It hasn’t always been easy to watch the SEC this season. Florida has been the conference’s best team, but after that we see little differentiation and a whole bunch of bad losses by teams in the middle of the conference. So what does that mean for the SEC tournament in Nashville? It could mean a tournament full of upsets, or it could mean a tournament full of far-less-than-perfect high-major basketball.
We will have a good share of quality players and coaches, including the young cast from Kentucky, the always-entertaining personality of Marshall Henderson, the pure point guard skills of Phil Pressey, and the quotable postgame press conferences of South Carolina coach Frank Martin. But how will it all play out? Check out the preview below:
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Where: Nashville, Tenn. (Bridgestone Arena)
When: March 13 – March 17
Final: March 17, 1 p.m. (ABC)
The biggest concern for Florida in the SEC tournament and on into the NCAA tournament will be whether or not the Gators can close out close games and who, if anyone, can step up in crunch time and hit a big shot. Florida does not have a go-to guy like Michigan has or Ohio State has or Georgetown has. The Gators win with defense and shooting the three-point ball and it has gotten them this far. But as losses to Missouri and Kentucky on the road in SEC play point out, they need to have someone or a collection of reliable guys to go to offensively down the stretch. In the loss to Kentucky in the regular season finale, Florida didn’t score a point in the final 7:36 of that game, blowing a seven-point lead. Regardless of how well they play defensively, offensive droughts like that can spell an early exit.
And if they lose?: Missouri
Missouri has needed to come together this season after welcoming so many new players into key roles to start the season. There has been a good deal of progress in that regard, but the stakes are higher now it’s single elimination from here on out which pushes cohesiveness to the forefront. Missouri has more offensive firepower than nearly any team in the country, with six players averaging double figures in scoring. Having Laurence Bowers back and healthy puts Missouri on the right track, but big man Alex Oriakhi is equally as important on the interior. A beneficiary of many Pressey assists, Oriakhi is both a scoring and rebounding threat inside. If Missouri wants to make a run in this tournament, though, Pressey will need to limit turnovers and make better decisions down the stretch in close games.
Other contenders: After Florida and Missouri, the waters of the SEC get murky. Heck, Missouri could even be considered part of the murky middle of the conference. There is a lot of mediocrity in the SEC. Kentucky, Alabama, and Ole Miss have all had their runs this season and we’ll have to see which version of that teams shows up in the SEC tournament to know what we are dealing with. Kentucky is a different team without Nerlens Noel, but fellow freshman Willie Cauley-Stein has begun to step up on the defensive end and fill the hole left by Noel in his absence. Alabama is ranked 250th in the country or worse in points, rebounds, and assists per game this season, but still had a chance to take a share of the SEC lead late in the season before collapsing against Florida. Ole Miss was the talk of the country early in the SEC slate before bad losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State.
Jordan McRae was in the running for the SEC Player of the Year and for good reason. The Volunteers have won eight of their last nine games down the stretch in SEC play and his production has been central to that success. He has scored at least 14 points in eight of those nine games, and that includes a 34-point outburst in a win over LSU. The Volunteers are in a good position in the bracket, too. They will draw either South Carolina or Mississippi State in the second round, then advance to play Alabama in the quarterfinals if they win. The Volunteers played two close games against Alabama earlier in the season, one win and one loss in games that were decided by a total of four points.
Deeper sleeper: Arkansas
Yes, it is true. Arkansas can’t win basketball games on a consistent basis away from home. The Razorbacks were undefeated at home this conference season and were 1-8 on the road with that one win coming over cellar dweller Auburn. But how will they fare on a neutral floor? A high-energy, high-octane transition offense could speed some teams up unexpectedly and that’s when the game comes down to adjustments. If Arkansas catches a team off guard and sets the pace early, will the opponent be able to adjust and come back? It could end up being a wildcard factor in this tournament. But there is a downside. If that doesn’t work, the Razorbacks could lose their first game to Vanderbilt.
– Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Georgia
Caldwell-Pope was voted the SEC Player of the Year with his 18.0 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Some will discount his performance because the Bulldogs finished in the bottom half of the SEC, but there is another side to that coin. On a team with no other real weapons and the chance for defenses to key in on him, he still put up the numbers that he did. Credit granted where credit is due.
– Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss
Perhaps Henderson’s personality has overshadowed his play, but he has continued his double-digit scoring production throughout the season (regardless of how many shots he had to take to get there). It typically follows that when Henderson struggles, Ole Miss struggles, partly because of the number of shots Henderson still takes when those shots are not falling. He was 4-of-19 in a loss to Mississippi State, 4-of-17 in a loss to South Carolina, and 4-of-15 in a loss to Missouri.
– Elston Turner, Texas A&M
Turner is questionable for the SEC tournament, but would be a huge boost to the Aggies if he is able to play after breaking a bone in his finger March 6 against LSU. He is likely remembered most for the 40 points he dropped on Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Jan. 12, but his production has continued even with A&M finishing toward the bottom of the league. He had 37 points in a win over Ole Miss on Feb. 13 and 38 in a four-overtime loss to Tennessee.
CBT Prediction: With Will Yeguete now fully assimilated back into the rotation and providing more depth on the front line, this is Florida’s tournament to win.
Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_