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SEC tournament preview and postseason awards

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POSTSEASON AWARDS

SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Grant Williams, Tennessee

There was some speculation that, after a month of being the best player in the conference, P.J. Washington had overtaken Grant Williams in the SEC Player of the Year race. That seems silly now. Williams was the best player on the Vols all season long, the rock that they ran their offense through, and while it wasn’t enough to get Tennessee an SEC regular season title, it did keep them in contention for a No. 1 seed should they find a way to get out of Nashville with an SEC tournament title. Williams is the frontcourt version of Jalen Brunson — he’s not a look-the-part all-star, but he can absolutely dominate a game because of his intelligence and strength.

SEC COACH OF THE YEAR: Will Wade, LSU

This is a no-brainer for me. Wade beat out two top ten teams for the outright SEC title, and he did it while navigating a season in which he was ultimately suspended for his ties to the FBI’s investigation into college basketball and where one of his players, Wayde Sims, was shot and killed on the night before the first practice of the year.

FIRST TEAM ALL-SEC

  • GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee (POY)
  • TREMONT WATERS, LSU
  • ADMIRAL SCHOFIELD, Tennessee
  • P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky
  • CHRIS SILVA, South Carolina

SECOND TEAM ALL-SEC

  • BREEIN TYREE, Ole Miss
  • QUINNDARY WEATHERSPOON, Mississippi State
  • JARED HARPER, Auburn
  • KELDON JOHNSON, Kentucky
  • DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas

SEC TOURNAMENT PREVIEW

WHEN: March 13-17
WHERE: Nashville
FINAL: March 17, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN

FAVORITE: Tennessee (+150) or Kentucky (+180)

So who do you think is better?

That’s really what this comes down to.

Are you on the side of Tennessee, who just two weeks ago beat the brakes off of Kentucky in Knoxville? Or do you think that Kentucky, who two weeks before that completely embarrassed Tennessee in Lexington?

Personally, I fall on the side of the Volunteers, and that’s mostly because I’m always a sucker for veterans. Tennessee is old and tough and is finally getting Jordan Bone to play like the best guard in the SEC. Kentucky, on the other hand, needs an inconsistent P.J. Washington to be at his best if they are going to be at their best.

I also think the status of Reid Travis really matters here. He’s not always the best option at the five for Kentucky, but as we noted here, he is when Kentucky faces off with Tennessee. The biggest issue that I have with this potential rubber match is that it is going to happen in the semifinals, assuming seeds hold This should be for the SEC title.

SLEEPER: Auburn (+500)

The bracket could not have broken down more perfectly for Bruce Pearl’s club. They did not find a way to get into the top four, meaning that they do not get a bye into the quarterfinals, but as long as they dispatch of the winner of Georgia-Missouri, the Tigers will advance to take on SOUTH CAROLINA (+6500), who put together an impressive conference season despite the fact that they struggled so much early in the year. Win those two games, and the Tigers draw an LSU (+500) team that is playing without their head coach Will Wade and without star freshmen Javonte Smart and, potentially, Naz Reid.

BEST VALUE: No one?

The best value is probably Auburn, but I don’t really love any futures in this league tournament. I think the winner will be whoever wins the Tennessee-Kentucky semifinal, but I don’t want to bet on either of them because the odds just aren’t good. The top of the bracket is wide-open, but beyond Auburn, I just can’t see a short-handed LSU or South Carolina beating either Kentucky or Tennessee with an SEC title on the line.

So it’s Auburn, even if the 5:1 payout is not great.

BUBBLE DWELLERS

ALABAMA (NET: 58, SOS: 21): The Tide are probably on the wrong side of the cutline heading into the SEC tournament. With just a 2-9 record against Q1 opponents and a pair of Q2 losses — Texas A&M (82) and Georgia State (126) at home — they don’t have enough quality wins to make up for their 17-14 record. That said, they do have a home win over Kentucky and they did play a tough, tough schedule, so a run to the semis featuring wins over Ole Miss (25) and Kentucky again would probably be enough to get the job done.

FLORIDA (NET: 33, SOS: 28): Florida’s resume isn’t all that much different from Alabama’s. The Gators are 3-11 against Q1 with a win at LSU (14) highlighting their profile, but they have just six Q1 and Q2 wins combined and they lost to South Carolina (80) and Georgia (113) at home. It is worth noting, however, that Florida played five games against top 10 NET teams and currently sits at 1-9 against teams ranked in the top 25 of the NET. They had their chances. They missed on them.

WHAT ELSE IS ON THE LINE?

Not only will Tennessee and Kentucky be playing for an SEC tournament title in Nashville, I think that they are going to be playing for a No. 1 seed as well. As it currently stands, our Dave Ommen has Kentucky the last No. 1 seed and headed to the Midwest (Kansas City) while Tennessee is a No. 2 seed in the South (Louisville). I think it goes without saying that the Wildcats would much prefer to jump North Carolina and get the No. 1 seed in the South, meaning that they end up playing in the state of Kentucky in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8.

Hell, we can probably put LSU in this conversation as well. They are also sitting as a No. 2 seed in the latest bracket update, and if things break the right way, there’s a non-zero chance that they could end up as a No. 1 seed.

PREDICTION

I do think that Tennessee is the better team than Kentucky at this point, so I’ll pick them to win it by knocking off Auburn in the SEC title game.

Tennessee survives scare from No. 15-seed Colgate

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Tennessee survived a scare from No. 15 seed Colgate as the Volunteers claimed a 77-70 win on Friday afternoon in a South Region NCAA tournament first-round game in Columbus.

The Volunteers led by 12 at the half and by as many as 14 points in the second half before Colgate responded with a furious push to take a 52-50 lead with under 12 minutes left. But Tennessee responded with scoring from a variety of sources to regain the advantage and close out the game.

Admiral Schofield (19 points) buried back-to-back three-pointers when it was a one-possession game to put this game out of reach for Tennessee. Jordan Bone (16 points), Jordan Bowden (14 points) and Lamonte Turner (13 points) also finished in double-figures while All-American Grant Williams (nine points, eight rebounds) had a quiet game.

Playing most of Friday without leading scorer and Patriot League Player of the Year Rapolas Ivanauskas (vision issues; 0 points, 0-for-4 shooting), Colgate (24-11) gave Tennessee a legitimate scare during its first NCAA tournament appearance in 23 years. Conference tournament title-game hero Jordan Burns had another great day shooting from the perimeter as he finished with 32 points on 8-for-13 three-point shooting.

Colgate was 15-for-29 from distance as a team on Friday as treys kept them in the game. Junior forward Will Rayman (10 points) and freshman guard Tucker Richardson (10 points) also finished in double-figures for the Raiders.

Tennessee advances to face No. 10 seed Iowa on Sunday in a second-round matchup in Columbus. The Vols will need to play much better in order to get past Iowa as the Hawkeyes used hot second-half shooting to get past No. 7 seed Cincinnati.

Williams had an off-day and wasn’t putting up his normal production, but it’s a positive sign for Tennessee that its guards all stepped up to contribute double-figures.

No. 13-seed UC Irvine pulls off upset of No. 4-seed Kansas State

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And the Anteaters go marching on.

Max Hazzard hit five threes, including a critical three with less than two minutes left on the clock to give UC Irvine a five-point lead, and scored 19 points to lead the No. 13-seed to the first real upset of the NCAA tournament.

Evan Leonard added 19 points, six boards, four assists and four steals, making four free throws to ice the game in the final 20 seconds, as No. 4-seed Kansas State went down, 70-64.

Kansas State entered this game as the co-Big 12 champion, but they were playing without their star, Dean Wade, who is dealing with foot issues that cost him the Big 12 tournament as well. His absence hurt. He is the best shooter, the best passer and the best player for the Wildcats, and his absence contributed to Kansas State’s 38.6 percent shooting now and an 8-for-27 performance from three.

But that should not take any of the credit away from Irvine. Remember, Kansas State reached the Elite 8 last season with Wade playing.

The credit belongs to Russell Turner, his game plan and the way his team executed it. Turner is a former Standford assistant that had a shot at getting the Cal job when the Bears hired Wyking Jones. He’s won four of the last six Big West regular season titles and advanced to the NCAA tournament twice in his five year tenure. This is the kind of performance that will make him an in-demand coach during the carousel this season, and he should have been all along.

But that’s neither here nor there.

The truth is that this Irvine team is really, really good. They take away the paint, they are as good defensively as any high-major that you’ll find and they have the size to match up with anyone. They are going to be a tough out for whoever wins tonight’s Wisconsin-Oregon first round battle.

Jarrett Culver’s big game leads No. 3 Texas Tech past No. 14 Northern Kentucky

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All-American Jarrett Culver had a monster outing as No. 3 seed Texas Tech cruised to a 72-57 win over No. 14 seed Northern Kentucky during a Friday afternoon NCAA tournament first-round game in the West Region.

Finishing with 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, Culver was efficient and dominant for the Red Raiders as they opened up the game in the second half. Only a 30-26 lead for Texas Tech at the break, the Red Raiders clamped down and used the offense of Culver and it’s No. 1 overall defense to break the game open.

The Big 12 Player of the Year had one of the best individual games of any player in the first round as he was 10-for-17 from the floor and 3-for-5 from three-point range. Big man Tariq Owens also finished in double-figures for Texas Tech with 12 points while Davide Moretti added 10 points.

Northern Kentucky (26-9) stayed in the game for a half thanks to the hot shooting of junior guard Tyler Sharpe as he finished with 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting. The Norse couldn’t generate much consistent offense outside of Sharpe, however, as Northern Kentucky shot 5-for-21 from the three-point line. Horizon League Player of the Year Drew McDonald was held to only five points on 2-for-12 shooting as he struggled to get going. Dantez Wilson (11 points) was the only other double-figure scorer for the Norse.

The Red Raiders advance to face either No. 6 seed Buffalo or No. 11 seed Arizona State in Tulsa on Sunday.

Oklahoma advances past Ole Miss in rout

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Rashard Odomes and Christian James both popped off for 20 points and Kristian Doolittle added 19 points, 14 boards and five assists as No. 9-seed Oklahoma blew out No. 8-seed Ole Miss, 95-72, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The Sooners, with the win, will advance to face No. 1-seed Virginia as long as Virginia can get past Gardner-Webb in the first round.

This was something of a cathartic win for an Oklahoma team that was among the handful of at-large invites that had thoroughly mediocre performances in league play. The Sooners opened the Big 12 season with eight losses in their first 11 games and finished with a 7-11 record in the conference.

One game samples really should not determine whether or not a body of work merited inclusion in an event like that, but it’s hard to see the performance that this team — and the Big 12 as a whole — put together thus far in the event and think the committee was wrong to add a sub-.500 team from the Big 12 to the field.

It’s also a sign for what this Oklahoma program is and can be under Lon Kruger.

It’s difficult to compare things like this year over year, but it is certainly interesting to note than not only did Oklahoma get a better seed this year than they did last year, with Trae Young on the roster, but they advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, which is something they did not do with Trae.

That’s not to say that the team is better without him — frankly, I think that’s a silly argument to make. Guys are a year older and a year better, which matters, and I think that the 7-11 mark in Big 12 play says more than the result of a one-game knockout tournament.

It is, however, important to note that Kruger has this thing to the point that they can lose a guy that is now averaging 18.5 points and 7.8 assists in the NBA and still be good enough to get a bid and win a game.

No. 10 Iowa rallies past No. 7 Cincinnati

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Iowa rallied from a slow start to get past No. 7 seed Cincinnati with a 79-72 win on Friday in a South Region NCAA tournament game in Columbus.

Cincinnati generated an early 18-5 lead in the first half as they fed off of the Bearcat-friendly Columbus crowd only to see the No. 10-seed Hawkeyes get hot in the second half.

Things turned in Iowa’s favor about midway through the first half when the Hawkeyes started working the ball more inside. Behind sophomore big man Luka Garza (20 points, 8-for-11 shooting), the Hawkeyes were able to establish an inside presence while opening up the team’s perimeter-shooting options.

In the second half, freshman Joe Wieskamp (19 points) and the Hawkeyes started to make an abundance of threes as they finished 11-for-22 (50 percent) from the perimeter — including a blistering 7-for-10 mark in the second half. Junior guard Jordan Bohannon also tallied 13 points while Nicholas Baer added 10 points as Iowa outscored Cincinnati 48-36 in the second half.

Using the hot shooting of senior point guard Justin Jenifer (19 points), Cincinnati appeared to be completely in the driver’s seat in the first half. But once Iowa started responding with a flurry of second-half threes, the Bearcats struggled to play from behind in the final minutes. Jarron Cumberland (18 points) didn’t get rolling as a scorer until the second half while big man Nysier Brooks (11 points) fouled out with a few minutes left. Tre Scott also finished with 10 points on the afternoon for the Bearcats. Cincinnati struggled to match Iowa’s hot perimeter shooting as they were 6-for-27 from three-point range (24 percent) on the day.

This is a great comeback win for Iowa, as they overcame the bad start by working to take better shots. Forcing a lot of early looks, once the Hawkeyes started getting Garza comfortable on the block, it opened up looks for their shooters. It’s also notable that junior forward Tyler Cook, one of Iowa’s best players, was limited to only five points on 1-for-9 shooting.

Iowa was playing sluggish basketball the final three weeks of the regular season. Friday’s second half was a reminder of how dangerous the Hawkeyes can be if they are hitting shots. And for Iowa to rally when Cook was playing this poorly is yet another positive sign that the Hawkeyes are not to be taken lightly going forward.

With Iowa’s win, the Big Ten now moves to 6-0 in the 2019 NCAA tournament after a 5-0 start on Thursday. Iowa advances to face the winner of No. 2 seed Tennessee and No. 15 seed Colgate on Sunday in Columbus.