SEC Tournament: The saddest day and a preview of the biggest bubble-busters Thursday
The opening evening of the SEC Tournament is a very sad 2 games of basketball. Nobody wants to be there, and there’s virtually no precedent for a deep run in the SEC Tournament from opening night. In case you’re wondering, since the SEC went to the current format in 2013, Auburn’s 2015 run to the semifinal round (3 wins in 3 days to get there) is the deepest run from an opening night team. Yes, Georgia won the SEC Tournament from a horrible seed in 2008, but that was back in the days when it required 4 wins in 4 days … and that whole tournament was thrown into chaos by a tornado. So opening Wednesday feels a little like a death march … but it doesn’t have to.
Can Missouri or Vandy be the team to run the table and change history? Well, frankly, no.
The SEC’s top 6 teams are pretty indisputable, and expecting either the Tigers or Dores to run through probably 4/6ths of those teams in succession is just not realistic. But that doesn’t mean that neither of Wednesday’s victors have nothing to play for on Thursday or beyond.
Auburn in 2015 probably is the gold standard. Just because your season is virtually guaranteed to end shy of the NCAA Tournament doesn’t mean there’s nothing on the line. Vanderbilt could manage a winning record under Jerry Stackhouse if upset Alabama in the 8:30 p.m. nightcap Thursday. Missouri … well, Cuonzo Martin’s job is probably long gone regardless of what happens Thursday against LSU, but he does have some history with late runs to suddenly improve his stock.
But if Wednesday is the death march of an SEC season, Thursday brings a very different environment, and not just for Mizzou and Vandy. Several of the teams playing on Thursday still have NCAA hopes, and 4 games is at least twice as good as 2. And with Tom Crean departing, the basketball can’t help but be better.
The marquee game of the day is the early game. Florida and Texas A&M are both on the outside of the NCAA Tournament picture looking in. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has them one ahead of the other in the back half of his “First Four Out.”
That said, this game isn’t a situation where the winner punches an NCAA ticket. Given the failures of Xavier and Wake Forest late Wednesday, the bubble field is getting very crowded, which tends to be how March Madness stacks up. Both the Gators and the Aggies are looking for a win plus another. Whichever team emerges really needs to beat Auburn in Friday’s quarterfinal to have any sense of security heading into Selection Sunday.
Colin Castleton is a unique talent and gives Florida a better chance at a 2-win scenario. That said, A&M might have a hidden advantage in their ability to create turnovers. The Aggies are 2nd in the SEC in steals and lead the league in turnover differential (+4.2 per game). Again, whoever loses has no NCAA Tournament future. Whoever wins very likely has work left to do, but particularly in the case of Florida, they have some positive history with Auburn to give them cause for optimism.
The second game, Missouri vs. LSU, looks like a mismatch. They met 2 weeks ago and LSU won by 20 at home. Even an LSU team that lost 3 of their last 5 regular-season games had no trouble with Mizzou. What could make this different? Well, it’s not a home game … and Kobe Brown, who had just 2 points in the first Mizzou-LSU game, had 16 points Wednesday night and looked like the kind of player who could give Will Wade’s Tigers some trouble. Meanwhile, LSU probably has very little to play for in terms of NCAA seeding and situation, and Missouri had some surprising pep in its step yesterday.
The evening session opens with South Carolina playing Mississippi State at 6 p.m.. Of course, Carolina is the No. 7 seed and the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds both have legitimate NCAA Tournament paths. That’s not really there for the Gamecocks or the Bulldogs. It would probably take wins over the other team in this game, then UT, and then Kentucky or Alabama to move the needle. Carolina has played much better down the stretch, and State has Iverson Molinar. But both are fighting uphill battles. The good news is that this game figures to be competitive — these teams split in the regular season, with State winning by 14 in Starkville and Carolina winning by 10 in Columbia.
Alabama and Vanderbilt is the nightcap and this is a game that really could surprise. Alabama — maybe because of their inconsistent play and big wins, maybe because of the tons of 3-point shooting — has that weird boom or bust thing that says they could lose by 12 to Vandy or they could beat Kentucky on Friday. Neither is outside the realm of possibility.
These teams played a 2-point game in Nashville a couple of weeks back. Alabama looks to be the likely winner, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them struggle early with a Vandy team that has an easy win in their pocket.
Thursday is likely to see some NCAA hopes finished, some others boosted, and a surprising double-digit seed surviving into Friday. The SEC Tournament, in full glory, is back. And while it might not have felt like it on Wednesday, it will on Thursday.