SEC in the NCAAs: UK Will Carry the Banner
But things should be different this year, with Kentucky entering the tournament as one of the favorites to win it all, and Tennessee and Vanderbilt in position to advance as well. Even with Mississippi State being left out of the field, the SEC should be able to hold their head a little higher this year. Here's a look at each of teams' tourney predictions.
Kentucky (32-2, 14-2 SEC)
#1- East (vs. East Tennessee State)
Will advance if: The freshmen keep their composure. PG John Wall has been incredibly clutch all season, and Eric Bledsoe stepped up during the SEC Tournament. If DeMarcus Cousins keeps his emotions in check, he can team with Patrick Patterson to form the best front court in the nation. No team boasts as much overall talent as the Cats, and talent wins games in March.
Will go home if: The outside shots aren't falling. The Cats have gone through cold shooting stretches this year, and against a team like Wisconsin or Temple, defensive teams who slow the pace and make you maximize your possessions, the Cats' shooting woes could haunt them. The lack of experience will also be interesting to watch. Can a team with three freshmen in the starting lineup handle the pressure?
Prediction: The Cats' thrilling ride to the SEC Tournament title may have answered some questions about how this young team would react in a one-and-done environment. The Cats have unmatched athleticism in the back court, terrific size in the front court, quality players off the bench, and a swagger that belies their youth. Everything is set up for them to make a deep run, and with at least three players likely headed to the NBA after this season, they should play with a sense of urgency. Expect some tight games along the way, but in the end, the Cats simply have too much talent to go home early, and they should cut down the nets this year.
Vanderbilt (24-8, 12-4 SEC)
#4 – West (vs. Murray State)
Will advance if: AJ Ogilvy gets involved. In the Commodores eight losses, he's averaged 9.2 points per game and 4.6 rebounds per game. In their 24 wins, he's averaged 14.8 points and 6.8 rebounds. The 'Dores have balanced scoring with Jermaine Beal, Jeffrey Taylor and John Jenkins averaging double-figures as well, but they need Ogilvy to be a scoring threat in the post if they want to win.
Will go home if: They don't score. Sounds simple right? Well, in six of their eight losses, they failed to reach 70 points, and four times, they failed to even reach 60. When Vandy's offense stalls, they tend to force the issue and abandon their system, leading to rushed shots and transition chances for the opponent. Foul trouble up front has also doomed them at times this year, and if Ogilvy goes out, they could be in trouble.
Prediction: The Commodores should knock off Murray State in the first round, setting up an intriguing match-up in the second round with either Butler or UTEP. Vandy has the talent to beat both teams, but would probably rather see Butler, who lacks the inside presence of Derrick Caracter and UTEP. If they get past this game however, they're likely to match up with top-seeded Syracuse, who probably has too much overall talent for them. Look for Vandy to make it to the Sweet 16, but it would be a surprise to see them advance further than that.
Tennessee (25-8, 11-5 SEC)
#6 – Midwest (vs. San Diego State)
Will advance if: They decide to play. This is a Vols team that has wins over Kansas and Kentucky, yet also lost by 22 to USC, by 19 to Vanderbilt, by 15 to Georgia and by 29 to Kentucky just two weeks after beating them. The Vols have a ton of talent, but don't always play with the intensity they need to. Seniors Wayne Chism, JP Prince and Bobby Maze need to step up to ensure the Vols come ready to play every night.
Will go home if: They lose their focus. Tennessee is an emotional team, and when things don't go their way, they've ended up on the wrong side of some blowouts. Against UK in the SEC Tournament, a tense game against a heated rival turned into a rout when the Vols lost their composure and began trash-talking. How will they handle adversity in the tournament, where emotions are at an all-time high for both teams?
Prediction: The Vols are a scary pick in March. They have the talent to make a run to the Sweet 16, possibly even the Elite 8, if they play to their potential. Scotty Hopson is a special talent on the wings when he is aggressive, and they have a lot of veteran players who can lead them. Unfortunately, that hasn't always happened this year. They should win their first game, but a second-round game against a hot Georgetown team could spell doom for them. The Vols certainly have the ability to knock off the Hoyas, and possibly even Ohio State in the next round, but it's hard to put a lot of stock into them, not knowing if they'll be focused and ready to play each night. Look for them to be home watching the Sweet 16.
Florida (21-12, 9-7 SEC)
#10 – West (vs. BYU)
Will advance if: Vernon Macklin is aggressive. Even at his best, Macklin won't make anyone forget Wilt Chamberlain, but the Gators are 14-4 when he scores in double figures, and just 7-8 when he doesn't. A scoring Macklin gives the Gators an inside presence to balance out the perimeter scoring of Erving Walker, Chandler Parsons and Kenny Boynton, and allows Alex Tyus to play a little further from the basket.
Will go home if: They don't defend. The Gators shoot only 31% from three-point land, and have struggled to score for long stretches this season. They're a very good defensive team, but a few lapses combined with their offensive ineptitude could send them packing early. They've ridden their defense all year, and they need to continue to do so if they want to advance.
Prediction: The Gators struggled down the stretch, losing four of their last five, and some felt they shouldn't even have received a berth. They have a number of close losses this year, and although they play hard, they probably just don't have enough talent to expect a long stay in the dance. They'll need to shut down Jimmer Fredette if they have any chance of knocking off the Cougars, and even then, they'll need to play better on the offensive end than they have for much of the season. If they were to get by BYU, they don't have the horses to run with Kansas State in the second round. Look for the Gators' stay in the Big Dance to be a short one.