The 14-team basketball playoff system almost unveils itself this week with the women's tournament starting today in Duluth. When Alabama and MSU tip off. the postseason officially begins. We'll take a look over the bracket but won't be making any predictions in this post (other than a few on the early games for sake of discussing a bit deeper in the tournament), largely because so much of this week will hinge on the health of the Lady Vols, which is an entirely unknown quantity at this point.
The oddity is today, where the Tide and western Bulldogs play what is effectively a play-in game. Normally, there would be a 11/14 game as well (and the same setup in the men's side, as you well know), but #14 Ole Miss is under a self-imposed postseason ban for recruiting violations. (Let that sink in for a bit.) #11 Auburn gets the bye into the next round, so to speak. But after this evening, we're right back to the 12-team setup we know and love, and Tennessee is back in the top seed. There are some very good possibilities for games down the road, including the UT / A&M bloodbath 2.0, as well as a Kentucky team that could run into an LSU team peaking at exactly the right moment. With that, let's breeze through the games as far as prognosticative comfort allows.
ESPN3 is available, but will be blacked out for all SEC states for at least some games.
Postgame videos will end up here, and maybe pregame info like radio feeds. The SEC isn't always consistent on this.
#13 Alabama vs. #12 Mississippi State, 6 PM
The lone play-in game of the tournament, both schools are clearly out of any post-conference tournament picture, shy of winning the SEC tournament outright. MSU was 5-11 in conference with a notable 50-38 home win over Georgia last Thursday, while Alabama finished 2-14 in conference with their best win being over #11 Auburn. MSU has to be considered the favorite here, though nobody's really sure how enthused these two teams are at the end of a disappointing season for both squads. It's unfortunate that Ole Miss was ineligible and the #11/14 game was canceled; having other teams playing on the opening night would have helped the atmosphere considerably.
Of the four games on Thursday, only the #8 Arkansas / #9 Florida game appears to be intriguing. The Gators slipped from 8 to 9 with a loss at South Carolina on Sunday, but these two teams have been roughly equal throughout conference play. Florida won the head-to-head in Gainesville 69-58, thanks to 50% shooting from the field. On a neutral court, and assuming the shooting percentages are a little more equal, this game is really a tossup. The winner moves on to play Tennessee, making this one of double interest to Lady Vols fans.
Otherwise, there is #5 South Carolina vs. the Alabama/MSU winner, #10 Missouri vs. #7 Vanderbilt, and #11 Auburn vs. #6 LSU. LSU is riding a hot streak and is probably better than a #6 at this time of the year. Vanderbilt is well-built to play Missouri, with quick guards and crisp offensive sets that will keep the pace slow and make Missouri's three-point shooting difficult. Finally, South Carolina should be expected to win easily over either opponent, who will have but 20 hours between games. Of these three games, only the Missouri / Vandy game could break the chalk, but that's only if Missouri gets really hot from downtown, much like they did when they beat Tennessee.
It's tough to say much about Tennessee's opponent when the Florida / Arkansas game is honestly a toss-up, but the story here will definitely revolve around Tennessee's health anyhow. During the SEC teleconference on Monday, Holly said that Kamiko Williams had sprained both ankles against Kentucky. (Any more questions why she wasn't effective in the second half? No?) Isabelle Harrison may very well miss the entire tournament. Ariel should be okay, but will undoubtedly be focused on rest and recovery until at least Wednesday. It would be lovely to have this team healthy just once, but at least they'll have a chance to recover their emotional energy.
The Texas A&M / (presumably) South Carolina game could be the best one of the day. In their conference game, A&M eked out a 50-48 win on the road, but South Carolina has not really had a bad game since their conference opening loss against Tennessee. They closed the season with a win over Florida and are in good shape entering the tournament. They aren't offensive juggernauts but they play defense as ferociously as any other team in the league. This game may depend on how touchy the refs feel about Kelsey Bone's style of play.
If we also presume that LSU advances over Auburn, they will face Georgia in another fantastic matchup. Georgia has more talent top to bottom, but LSU is riding really high over the last few weeks, including a season-ending win over A&M in College Station on Sunday. The Tigers went from outside the NCAA field to a lock after winning six straight to end their conference season. If Georgia struggles to find their offense like they did at MSU a week ago, this could very easily turn into an upset.
Lastly, Kentucky will face the Vandy/Missouri winner (and for sake of discussion, we'll assume Vandy wins). The Commodores have one of the best interior players in the conference in Tiffany Clarke - a center who gave Bashaara Graves and Isabelle Harrison fits earlier in the season. Vanderbilt also runs extremely nice offensive sets; if they can find their rhythm, they have the chance to break Kentucky's defensive efforts via precision and patience. Also, if they can hold the ball deep into the shot clock and still score, they can put Kentucky's offense on ice and force them into halfcourt play. But the Wildcats love to run tempo, even at the cost of their own turnovers, and are playing very well right now. This is definitely Kentucky's game to lose, but Vanderbilt should be a great first game for them.
After that, it's tough to tell. Chalk dictates a Tennessee / A&M rematch that will likely be as bone-jarring as the first installment. It's tough to tell who Kentucky will play if they win, though; LSU really does have an even chance at beating Georgia. All five of these teams are playing as well as can be expected at this time of year, and all have plenty of reason to win as there are significant tournament seeding implications at stake. Between UT and UK, the team with the better tournament run likely gets a #2 seed, making the NCAA Sweet 16 game much easier. A&M and Georgia need to win to try to avoid the 4/5 line and a date with a #1 seed in the same round. LSU has no fears of missing the tournament anymore, but moving to a 7/6 line would be much better than an 8/9 for similar reasons. All of this is in play, and if the SEC alone wasn't enough motivation, the NCAA tournament provides that extra motive.
Nobody can fairly predict the outcome right now, so we won't try. But if Tennessee can get healthy and avoid injuries in the first couple games, they have a serious chance at their 18th tournament title. Can't ask for more than that.