2014 SEC Tournament Preview: How will Kentucky, bubble teams fair?

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As weird as this may sound, the SEC may have more to play for in their conference tournament than any other conference in the country will have.

Hear me out.

RELATEDRead through NBCSports.com’s latest Bracketology

It starts with Kentucky. The Wildcats entered the season as the No. 1 team in the country and have, since then, essentially remained the same team. That’s not a compliment. The best teams in the country improve throughout the year. Kentucky hasn’t gotten any better. Every step forward is followed by a step back. Their performance in March this season is going to be used as a referendum on head coach John Calipari, the Kentucky program and the way Cal uses the one-and-done. It just is. If Kentucky is going to put it all together in the NCAA tournament, that momentum will need to be built this week.

But that’s not it. The league also has a trio of teams currently sitting smack on the bubble’s cutline. Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas are all trying to play their way into the tournament, and all three will likely at least two wins to feel comfortable. Why? Because the way the bracket shakes out, both Tennessee and Missouri will need two wins to land a victory against Florida. Arkansas will need three. All three can theoretically get an at-large bid without that win, but it will mean that Selection Sunday is just that much more stressful.

MOREBrowse through all of our conference tournament previews

When: March 12-16

Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta/

Final: March 16th, 3:15 p.m. (ESPN)

Favorite: Florida Gators

Florida will enter the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and the favorite, although not by much, to bring home the national title. You don’t think they’re going to be the favorite to win the SEC tournament in a down year? Please. There’s a reason that they went 18-0 in conference play this season.

There are two things that make the Gators so dangerous this season. The first is that they can play so many different styles defensively. They can play straight man. They can play a switching man-to-man. They can use a 2-3 zone or a 1-3-1 zone. They can press. And they’re good at all of them, which makes them a nightmare to try to prepare for. Offensively, they do lack a big-time, NBA caliber scorer that defenses have to prepare for, but they make up for it with the fact that they simply do not have anyone that’s a liability offensively and with Scottie Wilbekin, who has become one of the better clutch scorers in the country.

And if they lose?: Kentucky Wildcats

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I don’t really want to pick Kentucky as the second-most likely team to win the SEC tournament, but there really isn’t a choice here. In terms of talent, it doesn’t even compare. The Wildcats are head-and-shoulders above anyone else in the league, and they are probably more talented than Florida. But that doesn’t make them a better team. All of Florida’s pieces fit. All of their guys buy into their roles. They have a senior point guard that’s a leader on the floor and capable of taking and making big shots while spending the rest of the game distributing the ball around.

Kentucky doesn’t have any of that. But if, somehow, everything does happen to click, this group will have a real chance to make a run in March.

Other Contenders:

  • Georgia Bulldogs: Mark Fox caught a break when he was put on the opposite side of the bracket from Florida, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas. While they aren’t exactly in the bubbly picture right now, Georgia did finish third in the SEC this season.
  • Tennessee Volunteers: Even without Robert Hubbs, I like this Tennessee team more than anyone else in the SEC. Antonio Barton is playing better, Jarnell Stokes is starting to manhandle people down low again and Jordan McRae is one of the league’s best-kept secrets. They need at least one win in the tournament to feel good about their chances on Selection Sunday.

Sleeper: Missouri Tigers

Frank Haith has the best perimeter attack in the conference at his disposal, with Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross available. There are two questions for this group, however: How well does their front line play and what do they do at the point guard spot? It’s Clarkson’s job, but the younger guys have gotten more of a shot of late.

Deeper Sleeper: LSU Tigers

I loved LSU entering the season, and on paper, I still do. They have a trio of future NBA players on their front line in Johnny O’Bryant, Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey. Anthony Hickey and Andre Stringer are more than capable in the back court. That’s a good roster, but it just hasn’t clicked … except when they face Kentucky. That’s their second round matchup if they can get by Alabama, with, in all likelihood, Georgia or Ole Miss waiting after that. The bracket sets up quite nicely for the Tigers.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • Jordan McRae, Tennessee: McRae is the best perimeter scorer for the Vols, a high-flying wing that is capable of popping off for 30 on a given night.
  • Charles Mann, Georgia: Mann is the best player for the third-best team in the SEC, and I’m willing to bet that unless you’re a major SEC basketball fan, you haven’t heard of him. That’s a statement on SEC hoops if I’ve ever heard one.
  • Jabari Brown, Missouri: Brown is the best shooter in the SEC, a lights-out perimeter scorer with deep range and a quick trigger.
  • Trevor Releford, Alabama: It’s a shame that Alabama wasn’t better during Releford’s tenure, because he’s been one of the better point guards in the country this year.

CBT Prediction: Florida over Georgia

Best SEC Tournament Memory:

No. 7 South Carolina upends No. 3 Baylor to advance to the Elite 8

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NEW YORK — It was with a whipping and a whimper that Baylor’s season can to an end on Friday night.

The final two minutes of the game wasn’t actually a game. No. 7 seed South Carolina dished out a 70-50 beatdown that wasn’t in doubt after the Gamecocks used an 18-0 run at the end of the first half to turn a rock fight into statement, and for the final two minutes of the game, the Gamecocks and, eventually, Baylor dribbled out the remaining seconds before joining arms at center court for a postgame prater.

It’s the third straight year that Baylor has been bounced from the NCAA tournament by a team seeded lower than them. In 2015, it was R.J. Hunter’s heroics that knocked his dad off of a stool and sent No. 14 seed Georgia State into the second round of the tournament. In 2016, the Bears fell in the first round to No. 12 seed Yale, prompting one of the most memorable press conference moments in NCAA tournament history.

And on Friday night, it was South Carolina that sent the Bears into offseason hibernation.

It was a disheartening end to a season, a loss that will surely provide fodder for the people that traffic in ‘Scott Drew can’t coach’ jokes, the irony being that the 2016-17 season was definitive proof that Scott Drew is almost certainly better at his job than you are at yours.

“When you coach for a while and you make Elite Eights and Sweet 16, you kind of start taking it for granted that you will always be successful in March,” Drew said. “But it’s a good reminder to be here and know how hard it is.”

No. 1 North Carolina handles No. 4 Butler en route to Elite Eight

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North Carolina, the top seed in the South Region, led by as many as 20 en route to a 92-80 win over No. 4 Butler in the Sweet 16 matchup on Friday night at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.

The Tar Heels were led by 26 points, off 8-of-13 shooting, from junior point guard Joel Berry II. The 6-foot floor general had been hampered by an ankle injury through the first weekend. While he still seemed to favor that same ankle at times, his play was a big improvement on his 3-of-21 shooting through the NCAA Tournament’s first two rounds. Justin Jackson nearly matched Berry’s game-high with 24 points.

Andrew Chrabascz, in the final game of his four-year career at Butler, finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

North Carolina, the last of the ACC’s nine tournament bids, advances to the Elite Eight to face the winner of No. 3 UCLA and No. 2 Kentucky. The Wildcats own a win over North Carolina, defeating the Tar Heels, 103-100, on Dec. 17 behind 47 points from Malik Monk.

Missouri lands No. 1 player in Class of 2017 as Michael Porter Jr. commits

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Missouri and new head coach Cuonzo Martin have landed the No. 1 player in the Class of 2017 a week after he took the job as forward Michael Porter Jr. committed to the Tigers on Friday.

Formerly a Washington commit under now-fired head coach Lorenzo Romar, the 6-foot-9 Porter was released from his Letter of Intent this week and many believed he’d end up back at Missouri.

The Porter family lived in Columbia for many years as two of Michael’s older sisters play for the Missouri women’s team while Michael Porter Sr. was an assistant coach for the women’s team.

When Porter Sr. was hired to Missouri to be an assistant coach on Martin’s staff this week — after losing his assistant coaching job at Washington when Romar was fired — it all but sealed the deal that the Porters would return to Missouri and Michael Jr. would play for the Tigers.

Missouri might not be an NCAA Tournament team next season after struggling to an 8-24 finish and 2-16 record in the SEC. But Porter might be the most productive freshman entering college basketball next season as he has a chance to be dominant in the SEC.

Oklahoma State promotes assistant coach Mike Boynton to head coach

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Oklahoma State has decided to promote assistant coach Mike Boynton to head coach, the school announced on Friday.

Boynton was an assistant with the Cowboys under former head coach Brad Underwood, who left Oklahoma State to take the Illinois job last weekend. Also an assistant coach at Stephen F. Austin, South Carolina, Wofford and Coastal Carolina, Boynton is a native of New York City who played his college ball for the Gamecocks.

The hire of Boynton is surprising since he doesn’t have any head-coaching experience as it follows in the footsteps of Cal promoting assistant coach Wyking Jones earlier in the day. Boynton also notably won the job over broadcaster and former Oklahoma State guard Doug Gottlieb as Gottlieb interviewed for the job but wasn’t selected.

 

Rhode Island junior E.C. Matthews will return to school

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Rhode Island junior guard E.C. Matthews will return to school for his redshirt senior season, the school announced on Friday.

The 6-foot-5 Matthews led the Rams in scoring at 14.9 points per game this past season as he returned from a torn ACL and helped Rhode Island reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.

Besides for being a talented scorer, Matthews is a good overall playmaker for the Rams as he also put up 4.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game.

With Matthews returning, it gives head coach Dan Hurley a huge weapon for next season as Rhode Island returns everyone besides the senior front court of Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson.