’s most prolific three-point shooter as his range makes him a deadly threat. Brown averaged 15.9 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.7 assists last season as he’ll be counted on for more offense with Mustapha Heron gone.
  • TREMONT WATERS, LSU: Brilliant at times as a freshman, the 5-foot-11 Waters is capable of running an effective offense or taking over the scoring himself. Armed with a deep pull-up game, Waters could have some monster games this season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas
  • DARIUS GARLAND, Vanderbilt
  • JARED HARPER, Auburn
  • JALEN HUDSON, Florida
  • QUINNDARY WEATHERSPOON, Mississippi State
Admiral Schofield (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Tennessee has huge expectations with the entire team returning. Schofield, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound wing, is capable of making the Vols one of the most flexible teams in the country. With the size and strength to play bigger, but the skill level (39 percent three-point shooting) to play on the wing, Schofield enables Tennessee to throw different looks at opponents since he usually plays the three. Schofield should get more national attention this season as Tennessee’s second option beside Grant Williams.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

The SEC doesn’t have many coaches on the actual hot seat since so many are coming off of tournament appearances or recently being hired. But Auburn’s Bruce Pearl is going to face big expectations this season a year after the Tigers unexpectedly made the Round of 32. And now the Tigers get two key players in Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley back.

Auburn will face big expectations this season, and they’ll be expected to deliver results. If Pearl and Auburn flop, then the FBI investigation is still looming, and many of the teams veterans are starting to filter through the program. The Tigers have a lot on the line this season.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The SEC has a deep collection of teams with some legitimate Final Four contenders in Kentucky and Tennessee.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

It’s strange to feel excited about SEC conference play — for basketball. But the SEC was unpredictable, loaded with talent and completely compelling to watch last season. So much of the league’s talent is returning along with some seriously talented freshmen. It should be another great year to watch the SEC conference race.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Nov. 6, Duke vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic, Indianapolis)
  • Nov. 9, Washington at Auburn
  • Nov. 29, Kentucky at Louisville
  • Dec. 9, Gonzaga vs. Tennessee (in Phoenix)
  • Jan. 26, Kansas at Kentucky (Big 12/SEC Challenge)
Keldon Johnson (Chet White, UK Athletics)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. KENTUCKY: Kentucky’s depth and how it figures out the rotation will be something to monitor during the season. With three-point shooting being an issue last season, the Wildcats should improve that mark this season with the addition of guys like Herro. Frontline depth is also a major strength for the Wildcats as they feature veteran experience coupled with talented freshmen.

As long as Kentucky gets consistent point guard play and hits enough shots, they will come at teams in waves at both ends of the floor. For most teams, that should be too much to deal with.

2. TENNESSEE: The Vols are a preseason top-10 team with loads of balance and experience. And they’ll be tested by a tough schedule that includes West Virginia, Gonzaga, Louisville and Georgia Tech during non-conference play. If Tennessee’s perimeter play gets slightly better than this is a team with Final Four upside thanks to the frontcourt versatility.

Tennessee can play big and physical with teams like Kentucky, or they can use a surprising amount of perimeter skill and shooting if teams try to go uptempo with small-ball lineups. That’s what makes Tennessee such an intriguing team for this season. They should be able to win in a number of different ways.

3. AUBURN: With a top-40 offense and defense last season, the Tigers didn’t have many holes except for frontcourt depth. That was fixed since Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy are both back. As long as that duo can come in and play at a solid level, then Horace Spencer and Anfernee McLemore provides quality frontcourt depth for the Tigers.

From there, the Auburn backcourt should be able to handle itself like last season. Brown and Harper are one of the toughest duos in the conference, and improved depth should also be present on the perimeter. There are still looming questions about the FBI investigation. And the Tigers have been hit with the injury bug early this season. But they still have huge expectations entering this season.

4. LSU: An NIT with big dreams thanks to a strong incoming recruiting class, LSU has a lot to be excited about. It starts with sophomore point guard Tremont Waters. A potential All-American who can take over a game with his scoring, Waters gets help from Skylar Mays, Daryl Edwards and a five-star backcourt newcomer in Javonte Smart.

But it’s LSU’s revamped frontcourt that has people very excited. Freshmen Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams were both five-star recruits and should play an immediate role. Transfer senior Kavell Bigby-Williams (Oregon) and junior college big man Courtese Cooper should also add to the depth while freshman Darius Days is another touted four-star prospect.

LSU ultimately has the tools to be one of the best teams in the country. It’s all going to depend on how the frontcourt of freshmen like Reid and Williams performs this season. Waters has a chance to be sensational, but he needs more consistency and help from the supporting cast for LSU to make a deep run.

Tremont Waters (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

5. MISSISSIPPI STATE: It looks like things should be promising for Mississippi State this season. The Bulldogs return all five starters and a quality sixth man while bringing in a top-20 recruiting class from an NIT team. That means head coach Ben Howland should take this program to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.

The Weatherspoon brothers, Quinndary and Nick, are back to bring scoring, along with junior floor general Lamar Peters. As long as that trio can shoot more effectively from three-point range, they will be nearly impossible to defend. Junior guard Tyson Carter also returns after starting half his games and playing over 20 minutes per game last season. This perimeter group is tough and experienced. The interior has sophomore center Abdul Ado and senior Aric Holman returning along with freshman forward Reggie Perry. The McDonald’s All-American, along with junior college center Jethro Tshisumpa, gives the Bulldogs more interior depth this season.

With a core that has played together for a long time, along with an infusion of young talent and frontcourt depth, and Mississippi State should return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade.

6. FLORIDA: Florida has a lot to like about its team this season. Two high-scoring senior guards in Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen have returned as they play with a five-star freshman point guard in Andrew Nembhard. That trio has the chance to be long and athletic as Nembhard’s natural passing ability and leadership should help others get good looks.

The Gators return some veterans in the frontcourt, but that duo will have to improve when it comes to physicality and rebounding. Senior Kevarrius Hayes and junior Keith Stone both played extended periods last season, as both need to get tougher on the interior. That duo should be helped by a younger and healthier rotation that includes junior Gorjok Gak, sophomore Chase Johnson and freshman Isaiah Stokes. The bench also has some talent to watch with forward Deaundrae Ballard and guard Keyontae Johnson.

Replacing Chris Chiozza at point is going to be difficult, but Florida has a chance to make a new imprint with the bigger Nembhard at point. The Gators still have interior question marks, but they’ll have the perimeter punch to make nearly anybody.

7. VANDERBILT: The recruiting addition of two McDonald’s All-Americans has Vanderbilt with huge expectations for this season. Point guard Darius Garland’s signing was big for the Commodores as the five-star gives Vanderbilt two quality lead guards in a young backcourt that includes sophomore Saben Lee. Garland and Lee should be dangerous right away, especially is Lee can improve his 30 percent three-point shooting.

Besides for Garland, five-star big man Simi Shittu is a giant addition on the interior. Shittu is coming off of a torn ACL, but he had top-five potential in the class if his trajectory continued. Junior forward Clevon Brown and senior wing Joe Toye received plenty of minutes last season. Shittu should also play plenty with Division II transfer Yanni Wetzell (St. Mary’s TX) a New Zealander who put up big numbers before his move to the SEC. Notre Dame transfer Matt Ryan and freshman Aaron Nesmith should also add perimeter shooting to a group that could use a lot more of it.

Vanderbilt had a top-30 offense last season, so with the addition of talents like Garland and Shittu, it’ll be interesting to see if head coach Bryce Drew’s offense can sustain that kind of effectiveness. The Commodores have some big-time talent as they should be a dangerous team this season.

8. ALABAMA: Moving on from Collin Sexton and Braxton Key is going to be difficult. The good news for Alabama is that the rest of a talented and young roster is back. Eight players who averaged double-figure minutes are back for the Crimson Tide.

The key for Alabama is finding a replacement go-to scorer for Sexton. Senior forward Donta Hall, sophomore guard John Petty and junior guard Dazon Ingram are all capable scorers as Petty could be the one to make a big leap. In the frontcourt, junior Daniel Giddens and sophomores Alex Reese and Galin Smith all received solid minutes last season to form a good rotation for Alabama. In the perimeter, sophomore Herb Jones could be another key player for Alabama this season. A potential two-way wing with devastating defensive upside, Jones has the tools to be great.

Texas transfer Tevin Mack also joins to program and senior wing Riley Norris and guard Avery Johnson Jr. have all played in big games. As long as the Crimson Tide find a go-to scorer, they have the depth and talent to return to the tournament.

Cuonzo Martin (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

9. MISSOURI: It’s almost as if Missouri and head coach Cuonzo Martin have to hit the reset button from last season. The top two scorers are gone as Jordan Barnett and Kassius Robertson have graduated. There will be no Porter presence this season after Michael Jr. went pro and Jontay tore his ACL in the preseason. But the Tigers still have a lot of young talent.

The frontcourt of sophomore Jeremiah Tilmon and senior Kevin Puryear has a shot to be good. The guard play of the Tigers is going to be key. Point guard is a concern as senior Jordan Geist, Illinois transfer Mark Smith and a group of freshmen will all try their hand at the position early on. Missouri has plenty of talent coming into the pipeline. But this group might be too young and inexperienced to make a major dent in a talented league this season.

10. GEORGIA: Tom Crean takes over as head coach from Mark Fox as he inherits a decent rotation. The crop of bigs includes some depth and talent as senior Derek Ogbeide and sophomores Nicolas Claxton and Rayshaun Hammonds are a key part of Georgia’s season.

The backcourt also has some former starters as Turtle Jackson and sophomore Teshaun Hightower both started at point last season while Tyree Crump also earned legitimate minutes. Georgia is going to have a very tough time replacing departed forward Yante Maten. But this team will also play a bit more uptempo and shoot a lot more three-pointers under Crean this season. This roster is talented enough to surprise, as Georgia could be an intriguing spoiler.

11. TEXAS A&M: A new-look Texas A&M group won’t feature loads of interior talent and depth that we’ve seen the last several seasons. This version of the Aggies will be guard-heavy. There could be a lot of three- and four-guard sets this season.

Returning guards like junior Admon Gilder and sophomore T.J. Starks lead the way this season as they look for a whole new supporting cast. Transfers like Christian Mekowulu (Tennessee State) and Josh Nebo (St. Francis) should help defensively on the interior while JUCO transfers like Wendell Mitchell and Bandon Mahan help with more depth on the wing. Texas A&M will have to find their way pretty quickly. This group already lost a secret scrimmage to Stephen F. Austin as the season draws closer.

12. ARKANSAS: Arkansas will have more newcomers than Kentucky this season, so a transition year is expected for the Razorbacks. The good news is the return of sophomore center Daniel Gafford — a potential first-round pick next season. Gafford is a force on both ends of the floor, and with some offensive improvement, he’s a sleeper All-American pick.

From there, Arkansas has to integrate eight new freshmen and two sophomore transfers into a new rotation. Junior guard Adrio Bailey and sophomore forward Gabe Osabuohien are the only two other returning players with solid SEC experience. Guard play will be huge for Arkansas as New Mexico transfer Jalen Harris could get a shot to run point early. The Razorbacks have to hope for a big season from Gafford while hoping the newcomers are ready to hit the deep end.

13. SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks haven’t found consistent footing since reaching the Final Four in 2017. Last season’s roster barely finished above .500 as this roster looks very similar this season. South Carolina’s strength lies in the frontcourt as senior Chris Silva and junior Maik Kotsar are returning starters with plenty of experience.

Backcourt depth and questions are point guard are the chief concerns. Hassani Gravett is more natural off the ball, so the Gamecocks are hoping Georgetown grad transfer Tre Campbell or a freshman like T.J. Moss can help earn some minutes at lead guard. Preseason hasn’t been kind to South Carolina either. They’ve already lost to Division II Augusta in a game in which the veteran frontcourt barely showed up.

14. OLE MISS: New head coach Kermit Davis only inherits five scholarship players from a team that was already last in the SEC the previous year. While the Rebels don’t have a lot of experienced pieces, they do return some SEC-caliber players in senior guard Terence Davis, senior forward Bruce Stevens and junior guard Breein Tyree. Sophomore guard Devontae Shuler should also make a leap, meaning Ole Miss has some decent backcourt depth.

Ole Miss is hoping that Davis’ defensive work at Middle Tennessee comes to the Rebels. Ole Miss was one of the worst defensive high-major teams in the country last season. If Ole Miss doesn’t get more stops, while developing some young talent, it could be another long season.