My friends, we are gathered here today to celebrate the life and mourn the loss...of Jefferson Pilot Lincoln Financial Raycom Sports.
While their detractors have been numerous for their handling of the fourth best game of the week in SEC Football (see: Travis, Clay), for better or worse they have carried the weight of SEC Basketball for decades. That run comes to an end this week in Tampa, as they will once again carry the first three rounds of the SEC Basketball Tournament...and then ride into the sunset, replaced by ESPN next season.
We have had our fun at the expense of some of the various basketball crews, but the voices of Tom Hammond, Larry Conley, Tim Brando and others have called some of the conference's most memorable moments. So we get them for three more days and ten more games before the worldwide leader takes over...let's make them good ones.
Now that that's out of the way...
The SEC Basketball Tournament is one of my absolute favorite events of the sports year. To have fans from 12 different schools together in the same place is a unique experience, and you just get to see a lot of basketball at once. I've been there in person each of the last three years, only to be chased away by pesky upset-minded teams...and tornadoes. For the fan, it is the greatest risk-reward scenario I know of: you pay a large amount of money up front for a ticket booklet that gets you into every game, and then you hope and pray that your team sticks around long enough to provide a good return on that investment. Best case scenario, you watch eleven games in four days, and your team makes it to Sunday afternoon and goes home with the trophy.
But Tennessee wouldn't know anything about that.
The worst-case scenario, we're a little more familiar with. Get bounced in your first game (2006 & 2007), or barely survive your first game and the subsequent attack from mother nature, then get beat at the buzzer on Saturday that your fans can't get in to see anyway (2008). Let's just say the last three years haven't provided much of a return on that investment.
This season, the tournament is as wide open as I can ever remember. The two division winners, LSU and Tennessee, are coming off losses that make you believe that anyone can beat them. The annual favorites from the Bluegrass are playing for their NCAA Tournament lives (for the first time in two decades) the same way the worst team in the conference is...which is Arkansas, another shocker. Only the division winners are locks for the NCAA Tournament, with South Carolina and Florida looking for at least one more win to get them in.
Thanks to the conference's embarrassingly weak non-conference schedule, there may only be 2-4 teams going dancing, but the NIT should play itself out as the SEC Tournament II. Only Georgia is so far under the required .500 mark that they have no shot of making the NIT; Arkansas would need two wins to get north of it, but somehow I doubt they take a team that went 2-14 in the SEC.
Still, that should leave 6-8 teams from the conference in the NIT...unless that field too gets too crowded, in which case several teams need wins in Tampa just to make any sort of postseason.
The conference is down, yes...but it's extremely balanced. And as always, if you actually win this tournament, you go to the Big Dance. So there's everything on the line for 10 of the 12 teams, and really, it's not a stretch to say 12 of 12 teams could win this thing - nothing would be crazier than what happened last year. It should be entertaining as always...let's hope for the Vols we actually get in on some of the fun this year.
We break down the matchups and see who has the best chance to go forward...
(All times Eastern - All games Raycom until Sunday's Championship on CBS)
FIRST ROUND - THURSDAY
E4 Kentucky (19-12, 8-8) vs. W5 Ole Miss (16-14, 7-9) - 1:00 PM
- Winner plays W1 LSU (25-6, 13-3) - Friday 1:00 PM
- Regular Season: 85-80 Ole Miss (Jan. 27 - Oxford)
A return to where it all started going wrong for Kentucky. The Cats began SEC play 5-0 and had all sorts of attention after Jodie Meeks' 54 point performance in Knoxville. Then they went to Oxford and were ambushed by Andy Kennedy's depleted Ole Miss squad - the Rebels had three players score 20+ points, including 19 from David Huertas in the second half. More importantly, Jodie Meeks didn't make a basket until there were eleven minutes left in the game. Ole Miss got the lead early in the second half and held it the rest of the way.
The Rebels have continued to struggle since then, though it's been an admirable performance in tough circumstances. But Kentucky went 3-8 starting with the Ole Miss loss, currently losers of four straight...and while some suggest their name recognition value will help them, I think the most compelling argument is that UK has to just win the tournament - their RPI is 80 (Ole Miss is 81), and that's not going to jump up there by a significant margin from here. The Cats should approach this week as if they have to win the tournament, period.
It's hard to say that a team that's lost four straight and eight of eleven is going to win four straight...but I do think Kentucky has enough to pull it together and win one. Meeks isn't going to play as poorly and Ole Miss isn't going to have as many kids play as well as they all did in the last meeting.
Can either team beat LSU? The Tigers won 13 straight SEC games - which is another point to make about this tournament: when you're trying to pick a winner, you don't go with a team that hasn't won three or four games in a row this season, the required number to pull it off in Tampa. Of the field, only the four teams with first round byes...and Kentucky have already pulled off that feat. When UK and LSU met a few weeks ago in Rupp Arena, it was one of the best games of the season, won by LSU 73-70 on an afternoon that showcased the conference's best players going at it: Meeks and Patrick Patterson had 52 points, Marcus Thornton and Tasmin Mitchell had 44 points.
LSU won 13 straight but then lost their last two once they had it wrapped up by a combined 24 points to Vanderbilt and Auburn. The Tigers swept Ole Miss, including a 32 point beatdown in Oxford. But if UK advances, you'll have a team that's a lock playing a team that absolutely has to win...should be very, very competitive again.
W3 Mississippi State (19-12, 9-7) vs. E6 Georgia (12-19, 3-13) - 3:15 PM
- Winner plays E2 South Carolina (21-8, 10-6) - Friday 3:15 PM
- Regular Season: 67-61 Miss. State (January 24 - Athens)
State was off to a 6-2 start in SEC play, then lost a double overtime battle against LSU, and went into a funk where they lost five of six. They still have a game-changer in Jarvis Varnado, averaging 9 rebounds and 5 blocked shots per game. And they've won two straight, beating Florida and Ole Miss.
Georgia has a couple of really memorable wins this season, but they'd probably like to forget everything else. This week is the one year anniversary of their memorable four wins in three days run in last year's SEC Tournament, but the key contributors from that squad are gone, as is Dennis Felton. Terrence Woodbury can still make things happen, but any run the Dawgs make in Tampa would be of the same miraculous nature of the one they made in Atlanta.
In the regular season meeting, the Dawgs pounded State on the glass, but committed 22 turnovers. They only got 15 combined from Woodbury and Trey Thompkins, and they'll certainly need more than that in this one.
Can either team beat South Carolina? The Cocks just saw Georgia and took care of them by 17 points in Athens in the regular season finale, completing the season sweep. But State did beat Carolina 75-70 in Starkville on February 18, holding Devan Downey to 19 points on 7-of-21 shooting.
The Kentucky situation is different with all the history, but I think the team with the most to lose this weekend is South Carolina. The Gamecocks have been a great story all season with Downey and first year coach Darrin Horn, but they find themselves in a precarious position on the edge of the bubble. Most bracket projections have them in right now, but a loss on Friday could seriously damage that - Carolina's RPI is 50 and in the danger zone, with no marquee non-conference wins. You'd like to think that a win on Friday should get them in for sure, but if more teams like Cleveland State keep winning conference tournaments, it makes it harder and harder for bubble teams to secure themselves. Friday's 3:15 game could be the most important one of the tournament.
W4 Alabama (17-13, 7-9) vs. E5 Vanderbilt (19-11, 8-8) - 7:30 PM
- Winner plays E1 Tennessee (19-11, 10-6) - Friday 7:30 PM
- Regular Season: 79-74 Vanderbilt (Feb. 5 - Nashville)
Alabama has had their struggles this season and has the coaching change to prove it, but perhaps no one has looked better in their last five games than the Tide. Bama won four of them, their only loss by four at equally-hot Auburn. Along the way, they beat Mississippi State, Arkansas by 21, Ole Miss by 21 in Oxford, and then banked in a 70-67 upset of the Vols in Knoxville.
It's hard to nail down Alabama's mindset coming in, because I don't think it's quite the "nothing to lose" game now that Philip Pearson is getting some love as a candidate to stay on the bench. How much love will depend on how long Bama stays in Tampa.
Vandy has won three straight, including wins over South Carolina and LSU. In the regular season meeting, they got 20 points from Jermaine Beal and AJ Ogilvy to beat the Tide. Of the four Thursday matchups, I think this one will be the closest game.
Can either team beat Tennessee? The Vols beat their in-state brothers by 13 in Nashville and 19 in Knoxville, but Vandy's playing better ball now than they were then. Bama knows they can beat Tennessee since they just did it, and the Vols know that if they make more than half of their free throws, it might be a different story.
It's this time of year that we have to annually remind you that Tennessee hasn't won the SEC Tournament in my lifetime (last championship 1979), and hasn't even played in Sunday's championship game since 1991. Since the league expanded in 1992, the Vols are the only team to have never played on Sunday.
This isn't a team that's playing for a number one seed as they were last year, nor are they playing to lock up an NCAA Tournament bid. Most projections have the Vols at a 6 seed right now, but the Vols don't want that to fall to a 7 and be forced to play a 2 seed in the second round. Even if they win the whole thing, the Vols probably won't go higher than a 5...so, as the question has been all year, how will this team come out and play? And as has been the answer all year...your guess is as good as mine.
E3 Florida (22-9, 9-7) vs. W6 Arkansas (14-16, 2-14) - 9:45 PM
- Winner plays W2 Auburn (21-10, 10-6) - Friday 9:45 PM
- Regular Season: 80-65 Florida (Jan. 17 - Gainesville)
The team that's got the most confusing NCAA Tournament scenario is Florida, who appears right now to be just on the outside looking in. Beating Arkansas won't be enough to do anything - the Gators are going to need to make it to Saturday, at least. Florida's RPI is 48, and like South Carolina, the more Cleveland States who make it in, the less firm their hold.
Arkansas set the world on fire in the non-conference, beating Oklahoma and Texas. Turns out that was all a mirage, as the young Hogs struggled to a 2-14 SEC-worst record. Anything can happen in Tampa, and perhaps this team can find a way to pull themselves together again.
Can either team beat Auburn? Florida won 68-65 on The Plains on January 14. But no team has been as consistently good as Auburn has in the last two months - starting with a 78-77 win over Tennessee on February 7, the Tigers have won 10 of 11, their only loss at LSU, which they avenged with a 16 point win over the Bayou Bengals in the regular season finale. That gets Auburn to 10-6 in the SEC, but still has them squarely on the outside - their RPI is 64, significantly lower than Florida and South Carolina. They should get their chance to prove themselves directly to the Gators on Friday, in what will be an elimination game for the NCAA Tournament. If Florida beats Auburn, they've got a shot.
However, if Auburn wins, I think it'll take another W just to get them in the conversation. I think the Tigers have to at least make it to Sunday...and if they get there, you might as well win it right?
How far does Tennessee go?
We've played this game too many times for me to buy into the "this is the year!!!" logic, though I do think it'll be interesting to see how this team comes out having already locked up a bid and not playing for anything more than seeding. I'm not so overwhelmed by this team's talent that I'd pick them to win it straight away - but then again I'm not so overwhelmed by anyone at this point.
I do think the Vols should and will make it to Saturday - Tennessee knows how to beat Vanderbilt and should handle a rematch with Alabama just fine. That would get the Vols to 20 wins again, and here's an interesting secondary piece of information: Bruce Pearl needs 4 wins to get to 100 in his first 4 years. No Tennessee coach has ever won 100 games in any 4 year run.
I like Tennessee to get to Saturday, and from there who knows. I don't feel confident enough in this team to point at them and say "yep, they're going to win." However, that doesn't necessarily speak instant doom for them next week either - I think this Tennessee team will play very well against a big name opponent, which at this point is what they're likely to see in the second round of the Big Dance. Winning the tournament would be nice since most of us have never seen it, but whatever happens this week, Bruce Pearl has to use it to get his team at their absolute best for next week, when the real game begins.
How many SEC teams make the NCAA Tournament?
LSU and Tennessee are in. I think South Carolina gets in by winning on Friday, which would give the league three.
Auburn and South Carolina both went 10-6, and no SEC team has ever won 10 conference games and not made the field; we enter this week with an idea that neither of them could get in.
Here's what I don't think happens: I don't think Kentucky wins it all, so they're out - that's just too much consistency to ask for from a team that hasn't shown enough of it by far (which is the same reason I'm not picking Tennessee). And I don't think Florida does enough to get in the tournament either - given the choice between the two I think the selection comittee is going to take South Carolina, since they tied for the East title, and rightfully so.
However, I do think the SEC is going to end up with four teams in, because...
If you had to pick a winner, who's it going to be?
They're playing their absolute best basketball of the season right now. They play defense, which will carry you farther in tournament play than the ability to score 80 points. They may not have any of the best individual players, but they might be the best team right now. I like them to beat Florida on Friday night, and given the Vols' inconsistency I'd lean towards Auburn in that rematch on Saturday.
That would get the Tigers to the finals, where I'd think they'd see the other Tigers from LSU. With LSU playing for nothing and Auburn playing for everything...well, we just saw how that turned out last week.
I'm not 100% sold on anybody, and everybody can win it. I just think Auburn is the best choice right now.
So, who do you like?