We’ve officially reached the start of SEC play, and it’s sure to offer plenty of excitement over the next couple of months.
There are three conference games on tap for Saturday, while two others will take place on New Year’s Eve.
As always, my predictions are based on team analysis and who I think will win. Score projections are for my own amusement.
Let’s get to the picks.
Season Predictions Record (straight up): 136-30
No. 19 Tennessee at Arkansas – 1 PM EST, SEC Network
It’s fitting that the two most surprising teams in the SEC will tip off against each other on opening weekend.
Tennessee enters as one of the toughest and most confident teams in the league now, as the Vols have only suffered losses to undefeated Villanova and defending national champion North Carolina.
As for the Razorbacks, they’ve been absolutely dominant at home in beating opponents by an average of 25.5 point per game at Bud Walton Arena.
That statistic may scare most teams, but it won’t scare a battle-tested Vols squad that has already won four games away from home against power conference opponents this season.
Obviously, the key to Tennessee’s success will be all about taking care of the ball. The Vols are committing 13.7 turnovers per game (191st nationally), but the occasional turnover problems have been alleviated by ranking 22nd nationally in forcing 17.1 per game.
However, Arkansas is a different beast, and the Hogs continue to limit mistakes and get numerous extra scoring opportunities by forcing turnovers and turning defense into offense.
This is an extremely difficult game to predict, and it wouldn’t be wise to write off the team that loses.
Winning on the road is going to be challenging in the SEC, and I feel like Arkansas forces enough turnovers to get the job done.
Prediction: Arkansas 81, Tennessee 76
Cornell at Auburn – 3:30 PM EST, SEC Network
The Tigers will tip off SEC play on Tuesday at Tennessee, and their hope is that they’ll be riding a 10-game winning streak going into Knoxville.
In my pre-conference play awards for the league, Bruce Pearl was the winner in the ‘Best Coaching Job’ category due to his ability to keep this team focused throughout the off-the-court mess that has gone on.
Cornell is a poor defensive team that is smaller and less experienced than Auburn, so I can’t see this going well for the Big Red.
Pearl’s squad should keep the momentum going before going to work on preparing for the Vols.
Prediction: Auburn 90, Cornell 67
Vanderbilt at Florida – 4 PM EST, ESPN2 (Game Analysis)
I’m not sure anyone knows what to expect from these two teams right now.
Vanderbilt’s record is a bit surprising, but a strong non-conference schedule and poor shooting from the perimeter has Bryce Drew searching for answers.
Meanwhile, Florida hasn’t looked right since the first half against Duke in the PK80, which was over a month ago. The Gators have looked like a team that’s going through the motions, and that can’t continue with the grind of SEC play officially here.
There’s a big unknown heading into this one, and that’s the status of Jalen Hudson. The Virginia Tech transfer is Florida’s leading scorer at 18.2 points per game, but a virus will make him a game-time decision.
Update: G Jalen Hudson was limited in practice today with an illness, while C Gorjok Gak sat out due to sore knees. Both considered game-time decisions for #Gators in SEC opener vs. Vanderbilt.
— Kevin Brockway (@gatorhoops) December 29, 2017
The last thing the Gators need is to be without their top scorer given the fact that the offense has sputtered in recent weeks. Of course, to add to that, Mike White is still winless against the Commodores since arriving in Gainesville.
This game will come down to 3-point shooting, as while both teams have traditionally been effective from deep, they’re struggling at this point.
It’s hard to know what we’ll get from these two, but I think Florida stops the five-game losing streak and begins league action on the right foot.
Prediction: Florida 75, Vanderbilt 67
North Florida at Mississippi State – 5 PM EST, SEC Network+
Mississippi State will likely sport a 12-1 record entering conference play, but we still don’t know how the Bulldogs are going to respond on a night in and night out basis in the SEC.
Winning close games against bad competition is one thing, but to do it against upper-tier SEC teams is another.
As for this game, Ben Howland’s team should have no trouble dispatching a North Florida squad that is coming off a 52-point loss at LSU.
Prediction: Mississippi State 87, North Florida 69
No. 5 Texas A&M at Alabama – 6 PM EST, ESPN2 (Game Preview)
I came into the season expecting these to be the two teams that would challenge Kentucky and Florida at the top, but things haven’t exactly worked out that way.
Texas A&M is the league’s best team at this point, and the Aggies have accomplished that feat despite having five rotation players miss time due to injury or suspension.
We’ll revisit that theme shortly.
On the other hand, Alabama hasn’t yet reached the level, with the Crimson Tide struggling to find consistency against a difficult non-conference slate. It continues to feel like something is missing with this team, and it’ll need to find that element soon considering that three of the first five SEC games are on the road.
But this game will come in the friendly confines of Coleman Coliseum, and that’s where we return to the theme of Texas A&M having its own missing elements.
Admon Gilder remains out of action after knee surgery, and D.J. Hogg is sidelined for the first two SEC games due to suspension.
Those are two of the Aggies’ top three scorers, and while there was enough around them to beat teams like Northern Kentucky and Buffalo at home, the question is if there’s enough to beat a team like Alabama on the road.
There is, simply because the big man trio of Tyler Davis, Robert Williams, and Tonny Trocha-Morelos can affect the game in so many ways. That’s where Alabama will need Donta Hall and Daniel Giddens to stay out of foul trouble, because without them on the court, it’s going to be difficult for the Tide to win this game.
Texas A&M is fourth in the nation in holding opponents to just 36.2 percent shooting from the floor, and that’s another big concern for an Alabama squad that sometimes takes bad shots in critical moments.
So, to recap, I’ve spent all this time talking about how dominant the Aggies have been, and yet I’m going to pick the Tide to win.
I just get a sense that missing Gilder and Hogg could catch up to Texas A&M here, especially against an Alabama squad that will be looking to rebound from an ugly loss to Texas eight days ago.
This one should go down to the wire, but I’ll take Collin Sexton to make a few spectacular plays down the stretch to give the Tide a signature win.
Prediction: Alabama 77, Texas A&M 75
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