The 2014 SEC Tournament features one great team and several wild cards characterized by their season-long inconsistency.
The Florida Gators are not just the top-ranked team in the conference, but also in the country. As such, they enter the SEC tourney as overwhelming favorites, especially with no other teams being ranked.
Nevertheless, the Gators are not invincible, even if they are overwhelming favorites. Wisconsin and UConn delivered Florida its two losses through stifling defense and strong backcourt play. It's a tough formula to follow, and not coincidentally, one that generally correlates with NCAA tournament success.
So which SEC foes are most likely to follow that blueprint and upset the Gators? Here's a look at three potential candidates to steal the conference crown.
With a 20-11 overall record and an 11-7 mark in SEC play, the Vols do not boast a particularly impressive resume. However, the underlying numbers suggest a team that is likely the second best in the conference, and one that could be under-seeded in the NCAA tournament.
Is Tennessee the second-best team in the SEC?
KenPom.com has Tennessee pegged as its 13th-best team in terms of Pythagorean expectation, which is in the same neighborhood as Michigan, Wisconsin and Syracuse. That may not dovetail with mainstream perception, but with a balanced roster, the Vols' lack of significant weaknesses make them a tough challenge.
Tennessee's engine is first-team All-SEC guard Jordan McRae. The senior has taken on a greater offensive burden and leads the team with 18.8 points per game. As Steve Megargee of The Fresno Bee notes, McRae and the Vols have gotten on a roll that should secure a tourney bid:
The Vols have never trailed in any of their last three games. Tennessee has allowed an average of just 54.6 points over its last five.
"We're not walking around saying these are must-win games," McRae said. "We're just telling everybody to just play as hard as we can. If we play as hard as we can and play our games, we feel we can beat anybody."
Before a 25-point loss at Alabama, the Arkansas Razorbacks had been on a roll. The Hogs had won eight of their last nine, including a Feb. 27 overtime win against Kentucky at Rupp Arena.
Should Arkansas still be in the NCAA tourney after losing to Alabama?
Still, the 'Bama loss is devastating for the Razorbacks, who will now likely need a pair of wins in the SEC tournament to crash the Dance. Arkansas plays at the sixth-fastest tempo in the nation according to KenPom, making them a wild card that stands in stark contrast to the slowpoke Gators.
In fact, the Razorbacks have already given Florida trouble this season, as the Gators needed overtime to escape with a 84-82 victory at Fayetteville. If they can again control the tempo and turn the game into one played in the high 70s or low 80s, Arkansas will stand a chance to finish the upset this time.
Of course, no list of SEC challengers would be complete without mentioning the enigmatic Kentucky Wildcats. The Wildcats have lost three of their past four games, and John Calipari's patience is wearing thin:
John Calipari so far clearly sticking to his "be positive" mantra...but this team is making it very hard for him right now— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) March 5, 2014
As always, Kentucky is a young and extremely talented team. In two meetings with Florida, future lottery pick Julius Randle has played well with a pair of double-doubles. However, the rest of the Kentucky roster has struggled offensively, as 27 combined turnovers have sabotaged otherwise respectable shooting performances.
What is more likely for Kentucky?
If there's an area where the Wildcats have a decided advantage, it is on the boards. Kentucky ranks fifth in the country in rebounds per game, led by Randle and freshman Willie Cauley-Stein, while the Gators rank 114th.
Going inside is not the prototypical way to defeat Florida, but it does represent an area Kentucky can exploit. Still, apart from a Dec. 28 win over Louisville, the Wildcats have largely fallen flat in games against top-notch competition, making it hard to trust their talent.