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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. 5 Xavier stumbles at Creighton, lose 70-54

Creighton's Cole Huff (13) and Toby Hegner, left, guard Xavier's Jalen Reynolds (1) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Mo Watson went for a career-high 32 points, seven boards and five assists as Creighton jumped out to an early 21-4 lead and never looked back, beating No. 5 Xavier, 70-54, in Omaha on Tuesday night.

 

It was a massive win for the Bluejays, who still have an outside shot at earning an at-large bid this season. (We wrote all about that here.)

As well as Creighton played, the bigger story here may actually be Xavier, who lost for just the third time this season; they had been the only top ten team with just two losses to their name.

The issue for the Musketeers tonight was two-fold, but they both are a symptom of what could be an issue down the road for this team: Xavier doesn’t really have a true point guard.

They certainly didn’t have anyone to stop Watson. By the second half, they had essentially asked Reynolds, who was playing the middle of their 1-3-1 zone to matchup with Watson. It was weird but was actually somewhat effective.

The Musketeers also started out ice cold from the floor, missing 11 of their first 13 shots, and those misses led to leak outs from Bluejays, who got layups and open threes in transition to build that 17 point lead. Once Xavier got behind, it turned into scramble mode for Xavier. They forced shots early in the clock and didn’t start pounding the ball into the paint until it was too late. What they needed was someone to be able to settle things, to ensure that offensive would get initiated and sets would get executed when they were able to get the lead down to single digits.

That 1-for-19 shooting performance from beyond the arc certainly didn’t help matters, and neither did the fact that they got just nine field goals all game from players not named James Farr or Jalen Reynolds. The most frustrating part for head coach Chris Mack? They had good shots. It wasn’t like Creighton took away everything that Xavier wanted to do.

The kids just had one of those nights where nothing went down.

Those happen.

And when you combine them with a total inability to contain the opposing team’s point guard, what you get is a 16 point loss on the road against a team that was desperate to get a good win.

Gill’s 16, ‘D’ lead No. 7 Virginia past Virginia Tech, 67-49

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) Anthony Gill scored 16 points and No. 7 Virginia turned the tables on state rival Virginia Tech with a 67-49 victory Tuesday night, the Cavaliers’ seventh straight.

Isaiah Wilkins added a career-best 14 points and Malcolm Brogdon had 12 for the Cavaliers (20-4, 9-3 Atlantic Coast Conference). Virginia avenged a 70-68 loss to the Hokies in Blacksburg on Jan. 4 in what rates as their worst performance of the season, and extended their winning streak at John Paul Jones Arena to 17 games.

Freshman Justin Robinson scored 16 points and classmate Chris Clarke had 11 in his first action for the Hokies (13-12, 5-7) since breaking his right foot in late December. Virginia Tech’s top two scorers, Zach LeDay (16.0 ppg) and Seth Allen (14.5), were limited to seven and six points, respectively, in part because of foul trouble.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said his team wasn’t ready to play when it lost to the Hokies earlier, but they have been surging of late and were focused from the outset. They were credited with assists and 14 of their first 15 baskets and forced 10 turnovers in the first half; they forced just eight in the last meeting of the teams.

For most of the game, the Hokies had more turnovers than field goals.

The Cavaliers led 32-20 at halftime and extended their advantage to 47-29 on a three-point play by Mike Tobey with 12:11 remaining. It capped an 11-4 run for Virginia, during which LeDay was whistled for his fourth foul. On Virginia’s next trip down court, it got the ball to Gill inside and LeDay basically backed off and let him score, quickly earning a spot on the bench.

The Cavaliers’ lead never dipped into single digits again.

The Hokies had just eight turnovers and outscored Virginia 26-6 off turnovers in their first meeting. This time, Virginia Tech had 10 turnovers by halftime and the Cavaliers had already turned them into 15 points. Virginia Tech finished with 16 field goals and 15 turnovers.

Already leading 9-6, Virginia got scoring from eight players in a 23-8 run that spanned about 8 1/2 minutes.

Gill started it with a dunk, Brogdon hit a 3-pointer, London Perrantes had a four-point play and Wilkins finished it with two free throws, giving the Cavaliers a 32-14 lead with 2:06 left in the half. They didn’t score again, and the Hokies closed within 32-20 by halftime.

TIP-INS

Virginia Tech: The Hokies shot 57.1 percent (15 of 26) from the field in the second half of their 70-68 victory against Virginia on Jan. 4. … Virginia Tech’s starting five totaled four points in the first half.

Virginia: The Cavaliers have held four consecutive opponents to 50 points or fewer.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech plays at No. 12 Miami next Wednesday.

Virginia plays at Duke on Saturday.

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