Ah, college basketball. To call it the Natty Light to the NBA’s Budweiser would be a stretch. Especially when one thinks of the quality in the SEC. The conference made massive strides towards respectability last season. The pinnacle of their achievements was getting three teams to the Elite 8 in Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina with the Gamecocks making an appearance in the Final Four for the first time in school history.
While this is great news for the power conference fighting to regain respectability there has been quite the dearth of quality coming from the league best known for its prowess on the football field over the past few years. Outside of that little NBA Prep Academy in Lexington the SEC has failed to produce a program that has been able to consistently stay in the national spotlight.
Good thing is most programs are addressing this. Whether it’s by doing nothing because they already got this (Kentucky) or sticking with guys that are doing their job well enough (Georgia and Arkansas). Some programs elected to take a flyer on a young and hungry yet somewhat proven coach (Vandy, Florida and LSU) while others brought in a well known guy with some accolades under their belt that will play great with fanbases and recruits (damn near everyone else). Any way you cut it the all of these programs see the benefit of fielding a competitive team. And you know, the countless hours of exposure and fat checks from the SEC Network doesn’t hurt either.
The Southeastern Conference released their schedule for the upcoming 2018 season and I’m just going to say there’s some heat on here. Well, relative heat. Like a tad above room temperature. Okay, I’ll stop being mean. Here are the matchups I honestly can’t wait to see.
1/3 – Missouri vs. South Carolina
Someone at the league office had their thinking cap on when they thought of this one. South Carolina, coming off of their Final Four appearance, looks to be near the top of the league once again and will be the perfect first test for the revamped Mizzou Tigers with shiny new toy and arguably first draft pick in next summer’s draft Michael Porter, Jr. It will be interesting to see how Porter reacts to the challenge of the Gamecocks’ stingy defense. South Carolina may have lost quite the duo with both Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier going to the league but have no doubt that this team will be focused and aggressive as they eye another deep tourney run.
1/3 – Kentucky vs. LSU
In another instance of a new face getting hit with a big challenge right off the bat we have the Tigers lead by first year coach Will Wade hosting SEC perineal powerhouse Kentucky Wildcats. Wade has been given the unenviable task of revitalizing a Tiger program that in spite of falling completely off the rails last year had been in disarray for a few years. Catching the Wildcats (who project to be bad ass as per usual) fresh off of their non-conference schedule will be a great barometer to gauge the early success of the turnaround project year one.
1/27 – Baylor vs. Florida
So obviously this is the plus one. One cool thing about the SEC improving top to bottom is that it will probably make the annual SEC/Big 12 challenge a little more bearable to watch. Of all of the pairings for the 2018 edition this one is the most intriguing to me (feel free to argue UK v WVU but I’m staying pat). I like this matchup because it will feature contrasting styles amongst top tier teams that more or less should even out. And the high likelihood of at least one of these teams being highly ranked doesn’t hurt either.
2/13 – LSU vs. Alabama
If we’re being completely honest here we should admit that the teams that comprise the East (careful with the wording here because they don’t acknowledge divisions in basketball) will make make up most of the top tier of the standings this year. However, aside from the consistently slightly above average Arkansas Razorbacks look for these two to fight for the best in the West. Avery Johnson after two mediocre years in Tuscaloosa seems primed and ready to make a splash onto the national scene. A look at his 8th ranked recruiting class according to ESPN will tell you as much. And Wade is already making waves in Tigertown.
These two meet exactly a month earlier but I chose this clash because it is almost guaranteed to have some bad blood behind it. Also, with so many new faces (including on the bench) you want to give both teams the benefit of the doubt in terms of having their teams playing at an optimal level and having figured themselves out. Both of these teams should be doing and have done so by mid-February.
2/24 – Missouri vs. Kentucky
In what projects to be a great late season battle top recruit Michael Porter, Jr. will have the pleasure of going up against the Wildcats. I mentioned up top that in his showdown with the Gamecocks that he will have to deal with a squad that plays tough team defense and the same holds here. Only difference is that he’ll have to find a way to dominate playing against maybe three guys that will get drafted in the top 10 with him.
It’ll be a game with plenty of fanfare around it for the obvious reasons and due to the litany of questions surrounding the quality of the rest of the Tigers’ roster this may represent somewhat of a bubble game for Missouri. Although if I’m Porter I’m not sure how much this matters
3/3 – Kentucky vs. Florida
I mean what better way to end the regular season than with a good ol’ fashioned rock fight? There are few certainties in life and college basketball but one you can count on is that when these two meet the niceties are set aside and they get after it quite like no one else in the sport. To me, it is one of the more underrated rivalries in college basketball.
Florida consistently plays Kentucky with a fearlessness that is admirable given the talent mismatch in most cases. This was something started by Billy Donovan when he was in Gainesville and has been carried on by the impressive Mike White (formerly of Louisiana Tech). Earlier I mentioned how I find college basketball sort of lackluster. And while I still stand by my position on that it’s games like this that I look forward to and that I count on to provide the passion and pride that is normally lacking from an early March Orlando vs. Sacramento pillow fight.