- Matt Cox
3MW All Conference Teams:
1. Kentucky Cruises... but Concerns Linger...
Despite some brief turbulence in late January when the Wildcats dropped 3 of 4 over a two week span, John Calipari's new batch of blue-chip prospects managed to turn it on down the stretch. Since being blown out in Gainesville by a formidable Gator squad on February 4th, Kentucky has reeled off 8 straight wins to close out SEC play, including a revenge victory against Florida in Rupp Arena. Calipari has opened up the offense this year, allowing his dynamic point guard De'Aaron Fox the freedom to push the pace on every opportunity he gets. And when they're forced to slow it down and play half-court basketball, 'the Human Torch' - aka Malik Monk - will run his defender off a flurry of screens before inevitably getting an open look from 3. But don't be fooled by the shiny toy that is Kentucky's offensive firepower - this team has some legitimate issues on the defensive end.
Despite having some premier post prospects in Bam Adebayo and Wenyen Gabriel, UK's interior defense has actually been sneaky bad. Kentucky's opponents are currently shooting 61% at the rim against them, which ranks a scary 223rd in the country, and throughout SEC play, the Wildcats 2-point% defense was 5th worst in the league. Calipari has routinely expressed his frustration with the Cats' defensive inconsistencies throughout the year, but time is running out to tighten up the screws in Lexington - that is, if this team considers itself a national title contender. Over relying on 2nd half heroics from Mr. Monk is a dangerous game to play in the NCAA tournament, especially once the second weekend rolls around.
2. Sindarius's Last Stand
While a bunch of teenagers are leading the way for Kentucky, a veteran, 4th-year starter in senior Sindarius Thornwell has the Gamecocks right in the mix of worthy SEC tournament contenders. Despite dealing with an injury that sidelined him for most of December, Thornwell single handedly lifted the Gamecocks' offense all season long and was a key linchpin in the nation's 2nd best defense, per kenpom.com. All he did was lead South Carolina in points, rebounds, assists and steals, in addition to being their most consistent long range shooter (he shot 39% from 3 this year). The Gamecocks have been stumbling a bit over the past month of the season, losing 5 of their last 8 games heading into the SEC tournament, which is compounding the already immense pressure put on Thornwell.
3. The Tailspin of Two Tigers
LSU and Missouri were in a fierce competition all season long for who could have the more disappointing year. This 'contest' resulted in a tie, with both squads finishing safely in the bottom of the SEC standings at 2-16. However, recent news has indicated both the LSU and Mizzou administrations have decided to go in a new direction, meaning the services of Johnny Jones and Kim Anderson are no longer needed. It will be interesting to see how both programs approach the hiring process, given they will likely be competing over the same candidates. There's no denying LSU and Mizzou have seen better days on the hardwood, but whoever each school chooses to hire as their next head coach will certainly reveal just how desirable of a landing spot both programs are in 2017.
The 14-team field punishes the bottom-4 of the regular season standings - Auburn, Mississippi St., LSU and Missouri. On the flip side, the top-4 seeds receive a double-bye, which will be a major advantage for both Arkansas and South Carolina if they end up drawing one of the bottom-4 seeds coming off back-to-back games.
Projected Tournament Teams and Seeds (per bracketmatrix.com):
1) Kentucky: 2-seed
2) Florida: 3-seed
3) South Carolina: 8-seed
4) Arkansas: 9-seed
5) Vanderbilt: 12-seed
While only 5-teams have a real shot to punch their ticket to this year's dance, the SEC tournament is still up for grabs with only two real "punching bags" in Missouri and LSU. Even the 11 and 12 seeds, Auburn and Mississippi St., feature a plethora of young talent that's shown signs of what their ceiling could be next season.
From a bubble perspective, all eyes will be on Vanderbilt, who's the only team in the bracket with real tournament odds at stake. Currently slated as a 12-seed per bracketmatrix.com, the Commodores MUST take care of business against a talented, but erratic Texas A&M team, who they've already beaten twice this season.
Dark Horse Team(s):
Though winning 5 games over the course of 5 days is borderline impossible, Ben Howland's Bulldogs are a young, fearless and talented bunch that no one will want to see this weekend. Thanks to freshman Lamar Peters bursting onto the scene this season, Howland has adopted a dual point guard system, playing Peters next to the lone veteran presence on this team, IJ Ready. Both Peters and Ready have been excellent playmakers for their teammates, each of whom ranks in the top-5 in the SEC in assist rate. Rounding out the perimeter unit is sophomore wing Quinndary Weatherspoon, who scored efficiently from all areas of the floor this season - beyond the arc, around the rim and at the foul line. Throw in a couple of top-50 talents to the frontcourt with Schnider Herard and Mario Kegler and Mississippi St. has just about all the pieces to make a deep run in this year's SEC tournament - at least on paper. The Bulldogs have been plagued by late game letdowns over the past month of the season, but only one of their most recent 7 losses was by more than 7 points. With Howland's young squad on the cusp of breaking through, is this weekend's SEC tournament the time when they finally put it all together?
(12) Mississippi St. defeats (13) LSU
(11) Auburn defeats (14) Missouri
(8) Georgia defeats (9) Tennessee
(12) Mississippi St. defeats (5) Alabama
(10) Texas A&M defeats (7) Vanderbilt
(6) Ole Miss defeats (11) Auburn
(1) Kentucky defeats (8) Georgia
(12) Mississippi St. defeats (4) South Carolina
(2) Florida defeats (10) Texas A&M
(6) Ole Miss defeats (3) Arkansas
(1) Kentucky defeats (12) Mississippi St.
(2) Florida defeats (6) Ole Miss
(2) Florida defeats (1) Kentucky