By: Anthony Del Fiacco
The Southeastern Conference tournament begins Wednesday evening in Nashville. There’s plenty to love and look out for in this year’s SEC tourney. For starters, you don’t have to force yourself to watch Mizzou go one-and-done thanks to their postseason ban. Kentucky is here, as always, and unlike last year they face stiff competition in the form of regular season co-champions Texas A&M. You have a collection of bubble teams in, Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Vanderbilt and South Carolina are looking to impress the bracketologists. Finally, you have arguably the most exciting player in the country in Ben Simmons of LSU.
Anyway, let’s get to it.
Texas A&M (24-7, 13-5) – The Aggies come into Nashville riding high off their first conference championship in 30 years. There’s a lot to love about coach Billy Kennedy’s bunch. They’re experienced (four of their five starters are seniors), stingy on D (65.9 PPG), and have padded their resume with impressive wins over the likes of Kentucky, Texas, Gonzaga, Baylor, and Iowa State. Those are all signs of a team that can not only challenge UK’s hegemony in the SEC, but go deep in the Big Dance.
Kentucky (23-8, 13-5) – Kentucky is Kentucky. We saw them fall just short of a perfect season last spring, and make the national championship as an 8-seed the year before, so underestimating John Calipari’s men at this point seems pretty…inadvisable. Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis headline this year’s Wildcats squad. Ulis has the raw talent, as evidenced by the hardware he’s collected on the year (SEC player of the year per CBS Sports, Wooden Award finalist, first-team All-American). Murray, meanwhile, has the range— 42.1% from beyond the arc, 20.0 PPG.
South Carolina (24-7, 11-7) – Carolina has quite a bit of face to save. The Gamecocks entered conference play with a perfect record, only to suffer losses to the likes of Tennessee, Mississippi State, Georgia (twice), and Missouri. But all hope is not lost in Columbia. They are still comfortably in the tournament, projected as an 8-seed by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi as of this column’s publication. It’s all a matter of how far the Gamecocks, led by Michael Carrera (14.5 PPG, 7.7 RPG), can put those dropped opportunities behind them.
LSU (18-13, 11-7) – The Tigers honestly haven’t been all that impressive this year. I put them here simply because they have that great, unpredictable weapon neither the Commodores nor anyone else possesses: Ben Simmons. The freshman forward has wowed fans with his ability to influence every aspect of the sport—he leads the inconsistent Tigers in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per game—and thus is projected to go first overall in this June’s NBA draft. Let’s just hope he can keep his grades above water enough to stay on the court.
Vanderbilt (19-12, 11-7) – Like South Carolina, the Commodores are another team just looking to improve their NCAA seeding this week. Aside from getting to play the SEC tournament in their hometown, Vandy brings another advantage to the table in the form of a formidable offense (4th in the conference in scoring, 2nd in 3P%). And while we’re on the subject of the Commodores’ range (39% from downtown), I need to post a link to this 80-foot buzzer beater by Josh Henderson from two weeks ago because…daaaaaamn.
On the Bubble, Need to Make a Statement or Two
Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss
First Round, March 9th
Game 1 – #12 Tennessee vs. #13 Auburn (7 p.m., SECN)
Second Round, March 10th
Game 2 – #8 Florida vs. #9 Arkansas (1 p.m., SECN)
Game 3 – #5 Vanderbilt vs. Game 1 winner (25 minutes after Game 2, SECN)
Game 4 – #10 Alabama vs. #7 Ole Miss (7 p.m., SECN)
Game 5 – #6 Georgia vs. #11 Mississippi State (25 minutes after Game 4, SECN)
Quarterfinals, March 11th
Game 6 – #1 Texas A&M vs. Game 2 winner (1 p.m., SECN)
Game 7 – #4 LSU vs. Game 3 winner (25 minutes after Game 6, SECN)
Game 8 – #2 Kentucky vs. Game 4 winner (7 p.m., SECN)
Game 9 – #3 South Carolina vs. Game 5 winner (25 minutes after Game 8, SECN)
Semifinals and Championship, March 12th & 13th
Semifinal 1 – Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 winner (1 p.m., ESPN)
Semifinal 2 – Game 8 winner vs. Game 9 winner (25 minutes after Semifinal 1, ESPN)
Championship (1 p.m., ESPN)
And now, my predictions…
Tennessee over Auburn
Florida over Arkansas
Vanderbilt over Tennessee
Alabama over Ole Miss
Georgia over Mississippi State
Texas A&M over Florida
Vanderbilt over LSU
Kentucky over Alabama
South Carolina over Georgia
Texas A&M over Vanderbilt
Kentucky over South Carolina
Kentucky over Texas A&M