5 questions I have about the SEC Tournament
I have way more than 5 questions about the week in Nashville.
You do, too.
In a season filled with questions galore across the sport, how fitting it is that we head into the wildest time of year with a big unknown of the coronavirus cloud hovering. For the sake of you, reader of this column who is probably incredibly sick of reading about that, I’ll leave future references to that out of here.
As long as we have a season to discuss, let’s stick to basketball matters today.
These are the 5 questions I have about the weekend ahead:
1. Can Florida embody the “us against the world” thing?
I dare you to find me a positive Florida headline this week. And by “positive,” I mean one that doesn’t involve either Mike White’s future, disappointment after starting the season at No. 6, the blown 18-point lead against Kentucky or the unknown status of preseason SEC Player of the Year Kerry Blackshear. Done looking? Good.
Something tells me that’s not lost on the Gators this week. If there were ever a team that can truly buy into the “us against the world” mantra, it’s Florida. As someone speaking on behalf of the world, it’s not like Florida gave us a lot of reason to think that now is when that switch will finally be flipped.
Are the Gators going to figure out their offensive inconsistency and play well enough for 4 consecutive days? I probably wouldn’t bet on that, especially as Blackshear’s status remains an unknown. The Gators will enter Thursday’s opening game not necessarily worried about their NCAA Tournament hopes (probably), nor will they be considered even a trendy pick to make it to Sunday.
What a perfect time to catch everyone off guard.
2. Which Auburn team will show up?
There’s no answer to that question. Auburn has wins against the rest of the double-bye teams, and it also has losses to 3 SEC teams with seeds No. 9 or worse. A 3-4 finish to the regular season was a bit different than the 15-0 start that we saw from the Tigers back when it seemed like they picked up where they left off coming off the Final Four run.
So yeah, who knows what we’ll get from Auburn in Nashville. We know that in the regular season, Auburn was a team that made it a habit of finding a way at home and playing down to its competition in true road games. The last 2 games — the Tigers lost to to Texas A&M at home on Senior Night and went to Knoxville and dropped the hammer on Tennessee — might have changed that belief a touch.
Isaac Okoro is back and healthy, which could be the key ingredient for Auburn’s March chances. Or it could be as simple as whether or not Bruce Pearl’s team, which shot 22.2% from 3-point range during its 6 losses, is able to get it rolling from deep. I have no idea.
The good news for Auburn? It gets a double-bye in a wide-open bottom half of the bracket.
3. Will the Ashton Hagans stuff become a non-storyline by week’s end?
Right now, the Kentucky point guard is the biggest non-coronavirus storyline of the tournament. Him sitting out the Florida game for “personal reasons” put Kentucky fans in a frenzy. It would have been an even bigger frenzy had Kentucky not come back and won. It was a strange way for the Cats to close the regular season after they were lights out in February.
I’m assuming that based on what we heard, Hagans will be on the floor when the top-seeded Cats play their quarterfinal game at 1 p.m. Friday. Does that mean the reported beef with the coaching staff is all water under the bridge and he plays like the future 1st round pick he is? I don’t know.
This has potential to be one of those things that feels like a big storyline going into Friday, but then Kentucky rolls to 3 consecutive victories and a conference tournament crown Sunday that makes us think more about whether Kentucky is worthy of a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament instead of whether Hagans’ status will impact the Cats.
In John Calipari’s perfect world, Nick Richards and SEC Player of the Year Immanuel Quickley continue their season-long emergence and lead the Cats to an SEC title regardless of Hagans’ status.
4. How will the new coaches fare?
Nate Oats, Eric Musselman, Jerry Stackhouse and Buzz Williams are all getting their first dose of the SEC Tournament. Well, Stackhouse was 1-and-done. Welcome to the SEC, where the odds are already stacked against you. It has been 10 years since a 1st-year SEC coach even made it to the championship. That was Calipari. In fact, he was the only SEC coach in the 2010s to make the final game in Year 3 or earlier.
Want another bad trend? Sure. Last year, Auburn was the first non-double bye team to win the tournament since that magical 2008 run that Georgia had following the tornado at the Georgia Dome. Since the conference expanded to non-division seeding in 2012, last year’s Auburn squad was the worst seed to ever make the conference championship, and that was as a 5-seed.
The highest first-year SEC coach is Buzz Williams’ A&M squad, which is only a No. 7 seed.
Does that mean all of them are destined to crash and burn? Of course not. I, against my own better judgment, actually picked the improved Aggies to reach the SEC championship and lose to Kentucky. Why? Well, I have confidence in an A&M squad that actually looked really solid the last month. Also, if there was ever a year for some madness …
5. Is this the perfect year for madness?
Yes. I hope. Maybe. I don’t know.
What I do know is that between No. 2 Auburn and No. 3 LSU, they already suffered losses to:
- No. 5 Florida (Auburn, LSU)
- No. 6 South Carolina (Auburn)
- No. 7 Texas A&M (Auburn)
- No. 9 Alabama (Auburn, LSU)
- No. 10 Mizzou (Auburn)
- No. 11 Arkansas (LSU)
- No. 13 Georgia (Auburn)
- No. 14 Vanderbilt (LSU)
Kentucky, meanwhile, just lost at home to Tennessee. And even though Calipari’s squad came a long way since mid-November, the Cats lost to Evansville … which didn’t win a single Missouri Valley Conference game.
In other words, nobody in this tournament is above a bad loss. A chalky week in Nashville actually seems unlikely. What seems more likely is that we get at least 1 team playing in a semifinal that has zero chance at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Who might that be? Again, my guess is A&M. Tennessee would’ve been more popular to be that team if not for that blowout loss to Auburn. And Alabama does have wins against teams like Auburn and LSU. For all we know, a team with a double-digit seed will be sitting there on Saturday just 2 wins away from an NCAA Tournament bid.
Let’s get weird, March.