SEC Tournament Preview: Gator Time In Cat-lanta?

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If you’d have laughed if someone told you in November that only one SEC basketball program would show up to this week’s SEC Tournament in Atlanta ranked, you’d be forgiven. If you’d have laughed harder if someone also told you that team would be Billy Donovan’s suspension and injury-plagued Florida, and that not only would they be the only ranked team, they’d be unbeaten in league play and number one in the country, you’d simply be sane. After all, this was supposed to be the final stopping point for Kentucky’s heralded-is-far-too-gentle-a-word freshmen class on their way to 40-0: the SEC Tournament in what is usually nicknamed Cat-lanta for five days in March on their way to a second national championship in three seasons under John Calipari. What a difference playing the actual games makes.

Instead, while downtown and the Buckhead watering holes may still resemble a traditional SEC Tournament incarnation of Cat-lanta; the SEC Tournament will be the final SEC run for Florida’s “Tens”, the late-to-the-party but nonetheless immortals who just capped off the first 18 game undefeated regular season in SEC history, and will now seek the SEC Tournament championship that has eluded them since they stepped on campus.  And those 40-0 shirts legions of the UK faithful boldly wore to Midnight Madness? It’s hard to imagine you won’t see a few of them in Atlanta this week, but only as a cruel, sardonic reminder to Big Blue Nation of what was supposed to be. All great tragedy born out of hubris and all that.

And what of the basketball that will be played? Is the SEC really as bad as folks make out- or is the quality in the league somewhere north of miserable, with at least two or three teams peaking at the right time?

Hard to say. What is true is that the SEC is always more interesting when Kentucky is right—and make no mistake- Kentucky is not right. Kentucky fans will travel well because, well, they always travel well, but as a whole they lack any delusions of grandeur in Atlanta, and have accepted this team for what it is—an immensely talented sum of parts that constitute a lacking whole, and are, above all, a reflection of a frustrated coach.

Looking beyond Big Blue Nation, the SEC Tournament has tremendous implications for at least three participants: Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee. Each of these teams has to arrive in Atlanta thinking that they’ll need to win at least one game (Frank Haith’s club probably needs two) to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Two of those teams, the maligned Cuonzo Martin and his Volunteers and Arkansas, enter the conference tournament playing their best basketball (the thinking here being Trevor Relaford and Alabama’s thumping of Arkansas on Senior day in Tuscaloosa being a one-off in a strong Hogs run to March). One, Missouri, has struggled down the stretch but done just enough to hold onto hope that they can find the right side of the bubble if they win a game or two and things elsewhere don’t fall apart.

The plight of these three teams gives the tournament some intrigue despite the struggles of Kentucky, and that’s without analyzing what the tournament means to Florida, who can without question secure the # 1 Overall Seed in the NCAA Tournament by winning three games this week. It comes as no shock that the Gators are prohibitive favorites to capture the tournament title, and their accomplishments on the year have been well-reported and analyzed on this website. But it bears repeating that heavy favorites don’t always win the SEC Tournament  (or other conference tournaments.) In 1996, Kentucky won the national championship but failed to win the conference tournament, falling to Mississippi State in the tournament final. Kentucky’s defeat to the streaking John Jenkins and Vanderbilt in the 2012 SEC Tournament final is another example- and yes, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and company won the national title that season, too. So the “prohibitive favorite” doesn’t always win. And in order for this Florida team to continue to make history, UF would have to, in all likelihood, defeat at least one opponent for the third time  to capture the crown- always a difficult proposition.

Can Florida make (more) history? Will the bubble teams prove their mettle? Is it too late for Kentucky to turn this thing around? The stage is set for a fair amount of drama in Atlanta, and pretty decent basketball too. To further break the tournament down- I’ve reviewed each team in seeding order.

(14) Mississippi State 13-18 (3-15 SEC)

Ken Pom Ranking: 242 (Offense – 294, Defense- 146)

Best Win: January 11 vs. Ole Miss, 76-72.

Worst Loss: Normally, you’d say the loss at Utah State but the winner is March 5th at Georgia, where they didn’t compete and were routed by 21 points.

Best Player: Sophomore guard Craig Sword, who leads the team in scoring despite shooting a woeful 21 percent from three point range.

Path to the Postseason: Win the tournament. The Bulldogs will see sunnier days on both the baseball diamond this spring and the gridiron next fall, with Tebow-lite leading Dan Mullen’s offense, but they can’t even get to the NIT with a good showing in Atlanta. It is win or season over.

Best Case: Quarterfinals. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that they could upset Vanderbilt Wednesday night and beat Ole Miss a second time on Thursday evening, but even the most optimistic Bulldog fan has to know that’s about it for a team that has dropped its last thirteen contests and hasn’t recorded consecutive victories since January.

Prediction: One and done. The Bulldogs play hard but fall short against Kevin Stallings’ group Wednesday and fans turn their full-focus to baseball and spring football.

(13) South Carolina 12-19 (5-13 SEC)

Ken Pom Ranking: 135 (Offense- 156, Defense – 119)

Best Win: March 1st vs. Kentucky, 72-67.

Worst Loss: Since we know Steve Spurrier cares about state championships these days, we’ll go with…December 19th to USC Upstate, meaning the Gamecocks, head-to-head, were the third best team in their state (they also lost to Clemson).

Best Player: Kissimmee native Brenton Williams, who can shoot the lights out. Williams enters the tournament having scored 20+ in three of five games, including a 24 point night against Kentucky in the upset victory a week and a half ago.

Path to the Postseason: Win the tournament. Frank Martin will get it turned around in Columbia, that much I’m confident of. But attrition, both via transfer and injury, and, in the odd case of Bruce Ellington, via departure for the NFL, have made progress painstakingly slow in year two.

Best Case: Quarterfinals. Carolina lost both regular season contests against Auburn, who they’ll play in round one, and they simply struggle to score the ball too much to threaten past Friday. Should they slip by Auburn Wednesday in the tournament opener, they could meet a desperate (and therefore tight) Arkansas squad who they were competitive against in Fayetteville earlier in the year. That could mean a nice run to the quarterfinals, where the red-hot Volunteers would await.

Prediction: One and done. Third loss on season to Auburn Wednesday night… but seriously, the Gamecocks are in good hands with Dylan Thompson at the helm, right?

(12) Auburn 14-15 (6-12 SEC)

Ken Pom Ranking: 126 (Offense – 82, Defense – 203)

Best Win: 66-64 over Clemson on December 19th, though their finest game, save sixty seconds, was pushing Florida to the limit in the O’Connell Center last month before self-inflicted wounds cost them the game.

Worst Loss: There’s no excuse, even if only 121 people are watching, for losing by 28 on your home floor on Senior Day, so we’re going 82-54 to Tennessee last week.

Best Player: In this case—players—Junior guard KT Harrell is among the SEC leaders in both scoring and three point percentage, and you can’t really face-guard or run/jump ball guard him either because Senior Chris Denson runs the point effectively and can beat you on the bounce. This is probably one of the best 1-2 guard combinations in the league and they have kept Auburn in nearly every game they’ve played.

Path to the Postseason: Win the Tournament. It is true that theoretically the Tigers could land a NIT bid with two wins here, but they are unlikely to receive such an invitation with a .333 conference record. Tony Barbee needs to win this tournament to save his job, and it is the only way his Auburn team keeps playing after Atlanta.

Best Case: Second Round. One of the only games Auburn wasn’t competitive in this year was a 19 point loss to Arkansas. It’s an atrocious matchup for a team that lacks size and doesn’t defend well. Hard to see a way to the quarterfinals.

Prediction: Second Round. Tony Barbee’s club rides their guards to the second round, then falls to a desperate Razorbacks team. Barbee is fired the following day, and the Bruce Pearl and Rick Stansbury (a better fit, IMO) overtures begin in earnest.

(11) Vanderbilt 15-15 (7-11 SEC)

Ken Pom Ranking: 104 (Offense- 212, Defense- 47)

Best Win: The season opening victory over Georgia State may look impressive come next week, when the Panthers play in the Big Dance and scare somebody silly. The real answer, however, is the win at Georgia on January 29th, part of a four game winning streak that saw Kevin Stallings’ undermanned team perform at their highest level of the year.

Worst Loss: There really isn’t anything particularly egregious—Kevin Stallings’ teams historically beat who they should beat, but the loss at South Carolina in an empty gym the day after the first of the two big southern snowstorms is one Stallings’ team would love to have back.

Best Player: The Kevin Stallings “School of Mismatches” usually features a stretch four that is devastating when he’s hitting jump shots and this year is no different. Senior Forward Rod Odom has shot a career best 38.5 percent from the arc, and when Vanderbilt has pushed better teams, he’s had a hand in things. A closer look at the splits, however, shows Odom slumping down the stretch, shooting around 30 percent. Vanderbilt is suffering for it, having lost 5 of 6 since mid-February.

Path to the Postseason: Win the Tournament. It should be noted, however, that if Vanderbilt can win two games here, the ‘Dores are an attractive NIT team because of their perennially strong crowd support, but even that is a long shot because at 17-16 they’d be unlikely to host a game, and they aren’t a big television ratings draw.

 

Best Case: Semifinals. The Commodores aren’t built to play consecutive games, and at some point, the fact that Stallings’ team only has seven scholarship players will cost them. BUT… Kevin Stallings is a fairly successful coach in the SEC tournament, and his team has already beaten Georgia, a potential quarterfinal opponent, in Athens. Ole Miss will have to win a third consecutive game against Vandy to knock them out in the second round, should the ‘Dores defeat Mississippi State tomorrow night.

Prediction: Second Round. Marshall Henderson’d a third time in the second round, capping a .500 season where you could argue Stallings’ club overachieved, given the injuries and attrition that crushed the season before it began.

(10) Alabama 13-18 (7-11 SEC)

Ken Pom Ranking: 90 (Offense- 134, Defense- 69)

Best Win: The Tide played the nation’s toughest schedule per Ken Pom and 2nd best per RPI. The brutal out-of-conference slate torpedoed what was billed as a promising campaign, as they Tide dropped close game after close game. The last game they played, March 8th against Arkansas, was easily their best win, as they dumped the bubble-riding Hogs by 25.

Worst Loss: 85-83 in triple overtime to Drexel. When you play Duke, Wichita State, Xavier and UCLA in the non-conference, you simply cannot lose a home game to Drexel.

Best Player: Trevor Relaford, by some distance. Alabama would not have ten wins without Relaford, who is the heartbeat, and realistically, only offensive weapon, the Tide have.

Path to the Postseason: Win the tournament. Plain and simple.

Best Case:  Alabama wins the tournament. Sure, it took a tornado, but Georgia won a SEC Tournament it entered with a losing record in 2008. That crazy weekend was the subject of an ESPN documentary, but the main reason UGA won? Great guard play. Relaford is indeed that good, and if he gets hot- look out. The win over Arkansas last week has to give the Tide some confidence too. Plus- the Tide used to own the SEC Tournament—no really—as this nice feature on Wimp Sanderson winning five rings in a decade by Kevin Scarbinsky at Al.com points out. Point? This is a proud program and an embattled coach with a great senior leader playing his last games. They’ll be a tough out.

Prediction: Quarterfinals. Alabama upsets LSU Thursday night and scares Kentucky and its blue legion of fans to death Friday evening, but falls just short. Anthony Grant is given one more year to fix it in Tuscaloosa.

(9) Texas A & M 17-14 (8-10 SEC)

Ken Pom Ranking: 129 (Offense- 261, Defense, 46)

Best Win: Two wins over Tennessee, the first in Knoxville in January and the second three weeks ago at home in overtime. They also hammered Arkansas in College Station to open conference play.

Worst Loss: A twenty point—not a misprint- loss to a BAD North Texas team that finished 11th in Conference USA on New Year’s Eve. Maybe the players were more focused on the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and Duke…

Best Player: Lengthy mismatch off-guard Jamal Jones is really the only way a woeful offensive team scores points, especially after the midseason dismissal of guard J-Mychal Reese for team rules violations. When Jones plays well, the Aggies are almost competent enough offensively to be decent. The bad news? Jones is ill and may miss the opener Thursday against Missouri.

Path to the Postseason: Outside shot at NIT bid regardless. Only path to NCAA bid is to win conference tournament. In truth, it would be surprising if A & M were rewarded for feeding on cupcakes in the non-conference with a bid to the NIT, especially with the list of deserving mid-majors who failed to win their conference tournaments growing—see, Belmont, Iona, Vermont, etc.

Best Case: Quarterfinals. Alex Caruso nearly led a Jamal Jones-less Aggies club past Missouri a week and a half ago in Columbia, which has to give Billy Kennedy hope they can survive Thursday afternoon. The problem, of course, is the Florida Gators await in the quarterfinals, and even if you do what Billy Donovan would want his players to do, and forget about Florida’s thirty point win February 1st in Gainesville—this is just not an Aggies team built to beat Florida. To beat Florida, you have to hit shots. The Aggies can’t.

Prediction: Second Round. Without Jamal Jones, it is tough to see Frank Haith and Missouri dropping a must-win game against A & M, especially after the Aggies scared them to death less than two weeks ago.

(8) Missouri 21-10 (9-9 SEC)

Ken Pom Ranking: 71 (Offense- 30, Defense- 153)

Best Win: Handling uber-talented UCLA at home on December 7th. In conference, they beat Tennessee (also at home), in February, but probably most critically for their tournament resume, they went to Fayetteville and beat the Hogs 75-71. Arkansas loses at home about as often as Alabama football, and the committee loves road wins, so that’s probably the best one.

Worst Loss: The home loss to Georgia on January 8th stings, but the last game they played, a 27 point loss at Tennessee, has to be the winner because of how much was on the line.

Best Player: Junior guard Jabari Brown, and again, it isn’t all that close. Yes, Brown’s classmate Jordan Clarkson can also score the ball and is probably a higher-end NBA prospect, but Brown has more polish now. He’s a more than capable driver and passer in addition to being a fine three point shooter, and it’s no coincidence he’s scored well into double figures in every critical game Missouri has won. Shut him down, and you’ll shut the Tigers down.

Path to the Postseason: NIT berth is comfortable. Win a game and go dancing? This depends on which Bracketologist you consult. Sports Illustrated thinks one win will get them in- logic presumably being that they are 3-1 against fellow SEC bubble teams Arkansas and Tennessee, and beat the Hogs away from home.) Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm (ESPN and CBS) aren’t buying that—they think the committee is more interested in how you’re trending recently- and the Tigers have clearly been the worst of those three squads lately. One thing is certain: if Missouri upsets Florida in the quarterfinals, they’re in.

Best Case: Semifinals. All you need to know about Missouri is that the way they can score the basketball, they can absolutely upset Florida in the quarterfinals and secure an at-large NCAA tournament bid. What they can’t do—or at least haven’t to date—is defeat two quality basketball teams in succession away from home. No reason to think that starts in Atlanta.

Prediction: Quarterfinals, then wait and hope. Florida likely defends too well and has too many advantages inside to lose to Missouri in the quarterfinals. This means a long Selection Sunday for Frank Haith and his club.

(7) LSU Tigers 18-12 (9-9 SEC)

Ken Pom Ranking: 69 (Offense- 92, Defense – 68)

Best Win: January 28th over Kentucky at home, 87-82, a game the Tigers led wire-to-wire. They followed that up with a decisive win over Arkansas. The only notable non-conference win was a victory over NCAA Tournament hopeful St. Joseph’s, but that was all the way back in November.

Worst Loss: Hands down a 74-70 loss to Atlantic Ten cellar-dweller Rhode Island, at home, just prior to conference play. That’s the loss that has them well off the bubble.

Best Player: Freshmen forward Jordan Mickey, an All-SEC defensive team selection and the runner-up for SEC freshmen of the year is why LSU has improved dramatically on the defensive end in year two under Johnny Jones. Mickey is also shooting above 53 percent on offense, and is less prone to constant foul trouble than his teammate and fellow McDonald’s All-American, Johnny O’Bryant III.

Path to the Postseason: NIT Bound unless they win the conference tournament. Kentucky is at least partly to blame for this—if it was not a slumping UK—LSU could potentially play their way back onto the bubble and into the tournament with a couple wins. Unfortunately, a UK win right now isn’t great currency, and an Ole Miss or Georgia win, also possible on their side of the bracket, won’t help much either. That means they’d have to get to the final, where of course it’s win and in.

Best Case: Championship Game. From a talent standpoint, this is probably the third best team in the league. The Tigers have proven, in two exciting games, they can play with Kentucky, so if they survive a tough game with Alabama Thursday, there will be drama Friday night. Should they reach a semifinal, they’d see either Georgia, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt or Mississippi State—and they’d have more than a puncher’s chance in any of those matchups. The biggest problem for LSU has been consistency: they haven’t won three games in a row in conference play all year—and that’s unlikely to begin in Atlanta.

Prediction: Second Round. Trevor Relaford is a senior, and I’m expecting a competitor to grind out one last big win over a team doubtlessly needs it more. A short trip to Atlanta for LSU.

(6) Ole Miss Rebels 18-13 (9-9 SEC)

Ken Pom Ranking: 95 (Offense- 80, Defense- 97)

Best Win: Two home wins: January 15th in overtime over LSU and February 8th over Missouri, are all there really is to see here. People made fun of Ole Miss and it’s out of conference slate before conference play started- but a closer look reveals multiple opportunities to be in the bubble discussion right now: Kansas State, Oregon and Dayton were all resume-builders. The Rebels lost all of them close.

Worst Loss: The conference opener, a 76-72 loss at Miss State, was and remains absolutely devastating.

Best Player: Jarvis Summers, and this is both the Rebels problem and solution. Marshall Henderson gets all the publicity but he’s a mediocre (at best) defender and a volume shooter. That’s fine on a team like last year’s SEC Tournament champion, where you have skilled bigs who command double teams and can pass the ball. It’s a disaster on this team, where you have unskilled bigs who don’t command help defense and can’t pass. That means Summers has to be involved for the Rebels to win games. Summers has a complete game and is a tenacious on-ball defender, but he’s too often lost in the Marshall show and disappears out of deference too often in games. This will cost Ole Miss in Atlanta because it has all season.

Path to the Postseason: Win the Tournament for the Big Dance, host a NIT first round game otherwise. There is just no resume to speak of for the Rebels to think they’re a serious at-large contender, even with three wins in Atlanta.

Best Case: Semifinals. Marshall hits shots and the Rebels handle both their second round opponent and Georgia in the quarterfinals before bowing out to Kentucky in the semis because they just aren’t physically gifted enough near the basket to handle Kentucky on the glass.

Prediction: Quarterfinals. Henderson and company are good enough to defeat Vanderbilt and its limited bench on short rest in the second round, but not nearly good enough to beat a well-coached, defensively stout Georgia in the quarterfinals.

(5) Arkansas 21-10 (10-8 SEC)

Ken Pom Ranking: 55 (Offense—81, Defense—58)

Best Win: February 27th at Rupp in overtime, completing a season sweep of the Wildcats.

Worst Loss: Last game they played, a 25 point blowout defeat at Alabama.

Best Player: There’s an argument for three players but we lean towards Freshmen McDonald’s All-American Bobby Portis. Portis has been instrumental in both victories over Kentucky and leads the team in rebounding and field-goal percentage, while standing second in scoring. When he’s effective, he opens things up for guards Rashad Madden and small forward Coty Clarke, who can light it up on the perimeter.

Path to the Postseason: Win two games and go dancing for certain. Otherwise, sweat it out on Sunday. Again, a mixed set of reviews depending on the Bracketologist. Jerry Palm and Joe Lunardi have the Hogs in, headed to Dayton for the First Four. Sports Illustrated is among the publications that have them in the dreaded “first four out” category. The resume is good enough in this regard: Arkansas has a win over fellow bubble team in Minnesota, and three wins over locks: Kentucky (2), SMU. What they lack is a win over fellow SEC candidates Missouri and Tennessee (0-3. How much that hurts them is hard to say, but they can make it easy on themselves by handling business in Atlanta. A NIT berth is assured—but the Hogs aren’t likely to care about that much.

Best Case:Win the Tournament. Arkansas has already beaten Kentucky twice and Georgia, the higher seeds on the other side of the bracket. That means they need to handle the second round game and then beat Tennessee and (likely) Florida in the semis for a play-in game in the finals. They have the depth, and to some extent, the talent, to pull that off.

Prediction: Quarterfinals. The Hogs should handle business against Auburn or South Carolina in the second round but will find the sledding much more difficult in the quarterfinals, where a red-hot Tennessee awaits.

(4) Tennessee 20-11 (11-7 SEC)

Ken Pom Ranking: 13 (Offense—17, Defense—28 and climbing)

Best Win: On December 30th they manhandled the eventual ACC Champion Virginia Cavaliers 87-52, then went all Sasquatch for a couple of months. That win is their “Get of Jail Free Card” with the Selection committee, or so they hope.

Worst Loss: Two losses to Texas A & M, and a 78-70 loss to a decent UTEP team that isn’t even on the bubble. The UTEP loss could sting Sunday if Atlanta goes poorly.

Best Player: The Volunteers are an extremely talented group, but the reason they’ve passed any NCAA “eyeball test” the last month has been Jarnell Stokes. Stokes has three double-doubles in his last five games, and in one of the games he didn’t get a double-double, he did his best Joakim Noah “point center” impression with 20, 7 and 7 at Auburn. ESPN SEC analyst Jimmy Dykes says he’s the best “offensive rebounder in college basketball”, and that’s scary, considering senior Jeronne Maymon is also in the top five in the SEC in rebounds.

Path to the Postseason: Win one game and go to the NCAA Tournament. Lose immediately and go to the NIT. Trend continues with the Vols on the SEC Bubble teams—it depends on who you ask. SI thinks the Vols are currently on the outside looking in, but Jerry Palm has them in the field. Joe Lunardi has them in Dayton, but in the field. The funny thing? The Vols earned the bye—but should they face Arkansas and lose—they’d probably be in more significant trouble—especially if things start breaking oddly in other conference tournaments (inevitable) and teams steal bids. To get in, I think Tennessee must win its quarterfinal game. And yes, I think Cuonzo Matin’s job depends on it, even if the Bruce Pearl petition is about as likely to happen as #JT2UF was….

Best Case: Win the Tournament. Tennessee is dismantling teams right now, and March is when you want to do that. Cuonzo Martin says that’s because the Vols have “bought in defensively” and because “Antonio Barton is playing at a high level.” Mostly, it is the latter because the Vols lost grinders when they defended well early in the year—the big difference now is they are super-efficient offensively, and that’s just the type of team you need to be to defeat Florida, who would likely await in the semifinals.

Prediction: SEC Tournament Champions. Yes, I know what this means. The comments, as always, are yours.

(3) Georgia Bulldogs 18-12 (12-6 SEC)

Ken Pom Ranking: 72 (Offense—110, Defense – 60)

Best Win: Clobbered Missouri 71-56 in Athens in a game that wasn’t that close. Won in Baton Rouge last Saturday 69-61.

Worst Loss: There’s a neutral site loss to Davidson in here and a home loss to Georgia Tech and if you remove those games, this is probably a bubble team. The midseason loss at Auburn stings too, if only because that’s the only conference game UGA lost they probably should not have. Mark Fox did a tremendous job with this team.

Best Player: For the season, it has been sophomore guard Charles Mann, an oversized guard who can rebound, get to the rim and draws a ton of fouls. He’s been a matchup problem for most everyone UGA has played. Of late, however, the best player has been guard Kenny Gaines, who has scored more than 20 points three times in the last five games and is finally giving UGA an offensive threat that keeps defenses just honest enough on Mann and pick and pop four Nemanja Djurisic, who would lead the SEC in three-point field goal percentage (.478%) were he eligible (67 attempts).

Path to the Postseason: Win the SEC Tournament for the Big Dance. The NIT (and a relatively high seed, I’d think) await if the Bulldogs don’t make noise in Atlanta. Georgia will likely be happy regardless, as Mark Fox and his players deserve to keep playing basketball after this weekend.

Best Case: Final. It is difficult to see UGA winning three games in a row if only because two will likely be against vastly superior talent. That’s a tall order, even for a team that overachieved all year. Georgia defends well enough to play with anyone in the field—but they tend to struggle scoring the ball for at least one extended dry spell a game—a flaw that can spell doom on short rest.

Prediction: Semifinals. Georgia defeats Ole Miss in the quarterfinals before bowing out to Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.

(2) Kentucky Wildcats

Ken Pom Ranking: 24 (Offense—28, Defense—43)

Best Win: December 28th over defending national champion Louisville at home; February 1st at Missouri.

Worst Loss: March 1st at South Carolina, prompting this rather Bianchi-esque article from Pat Forde at Yahoo Sports…

Best Player: SEC Freshmen of the Year Julius Randle, who is the biggest talent on the floor in every game he has played this year and the best player on the floor in most games he has played this year. Here’s the rub: Randle hasn’t developed the jump shot to stretch defenses he hoped to develop when he got to Lexington, and that’s been a big issue, because it means Kentucky is left with two dribble-drive guards in the Harrison twins, a post-only/preferred scorer in Julius Randle, and one legitimate threat from the outside in James Young,  who at .336% outside doesn’t particularly frighten you. This makes Kentucky predictable on offense—so, if you can stop the dribble-drive stuff and make them take jump shots (still a reasonably large “if”)—you can defeat Kentucky.

Path to the Postseason: Kentucky is in the NCAA Tournament. The SEC Tournament is about where geographically they play and where they are seeded. For that reason, and for confidence, it is critical.

Best Case: Win the Tournament. It is very unlikely this will happen but the team has seven to eight NBA players. It’s foolish journalism to suggest they can’t win the thing, especially with the traditional Cat-lanta advantage.

Prediction: Final. Tennessee is playing the best basketball of anyone in the SEC outside of Gainesville right now. The Cats will be relieved not to see Florida again but won’t hit enough jump shots on a neutral floor to beat the Vols a second time in the tournament final.

# 1 FLORIDA 29-2 (18-0 SEC)

Ken Pom Ranking: 3 (Offense—9, Defense—9)

Best Win: There are so many…Kansas, December 10th. Why Kansas, you ask? Well- think about this when people ask you “How good are the Gators, really?” in the next week or so. Florida went on a 21-0 run against Kansas. The same Kansas that is likely to earn a 1 or 2 seed. The same Kansas that won the Big XII for the leventy-billionth year in a row. That’s how good Florida is. See also, wins over: Kentucky (at Rupp, home); Missouri, at Arkansas, Tennessee (at Thompson-Bolling, home), Memphis, etc.

Worst Loss: Uhm… Connecticut, I guess, because they lost on a “fluky” buzzer-beater by a probable All-American without the best perimeter defender in college basketball on the floor due to an ankle injury and with his backup hurt.

Best Player: Scottie Wilbekin, who is more “most important” player than “best player.”. Without Wilbekin, best case: Kasey Hill is an improving starting point guard for a team that may or may not get a 4 seed and be geographically protected in Orlando and could possibly get a three with a nice SEC tournament. With Wilbekin, best case: Florida wins its third national championship in eight years.

Path to Postseason: Florida is a # 1 Seed regardless of what happens in Atlanta. They are likely the overall # 1 seed so long as they advance to the semifinal.

Best Case: Champion. Florida caps off an undefeated regular season in the SEC with the fourth SEC Tournament championship in school history.

Prediction: Semifinals. Florida is upset by streaking Tennessee in the semifinals. If you hate that prediction, consider this: the SEC has won five national basketball championships since 1994. Three of those national champions failed to win the SEC Tournament: Arkansas 1994, Kentucky 2012, Kentucky 1996. You can figure out which SEC national champion did not fail to win the conference tournament… Take from that what you will.

Comments welcome.

6 thoughts on “SEC Tournament Preview: Gator Time In Cat-lanta?

  1. Excellent piece, as always, NWB.

    I say Florida beats Missouri in the quarters, Arkansas beats Tennessee, Florida beats Arkansas and then Florida beats Ole Miss in the finals for the ultimate revenge. Seems kind of dreamy, I know, but I think Kentucky’s on the downswing, Ole Miss can beat Georgia and then UK to get there.

    1. Thanks.

      I don’t think that prediction is at all far-fetched on Florida’s side of the bracket, and I completely agree that UK is on the downslide (and I’m not sure they can fix it.)

      My only problem with Ole Miss to the finals is what I wrote: they just don’t have the bigs they had last year to scare you and keep defenses honest on the perimeter. Then again, they didn’t look like a threat to win it last year until they did. So who knows?

      Tell you one thing: if UF gets that rematch, and I were a betting man, I’d put the mortgage on Florida.

      1. I agree that Ole Miss doesn’t have the bigs, but when Marshall Henderson is on, nobody can stop him but Marshall Henderson. He can easily go off for 30 against any team in the country, and if they can just get some help from a secondary source (like Jarvis Summers) they can beat anybody.

        If Florida gets that matchup with Ole Miss, I’d give Florida odds comparable to that of when they play a Charleston Southern or a Citadel level team

  2. Great read. Really glad Neil S. found you.

    I don’t think the Gators will lose again. This team has found its swagger and while Tennessee probably does have the best chance to pull the upset, I don’t think they can be as physical as Florida down low, and that will be the difference.

    Onto another question, one on a totally different topic- what do you think of the USM’s chances at surviving the Group of Death?

    1. Kyle,

      Good comments on the Vols. Dorian Finney-Smith, as ever, is the key to any UF-Tennessee game. Florida has not played Tennessee with Walker fully involved in the rotation (he played four minutes in Knoxville), so we don’t know what he has to offer– meaning it is absolutely critical that Doe Doe rebound well for UF to beat Tennessee. The second chance opportunities UT usually gets are astounding (more than 40 percent of their shots they get back)– I think Florida needs to keep that number at around 35 to defeat an improved team a third time (always tough).

      As for the USMNT, it is entirely about the Ghana match. Win, and I think they get through, finishing second. Lose, and I don’t see a way through because I can’t see them earning four points from Portugal and Germany.

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