March Madness is just getting started as the college basketball season shifts to the conference tournaments. Titles will be won, NCAA Tournament spots will be clinched or lost all over the country. Here’s what to watch in the SEC.
Final: Sunday in Nashville, Tenn. (ABC)
Early round games
No. 12 South Carolina vs. No. 13 Mississippi State (Wednesday)
No. 11 Texas A&M vs. No. 14 Auburn (Wednesday)
No. 8 Georgia vs. No. 9 LSU (Thursday)
No. 5 Tennessee vs. South Carolina/Mississippi State (Thursday)
No. 7 Arkansas vs. No. 10 Vanderbilt (Thursday)
No. 6 Missouri vs. Texas A&M/Auburn
Byes to the quarterfinals:
No. 1 Florida
No. 2 Kentucky
No. 3 Ole Miss
No. 4 Alabama
Full Bracket: (.pdf)
Other conference tournament previews:
Big 12 | Big East | Mountain West | Pac-12
THE FAVORITE: Florida
Florida stumbled down the stretch on the road in league play, but the Gators were clearly the best team in the league all season long. Florida will need to prove it can win away from Gainesville (the Gators went 7-6 on the road) and win close games (the Gators were 0-5 in games decided by single digits). Plan your brackets accordingly.
DARK HORSE: Tennessee
Any team with Jordan McRae, Trae Golden and Jarnell Stokes is capable of winning four games in four days. The Vols have won eight of nine, and probably need to win two more to secure an at-large invite to the NCAA Tournament. A talented team that went 8-1 down the stretch and needs to win games? Seems like a good mix.
ATHLON’S PICK: Florida
It’s always dangerous to pick against Kentucky — which will have the majority of the fan support — at the SEC Tournament, but the Wildcats simply have not been able to win consistently enough to trust them in the SEC Tournament. Florida has the talent and could re-focus in time to win its first SEC Tourney since 2007.
Related: Top Buzzer Beaters for 2012-13 (so far)
NCAA TOURNAMENT LOCKS:
The Wildcats may have the strongest case of any of the five bubble teams in the SEC. Kentucky was in the field before Nerlens Noel got hurt and defeated Missouri and Florida at home in close games after Noel’s injury. But Kentucky also lost by 30 to Tennessee in Knoxville, plus on the road to Arkansas and Georgia. Avoid a loss to Vanderbilt or Arkansas in the first game, and John Calipari will feel more confident about defending his title.
The Volunteers surged at the end of the season with only one loss after Feb. 6. The run included wins at home over Kentucky, Florida and Missouri, but Georgia continued to be the Achilles’ heel for the Vols. Lucky for Cuonzo Martin, Tennessee won’t see the Bulldogs unless it’s in a conference title game. A bad loss to either South Carolina or Mississippi State might knock Tennessee out. A win over Alabama in the quarterfinals might be enough to keep the Vols in.
The Rebels earned a bye to the quarterfinals, where they’ll hope to meet Missouri again. The Tigers will likely head to the NCAA Tournament with a strong non-conference resume, but they’re seeded sixth in the SEC. If Ole Miss draws Missouri, the Rebels will have a chance to prove their signature win of the season wasn’t a product of playing the Tigers in Oxford without Laurence Bowers.
Losing to LSU and needing a miracle halfcourt shot to beat Georgia is not a great way to get into the field, especially for a Crimson Tide team with losses to Auburn, Tulane, Mercer and Dayton on the resume. It’s tough to see this team reaching the field without wins over Tennessee in the quarters and Florida in the semis, at least.
At home, Arkansas is a sure-bet tournament team. Away from Fayetteville, the Hogs are beatable by everyone but Auburn. We list Arkansas as a bubble team because of the Razorbacks’ potential when they’re on their games. That said, it may be automatic bid or bust.