The SEC Tournament field is all set, and it goes without saying that there are a few teams whose postseason chances hinge entirely on their performance from March 12 to March 15 in Tampa, Fla.
Kentucky (19-12, 8-8 SEC) has ended the season on a four-game losing streak after falling to Florida (22-9, 9-7) on Saturday and, as the Wildcats' NCAA hopes freeze over (for the first time since 1991), Billy Gillespie's seat warms considerably.
LSU (25-6, 13-3), Tennessee (19-10, 10-5), and South Carolina (21-8, 10-6) are virtual locks, but a win in the quarterfinals (they will each receive a bye in Round 1) would certainly make the Gamecocks more confident. Even Tennessee may be just a tad uncomfortable after losing at Alabama today.
Auburn (21-10, 10-6), once an SEC West afterthought, are now the hottest team in the conference after upending LSU on Saturday. Auburn has won eight of nine, the only loss in that span being to the same LSU team they just handily defeated.
Only one seed remains undecided. Now that Alabama has defeated Tennessee today, they will move ahead of Mississippi on a tiebreaker (they beat the Crimson Tide twice this year) and assume the SEC West's fourth seed.
Even if Vanderbilt beats Arkansas on Sunday, Kentucky gets the SEC East's fourth seed on a second tie-breaker (division record) and Vanderbilt will be the No. 5 seed in the East.
SEC TOURNAMENT ANALYSIS
Note: Tennessee (East Division No. 1 seed), South Carolina (E2), LSU (W1), and Auburn (W2) will receive first-round byes.
Kentucky (E4) vs. Mississippi (W5)
Kentucky lost by five at Mississippi in late January, and they may have their hands full again, probably preferring that Alabama had lost to Tennessee (becoming the West's fifth seed), since the Tide was a team they had beaten by 10 just prior to losing to the Rebels.
Kentucky's desperation coupled with the play of Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson should be enough to put Gillespie's crew over the top on a neutral court in March, but don't bet the house on it.
Prediction: Kentucky 77, Mississippi 73
Alabama (W4) vs. Vanderbilt (E5)
Vanderbilt has been one of the most inconsistent teams in the SEC all year long, but is finishing strong, beating likely NCAA entrants South Carolina and LSU in the past week.
Alabama has finished the season strongly, beating Tennessee in the last regular season game, giving them wins in four of their last five.
This game could very well go down to the last possession, and if Alabama pulls out the win, they will earn a rematch with the same Volunteer team they just embarrassed on Sunday.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 74, Alabama 73
Mississippi St. (W3) vs. Georgia (E6)
State is easily the most disappointing team in the West, and they have dealt with multiple personnel issues and off-court distractions.
Georgia's magical run in the SEC tournament last year (in which the "Dream Dawgs" won a miraculous NCAA bid as a No. 6 seed) remains legendary, but it's unlikely that they have the ability to manage any semblance of a repeat.
Georgia has just one road conference win (the knife that dashed Kentucky's at-large hopes) while MSU has four (including Georgia itself and that same devastated Kentucky team). The talent levels are not equal, but that meant little in 2008.
Prediction: Mississippi State 69, Georgia 64
Florida (E3) vs. Arkansas (W6)
After Arkansas upset both Oklahoma and Texas early in the year, some thought this could potentially be the SEC Championship game.
Florida has dropped three of four but won a virtual play-in game against Kentucky on Saturday. The Gators are 4-6 in their last 10, including losses to Georgia, Mississippi State, and Tennessee (twice). A win here makes it much less likely that they'll spend a second straight year packing for the NIT.
Arkansas could potentially enter this game losing 10 of their last 11 games and will need a win to stay at .500 or better. Florida won by 15 at home in the regular season matchup.
Prediction: Florida 82, Arkansas 71
Kentucky (E4) vs. LSU (W1)
LSU has become a poll darling (until tomorrow at least), but few casual observers have examined the Tigers' horrendous non-conference schedule, which includes losses at Texas A&M and a 30-point blowout at the hands of Utah, the only decent teams that they played.
Their best non-conference win was a home win over a Washington State team that was not playing at their best early in the season.
However, the Tigers had generally beat up their SEC brethren until this week, when Vanderbilt and Auburn handed them successive losses to end the regular season.
Make it three in a row as the Tigers "geaux" home early (have I mentioned that Kentucky is desperate?) in a rematch of a game that LSU won on the road 73-70 just two weeks ago.
Prediction: Kentucky 84, LSU 81, OT
Mississippi State (W3) vs. South Carolina (E2)
South Carolina lost this game in Starkville 75-70 a few weeks ago, and the Gamecocks would go from "virtual lock" to "lock" with a win here. That normally means that you can count on South Carolina to lose, but Coach Darrin Horn and star PG Devan Downey have instilled a new attitude in this Gamecocks squad.
USC went on the road and grabbed a must-win against Georgia, and they are playing for an NCAA bid, while the Bulldogs are playing for NIT seeding. I'll take Coach Horn's experience and Downey's talent in this rematch, but Gamecock fans better have their beta-blockers and benzodiazepines handy.
Prediction: South Carolina 74, Mississippi State 72
Vanderbilt (E5) vs. Tennessee (E1)
Tennessee easily swept the season series with their bitter in-state rivals and have finished the season strong, with a win at home against Mississippi State and road wins over Florida and South Carolina.
Though Tennessee has played a bit of Jekyll and Hyde throughout the year, they appear to be roaring in March. Vanderbilt will not roll over and if Tennessee reverts to their mid-February impression of a fruitcake, they are capable of being upset.
The Commodores have not had an answer for Tyler Smith (who scored 30 in the most recent matchup) and Wayne Chism shredded them in the earlier game.
Guess who's peaking right now? Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, it's Chism and Smith (with J.P. Prince contributing nicely as well).
Prediction: Tennessee 79, Vanderbilt 63
Florida (E3) vs. Auburn (W2)
This is probably the best second-round matchup, and the game at Auburn earlier this year was a nail-biter as well, with Florida pulling out a 68-65 win. Since that game, Florida has been choppy, going 7-7 in conference play, while Auburn has soared, going 10-4 in the SEC.
Nick Calathes and Alex Tyus led the Gators in the regular season matchup, while the Tigers had four scorers in double-figures (and another player with nine points) and squandered a second-half lead.
Auburn continues to spread the ball around effectively and has become the SEC's leading scoring defense.
Florida has become a sieve when it comes to three-point shooting and the Tigers are one of the SEC's better teams from behind the arc. Big Mo' is on Auburn's side as well, as the Tigers have been winning on the road consistently during their current streak.
Prediction: Auburn 68, Florida 66
Kentucky (E4) vs. South Carolina (E2)
Kentucky's legs will be getting tired as they play their third game in three days. South Carolina, if they make it this far, will be playing only their second.
The Gamecocks defeated Kentucky twice during the regular season and will be trying to improve their tournament seeding at this point. Kentucky's desperation will not be enough to overcome the most underrated point guard in the country, though you shouldn't expect a repeat of the 77-59 thumping that the 'Cocks laid on the 'Cats on Feb. 25.
In one of the more bizarre stats of the SEC season, South Carolina set a school record with 16 blocks in the game and never led by less than 18 in the second half.
Kentucky fans, go ahead and get out your "For Sale" signs ready for Billy G's lawn.
Prediction: South Carolina 81, Kentucky 73
Tennessee (E1) vs. Auburn (W2)
Does anyone have a coin I can flip? Tennessee is capable of playing like a team headed for the Final Four. Unfortunately, the rest of the time they look like they couldn't make the Final Four of the College Basketball Invitational.
Fatigue won't be a factor, as both teams have first-round byes, and Auburn has been the more consistent team at the end of the year. Better yet, Auburn already has won a squeaker over Tennessee on Feb. 7 that started their incredible SEC streak.
Auburn's Korvotney Barber holds the key; he was an absolute beast (16 points and 17 rebounds) in Saturday's victory over LSU.
Prediction: Auburn 73, Tennessee 70
South Carolina (E2) vs. Auburn (W2)
The Gamecocks haven't won an SEC Championship since 1997, when they went 15-1 in conference play under Eddie Fogler.
Auburn has won the tourney just once, back in 1985, under coach Sonny Smith. Jeff Lebo, who probably saved his job with his late-season run, would like to etch his name in Auburn lore as the next coach to do so.
In a year when the SEC has undoubtedly been a bit down, it is fitting that one of these two underdogs take home the hardware.
In their one meeting during the regular season, Downey was held in check by the Auburn defense, but Zam Frederick scored 27 as the Gamecocks stretched a two-point halftime lead into a 68-56 win.
The Tigers are a different team now and as much as I would like to think the Gamecocks can break their Chicken Curse in style, it's hard to argue with Auburn's current consistency, coaching, and teamwork. If Auburn can keep Downey in check again, they should hang on in a thriller.
Prediction: Auburn 67, South Carolina 65
SEC CHAMPION: Auburn Tigers
Keep in mind that this is the SEC, so it's more than just a cliche when I say that anyone has a chance. If nothing else, Georgia proved it last year.
If you're looking for a darkhorse this year, look no further than Mississippi State Bulldogs or the (yes, still desperate) Kentucky Wildcats. Perhaps even the Crimson Tide (winners of four of five) can pull out a Georgia-style miracle.
If it plays out this way, do the Florida Gators get a bid? Tune in next Sunday and find out.