SEC basketball preview _lowres

Kentucky forward Julius Randle (30) places his hands on his head after missing the first of two free throws late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Baylor as Andrew Harrison, rear, watches , Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, in Arlington, Texas. Baylor upset Kentucky 67-62. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez) ORG XMIT: CBS210

SIX KEY GAMES

1. Florida at Arkansas, Jan. 11

So is Arkansas an NCAA tournament squad? Hogs get an early litmus test. And Kentucky visits three days later.

2. Kentucky at LSU, Jan. 28

A battle of top-10 recruiting classes at the PMAC as the Tigers cap a tricky January featuring Tennessee, Ole Miss, Missouri and Bama.

3. Ole Miss at Kentucky, Feb. 4

Rebels guard Marshall Henderson visiting Rupp Arena should make for good theatre, don’t you think?

4. Missouri at Florida, Feb. 4

This one opens a daunting two-week stretch for the Gators featuring the Tigers, Tide, Vols and Wildcats.

5. Florida at Tennessee, Feb. 11

If the Vols are in bubble trouble gain, this could be a critical booster shot for the résumé. There could be conference implications, too.

6. Florida at Kentucky, Feb. 15

Will Kentucky be humming by now? Growing pains aside, this is still the first tilt between the SEC favorites.

Five player of the year candidates

F Julius Randle, Fr., Kentucky

The blue chipper, averaging 18.2 points and 11.2 rebounds, shoulders the load for UK. He has been efficient in the lane, one of the best in the SEC in pounding the boards and adept at getting to the line.

G Casey Prather, Sr., Florida

He’s enjoying a breakout year, averaging 18.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. He’s the primary scorer (25.7 percent of shots) and hyper efficient with a 66.7 true-shooting percentage.

G Jordan Clarkson, Jr., Missouri

The Tulsa transfer leads the SEC at 19.9 points per game, but he’s no ball hog. Clarkson’s doling out 4.3 assists per game.

F Jarnell Stokes, Jr., Tennessee

His scoring has ticked up this season to 13.6 points, and his rebounding is steady. Already a voracious rebounder, he has been better on the offensive glass. The question: Can he increase his scoring output?

G Jordan McRae, Sr., Tennessee

Sure, he can get his 18.7 points per game as a volume shooter. But he also can carry UT when Stokes goes quiet, can get to the line and doesn’t die by the 3.

The Haves

(1) Florida

RECORD: 11-2

KEY PLAYERS: G Casey Prather, F Patric Young, G Scottie Wilbekin

SUMMARY: Lost your top three scorers? No big deal. Prather has blossomed in his senior season. Young remains a force. Wilbekin deftly pilots the offense (No. 20 in efficiency). Freshmen DeVon Walker and Kasey Hill are elite talents. Expect the title to return to Gainesville.

PROJECTION: 25-6, 14-4 SEC

(2) Kentucky

RECORD: 10-3

KEY PLAYERS: F Julius Randle, F Willie Cauley-Stein, G James Young

Summary: So much talent resides in Lexington, but John Calipari has an enigmatic bunch. Randle and Young acclimated easily, while twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison along with Dakari Johnson scale the learning curve. Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress count as vets in their second season. Can Coach Cal sculpt the Wildcats into a title contender?

PROJECTION: 23-8, 13-5 SEC

(3) Missouri

RECORD: 12-1

KEY PLAYERS: G Jordan Clarkson, G Jabari Brown, F Johnathan Williams III

SUMMARY: Five straight March trips and three straight first-round exits. That’s Mizzou in a nutshell. Four double-digit scorers left, but arguably the nation’s best back court in Clarkson, Brown and Earnest Ross bring firepower. Williams, a four-star freshman, anchors the lane. Can the whole be greater than the sum of its parts?

PROJECTION: 24-7, 12-6 SEC

(4) LSU

RECORD: 9-3

KEY PLAYERS: F Johnny O’Bryant III, G Anthony Hickey, F Jarell Martin

SUMMARY: Quietly, LSU’s lived up to preseason billing. Now the Tigers need to justify faith. That means taking a young team — five freshmen — and relying on a corps of vets and winning away from home. Talent aside, LSU is a year from truly contending.

PROJECTION: 22-8, 12-6 SEC

(5) Tennessee

RECORD: 9-4

KEY PLAYERS: F Jarnell Stokes, G Jordan McRae, F Jeronne Maymon

SUMMARY: No one doubts the Vols have the nucleus in scoring (McRae), post play (Stokes) and toughness (Maymon). Guard Antonio Barton and Josh Richardson bring experience as seniors. But the Vols followed the usual course under third-year coach Cuonzo Martin: Miss out on prime nonconference wins and try to make up ground in the SEC.

PROJECTION: 20-11, 11-7 SEC

(6) Arkansas

RECORD: 10-2 entering Saturday

KEY PLAYERS: F Alandise Harris, G Michael Qualls, C Bobby Portis

SUMMARY: The Hogs might be in the NCAA tournament mix. Harris, a Houston transfer, is a nice pick-up. Anthlon Bell, Mardracus Wade and Kikko Haydar can stroke it from distance, and Qualls and Coty Clarke can get to the rim. Coach Mike Anderson’s frenetic style can take three years to translate, and now would be ideal. The natives aren’t restless. Yet.

PROJECTION: 21-10, 10-8 SEC

(7) Vanderbilt

RECORD: 7-4 entering Saturday

KEY PLAYERS: G Eric McClellan, F Rod Odom, G Kyle Fuller

SUMMARY: So what if the Commodores lost Kevin Bright and Kedren Johnson? Mainstays Odom and Fuller have meshed with McClellan, who’s enjoying a breakout year. James Siakam and freshman Damian Jones add depth. Is this optimistic? Probably. Is this an NCAA tournament team? Not likely. Better than expected? Absolutely.

PROJECTION: 17-13, 9-9 SEC

The Have Nots

(8) Alabama

RECORD: 6-7

KEY PLAYERS: G Trevor Releford, G Retin Obasohan, F Nick Jacobs

SUMMARY: Releford and swingman Levi Randolph are veteran cogs. Obasohan’s come on nicely, too, as a perimeter defender. There are turnover woes and spotty 3-point shooting. Depth along the front line is shallow. The Tide fought nobly in close losses to Oklahoma, Duke, Wichita State and UCLA. But there’s no marquee win.

PROJECTION: 15-16, 9-9 SEC

(9) Ole Miss

RECORD: 9-3 entering Saturday

KEY PLAYERS: G Marshall Henderson, G Jarvis Summers, F Demarco Cox

SUMMARY: Henderson still chucks and ducks. But Summers has abandoned his streaky nature and is producing. Cox and forward Aaron Jones need to rebound consistently and pick up more of the scoring load. The early SEC slate features Auburn, State, Vandy and South Carolina, so a fast start is possible. But is there depth to contend with UK, UF and Mizzou?

PROJECTION: 16-15, 8-10 SEC

(10) South Carolina

RECORD: 7-6

KEY PLAYERS: G Sindarius Thornwell, G Bruce Ellington, F Michael Carrera

SUMMARY: Thornwell has lived up to the billing as a freshman, and the backcourt rotation has some depth with Ellington, Brenton Williams and Tyrone Johnson. Up front, Mindaugas Kacinas and freshman Demetrius Henry are evolving offensively but can rebound. Frank Martin’s top-30 recruiting class overhauled the roster, but scoring is too inconsistent.

PROJECTION: 14-17, 7-11 SEC

(11) Texas A&M

RECORD: 9-4

KEY PLAYERS: F Kourtney Roberson, F Jamal Jones, G Alex Caruso

SUMMARY: The Aggies are young, and their brand isn’t flashy. They don’t play fast, and they grind you down defensively. Roberson is among the nation’s best offensive rebounders and the primary scoring threat. Jones and Caruso aren’t flashy but solid. But A&M took a hit when guard J-Mychal Reese was booted for violating athletic department rules.

PROJECTION: 16-15, 6-12 SEC

(12) Mississippi State

RECORD: 10-3

KEY PLAYERS: G Craig Sword, F Gavin Ware, C Colin Borchert

SUMMARY: Sword has picked up his scoring as a sophomore, and Ware is among the SEC’s better rebounders. State brings back all of its key contributors, but it’s still turnover-prone and struggles behind the 3-point arc and at the line. A .500 finish in coach Rick Ray’s second season would be progress.

PROJECTION: 16-15, 6-12 SEC

(13) Auburn

RECORD: 7-3 entering Saturday

KEY PLAYERS: G Chris Denson, G K.T. Harrell, F Asauhn Dixon-Tatum

SUMMARY: Second-to-last is about as much optimism you can muster. Denson can fill it up. Harrell, a Virginia transfer, has slid in nicely. Tatum pounds the offensive boards. Still, Auburn is atrocious defensively, ranking 250th in adjusted efficiency. Expect Tony Barbee to feel some heat.

PROJECTION: 12-17, 5-13

(14) Georgia

RECORD: 6-6

KEY PLAYERS: G Charles Mann, G Kenny Gaines, F Nemanja Djurisic

SUMMARY: Athletic Director Greg McGarity has said this season isn’t make or break for coach Mark Fox. We’ll see. Mr. Everything Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is gone. Mann is a sophomore trying to build on his SEC All-Freshman pick. Djurisic is a super-sub for Donte Williams. But the Bulldogs haven’t been able to scoop up talent in a fertile state. A No. 274 RPI, lowest among power conference members, doesn’t bode well.

PROJECTION: 11-19, 4-14 SEC