SEC Tournament 2014: Biggest Questions That Will Be Answered in Atlanta

Steven CookFeatured Columnist IVMarch 4, 2014

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The 2014 SEC men's basketball tournament embarks toward Atlanta's Georgia Dome with the potential still alive of only two, maybe three conference teams making the NCAA tournament. But as these teams have shown throughout a wacky regular season, anything can happen.

Well, except Florida losing, of course. 

Other than the Gators' perfect 16-0 record heading into the final week of the season, every team has at least five losses on their league slate. Seven teams are lodged between seven and nine SEC defeats, with three of them (Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas) looking like legitimate candidates for at-large bids. 

The state of the SEC isn't at an all-time high by any means, but there is no shortage of storylines and questions heading into a sure-to-be-eventful SEC tourney that will help to define how many teams from the conference go dancing.


Can Tennessee Burst-Proof Its Bubble Resume?

Mar 1, 2014; Knoxville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers head coach Cuonzo Martin during the first half against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Thompson-Boling Arena. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Volunteers are becoming quite familiar with this whole bubble thing. Head coach Cuonzo Martin finished right on the outside of the tournament field in each of his first two seasons at the helm, and the Vols' postseason status is in limbo once again.

But with Tennessee currently sitting as one of the last four teams in the Big Dance according to ESPN's Joe Lunardi, the Vols could seemingly put a stamp on their NCAA tournament ticket if they finish with a big showing in Atlanta.

Martin said Tennessee isn't worried with the pressure, per the school's official site:

Don't get consumed with all that, but again easier said than done. They read and they see things, but just play the game that we are capable of playing like we did Saturday and like other game with the consistency we are capable of playing with. Everything else will take care of its self. That's the biggest key. If you win, the seeding will take care of itself.

The Vols have suffered through an up-and-down SEC slate, having only strung together two win streaks in conference play—both of which were just two games, and the last of which they are currently on. But if Tennessee closes out the season with wins over Auburn and fellow bubble dweller Missouri, it could incredibly boost its resume heading into Atlanta.

Feb 15, 2014; Columbia, MO, USA; Tennessee Volunteers forward Jeronne Maymon (34) and guard Jordan McRae (52) and guard Antonio Barton (2) talk during the second half at Mizzou Arena. The Missouri Tigers defeated the Tennessee Volunteers 75-70. Mandatory
Dak Dillon-USA TODAY Sports

A 35-point win over Virginia on Dec. 30 is the gift that keeps on giving for the Vols. While the Cavaliers were unranked at the time, they have now won the ACC outright and are one of the top teams in the country. 

With an experience-laden core of Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon, Jarnell Stokes and Antonio Barton, the time is now for Tennessee. That is only amplified by growing pressure from the fanbase, including an online petition of more than 32,000 signees to bring back former coach Bruce Pearl. 

But the Vols could quiet all of that and guarantee their postseason with a strong finish down the stretch. 


Is This Kentucky Team Reminiscent of Last Year's After All?

Feb 27, 2014; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard Aaron Harrison (2) reacts during the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks in the second half at Rupp Arena. Arkansas defeated Kentucky 71-67. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

There was plenty of reason to believe this year would be much, much different for Kentucky basketball. After bringing in arguably the top recruiting class of all time in college basketball (on paper), the expectation was at the level it usually is in Lexington—a perfect season, or at least a Final Four run.

When the season got underway and John Calipari's young crew faced off against many of the nation's top teams in nonconference play, however, things changed. The Wildcats fell down the rankings and struggled to climb their way back into the top 10. 

Kentucky was able to regain its footing when SEC play began, winning nine of its first 11 conference games and proving that the Wildcats wouldn't fall flat on their face down the stretch for the second year in a row. 

But Kentucky has fallen quickly back down to earth. The 'Cats lost two straight, at home against Arkansas and on the road at South Carolina, to turn the pressure back up on Calipari's team.

Even after the two-game skid, Kentucky is still ranked No. 25. But if the Wildcats drop one more to finish the regular season and bow out of the conference tournament early, it could greatly hurt their stock heading into the NCAA tourney. 

This team won't be NIT-bad like last year's, but their play is starting to make folks wonder whether they are capable of making noise in the NCAA tournament. 


How Many NCAA Bids Will the SEC Secure?

Feb 25, 2014; Athens, GA, USA; Missouri Tigers guard Jordan Clarkson (5) tries to dribble past Georgia Bulldogs forward Cameron Forte (11) during the first half at Stegeman Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky and Florida.

Those are the only two teams that would be in the NCAA tournament outright if the season ended today, per Lunardi. Arkansas and Tennessee are listed in play-in games, while Missouri is in the "next four out." 

If the bubble isn't kind to the SEC this season, the conference could very well end up with just two teams in the Big Dance.

But that's not to say that a number of bubble teams can't still make their case.

Arkansas, having swept Kentucky this season, re-admitted its name into the running after starting the conference season slow. Finish the season hot, and the Razorbacks will have no trouble including themselves among the field.

Best-case scenario—the SEC could end up with five teams in. For that to happen, Missouri would have to close out strong and knock a team not named Arkansas or Tennessee off the bubble. 

Missouri travels to face the Vols to close out the regular season—a game which will likely decide which team has more work to do in Atlanta. But regardless, you can bet that each of those three bubble teams will be playing with the mindset that their season is on the line.