So far, all but one of the top seeds at the 2013 SEC Tournament has moved on. No. 8 Georgia suffered a loss that eliminates the Bulldogs from title contention as No. 9 LSU took care of business on Thursday, but elsewhere everything has stayed status quo.
Tonight's games (No. 11 Texas A&M vs. No. 6 Missouri and No. 7 Arkansas vs. No. 10 Vanderbilt) figure to go about the same way, as the conference doesn't expect many upsets in the lower ranks of this tournament.
Waiting in the quarterfinals is No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Kentucky, No. 3 Ole Miss and No. 4 Alabama, the latter three of which are all on the NCAA Tournament bubble as we sprint toward Selection Sunday and the final bracket for the 2013 dance.
Florida has likely clinched at least a three or four-seed with its performance this season—no matter the outcome at this tournament—but every other team in play is likely fighting for its March Madness life with the expectations of a loss equaling a season without a tournament bid.
That should make for some thrilling quarterfinal games in Nashville.
Here's a look at the biggest keys to victory for the teams heading into the quarterfinal games on Friday.
No. 1 Florida (vs. No. 9 LSU)
Biggest Key: Avoid Turnovers
Florida is not facing the same LSU team it routed by 22 points in January when these two teams meet again on Friday afternoon.
Florida has dropped off considerably, showing vulnerability on the road and away from home and LSU has responded by looking like a team that could have been in the mix for the SEC title if you could discard the first half of its conference resume.
LSU averages over nine steals per game and is one of the best teams in the nation at getting the ball away from the opponent. Led by guards Anthony Hickey (who's 3.1 steals per game leads the nation) and Andre Stinger, the Tigers can make things uncomfortable and get quick baskets by forcing turnovers.
The Gators had just 11 in the first meeting between these two teams, but LSU will come in riding a wave of emotion on defense after a 13-3 edge in points off turnovers against Mississippi State on Thursday.
Kenny Boynton and the rest of the Gator lineup need to protect the ball, force the issue and avoid turnovers if they want to move on to the semifinals on Saturday.
No. 2 Kentucky (vs. winner of No. 7 Arkansas/No. 10 Vanderbilt)
Biggest Key: Alex Poythress' Strong Play
One of the biggest keys for Kentucky (no matter the opponent) on Friday will be defense. Nerlens Noel's absence from the lineup has left Kentucky somewhat weaker inside with only Willie Cauley-Stein to protect the rim, and Noel isn't walking back through that door.
Fortunately, Alex Poythress is.
The freshman forward has shown flashes of brilliance this season, as noted by Kyle Tucker of the Courier-Journal. Known as a "beast" by some teammates because of his ability to take over games, the mild-mannered Poythress might have to act like a senior for the Wildcats to move on and take another step toward a tournament berth:
But even Poythress admitted before the regular-season finale against Florida that he was “disappointed” in his season. He said he hadn’t “given it my all sometimes” and wanted to do more. He said there was always time to change, however, as long as there was another game on the schedule.
Averaging over 11 points and six rebounds this season, Poythress has been great at times (LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri wins come to mind), but he's also been quite poor and disappeared at others.
Look no further than a three-point outing against Notre Dame or a four-point one at Georgia to back up that claim. For Kentucky to both prove to voters that it is a legitimate tournament team without Noel and make it past the winner of tonight's brawl between Arkansas and Vandy, Poythress must find a way to impact the game in a positive way.
No. 3 Ole Miss (vs. winner of No. 6 Missouri/No. 11 Texas A&M)
Biggest Key: Defensive Effort
Ole Miss might not be the Running Rebels of UNLV, but it has proven a worthy successor to the latter name of that designation after finishing the season averaging close to 80 points per game (79.2).
Ole Miss rides and dies on the back of leading scorers Marshall Henderson and Murphy Holloway, two guys that both can light up the scoreboard on any occasion. That being said, the Rebels have had no problem scoring points in the SEC, but the defense has been atrocious at times.
The Rebels can also be plagued by their two best scorers at times, especially since Henderson is going to keep shooting the ball—no matter the circumstance. That has proven to be beneficial for most of the season, but the March 2 loss to Mississippi State (4-of-19 shooting) shows the dark side of his talent.
The question for Ole Miss is simple: If Henderson isn't scoring, how does Ole Miss find a way to win?
The answer is defense, something the Rebels have lacked this season, categorized by a 98-point outburst from Missouri (a team they could see again after the results of tonight's games) in February. Offense put Ole Miss into position for a tourney berth, but defense will keep them there.
No. 4 Alabama (vs. No. 5 Tennessee)
Biggest Key: Contain Jarnell Stokes
Tennessee continues to roll along, now a winner of 11 of its last 12 games and predicted widely as the favorite to win the SEC tournament.
That prediction falls largely in line with Jarnell Stokes, the double-double machine who is hitting his stride at the right time. Alabama is no stranger to what he can do, either, after facing him twice in conference play already.
In the first matchup, an Alabama win, Stokes was limited to just six points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes. Apparently the Tide didn't learn from that stat line in game two, as he exploded for 15 points and 18 rebounds in a win that was the first step toward Stokes dominating the boards over the last few games of the regular season.
Rodney Cooper and Levi Randolph (both guards) lead the Tide in rebounding, characterizing the Tide as a somewhat poor team on the glass. Best believe they will have to find Stokes when the shot goes up, or things could get ugly down low for Alabama.
This game will likely weed out a team looking to make it to the tournament, so hustle plays (like rebounds) are going to be huge. No one for Tennessee is better inside than Stokes.
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