Crystal LoGiudice-US PRESSWIRE
The NCAA Tournament hopes of at least five teams could be broken or made during this week's SEC Tournament in Nashville.
One could argue that SEC basketball has been the karmic result of SEC football in 2012-2013. Whereas the football league notched one of its most successful season ever, finishing with a Heisman Trophy winner, five of the top 10 teams in the final polls, and another BCS champion in Alabama, the basketball season hasn't been nearly as stellar. For much of the season, only Florida and one other team (sometimes Missouri, sometimes Ole Miss, and sometimes Kentucky), were ranked in the Top 25. In stretches, the SEC looked like it was determined to be a two-bid league.
Though it wasn't pretty for much of the season, several teams finished the season in well enough shape to at least remain on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Combine the desperation that comes with being on the bubble with the odd fact that several SEC teams were completely different animals at home versus on the road (Arkansas and Florida, particularly) and the SEC Tournament, while not loaded with elite teams like the Big Ten or Big East, might actually be the most intriguing.
The SEC could leave the weekend with as few as three and as many as perhaps five teams feeling good about their chances to make the field of 68. It all comes down to what's about to take place over the course of the next five days.
Florida has been the highest ranked team in the SEC all season and for much of the year looked like a national championship caliber team. The Gators steamrolled Big East co-champ Marquette and blew out Wisconsin in non-conference play. They won the SEC regular season title with a week to play in the regular season, despite losing Will Yeguete and others to injury for stretches this season.
At home, Florida was a machine. On the road, however, the Gators lost in blowout fashion to Arkansas while dropping games at Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky to end the season. Which Florida team will show up in Nashville? The one that has looked unstoppable at home, or the one that has looked out of sorts late in games on the road? If the former, Billy Donovan should win another SEC Tournament Championship.
Conventional wisdom is that Florida and Missouri are the only true locks for the tournament out of the SEC right now. But, squarely on the bubble are Kentucky, Ole Miss, Alabama and Tennessee. Each of the four teams could do their respective resumes a world of good without winning the SEC Tournament outright. Assuming Tennessee beats the winner of South Carolina and Mississippi State, the Vols' would meet Alabama in what would likely be an elimination game. Likewise, if Arkansas advances past Vanderbilt, it would meet Kentucky in the quarterfinal round in a game that would probably knock Kentucky out and definitely knock Arkansas out of at-large consideration. Ole Miss, which has faded more than any team in the country since reaching as high as No. 16 in the polls just seven weeks ago, desperately needs a notable win, which could come against Missouri in the quarterfinal round.
The SEC Tournament bracket dictates that they all can't win enough to earn an at large bid, but, it does set up a quarterfinal Friday where potentially three of the four games will eliminate someone from at-large consideration. That should make for a great day of games.
Players to Watch
Erik Murphy, Florida - Murphy blossomed this year into Florida's most reliable outside weapon. On the year, Murphy hit 46.6 percent of his three-point shot attempts and averaged 12.2 points per game.
Marshall Henderson, Ole Miss - The one player that everyone inside and outside of the SEC definitely knows for Ole Miss is Marshall Henderson. The SEC's most colorful, feisty player helped spark the Rebels' rise in January and has been just as much a part of the problem down the stretch (scoring just 11 points in a loss to South Carolina and 16 points on 3 of 18 shooting from three in a nearly unforgivable loss to Mississippi State).
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Georgia - The newly-named SEC Player of the Year toiled away in relative obscurity on a Georgia team that few outside of the SEC were paying attention to. When the dust settled, however, Caldwell-Pope was the SEC's best player, and the Bulldogs were a miracle half court shot from Alabama away from finishing 10-8 in league play. Georgia notched wins over Tennessee and Kentucky in the season's final weeks and has a history of making improbable runs in the SEC Tournament. If they do it again, it will be because of Caldwell-Pope.
Phil Pressey, Missouri - One of the nation's best point guards, Missouri goes as far as he takes them. Pressey does it all for the Tigers, leading the SEC in assists per game (7.1) while pouring in 12.0 points per game to boot. Much like Peyton Siva and Louisville or Trey Burke and Michigan, Missouri is best when Pressey is both scoring and getting his teammates involved.
Jordan McRae, Tennessee - McRae has quietly helped spark a late season revival for the Vols' that might culminate with a return to the NCAA Tournament. McRae finished fourth in the SEC in scoring, averaging 16.1 points per game. In SEC play, he averaged 19.1 points per game. The Vols' were able to beat both Florida and Kentucky because he and Trae Golden played so well down the stretch.
Willie-Cauley-Stein, Kentucky - Despite previously dealing with a knee issue of his own, Cauley-Stein has performed admirably in the middle of the Kentucky defense since the team lost Nerlens Noel. In fact, the best way to see his impact on a game is to see just how incapable Kentucky is of keeping teams away from the basket when he's not on the floor. With him on the floor, even with four fouls, the Wildcats held Florida scoreless for the final 7:32 to come from behind and win the game. To polish off their NCAA Tournament resume and win in Nashville, Kentucky needs Cauley-Stein on the court as much as possible.
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