Monday, March 06, 2017

SEC Tournament Preview (Updated w/game picks)

Due to time constraints, I will be unable to post previews for each game Alabama plays in Nashville this week so I'm just going to post a SEC Tournament preview tonight.

The good news is the bracket presents some positive matchups for Alabama. The team is 5-0 this season against LSU, Mississippi State and South Carolina. Also in the top part of the bracket, Alabama has a win against Georgia, and arguably should have beaten both Tennessee and Kentucky in their lone matchups. The opportunity is there for this Alabama team to win multiple games in Nashville if they can somehow find a way to play two halves of good basketball.

The bad news is we have no idea what we're going to see from this team from game to game, even half to half. Their lack of balance stemming from their offensive issues make this team vulnerable every time they take the floor, and they haven't shown the poise in close games that will be necessary in tournament play. I'm hoping for the best, but honestly I think it's going to be a struggle for this team to put together enough consistent play to make a run in this thing.

As far as the postseason is concerned, this team needs to win the tournament to make the NCAA field, and at least 1-2 wins in Nashville to feel comfortable with an NIT bid. At first glance (17-13, 10-8), this team looks like an NIT team. But a closer look at their resume tells a different story. The team is only 7-12 against the RPI top 150 (10-1 against sub-150 games). They do have two top 50 RPI wins (South Carolina, Vanderbilt), and one vs Georgia, who is just outside the RPI top 50 (53 as of today). It's not a completely terrible NIT resume as is, but with the number of mid-major regular season champions that will receive automatic bids, the number of available spots will shrink by the end of the week. For a team like Alabama that I believe is on the NIT bubble right now, they need to strengthen their postseason resume this week. Hit the break for more thoughts.

 Favorite: Even though they are the 2 seed, I believe that Florida is, pound for pound, the best team in the league. The bottom half looks like the tougher half of the bracket so it won't be a cakewalk for the Gators, but I like their experience. Mike White deserves the Coach of the Year award. Most impressive is how good Florida has remained, despite the loss of John Egbunu to injury.


Is Kentucky ripe for an upset?: Yes, Kentucky won the league title outright. Yes, they've won 8 games in a row. But 5 of those games were single digit wins for the Cats. The likely scenario is that Kentucky is playing on Sunday, but I don't think this UK team has dominated the league as it has in recent seasons so it won't surprise me if they trip up prior to Sunday.

Dark Horse: It has to be Arkansas, right? South Carolina has looked shaky down the stretch, and I don't believe any team outside the top four has four wins in four days in them. So, yeah, I'll go with Arkansas.

Can the league surpass four bids: Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina and Arkansas are locked in at this point. Vandy is currently projected in the field, but they have a tricky first game against an A&M team that has played better down the stretch, and I'll put this hot take out there: the Commodores ain't beating Florida a third time. Will 18-15 get the Dores in? Probably. More important for the Dores is that they don't slip up against the Aggies on Thursday. Georgia is probably the only other team in the league that still has a shot at an at-large. Rumors out of Athens is that the administration is exploring options to replace Mark Fox so this is a very important week for him.

Picks:

LSU over Mississippi State
Auburn over Missouri

A weird situation for the favorites in this round due to both games are rematches from this past Saturday. There is a danger of two young teams (State and Auburn) coming out flat following wins over the same opponents less than a week earlier, but there also really seems to be a gap between these teams as they currently stand so picking one or both of the lower seeds seems like a stretch. Alas, I'll take a shot because I don't see a lot of upsets on this bracket, but we all know there will be some.

Tennessee over Georgia
Alabama over LSU
Vanderbilt over Texas A&M
Ole Miss over Auburn

The games on Thursday should be very fun, competitive games with every lower seed having an honest shot at the upset. You have a bubble team in Vandy that probably needs a win on Thursday to feel better about its NCAA tournament chances, while Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, A&M, Ole Miss and Auburn are all trying to shape up their NIT profiles should they be unable to make a deep run this week. If Alabama's opponent is Mississippi State (the likely scenario), the Tide will be on upset alert. The 12/13 seed has beaten the 5 three straight years. Georgia is heading into Nashville with distractions regarding the future of Mark Fox hanging over the program. The Bulldogs likely need to make it to Sunday of the Tournament to have any real shot at an at-large bid. Ole Miss is likewise on upset alert as it took huge offensive explosions in the 2nd half to sweep the Tigers this season. Neither team is great defensively so expect a high-scoring affair. Vandy likewise must be focused. A&M quietly played much better down the stretch, winning 3 of their final 5 games (the two losses were to Arkansas and Kentucky).

Kentucky over Tennessee
South Carolina over Alabama
Florida over Vanderbilt
Ole Miss over Arkansas

As I wrote above, I believe Kentucky is vulnerable this week. Despite Tennessee having a win over Kentucky already this season, I believe it's Georgia who has a better chance of knocking off the Wildcats in the quarterfinals. Assuming that Alabama makes it this far (I can't shake the feeling they're upset bait on Thursday), I don't think they're fortunate enough that South Carolina plays their worst game for a half as they did in the first match-up in Columbia, which Alabama ultimately won in four overtimes. And even as poorly as they played, the Gamecocks had multiple opportunities to win that game. The inescapable fact is that Alabama is simply not a good basketball team, and I'll be happy if they can get out of Nashville with one win. As I wrote above, there is no way Vandy beats Florida a third time. If there's a lower seed that can make a run to the semifinals, I think it will come from the winner of the Ole Miss/Auburn game (assuming Auburn handles Mizzou). Both teams play uptempo basketball, which matches up well with Arkansas' uptempo formula. That could also mean they just get rocked by the team that does it better, but I've found this Ole Miss roster intriguing all season. 

Kentucky over South Carolina
Florida over Ole Miss

I know, I keep saying that Kentucky is vulnerable, but I'm not sure the matchups are there in the top half to stop UK from reaching the championship round. Florida looks like a team that could play in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. I believe Florida is a 4 seed if the tournament was selected today. A SEC Tournament title probably moves them up a seed line. This is an important week for both of the top seeds in terms of strengthening their position in the upcoming tournament. Kentucky has a chance at a 2 seed if they win out.

Florida over Kentucky

Florida beat Kentucky by 22 in their first match-up, and it took a bonkers performance by Malik Monk in the second game to hand Kentucky the victory. I just think the Gators are the better team, and I think they overcome the Kentucky road environment in Nashville. 

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