@SabanSays Ole Miss
Tomorrow begins the 35th SEC basketball tournament since the yearly get-together was relaunched back in 1979. The Bridgestone Arena in Nashville will host the first of what will be a three-tourneys-in-four-years run.
Without a doubt, the favorite to cut down the nets will be regular-season champ Florida, a team already a guaranteed a high-seed in the NCAA Tournament. And while seeded just sixth in the SEC tourney, Missouri is viewed as a lock for the Big Dance as well. If one of those two teams wins the tournament, it won’t cost the league an at-large bid.
Last night we broke down the resumes of the SEC’s remaining bubble teams – Alabama, Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Tennessee — and all probably need to win at least one game in the Music City to earn an at-large bid into the NCAAs. The Crimson Tide and Rebels might even need to win the whole darn tourney to gain an automatic entry.
For those four hopefuls, the worst-case scenario would be seeing a team from outside the league’s top six seeds cut down the nets on Sunday. The SEC ranks just eighth in the nation in conference RPI. The league probably isn’t going to get very many at-large bids to begin with, so if an underdog swipes the automatic bid and forces the selection committee to use at-large bids on both Florida and Missouri, it will probably cost one SEC bubble team a slot in the NCAA bracket.
So if we were to bet on March Madness, which sleeper teams would we feel best about winning the SEC Tournament? Let’s take a look at the last eight seeds in the tourney (after Florida, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Alabama, Tennessee and Missouri):
#7 seed Arkansas – Mike Anderson’s squad finished the season 19-12 and 10-8 in the SEC. Not bad. But the Razorbacks were a ghastly 1-11 in road and neutral site games. 18-1 in Fayetteville or Little Rock… 1-11 outside the state of Arkansas. In SEC games, the Hogs trailed only Florida and Alabama in terms of defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions), but the record away from home is too nasty to ignore.
#8 seed Georgia – Looking for a team that can make a run? Look no further than the Bulldogs. UGA was just 15-16 on the season but a deeper look inside the numbers shows that Mark Fox’s team is peaking at season’s end. Since a blowout loss to Florida on January 23rd, Georgia has gone 8-5. During that 13-game span the Dawgs have been in every single game falling by seven to Alabama, by 10 in overtime at Ole Miss, by two at Arkansas, by one at Vanderbilt, and by three on a last-second half-court heave at Alabama on Saturday. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a strong candidate for SEC Player of the Year and UGA has the kind of interior game that gets them to the foul line over and over again.
#9 seed LSU – The next best bet to make a run in Nashville is LSU. The Tigers (18-11 overall) finished the regular season on an 8-4 run in SEC play. Three of those losses came on the road at Alabama, Tennessee, and Missouri. But there’s a reason we’d put our money on UGA over LSU as the top sleeper pick. LSU’s fourth loss down the stretch came at home to Ole Miss last Saturday. That 14-point loss was disappointing. And Johnny Jones’ squad will have to open tournament play Thursday afternoon against… Georgia. The winner of that UGA/LSU game — even though they’ll have to face top-seeded Florida on Friday — will have the best chance of all the sleepers to cut down the nets.
#10 seed Vanderbilt – The Commodores play just about the slowest brand of basketball in the SEC. They’re also one of the league’s best defensive teams. In addition, Kevin Stallings’ bunch finally seemed to find themselves down the stretch, winning six of nine games. During that nine-game span only Florida and Kentucky managed to score more than 64 points against the Dores. Vandy opens with Arkansas and with a win will face Kentucky. Behind Georgia and LSU, we rank VU as the third best bet to shock in their hometown (though everyone knows the gym will still be filled with Wildcat fans all week).
#11 seed Texas A&M – The only team that slows the pace more than Vanderbilt is A&M. But the Aggies defense is more middle-of-the-pack in the SEC. While an Elston Turner could shoot the Billy Kennedy’s team past Auburn tomorrow and maybe even Missouri on Thursday, it’s hard to envision a team that lost four of its last five and five of its last seven putting together a five-day run to win the tourney.
#12 seed South Carolina – The odds of a 4-14 team in league play suddenly heating up enough to win five games in five days are way too long.
#13 seed Mississippi State – Uh, the odds of a 4-14 team in league play suddenly heating up enough to win five games in five days are way too long.
#14 seed Auburn – If Tony Barbee’s Tigers can rebound from a 3-15 SEC season to win the conference tournament it will be the greatest upset in the history of the SEC tourney.
If one of the six top seeds isn’t going to capture the SEC title, we’ll put our money on Georgia, LSU, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas — in that order — to surprise in Nashville.