Kentucky, Florida and Missouri will be serious contenders for the SEC crown in 2013
The upcoming SEC basketball season is going to be very exciting for all teams involved due to the new schedule change and two new teams who have joined the conference.
The Missouri Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies join the fray and will pose a new set of challenges to the rest of the teams in the SEC.
What this means for Kentucky is that they will face a tougher conference slate than ever before.
Along with traditional powerhouse programs in Florida, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Mississippi State, they now have to contend with two teams who are annual contenders for the NCAA Tournament and beyond.
These changes to the schedule could be the difference in Kentucky winning the conference crown or faltering to one of the new challengers. Therefore, let us take a look at the 2012-13 SEC schedule for Kentucky to see where the easy stretches and potential pitfalls lie ahead.
|1/10/13||@ Vanderbilt||9:00pm ET|
|1/12/13||vs Texas A&M||4:00pm ET|
|1/15/13||vs Tennessee||7:00pm ET|
|1/19/13||@ Auburn||9:00pm ET|
|1/22/13||@ Alabama||9:00pm ET|
|1/26/13||vs LSU||4:00pm ET|
|1/29/13||@ Ole Miss||9:00pm ET|
|2/02/13||@ Texas A&M||6:00pm ET|
|2/05/13||vs South Carolina||9:00pm ET|
|2/09/13||vs Auburn||4:00pm ET|
|2/12/13||@ Florida||7:00pm ET|
|2/16/13||@ Tennessee||1:00pm ET|
|2/20/13||vs Vanderbilt||8:00pm ET|
|2/23/13||vs Missouri||9:00pm ET|
|2/27/13||vs Mississippi State||8:00pm ET|
|3/02/13||@ Arkansas||4:00pm ET|
|3/07/13||@ Georgia||7:00pm ET|
|3/09/13||vs Florida||12:00pm ET|
What is Kentucky's toughest conference game?
One of the immediate changes in this schedule is the placement of the first Vanderbilt game. Kicking off the conference schedule by traveling on the road to face the Commodores will be a daunting task for this team, as Nashville has always been a difficult place to play.
However, the Vandy game is only one tough matchup during a grueling three-game stretch to kick off conference play.
The following two games after Vanderbilt are home matchups versus Texas A&M and Tennessee. Both programs, especially the Volunteers, have strong basketball traditions. Tennessee returns star big man Jarnell Stokes and seek revenge for last season's sweep against the Cats.
Kentucky will be the favorite in each of these first three contests, but I predict that this young team will drop one of these first three games, with the most likely defeat coming against Vanderbilt on the road.
However, Calipari's squad receives a bit of reprieve after that three-game conference opener. Kentucky will be heavily favored in games versus Auburn, Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss and should win all of them handily.
With the Cats on a role, they travel to Texas A&M's home arena for the Aggies' first home conference game versus their new SEC rival. The crowd will be wild and the game should be a great matchup, so this could be another potential loss for Kentucky.
However, I believe they will pull out another tough road victory in Texas.
The next two contests should continue the winning streak as the Wildcats return to the comfortable confines of Rupp Arena, where they should defeat pesky teams in South Carolina and Auburn.
Who will win the 2013 SEC regular season title?
Kentucky better appreciate that relatively easy two game stretch, because the next five games will be the most difficult stretch of the entire conference schedule.
Kicking it off will be road contests at Florida and at Tennessee.
The Wildcats could easily lose both these games, but I expect them to win against the Volunteers while falling to the Gators in Gainesville. It is usually the single toughest game on the SEC schedule, and Florida returns a strong team from last season with revenge on their mind.
The combination of Kenny Boynton and Patric Young will be too much for the Wildcats to handle, but Kentucky will play Florida close the entire game.
After the tough road slate, Kentucky returns home for three games against conference heavyweights in Vanderbilt, Missouri and Mississippi State. The toughest game will be against the Missouri Tigers, who return multiple starters from last season's Big 12 conference championship team.
That matchup will be featured on ESPN's College GameDay program and should feature one of the better home crowds of the season.
Any of these three teams could beat Kentucky, but it would be a rarity given that John Calipari has yet to lose at Rupp Arena during his tenure as head coach. So until he loses a home game, I am not going to be the person picking against him.
The Wildcats win all three to finish up this brutal five-game stretch.
In fact, those contests will take so much out of the team that they will have a letdown in one of the next two road games. First they square off against Arkansas, and then they follow that up by traveling to Georgia. Kentucky is better than both teams, but I think they will be so physically spent by their previous stretch that the road environment will take advantage of them, with the most likely loss coming against Arkansas.
Rounding out the schedule will be a final home game against the Florida Gators.
Yet again, this will be a tough matchup for Calipari's team. But by this point in the season, the Wildcats will be well prepared for a deep conference tournament and NCAA tournament run.
All of that starts in Lexington with a big win over Florida to maintain another perfect home record, and that should put them in contention to win the SEC conference title.
Looking back over the entire conference schedule, I am predicting that Kentucky loses a few tough games on the road versus Vanderbilt, Florida and Arkansas.
There will be other tough contests that could result in losses if the team does not play well, but overall I expect them to pull through and post a 15-3 SEC conference record and take home the regular season crown.