After a definite down year in 2008-09, SEC basketball surged back in 2009-10.
Kentucky headlined the show, as it so often does, claiming a spot as one of this season’s top three teams that have separated themselves from the field. Vanderbilt had a banner year, claiming the second-best record in the conference. Tennessee overcame the adversity of four player arrests and the subsequent dismissal of Tyler Smith to become a great team, the only to have beaten two of this year's Big Three (Kansas and Kentucky).
But while the top of the conference matches up well against anyone else's best three teams, it gets a bit muddier from there. Florida, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss were the three bubble teams during conference play, with the Gators being out in front thanks to having defeated both Magnolia State teams. Each has a marquee win out of conference–Florida with Michigan State, Mississippi State with Old Dominion, and Ole Miss with Kansas State–but none could avoid bad losses enough to solidify themselves in the tournament field.
The bottom half of the conference did have its share of highlights, even if none of those teams are likely to go dancing. Arkansas led the SEC West for a time and was in the thick of the division race nearly to the end. South Carolina and Georgia both beat three of the top four teams in the tough East division, and each had outstanding players in Devan Downey and Trey Thompkins, respectively. Alabama and Auburn each beat West division co-champ and top seed Mississippi State. And LSU, well, it got a nice senior day win for Tasmin Mitchell.
The SEC has some work to do still to get back to the level it was earlier in the decade. With promising coaches in their first or second year at several member schools plus established greats at the flagship universities, the league appears on its way up there once again.
Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee are all easily in the NCAA tournament, and are all playing for seeding in the Big Dance. That's the easy part.
Florida is in the best shape of the rest, having scored good wins over Michigan State, Tennessee, and Florida State. The Gators likely need to beat Auburn in the first round to be safe. It's not so much because UF needs the win, but because it must avoid any more bad losses.
The Mississippi schools are in much more precarious positions. They each get first round byes as the top two seeds in the West division, but neither has much to brag about beyond their aforementioned big wins. Mississippi State will probably play Florida in its first game, and it would likely get Vanderbilt should it win that one. Ole Miss has a tougher road to hoe as it likely will get Tennessee in its first game and almost certainly Kentucky after that. They both will want to win those games if they want to go dancing.
Beyond that, no one has a shot at an at-large berth to March Madness. The South Carolina-Alabama game in the first round could end up an elimination game for NIT inclusion, but that's about it for the other six teams in the league.
Names You Should Know
F Patrick Patterson, G John Wall, F DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky -- It's hard to pick just one of these guys from UK, so I'm going to cheat and group them together. The junior Patterson and freshmen Wall and Cousins all take turns being the star, and all have an NBA future. They are largely the reason why the Wildcats are so much better than most teams in the country.
G Jermaine Beal, Vanderbilt -- A lot of preseason attention for the Commodores was on C A.J. Ogilvy, but Beal is Vandy's leading scorer. He’s capable of going for 20+ points on anyone, and when he's on, VU is very tough to beat. Enjoy him while you can, as he could be on to the pros after this.
G Scotty Hopson, Tennessee -- This sweet shooting sophomore is the piece that puts Tennessee over the top from really good to great. Wayne Chism anchors things around the basket, but Hopson's daggers have been known to put teams away. If his shots are falling, good luck at taking the Vols down.
F Chandler Parsons, Florida -- Parsons has emerged as the Gators best and most versatile player, and his game winning shots over South Carolina and NC State are the reason UF is projected in the field of 64 right now. Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl even called him one of the most improved players in the country. He is capable of doing it all, and his team often needs it due to a lack of depth.
F Jarvis Varnado, Mississippi State -- There aren't many players like Varnado, who this year became the NCAA's all time leader in blocks. He's an intimidating inside presence and averages a double-double with 13.5 points and 10.6 boards on the season. If MSU is to fight its way into March Madness, Varnado will be leading the way.
G Chris Warren, Ole Miss -- Warren is the combustible guard at the center of the Rebels' offense. He has gone for 30+ points in multiple games this season, and he's averaged just under 23 a contest in Ole Miss' four-game winning streak to close the regular season. He must keep it up for his team to have a chance at the dance.
G Devan Downey, South Carolina -- Downey is the SEC's leading scorer and is in the top five nationally in points per game to boot. He almost single-handedly beat Kentucky in January, and his fingerprints were all over the Gamecocks' season-ending upset of Vanderbilt. If we're going to see a one-man wrecking crew carry his underdog team far in this tournament, Downey is likely the guy.
F Trey Thompkins, Georgia -- Like Downey, Thompkins is one of those players who could be able to carry his overmatched team farther than it should go. UGA has a relatively favorable draw, beginning with Arkansas and then (with a win) facing a Vanderbilt team that Georgia has already defeated this year. If the Bulldogs are to repeat their surprise run in the Tornado Tournament of a couple years back, Thompkins will be why.
As this year’s tournament is in Nashville, we won’t have to hear about the "Catlanta" phenomenon that occurs when Kentucky fans flood Georgia's largest city for this event. You can probably dub it "Catsville" or something similar because UK is the overwhelming favorite to take home the tournament title and its fans will overrun this city too.
The bracket sets itself up for a Kentucky-Vanderbilt championship game. If we don't end up with that, it'll likely either be because Tennessee takes down Kentucky for the second time this year, or one of the bubble guys in Vandy's half (Florida or Mississippi State) really didn't want to leave things up to chance. Regardless, the smart money is on the Wildcats taking home yet another SEC Tournament crown.
FIRST ROUND, THURSDAY MARCH 11 (All games on SEC Network)
Game 1: W4 Alabama vs. E5 South Carolina, 1:00 PM Eastern
Game 2: E3 Tennessee vs. W6 LSU, 3:15 PM
Game 3: E4 Florida vs. W5 Auburn, 7:30 PM
Game 4: W3 Arkansas vs. E6 Georgia, 9:45 PM
QUARTERFINALS, FRIDAY MARCH 12 (All games on SEC Network)
Game 5: E1 Kentucky vs. W4 Alabama, 1:00 PM Eastern
Game 6: W2 Ole Miss vs. E3 Tennessee, 3:15 PM
Game 7: W1 Mississippi State vs. E4 Florida, 7:30 PM
Game 8: E2 Vanderbilt vs. E6 Georgia, 9:45 PM
SEMIFINALS, SATURDAY MARCH 13 (All games on ABC)
Game 9: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 1:00 PM Eastern
Game 10: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 3:15 PM
CHAMPIONSHIP, SUNDAY MARCH 14 (ABC)
Game 11: Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 1 PM Eastern
Dave Wunderlich covers the SEC at Team Speed Kills.