Five must-see league games:
1) Kentucky at Florida, Feb. 12 (ESPN): Both the Wildcats and the Gators will begin the season in the Top 10, but this game could go a long way toward determining which team challenges Missouri for the regular-season crown. With the Cats having won six of the last seven meetings, the Gators should be ready to chomp.
2) Kentucky at Tennessee, Feb. 16 (CBS): A much less experienced UT team almost shocked the eventual national champs inside the Boling Alley last season. If the Vols finish the drill this time, it could signal the rebirth of one of the SEC's longest and best rivalries.
3) Missouri at Kentucky, Feb. 23 (ESPN): If Florida at Missouri four days earlier doesn't decide the SEC crown, this game should. It also might snap UK's home-court winning streak, which may stand at 66 games by then.
4) Florida at Tennessee, Feb. 26 (ESPN): The Vols swept the Gators last season to signal that Bruce Pearl wasn't the only UT coach who could get under UF coach Billy Donovan's skin. Given the disparate styles, this could be one of the most entertaining games of the year.
5) Arkansas at Missouri, March 6 (ESPN): Beyond the natural rivalry that can develop in a border war, Boss Hog Mike Anderson left Missouri for the Razorbacks in the spring of 2011. The pregame introductions alone should make this one interesting.
Best home court: When Florida's O'Connell Center is rocking with Rowdy Reptiles, it might be the most intimidating place in the league, but in an effort to make new members Missouri and Texas A&M feel at home, we'll give the nod to Mizzou Arena. Said new South Carolina coach Frank Martin, who brought his Kansas State squads there for Big 12 play: "There are 16,000 people wanting to throw you out."
P.S. -- And it's a lot colder outside Mizzou Arena than most SEC settings in January and February.
Best pro prospect: According to NBADraft.net, it's UK 6-foot-10 freshman post player Nerlens Noel, who's currently rated the No. 4 prospect in the nation.
Best newcomer: Mizzou guard Phil Pressey, whose own coach, Frank Haith, describes him as "very good."
Best freshman: Kentucky's Noel may have a more dramatic path to the pros, but fellow rookie Archie Goodwin, the 6-5 combo guard out of Arkansas, may be the more dangerous Kitten this winter, capable of mimicking former UK "energizer bunny" Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Best NCAA tournament bets: Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Ole Miss, Tennessee.
Biggest surprise: Ole Miss. Six seasons into his tenure with the Rebels, Andy Kennedy is yet to take them to the NCAA tourney. With four starters back who averaged in double figures last season, this may not only be the Rebs' first NCAA appearance since 2002, but also its first Sweet 16 run since 2001.
Best backcourt: Mizzou's backcourt of Phil Pressey, Michael Dixon and Pepperdine transfer Keion Bell may not only be the SEC's best but also the nation's finest. Dixon and Pressey combined to average nearly 24 points and 10 assists a game last year, and Bell scored over 1,300 points at Pepperdine and jumped over six Tigers at Mizzou Madness.
Best frontcourt: Three stand out. Tennessee's potential lineup of Jeronne Maymon, Jarnell Stokes and Kenny Hall is the most physical. Mizzou's senior duo of Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi is the most experienced. Then there's Kentucky, which could conceivably play the 6-10 Noel, 7-0 Willie Cauley-Stein and 6-10 sharpshooter Kyle Wiltjer at the same time. Give it to Big Blue by Noel's high-top fade.
Best scorer: Arkansas sophomore B.J. Young, who scored 15.3 a game as a freshman and could be better this time on a Razorbacks team that promises more options, which means less focus on Young.
Best defender: Out on the floor it should be Florida's fierce forward Will Yuegete, who had the third most steals for the Gators despite playing the sixth most minutes. Near the basket expect it to be Noel, who could easily average four blocks a game.
Best Final Four bet: Missouri, which could easily start four seniors and a junior, including UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi, who was the muscle behind the Huskies' 2011 NCAA title.