The SEC Tournament is sure to have plenty of eyes on it this week in Nashville, and not just from basketball fans.
Yes, thanks to the FBI investigation into college basketball, many will be watching to see what happens with LSU. The Tigers have suspended coach Will Wade, who reportedly was caught on an FBI wiretap allegedly discussing an offer to a recruit with Christian Dawkins. That deal seemingly involved paying a player named “Smart,” of which there is only one on the Tigers’ roster — key freshman G Javonte Smart.
Smart was held out against Vanderbilt, too, so it’ll be interesting to see what comes of this case.
All that ugly business aside, this is shaping up to be an SEC Tournament for the ages. The top three seeds are, in order, LSU, Kentucky and Tennessee, and it’s highly likely that the tourney champion comes from that trio.
So, ahead of Wednesday’s tournament tipoff, let’s take a look at those three squads. Here, we’ll discuss key players, talk title odds and compare each coach to a character from “The Office,” because, why not?
Seed: No. 1
Record: 26-5 overall, 16-2 in SEC play
Coach: Will Wade (currently suspended)
Coach’s “The Office” comparison: Ryan Howard
The parallels between Wade and Ryan are so spot-on, it’s actually scary. Both were noticed for doing good work at lower levels (Ryan as a temp and Wade at VCU). Then, they landed big-time jobs (Ryan at corporate and Wade at LSU). They both found themselves embroiled in scandal at those big jobs (Ryan being arrested for fraud and Wade dealing with FBI wiretap allegations).
Yes, Wade has been suspended, but we’ll see if he eventually returns (like Ryan did when he went back to an undefined role at Dunder Mifflin). If I’m being honest, the entire point of this article was so that I could put the Will Wade-Ryan Howard comparison out into the world (but please keep reading).
Key Player: Naz Reid
Tremont Waters is the leader of this team, but Reid is the one who’s going to need to step up this postseason to take the Tigers to new heights. He’s been inconsistent this year, but if he puts everything together for three days in Nashville, it could be enough to get the Tigers their first SEC Tournament title since 1980.
He has an inside game, he can hit threes and he’s an excellent defender. If he can do all that in Nashville, the Tigers will continue to be tough to beat. He missed the regular-season finale due to an injury sustained in the Florida game, though, so we’ll see in the quarterfinals if the time off helps him get back to full strength.
Chances to win it all: 20 percent
By not having to play both Kentucky and Tennessee, the Tigers have an easier path to the title than the other two top seeds. However, with all the drama surrounding Wade right now, I don’t think this team can take down the Wildcats or Vols.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them lose to a team like Auburn or South Carolina. It’s tough to stay focused with such a dark cloud hanging over the program, so we’ll see if the Tigers slip up in Nashville.
Seed: No. 2
Record: 26-5, 15-3
Coach: John Calipari
Coach’s “The Office” comparison: Robert California
Can’t you just see Coach Cal yelling “I’m the (expletive) lizard king!” at either Tyler Herro or Nick Richards? He seems to love yelling at those guys anyway, so might as well switch up the content of the screaming at some point.
I’m on the record as being a big Robert California fan, but he’s very much a love-him-or-hate-him character. That sounds a lot like Calipari. Plus, they both have slick hairstyles, so I think this comparison works.
Key player: Reid Travis
Yes, we need to consider the effect playing at home has on teams, but there was one noticeable player absent when the Wildcats got blown out at Tennessee. Travis hurt his knee against Mizzou and had to sit out Kentucky’s rematch against the Vols, and their lack of physicality without him led to a blowout win for Tennessee.
Also, PJ Washington plays a lot better when he doesn’t have to do the dirty work that Travis happily does. Washington had scored 20 points or more in seven of his last eight games before Travis went down. Since then, he’s only passed 20 points once and failed to even reach 10 points against Arkansas.
If Travis is healthy and effective for the SEC Tournament, though, the Wildcats will have a much better chance to win.
Chances to win it all: 35 percent
If Travis looks good in the quarterfinal game (assuming he plays), I’d bump this up to 40 percent and knock Tennessee back to 40 percent. With each squad at full-strength, I think that potential semifinal is a toss-up game. Kentucky blew out Tennessee in Lexington. The Vols stomped the Wildcats in Knoxville. A neutral-court showdown in Nashville could lead to some overtime fun.
Seed: No. 3
Record: 27-4, 15-3
Coach: Rick Barnes
Coach’s “The Office” comparison: Stanley Hudson
Barnes has been around for a long time, and has seen it all. However, he’s been showing a bit more personality this year, and his fun, experienced team has a lot to do with it. I’d love to see Barnes go full-on “Florida Stanley” during this postseason. This is the Vols best chance to win it all, so no sense in holding anything back now.
Key player: Jordan Bone
Grant Williams is the likely SEC Player of the Year for the second year in a row, and Admiral Schofield is a fan favorite and another star player, but Jordan Bone is the key to this team.
When he’s playing well, the Vols are unstoppable. He creates a lot of offense for the other two, and he is one of the fastest players in the country. If he gets hot, it’s all over for Kentucky and LSU, regardless of how well those teams are playing.
Chances to win it all: 45 percent
With the scandal at LSU and the uncertainty surrounding Kentucky big man Reid Travis’s health (see below) entering the tournament, I have the Vols as my prohibitive favorite. Barnes’s squad is experienced and hungry, and that’s a dangerous combination.
Even from the No. 3 seed, I think they can take care of No. 6 Mississippi State (or whatever other squad reaches the quarterfinal). From there, they’ll be motivated to get themselves back in the mix for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.