Kentucky currently sits as the No. 4 team in the Southeastern conference, behind Auburn, Arkansas and Mississippi State. The Cats will begin conference play following the matchup with in-state rival Louisville, when they face-off against Missouri.
Last season, UK was 15-3 in regular-season conference play, with losses coming at Alabama, vs. No. 14 LSU and at No. 7 Tennessee. The team also fell to the Volunteers in the SEC Tournament before ultimately being eliminated in the Elite Eight by Auburn. But it’s a completely new season, and Kentucky isn’t the only team in the conference with a fresh roster and new strengths and weaknesses. Here’s a look at the rest of the conference.
Last year’s top-tier
In Will Wade’s second season with the Tigers, LSU went 28-7, 16-2 in SEC play to finish as regular season SEC Champions. The team was good enough to beat Kentucky in the regular season inside Rupp Arena on a last-second bucket. They lost in the Quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament to Florida, and they later advanced to the Sweet Sixteen of the Big Dance, where they lost to Michigan State. Head Coach Will Wade was briefly suspended, but he’s currently still serving as the Tigers’ head coach.
Flash forward to this year, and the Tigers were the pre-season pick to finish at No. 3 in the conference, behind Kentucky and Florida, respectively. Senior Skylar Mayes was named to the SEC Pre-Season All-American first team, while sophomore Javonte Smart was listed on the second team.
At 7-4, the Tigers haven’t met expectations so far, and they’re currently tied for eighth place in the conference. LSU’s losses have come at the hands of VCU (away), Utah State (neutral court), East Tennessee State (home) and the University of Southern California (away).
USC takes the win over LSU. pic.twitter.com/X3afNI5He5
— LSU Basketball (@LSUBasketball) December 22, 2019
Kentucky will play LSU just once this year. The game will come on Feb. 18 inside LSU’s home court.
Bruce Pearl led his team to a 30–10 season (11–7 in SEC play) during his fifth season as Auburn’s head coach. They lost to the Cats during both regular-season outings, but the Tigers ultimately came out victorious in their Elite Eight matchup against Kentucky to advance to their first Final Four in program history.
This year’s roster, however, looks totally different. Auburn lost seniors Cole Blackstock, Bryce Brown, Malik Dunbar and Horace Spencer to graduation, while Jared Harper and Chuma Okeke declared for the NBA Draft. They brought in seven new players: three 3-stars, three four-stars and one 5-star, according to Rivals’ rankings.
Despite the turnover, the Tigers are off to a hot start. They’re one of just four teams who remain undefeated, and No. 12 Auburn (11-0) is the only one from a power-five conference. They’re joined by No. 20 San Diego State (11-0), Duquesne (10-0) and Liberty (13-0). The Tigers cruised to a 74-51 victory over Lehigh Saturday, and guard J’Von McCormick led the charge with 18 points, four assists, two rebounds and a steal. Auburn is playing with aggression this season, as seen by their extra 13 trips to the free throw line compared to their opponent.
The Tigers will have two games against the Cats this season – a home and home – coming at the beginning and end of February.
I don’t have to remind you of the Vols’ season last year. Tennessee and Kentucky traded wins during the regular season before UT ultimately beat UK in the SEC Tournament inside Bridgestone Arena.
Like Auburn, the Volunteers underwent a total reload this season after they lost Jordan Bone, Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, among others. They brought in four new recruits, one 5-star and three 3-stars, to go along with two transfers that will be ineligible this season. They were picked to finish fifth in the conference this season, and currently sit 8-3, with losses coming to Florida State, No. 13 Memphis and on the road against Cincinnati. Overall, the season was going pretty much as planned for the Volunteers.
Things changed for Tennessee this weekend when their star senior Lamonte Turner announced he would undergo season-ending surgery on his shoulder. After dealing with a shoulder ailment for the past few months and even years, the team’s best player had finally had enough.
— Lamonte' Turner (@LTurn1) December 22, 2019
Turner led the team this season in assists and ranks second on the team in points per game, and he’s one of just five Volunteers to ever record 1,000 points, 300 rebounds and 300 assists. His absence will be felt by Tennessee, and it’s hard to imagine an overtly-successful season without him on the court.
This year’s predictions
Georgia basketball hasn’t been considered a threat of a program in quite some time. The Bulldogs finished the 2018-19 season with an 11–21 overall record (2-16 in the SEC) under first-year coach Tom Crean, finishing in 13th place in the SEC. Ashton Hagans had one of the best nights of his career against his home-state team last year inside a hostile environment, recording 23 points and silencing the crowd’s booing.
All of that was expected to change this year, as the Bulldogs did enough to reel in a consensus five-star player and one of the country’s top recruits, Anthony Edwards. He was considered the No. 1 player in the class by 247Sports. The Georgia-native picked the Bulldogs over almost all of the blue-blood teams, including Kentucky.
— Georgia Basketball (@UGABasketball) December 11, 2019
Although the freshman guard is averaging just under 20 points per game, he’s not surrounded by players who are competing at even close to his level – Edwards was the only Bulldog listed on either of the SEC Coaches Preseason All-SEC teams. Georgia is 7-3 on the season, with losses to Dayton and Michigan State in the Maui Invitational and Arizona State on the road.
They’re one of the first conference opponents for the Wildcats this season. Kentucky is set to play Georgia on Tuesday, Jan. 7 and again on Tuesday, Jan. 21.
Florida was another SEC team expected to excel this season, thanks in part to their late addition of Kerry Blackshear. You don’t need me to explain that situation to you. They also brought in two 5-stars, Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann, as well as a pair for 4-stars. The Gators were picked to finish second in the SEC this year (behind only UK), and after finishing eighth in the conference last season, Florida basketball was poised to make a splash this year.
That hasn’t panned out so far, as the Gators are currently tied for eighth place in the conference with a 7-4 record. Their losses have come to Florida State at home, on the road at UConn, at Butler and against Utah State.
Not the outcome any of us wanted.
— Florida Gators Men’s Basketball (@GatorsMBK) December 21, 2019
Similarly to the Wildcats, Florida is struggling offensively. Against Utah State, the Gators missed their first 14 shots of the game – eight players attempted a shot before one finally made its way into the basket. Florida shot only 32 percent, including 4-for-17 from the three-point line. They missed seven more in a row in the final minutes of the game after taking a 55-54 lead. Blackshear was predictably excellent, leading Florida with 22 points and a career-high 14 rebounds. He went 15 for 17 from the free throw line, but his efforts weren’t enough. They eventually lost the game 65-62.
Kentucky won’t see Florida until the end of February, when they’ll play on Feb. 22 and again on March 7 in the last regular-season game of the year. That gives both teams plenty of time to figure out their shooting.
This year’s reality…
Auburn is still considered a serious threat in the SEC, while most of the other teams have failed to meet expectations, at least at this point in the season. Quality wins are possible, especially against the Tigers and possibly against Florida, but Kentucky probably won’t see as many “marquee” match-ups as they did in the conference last year (i.e. two games against a top-rated Tennessee, plus a competitive Auburn and LSU).
Still, the Cats could struggle against these opponents, especially if their shooting woes continue. It’s promising that the Cats could have a good overall and conference record by the end of February if the competition isn’t too tough, but that also means Kentucky won’t see many more Quadrant-1 wins, which will factor into their overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. And that means this Kentucky-vs-Louisville game is all the more important.
Time to get to work.