Wednesday, March 07, 2018

SEC Tournament Preview/Predictions

Instead of writing yet another Texas A&M preview, or writing a preview for each day should Alabama be fortunate enough to stick around in St. Louis for multiple days, I decided to write a preview of the conference tournament itself.The SEC tournament begins Wednesday night at 6 P.M. CT. The SEC Network will cover all games prior to the quarterfinals on Friday when ESPN will split with the SEC Network. ESPN will televise the semifinals and final.

Obviously, Alabama will be the big draw of the tournament for us. Can this Crimson Tide team end a 5-game losing streak on Thursday in the rubber match vs Texas A&M? It's survive and advance for Alabama at this point. Should they lose a sixth straight game on Thursday, their NCAA Tournament hopes will be dashed. Win on Thursday, and they remain very much in the discussion thanks to a strong strength of schedule and a number of good wins with few bad losses. Should Alabama win at least two games in the event, their resume should be strong enough to get them into the field as an at-large. Win on Thursday, but lose on Friday, the Alabama team and fanbase will likely be sweating it out through Selection Sunday.

Alabama is the only conference team on the bubble that can secure a bid without winning the tournament. Other teams on the bubble - Mississippi State, LSU and Georgia - all likely must win the conference tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Seven teams - Auburn, Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas and Texas A&M - all appear to be safely in the field regardless what happens this week. Seven teams would be the most the conference has ever placed in the NCAA Tournament field. The hottest teams entering the tournament are Tennessee (four straight wins), Florida (three straight wins), Texas A&M (three straight wins) and those old underdogs, Kentucky (won four of their final five games). My guess is the winner of the tournament will likely be one of those four teams.

The SEC basketball awards were announced today. Alabama's Collin Sexton was named to the 2nd Team All-SEC and was voted Co-Freshman of the Year with Kentucky's Kevin Knox. I'm not a fan of awarding two players an individual award; I think it's just lazy. Furthermore, I don't think Knox had a comparable season to Collin. Nevertheless, congrats to Collin for both honors. He was of course also voted to the All-Freshman team. The other honor for Alabama went to Donta Hall. He was voted to the All-Defensive team.

Click here to check out the other awards and the complete All-SEC teams.

Last but not least: Here are my predictions for this weekend. My picks for this event have been abysmal in recent years so please be gentle in the coming days. This is a little long so click the link to continue.

Vanderbilt over Georgia - The first game of the tournament offers an intriguing matchup right off the bat. Georgia's size and power around the rim vs Vandy's perimeter-oriented game. This could be the final SEC Tournament for Georgia head coach Mark Fox. He was on the hot seat entering this season, and I'm not sure Georgia's 16-14 season to this point has cooled his seat. I believe Fox is a good coach, but only two NCAA appearances in nine seasons is going to put you on a hot seat at any power conference school, even one like Georgia where the fans are, at best, apathetic about basketball.

South Carolina over Ole Miss - The vibe I get when watching Ole Miss the last few weeks is that these guys are ready for this season to be over. Outside of a surprising win at Missouri, the Rebels have offered little resistance as this season got away from them. I expect a lot of close, competitive games this week in the tournament; not so much here. South Carolina obviously has no shot at an NCAA at-large bid, but the NIT is still a possibility for the Gamecocks should they not win the whole shebang.

Alabama over Texas A&M - Truthfully, I have zero confidence in this pick. My hope is that the end of the season allowed this team to hit the reset button. I don't believe this team is as bad as this current losing streak suggests (every team in this league has gone through some level of adversity this season, which is a further testament to the improvement of the league); they've beaten enough good teams this season to back that belief up. Unfortunately, they're going to find themselves in a pressure situation on Thursday against a team I believe is much better than they've shown during the conference slate. The hope is Alabama's desperation manifests itself in one of their better performances of the season. Gaining a little confidence may do wonders for this team. A&M is likely in the tournament win or lose on Thursday. I won't be surprised either way this game goes because both teams have been so helter skelter. I also won't be surprised if A&M loses Thursday, but we look up in a couple of weeks and they're in the Sweet 16.

Missouri over Vanderbilt - What a season for Missouri. Headed back to the NCAA Tournament after three painful years under Kim Anderson. They also get the conference tournament in their backyard. Cuonzo Martin did a great job keeping this team together in the wake of the Michael Porter, Jr. injury and some early struggles in non-conference and conference play. If not for the seasons Tennessee and Auburn had, Cuonzo would have gotten some serious consideration for Coach of the Year. There are expectations that Porter, Jr. will give it a go this week. I'm interested to see how his insertion, if it happens, will affect the chemistry of the team. This team built an identity without him, but may now have to shift everything to accommodate his return. That could be tricky.

LSU over Mississippi State - This may be the best game of the Thursday games. LSU just beat State by 20 this past Saturday, but this will likely be a different game. It wouldn't surprise me to see State put together a run in this tournament. They've got all the necessary components: guard play is solid, they've got enough size and skill in the post to be balanced on both ends, and they've got a coach in Howland with plenty of postseason success during his career. The reason I like LSU is simple: Tremont Waters. He's a really good player who has elevated that entire team in my opinion, and he seems like the type to excel under the bright lights in March.

Arkansas over South Carolina - My expectation is all four of the games on Thursday will be competitive. It should be a fun day of basketball, with the exception of the Alabama game which will likely be nerve-wracking for me. Arkansas is a tease of a team. There are stretches where they look capable of making a deep tournament run, and then there are times you expect them to bow out in the first round. It will be interesting to see which Arkansas team shows up.

The quarterfinal round on Friday is where I think things could get very interesting in this tournament. I'll be shocked if all top four seeds make it to the semifinals. In my opinion, there are no elite teams in this league so I think everyone at the top is vulnerable.

Auburn over Alabama - Call me crazy, but Auburn may be the most vulnerable of the top four seeds despite being the number one seed in this tournament. The Anfernee McLemore injury has hurt them, particularly on the defensive end. In the four games following McLemore's injury, the Tigers went 2-2, with the two wins at home over an Alabama team on its way to a five-game losing streak, and the 11th seeded South Carolina Gamecocks. If you go back to the final eight games of the season, Auburn was 4-4. They're a very good team, and if their outside shot is falling, good luck beating them. However, I think A&M or Alabama has a very good shot at beating the Tigers on Friday because they both match up well with Auburn. I am tempted to pick Alabama to win this game because I want to believe this team can string together multiple good games and get back on track. Unfortunately, this Alabama team has struggled to do that all season so there's no reason for me to expect that this week. Expect Auburn to be motivated for this game regardless of the opponent. The coaches, players and fans spent all day Wednesday gnashing their teeth after the SEC awards were announced. Bruce Pearl did not win Coach of the Year, and no Auburn player was voted First Team All-SEC. Mustapha Heron, arguably the Tigers top player, was not voted to any All-SEC teams. I don't agree with these exclusions myself, though it's hard to feel too much sympathy for a fanbase as unlikable as Auburn and a team that just won the league title. Pearl will no doubt use this as motivation for his team though. If the Friday opponent is Alabama,  that will only give Auburn more motivation to go out and prove a point.

Kentucky over Missouri - Can Missouri fans squeeze the Big Blue Nation out of the Scottrade Center on Friday if this game takes place? It's doubtful, but if there is one game where the location of the event could make the biggest difference, it's this one. John Calipari struggled to get this Kentucky team right throughout most of the season, but by February the Cats were looking much better. Despite being roughed up by Florida in the season closer, I believe Kentucky is the team to watch in this field. Seems cliche I know, but this is probably, pound-for-pound, the most talented team in this league.

LSU over Tennessee - I believe at least one of the top four seeds is losing on Friday. Tennessee seems the least likely to be that team so it makes perfect sense to pick LSU to upset them on Friday....right? I really like Rick Barnes team. I think they might have the best shot of any SEC team to play deep into the NCAA tournament. Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe Tennessee is the favorite in Vegas to win the conference tournament. With that in mind, it seems stupid to pick LSU here, but my man crush for Tremont Waters is strong.

Florida over Arkansas - The Gators are playing well heading into the tournament. They've been the complete opposite of Alabama in that three weeks ago there was legitimate concern among some that the Gators may miss the tournament after losing five out of seven games in February (again, everyone has struggled to a degree at some point in the conference schedule). Following a three-game winning streak that included that rude beatdown of Bama and home wins over Auburn and Kentucky, Florida is safely in the field. People waiting for Mike White to fall on his face in Gainesville will have to wait another year it seems. I'll give Florida the slight edge here because they're playing so well coming into the tournament. This should be one of the better games of the tournament.

Kentucky over Auburn - The Cats would have a size advantage in this game if it takes place, and I think their length would bother Auburn on the perimeter. The lone game these two played in Auburn was a close affair, but the Auburn crowd, to their credit, helped pull Auburn through that game. The crowd this time around would be largely in Kentucky's favor.

Florida over LSU - My Tremont Waters love has a limit, it seems. The Tigers keep it close, but ultimately fall to the older Gators. If Will Wade is the real deal, watch out for LSU in the coming years. That 2018 class he's assembled is insane (currently ranked in the top five). It's so insane in fact that the NCAA is allegedly looking into the recruiting tactics that LSU used to land that class. Assuming everything is legit, the future looks bright in Baton Rouge.

Kentucky over Florida - After all of the shuffling we've seen this season with Auburn and Tennessee rising to the top of the league, it would be ironic if the usual suspects from Lexington and Gainesville are once again playing for the league tournament title. Kentucky has won three straight conference tournaments so would anyone really be surprised if they win a fourth?

Regardless of what happens with Alabama this week and beyond, remember to enjoy yourselves. For college basketball fans, this is the most wonderful time of the year. Let the madness begin!  

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