A new year signifies the beginning of conference play in college basketball, and the SEC will start things off with five conference matchups on Saturday.
The non-conference slate was an interesting one across the conference. While preseason sleepers such as LSU and Vanderbilt stumbled, unranked teams like South Carolina and Texas A&M will start the new year in the Associated Press Top 25.
Even Kentucky got off to a disappointing start by its standards. The Wildcats dropped a pair of games to UCLA and Ohio State and will enter conference play ranked No. 10.
Here are four things to keep an eye on as SEC play tips off:
Can South Carolina keep rolling?
The most pleasant surprise across the SEC has been South Carolina. The Gamecocks are 12-0 and still have one final non-conference test against Memphis on Saturday.
The Gamecocks have a great formula for success under coach Frank Martin, featuring a balanced team that has four players averaging double figures in scoring. South Carolina ranks third in the conference in scoring with 80.6 points per game and third in 3-point shooting by hitting just under 40 percent of its attempts.
South Carolina begins conference play on Tuesday at Auburn before hosting Vanderbilt in its SEC home opener. The Gamecocks should be a considered a contender to win the conference.
Will Kentucky dominate once again?
Kentucky ran the conference table last season, but this year’s squad may not be capable of such a feat. The Wildcats are loaded with talent, but only rank ninth in the conference with an average of 78.1 points per game.
Kentucky doesn’t shoot the 3-point ball well and ranks 11th in the SEC from beyond the arc. Guards Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis are the stars for this team, but they need to establish the broader depth that has defined Kentucky teams in the past. Getting freshman forward Skal Labissiere playing at a higher level should be a priority for coach John Calipari.
The Wildcats are still viewed as one of the best teams in the country, but the window could be open for another SEC team to win the conference.
Can LSU and Vanderbilt right the ship?
LSU and Vanderbilt were both initially projected to make the NCAA Tournament, but now both teams might have to fight to avoid a bursted bubble.
The Commodores are 8-4 entering the SEC slate, but they should be commended for playing a rigorous schedule. Three of Vandy’s four losses came to teams currently ranked and the other one came to Dayton, a quality team from the Atlantic 10.
Vanderbilt will enter conference play without center Luke Kornet, who suffered a knee injury in early December. The good news is Kornet could be back in a couple of weeks.
LSU has quite possibly the best player in the country in Ben Simmons, but it still can’t seem to figure it out. The Tigers went 1-4 during a rough stretch of non-conference play before rattling off three wins against overmatched opponents. LSU ended non-conference play with a disappointing home loss to Wake Forest.
The seasons certainly aren’t over for either the Tigers or Commodores, but they will need to go on a great run in the SEC to even get on the bubble.
Will another team emerge?
Kentucky, Texas A&M and South Carolina all represent the SEC in the AP Top 25, but the quality of the conference’s depth is still uncertain. One team to watch could be Ole Miss.
The Rebels quietly started the season 10-2, but didn’t rack up many quality wins. The Rebels also have the conference’s leading scorer in senior guard Stefan Moody, who is averaging 23.8 points per game.
Ole Miss will get an opportunity to make an early statement when traveling to Lexington, Ky. for a matchup with the Wildcats on Saturday night.
Another team to watch may be Georgia. The Bulldogs started the season with a tough overtime loss to Chattanooga, but have since gone 7-2 in non-conference play and have won four in a row.