Forward Craig Victor’s debut sparks ailing LSU in 78-57 blowout of Gardner-Webb _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- LSU forward Ben Simmons (25) watches the ball head out of bounds after being fouled and knocked away, Wednesday, December 16, 2015, at LSU's Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, La.

The Southeastern Conference men’s basketball race cranks up Saturday, signaling the start of what may be a mad scramble for the league title.

And why not? Kentucky already has lost twice as many games (two) as it did all last season, and some other teams have their eyes on taking the ’Cats down a notch or two.

This season features four new coaches: Alabama’s Avery Johnson, Florida’s Mike White, Mississippi State’s Ben Howland and Tennessee’s Rick Barnes — and the latter two know plenty about getting teams to the NCAA tournament. Then there are the fabulous freshmen: LSU’s Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney, Mississippi State’s Malik Newman and Kentucky’s Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere.

Does Kentucky have what it takes to rule the league for a second year in a row? Can the SEC get five teams in the tournament again? Can LSU overcome a shaky start and make a charge to a second consecutive tournament bid? Will veteran-laden teams like Texas A&M and Vanderbilt continue their upward climb?

Stay tuned.

How we see it: The Advocate’s SEC projections

1. Kentucky

Two setbacks before Jan. 1? Some believe Big Blue could be vulnerable.

2. Texas A&M

Nice team has plenty of length on the perimeter and a big center inside.

3. Vanderbilt

Like Texas A&M, Vanderbilt is a formidable team inside and out.

4. Georgia

Bulldogs have a veteran presence and are poised for another solid season.

5. LSU

We all know the Tigers have the potential to finish higher than this.

6. Florida

The Gators are looking for a bounceback after a rare losing season in 2015.

7. Ole Miss

With a new arena to play in, the Rebs want a memorable season.

8. South Carolina

A surprisingly strong nonconference start has the Gamecocks crowing.

9. Auburn

Bruce Pearl reeled in some talent in 2015, and they’re gaining respect.

10. Arkansas

Tough offseason for the Razorbacks likely will get a bit tougher.

11. Mississippi State

Ben Howland has some talent to work with, but it may take time.

12. Tennessee

Can new coach Rick Barnes bring stability to this wobbly program?

13. Alabama

Crimson Tide is off to a good start, but can it last in SEC play?

14. Missouri

The Tigers are likely destined for a second consecutive last-place finish.

Team-by-team preview

1. Kentucky (10-2)

2014-15 RECORD: 38-1, 18-0

COACH: John Calipari (7th season)

KEY PLAYERS: G Tyler Ulis, F Alex Poythress, G Jamal Murray

BRIEFLY: The Cats already have wins against ranked foes Duke and Louisville, but they stumbled against Ohio State and UCLA. With another very young team, it’ll be a challenge to go 18-0 in the SEC as it did last year.

2. Texas A&M (10-2)

2014-15 RECORD: 21-12, 11-7

COACH: Billy Kennedy (5th season)

KEY PLAYERS: G Danuel House, G/F Jalen Jones, G Alex Caruso

BRIEFLY: Kennedy has a solid unit starting with House, a preseason All-SEC first-team pick, and Caruso, a second-team selection. The Aggies are always tough on defense and rank third in fewest points allowed at 64.2 per game.

3. Vanderbilt (8-4)

2014-15 RECORD: 21-14, 9-9

COACH: Kevin Stallings (17th season)

KEY PLAYERS: C Damian Jones, G Wade Baldwin IV, G Riley LaChance

BRIEFLY: The return of Jones, a preseason first-team All-SEC pick, was key for the Commodores. Another team that prides itself on defense, Vandy leads the league in fewest points allowed and lowest field-goal percentage.

4. Georgia (6-3)

2014-15 RECORD: 21-12, 11-7

COACH: Mark Fox (7th season)

KEY PLAYERS: G Charles Mann, F Yante Maten, G Kenny Gaines

BRIEFLY: Georgia doesn’t score a lot but, like A&M and Vandy, it doesn’t give up a lot, either. A good group of returnees, led by Mann and Gaines, should have the Bulldogs sniffing another NCAA tournament bid.

5. LSU (7-5)

2014-15 RECORD: 22-11, 11-7

COACH: Johnny Jones (4th season)

KEY PLAYERS: F Ben Simmons, G Keith Hornsby, G Tim Quarterman

BRIEFLY: LSU could finish higher because it has the talent, but the Tigers have to get their act together in a hurry. In addition to an 18-game league slate, they still have to face No. 3 Oklahoma.

6. Florida (8-4)

2014-15 RECORD: 16-17, 8-10

COACH: Mike White (1st season)

KEY PLAYERS: F Dorian Finney-Smith, C John Egbunu, F Devin Robinson

BRIEFLY: One year after going 18-0 in the league and reaching the Final Four, the Gators bottomed out in 2015. But White did some solid things at Louisiana Tech and will get things sorted out after replacing Billy Donovan.

7. Ole Miss (10-2)

2014-15 RECORD: 21-13, 11-7

COACH: Andy Kennedy (10th season)

KEY PLAYERS: G Stefan Moody, F Sebastian Saiz, F Tomasz Gielo

BRIEFLY: Moody, a dynamo from one end of the floor to the other, leads the SEC in scoring, and the preseason All-SEC first-team pick is the key for the Rebels to reach the NCAA tournament again.

8. South Carolina (12-0)

2014-15 RECORD: 17-16, 6-12

COACH: Frank Martin (4th season)

KEY PLAYERS: F Michael Carrera, F Mindaugas Kacinas, G Sindarius Thornwell

BRIEFLY: After a few tough years, Martin may have it going in Columbia with a team that ranks third in scoring and fifth in scoring defense while leading the conference in rebounding margin at plus-10.6.

9. Auburn (6-5)

2014-15 RECORD: 15-20, 4-14

COACH: Bruce Pearl (2nd season)

KEY PLAYERS: G Kareem Canty, F Tyler Harris, F Cinmeon Bowers

BRIEFLY: Pearl lost some key backcourt pieces from last year’s team, but he’s starting to get it together with Bowers, the second-leading rebounder in the SEC last season, and standout transfers Canty and Harris.

10. Arkansas (6-6)

2014-15 RECORD: 27-9, 13-5

COACH: Mike Anderson (5th season)

KEY PLAYERS: G Anthlon Bell, G Dusty Hannahs, F Moses Kingsley

BRIEFLY: After a big season in 2015, Anderson lost four of his top five scorers and is in a rebuilding mode. But Bell, Hannahs and Kingsley are stepping up nicely.

11. Mississippi State (7-5)

2014-15 RECORD: 13-19, 6-12

COACH: Ben Howland (1st season)

KEY PLAYERS: F Gavin Ware, G Craig Sword, G Malik Newman

BRIEFLY: State doubled its win total in the league to six last season, but it didn’t save Rick Ray’s job. Enter longtime coach Howland, who has some pieces to work with in Ware, Sword and Newman. But there aren’t enough — yet.

12. Tennessee (7-5)

2014-15 RECORD: 16-16, 7-11

COACH: Rick Barnes (1st season)

KEY PLAYERS: G Kevin Punter, F Armani Moore, G Robert Hubbs III

BRIEFLY: Like Howland, Barnes has his work cut out for him in Knoxville. But he has a good nucleus to work with: Punter ranks second in the league in scoring at 22.2 points per game, and Moore is a scorer and rugged rebounder.

13. Alabama (8-3)

2014-15 RECORD: 19-15, 8-10

COACH: Avery Johnson (1st season)

KEY PLAYERS: G Retin Obasohan, G Justin Coleman, G Arthur Edwards

BRIEFLY: Johnson takes over for Anthony Grant and is off to a fast start with wins over ranked teams Wichita State and Notre Dame. But does he have enough talent to make a move in SEC play?

14. Missouri (6-6)

2014-15 RECORD: 9-23, 3-15

COACH: Kim Anderson (2nd season)

KEY PLAYERS: F Kevin Puryear, G Wes Clark, G Terrence Phillips

BRIEFLY: Missouri could finish in the cellar for a second consecutive year after two of its top players transferred. The result: a team that again is struggling to find some offense.