This is finally the year, the one in which the SEC is no longer mocked for being underwhelming, even inept. It's not just Kentucky and Florida, and a bunch of afterthoughts. The league had postseason success last season in men's basketball when South Carolina, Kentucky and Florida all advanced deep into March, and Arkansas and Vanderbilt also made NCAA tournament appearances.
But the league will be much improved this season, maybe even in position to get a record seven SEC teams in the NCAA tournament. There's the usual list of suspects -- Kentucky and Florida -- but Texas A&M has a point guard now to go along with its formidable front line that includes Robert Williams and Tyler Davis, and Alabama has a talented freshmen backcourt of Collin Sexton and John Petty. Even Auburn, which was involved in the preseason scandal in which assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested and then suspended without pay by the school, has talent and depth. Oh, and Missouri has some guy named Michael Porter Jr.
Kentucky won't be a traditional Kentucky team, either, and that might actually bode well for the rest of the league. The Wildcats bring in no shortage of quality freshmen, but there's even more inexperience than ever -- and a concern whether there's a superstar in Lexington, a surefire one-and-done guy.
That should help everyone else, and should make the SEC relevant beyond just the team in Lexington.
Number of teams that should make the NCAA tournament
Seven. The SEC got six in a season ago, and the league had six teams get in for a six-year stretch from 1999 to 2004, but it's never had seven before -- until this season.
Kentucky and Texas A&M should be locks. Florida, as long as John Egbunu comes back healthy in league play, should be fine as well. Alabama, Auburn, Missouri, Arkansas, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and maybe even South Carolina could all be in the mix as well.
The player who will own the SEC
Michael Porter Jr. is the easy answer here, but it could depend on his team's success. Markelle Fultz put up eye-popping numbers last season at Washington, but the Huskies didn't win enough, and were irrelevant so no one truly paid attention to Fultz beyond the NBA folks. Porter is smooth and talented (think of a Kevin Durant-type skill set), but the Tigers will need to be in line for an NCAA tournament berth for him to truly own the league.
The freshman you will want to tune in to see every time he plays
The SEC might have the top two guys in the country in this category. Porter checks in at No. 2. Alabama freshman guard Collin Sexton is so much fun to watch because he's electrifying and you never know what you'll get. He's wild at times, but he's so quick and such an explosive player that it's hard not to want to watch him to see what he'll do next.
Coach with the toughest job
South Carolina's Frank Martin. The Gamecocks pulled the shocker last March and April by advancing to the Final Four, but Martin lost his top three players, all of whom were perimeter guys. Sindarius Thornwell and Duane Notice were seniors, expected to leave, but then PJ Dozier declared early for the NBA and didn't wind up getting drafted. South Carolina is one of the most difficult jobs in the league, and now Martin will have a rebuilding task on his hands, all while still dealing with lofty expectations.
The team that will surprise you
Mississippi State. Ben Howland can coach, and all you need to do is look at the success he had back at UCLA when he went to three consecutive Final Fours and also when he built Pittsburgh up in the Big East. The Bulldogs will rely on the Weatherspoon brothers to become relevant: Quinndary averaged 16.5 points last season and his brother, Nick, comes into Starkville as one of the top freshman in the country. Howland has suffered some defections with Malik Newman transferring to Kansas and Mario Kegler to Baylor, but there's still enough talent to make a run at the NCAA tournament.
The team that will disappoint you
Florida. Most have the Gators as a lock to get to the NCAA tournament, and some even have them winning the SEC. However, it may not be quite that simple: Three of Mike White's top five scorers from last season's Elite Eight squad are gone, and a fourth -- John Egbunu -- is likely out until January after a torn ACL. This team has plenty of guys in new roles, and also new faces with transfers Jalen Hudson (Virginia Tech) and Egor Koulechov (Rice), so time will tell whether this Gators team is a legit SEC title contender or a fringe NCAA tourney team.
The league title will come down to ...
Kentucky and Texas A&M. The Wildcats may not have the star power this year, but John Calipari will have depth, balance and no shortage of length. Kentucky may struggle early to find its identity with a team that's the most inexperienced in the John Calipari era, but the Wildcats should be there at the end. Billy Kennedy's Aggies should be there also with one of the most potent inside duos in the country in Tyler Davis and Robert Williams. Kennedy also has DJ Hogg, Admon Gilder and Tonny Trocha-Morelos back, but most important is that he adds a true point guard in J.J. Caldwell -- who wasn't eligible to play last season.