Christian D’Andrea is a SEC Microsite contributor and an editor at Anchor of Gold and Nashville Sports Hub. You can reach him on Twitter @TrainIsland.
The SEC Tournament is upon us, and thanks to the league’s new 14-team format, fans get a whole extra day of win-or-go-home basketball in the south. The 2012-13 season hasn’t been particularly kind to the SEC. The conference suffered through a plague of upset losses and a dearth of quality wins which led to speculation that Florida would be the league’s only representative at the NCAA Tournament.
That course has been corrected over the final three weeks of the season thanks to some big wins across the conference’s second tier, but there are still plenty of teams battling for postseason slots. Tennessee and Kentucky will be looking to one-up each other as they duel for what might the last at-large invitation to the Big Dance. Alabama and Ole Miss will look to re-enter the postseason conversation with legitimizing wins. Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt will try to rally hard and extend their seasons one day at a time.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 14 teams that will be competing for conference honors when Wednesday rolls around.
The Prohibitive Favorite: Florida
Florida Seeks Another SEC Title in Nashville (Photo via John Raoux / AP)
Billy Donovan’s team hasn’t been perfect against a downtrodden conference, and that has cost the Gators a shot at a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Their best recourse for that will be to put together a dominant run in Nashville, and an easy Friday match-up against LSU or Georgia will give them the opportunity to get off on the right foot. Much like the rest of the season, this will be a high-risk, low-reward endeavor for Florida. They won’t face a top-50 opponent until a theoretical Sunday match-up in the title game. They’ll have to hold court and prove that they can reclaim the dominance that led them to a string of double-digit wins to open league play.
The Savvy Bet: Missouri
Mizzou may have the richest depth of any team in the SEC, but Frank Haith’s squad has been vulnerable against the conference’s good and mid-level teams in 2013. The Tigers have struggled to play well as a team despite the wealth of experience on their roster, but they’ve been able to regroup (4-2 in their last six games) as the SEC Tournament approaches. Mizzou has the scoring, ball movement, and rebounding to push any opponent to the limit. Players like Alex Oriakhi, Laurence Bowers, and Phil Pressey can create mismatches against any team they face. Can they ratchet up the defense and come together as a cohesive unit when the pressure is on? The Tigers are just a #6 seed in the SEC bracket, but they have the potential to do so much more — especially with a relatively weak draw on the road to the conference championship game.
The At-Large Brawlers: Tennessee, Kentucky
Tennessee and Kentucky represent the conference’s best candidates for a third and possibly fourth NCAA Tournament bid, but it may be a case of one-or-the-other when it comes to the selection committee’s final bracket. Both of these teams proved that they can beat Florida over the past two weeks, but their victories came with the help of home court advantage. Now, they’ll have to prove that they can travel to a neutral court and roll that momentum into a season-sustaining run through the SEC Tournament. The Volunteers and Wildcats will be pitting their resumes against each other for a chance to make it to the Big Dance, and while either team can make a case for inclusion based on their regular season performances, another significant win would all but ensure their spot in one of the NCAA’s four regions.
Jordan McRae and Tennessee are the hottest team in the SEC. (USA Today)
The only way these two would meet in Nashville is in the SEC title game, and both teams would be likely locks for the 68-team filed at that point. Kentucky has the better collection of talent, but no team has been hotter over the past month than Tennessee. The Volunteers are at the tail end of an 8-1 run that rallied the team from CBI territory and on to the happy side of the bubble. However, they may have been pushed down to NIT status after Saturday’s UK win over the Gators and Middle Tennessee State’s surprising Sun Belt Tournament loss. Is there room for both of these teams in the NCAA bracket?
The Forgotten Bubble Contenders: Ole Miss, Alabama
Ole Miss and ‘Bama belonged in the previous group until late-season slumps effectively tanked their seasons. For the Rebels, February and March represented a precipitous fall from grace. Marshall Henderson and his teammates plummeted from a potential five-seed or better all the way off the NCAA Tournament bubble with a 6-6 record down the stretch that included losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State. Still, Henderson, Murphy Holloway, and Reginald Buckner could lead the third-seeded Rebels to a big weekend if they can regain their early-season magic.
The Crimson Tide didn’t have a bad spring, they just failed to produce any resume-defining wins. Anthony Grant’s team is solid across the court and strong enough to hang with the SEC’s best teams, but they’ve been unable to lock down an impressive top-50 victory in 2013. This rebuilding Alabama squad has the pieces in place for a big 2014 run, but they might not have the gas this week to get to the SEC title game and back to the bright side of the bubble.
Puncher’s Chances: Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Georgia, LSU
The SEC Tournament occasionally fails to follow rhyme, reason, or tradition. Some years, a tornado hits the host arena and wills a 4-12 Georgia team to the Big Dance. In others, a Vanderbilt team that hadn’t known much beyond abject failure in the conference bracket wins their first postseason title since 1950. Five teams at the lower end of the Southeastern spectrum could end up adding to that legacy in 2013.
Vanderbilt, thanks in part to the emergence of freshman Sheldon Jeter, is finishing its season better than they started it. A team that can shoot from three-point range and play hard-nosed defense on the perimeter is always dangerous in tournament play, and that will give Kevin Stallings’ team a shot. Same goes for Texas A&M, a squad that could ride Elston Turner Jr.’s hot hand to a marquee match-up on Sunday.
Arkansas, with wins over Kentucky, Florida, and Missouri, may have the best resume of the group when it comes to the league’s third tier and a high-paced style that could wreak havoc in a four-day tournament setting. Georgia has been streaky all year and could be an upset of Florida away from an easy path to the SEC title game. Finally, LSU has been wholly unpredictable in 2013 and that volatility could result in a surprising run to a weekend match-up or a Thursday exit at the hands of Georgia.
Saving Money on Costly Weekend Hotels in Nashville: Mississippi State, Auburn, South Carolina
Frank Martin’s team has some young talent, but doesn’t have a path to a Friday game unless Bruce Ellington or Michael Carrera catch fire for the Gamecocks. Even with a big, slightly inexplicable win over Ole Miss, Mississippi State is still a rebuilding team with just seven scholarship players to count on in Nashville. Auburn held Alabama to just 37 points once and also beat Florida State this season, but that’s about it for bright spots in a season that’s ending on a 1-14 skid.