SEC Tournament preview: The only guide to Nashville that you need
The SEC Tournament is here. A typically horrific Wednesday slate aside, it should be a great tournament. But in the words of that great philosopher Austin Powers, “What does it all mean, Nigel?” In our Tournament preview, we answer this and other questions.
So, what does it mean?
For 12 teams, probably not a ton in terms of postseason play. Seven SEC teams are all but guaranteed NCAA Tournament spots. Yes, whoever wins the Auburn/Arkansas game will rest a little easier, but even the loser should be in good NCAA shape. Ditto Bama, A&M, Kentucky, Mizzou, and UT. And 5 SEC teams — Florida, Carolina, Georgia, LSU, and Ole Miss — can draw meaning only by winning the entire SEC Tournament.
If you’re Mississippi State and Vandy, this week defines your immediate future. The Bulldogs really need a win Thursday over Florida to be on solid NCAA Tournament footing. The good news is get that and a potential upset of Alabama would just be gravy — welcome, but probably not needed. For the Commodores, it probably takes more than a win over LSU or Georgia. Vandy probably needs a quarterfinal win over Kentucky on Friday to squeeze into the NCAA Tournament picture.
So, it’s meaningless for 12 teams?
OK, no, that’s not it at all. This week won’t determine the postseason appearance of a dozen SEC teams. But it will determine the elusive and pivotal momentum going into the Big Dance and the chance for a better seed. A Kentucky team that reaches the SEC Tournament final or wins could well draw a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which looks much more dangerous in a bracket than a UK team that gags to Vandy and gets a 7 seed. Tennessee could make a big move up or down. Nobody really knows what to do with Auburn or Arkansas, so their head-to-head game Thursday could easily move either up or down a seed line.
And momentum. Yes, sometimes, it means everything. Think, say, Auburn in 2019. Having the chance to face quick turnarounds against different styles on a neutral court is about as good of an NCAA tune-up as possible. The Tigers swept through the SEC Tournament and came a missed walk away from the NCAA title game.
But don’t get carried away. Remember 2017, when South Carolina lost a brutal 64-53 quarterfinal game to a mediocre Alabama team. I remember sitting in Bridgestone Arena and thinking, “Whatever idiot gives this Carolina team an at-large bid might as well give the other team a bye.”
South Carolina went to the Final Four, thank you very much.
Who’s the underdog to watch?
A 7 seed or worse has made the semifinals in 4 of the past 5 tournaments. There’s no reason to think it won’t happen again this week.
Now, the 11-14 teams generally don’t make much noise. There is an exception: 13 seed Auburn made the semifinals in 2015. But otherwise, those teams have never won more than single game. Given the gap between Arkansas and the 4 teams below them in the SEC standings, this year isn’t going to change that.
Of the remaining higher seeds, Arkansas, of course, is dangerous. They did lose to Auburn in the regular season — but it was in the early days after the loss of Nick Smith, and the Hogs watched Auburn go 17-for-34 from 3-point range. But Auburn is playing well, too. An upset pick here is that either team that emerges from that 7 vs. 10 game will then upset Texas A&M on Friday. The Aggies have benefitted from a march to the foul line this year, but the tighter called tournament will be a learning experience for A&M, albeit not the kind they’d prefer.
Auburn or Arkansas certainly would have a shot to outlast a Kentucky team that’ll have to play a second game in 24 hours if it outlasts Vandy, which is no sure thing.
Alabama has a wonderful path as a No. 1 seed, but A&M got a much tougher draw as a No. 2, and the upset pick is whoever wins the 7 vs. 10 game.
Which player has a tournament to remember?
Assuming an Alabama win — which is far from sure, Jahvon Quinerly might well be the guy to watch. He’s averaging 17 points in the Tide’s past 3 games and shot 14-for-22 from long range in that span. Given the 3 games in 3 days aspect for even the top 4 seeds, he’ll get his shot to shine in Nashville.
Along the same lines, if Kentucky pulls off a mild surprise — which seems like the second most likely outcome — Antonio Reeves is pivotal. Sahvir Wheeler is out, CJ Fredrick is limited, and Cason Wallace is coming back from a minor injury. Add in Reeves’ 37-point flame-throwing effort against Arkansas, and he might well be the outside complement to Oscar Tshiebwe.
Which game are you most excited to see?
As far as games that are either certain or likely to happen, that Tennessee/Mizzou game could be fascinating. The Tigers upset the Vols at the buzzer earlier, and the matchup of the SEC’s premier offense (and 3-point bombing team) against the SEC’s premier defense is wild. Obviously, a 50-40 game favors UT and a 90-80 game favors Mizzou.
Vandy/Kentucky with the Commodores’ postseason chances on the line sounds worth watching, if it comes to pass. And Alabama against anybody in the final offers a big shot at redemption — for Kentucky, avenging an absolute beating from the Tide in the regular season and for A&M, the chance for Bama to avenge their regular-season ending loss. If Auburn or Arkansas sneaks in instead, each just had tough losses to the Tide in Tuscaloosa they’d love to pay back.
Any random Nashville tips?
I never stay in Nashville itself, but judging from the comments from others, doing so involves payment of one arm or two legs. Also, the Johnny Cash Museum is small, but astonishingly well put together, if you’re into that sort of thing. It’s a quicker alternative to the Country Music Hall of Fame, which is very nice, but massive and fairly expensive. Finally, yes, the hot chicken (at the best places) really is hot. Tread carefully or pay the price. It’s a long tournament.