A wild SEC basketball season is coming to a head on Sunday, when No. 13 Florida will take on Ole Miss in the championship game.
The Gators have already secured a spot in the 2013 NCAA tournament, but a crown jewel on the accomplishments of this year's regular season would be winning the conference title game for the fourth time in school history and the first time since Billy Donovan's three-year sweep of the event from 2005 to 2007.
On the other side, the Rebels have an explosive offense led by junior guard Marshall Henderson, and have survived scares against both Missouri and Vanderbilt en route to the title game. Ole Miss isn't assured of anything yet, which makes Sunday's game a must-win to avoid any kind of tournament snub.
Florida got the best of Ole Miss, 78-64, the first time the two met this season in February.
The SEC hasn't had a particularly strong season on the national scale, evidenced by only one team (Florida) being given much chance to make a strong run in the tournament. Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama have all been inconsistent, while Ole Miss and Missouri are two of this year's more interesting sleeper teams.
However, don't sleep on this title game. From the potential for triple digits from both teams and some future NBA talent showing out on both sides, Ole Miss and Florida should get tournament Sunday off right before the NCAA selection committee makes its decisions on the 68-team field for March Madness.
What: SEC tournament championship
When: Sunday, March 17, at 1 p.m. ET
This tweet from Jon Rothstein should tell you all you need to know about what Ole Miss' mindset is going into Sunday's showdown:
Jon Rothstein @JonRothstein
Ole Miss beats Vandy to advance to SEC-Finals against Florida. Rebels have something all bubble teams crave - control of their own destiny.3/16/2013, 9:32:20 PM
The Rebels aren't guaranteed anything when it comes to the NCAA tournament, although the selection committee will keep in mind that the team is 6-1 since a one-point loss to South Carolina, has an 8-7 record in road and neutral-site games this season, beat Missouri twice (a team likely dancing) and made it all the way to the title game.
However, bad losses to the Gamecocks and Mississippi State (both rated outside the Top 150 of the RPI rankings) have clouded the true nature of what the tournament selection committee is really thinking.
Only a win would put this thing at 100 percent—and as Rothstein said, controlling one's own destiny is a confident feeling.
On the other side, there are those that feel Florida could garner a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, even though it is not inside the Top 10 of the AP poll and suffered late-season losses to Tennessee and Kentucky before the tournament.
A dominating performance would force the committee to at least look at the Gators as a No. 1 seed, even if they are destined to fall somewhere else than at the top of a region in this year's bracket.
Marshall Henderson and Kenny Boynton
Good guard play can often captivate an audience this time of the year, and these two guards certainly fit the bill.
Ole Miss' Henderson averages 19.9 points per game and makes the Rebels go on offense, clearly the kick-start this team will lean on in making any kind of run toward erasing the memory of a 14-point loss to the Gators earlier this season.
Henderson has scored at least 20 in both tournament games this season, and as Jason Lieser notes on Twitter, Henderson has a feel for the basket that makes him extremely hard to guard—even if the watchful eye thinks otherwise:
Jason Lieser @JasonLieser
When told that it appeared Scottie Wilbekin defended him pretty well, Marshall Henderson replied, "I don't know. I felt like I was open."3/16/2013, 10:00:12 PM
Boynton is a four-year stud for the Gators looking to end his career on the right note. He's struggled with inconsistency this year and has been supplanted as the team's go-to scorer by Erik Murphy, but there's little doubt that the small guard has the chops to explode at any time.
Both of these guys love to shoot.
Neither shoots for a high percentage, but you would be foolish to allow either to get going from the outside or the free-throw line. Boynton has had plenty of big moments for the Gators during his time in Gainesville, and Henderson is looking to add his moments to our memory by leading the Rebels into battle on Sunday.
Ole Miss Defense
Can Ole Miss stop anyone?
The Rebels allow 68.1 points per game this year, good for 213th nationally. When the Rebels are scoring big (which is usually every game) they are a solid team that can hang with most on a good night.
When they defend, the thought process changes a little bit, and the Rebels win big against good basketball teams. That's why Ole Miss is a tournament team on the eye test alone—because it has shown flashes of being brilliant at times.
However, allowing Florida to extend its performance from earlier in the season when these two teams met would be disastrous. The Gators shot 51.6 percent on 62 shots from the floor on Feb. 2, picking up 23 assists on 32 made baskets while outrebounding the Rebels by eight.
Every starter had at least nine points and the Gators won by 14 despite Boynton shooting an atrocious 3-of-13 from the field. If that doesn't tell you how poor the defense was, then nothing will.
Defense is about pride, and there will be a lot of pride on display if Ole Miss is to take the next step and complete this epic SEC tournament title run. There's potential to do it, but both teams are hot and want to take all the momentum they can to the next phase of the season.
Strap in for a good one after church on Sunday, as Ole Miss and Florida prepare to leave it all on the court in Nashville.
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