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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:

Coach K hopes to have Harry Giles back ‘before Christmas’

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 06:  Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils directs his team during their game against the North Carolina State Wolfpack at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 6, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 88-80.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Duke’s freshman center Harry Giles II is close to returning to the game action, according to head coach Mike Krzyzewski, potentially as soon as Christmas.

“Harry’s participating,” Krzyzewski said, “he hasn’t had as much contact yet. We’re hoping before Christmas, those two games.”

Duke is playing UNLV in Vegas on Saturday, then after a nine-day break for finals, the Blue Devils get Tennessee State and Elon at home on the 19th and the 21st.

Giles warmed up with the Blue Devils on Tuesday night. Giles, who was long considered the top prospect in his class, has torn ACLs in both knees. He had a knee scope in October that has kept him out of action since.

“I don’t want to put a gun to his head, like, ‘You have to do it,'” Coach K said. “I want to see how he does during the exam period with a little more contact, before we go forward.”

Video: Belmont claims another late victory vs. Lipscomb

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 20:  Head coach Rick Byrd of the Belmont Bruins reacts against the Virginia Cavaliers during the second round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Time Warner Cable Arena on March 20, 2015 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images
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History repeating itself led to another heartbreak for Lipscomb.

For the second time in a week, the Bisons fell to Belmont in the final seconds in their Battle of the Boulevard matchups. This time it was a Taylor Barnette 3-pointer with 5 seconds remaining in overtime that gave the Bruins the win over Lipscomb, their 11th-straight over their intra-Nashville rivals, by the score of 78-76.

Last week at home, the Bruins erased an 18-point second-half deficit on Dylan Windler’s layup with under a second remaining to best Lipscomb.

In between to those two bad beats to Belmont, Lipscomb also managed to fit in a 72-71 loss to Tennessee State that came courtesy of a Tigers jumper with nine seconds left. Here’s guessing the 104-85 win over Tennessee Tech the Bisons also snuck in that week isn’t enough salve for those wounds.

No. 5 Duke knocks off No. 21 Florida in the Jimmy V Classic

DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 26:  Luke Kennard #5 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after making a three-point basket against the Appalachian State Mountaineers during the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 26, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — Luke Kennard is a realist.

He was a McDonald’s All-American. He’s the second all-time leading high school scorer in the state of Ohio, finishing his career with more points than LeBron James, and had his pick of just about any school in the country when he decided that he would play his college basketball at Duke.

And he knew that, at Duke, at a program that has spent recent history building around the likes of Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Brandon Ingram, he was destined to be the unheralded prospect. He knew that when Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Grayson Allen all committed to being his teammates during his sophomore season, that he would be relegated to a role.

Here we are a month into the season, Duke is through every test they’re going to get in non-conference play, and not only is Kennard Duke’s leading scorer, if the season ended today, he’d be a first-team All-American with a very legitimate case to be the National Player of the Year. Per Draft Express, he’s the only player in college basketball averaging more than 20 points and 3.5 assists per 40 minutes and less than 2.0 turnovers per 40 minutes while shooting better than 60 percent on twos and 35 percent from three.

If I had told you that in October, you would have called me an idiot.

And you wouldn’t be the only one that was skeptical.

“I probably wouldn’t believe you,” Kennard said after putting up 29 points on 16 shots as the No. 5 Blue Devils handled No. 21 Florida in the Jimmy V Classic, 84-74. It was Kennard’s second-highest scoring output of the season and, arguably, his second-best performance in Madison Square Garden this year.

“He’s come through for us,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Beautifully.”

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 06: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Duke Blue Devils drives the ball up the court against the Florida Gators in the second half during the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden on December 6, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Jayson Tatum (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

It’s good to be Coach K these days.

We’re a month into the season and Duke has yet to play a game where half of the four potential lottery picks on the roster have been healthy enough to look like, you know, potential lottery picks. Harry Giles is still more than a week away from actually playing in a game for the Blue Devils; Coach K said that he hopes to have him back for Duke’s two games in the week before Christmas. Marques Bolden has played just 14 minutes in two games since returning from a lower leg injury. Jayson Tatum played his second game with the Blue Devils on Tuesday night, and it wasn’t until the second half against Florida, when Tatum scored 14 of his 22 points, that he got into enough of a rhythm to take over a game the way we know he can.

And Allen, the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year? He’d played in seven of Duke’s eight games, but a toe injury has sapped him of the burst that makes him such a difficult matchup.

But that hasn’t slowed the Blue Devils down. They’re 9-1 on the season, ranked in the top five of every poll and a Frank Mason III buzzer-beater away from surviving an injury-laden first month without a blemish.

It’s a credit to the amount of talent that Duke has stockpiled on their roster.

Because Kennard isn’t the only unheralded star on this Duke team. Amile Jefferson, a fifth-year senior that is only on the roster this season because Duke opted not to bring him back late last year after he suffered a broken foot, has picked up where he left off. Entering Tuesday night, Jefferson was averaging 14.7 points, 9.8 boards and 2.0 blocks. On Tuesday night, he played arguably his most impressive game as a Blue Devil, finishing with 24 points, 15 boards and four blocks.

He, too, is playing at an all-american level this season, and man, what a luxury that is to have. There isn’t another team in the country that could handle that kind of devastating injury luck without missing a beat.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 06:  Amile Jefferson #21 of the Duke Blue Devils puts up a shot against the Florida Gators in the second half during the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden on December 6, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Amile Jefferson (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

“We have so many weapons in offense,” Tatum said after his breakout performance, which couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only was this Tatum’s first nationally-televised came with the Blue Devils, but he put on a show in Madison Square Garden with what seemed like half of the NBA in attendance. “On any given night two or three guys can go off. Other guys that can score might have more rebounds or assists. [Grayson’s] shots weren’t falling but he had eight assists.”

“There is absolutely no jealousy on the team with who is scoring,” Kennard said. “We have a lot of guys willing to share the ball and it’s fun to play with.”

And that may be the best news for Duke for two reasons.

On the one hand, roles are going to change now that the Blue Devils are getting healthy. The minutes-crunch will likely be felt more in the front court, where Giles and Bolden are going to have to force Coach K to take Jefferson off of the floor. Minutes and touches will be at even more of a premium if Duke continues to roll out small-ball lineups that feature Tatum at the four. Chase Jeter, who only got on the floor for one minute on Tuesday, is going to get buried on the bench again, and it wasn’t exactly promising that, in a game where Giles only participated in warm-ups, Bolden got off the pine for just two minutes.

The back court rotation will take a hit as well. Duke’s best lineup come ACC play could very well end up featuring Allen, Kennard and Tatum on the perimeter with Jefferson and Giles up front, meaning that Frank Jackson – who only played 20 minutes against Florida – and Matt Jones will likely end up seeing much less of the floor than they are right now.

But it’s also a sign that the concerns over Duke’s point guard play may have been overblown.

Entering the season, that was the biggest concern with this group. Jackson is the only point guard on the roster, but even he’s more of a scorer than he is a facilitator. That lack of a point guard hasn’t hurt Duke yet, however, and the reason for it is, as Kennard said, “There is absolutely no jealousy on the team.”

That lack of jealousy comes through in the way that Duke plays. Not only do they whip the ball around the perimeter, the Blue Devils are always going to have four-if-not-five players on the floor that can handle the ball in transition or against a press. Their best guards may not be Tyus Jones or Lonzo Ball, but they are kids that are willing and able to create off the bounce and understand how to operate in ball-screen actions. Beyond that, Duke runs crisp offense, which is as essential to efficient offenses as anything, and will always have three guys on the court that can create offense for themselves in a 1-on-1 situation.

That’s even more relevant to point out after playing Florida, who, on paper, is precisely the kind of team that should give the point guard-less Blue Devils trouble. Florida presses, entering Tuesday night 12th in defensive turnover percentage, and yet the Blue Devils committed just 13 turnovers in 71 possessions, a really good number considering the opponent and the matchup.

“Whoever gets the rebound, perimeter guys and Amile, they told us we can bring it up,” Kennard said. “We have a lot of playmakers, guys that can handle the ball coach wants us to push it. We’re a really good transition team if we get stops on defense.”

“Not having a true PG benefits us in a way.”

That’s not too bad for a team that’s still trying to work out their early-season kinks.

“It’s almost like we’re in October mode now when everyone else is in December mode,” Coach K said.

“But I think we can catch-up.”

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 06:  Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils looks on against the Florida Gators in the second half during the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden on December 6, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Grayson Allen (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Brunson helps No. 1 Villanova avoid upset against La Salle

Villanova's Darryl Reynolds dunks the ball during the first half of an NCAA basketball game against the La Salle, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
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PHILADELPHIA (AP) Jalen Brunson scored 26 points and Josh Hart had 21 to help No. 1 Villanova hold off La Salle 89-79 on Tuesday night.

The Wildcats (9-0) failed to dominate in their first game of the season as the top-ranked team in the country. The national champions led La Salle (4-3) by only single digits late in the game and played little like the team that had steamrolled to the top.

Coach Jay Wright had worried that Villanova’s ascension to No. 1 would give the Explorers a little more incentive to go out and knock off the champs.

La Salle almost came through at the famed Palestra.

Johnnie Shuler and Pookie Powell made late 3-pointers that pulled the Explorers to 77-70. La Salle, which has never defeated a No. 1 team, got more late help from long range when Jordan Price popped a 3 that made it a four-point game. Powell scored 27 points.

La Salle just didn’t have enough to get past Villanova and earn its biggest win since it reached the 2013 Sweet 16.

The Wildcats sealed the win on Donte DiVincenzo’s late dunk and avoided the upset.

BIG PICUTRE

La Salle: The Explorers lost three times to No. 1 teams in the 1950s, once each in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2010s. La Salle last lost to a No. 1 team 90-65 to Kansas on Dec. 12, 2009.

Villanova: The Wildcats went 5-1 as an AP Top 25 No. 1 last season. They were the top team in the country for three weeks and proved they were worthy of the ranking with the program’s second national championship. The Wildcats are trying to become the first repeat champs since Florida in 2006-07.

UP NEXT

La Salle faces another Big East team Saturday against Georgetown.

Villanova gets its toughest test in weeks when it plays No. 23 Notre Dame in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

No. 18 Purdue dominates Arizona State in Jimmy V Classic

Purdue forward Vince Edwards (12) goes up for a shot against Arizona State in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, in New York. Purdue won 97-64. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
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NEW YORK (AP) No. 18 Purdue did just about everything well in a 97-64 thrashing of Arizona State on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.

The Boilermakers scored inside and from the perimeter. They played stingy defense. They rebounded with extra energy.

“I thought right as we started moving the basketball, we got into a rhythm and our guys played maybe the best half (of the season) outside of the first 4 minutes,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said.

Isaac Haas and Vincent Edwards were both 6 of 9 from the field and had 16 points for Purdue.

“I would say we did a lot of great things offensively, moving the ball and getting open looks from 3-point and down on the block,” Haas said. “But defensively there was some things we had to tune up. We eventually got most of those corrected, but it still comes down to guarding your man.”

Purdue, which has won six of seven, took command with a 26-2 run that gave the Boilermakers a 35-12 lead. During the spurt, Purdue scored both inside and out while the Sun Devils (5-4) missed 12 of 13 shots and the Boilermakers (7-2) outrebounded Arizona State 16-5.

Arizona State finished the first half 1 of 11 from 3-point range, one game after matching the school record with 18 3s against UNLV. The Sun Devils were 4 for 26 for the game on 3s and 24 of 67 overall (24 of 67).

“It came real easy for them their last home game,” Painter said. “We just wanted to stay with them. We just wanted them to take contested shots and not leave them (open).”

Ryan Cline had 15 points for Purdue, and Basil Smotherman added 13. Carsen Edwards and Dakota Mathias scored 12 each.

Cline was 5 for 7 and Vincent Edwards went 4 for 5 from 3-point range as Purdue finished 15 of 27 from long range. The Boilermakers shot 59.4 percent overall (38 of 64).

“I think things definitely went in our favor, especially shooting the basketball,” Painter said.

“We were just being simple and making plays. We were just playing team ball,” Vincent Edwards said. “I feel like when one team is missing shots and the other team is making a lot of shots and capitalizing on those misses, it really shows.”

Shannon Evans II led the Sun Devils with 16 points, and Torian Graham added 14.

“Purdue’s a really good basketball team, really good balance, toughness, inside game,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “They made a good amount of shots behind the line. I thought we competed for about 8 minutes out of 40. That’s not good enough at this level.”

Caleb Swanigan had 10 rebounds to lead the Boilermakers, who finished with a 44-28 advantage on the glass. The 7-foot-2 Haas had seven rebounds.

“We identify ourselves with making jump shots,” Hurley said. “Right now we’re a soft team and we don’t have any backbone. When we didn’t make our shots, we folded, we gave in. It was sad to see.

“It’s unfortunate that our team didn’t even come close to the energy that Jimmy (Valvano) had in his life and his passion. We had no passion for playing. We did a disservice to this game and this event and what he represented.”

The win ended a three-game losing streak at Madison Square Garden for the Boilermakers, who are 13-9 in the building all-time.

BIG PICTURE

Purdue: The Boilermakers aren’t just their big men anymore. Swanigan and Haas control inside, but Purdue can also hit the 3. Purdue outrebounds its opponents by eight and the Boilermakers shoot 43.2 percent from beyond the arc. … Purdue’s losses have been to Villanova and Louisville. … Purdue’s next game against a ranked team is Dec. 17 against No. 23 Notre Dame in Indianapolis. … Purdue leads the all-time series with Arizona State 4-2.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils are one of the most mobile college basketball teams. From Nov. 16 through Dec. 10, they will travel 12,900 miles and spend 11 of 25 nights in hotels. The trips included one to the Bahamas to face then-No. 1 Kentucky. … In their current six-game stretch, the Sun Devils will have faced ranked teams Kentucky, Purdue and Creighton. … Arizona State is 1-4 at Madison Square Garden.

UP NEXT

Purdue: The Boilermakers host Cleveland State on Saturday and a week later they face No. 23 Notre Dame.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils are at San Diego State on Saturday.