SEC Tournament 2012 Primer: Kentucky Wildcats Are Heavy Favorites

Kentucky's road to the Final Four in New Orleans takes them first to ... New Orleans for the SEC Tournament, which tips off Thursday.

What, Who, When

The SEC Tournament runs from March 8-11 at the New Orleans Arena in, you guessed it, New Orleans.

Format

The SEC has eschewed any sort of division standings in favor of the standard 12-team bracket, with the top four teams receiving byes and the bottom eight teams playing a first round matchup. In previous years, the conference had bracketed teams according to their division standing -- the top two teams from each division would receive byes.

Thursday: No. 8 LSU vs. No. 9 Arkansas, No. 5 Alabama vs. No. 12 South Carolina, No. 7 Ole Miss vs. No. 10 Auburn, No. 6 Mississippi State vs. No. 11 Georgia

Friday: No. 1 Kentucky vs. LSU/Arkansas, No. 4 Florida vs. Alabama/SC, No. 2 Tennessee vs. Ole Miss/Auburn, No. 3 Vanderbilt vs. MSU/Georgia.

Saturday: Semifinals.

Sunday: Finals.

Who The Numbers Like

Kentucky. As if there were any doubt. Ken Pomeroy's projections ($) give the Wildcats a 68.7 percent chance of winning in New Orleans (next-best odds: Vanderbilt at 13.3 percent), meaning if the tournament were played three times, the Wildcats would be expected to win twice. Good odds. The Wildcats are not only No. 1 in Pomeroy's ratings, but the ratings distance between them and No. 18 Florida (the second-best team in the conference) is the same as the distance between Florida and No. 46 VCU.

Who The Eyeballs Like

Kentucky. As if there were any doubt. When you go 16-0 in conference play, and when only three of those wins were by fewer than nine points, you pass the eyeball test.

Dark Horse

Tennessee. Assuming we aren't just considering "The Field" as the dark horse, what about the Vols? They are smoking hot -- after falling to 10-12 overall and 2-5 in conference, they won eight of their last nine games -- and they gave Kentucky perhaps its toughest battle in conference play, a 65-62 loss in Knoxville on January 14. Cuonzo Martin's squad is half-wretched in terms of ball control, but their defense is improving and there's no question that they are growing in confidence. Yes, they are the 2-seed, which probably should eliminate them from "dark horse" status, but… how many people actually realized that Tennessee was the No. 2, anyway?

Best Possible Title Game

Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt. Vandy gave the Wildcats two good battles this year, falling 69-63 in Nashville (Vandy led 63-61 with 4:00 left) and 83-74 in Lexington (Kentucky led just 68-65 with under 5:00 left). The Commodores have played solid ball as of late -- they have raised their Pomeroy ranking from 32nd on February 11 to 21st -- and would be as likely as anybody to get in the Wildcats' way.

Who Might/Will Get In Anyway

Kentucky. And they will be the top seed overall if they don't slip up… or, possibly, even if they do.

Florida and Vanderbilt. Both are safely in the Field of 68, but it would behoove each to go on a nice run to avoid the danger zone of 7-10 seeds. Chris Dobbertean currently lists them both as 7-seeds. Vandy possibly has an edge in terms of raising their prospects, simply because they wouldn't face Kentucky until the finals (while Florida's recent struggles -- they've lost three in a row and five of eight -- dropped them to fourth place and a possible semifinal date with UK). Plus with wins over both Florida and Marquette, the Commodores possibly have a more attractive resume as is.

Alabama and Mississippi State. Anthony Grant's Crimson Tide rebounded nicely from a mid-January swoon; they lost four in a row, including an awful loss at South Carolina, but they finished winning seven of ten and solidified themselves as a tournament team. Granted, they are probably destined for the 8-9 game (unless they chose to lose to South Carolina again on Thursday), but they are in. Meanwhile, Mississippi State has benefited from the simple fact that very few bubble teams have gotten hot recently. But the Bulldogs lost five in a row in February, a typically deadly slide. They rebounded to barely avoid disaster in Columbia (they beat South Carolina, 69-67, in overtime), and they pummeled a fading Arkansas squad at home to finish 8-8 in conference. According to Pomeroy, their three best wins were against Vanderbilt, Alabama and Tennessee, and they suffered a series of bad-looking losses (Georgia, LSU, Auburn), but somehow they are probably still safe. I wouldn't recommend losing to Georgia on Thursday, however.

Tennessee. The tournament's 6-seed (Mississippi State) is currently in the Field of 68, while, according to Dobbertean, the 2-seed still has some work to do. It is an odd arrangement, but that's what we are seeing. Despite their recent hot streak, the Vols are still just 18-13. Their best non-conference win came against UNC-Asheville, and they have suffered losses to Georgia, College of Charleston, Austin Peay and Oakland. They could get into the field if the committee respects the "second in the SEC" title, but they probably need to at least make the conference finals to feel good about their chances.

Ole Miss. A further indictment of the weakness of this year's bubble: Ole Miss still has a fighting chance, according to Dobbertean. Ole Miss. The team that lost to Southern Miss, Middle Tennessee and Dayton in a two-week span in December. The team that went 2-6 on the road in the SEC, with awful losses to LSU and Auburn. Ole Miss. Like Tennessee, however, they probably need to make the SEC finals to have a good chance at an at-large bid. Unlike Tennessee, their chances are marginally slim -- they would have to beat Auburn (against whom they split in the regular season), Tennessee (0-1) and probably Vanderbilt (Vanderbilt 102, Ole Miss 76 in Oxford on February 16) to get there. Yes, they are on the bubble. No, they probably will not get in.

(And yes, if you follow Rock-M-Tology at Rock M Nation, I am prone to calling every bubble incredibly weak, every year. And yet, I find myself okay with the tournament eventually expanding to 96 or 128 teams. Go figure.)

Players To Watch

Anthony Davis, Kentucky. If only because this will probably be your last week to see him playing against SEC competition. The 6-foot-10 freshman is a national player of the year candidate, serving as both an incredible shot-blocker and alley-oops muse. He made 69 percent of his 2-pointers this year, and seemingly all of them came on dunks. He is a good rebounder (particularly on defense) and perhaps the country's best shot blocker. In general, it is simply fun to watch him play. Do it while you can.

John Jenkins, Vanderbilt. Jenkins is the rarest of combinations: a no-conscience 3-point bomber who is actually an incredibly efficient offensive player. Jenkins attempted 8.5 3-pointers per game (he made an incredible 46 percent of them) on his way to averaging 20.0 points per game, but he mixes in a lovely mid-range game (54 percent from inside the arc) and the ability to get to the free throw line. Make no mistake: Vandy needs him. In the Commodores' last four wins, he averaged 24.3 points on 72 percent shooting; in their last five losses, he has averaged 17.0 points on 38-percent shooting. He doesn't bring much to the table beyond points (2.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists), but Vandy needs his points in the worst way.

Jeronne Maymon, Tennessee. The Vols have turned their season around, in part because of Maymon's development. In their final nine games of the regular season -- of which they won eight -- Maymon averaged 14.7 points (on 55 percent shooting) and 7.4 rebounds. The 6-foot-7, 265-pounder is phenomenal at drawing fouls and decent at making them (66 percent), and he gives the Vols a lovely inside complement to outside shooters Trae Golden, Jordan McRae, Cameron Tatum and Skylar McBee.

Kenny Boynton, Florida. The 6-foot-2 guard was one of the country's most efficient guards, hitting 43 percent of his 3-pointers and avoiding turnovers. But he went cold late in the regular season. The Gators lost their final three games by an average of 13 points and not coincidentally, Boynton scored just 29 points on 10-for-30 shooting in those three games. If Florida has any chance of salvaging their fading NCAA Tournament seed, Boynton will probably need to regain his form.

Arnett Moultrie, Mississippi State. Rick Stansbury's Bulldogs are an odd team -- they are really long (fourth in the country in Ken Pomeroy's Effective Height measure) and they shoot a lot of 3-pointers. Three different players (Rodney Hood, Jalen Steele, Dee Bost) attempted at least 117 3-pointers in the regular season (Bost hoisted 201), and while they were not necessarily GOOD at the long ball, they've gotten away with it at times because of Moultrie's work on the glass. He averaged 10.7 rebounds per game (3.8 on offense) and, powered by a healthy combination of fouls drawn and free throws made (78 percent), 16.1 points. The offense does not really run through him, but he is by far the Bulldgos' most important cog.

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