FACTS & STATS:
Site: Bridgestone Arena (19,395) -- Nashville, Tennessee.
Dates: Thursday, March 11th through Sunday, March 14th. Television: SEC
Network, ABC (Semifinals, Championship Game). Annual: 51st. Defending
Champion: Mississippi State
The competition level will be through the roof in Nashville this
week, as all 12 SEC teams will compete in the 51st annual conference
tournament. On the line is an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, and the
majority of the teams in the league are well aware that their hopes of earning
a ticket to the "Big Dance" depend solely on winning this event.
Kentucky has won more SEC Tournament titles than all of the other conference
members combined, and the Wildcats enter this year's field as the top seed
from the East Division. The Wildcats will attempt to capture their first crown
since 2004, but they figure to be a top seed in the NCAA Tournament regardless
of their finish in this event. The East Division is considerably stronger than
the West, as it can be argued that the best four teams in the SEC all come
from the East. Vanderbilt (E-2), Tennessee (E-3) and Florida (E-4) are all
capable of knocking off Kentucky and winning this tournament. Vanderbilt and
Tennessee have the necessary records to reach the NCAA Tournament without
winning this league tourney. In regard to the West, even top-seeded
Mississippi State has a shaky resume' and needs to cut down the nets in
Nashville. The lone team in the field that has never won the SEC Tournament is
South Carolina. The first round of this event begins on Thursday, as the third
through sixth seeds in both divisions will be in action. The top two seeds in
both divisions will open play on Friday, March 12th, in the quarterfinal
round, and after semifinal action on Saturday, the championship game will be
played on "Selection Sunday".
The first of four first-round games pits the Alabama Crimson Tide (W-4)
against the South Carolina Gamecocks (E-5). Alabama has won this tournament
six times, the second most in the league, but the last crown was captured way
back in 1991. Still, the Tide is 57-43 in this event. South Carolina, as
mentioned, is still in search of its first title, and the Gamecocks are 16-18
in SEC Tournament affairs. Alabama beat South Carolina by nine points in the
only regular-season meeting between the teams. The Crimson Tide depend heavily
on their defense to win games, as they are second in the conference in scoring
defense (64.6 ppg). Mikhail Torrance (15.4 ppg, 5.3 apg) and JaMychal Green
(14.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg) are clearly the two best players on the roster for 'Bama.
As for South Carolina, it possess the league's leading scorer in Devan Downey
(22.6 ppg), and the senior is also handing out 3.5 apg. Unfortunately, the
Gamecocks are last in the league in free-throw percentage, assists and
Tennessee (E-3) and LSU (W-6) are slated to do battle on Thursday afternoon in
what may be the most lopsided matchup of the first round. The Vols have won
the SEC Tournament four times, but it has been 31 years since their last
title. Last season, Tennessee reached the championship game, only to fall to
Mississippi State in a 64-61 final. As for LSU, it captured its lone SEC crown
back in 1980, so it can certainly relate to Tennessee's long wait for a
championship. The Vols and Tigers played just once during the regular season,
and Tennessee escaped Baton Rouge with a five-point win. The Vols own the
second-best scoring margin in the SEC (+9.8 ppg), surprising considering the
fact that they don't possess a single player ranked in the top 20 in the
league in scoring. Tennessee is the top team in the conference when it comes
to defending the three-point shot. As for LSU, it finished 2-14 versus SEC
opponents during the regular season, but the team did close out the campaign
with a victory and may enter this tournament with some confidence.
Unfortunately, the Tigers completely lack depth and are the lowest-scoring
team in the SEC (61.9 ppg) despite boasting two of the league's top 13
scorers, including Tasmin Mitchell (17.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg).
The Florida Gators (E-4), will do battle with Auburn (W-5) in the first round.
A 20-win season used to assure teams from major conferences a berth in the
NCAA Tournament, but teams are playing more games than ever, so Florida needs
to play well in this event to punch its ticket to the "Big Dance". The Gators
own a 32-41 all-time record in this event, but they captured three straight
titles from 2005 through 2007, so the majority of their success has been
recent. As for Auburn, it has struggled in the SEC Tournament, posting a 27-46
record, and the program's lone championship came back in 1985. The Gators beat
the Tigers by eight points in the only meeting between the teams during the
regular season. The fact that Florida is able to field a starting lineup with
five double-digit scorers is impressive. The Gators are last in the league in
blocked shots but tops in assist/turnover ratio. Auburn is the worst defensive
team in the SEC, allowing 74.0 ppg on 45.5 percent shooting by opponents. The
Tigers possess the sixth and seventh ranked scorers in the league in DeWayne
Reed (16.1 ppg) and Tay Waller (15.9 ppg).
Rounding out the pairings in the first round will be the Arkansas Razorbacks
(W-3) and the Georgia Bulldogs (E-6). Arkansas is 20-17 all-time in this event
and won its lone title back in 2000. As for Georgia, it has two championships
to its credit, the most recent of which was earned in 2008. The Razorbacks
beat the Bulldogs by four points on the road in the only regular-season
meeting between the clubs. Arkansas is ranked 11th out of 12 SEC teams in
scoring defense, and the team is last in three-point percentage defense.
Rotnei Clarke leads the Razorbacks with 15.5 ppg, and Marshawn Powell is close
behind with 15.1 ppg. Georgia's top performer is Trey Thompkins (17.7 ppg, 8.2
rpg), who ranks second in the SEC in scoring and fourth in rebounding. His
Bulldogs are 11th in scoring margin among conference teams, however, and they
are last in turnover margin.
The winner of the South Carolina/Alabama matchup will advance to the
quarterfinal round to face Kentucky. The Wildcats have won this event 25 times
and own a 111-22 record in SEC Tournament games. Still, they haven't cut down
the nets since 2004 and haven't reached the title game since 2005. Kentucky
leads the conference in many statistical categories, including scoring offense
(79.9 ppg), scoring margin (+14.4 ppg), field goal percentage (.478), field
goal percentage defense (.382), rebounding margin (+9.1 rpg) and assists (14.9
apg). Freshman sensation John Wall is averaging 17.0 ppg to go along with a
league-best 6.2 apg, and fellow rookie star DeMarcus Cousins checks in with
15.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg and 1.8 bpg. Don't forget about Patrick Patterson and his
15.0 ppg and 7.6 rpg.
The second quarterfinal game to be played on Friday pits the Ole Miss Rebels
(W-2) against either LSU or Tennessee. Ole Miss won its only SEC championship
in 1981, and the team's 23-46 conference record is far from impressive.
Rebels' standout guard Chris Warren ranks third in the SEC in scoring with
17.2 ppg and ninth in assists (3.4 apg). Ole Miss is second in the league in
scoring with 78.4 ppg, and the team shoots the ball efficiently from three-
point range. The Rebels are second in assist/turnover ratio and have the
talent in place to make a run in this event.
Mississippi State (W-1) awaits the winner of the Auburn/Florida matchup, and
that quarterfinal matchup figures to be competitive regardless of the pairing.
MSU is the defending champion of this event as mentioned, and the program has
three titles to its credit. Still, its 25-46 record at this event all-time is
poor. The man to watch for the Bulldogs is star forward/center Jarvis Varnado,
who recently became the NCAA's all-time leader in blocked shots. In addition
to his 4.8 rejections per outing, Varnado also paces the conference in
rebounding (10.6 ppg) and is scoring 13.5 ppg as well. Mississippi State is
the best defensive team in the league in regard to scoring defense (64.4 ppg),
and the club is limiting opponents to 38.4 percent shooting from the field.
Dee Bost is a tremendous distributor at point guard who ranks second in the
SEC in assists (5.4 apg).
The Vanderbilt Commodores (E-2) will play either Georgia or Arkansas in the
quarterfinals. Vandy's lone SEC Tournament title was earned way back in 1951,
by far the longest drought of any of the teams that have won the crown. The
Commodores are 29-47 in the event, but this year's team is one of the best in
recent memory. Vanderbilt is the best free-throw shooting team in the
conference, and that asset could certainly prove critical in close tournament
games. While the Commodores do lack the type of player capable of taking a
game over at the offensive end, there are three double-digit scorers in the
fold. Jermaine Beal (14.7 ppg), A.J. Ogilvy (13.9 ppg) and Jeffery Taylor
(13.9 ppg) provide plenty of balance to the lineup.
If Kentucky plays up to its vast potential, it will win this tournament rather
easily. The Wildcats are far more talented than any other squad in the
conference. With Wall and Cousins, youth and the inherent lack of experience
is a concern, but the ability of both rookies is staggering.
Sports Network Predicted Champion: Kentucky