So, look, we all love football. Duh. That’s obvious. But the reality also remains that as we get deeper into September it also means we get closer to the start of college basketball season each and every day.
No one is complaining about that.
And if we needed proof of just how close things are getting, a big, final piece of the 2019-2020 college basketball puzzle came together on Tuesday, when the SEC released its full basketball schedule. Things tip off on January 4th (with what is a very juicy slate) and run all the way until mid-March with the SEC Tournament in Nashville.
And now that the schedule officially out, it seems like now is as good a time as any to get some quick reactions.
Below are some thoughts on the league schedule as a whole.
Also, before we get started, here is a look at how I have the SEC ranked headed into the preseason. As a baseline, I believe that – as things stand in mid-September – Kentucky, Florida, LSU, Auburn, Alabama, Mississippi State and Tennessee are in good shape to make the NCAA Tournament. I also believe that Arkansas and Ole Miss will be around the bubble all year. On the flip side, I’m not as sold on Georgia as everyone else. South Carolina, Texas A&M, Missouri and Vandy will be competitive, but someone has to finish at the bottom of the league. And they seem like it.
With that as a baseline, here are some thoughts on the schedule:
SEC Hoops Starts off With a Bang!
Yes, SEC will always be football country. We all get that. But the league did an excellent job this year of setting up marquee matchups on the opening day of conference play, which should set the tone for the season ahead.
Auburn will play at Mississippi State, in a matchup of two teams that made the Big Dance last year and should feel good about getting back in 2020. Alabama is a sleeper in the conference with the return of Kira Lewis and John Petty, and opens at Florida, which might be the preseason favorite (I personally have Kentucky). And you want to talk about bad blood, how about this: Last season, LSU won the regular season SEC title, edging Tennessee down the stretch. Considering the, umm, circumstances with which LSU won it (you know, with LSU having a potentially higher payroll than the Brooklyn Nets) Vols fans weren’t happy.
So, how about the fact that LSU opens this season at Tennessee and Thompson-Boling Arena. Think Vols fans will be fired up?
Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, it’s a bit of a pedestrian start to the season, as they host Missouri, which should be improved, but not elite this season.
Kentucky’s Front-End of the Schedule is Manageable:
Kentucky is the SEC’s marquee program, and because of it, the league is never going to make it easy on the Wildcats. But the front part of their schedule is manageable. Of their first seven games, four are at home, with only Alabama looking like a formidable threat. And of the three road games, two are against a pair of teams that I’m just not sold on – Georgia and South Carolina. Half the national media will try to tell you how great Georgia is this season, but I just don’t buy it. The Dawgs were abjectly terrible last season, and Tom Crean isn’t the kind of coach who will get the most out of his young players. Especially early. The Wildcats should be comfortable favorites in that game.
Of the opening stretch, the two biggest challenges will be facing a good Alabama team at home, and Arkansas on the road. Bud Walton Arena is always buzzing, and you know that Eric Musselman will infuse some life into that program and arena by the time this game comes around.
Still, it seems like a worst-case scenario for Kentucky to open the SEC would be a 5-2 mark, and 6-1 seems likely. A 7-0 start is definitely in play.
On the flip side, the Back-End of Kentucky’s Schedule Is Brutal:
As easy as the front end of the schedule is, the back-end is equally as tough.
Kentucky’s final six games read like a “Who’s Who” of SEC powers: at LSU, Florida, at Texas A&M, Auburn, Tennessee and at Florida.
Realistically five of those six games will be against NCAA Tournament teams, and you’re talking about facing arguably the two best teams in the SEC not named “Kentucky” both on the road in LSU and Florida over those final six.
Plus, the one non-marquee opponent is Texas A&M, and it’s not like College Station is an easy spot to win. Kentucky lost to the Aggies in both 2016 and 2018 when they played Texas A&M on the road.
Wrapping on Kentucky, I Hate How the Two Best Teams Play Twice Late in the Season:
If I have one gripe with the SEC schedule makers, it’s that I hate, hate, HATE how they always manage to squeeze the matchups between the best teams into the final few weeks of the season. Last year, Kentucky played Tennessee twice after Valentines Day. This year they play Florida twice after February 22nd.
Look, I know it’s to build excitement and create hype, but guess what: These are the two best teams in the league, there will be hype whenever they play!
So the SEC schedule-makers, here’s some advice for next season: Put one game in late January and the other one to end the season. We shouldn’t have to wait until late February to see these two teams go against each other.
The Kerry Blackshear SEC Hate Tour Will Be Fun
Because players come and go so quickly, there isn’t enough genuine hatred between players and fan-bases anymore.
That should change this season however, with the arrival of Kerry Blackshear at Florida. Not to say that Blackshear himself is hate-able. But remember that before he committed to Florida, Blackshear took trips to Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. And at various points in the recruitment, there were rumors that Blackshear favored all three of those schools.
While that isn’t necessarily Blackshear’s fault (as much as the media who covers him) it doesn’t necessarily make him the most liked man across the SEC this season either.
Expect his trips to Lexington (February 22nd) and Knoxville (February 29th) to be two of the most hostile arenas anywhere in the SEC all season.
Speaking of Florida, the League Did Them Some Favors This Year
Last year Florida had a gauntlet of a schedule, as they were the only team that had to play LSU, Tennessee and Kentucky twice each. For those that don’t remember, those are the teams that finished 1-2-3 in the final SEC standings. All three also earned 3-seeds or better in the NCAA Tournament, and each advanced to the Sweet 16 or further. So yeah, the SEC did the Gators no favors last year.
But this year? Well, there are still home-and-homes with Kentucky and LSU, but there are some breaks as well. Specifically, they only play Alabama, Tennessee, Auburn and Mississippi State once each, four teams that look like early NCAA Tournament contenders. Of those four games, they get Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State all at home, without a return trip to the visiting arenas. They also don’t have to travel to Arkansas, which is one of the more brutal road environments in the SEC.
Kentucky appears to be the best team on paper to me, but Florida’s road to an SEC regular season title seems much more manageable.
The SEC Also Lightened Things Up on Tennessee
The Vols are another club which has an easier path through the SEC than in years past, with just one game against Florida, LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss (the Rebels are another quality team). Their only game against Florida and LSU – arguably two of the top three teams in the league are both at home.
However, I’d add that the Vols final five are no walk in the park either, when they play at Auburn, at Arkansas, Florida, at Kentucky and at Auburn.
So while the Vols do get a break to start, few teams will have a tougher finish than the Vols.
Speaking of a Tough Finishing Stretch, How About Auburn?
As you may remember, Auburn is the reigning SEC Tournament champs, the Auburn Tigers who of course advanced to their first Final Four in school history last year.
Apparently the SEC noticed, as they play a gauntlet of a schedule, that includes two games each against Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee, as well as Ole Miss, which should be in the mix for a tourney spot down the stretch. More importantly, their last five are BRUTAL, with the schedule looking like this: Tennessee, Ole Miss, at Kentucky, Texas A&M and at Tennessee.
Trips to Rupp and Thompson-Boling Arena in the final week-and-a-half of the season?
No one has a tougher final stretch than the Tigers.
The Wildest Schedule Quirk Comes Courtesy of Alabama
If Nate Oats was looking for a warm welcome to the SEC, the league offices did him no favors. Get this: Of Alabama’s first three SEC games, two of them are at Florida and at Kentucky. In an even stranger twist, that’s the only time Alabama will face either team.
That’s right: The Tide will be done with the two best teams in the league by the middle of January.
Not to say that the rest of Alabama’s schedule is easy – they play LSU, Auburn and Mississippi State twice apiece.
Bud Walton Will be Rocking
As mentioned up top, Bud Walton is always one of the toughest places to play in the SEC, and when you add in Eric Musselman – who is a walking, talking, ball of energy – the venue could be even better for bigger games.
Therefore, shout out to the SEC, which certainly gave Coach Muss no shortage of big ones in his first season in the SEC.
Among the teams who will visit Fayetteville include Kentucky (the only game Arkansas plays against them this season), Auburn, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Auburn and LSU.
Not a bad way to kick things off in Year 1 of the Musselman era, I must say.
Things aren’t so bad for LSU
Finally, let’s wrap with the Bad Boys of College Basketball (yes, that’s what we’re calling them from now on) the reigning SEC champs, the LSU Tigers.
Will Wade’s boys were given a tough, but not impossible schedule. They do play both Kentucky and Florida twice, but also get Tennessee, Mississippi State and Auburn once apiece.
SEC basketball just means more, folks.
And it will be here before you know it.