(Listed in predicted order of finish)
LAST SEASON: 21-12, 12-6 (T-2nd)
COACH: John Calipari, 123-26 in 4 seasons; 568-166 in 21 overall
PLAYERS TO WATCH: F Julius Randle, 6-9, fr. (0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg); C Willie Cauley-Stein, 7-foot, so. (8.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg); G Andrew Harrison, 6-6, fr. (0.0 apg, 0.0 ppg); Dakari Johnson, 7-foot, fr. (0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg)
NOTABLE: Kentucky will once again follow coach John Calipari’s formula of using the young and most gifted. The Wildcats inject the nation’s top recruiting class to a program that lost in the opening game of the NIT last season, a year after winning the 2012 NCAA championship.
LAST SEASON: 29-8, 14-4 (1st)
COACH: Billy Donovan, 415-166 in 17 seasons; 450-186 in 19 overall
PLAYERS TO WATCH: G Scottie Wilbekin, 6-2, sr. (9.1 ppg, 5 apg); C Patric Young, 6-9, sr. (10.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg); G Michael Frazier II, 6-4, so. (5.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
NOTABLE: Florida returned more than half of the core group of players that led the Gators to a regular-season championship and Elite 8 appearance last season. That should be enough for another strong run under Billy Donovan. The Gamecocks will open SEC play at Florida on Jan. 8.
LAST SEASON: 20-13, 11-7 (T-5th)
COACH: Cuonzo Martin, 39-28 in two seasons; 100-69 in five overall
PLAYERS TO WATCH: G Jordan McRae, 6-6, sr. (15.7 ppg, 4.1 rpg); F Jeronne Maymon, 6-8, sr. (12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg); F Jarnell Stokes, 6-8, jr. (12.4 ppg, 9.8 rpg)
NOTABLE: Expectations are higher in Knoxville after Tennessee reached the 20-win mark in Cuonzo Martin’s second season. In Jordan McRae’s senior season, it’s NCAA Tournament or bust for the Vols.
LAST SEASON: 19-12, 9-9 (T-8th)
COACH: Johnny Jones, 19-12 in one season; 224-174 in 13 overall
PLAYERS TO WATCH: F Johnny O’Bryant III, 6-9, jr. (13.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg); G Anthony Hickey, 5-11, jr. (11.2 ppg, 3.8 apg); F Shavon Coleman, 6-5, sr. (10.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg)
NOTABLE: Johnny O’Bryant III may be the SEC’s most feared interior player this season. He combines with speedy guard Anthony Hickey to give the Tigers a nice inside-out game.
LAST SEASON: 23-11, 11-7 (T-5th)
COACH: Frank Haith, 53-16 in two seasons; 182-117 in nine overall
PLAYERS TO WATCH: G Jabari Brown, 6-5, jr. (13.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg); G Earnest Ross, 6-5, sr. (10.3 ppg, 5 rpg)
NOTABLE: Last season was a disappointment for Missouri, which exited the NCAA Tournament with an opening-game loss to Colorado State. The Tigers lost a lot of firepower from that team, but will have a veteran backcourt with Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross this season.
LAST SEASON: 23-13, 12-6 (T-2nd)
COACH: Anthony Grant, 86-52 in four seasons; 162-77 in seven overall
PLAYERS TO WATCH: G Trevor Releford, 6-0, sr. (14.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg); G Rodney Cooper, 6-6, jr. (10.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
NOTABLE: Alabama narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament last season, despite finishing tied for second in the SEC. The transfer of junior guard Trevor Lacey to N.C. State will hurt, but Trevor Releford may be good enough to keep the Tide in the league’s upper half.
7. Ole Miss
LAST SEASON: 27-9, 12-6 (T-2nd)
COACH: Andy Kennedy, 152-87 in seven seasons; 173-100 in eight overall
PLAYERS TO WATCH: G Marshall Henderson, 6-2, sr. (20.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg); G Jarvis Summers, 6-3, jr. (9.1 ppg, 3.8 apg)
NOTABLE: It’s always entertaining when Marshall Henderson’s on the court — for better or worse. Even with fewer expectations this season — thanks mostly to the departures of Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner — it should be a wild season in Oxford.
LAST SEASON: 19-13, 10-8 (7th)
COACH: Mike Anderson, 37-27 in two seasons; 237-125 in 11 overall
PLAYERS TO WATCH: G Coty Clarke, 6-7, sr. (7.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
NOTABLE: Arkansas was setting up for a nice season this winter, but the Razorbacks must recover after forward Marshawn Powell’s surprising left school early to enter the NBA draft — where he went undrafted.
9. Texas A&M
LAST SEASON: 18-15, 7-11 (11th)
COACH: Billy Kennedy, 32-33 in two seasons; 243-212 in 15 overall
PLAYERS TO WATCH: G Fabyon Harris, 5-11, sr. (12 ppg, 2.3 rpg); F Kourtney Roberson, 6-9, jr. (6.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg)
NOTABLE: Now we start to enter the realm of the hot seat. Billy Kennedy would do himself well by getting the Aggies into the postseason.
LAST SEASON: 16-17, 8-10 (10th)
COACH: Cuonzo Martin, 277-176 in 14 seasons; 400-239 in 20 overall
PLAYERS TO WATCH: F Rod Odom, 6-9, sr. (10.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg); G Kyle Fuller, 6-1, sr. (8.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg)
NOTABLE: Vanderbilt snapped a string of seven straight seasons without a losing SEC record last winter. Things are unlikely to get better this season.
LAST SEASON: 15-17, 9-9 (T-8th)
COACH: Mark Fox, 65-63 in four seasons; 188-106 in nine overall
PLAYERS TO WATCH: F Nemanja Djurisic, 6-8, jr. (7.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg)
NOTABLE: No Kentavius Caldwell-Pope means no superstar for the Bulldogs this season.
12. South Carolina
LAST SEASON: 14-18, 4-14 (T-12th)
COACH: Frank Martin, 14-18 in one season; 131-72 in six overall
PLAYERS TO WATCH: F Michael Carrera, 6-5, so. (9.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg); G Brenton Williams, 5-11, sr. (11 ppg, 1.8 apg); G Sindarius Thornwell, 6-5, fr. (0.0 ppg, 0.0 rpg)
NOTABLE: South Carolina is inserting seven scholarship freshmen onto the roster this season. There will be growing pains, but it’s a much-needed talent infusion for the Gamecocks.
13. Mississippi State
LAST SEASON: 10-22, 4-14 (T-12th)
COACH: Rick Ray, 10-22 in one season; 10-22 in one overall
PLAYERS TO WATCH: G Craig Sword, 6-3, so. (10.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg)
NOTABLE: Mississippi State may have overachieved a little bit last season with such a young roster. One year later, the Bulldogs are just hoping to stay out of the SEC’s cellar.
LAST SEASON: 9-23, 3-15 (14th)
COACH: Tony Barbee, 35-59 in three seasons; 117-111 in seven overall
PLAYERS TO WATCH: G Chris Denson, 6-2, sr. (11.9 ppg, 3 rpg)
NOTABLE: Last season was a train wreck for Auburn, which lost 16 of its last 17 games. In his fourth season, perhaps no coach in the SEC is feeling the pressure more than Tony Barbee.
— RYAN WOOD