With a group of teams clustered together, the 2016 SEC tournament promises to be an intense battle every single night until a champion is crowned on March 13.
This has been an unusual season in the SEC. Kentucky is usually the dominant team during the regular season, but it took John Calipari's group time to mesh before it looked like a conference title contender. Texas A&M weathered a 1-5 stretch with a strong finish to the regular season.
Vanderbilt, LSU and South Carolina have all battled inconsistency to have a shot at capturing the SEC crown and an automatic NCAA tournament berth.
With the full bracket set, here's how the schedule sets up for this year's SEC tournament, per the SEC:
The 2016 SEC Men's Basketball Tournament seeds are SET! See you in Nashville! #SECMBB https://t.co/nGWGJdE9Xv3/6/2016, 2:31:41 AM
Tournament Favorite: Texas A&M Aggies
The Aggies have slowly started to separate themselves from the SEC pack. They got off to a 7-5 start in conference play before ending the year with six straight wins.
It's impossible to overstate the job head coach Billy Kennedy has done with this program in five years. Texas A&M went from 14 wins in his first season to winning a share of the regular-season conference title.
While this team lacks dynamic talent, it does have great balance with seven players averaging more than six points per game. The Aggies are also an underrated defensive club, ranking 35th in defensive efficiency this season.
Texas A&M's style of play and recruits brought in to execute it is a reflection of Kennedy's vision when he took over the program, per Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated:
One way to be that good: Tap into the state of Texas' fertile recruiting ground, which was Kennedy's primary objective when he arrived from Murray State. ...
Now, Kennedy says, he can pitch the idea of chasing championships to top-shelf prospects. Nine of the consensus top-100 recruits for the Class of 2015 were from Texas; and Kennedy and his staff signed four of them. One, 6' 10" center Tyler Davis, from Plano, is the team's third-leading scorer (10.9 points per game).
Kentucky will always be the SEC's recruiting power because of its long history as well as Calipari's ability to promise virtually anyone who steps through his doors at least a shot at NBA glory.
Texas A&M has proven this season that it doesn't need to win national signing day to be successful in the SEC. The Aggies have had clear peaks and valleys this season, but they have momentum and experience on their side.
Underrated Contender: LSU Tigers
Admittedly, it's hard to justify calling LSU "underrated" because there aren't many 18-13 teams that get more national coverage. That's one of the main perks to having Ben Simmons, presumably the No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft, on the roster.
But looking at LSU heading into the SEC tournament, it needs a strong week to secure a spot in the Big Dance.
In his most recent Bracketology update, ESPN's Joe Lunardi had LSU among the "first four out" group. That leaves the Tigers with a lot of work to do, as they need to climb seven teams right now before factoring in conference tournament upsets that leave even less at-large spots available.
Expanding on that placement, Lunardi wrote on Feb. 29 that LSU's current tournament odds program (T.O.P.) rating was at 35 percent or lower, meaning it needs "a really big finish and/or deep conference-tournament run."
Even though Simmons' presence hasn't completely changed the Tigers' fortune this season, there's evidence to suggest they are capable of getting hot at the right time. They are a respectable 3-2 against the RPI top 50 this season.
No team will ever acknowledge that a loss is good, but LSU did prove it was capable of standing toe-to-toe against elite competition in a 77-75 defeat against Oklahoma. That will be the biggest black mark against the Tigers if they don't get in, because they led that game by as many as 13 points in the second half.
A recent three-game losing streak against Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas may have sealed LSU's fate. The Tigers don't have a deep roster, but they do have five players averaging double-figures in scoring.
As long as LSU's defense, which ranks 287th in points allowed, plays well enough to keep its opponents at bay long enough to allow the offense to do its thing, this is a dangerous group.
Championship Prediction: Kentucky Wildcats
Try as I might to ignore the Wildcats, their pull in the SEC tournament is just too strong. In the battle of resumes, Texas A&M looks better than Kentucky because the Wildcats have the worst loss against Auburn, ranked 154th in the RPI.
Even when the Aggies were going through their rough stretch in the middle of the season, their worst loss came against No. 124 Arkansas. Neither defeat is something a tournament team should brag about, but Texas A&M's doesn't look as bad as Kentucky's.
Looking at marquee victories between the two teams, things are identical. Kentucky is 11-6 against the RPI top 100; Texas A&M is 11-6, including a perfect 4-0 against top 25 teams.
In their only head-to-head meeting during the regular season, Texas A&M got a controversial 79-77 overtime win against Kentucky when Isaac Humphries had a technical foul called against him for slamming the ball down.
Texas A&M's Tyler Davis made a putback layup with one second remaining for a dramatic win, but it did nothing to provide any real separation between the two teams.
Kentucky is starting to hit its stride, particularly in the backcourt with Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray, as noted by Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports:
But right now, the only way any logical compass can point when it comes to this topic (best backcourt in the nation) is towards Kentucky and that was only reiterated by the way Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray played in Tuesday night's 88-79 win at Florida.
The duo combined for 40 points, 15 assists, and 12 rebounds against the Gators and continue to complement each other like Al Pacino and Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco.
Throw in Isaiah Briscoe's 13 points, three assist, three-rebound performance in a supporting role and you've got a trio that's built to compete against anybody.
Talent is never a problem at Kentucky. Calipari will occasionally need time to find the right blend with his lineup to make everything work, as he has this season, but the Wildcats are capable of making a Connecticut-circa-2014 run in March because of that talent.
With Ulis, Murray and Briscoe finding their groove at the right time, Kentucky is on its way to a second straight SEC tournament title.
Stats and RPI Rankings per ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.
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