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SEC men’s basketball: Previewing the 2016-17 conference schedule

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Kentucky heavy favorite to win the conference, potential threats loom

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Conference play is about to begin in the SEC and although there is a clear favorite, everything after that seems blurry. Will Kentucky run the tables again or will there be a new heir to the throne? The story is yet to be told, but non-conference play has given us an idea of how things will go down.

Favorite: Kentucky

Once again, Coach John Calipari has yet another impressive squad due to more high caliber freshmen. Ranked in the top 10 early on, the Wildcats have looked very poised, especially behind the strong play of freshmen guards De’Aaron Fox (16.3 PPG, 6.8 APG, 5.0 RPG) and Malik Monk (SEC-best 21.4 PPG). Sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe and freshman big man Edrice “Bam” Adebayo also average in double-digit scoring.

My take: Kentucky has looked raw at times early on, but expect them to only get better as the season progresses; they should win the conference fairly easily.

Contenders Looming: South Carolina, Auburn, Arkansas, Florida

South Carolina:

This is the team that probably has the best shot to dethrone the Wildcats. The Gamecocks have two early impressive wins against Michigan and Syracuse, but have dropped two of their last three games to unranked Seton Hall and Clemson. Senior guard Sindarius Thornwell was averaging a career-high 18.7 points per game before his suspension. With that being said, P.J. Dozier is the X-factor. Coming out of high school as a five-star wing, he had a rather disappointing freshman campaign, but has really showed up early on in his sophomore year; he’s adding 15.5 points and almost five rebounds per contest.

My take: Thornwell and Dozier must continue to produce at high levels, but will need more help from the supporting cast on a nightly basis.

Auburn:

The Tigers are the other team that has a decent shot at winning the conference. Like Kentucky, Auburn is also led by highly touted freshmen in Mustapha Heron (15.9 PPG & 6.8 RPG), Danjel Purifoy (14.7 PPG & 6.2 PPG), and Jared Harper (12.8 PPG). 2017 five-star wing Austin Wiley has reclassified and is eligible to play right away also.

My take: Auburn has the talent and size to matchup with anyone in the conference, but must maintain discipline and develop more chemistry to be a true contender.

Arkansas:

Although their non-conference strength of schedule was more on the weak side, Arkansas currently holds an 11-1 record, the best in the SEC. The one thing that sticks out about the Razorbacks is their balance; along with a good supporting cast, they have a strong core of four double-digit scorers: Dusty Hannahs, Daryl Macon, Moses Kingsley, and Jaylen Barford.

My take: The Razorbacks are a sound team that doesn’t have a huge drop off after the starting five, but may lack the fire power and consistency.

Florida:

Similar to Arkansas, the Gators have a balanced team led by sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen (13.6 PPG) and junior forward Devyn Robinson (12.4 PPG & 5.8 RPG). However, they do not have a true leader and veteran guard Kasey Hill isn’t scoring like everyone thought he would early on (9.8 PPG), creating concerns for Florida.

My take: Without a true leader, Florida has struggled often and it will only get harder from here. The question will be if Florida can find their identity before they’re too far behind.

Key Games:

South Carolina @ Kentucky (1/21)

Auburn @ Tennessee (1/31)

Arkansas @ South Carolina (2/15)

South Carolina @ Florida (2/21)

Auburn @ Georgia (3/1)

Kentucky @ Texas A&M (3/4)

Predicted All-Conference First-Team

G- De’Aaron Fox (Kentucky)

G- Malik Monk (Kentucky)

G- Sindarius Thornwell (South Carolina)

F- Yante Maten (Georgia)

F- Sebastian Saiz (Ole Miss)

Predicted All-Conference Second-Team

G- Mustapha Heron (Auburn)

G- Isaiah Briscoe (Kentucky)

G- Antonio Blakeney (LSU)

F- Bam Adebayo (Kentucky)

F- Tyler Davis (Texas A&M)

Predicted Conference Player of the Year: De’Aaron Fox

Kentucky v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

This might come as a surprise to some considering the shooting displays put on by his teammate Malik Monk, but Fox can flat out do it all. The 6’3” freshman from Houston, Texas is one of the toughest players to guard due to his size and lightning-quick speed. While averaging 16.3 PPG, 6.8 APG, and 5.0 RPG; Fox has established himself as Calipari’s floor general...which isn’t a bad title (note: Derrick Rose, John Wall, Brandon Knight, Tyler Ulis). It could be argued that De’Aaron is the Wildcats’ most pivotal asset and maybe even the quickest player in the nation.