The No. 1-ranked Florida Gators will enter the SEC men's basketball tournament with a target on their backs after going 18-0 through conference play this season.
Aside from the Gators, the Kentucky Wildcats are viewed as the conference's only locks, while Tennessee and Arkansas need to finish strong in this tournament to earn their invites to March Madness.
The entire five-day event will take place at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and gets started on Wednesday with two contests. Here's a look at the entire schedule with viewing info and a few teams to watch once the action gets underway.
|1||Wed., 3/12||7 p.m.||(12) Auburn||(13) South Carolina||SEC||ESPN3|
|2||Wed., 3/12||TBD||(11) Vandy||(14) Miss. State||SEC||ESPN3|
|3||Thu., 3/13||1 p.m.||(8) Missouri||(9) Texas A&M||SEC||ESPN3|
|4||Thu., 3/13||TBD||G1 Winner||(5) Arkansas||SEC||ESPN3|
|5||Thu., 3/13||7 p.m.||(7) LSU||(10) Alabama||SEC||ESPN3|
|6||Thu., 3/13||TBD||G2 Winner||(6) Ole Miss||SEC||ESPN3|
|7||Fri., 3/14||1 p.m.||G3 Winner||(1) Florida||ESPNU||N/A|
|8||Fri., 3/14||TBD||G4 Winner||(4) Tennessee||ESPNU||N/A|
|9||Fri., 3/14||7 p.m.||G5 Winner||(2) Kentucky||SEC||ESPN3|
|10||Fri., 3/14||TBD||G6 Winner||(3) Georgia||SEC||ESPN3|
|11||Sat., 3/15||1 p.m.||G7 Winner||G8 Winner||ABC||N/A|
|12||Sat., 3/15||TBD||G9 Winner||G10 Winner||ABC||N/A|
|13||Sun., 3/16||3:15 p.m.||G11 Winner||G12 Winner||ESPN||N/A|
*TBD games will start 25 minutes after the end of the previous contest.
Favorites: (1) Florida, (2) Kentucky
As the top-ranked team in the country, the Gators are also the heavy odds-on favorite to be hoisting the trophy on Sunday evening following the championship game.
Florida (29-2, 18-0) suffered a pair of losses to a couple of quality teams in Wisconsin (59-53) and UConn (65-64), but also rolled past Kansas and Memphis before going undefeated in league play. As Dana O'Neil of ESPN.com pointed out, the Gators have been led by a core of seniors during this dominant regular-season run:
It is worth noting, as well as impossible to ignore, that, in a year and a sport dominated by freshmen, Florida succeeded with and because of seniors. Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young already have racked up 113 wins in their career, with two tournaments left to break the school record (117).
“When you invest four years like these guys have invested, it means something to them," Florida coach Billy Donovan said after his team's season-finale win against Kentucky.
On the flip side of things, Kentucky coach John Calipari has built his reputation as the king of one-and-done players. This season was no different, as his team was the preseason No. 1 team in the country behind a hyped class of freshmen.
While Kentucky (22-9, 12-6) has gone through some growing pains, the talent of youngsters like SEC Freshman of the Year Julius Randle is undeniable after averaging a team-high 15.4 points and 10.5 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the field.
Kentucky's Julius Randle named SEC Freshman of the Year pic.twitter.com/TzBFxdd6RG— Craig Pinkerton (@SEC_Craig) March 11, 2014
Ben Roberts of the Lexington Herald-Leader noted that Randle is the fifth straight Wildcat to win the award, joining Nerlens Noel, Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and DeMarcus Cousins—all of which are now in the NBA.
These two teams have shown there are different ways to go about success and it wouldn't be a surprise to see them duke it out for the SEC tournament title on Sunday.
Bubble Teams: (4) Tennessee, (5) Arkansas
In his latest NCAA tournament bracket projections, Joe Lunardi of ESPN listed Tennessee and Arkansas as two of his last four teams to make the cut.
The Vols (20-11, 11-7) enter with a bit of momentum following two blowout victories, including a 72-45 home victory over Missouri on Saturday. Eamonn Brennan of ESPN.com analyzed Tennessee's status heading into the conference tournament:
Can we call Tennessee's drubbing of Missouri on Saturday an eye test special? Margin of victory doesn't factor in the RPI, and it isn't a tournament criteria in any way, but it would have been impossible for a committee member to watch the Vols' 72-45 win and not be at least a little bit impressed. UT has had its fair share of disappointing results this season, and the Vols have found themselves lacking quality wins after getting swept by Florida and lacking a return game against Kentucky. But they might make up for that -- and maybe then some -- in the SEC tournament later this week.
There's a major possibility that these two bubble teams will face each other on Friday. As the No. 5 seed, Arkansas (21-10, 10-8) will await the winner of Wednesday's Auburn/South Carolina matchup.
Regardless of who wins, the Razorbacks should be able to advance to the quarterfinals, where they would face Tennessee in a crucial matchup for both teams.
As it stands now, Tennessee is ranked No. 43 by ESPN.com's Ratings Percentage Index while Arkansas is No. 57. Whoever reaches the semifinals in that portion of the bracket is set up for a date with Florida.
Arkansas truly entered the at-large discussion on Feb. 27 when it beat Kentucky on the road, 71-67, to sweep the two-game season series between the two schools. However, the Razorbacks and Vols could both use a little padding on their respective resumes in the unpredictable landscape of at-large bids.
Sleepers: (3) Georgia, (9) Missouri
Last year's No. 3 seed (Ole Miss) went on to win the SEC tournament, but Georgia faces a tough task this time around.
Still, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy recently said that he sees a lot of the similar qualities between this year's Georgia team and his squad last year. Chip Towers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shared comments Kennedy made on a conference call with reporters.
Last year we can in somewhat of a similar mode. They’re playing as well as anybody. With a hard-fought win at LSU in the last game, I’m sure they’ve got a lot of momentum and a lot of confidence. With the tournament being in their home state, I’m sure they’ll be a lot of Bulldogs in the building.
The Bulldogs (18-12, 12-6) might be the No. 3 seed in this field, but check in at No. 75 in the RPI due in large part to an 0-6 mark against top-50 RPI teams this season.
Of Georgia's dozen wins against conference foes, none of them came against top competition, as the team lost to Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee by an average margin of 18.7 points per game.
However, the Bulldogs—a well-balanced unit with no superstars—do have notable road wins against LSU and Missouri to take pride in.
As mentioned before, Missouri's regular season finished in disappointing fashion with a big loss to Tennessee. The Tigers (9-9, 21-10) were also defeated by Florida and Kentucky, with their only wins against top-50 RPI teams coming against UCLA and Tennessee earlier in the year.
Mizzou's Jabari Brown named first-team All-SEC by coaches. Jordan Clarkson named to second team— Dave Matter (@Dave_Matter) March 11, 2014
Still, Mizzou has a talented trio of leading scorers in Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Ernest Ross that has the ability to score in bunches.
Anything can happen once you reach March in a tournament setting in college basketball, but these two teams will have a lot of obstacles to clear if they want to win the SEC title.