The Ultimate SEC Tournament Preview: A team-by-team breakdown, predictions and more
The SEC Tournament begins Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
While the tournament lacks much bubble drama, with Kermit Davis and Ole Miss the lone SEC team on the Bubble, per the Bracketology aggregator site BracketMatrix, it remains packed with intriguing storylines.
Take the top seeds, Alabama and Arkansas, both coming off sensational seasons under second-year head coaches.
Nate Oats and the Crimson Tide secured the top seed by capturing their first regular-season SEC title since 2002. Alabama hasn’t won the SEC Tournament since the halcyon days of the Wimp Sanderson era. They enter Nashville consensus favorites to end a 30-year drought this weekend.
Meanwhile, Arkansas seems ahead of schedule under Eric Musselman, whose first Arkansas team finished 10th in the league a year ago, leading to a roster flip that saw the Razorbacks bring in 10 new scholarship players this season. No matter — the man known in college basketball circles as “The Importer,” heads to Nashville with the hottest team in America outside of Spokane, Washington. Arkansas has won 11 of its last 12 games and 11 consecutive league games on their way to the 2 seed. If they lose a game in Nashville this weekend, it will be their first league defeat since a mid-January loss at Alabama.
There are other fascinating storylines as well.
Take Kentucky, playing on Thursday at the SEC Tournament for the first time in the John Calipari era. Can the Wildcats win 4 consecutive games and earn an NCAA Tournament bid, or will they miss the Big Dance for just the third time this century?
LSU intrigues as well. Will Wade says the Tigers are playing their best basketball of the season and feels his team is underrated heading into March. We’ll soon find out. Or how about preseason SEC favorite Tennessee, which bested a shorthanded Florida team on the final day of the regular season to earn the last double-bye but head across the state to Nashville having won just 7 of their last 13 games. Can Rick Barnes deliver on the promise of his uber-talented roster, or will it be a second-consecutive disappointing season on Rocky Top?
These are just some of the questions waiting to be answered in the Music City starting Wednesday night.
Here’s the only SEC Tournament preview you’ll need, team by team, and in case you missed it, here are 10 Bold Predictions for the SEC Tournament from Joe Cox, published Tuesday.
13. Vanderbilt (8-15, 3-13)
KenPom Rankings: 95th overall, 69th in offensive efficiency, 134th defensive efficiency
Best Player: Scotty Pippen Jr., Sophomore, Guard
The Skinny: Led by Pippen, who averaged 20.6 points per game and 4.9 assists per contest and was named first-team All-SEC by media and coaches, the Commodores can definitely score. Vanderbilt was held under 70 points only 4 times in SEC play, and Jerry Stackhouse draws up a nice offense, predicated on excellent spacing and sophisticated ball screens he took with him from the NBA. Unfortunately for Pippen, his best complementary piece, stretch four Dylan Disu (15 ppg, 9.2 rebounds, 36% 3P) is out for the remainder of the year with a knee injury. That’s a tough blow for a Vandy team that pushed Alabama and Kentucky down the stretch before Disu’s departure.
Best-case scenario (by round): Trip to quarterfinals. Look, anytime you have a scorer of Pippen’s ability, a couple of wins are possible if he’s red hot. Texas A&M really struggles to score, and Vanderbilt hung around with Florida in Gainesville, who would wait on Thursday should Vanderbilt win Wednesday night. It’s hard to beat a team 3 times in a season, and that would be the ask for Florida if they play Vanderbilt.
Prediction: A tough loss Wednesday night to Texas A&M.
12. Texas A&M (8-9, 2-8)
KenPom Rankings: 129th overall, 176 in offensive efficiency, 93 in defensive efficiency
Best Player: Emanuel Miller, Sophomore, Forward
The Skinny: Buzz Williams won SEC Coach of the Year in his first season back home in the heart of Texas, but a lack of offensive firepower and a pair of COVID pauses (the second lasting the entire month of February) wiped out any chance to make progress in Year 2 of the Buzz era.
Williams is an excellent coach, and like Alabama, his staff places a high value on the use of analytics in both style of play and scouting and development, all things that, along with terrific resources, should help him build a winner in College Station. For now, the Aggies mostly rely on hard-nosed defense and forcing turnovers, something they do almost better than anyone in America (14th in the country in forcing turnovers). Their best player, sophomore forward Emanuel Miller, hints at what Williams wants his teams to be — physical basketball players who control the glass, can guard multiple positions, and finish at the tin. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of that on the roster right now, and while seniors Savion Flagg and Quinton Jackson are reliable offensively, they don’t get much help.
Best-case scenario: Trip to quarterfinals. The Aggies are elite at only one thing: producing turnovers. Florida, the 5 seed that can beat anyone in the league, can also lose to anyone because they turn the ball over too often. If the Aggies can force turnovers, they might be able to find a way to win a Thursday game against Florida, should they survive Wednesday night. The Aggies haven’t won two straight since December, though, so don’t count on it.
Prediction: The Aggies will grind one out Wednesday against Vanderbilt but come up short on Thursday against an energized Florida team that has lost 2 straight games entering Nashville.
11. South Carolina (6-14, 4-12)
KenPom Rankings: 114th overall, 135th offensive efficiency, 96th defensive efficiency
Best Player: AJ Lawson, Junior, Guard
The Skinny: Much like Texas A&M, South Carolina was ravaged by COVID, with two pauses including one that kept them from playing basketball for an entire month from early December to early January. Frank Martin’s teams have made a living struggling in the nonconference only to blossom come SEC play, but it wasn’t to be this season. The Gamecocks simply struggle too much with consistency offensively, outside of Lawson, who poured in double digits in all but 2 league games and scored 20 or more 9 times this season. Finding consistent help for Lawson has been the hard part. Lawson’s classmates, Justin Minaya and Keyshawn Bryant, have had their moments, but a disappointing campaign from sophomore Jermaine Couisnard and UNC transfer Seventh Woods have left the high-tempo Gamecocks too often bringing water pistols to gun fights.
Best-case scenario: A trip to the quarterfinals. The Gamecocks played Ole Miss close earlier this season, falling by 7 in Columbia. Devontae Shuler went for 31 against South Carolina on that evening — hold him to 20 and maybe Martin’s team plays on Friday.
Prediction: A blowout loss to an Ole Miss team fighting for their NCAA Tournament life forces hard questions about Frank Martin’s job security in Columbia.
10. Georgia (14-11, 7-11)
KenPom Rankings: 88th overall, 79th offensive efficiency, 116th defensive efficiency
Best Player: Sahvir Wheeler, Sophomore, Point Guard
The Skinny: Remember when the Crean hire generated excitement in Athens? The Dawgs sold out every home game the first year of the Crean era and after signing 5-star lottery-bound Anthony Edwards, filled a renovated Stegeman to the rafters again in 2019-20. Unfortunately for Georgia fans, Crean hasn’t delivered many wins. Thanks to All-SEC point guard Sahvir Wheeler and All-SEC freshman K.D. Johnson, a pure scorer who is built like one of Kirby Smart’s elite running backs, the Dawgs enter Nashville with a chance, at least, to play in the NIT later this month. Georgia plays fast and is one of the best teams in college basketball in transition, ranking 16th in the country in transition offense. The problems are on defense, where Crean’s team lacks the type of size and athleticism you need to switch and defend in modern college basketball.
Best-case scenario: Trip to the quarterfinals and a NIT berth to follow. The Dawgs have already beaten their Thursday opponent, Missouri, once this season, clipping the Tigers by 10 in Athens last month. That game, however, was one where the Dawgs didn’t have to worry about how their undersized frontcourt was going to corral Jeremiah Tilmon, who missed the game. Still, having won once, they may have enough juice and confidence to grab an upset over a Missouri team safely in the NCAA field.
Prediction: A Thursday exit, and a deserved hot seat for Tom Crean, whose 14-40 SEC record makes Mark Fox look like John Wooden, in 2021-22.
9. Mississippi State (14-13, 8-10)
KenPom Rankings: 70th overall, 103rd offensive efficiency, 46th defensive efficiency
Best Player: Tolu Smith, Sophomore, Forward
The Skinny: Without question, Ben Howland and Miss State were one of the teams most devastated by the cancellation of last year’s March Madness. The Bulldogs were 20-11 a season ago and played great basketball behind 2 future NBA draft choices (Reggie Perry and Robert Woodward) when COVID ended things last March. This season, without Perry and Woodward, the Bulldogs have been far less effective on offense, and the wins and losses have suffered as a result. It’s a Howland team, so they are still big, defend well and have good frontcourt pieces, led by Tolu Smith (12.7 ppg, 8.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, .7 blocks) and Abdul Ado (2 blocks per game). But they tend to play as well as their enigmatic guards D.J. Stewart and Iverson Molinar play. If those two are on, they can beat good teams, as we saw against Florida, and push others, as we saw twice against Alabama and once against Tennessee. But which version shows up?
Best-case scenario: Trip to the quarterfinals. The Bulldogs are one of the few teams in the league who aren’t bothered by Kentucky’s length and athleticism. Their first meeting with the Cats lasted 2 overtimes — and Kentucky won by shooting 11-for-21 from deep. It’s unlikely that happens again, and maybe the Smith and Ado combination wills the Bulldogs to a third shot at the Crimson Tide.
Prediction: A physical, ugly, close loss to Kentucky caps this season for Miss State, but better days are ahead for Howland with this young group.
8. Kentucky (9-15, 8-9)
KenPom Rankings: 46th overall, 82nd offensive efficiency, 28th defensive efficiency
Best Player: Isaiah Jackson, Freshman, Forward
The Skinny: Win 4 games in a row or go home. By far the biggest flop in the Calipari era, a Kentucky team that began the year in their usual spot in top 10 simply couldn’t figure it out. The Cats won just 1 game during the nonconference slate, struggling to find an identity offensively in the absence of the traditional talismanic point guard we’ve grown accustomed to in the Calipari era. A 3-0 start to SEC play made it appear that Kentucky was turning a corner, but the Wildcats dropped their next 4 and a home loss to Florida last month squelched any last chance at regular-season momentum.
They do defend, as Cal’s teams are wont to do. Jackson, a consensus All-SEC Freshman selection, does that especially well, ranking 7th nationally in block rate and among the top 100 in points allowed against per possession as a primary defender. But they don’t score enough in critical moments: Brandon Boston has been underwhelming despite his immense talent as a shooter and scorer, and freshman Devin Askew, who reclassified, has struggled with the adjustment and can’t create his own look. In the end, too much scoring pressure has fallen on Creighton transfer Davion Mintz, who has impressed down the stretch but was never intended to carry the load.
Best-case scenario: Championship Sunday. This is still a team full of future pros and the good news for the Cats is they have had success against everyone in their draw except their potential Friday opponent, Alabama. They have beaten Miss State, Florida and Tennessee this season and, with their usual home fans in the Music City, they’ll have the bulk of the support in a socially-distanced Bridgestone Arena. Beat the Tide, and all bets are off. But that’s the tall task facing this Kentucky team.
Prediction: A hard-fought quarterfinal loss to Alabama ends the worst season of the Calipari era, thus beginning one of the more intriguing offseasons in college basketball in Lexington.
7. Missouri (15-8, 8-8)
KenPom Rankings: 48th overall, 38th offensive efficiency, 62nd defensive efficiency
Best Player: Dru Smith, Senior, Guard
The Skinny: A senior-laden team that is among the oldest in college basketball, Cuonzo Martin did a great job developing and coaxing the best out of a group that doesn’t have off-the-charts talent but has compiled some of the best wins in the SEC this season. The Tigers have wins over likely No. 1 seed Illinois, SEC regular-season champ Alabama, Arkansas, a very good Oregon team, Tennessee and Florida.
The Tigers limit turnovers, get to the free-throw line, are devastating in the pick and roll (top 50 nationally), and they finish at the bucket. They foul too much on defense, and are a different team when Smith’s fellow All-SEC teammate, Jeremiah Tilmon, is off the floor, but they have gotten enough stops to win in Fayetteville, Knoxville and Gainesville this season and they’ve improved just enough as a shooting team (from a bottom 300 field goal percentage group last year to the top 150 this season) to outscore you when they can’t stop you consistently. This is going to be a tough out, both in Nashville and in Indiana later this month.
Best-case scenario: Championship Sunday. After avenging a Tilmon-less loss to Georgia, the Tigers would either get a rematch of their regular-season finale against LSU, a 6-point loss, or a third shot at Ole Miss, which beat them twice. Then they would get a rubber-match with Arkansas, a team they lost to in overtime last month. Both are winnable games, which opens the possibility of Cuonzo’s band of grizzled brothers playing on Sunday.
Prediction: Missouri will exact revenge on Georgia and shore up its NCAA seed line with a Thursday victory, but they’ll fall short of a weekend appearance in a loss to Arkansas on Friday.
6. Ole Miss (15-10, 10-8)
KenPom Rankings: 50th overall, 114th offensive efficiency, 20th defensive efficiency
Best Player: Devontae Shuler, Senior, Point Guard
The Skinny: If you stopped watching the Rebels because you thought Ole Miss was dead after a 3-6 start to conference play that included an embarrassing 10 point, season sweep sealing loss at Georgia on Jan. 30, you are officially forgiven. The Rebels have won 7 of 9 since, including a win over Tennessee, a win over Auburn (with Sharife Cooper) and 2 wins over Missouri. The Rebels defend beautifully, with KJ Buffen, glue guy Luis Rodriguez and Arizona State transfer Romello White all plus-defenders. The question is whether they can generate enough offense outside of the steady All-SEC Shuler to win games. Win 2 games, and they may be in the Big Dance for the second time in Davis’s tenure.
Best-case scenario: Saturday semifinal. The Rebels bulldoze South Carolina Thursday and do enough to stifle LSU’s frontcourt and force LSU to hit deep shots Friday. That works, and suddenly, the Rebels get a “win and you are in” game in the semifinals Saturday.
Prediction: A tight loss to an LSU team with too much firepower in the quarterfinals Friday, and a long wait on Selection Sunday to figure out if it is the Big Dance or the NIT in Year 3 of the Kermit Davis era in Oxford.
5. Florida (13-8, 9-7)
KenPom Rankings: 30th overall, 37th offensive efficiency, 33rd defensive efficiency
Best Player: Tre Mann, Sophomore, Guard
The Skinny: No team in college hoops has stared down more adversity than Florida this season. The Gators have had 3 pauses (tied for most in country among programs still playing) and the trauma of seeing preseason All-American and SEC Player of the Year candidate Keyontae Johnson collapse on the floor, be placed in a medical coma and nearly die in a game at Florida State in December and they are still all but assured a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament bid come Selection Sunday. The big reason? All-SEC guard Tre Mann (15 ppg, 5.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists per contest), who is the best Florida guard since one-and-done Bradley Beal at creating his own look.
Mann has filled the “go-to guy” vacuum left by Johnson, although it’s a tragic academic exercise for Gators fans to consider what might have been with both Mann and Johnson on the floor this season. Defensively, Florida struggles to stop straight-line drives, but they are one of the better shot-blocking teams in the country (10th in block percentage), led by athletic bigs Omar Payne and All-SEC selection Colin Castleton. Florida struggles with consistency, but they have a number of great wins, including one at West Virginia, and they are as mentally tough, given all the trauma and adversity they have faced, as any team in the country. At their best, they are really good. But will they play their best?
Best-case scenario: Championship Sunday. Florida routed Tennessee without Scottie Lewis and Colin Castleton the only time they played them with Tre Mann, and Florida was less than a month removed from the Keyontae Johnson collapse and still reinventing themselves when they lost to Alabama in early January. Florida doesn’t match up terribly with the Tide, and if they can win that game, they’d have a chance against any of Ole Miss, LSU, Missouri or Arkansas in the championship.
Prediction: A semifinal exit where Florida pushes Alabama. In the end, the Tide’s ability to straight-line drive helped them separate from Florida in the second half in January and it will be the difference again in a fun semifinal. SDS does like the Gators to win — albeit narrowly — on Thursday and Friday — improving their NCAA seed line in the process.
4. Tennessee (17-7, 10-7)
KenPom Rankings: 22nd overall, 73rd offensively, 5th defensively
Best Player: Yves Pons, Senior, Wing
The Skinny: One thing that makes Tennessee so good, aside from one of the best defenses in college basketball, is that it really is tough to pick who their best player is.
Is it Pons, the All-SEC defender and consummate glue guy who can turn a game with great defense and aggression on the glass, as he did in Sunday’s double-bye clinching win over Florida? Is it Jaden Springer, the likely NBA lottery pick who is the Vols’ leading scorer as only a freshman and who has poured in 5 of the Vols last 8 games? Is it Keon Johnson, another likely 1st round pick who can attack the rim and defends at an elite level? Is it John Fulkerson, the veteran and preseason All-SEC selection who is so vital to how Tennessee spaces the floor and can play inside-out, if they want? Is it Victor Bailey, the microwave scorer who is shooting over 50% from beyond the arc on 41 attempts in the last 5 games?
It is truly tough to say, which is why Rick Barnes has one of his deepest teams in decades and one that can beat you a number of different ways. Can they win a few in a row and finally get Rick Barnes past the Sweet 16 in Knoxville? That’s the big question.
Best-case scenario: Championship Sunday. The Vols are plenty good enough to win the whole thing, which Tennessee hasn’t done since the Carter Administration. To do it, they’ll have to beat a (presumably) Tre Mann-led Florida team, a proposition that went poorly for them in January, an Alabama team that handled them in Knoxville, and a tough game on Sunday. Barnes and the Vols have the depth to do it, but putting all together consistently has been an issue this season.
Prediction: A quarterfinal exit against the Gators, but a decent seed, and a shot on the second week of the NCAA Tournament, in Indiana.
3. LSU (16-8, 11-6)
KenPom Rankings: 28th overall, 5th offensive efficiency, 127th defensive efficiency
Best Player: Cameron Thomas, Freshman, Guard
The Skinny: Will Wade takes a strong-a** team to Nashville that is playing its best basketball of the season. As tends to be the case, the Tigers can really score — led by the sensational Thomas, who shoots on 33% of LSU’s possessions (16th highest volume in country) but converts plenty, leading the league in scoring at 23.1 points per night. Thomas isn’t the only reason the Tigers are so hard to guard — they attack the paint well and thanks to Trendon Watford, a modern-day four who also is an elite passer — the Tigers don’t necessarily need to rely on Javonte Smart, a talented driver and scorer but not a particularly natural point guard. LSU will always score enough to win. The question, as always with a Wade team, is will they guard? The Tigers are 8-8 when they give up 76 points or more. They are 8-0 when they hold teams to 75 or less. Which one shows up this weekend?
Best-case scenario: Championship Sunday. One of 7 teams in the field capable of winning the whole tournament, LSU’s terrific guard play is the type of thing that is usually rewarded in the unique play everyday format of a conference tournament. Unfortunately, playing below-average defense is not rewarded. There might not be enough consistency here to win 3 games in 3 days, but there’s enough talent.
Prediction: Saturday semifinals. The Tigers will outscore Ole Miss in a fun game with bubble implications on Friday but fall short in a fun game with seed line implications against Arkansas on Saturday.
2. Arkansas Razorbacks (21-5, 13-4)
KenPom Rankings: 18th overall, 26th offensive efficiency, 22nd defensive efficiency
Best Player: Moses Moody, Freshman, Wing
The Skinny: The Razorbacks brought in 10 new players and managed to gel quickly, largely thanks to the brilliant freshman Moses Moody, who stuffs the stat sheet leading the Hogs in scoring (17.5 ppg), 3-point percentage (.386), and minutes (33 mpg) and is 2nd in rebounding (5.7 rpg), 3rd in assists, 4th in steals and 3rd in blocked shots.
It isn’t just Moody, though. The Hogs have exceptional balance, with 4 players averaging 12 or more points per night in SEC play and plenty others capable of contributing. They also have the ever-necessary glue guy, Indiana transfer Justin Smith, who started 50+ games in the best basketball conference in the country and who does everything for the Razorbacks. Arkansas is 20-2 when Smith plays, and he’ll play in Nashville.
Best-case scenario: Championship Sunday. Arkansas matches up well with LSU (which can’t guard), which would await if seeds hold in the semifinals. The toughest contest will be a rubber match with Missouri, which has the size to bang with the Razorbacks down low and plays some of the better perimeter defense in the country thanks to Dru Smith. Musselman’s team is capable of winning both games, setting up a potential championship Sunday.
Prediction: SEC Tournament Champions. Arkansas has won 11 consecutive SEC games and ran away from the Crimson Tide three weeks ago in Fayetteville. Of course, we’ve seen the Tide hammer Arkansas by double digits this season as well, which makes that potential championship game tough to call — but give us the slightly hotter team to cut down the nets. Arkansas wins its first conference tournament since 2000 on Sunday afternoon.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide (21-6, 16-2)
KenPom Rankings: 8th overall, 41st offensive efficiency, 3rd defensive efficiency
Best Player: Herb Jones, Senior, Wing
The Skinny: Nate Oats has flipped the culture and the expectations in Tuscaloosa in two short seasons, with an analytically driven brand of basketball that pleases the eye and a bone-crunching man to man defense that proves that for all the talk of three balls and tempo, the Tide are a throwback team that feasts on their ability to turn stops into buckets.
The Tide have great balance on offense, with 5 players who have scored 20 or more points in a game this season, and Alabama ranks 5th nationally in 3-pointers made per game and 87th nationally in 3-point percentage. If they shoot well all weekend in a bigger arena with funky sightlines, they will be a tough out. But even if they don’t shoot that well, defense travels, and the Tide are among the best defensive teams in America, led by SEC Player of the Year Herb Jones, who ranks in the top 250 nationally in block rate and steals per game and slots in at 4th nationally in points allowed per possession as a primary defender. A fun team to watch and an easy team to cheer for, this is a worthy league champion.
Best-case scenario: Championship Sunday. Alabama won the league by multiple games, and there’s no reason they can’t dominate everyone in their way this week. Even Arkansas, perhaps their best competition, is a team Alabama beat by 31 in January.
Prediction: Championship Sunday. The Tide will end Kentucky’s tournament Friday, spoil an inspired Florida run Saturday and look like a Final Four contender all weekend, only to fall to Arkansas in a thrilling title game Sunday afternoon.