Thursday, March 13, 2008

SEC Tournament Preview

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The Southeastern Conference was expected to be Tennessee’s to own the entire season. While that was partly true, the overall league title race was closer than expected. The Volunteers took the championship with a 14-2 record, but Kentucky and Mississippi State both finished 12-4 and put some heat on UT as the season wound down. Vanderbilt was the only other team to reach double-figures in conference wins. There are a few bubble teams with a lot at-stake in the conference tourney – expect a hotly-contested conference tourney.

Favorite: Obviously the clear-cut leader at this point is Tennessee. The Volunteers won the league by multiple games, and lost just two games in conference play – by a combined nine points at Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Tennessee loves to get out and pressure the ball all game, creating offense with the turnovers they force. Chris Lofton got hot towards the latter part of the season, while JaJuan Smith is a terrific player at both ends of the floor. Tyler Smith might be the most important player on the team, while Wayne Chism is solid inside. Ramar Smith runs the show from the point.

Contenders: Although no team is on Tennessee’s level in terms of talent or potential, the Volunteers aren’t flawless and can be beaten in the conference tourney. Mississippi State and Kentucky are playing the best basketball in the conference over the past month; MSU has won seven of its last nine, while UK has won 11 of its last 13. Mississippi State is led by one of the best guards in America, Jamont Gordon. He is a very difficult match-up due to his versatility and size. Charles Rhodes anchors the post, and provides great inside balance. Ben Hansbrough and Barry Stewart also average in double-figures in the backcourt, while big man Jarvis Varnado is one of the best shot-blockers in the country. Kentucky really turned things around in the second half of the season, and could be a threat in Atlanta. Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley form a highly-prolific senior scoring duo on the wings, while Derrick Jasper does a little of everything. The loss of Patrick Patterson down low has forced Perry Stevenson to become more aggressive inside. I think Vanderbilt is a very solid team, despite its struggles away from home. The Commodores have one of the best inside-outside duos in the country in senior star Shan Foster and freshman big man A.J. Ogilvy. Foster has come on very strong down the stretch. Alex Gordon is a very solid three-point shooter and lead guard, while Ross Neltner is a decent scorer and rebounder inside. Arkansas needs a couple of wins to solidify an NCAA spot, and the Razorbacks have proved they can hang with anyone in the league. Sonny Weems is a very difficult match-up at forward, while Patrick Beverley is one of the best all-around guards in the SEC. Darian Townes has come on strong this season down low. The key is Gary Ervin – if he plays within himself and creates for his teammates, Arkansas is tough.

Sleeper: Based on the way it finished, LSU looks like it can be a surprise team. The Tigers had an eight-game losing streak in January but have won four of their last five. Marcus Thornton is a big-time scorer at the guard position, and Anthony Randolph is one of the most talented freshmen in the country. Chris Johnson has come on strong this season. The Tigers’ size makes them tough to score on inside the arc. They have improved since head coach John Brady was fired.

Prediction: So many teams in the SEC have something on the line coming into the tournament. Tennessee is in the mix for a No.1 seed, while Kentucky and Arkansas want to wrap-up NCAA bids. Furthermore, Mississippi and Florida need to make runs to get a Big Dance invite. In the end, I think that the best team all season and the preseason favorite will end the conference season with the crown. Tennessee creates match-up problems for a lot of teams, and can dictate tempo against anyone. The Vols have answers for nearly anything you throw at them, which will come in handy come the NCAA Tournament.

First Round
#4E Florida over #5W Alabama
#3W Mississippi over #6E Georgia
#4W LSU over #5E South Carolina
#3E Vanderbilt over #6W Auburn

#1W Mississippi State over #4E Florida
#2E Kentucky over #3W Mississippi
#1E Tennessee over #4W LSU
#3E Vanderbilt over #2W Arkansas

#2E Kentucky over #1W Mississippi State
#1E over #3E Vanderbilt

#1E Tennessee over #2E Kentucky

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