Conventional wisdom would seem to suggest that Florida and Kentucky are destined to play each other in the SEC tournament finals, but the SEC is a much deeper conference than most realize.
The drop-off in terms of records and overall success this season is considerable after No. 1 Florida and No. 17 Kentucky, however, very few SEC teams can be considered pushovers, and all of them can beat the Gators or Wildcats on any given day.
Florida and Kentucky are locks to make the NCAA tournament at this point regardless of what happens in the SEC tournament, but teams always prefer to enter the big dance with the momentum of a conference championship behind them.
Every other team in the SEC needs a conference title more, though, since several of them are firmly on the bubble. The SEC tournament is no stranger to shocking winners, and a few teams are in position to possibly further that tradition this year.
Here are three dark-horse SEC teams that are most likely to pull off a gargantuan upset and play their way into the NCAA tournament.
Although it hasn't won the SEC tournament since 2000, Arkansas is arguably in better position than any other SEC team to give Florida and Kentucky trouble come tournament time. Not only are the Razorbacks talented, but they have already proven that they are capable of giving the SEC's top teams fits. Arkansas knocked off Kentucky in overtime early in conference play just three days after losing to Florida by just two points in overtime.
The Gators are a perfect 15-0 in the SEC, and no team has come closer to upsetting them than the Razorbacks. While winning that game would have given Arkansas a world of confidence, simply sticking with Florida was a major accomplishment. The Razorbacks have a chance to make yet another statement on Thursday by beating Kentucky again, and freshman big man Bobby Portis believes that pundits will take notice if they do, according to Kurt Voigt of the Associated Press (via the Ledger-Enquirer).
Right now, no one is talking about us in the nation; like we aren't on anyone's bubble or anything right now. So, I think (if) we go out there and win Thursday, that will be a wakeup call for us around the nation.
Even if Arkansas doesn't turn the trick once again when it faces Kentucky, it will be a very dangerous team in the SEC tournament. The Razorbacks have won five of their past six games, and the combination of Portis and Coty Clarke down low will give the opposition fits. Arkansas is a well-rounded team, and it has all the tools necessary to make some noise come March.
When the Georgia Bulldogs entered the 2008 SEC tournament with a losing record, nobody viewed them as legitimate threats to make a run deep into the tourney, let alone win it. Thanks to will, determination and a little bit of luck, however, the Bulldogs pulled off one of the biggest miracles in SEC history by winning the SEC tournament and qualifying for the NCAA tournament out of nowhere.
It wouldn't be quite as historic if Georgia managed to do it again this season since the Dawgs are an impressive 10-5 in the SEC, but with a record of just 16-11 overall, they likely need to run the table in the tournament. After a tough start in non-conference play, it didn't look like Georgia would be a factor in the SEC this season, but it has turned things around thanks in large part to the masterful coaching of Mark Fox.
A poor run in conference play could have spelled the end for Fox, but he has almost certainly saved his job, and Seth Davis of CBS Sports considers him to be one of the most underrated coaches in the country:
Georgia's talent level doesn't quite measure up to Florida or Kentucky, but the Bulldogs boast a couple of players who can take over games. Sophomore guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines lead the team in scoring, and while they represent a bright future for Georgia basketball, the future could very well be now. Hot guard play is arguably the most important thing for teams looking to make a deep tournament run, and the Bulldogs should have that.
Which SEC dark horse is most likely to win the SEC tournament?
As is the case with most of the SEC's teams this season, inconsistency has plagued the LSU Tigers. There is plenty of skill on the roster, and that has been proven at various points, but there have been far too many lapses. That could ultimately spell the end of LSU's run, but it also underscores the fact that any type of consistency will make the Tigers a very tough out.
Having beaten Kentucky once, LSU knows that it can play with the Wildcats. LSU lost by just one point to Kentucky in overtime in the rematch as well, so it's a team that the Wildcats would obviously love to avoid in the tourney. Also, the Tigers will get their first crack at Florida on Sunday and figure to pose a stiff challenge.
Although overall depth is an issue for LSU, it features six players who average nine or more points per game, which means that it has the firepower necessary to hang with the SEC elite. Above all else, junior forward Johnny O'Bryant III has developed into a stud. He is averaging 15.5 points and nearly eight rebounds per game while connecting on a 50 percent clip from the floor.
ESPN's Jeff Goodman is particularly impressed with O'Bryant's versatility as a scorer:
Johnny O'Bryant doesn't get enough pub. Could well be a late first-rounder come June. Can score in variety of ways in post, step out.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) January 29, 2014
That was on full display during LSU's win over Kentucky as O'Bryant dropped a season-high 29 points and reeled in nine boards. If he can turn in a similar performance or two during the SEC tournament, then the Tigers may go dancing in March.
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