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UGA Basketball Preview: Can Bulldogs make a mark in improving SEC

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NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Georgia vs Tennessee Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Fox returns a solid roster but the Bulldogs could find themselves in a battle with what appears to be a much-improved SEC. Kentucky and Florida once again look like the cream of the crop but there is a solid tier of teams just under them that are looking to make an impact.

Texas A&M could be the best of the bunch but teams like Georgia, Alabama, Vanderbilt and Arkansas will all be in the mix. LSU is rebuilding and Mississippi State has question marks but this is a conference that is on the rise and it should be an interesting and challenging season.

12/31 at Kentucky - 6 pm

Georgia will jump right into the fire with its conference slate with a New Year’s eve matchup at Rupp Arena against Kentucky. The Wildcats will field their youngest roster ever under John Calipari which says a lot given the way he has embraced the one-and-done era.

There is talent up and down the roster beginning with 6-5 freshman guard Hamidou Diallo. The Wildcats roster includes six five-star recruits. Inexperience and cohesiveness could be an issue early but in many instances, Kentucky will just overwhelm teams with their talent.

1/3 vs Ole Miss - 6:30 pm

Ole Miss is hoping to build off of a good showing in the NIT last season and hopefully jump back into the national tournament picture. To get there, Andy Kennedy will have to deal with the loss of Sebastian Saiz in the frontcourt but has a talented group of guards to help ease the transition. Deandre Burnett (16.5 ppg) and Terrence Davis (14.9 ppg) return and are joined by Memphis graduate transfer Markel Crawford.

Dominik Olejniczak sat out last season after transferring from Drake and will get the first opportunity and solidifying the frontcourt. Also keep an eye on freshman Devontae Shuler who could have an impact as well.

1/6 vs Alabama - 12 pm

Alabama is another 2017 NIT team that is hoping to take the next step. Avery Johnson continues to add talent up and down the roster and pulled in another solid recruiting class in 2017. Freshman point guard Collin Sexton is expected to step right into the team’s backcourt. He will be joined by sophomore wing Braxton Key who is the Tide’s leading returning scorer. The group also includes talented combo guard Dazon Ingram who averaged double figures as a freshman last season.

There are questions in the frontcourt where Donta Hall will be expected to play a bigger role after the departure of Jimmie Taylor. Hall is already a defensive presence but needs to add to his offensive game. Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens also figures to play some important minutes.

1/10 at Missouri - 9 pm

Despite coming off of an 8-24 season, there is optimism in Missouri for head coach Cuonzo Martin thanks to the addition of forward Michael Porter Jr. who may be the best player in the country and the No. 1 overall pick in next summer’s NBA Draft.

Porter is 6-10 but is a prototypical small forward with an inside and outside game. He will make a major impact and is an immediate matchup problem for the rest of the conference. The team also returns a pair of 6-7 forwards in Jordan Barnett (12.2 ppg, 5.7 reb) and Kevin Puryear (11.8 ppg, 6.0 reb).

The backcourt will feature another highly touted recruit in point guard Blake Harris and incumbent Terrence Phillips. The group also includes combo guard Kassius Robertson who is a transfer from Canisius and will give the Tigers another perimeter threat.

1/13 vs South Carolina - 1pm, 2/21 at South Carolina - 6:30 pm

South Carolina put together a run to to the Final Four in 2017 but Frank Martin will have to deal with the loss of key players Sindarius Thornwell, PJ Dozier and Duane Notice this season. The Gamecocks return one double figures scorer from last season in 6-9 junior forward Chris Silva who averaged 10.2 points and 6.1 rebounds. He and fellow forward Maik Kotsar will have to take on much more responsibility this time around.

The backcourt will be an inexperienced group led by point guard Rakym Felder who played a reserve role as a freshman. Although unproven, there is some talent here with Delaware transfer Kory Holden, Oklahoma graduate transfer Frank Booker and rising junior Hassani Gravett.

1/16 at LSU - 7 pm, 2/24 vs LSU - 2pm

The Tigers hired away VCU head coach Will Wade and charged him with rebuilding a program that has struggled for some time. The Tigers finished 10-21 last season and lost Antonio Blakeney to the NBA.

Brandon Sampson (11.6 ppg) returns to the backcourt as does Skylar Mays (8.3 ppg). Freshman Tremont Watters could step in right away at point guard.

Wade does get 6-11 center Duop Reath back in the frontcourt but there isn’t a lot of depth behind him and forward Aaron Epps. Wade did pull in some nice young players in recruiting but it could be a rough season overall.

1/20 at Auburn - 6 pm, 2/10 vs Auburn - 3:30 pm

An FBI investigation hangs over Auburn and head coach Bruce Pearl entering the season. Assistant coach Chuck Person has already been dismissed and more heads could role as well before it is all finished.

That certainly puts a damper on a Tigers team that was looking to make the jump back into the NCAA Tournament picture this season. Auburn returns its top four scorers to go along with a strong recruiting class. The defense must improve but there are enough athletes here to make that happen.

Auburn appears to be on the rise but how far may just depend on what else the FBI investigation turns up.

1/23 vs Arkansas - 6:30

Mike Anderson led Arkansas to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season and are hoping for a return trip behind the return of two senior backcourt players. Both Jaylen Barford (12.8 ppg) and Daryl Macon (13.4 ppg) entered their names into the NBA Draft but withdrew and returned to the Razorbacks for their senior season.

Like many of the teams on this list, Arkansas is not without its questions in the front court. Trey Thompson was a key reserve last season and will see a bigger role. The Razorbacks also have three forward signees including 6-11 Daniel Gafford who could get themselves into the mix.

Arkansas’ frenetic pace requires a deep team. It looks like Anderson has a healthy mix of experience and youth but the Razorbacks will need their frontcourt to come together to be successful.

1/30 vs Florida - 7 pm, 2/14 at Florida - 9 pm

After a surprising run to the Elite Eight, the Florida Gators are looking to take another step forward in 2018. Florida is the classic “if not Kentucky, then who” answer for the SEC this season. KeVaughn Allen returns to lead a talented roster that includes a bunch of newcomers.

6-11 center John Egbunu is expected back in time for the conference season after suffering an ACL injury last February. The arrival of Egor Koulechov as a transfer from Rice gives the Gators an experienced scoring option. Koulechov averaged 18.2 points and 8.9 rebounds for Rice and made 47.4 percent of his three point attempts.

The Gators aren’t quite Kentucky in terms of talent but they aren’t far off either. The team made great strides under Mike White last season and he may have his most talented roster yet this season.

2/3 at Mississippi State - 6 pm

Mississippi State is another SEC program that is looking to take a step forward this season. Ben Howland still has a young roster but it is more experienced and should be improving. The problem for Howland is, so is the rest of the conference.

Junior Quinndary Weatherspoon returns to the backcourt after leading the Bulldogs in scoring last season averaging 16.5 points per contest. He will be joined in the backcourt by point guard Lamar Peters and highly touted in state recruit Nick Weatherspoon.

The frontcourt is more of a muddled picture after the departure of Mario Kegler who transferred to Baylor. Howland has some size to work with and also has a stretch-4 candidate in Xavian Stapleton but none of the options are as talented as Kegler.

2/7 at Vanderbilt - 8:30 pm

Vanderbilt lost Luke Kornet to graduation but Bryce Drew still returns a talented and experienced roster. Riley LaChance and Matthew Fisher-Davis return for their senior seasons. LaChance knocked down 48.6 percent of his three-point attempts in 2017 while Fisher-Davis was no slouch at 37 percent. LaChance played point guard most of last season but seems better suited to move to an off the ball role. Enter freshman Saben Lee who will likely get a chance to start at the point.

Jeff Robinson is back in the frontcourt after starting 35 games a year ago. Clevon Brown will see an increased role and is a breakout candidate.

Vanderbilt may not be able to nudge their way into the conversation with Kentucky and Florida but they are solidly in what is going to be a competitive tier of teams just below the two favorites.

2/17 vs Tennessee - 6 pm, 3/3 at Tennessee - 6 pm

Rick Barnes Volunteers is another of those middle tier teams that has NCAA Tournament aspirations but may ultimately lack the talent to get there. Forward Grant Williams is the top scoring returner and is coming off an impressive freshman season. 6-10 Kyle Anderson should see an increased role while John Fulkerson is slated to be back after offseason shoulder surgery. Williams is talented but this is a youthful and inexperienced group overall.

Tennessee has an interesting backcourt situation. Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner return but Barnes added Howard graduate transfer James Daniel III and JuCo Chris Darrington to the mix this offseason. Daniel led the nation in scoring in 2016 averaging 27.1 points per game before an ankle injury last season limited him to just two games. Darrington is another excellent ball handling option as well.

There is a good bit of talent in the backcourt but it will be up to Barnes to figure out how it all fits together.

2/28 vs Texas A&M - 8:30 pm

Texas A&M could turn heads in the SEC after the return of potential Top 10 pick Robert Williams for his sophomore season. Williams averaged 11.9 points and 8.2 rebounds as a freshman and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year. He will be joined by Tyler Davis who was also an ALL-SEC performer and Tonny Trocha-Morelos who will provide depth at both spots.

The backcourt is the biggest question mark. After struggling without a true point guard in 2017, redshirt freshman JJ Caldwell is expected to get the first crack to solidify that position this season. That would allow Admon Gilder to slide to his more natural two-guard position. DJ Hogg will return to the wing after a foot injury ended his 2017 season early.