CI Roundtable: Previewing The SEC Tournament
In this edition of the Cats Illustrated Roundtable, our staff previews the SEC Tournament with predictions on which teams and players to watch in what's shaping up to be the most heavily contested league championship in recent memory...
How do you think the brackets break down? Is there any advantage to being in the top/bottom half?
DAVID SISK: I have said all year long that the Southeastern Conference is the best league in the country this year, and this could be as good or better than it has ever been. Think about it, would a Kentucky gauntlet of Alabama, Tennessee, and Auburn be any easier than the teams they would have to beat in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and the semi-finals? I think not. This weekend will be a brutal one. Having said all of that, LSU, Arkansas, and Kentucky have the hardest roads. The Tigers have a Thursday game, then would have to defeat Arkansas, probably Auburn, and then whoever comes out of the other side in the finals. The Razorbacks would have that same schedule minus the Thursday opener. I have already addressed Kentucky's route. They would have had it much easier from the two spot. That brings us to the number two seed, Tennessee. They've got clear sailing until the semis where they play the winner of Alabama/Kentucky who will probably be coming off a very tough game from the day before. Auburn is also in the same kind of shape as the Volunteers on the top side of the bracket. Advantage Volunteers and Tigers.
JEFF DRUMMOND: The bottom half of the brackets, where you find Kentucky and Tennessee, seems to be the more challenging path to me. One of the more interesting early games could be Mississippi State (10) vs. South Carolina (7). Both of those teams have played some pretty good basketball late in the season and could be a threat to the Vols on a given day. And when you've got a team like Alabama sitting there with the 6 seed with wins over likely No. 1 NCAA Tournament seeds Gonzaga and Baylor, that is a potential headache waiting for the Wildcats in their opening game on Friday night.
JUSTIN ROWLAND: I think the two halves of the bracket are pretty similar and really a testament to the overall strength of the league. You can't point to a team in that tournament that won't have to win a couple of games that would qualify as "earning it". I do think I'd give Kentucky an advantage at the bottom of the bracket over Tennessee, the last meeting in Knoxville notwithstanding. I think Kentucky's the better team and Calipari has gotten the best of Barnes in this tournament recently. I'm less sure of Auburn and Arkansas. Although Auburn's the 1 and Arkansas the 4, I'd probably pick the Razorbacks.
TRAVIS GRAF: I think the bracket is pretty balanced and that’s a testament to the legitimate depth of the SEC this season. There are six teams who could make a run at the championship and they’re split between both sides of the bracket. The chance that Alabama can get hot and go nuclear from the outside is always a threat to any bracket. The bottom side of the bracket features Kentucky and Tennessee, which might be the two hottest teams in the conference, but the frontcourt of Auburn and the surging Arkansas Razorbacks could be a threat to win as well. It’s going to be a very fun week.
Who is your darkhorse team (outside of the top four seeds) to watch?
TRAVIS GRAF: As I mentioned in my last answer, I think you have to go with Alabama here if only based on their playing style and ability to get hot at any moment. They’re the biggest wildcard in the country every time they step on the court. If the bracket turns to chalk, it looks like they’ll be playing Kentucky in the quarterfinals and they got very hot from the outside in their last matchup, but Kentucky weathered the storm and came out on top. Can the Cats beat the Tide for a third time?
DAVID SISK: If I can't go with anyone in the top four I might as well go with number five. Everyone knows LSU is really good and dangerous. They had two wars with Arkansas this season. They could then have momentum going from there. I also wouldn't be surprised if Vanderbilt won two games from the 11 seed. I look for them to beat Georgia in the opener. They would get Alabama next. The Commodores had a very good shot to beat the Tide in Nashville and came up just short. I have been impressed with Vanderbilt. They are a really physical and chippy team, and you always have a chance with Scotty Pippen Jr. on your team.
JEFF DRUMMOND: I wouldn't trust them enough to wager anything meaningful on it, but Alabama has proven it can beat anyone in the country if their barrage of 3s are falling. They've been kind of disappointing of late after a great start to the season, so maybe the Crimson Tide view this tourney as a chance to start building momentum again going into the NCAAs.
JUSTIN ROWLAND: Texas A&M. The Aggies are intriguing to me because they had the eight game losing streak but have now won four in a row and are looking pretty good. They could be dangerous. The other would be Mississippi State. I don't think the Bulldogs are likely to win this tournament but even though this is the 10 seed I think they have a solid path to the semifinal. If they can get past South Carolina, I wouldn't sleep on them against Tennessee. Even when this team loses it tends to be a tough out and I think they'll play at a pretty high level. But I wouldn't pick a team outside the first four seeds to win this tournament.
Who are the non-Kentucky impact players that you believe could help their teams make a deep run?
JEFF DRUMMOND: A guy who has really won me over during the latter half of SEC play is Florida big man Colin Castleton. He is a really skilled big man, and if you catch the Gators on a day when they're supporting him with strong 3-point shooting, they could be a sneaky-tough out in this tournament. The same with Arkansas big man Jaylin Williams, who has earned a lot of notoriety for his flopping tactics on defense but that has overshadowed how good of an overall player he is. I'll throw in Auburn big man Walker Kessler here, too, and borrow from John Calipari's old adage about a team being a fraud if it doesn't have a legit inside presence. These three teams, along with UK and Oscar Tshiebwe, all have it.
JUSTIN ROWLAND: JD Notae, Arkansas. When you factor how hot Arkansas has been and what Notae has done for them he's got to be one to watch. Notae is averaging 18.9 points per game on the season but Kentucky fans will remember him trading buckets one right after another with UK's Oscar Tshiebwe in the Cats' loss in Fayetteville. He's talented enough to take over the tournament and he has the team around him to get to the final day.
TRAVIS GRAF: Walker Kessler. The Auburn center is the best rim protector in the conference and can absolutely alter his opponent’s game plan on the offensive end. Kessler has four or more blocks in seven of his last ten games and has seven or more blocks in five of those contests. He’s also scored in double figures in 13 of the last 15 games for the Tigers.
DAVID SISK: There are so many good players in this league. I think either Auburn or Arkansas will advance out of the top portion of the bracket. That gives two players on each team to add to their already impressive resumes. Jabari Smith could make a push for the top player taken in this summer's NBA Draft. His teammates just need to get him the ball. Walker Kessler also brings a dynamic at his size unlike any other. J.D. Notae showed how good he was against Kentucky, and Jaylin Williams is a very skilled big man.
Who do you have in the championship game and who leaves Tampa with the crown?
JUSTIN ROWLAND: Kentucky over Arkansas. The Wildcats lost this game on the road but it was a tough atmosphere and on a neutral court UK is the best team in the conference when it is playing at the level it's capable of playing at. It has the best ceiling of any team in the tournament and I think that will come through as it so often does in this event.
TRAVIS GRAF: Tennessee over Auburn. The Vols are 9-1 in their last 10 games and have beaten both Arkansas and Auburn in recent weeks. They’re one of the hottest teams in the country and have been clicking all cylinders as of late. Auburn beats Arkansas in the semifinals and Tennessee beats Kentucky.
DAVID SISK: There are legitimately a half dozen teams who could win this tournament. I am going to take Auburn on the top side. I'm going with Kentucky in the bottom half. I have gone back and forth on this game. I initially leaned toward Auburn because of the brutal three-game stretch Kentucky will have to endure. But when it comes down to it, how much faith do I have in this Kentucky team? The bottom line is that I have a lot. This is a neutral setting, and I don't believe there is a better team in this very strong league.
JEFF DRUMMOND: It feels like we're just supposed to get another Kentucky-Auburn showdown this season. This should have been a home-and-home matchup during the regular season with the SEC Tournament being the rubber match, but the league schedule was an abject mess, so we'll settle for a second game if both teams make it this far. With the revenge factor and the potential to grab a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament hanging in the balance, I like the Cats' chances in this one.