SEC still has plenty of questions heading into league play

As the Southeastern Conference prepares to begin league competition, this much seems clear: Kentucky's freshman class is as good as advertised.

But there are plenty of questions surrounding the rest of the league as it tries to bounce back from a 2015-16 season in which the SEC earned only three NCAA Tournament invitations.

Only two SEC teams are in the Top 25 : No. 6 Kentucky and No. 22 South Carolina. The Gamecocks could fall out of the rankings after Wednesday's 62-60 loss to Clemson , which marked the first time the Tigers ever had beaten a ranked nonconference opponent on the road.

Other teams have shown promise but still have questions to answer as the SEC prepares to start league play Thursday.

''I think the league is really competitive,'' Florida coach Mike White said. ''We've come up on the short end in a few big games, but we've been really competitive, I think, against some of the best teams in the country.''

This year marks the first time the SEC has played conference games as early as December since the 1991-92 season.

As usual, much of the attention involving the SEC surrounds Kentucky, which starts four freshmen and a sophomore. One Kentucky freshman (Malik Monk) leads the SEC in scoring, while another (De'Aaron Fox) tops the conference in assists.

Monk set a Kentucky freshman single-game scoring record by collecting 47 points in a 103-100 victory over No. 8 North Carolina . That 47-point outburst represented the highest single-game total by an SEC freshman since LSU's Chris Jackson had 55 against Ole Miss on March 4, 1989.

Just where these newcomers rank among previous Kentucky freshman classes during John Calipari's coaching tenure remains uncertain. Kentucky has some impressive wins but also lost at home to No. 2 UCLA and at No. 10 Louisville .

''They have to go through these kinds of growing pains, and then I've got to be able to see what I have to do as a coach,'' Calipari said after the Louisville game.

Here are some things to watch as the SEC gets ready to tip off league competition:

EARLY TESTS FOR AGGIES: Texas A&M shared the SEC regular-season title with Kentucky last season. The Aggies should know in a hurry whether they're good enough to contend for a league championship again.

After hosting Tennessee on Thursday in its SEC opener, the Aggies travel to Kentucky and South Carolina in their next two games.

The good news for Texas A&M is that it plays in the SEC and not the Pac-12. All three of the Aggies' three losses thus far have come against Pac-12 schools (No. 23 Southern California, UCLA and No. 18 Arizona).

AUBURN'S RESURGENCE: Auburn has taken a major step forward in the third year of Bruce Pearl's coaching tenure.

The Tigers beat both Oklahoma and Connecticut over the last week to improve their record to 10-2, their best start since 2002-03. Auburn is one win away from matching its victory total from last season, when the Tigers finished 11-20.

HOW GOOD ARE THE GAMECOCKS?: Last season, South Carolina raced to 15-0 start but played a weak nonconference schedule, which proved costly when the Gamecocks missed the NCAA Tournament. South Carolina started well again this year against a tougher nonconference slate that includes wins over Michigan and Syracuse.

But the Gamecocks also lost their leading scorer and rebounder when Sindarius Thornwell was suspended earlier this month. There hasn't been any indication when Thornwell might return, and his absence makes South Carolina a much different team.

FRESHMAN FOCUS: Kentucky isn't the only SEC team relying heavily on freshmen. Auburn's three leading scorers are freshmen Danjel Purifoy, Mustapha Heron and Jared Harrper. True freshmen and redshirt freshmen have accounted for nearly half of Tennessee's scoring thus far.

Tennessee would be getting even bigger contributions from its freshmen if they were able to stay healthy. Jordan Bone has missed nine games with a stress fracture in his foot after opening the season as the Volunteers' starting point guard. John Fulkerson also was in Tennessee's starting lineup before dislocating his elbow on Dec. 15.

IMPRESSIVE UPPERCLASSMEN: For as much attention as the freshmen around this conference have received, Georgia junior Yante Maten and Mississippi senior Sebastian Saiz also have delivered impressive performances in nonconference play. Maten ranks second in the SEC in scoring (19.8) and is tied for second in rebounding (8.3). Saiz leads the SEC in rebounding (12.1).

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AP Sports Writers Gary Graves in Lexington, Kentucky, and Mark Long in Gainesville, Florida, contributed to this report.

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More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-Top25

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Follow Steve Megargee at www.twitter.com/stevemegargee

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