Monday, March 10, 2008

Conference Tournament Preview: SEC

NOTE: This will be the first in a series of previews for the major conference tournaments that begin this week. SEC Tournament - Atlanta, GA - Thursday - Sunday

Storylines: The league is full of bubble teams who could use a big week in Atlanta to enhance their status or play their way into the big dance. Perhaps no league has more teams squarely on the bubble than the SEC. The top two teams in each division receive a first round bye.

It's Tennessee's world, and the rest of the SEC teams are just squirrels, trying to get a nut. The Volunteers ran through the league at 14-2 and are essentially trying to play themselves towards lock status of a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. With Senior SG Chris Lofton, the three Smith's (Tyler, JaJuan, Ramar), and Wayne Chism in the post, we just cannot see this team losing to anyone in this tournament unless they get bored. Their style of play is extremely tough to play, unless you have heady veteran ball handlers, which many in this conference do not possess. They are obviously the #1 seed coming out of the SEC East.

Awaiting a loss to Tennessee in the quarters will be either West #4 LSU or East #5 South Carolina. We'll be honest; these are two teams not worth discussing really. LSU fired coach John Brady in midseason, but finished up winning four of five, including a win at South Carolina. They have NBA talent Anthony Randolph in the post and near 20 point per game scorer Marcus Thornton on the perimeter. South Carolina will also be looking for a new coach at season's end, with Dave Odom stepping aside to retire. He thought it would be a big year, with transfers Devin Downey (Cincinnati) and Zam Frederick (Georgia Tech) coming in, but it didn't translate. They lost five of their last six and finished 13-17.

The second quarter final bye team is one of our favorites, the bubblicious West #2 Arkansas Razorbacks. We ranked them 13th preseason and with talented Patrick Beverley and Sonny Weems back to lead the way, we expected more than a 20-10, 9-7 record. With that said, they are probably in, but must win their quarterfinal matchup to feel safe. This team goes as PG Gary Ervin does. The turnover machine must be in control or it could be a short stay for the Razorbacks.

The two teams looking to knock them off in the quarters will be East #3 Vanderbilt or West #6 Auburn. Vandy has an RPI rating in the top 10 and spent the majority of the season ranked in the top 10. They boast the odds on SEC Player of the Year in Shan Foster and a beast of a post presence in Aussie big man A.J. Ogilvy. Like Tennessee, they live and die by the three, and have the capability to win this tournament if they are hot. They must get consistant guard play from Jermaine Beal and Alex Gordon and something off of their much maligned bench. Kevin Stallings club won't have any problems with Auburn, who finished last in a down SEC at 4-12, including 10 of their last 12. On top of that, they Tigers are without their best player, Kovotney Barber, who has a broken hand.

The Bottom half of the draw features the West #1 seed Mississippi State. This is a team nobody wants to play right now. Perhaps nobody has a better inside/outside scoring game than the Bulldogs, who have two first-team all-SEC type performers in Wing Jamont Gordon and PF Charles Rhodes. Both scored 17 a game and can take over. Add in the double digit scorers Barry Stewart and Ben Hansbrough (yes, Tyler's brother), and the best shot-blocker west of Hasheem Thabeet in Jarvis Varnado, and you've got a special team.

East #4 Florida needs a first round win over West #5 Alabama and probably an upset of Mississippi State if they plan on getting a shot to defend their back to back titles. The Gators looked good a few weeks back, but lost their last three games and finished 8-8 in the SEC. They have two great talents in Freshman Wing Nick Calathes and big man Marreese Speights, but their penchant for close losses has really hurt them. Bama is really playing for nothing more than an NIT bid and even that seems iffy at 16-15. They do have a great big man in Richard Hendrix and a sharpshooter in Alonzo Gee, but all yera they struggled with a lack of a true point guard.

Anyone else have East #2 Kentucky finishing 12-4 in the SEC after they lost to Gardner-Webb, San Diego, UAB, and Houston in December? We know we didn't. What about almost beating Tennessee on the road without Patrick Patterson? You have got to give it to Billy Gillispie. People were calling for his head two months ago, and he could end up SEC Coach of the Year. Right now, they are living and dying by what guards Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford do. They are playing four guards a lot now with Patterson lost to injury, along with ultra-thin PF Perry Stevenson. Again, we don't know how Gillispie is doing it, but he has UK playing their best ball of the season.

Disappointing bubble-team West #3 Ole Miss will face East #6 Georgia for the right to face Kentucky. When people were plotting the end of Kentucky's season two months ago, everyone was lauding the Rebels, who we had ranked as high as #10. Then the gigantic collapse hit, they finished 7-9 in conference and 21-9 overall, but come into the SEC tournament winner of three straight. They have a solid frontcourt with Dwayne Curtis (14 and nine a game) and banger Kenny Williams, plus capable guards in Freshman Chris Warren, the team's leading scorer, and Eniel Polynice. They meet Georgia in the rematch of Saturday's Ole Miss 76-62 win in Athens. It's been an extremely tough year for Dennis Felton's club, losers of 11 of their last 13. Rumors are swirling that his next loss could be his last. It's going to happen Thursday.

Best First Round Matchup

East #4 Florida vs. West #5 Alabama (Thursday 7:30, Full Court) - This is like choosing the hottest of four ugly women. The opening round of the SEC Tournament is loaded with trash. There is no doubt the Gators have the most to play for, so we are going with their first game, since Bama is capable of pulling the upset, as they did against Vandy this past weekend.

Juiciest Potential Matchup

East #1 Tennessee vs. East #3 Vanderbilt (Friday 1, Full Court) - The two in-state rivals split a pair of games during the regular season and Vandy's win knocked the Vols off of the #1 spot in both polls. You just know Vandy would love to ruin their chances at a #1 seed as well. Plus, anytime two of the most clutch shooters in the country, Chris Lofton amd Shan Foster, meet, its must see TV.

Players To Watch:

Jarvis Varnado, Mississippi State - One major advantage the Bulldogs have is that Varnado is a game-changer in the post. The disadvantage when they play Tennessee is he gets drawn away from the basket.

Gary Ervin, Arkansas - If the Razorbacks PG stays within himself, his team usually wins. If he is out of control, turning the ball over, it could be one and done for Arkansas.

Dan Werner, Florida - Everyone knows Nick Calathes is the main guy for the Gators, but for them to spring the upset they will need to get into the NCAA Tournament, Werner must not disappear like he has over the last three games, all losses.

Derrick Jasper, Kentucky - The talented Sophomore has been thrusted into being the third option on offense now that Patrick Patterson is hurt. Everyone will be keying on Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford, opening things up for him.

J.P. Prince, Tennessee - The X-factor for the Vols attack. If he gets going, they are awfully tough to beat.


First Round

(W4) LSU 65 (E5) South Carolina 57

(E3) Vanderbilt 85 (W6) Auburn 62

(E4) Florida 78 (W5) Alabama 77

(W3) Mississippi 75 (E6) Georgia 60


(E1) Tennessee 65 (W4) LSU 50

(E3) Vanderbilt 80 (W2) Arkansas 75

(W1) Mississippi State 85 (E4) Florida 82

(W3) Mississippi 62 (E2) Kentucky 61


(E1) Tennessee 90 (E3) Vanderbilt 81

(W1) Mississippi State 72 (W3) Mississippi 67


(E1) Tennessee 85 (W1) Mississippi State 78

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