Nashville is the site of this year's SEC Tournament bash and after last year's debacle in Tampa (long drive for most teams + massive dome + Kentucky not being good = The Hindenburg of SEC Tournaments), we are ready for what could be one of the more exciting editions in recent years. The three best teams in the league are Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee and the tournament is within four hours of all three schools, ensuring a packed house for Friday through Sunday. Throw in the fact that Kentucky is the favorite to win its first Tournament since 2004 and Cats fans would travel Myanmar to watch their team play, and it is certain that the streets of Nashville will be hopping this week.
In addition to the excitement however, you have some major storylines in play, such as:
1. Can Kentucky get the #1 Overall Seed in the NCAA Tournament?
The Cats come to the SEC hungry after having finished their regular season 29-2. If they can win the bash in Nashville and Kansas trips up at the Big 12 Tournament, the Cats will have a claim to the #1 overall seed in the Big Dance and the potential to play in St Louis, a short drive for the Big Blue faithful. The difference between St Louis and Syracuse (where they would go as the second or third rated #1 seed) is substantial, and enough to create a sizeable homecourt edge in the NCAA Regionals. Oh yeah and then there is that little thing of Kevin Stallings winning Coach of the Year over Calipari in the voting by the fellow SEC coaches. I have a sneaking suspicion that will make Calipari care a bit more than usual about conference tournament glory.
2. Can Vanderbilt and Tennessee shake their SEC Tournament History?
No two teams have consistently underachieved more at the SEC Tournament than the Big Orange and the Fighting Slide Rules. Neither team has won a Tournament in the past 20 years and in Tennessee's case, they went a long period without even winning a game. This year the tournament is in their home state and Vol upset over Kentucky could set up a matchup between the two rivals for the title. Not even these two juggernauts could both find a way to lose that game.
3. Bubble Teams Need a Win
Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt are certainly in, but three teams arguably need to do some work to ensure an NCAA berth. Florida has watched the other bubble teams falter and even winning their first game against Auburn is likely enough to prevent a third straight NIT berth for Billy's boys. The two Mississippi schools however arent so lucky. Ole Miss has the best chance, playing the winner of Tennesse-LSU in the second round, and likely needing a victory over the Vols to make it into the Tournament. For Ole Miss its a Catch-22, because Tennessee is a tough draw for the first round game, but a win gets the Rebels in the tournament, while a victory over a team like Georgia might not. As for Mississippi State, no team in the SEC, or maybe the country, has been more disappointing this year than Stansbury's bunch. The Bulldogs will see Florida in the second round and MUST win at least that game, and potentially beat Vandy in the semifinals, to even have a shot to taste the succulent juice of NCAA Tournament glory (that reads much grosser than it sounded in my mind).
The rest of the teams are either fighting to preserve their seasons or get selected for the NIT/CBI/CMT/MTV2 postseason tournaments. Here is a rundown of the games, beginning with the first round on Thursday:
South Carolina vs Alabama 1:00 pm
I have been going to the SEC Tournament for nearly 20 years and I feel like South Carolina has played Alabama in the first round nearly every season. It almost always occurs on Thursday afternoon, the gym is empty and my friends and I are focused solely on looking for the "Dippin Dots" stand (its the ice cream of the future). I never remember who wins these games and the Dave Odom/Eddie Fogler/Mark Gottfried experiences all tend to run together. I will pick South Carolina because they have Devan Downey and Darrin Horn looks like a child from an early 1960s sitcom.
Tennessee vs LSU 3:30 pm
Tennessee got hosed by the SEC's decision to continue seeding its tournament by division, even though four, and possibly five, of the best teams are all in the East. The Vols play LSU, which has looked like a zombie team this season, getting crushed in nearly every way possible while its coach, Trent Johnson, has a perpetual "I left Stanford for this?" look in his eye. The Vols have a "Chris Rock in movies" type awful history in the SEC Tournament, but even they cant lose to this LSU team.
Florida vs Auburn 7:00 pm
This may be it for Jeff Lebo, who has turned the malaise of Auburn basketball into outright destruction. With a new arena being built, the days of the follicly-challenged coach roaming the Auburn sidelines may be numbered. I like Florida in this tournament and think they will win this game, beat Mississippi State and then upset Vanderbilt to make it to the finals vs Kentucky. That path starts with this beatdown, which will only be notable for the Gator dance team.
Arkansas vs Georgia 9:30 pm
The nightcap brings two coaches together whose programs seem headed into vastly different directions going into next year. Mark Fox has done a tremendous job with the Georgia Bulldogs and their season-ending victory on the road at Nashville likely scares the Commodores for a potential Quarterfinal matchup. John Pelphrey on the other hand, has seen a disaster in Fayetteville, which has led the once proud fanbase to abandon its arena and caused the program to reach unprecedented levels of depression. The Razorbacks however can find life with the three point shot and my sneaking suspicion is that they "win one for the Redhead" and take out UGA and company to head to the next round.
The rest of the schedule looks like this:
Kentucky vs Bama/USC winner 1:00 pm
Ole Miss vs Tenn/LSU winner 3:30 pm
Mississippi State vs Aub/Fla winner 7:00 pm
Vanderbilt vs Ark/Ga winner 9:30 pm
Overall this looks like Kentucky's tournament to lose, as they have dominated the season and are in line for the #1 overall seed. But Tennessee and Vanderbilt have the talent to knock the Cats off and their road to the final (South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt) is about as tough as it could be. Still expect the Cats to win it and Nashville to be a Sea of Blue.