Tampa? Tampa.

I suppose there’s a first time for everything. There’s a first time for having the SEC Tournament in Tampa, and it’s right now.

Wait. They had the SEC Tournament in Tampa in 2009? Wow, what a forgettable time in SEC hoops that was. You know, post-Florida repeat, pre-John Calipari to Kentucky, etc.

In my defense for initially forgetting about 2009 in Tampa, here were the All-SEC first-team selections that year:

  • Nick Calathes, Florida
  • Jodie Meeks, Kentucky
  • Patrick Patterson, Kentucky
  • Tasmin Mitchell, LSU
  • Devan Downey, South Carolina
  • Tyler Smith, Tennessee
  • Marcus Thornton, LSU
  • Jarvis Varnado, MSU

With all due respect to those fine players, yeah, don’t blame me for forgetting 2009. You did, too.

But 2022? That figures to be a much more memorable SEC Tournament in Tampa. The SEC has 4 teams that could end up with a top-3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, with seemingly 6 locks to make the field and a couple of potential bid-stealers.

Here’s what to watch for this weekend in this second SEC Tournament in Tampa:

1. Will the real Auburn please stand up?

Auburn went into the second week of February at 21-1 and 10-0 in the SEC. On top of that, the Tigers earned their first No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25 in school history. Then 3 consecutive road losses happened, as did a bunch of “too close for comfort” wins. Granted, Auburn still earned the No. 1 seed and Jabari Smith looked like the best version of himself in the last month after going through a midseason shooting drought. But guard play has been inconsistent and Walker Kessler found himself in foul trouble too often.

What we get from the Tigers this week remains to be seen. A potential rematch with Florida could await in the quarterfinal, which could be a shot at redemption after Auburn blew a lead late in Gainesville for one of those aforementioned road losses. Bruce Pearl righted the ship with 2 somewhat uncomfortable wins to close the SEC regular season. Surely he’d prefer his team get right before a deep NCAA Tournament run like that 2019 squad did by rolling through the conference tourney.

A crazy thought? Nobody on the Auburn roster has even played in an SEC Tournament game with the Tigers (KD Johnson played in the 2021 SEC Tournament as a member of Georgia). We’ll see if we get any reminders of that.

2. The brewing Arkansas-Auburn rivalry

Check out these interesting comments from Auburn guard Zep Jasper:

“We feel like we (were) disrespected,” Jasper said on the Locked on Auburn Podcast. “(Arkansas feels) like they got a win and they feel like they’re better than us right now, but if we play against them, the intensity is gonna be high. The energy is gonna be high because we feel like we’ve got something to prove against them. We feel like we gonna beat the crap out of them when we see them again because from their coaching staff, their players, their fans, we just didn’t tolerate the disrespect that they put out.”


Jasper didn’t make the trip to Arkansas for that showdown in February, which some argued was a key reason the Hogs earned a court-storming victory. Something tells me if those teams meet in the semifinal, we’ll have no shortage of bad blood. That first game was plenty physical and intense. It’s no guarantee that either team gets past their respective quarterfinal matchups. But for the sake of entertainment, it sure would be fun if they did.

3. The 9-9 bubble

Five SEC teams went 9-9 in conference play. Who knows what to expect of any of them this week?

Two of them (Alabama and LSU) appear to be safely in the NCAA Tournament field while Florida and Texas A&M both could need multiple wins and South Carolina could need to reach the championship game in order to dance for the first time since the Final Four run in 2017. Heading into the start of the tournament, Florida and Texas A&M were both on Joe Lunardi’s “next 4 out” group, which is never an ideal place to be with bid-stealers still in play.

Florida and A&M are essentially playing in an NCAA Tournament elimination game on Thursday at noon ET. Then, of course, No. 1 seed Auburn would await in a quarterfinal matchup. Yes, Florida did just take down the Tigers at home with Smith going off, while Tyree Appleby caught fire and Colin Castleton owned Kessler. But doing that twice in a matter of a few weeks seems like a tall task.

And given how wildly inconsistent LSU and Alabama have been game to game (despite the KenPom love), perhaps the only surprise would be if last year’s 2 SEC Championship participants somehow met each other in the finals again. Speaking of Alabama …

4. The wild card that is the defending SEC champs

Nate Oats’ Alabama team is all over the place. Wins against Baylor, Gonzaga and Houston suggest that the Tide can compete with anybody. Losses to Georgia and Mizzou suggest that the Tide can lose to anybody, as well. Maybe the style that Oats plays lends itself to that and without a glue guy like Herb Jones, this version of inconsistent Alabama was inevitable.

As it relates to the SEC Tournament, the good news is that it makes Alabama a terrifying team to have to play if it can reach the quarterfinals. There’s a reason Alabama was a preseason top-15 team. Jahvon Quinerly is the reigning SEC Tournament MVP and Jaden Shackelford can put a team on his back. But will Alabama’s lack of size prove costly? And will those bad defensive stretches perhaps lead to an early exit and ultimately drop the Tide’s NCAA Tournament seed to a potential 7-10 matchup? Anything is possible.

5. TyTy Washington’s ankle

My brother, who lives in Lexington and roots for Kentucky, pointed something out. Doesn’t it seem like Washington gets his ankle rolled up on every game? It’s always seemingly happening at random points (I suppose most injuries are) and it always seems to make the Kentucky faithful hold its collective breath.

Let’s be clear. If Kentucky is going to make a deep run in this tournament and in the NCAA Tournament, Washington needs to be right. Even though we saw Kentucky rise to the occasion against Kansas without him being at 100%, it’s pretty clear that the best version of the playmaking guard yields the best version of Kentucky. His health is paramount this week.

6. Is Tennessee peaking at the perfect time?

Man, it certainly looks like it. The Vols won 9 of their past 10 to earn the 2-seed in Tampa. More impressively, they beat the other 3 double-bye teams in that 3-week run. Not too shabby for a team that looked lost offensively in the first part of the year. That’s probably going to show up at times for a team without that steady scorer. It helps when you defend the way that Tennessee does. The Vols are No. 3 in KenPom’s opponents’ points per 100 possessions. That should travel.

The Vols can probably get as high as a No. 2 seed if they cut down the nets in Tampa. That’s a wild thought for a team that was just fighting to stay ranked in late January. Interestingly enough, though, Tennessee still only entered the week with the third-best odds to win the SEC Tournament at +370. Maybe that’s because Rick Barnes’ March struggles are well documented or perhaps it’s because the Vols are trying to win their first conference tournament championship since the Jimmy Carter administration (1979).

7. How many coaches have jobs on the line?

One would assume that multiple SEC coaches are about to be out of a job. Including Tom Crean, Cuonzo Martin’s time at Mizzou feels like it’s about over. Mike White and Frank Martin are both a bit more complicated. Fittingly, both were part of that aforementioned 9-9 bubble. At times, both of their firings felt inevitable, but some late-February magic changed that notion for both coaches.

Martin is about to finish Year 10, and barring a deep run in Tampa, he’ll have just 1 NCAA Tournament appearance to speak of. Of course, that Final Four run was about as memorable as they come. White, on the other hand, won an NCAA Tournament game in each of his past 4 chances. But another disappointing ending could be all she wrote on Billy Donovan’s successor.

What about Kermit Davis and Ben Howland? Neither enters the weekend with realistic NCAA chances. Could Howland get fired or step down at age 64? It’s possible. He has 1 NCAA Tournament appearance and 0 NCAA Tournament victories 7 years into his time in Starkville. Davis has a different boss from the one who hired him (Keith Carter took over as athletic director in 2019), and in the 3 seasons since he won SEC Coach of the Year in his debut season, he’s 20-34 in SEC play. But Ole Miss might not have that quick of a trigger, especially for a coach who had a whole lot of momentum a short time ago.

8. The SEC Tournament MVP will be __________.

As tempting as it is to go with Oscar Tshiebwe, JD Notae or the aforementioned Smith, I’ll instead go with Arkanas’ Jaylin Williams. He’ll take 10 charges in an SEC Championship victory. Joking. Sort of.

I can see a scenario in which Williams gets the better of Kessler in a potential semifinal matchup, and then he holds his own against Tshiebwe in the title game. If he does that, how would you not tip your cap to Williams? I don’t care if he’s not putting up 28 points. A 20-10 showing in an SEC Championship isn’t crazy, especially for someone whose been as consistent as Williams in SEC play:

Regardless of what you think of Williams and his charge-happy ways, what’s undeniable is that he’s an extremely important player to one of the better teams in the country. It’s not surprising that his midseason turnaround coincided with Arkansas’ second-half tear. I think that culminates with an SEC Tournament MVP.

9. The trend that’s hard to ignore

(This is if you’re a fan of a team without a double-bye OR if you’re gambling.)

Since the start of the 2010s, 2019 Auburn is the only team that won the SEC Tournament having played in 4 games (a team with a double-bye only plays 3 games).

Perhaps even more telling is that if you look at the 22 teams that just reached the SEC Tournament championship since 2010, that 2019 Auburn squad is the lone group that played in 4 tournament games. In other words, it’d be stunning if the SEC championship featured a team outside of those top 4 seeds (Auburn, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas).

Consider that just another reason 2008 Georgia’s run to an SEC Tournament title amidst the Atlanta tornado was so improbable.

10. The battle for No. 1

Auburn and Kentucky could find themselves competing for a conference tournament title and also that coveted No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Both entered the week on Joe Lunardi’s line for a 2-seed, but with Baylor and Kansas on that 1-seed line and both in the Big 12 Tournament, there could be an opening for a potential Big Ten or SEC champ to move up. An Arizona loss could also open the door.

Auburn and Kentucky can claim that something like that doesn’t matter, but history suggests it does. Nine times we watched a 15-seed upset a 2-seed, including last year when Oral Roberts stunned Ohio State. Compare that to just 1 instance of a 16-seed beating a 1-seed (UMBC beat Virginia in 2018). Beyond that, it would be a nice reward for a conference that hasn’t had a 1-seed since 2015 Kentucky.

What also seems entirely possible is the conference claiming 2-seeds in 3 of the 4 regions. How would that happen? Tennessee wins it all in Tampa. Either way, what seems inevitable is that the SEC will come away from the weekend with a handful of legitimate Final Four contenders.

This is the first time since 2004 that multiple SEC teams have a legitimate chance for a 1-seed heading into the conference tournament. We’ll see if that’s still the case come Sunday.