Nearly seven months after Kentucky cut down the nets last October, SEC teams will start their 2012-13 basketball campaigns this week.
The league has a fair amount of intrigue this year, as Missouri and Texas A&M will play their first seasons in the SEC and transitioning teams such as Arkansas and Tennessee look to ascend to the league's elite. Missouri and Florida look like legitimate challengers to Kentucky's supremacy.
Potential is abundant throughout the SEC, but the league's hierarchy has not changed much over the last five to seven years. Newcomers and upstarts alike will have to prove they can contend with the established conference elite.
Note: I will update these power rankings each week throughout the 2012-13 season.
The outlook is once again bleak for an Auburn team that has languished near the bottom of the SEC for several reasons.
The Tigers do return several core players, as Frankie Sullivan and Rob Chubb will lead a team that looks to replace Kenny Gabriel's inside scoring. But these are the same players who have failed to accomplish much at Auburn throughout their careers.
Early matchups against Murray State and Rhode Island will give the Tigers a chance to earn some respect, but there is little reason to expect them to make a big leap this season.
LSU was competitive in league play last year, but this is a team that has recently been in the bottom half of the SEC and loses key contributors going into the 2012-13 season.
The Tigers must try to replace second-team All-SEC center Justin Hamilton, who was drafted by the Miami Heat in June. Hamilton led the team in scoring and rebounding last season. Storm Warren also will not be back for LSU, which will be led by the guard tandem Andre Stringer and Anthony Hickey.
LSU has been a scrappy team in recent years, and the Tigers may continue to play teams tough this season. It remains to be seen how they will cope with the loss of Hamilton. A soft November schedule may not provide too many answers.
South Carolina returns several key players, including Bruce Ellington, to a team that struggled to a 2-14 SEC record last season.
The Gamecocks did make an offseason splash, signing Frank Martin as their head coach. Martin built a successful program at Kansas State, and his addition certainly breathes some life into this South Carolina squad.
Martin has a history of success at this level, and the Gamecocks benefit from no longer having to play the likes of Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee twice a year due to the new SEC scheduling format. But Year 1 of Martin's reign will probably still be an uphill climb.
There will be a lot of new faces in Starkville this season, as the Bulldogs lose their three leading scorers from last season and feature a new head coach in Rick Ray, a former Clemson assistant.
Most Mississippi State fans will welcome the change, however, as recent Bulldog teams underachieved. The most recent example was last year's squad, which finished 8-8 in the SEC and missed out on the NCAA Tournament despite high expectations.
While this is certainly a retooling year in Starkville, the Bulldogs have traditionally been a quality SEC team and it is unlikely they will sink all the way to the bottom of the league.
Texas A&M enters the SEC following its most disappointing season in recent memory, as the Aggies struggled with injuries last season and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years.
The Aggies return several key players from last year's outfit, but leader Khris MIddleton is gone. Texas A&M does have talent, but it takes some time to adapt to a new league.
The Aggies play a very easy non-conference schedule, so they will enter their first SEC season as a relatively untested and unproven squad.
Along with South Carolina, Georgia probably stands to benefit the most from SEC realignment. The East has been by far the tougher division in the conference lately, and the Bulldogs' 5-11 league record last season looks much more respectable when considering that they had to play six games against Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee.
The Bulldogs will be led by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope this season, and once again Georgia is a team that has a fair amount of potential. They have yet to have that much-awaited breakthrough season, however.
Georgia will challenge its young team in November, facing preseason No. 1 Indiana as well as Southern Mississippi and South Florida. The Bulldogs will have the opportunity to make a few statements as they prepare for SEC play.
This is not the Vanderbilt teams of the last several years, as John Jenkins, Jeffrey Taylor and Festus Ezeli have all graduated. Coach Kevin Stallings certainly faces a greater challenge than he has in recent seasons.
Most of the Commodores' role players have graduated as well, and this year's Vanderbilt team fields only two juniors and no seniors. But some level of respect must be afforded to a program that has consistently finished in the upper quartile of the league.
This will be a rebuilding year for Vanderbilt, but recent history suggests it will remain competitive. The Commodores are well-coached and should improve over the course of the season.
Ole Miss established itself as a solid SEC team last season, and there is no reason to expect the Rebels to take much of a step back in 2012-13.
The Rebels' talented frontcourt returns this season, as Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner will lead the team's quest for an NCAA Tournament berth. The duo combined to average 18 points and 17 rebounds per game last season.
Given Ole Miss' weak non-conference schedule, the Rebels will likely have to win at least 10 SEC games to have a shot at the Big Dance. But this team finished strong in league play last year and a two-game improvement isn't out of the question.
The Razorbacks, a young and talented team that should improve under Mike Anderson, are a popular choice to make "the leap" in 2012-13.
But there is an intentional bias in these early-season rankings toward recent success, as potential does not always lead to actual outcomes. B.J. Young and the Razorbacks are certainly talented, but it is difficult to rank them above teams like Alabama and Tennessee that have performed year in and year out in conference play.
Arkansas had a lot of talent last season, too, and it went 6-10 in the SEC. Big non-conference matchups against Syracuse and Michigan will provide an early indication of whether the Razorbacks are jelling as expected.
The Crimson Tide lose their top two scorers from 2011-12, but it appears Anthony Grant is quickly building Alabama into one of the better programs in the SEC.
JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell won't be easy to replace, especially as Alabama wasn't exactly filling it up last season. But Alabama should remain an elite defensive team, which will be good enough for a slot in the top half of the league.
Alabama will be tested on the road in non-conference play, which includes matchups at Cincinnati and VCU. These games will provide an early indication of whether Alabama is as tough as it has been in recent years.
The Vols finished last season on a rampage, winning eight of nine SEC games to close out the regular season. They fell short of an NCAA Tournament berth after falling in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, however.
Tennessee returns its nucleus, including point guard Trae Golden and big man Jarnell Stokes, who joined the team in the middle of the season last year and got up to speed during the club's winning streak. The Vols' offense can be inconsistent at times, but they have the ability to compete with top teams in the SEC.
Tennessee will be playing its share of difficult non-conference contests, including trips to Georgetown and Virginia and a potential matchup with North Carolina State in the Puerto Rico Tip-off. The Vols' season was doomed by poor non-conference play last year, so look for them to have renewed focus in their early games.
Missouri enters the SEC following an exciting season which saw the Tigers emerge as national title contenders before flaming out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Norfolk State.
While the Tigers lose Kim English and Marcus Denmon, Phil Pressey returns to join UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi on a team that will once again be very talented. Missouri will have to adjust to SEC styles of play, but their up-tempo game can be lethal against any competition.
Missouri is competing in a stacked Battle 4 Atlantis field this year, which includes Duke and preseason No. 2 Louisville. The Tigers will also travel to UCLA.
The Gators, ranked No. 10 in both preseason polls, find themselves in the upper echelon of the SEC once again this season.
Bradley Beal and Erving Walker are gone, but Kenny Boynton and Patric Young lead a Florida team that still clearly has plenty of talent. The Gators didn't always play up to their potential last year before making a run in the NCAA Tournament and nearly making the Final Four.
Florida should be just as good this year, if not better. But the Gators are until further notice playing second fiddle to Kentucky in the SEC.
Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Doron Lamb are all gone, but John Calipari has reloaded once again and the Wildcats are the prohibitive favorites in the SEC.
Kentucky has a new crop of freshmen who are ready to take the reins, and Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress will be forces to be reckoned with this season. As last year's Kentucky team showed, Calipari's squads get better over the course of the year as they have time to jell and practice together.
It won't be easy for the Wildcats, and just because they ran through the league last year doesn't mean the same formula will yield the same results in 2012-13. But the defending champions deserve to keep the title until somebody knocks them from their perch.
1. Kentucky vs. Maryland: Friday, 8:30 p.m.
The Wildcats' talented freshmen make their season debut against the Terrapins, who are not an elite squad but are a solid step up from most of the cupcakes SEC teams will be facing in their season-openers. Kentucky will be traveling to the Barclays Center for the game, which gives the matchup some added spice.
2. Florida vs. Georgetown: Friday, 9:00 p.m.
The premier opening night SEC matchup features Florida going up against a solid Georgetown club. Once again the location of the game adds to the intrigue, as the Gators and Hoyas will be facing off on an aircraft carrier.
3. South Carolina vs. Wisconsin-Milwaukee: Sunday, 3:00 p.m.
There isn't a lot of other quality games to choose from, but Rob Jeter's club put together a solid season in the Horizon League last year. This game won't be a walkover for the Gamecocks.