By Sterling Price
March is here, and one of the best periods of college athletics is upon us with the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament set to begin next week.
The Southeastern Conference, widely regarded as the most competitive conference in college sports, will most certainly have a few schools participating in the tournament. In terms of who wins the conference tournament, however, it feels more wide open than ever. Kentucky, the school that has usually dominated the conference over the last several years, has endured a rocky season this year (9-15 overall, 8-9 in conference play), winding up as the No. 8 seed in the tournament. As a result, a different school will look to rise to the top. Alabama (21-6, 16-2) holds the top seed of the tournament, while other top seeds Arkansas, LSU and Tennessee will seek to make their claim as SEC champions.
Player(s) to Watch:
Perhaps the most exciting player to watch out for in this tournament is LSU freshman guard Cameron Thomas. Thomas led the SEC in overall points scored (554) and field goals made (169), but most notably he was the player that scored the most points per game throughout the SEC, scoring 23.1 points per game. Thomas has also drawn the attention of scouts as somebody who could be going early in the upcoming NBA Draft. Watch for his electrifying presence to be a big factor in LSU making a run at the SEC title.
Also watch for Scotty Pippen Jr., son of NBA legend Scottie Pippen and a sophomore guard from Vanderbilt. While Vandy is far from the best team in the conference (No. 12 seed), Pippen is No. 2 in points per game, assists per game AND steals per game. While the Commodores may not make it far into the tournament, the play of Pippen will be something to keep an eye on.
Call me an optimist, call me biased considering my current status as a student here, but my sleeper team to pay attention to is the Missouri Tigers.
The Tigers have been a polarizing team to watch this season. They’ve had stretches of games where they look like a rising competitive school in the making, beating teams like Alabama and Florida, in addition to competitive non-conference opponents like Illinois, Liberty and Bradley. On the other hand, they’ve also had stretches of games where their fans are consistently disappointed by losses to Auburn, Mississippi State and Arkansas. In order to win their first game against Georgia, the team will need to be clicking on all cylinders and keep their foot on the gas for all 40 minutes. Look for big plays from Xavier Pinson and Jeremiah Tilmon, as well as solid play from the Smith trio (Mark, Dru and Mitchell).
If the Tigers go on a hot streak in this tournament, look for them to make a charge for a high finish in the conference tournament and a better bracket placement for March Madness. However, they’ll need to be the team that made it into the top 10 in national polls in order to go far.
Team to Win:
While many have favored the top-seeded Alabama to win the tournament, my eyes are looking to the No. 2 seeded Arkansas Razorbacks (21-5, 13-4). The Hogs are riding a wave of momentum, having won 8 consecutive games with their last loss coming on Jan. 30th in a nail-biter at Oklahoma State. Part of Arkansas’s winning streak included an 81-66 victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide on Feb. 24.
I expect players like J.D. Notae, Justin Smith and Moses Moody to show out big for the Razorbacks throughout the tournament. Their sky high confidence and winning ways carry them through to an SEC tournament victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide in the championship game.
At least, that’s my prediction. In reality, I could be very wrong. March Madness is just around the corner, and they don’t call it “March Madness” for nothing.
Edited by Emma Moloney