SEC Tournament Preview: Which Team Other Than Florida Can Cut Down the Nets?Posted by Brian Joyce, David Changas & Greg Mitchell on March 10th, 2014
In anticipation of all the action at the Georgia Dome later this week, the SEC microwriters will be previewing the SEC Tournament by answering several of the key questions heading into the event in a roundtable format. Today’s burning question covers which teams can cut down the nets on Sunday. Florida is clearly the favorite after an 18-0 run in SEC play, but besides the obvious choice of the Gators, which other team could realistically win the championship game on Sunday?
Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell): Tennessee. The Vols are more than just the current flavor of the week after winning each of their last three games by more than 27 points. Their talent is undeniable, as Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae will both probably get shots in the NBA, and there aren’t many other teams outside of Kentucky in this conference that can say that. That talent didn’t translate to consistently good performances throughout the entire season, but it has lately. The Vols’ defense has been especially effective in recent weeks, as Tennessee has held opponents under 0.93 points per possession in five of its last six games. Locking down teams is usually a great pathway to success in March, and with a big, bruising frontcourt that causes match-up problems and a guy in McRae who can go off for 30 points at any time, this is a dangerous team.
David Changas (@dchangas): Tennessee. Tennessee and the SEC Tournament haven’t gotten along since the Volunteers won it in the first year of the event’s reincarnation in 1979. In fact, the Vols had an astounding run from 1992 to 2007 in which they never made it to the tournament’s semifinal round once. And while the Volunteers have been bad wherever the tournament has been played, they’ve been particularly cursed when it’s been held in the Georgia Dome. If ever there were a year that Tennessee would break that jinx, this would seem to be it. The Volunteers underachieved for most of the season but finally seemed to find themselves down the stretch. They won their last three games by a combined 93 points, finishing the season with a 27-point thumping of fellow bubble-dweller Missouri, and appear to have finally hit their stride. The inspired play of point guard Antonio Barton, who struggled for much of the season after transferring from Memphis, as well as improved defensive performance, are two of the primary reasons. Tennessee likely will face Arkansas in a quarterfinal on Friday in what could essentially be an NCAA Tournament play-in game. A win there would almost certainly mean another battle with Florida, and while beating the Gators will be a tall order for anyone, the Volunteers had a chance to do it in Knoxville before Florida pulled away late. With the Gators already all but assured of a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, they might be ripe for the taking in Atlanta this week. Tennessee has the talent and experience to beat Florida, and if Cuonzo Martin’s team can pull it off, this may just be the year that the Georgia Dome ceases to be a house of horrors for the Volunteers.
Brian Joyce (@bjoyce_hoops): I agree with the guys that Tennessee is playing great basketball right now, but sometimes winning a conference tournament is more about opportunity than how well a team is playing. Tennessee will have the unfortunate task of taking down Florida if it wants to get to the championship game on Sunday. Yes, that Florida, the team that just went 18-0 in conference play. But the other side of the bracket is one giant Shaquille O’Neal, Oliver Miller, Charles Barkley, Glen Davis, and Nazr Mohammed-sized opportunity. And I think it’s an opportunity for Georgia to play its way into the championship game in the Georgia Dome. The Bulldogs have won eight of their last 10 games, and four of their last five. Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines have put this team on their backs over the past month, and I think they can do it for a few more games. Mark Fox’s team is beginning to find crucial points down the stretch — in conference play, the Bulldogs are getting to the free throw line more often than anybody else in the league as the offense is finally catching up to what the defense has been doing all season. With that said, it’s the Bulldogs’ defense that has them in the conversation. Georgia has held four of its last five opponents under a point per possession, and in 18 games through conference play, the Bulldogs lead the SEC in effective field goal percentage defense. Yep, even better than the Gators. So can Georgia beat Florida on Sunday? That remains to be seen, but I think the Bulldogs will emerge from the lower side of the bracket to get that chance. Crazier things have happened. After all, it is college basketball.