SEC Tournament 2017: Preview and Predictions for Every Team

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2017

SEC Tournament 2017: Preview and Predictions for Every Team

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    Ron Irby/Associated Press

    The Southeastern Conference tournament, which starts Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee, could feature a classic championship game if Florida and Kentucky get there as expected.

    A lot can happen in the meantime, though, as teams jockey for position in hopes of landing an NCAA tournament berth. Three SEC teams (Kentucky, Florida and South Carolina) seem to have NCAA tournament berths locked up, based on the latest projections by ESPN.com, CBSSports.com and USA Today. A fourth SEC team, Arkansas, is likely to get a bid, too, while Vanderbilt may need a win or two in the SEC tournament to be certain of inclusion.

    However, teams such as Georgia and Alabama still have hopes of participating in March Madness and are capable of springing the upsets that will get them there.

    The top four teams in the SEC standings get double byes directly into the quarterfinals, while the bottom four teams would need to win five games in five days to win the conference tournament.

    To help you sort through this 14-team tournament, we provide a look at each team, its place in the bracket and its chance for success.

    Teams are presented in inverse order of their seeding, with the top seed listed last.

     

    All game times are Eastern time, although Nashville is in the Central time zone.

14. Missouri

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    First Matchup: No. 11 Auburn (Wednesday, approximately 9:30 p.m.)

    Prediction: Lose its opening game

    Missouri (7-23, 2-16) is as bad as it was last season and might be the worst team from a power conference. But at least the Tigers get to play in the conference tournament this year after missing last season's SEC tournament because the school imposed a postseason ban on itself for NCAA violations. Kim Anderson will be stepping down as head coach after the conclusion of this season.

    The Tigers have company at the bottom of the SEC standings this time, finishing tied with LSU for last place. That doesn't make Missouri's tournament prospects any brighter, though.

    Missouri comes into the tournament having lost its last six games, and it had a school-record 13-game losing streak earlier in the season that included home losses to Eastern Illinois and Lipscomb. 

    The Tigers offense is feeble. They rank 338th among the 347 Division I schools in field-goal percentage, at 39.3 percent. The only two players who were making more than half their shots are gone; Mitchell Smith has been sidelined since early January with a knee injury, and freshman Willie Jackson left the team with the intention of transferring.

    One speck of optimism for the Tigers' chances is provided by their inexplicable victories over Arkansas and Vanderbilt, two teams in contention for NCAA tournament berths. Don't be fooled; those are Missouri's only two victories since Dec. 6.

    Missouri lost both regular-season games to Auburn, including an 11-point loss to the Tigers on Saturday. There is no reason believe things will change on Wednesday.

13. LSU

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    First Matchup: No. 12 Mississippi State (Wednesday, 7 p.m.)

    Prediction: Lose its opening game

    LSU (10-20, 2-16) finished 11-7 in the conference and failed to make the NCAA tournament last season when it had Ben Simmons. So it may not be a major surprise that the Tigers have sunk to the bottom of the conference without him.

    The Tigers halted a school-record 15-game losing streak by beating Tennessee in their next-to-last game on Wednesday. But they reverted to form three days later when they lost their final regular-season game to Mississippi State. LSU lost both games against Mississippi State by double-digit margins, and a similar result should be expected Wednesday.

    A mediocre LSU season got worse when Craig Victor, who averaged 10.5 points and a team-leading 7.6 rebounds, was dismissed from the team in late December.

    Guard Antonio Blakeney is a strong offensive player who scored 20 points or more in six of the last eight games. What is strange, though, is that his production has not correlated with team success. He had one of his worst games in the Tigers' only win since Jan. 4, collecting six points on 2-of-12 shooting against Tennessee. The Tigers' victory over Old Dominion was also one of the few high points of the season, and Blakeney scored four points on 2-of-9 shooting with six turnovers in that game.

    A bigger issue for the Tigers is defense or, rather, the lack of it. They rank near the very bottom nationally in both scoring defense, yielding 83.1 points per game, and field-goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot 47.2 percent from the field.

    Unless LSU wins the SEC tournament, Tigers coach Johnny Jones is unlikely to keep his job, as hinted by Ron Higgins of the New Orleans Times-Picayune

12. Mississippi State

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    First Matchup: No. 13 LSU (Wednesday, 7 p.m.)

    Prediction: Lose its second game

    There was a point in mid-January when it looked like Ben Howland had turned Mississippi State (15-15, 6-12) into an NCAA team and possibly into an SEC title contender. Heading to its Jan. 17 game against Kentucky, the Bulldogs were 12-4 overall and 3-1 in the SEC. But things fell apart, and Mississippi State lost 11 of its final 14 games.

    As disappointing as the season was, it could have been worse. On Nov. 21, the school announced that Quinndary Weatherspoon, the team's best player, would miss the rest of the season with torn ligaments in his wrist, per ESPN.com. But a week later, he was playing again, as noted by the Clarion-Ledger.

    Even with Weatherspoon, the Bulldogs will not go far. They had lost seven games in a row before feasting on LSU in the regular-season finale. Thanks to the lack of talent at the bottom of the conference, Mississippi State has a good chance to win its opening game of the SEC tournament. That assumes Weatherspoon's sprained ankle is sufficiently healed. He sat out Tuesday's game against South Carolina but was back for Saturday's victory.

    Even if Weatherspoon is not 100 percent, the Bulldogs should get past LSU, a team Mississippi State beat twice by double-digit margins this season. Mississippi State has a chance to beat Alabama in the second round, but two losses to the Crimson Tide during the season suggest that will be the end of the line for the Bulldogs.

11. Auburn

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    First Matchup: No. 14 Missouri (Wednesday, approximately 9:30 p.m.)

    Prediction: Lose its second game

    Auburn (18-13, 7-11) is considerably better in its third year under Bruce Pearl than it was last season, when it went 11-20. The improvement is the direct result of recruiting, as the Tigers' top four scorers this season are freshmen. The best of those freshmen is Mustapha Heron, who leads the team in scoring (15.0 points per game) and rebounding (5.9 rebounds) and has made 40.4 percent of his three-point shots.

    The Tigers' best wins are road victories over Alabama and TCU, but they are not coming into the SEC tournament with a full head of steam. Auburn's only wins in its final seven games came against SEC weaklings LSU and Missouri.

    The Tigers score a lot of points (80 points per game), make a lot of three-pointers (nine per game) and block a lot of shots (five per game). They also give up a lot of points (79.4) and turn the ball over quite a bit (13.5). It's all the things you would expect from a team that is athletic and talented—but young and inexperienced.

    The Tigers have too much talent for Missouri, a team Auburn beat twice this season, and they might get past Mississippi as well, even though the Rebels beat Auburn twice in close games this season. Inexperience at crunch time may doom Auburn in that game, however.

10. Texas A&M

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    First Matchup: No. 7 Vanderbilt (Thursday, 7 p.m.)

    Prediction: Lose its opening game

    Texas A&M (16-14, 8-10) lost both games to Vanderbilt this season, but the Aggies played the Commodores tough in the Feb. 16 contest at Vanderbilt. That game was tied with four minutes to go before the Aggies lost by six.

    The Aggies have played pretty well lately, winning three of their final five games and giving Kentucky a challenge before losing in the finale.

    Texas A&M is a good defensive team, in large part because it blocks so many shots, ranking eighth nationally in blocks per game (5.6). The main shot-blocker is Robert Williams, who averages 2.53 swats per game and blocked at least four shots nine times.

    Center Tyler Davis has had some big games against good opponents, collecting 23 points and 10 rebounds against Arizona and 19 points and 18 rebounds against West Virginia. The Aggies lost both games, though. He scored 25 and 18 points in the two games against Vanderbilt, and the Aggies dropped both of those, too.

    Texas A&M's defense will not be enough for the Aggies to get past a hot Vanderbilt team.

9. Tennessee

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    Brianna Paciorka-USA TODAY Sports

    First Matchup: No. 8 Georgia (Thursday, 1 p.m.)

    Prediction: Lose its opening game

    That Tennessee victory over Kentucky on Jan. 24 makes you wonder whether the Volunteers (16-15, 8-10) can muster similar performances for a few consecutive games in Nashville.

    However, the Vols have not played particularly well lately, losing five of their final seven games. They were a contender for an NCAA tournament at-large berth a few weeks ago, but now they may need to win the SEC tournament to get in. That is not likely to happen.

    Robert Hubbs III, the Vols' best player, had arthroscopic knee surgery in December, according to an Associated Press report, but has not missed any games. It may be catching up to him, though. He scored just 14 points in the final two regular-season games combined, hitting just five of 20 shots in those two contests. He does not seem to be the player he was when he scored 25 points in the win over Kentucky.

    Hubbs scored just 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting in the Vols' one-point home loss to Georgia in the teams' only meeting this season. And the Bulldogs have played better down the stretch that Tennessee.

    The Vols overcame a 16-point deficit to beat Alabama 59-54 in the finale on Saturday, and that might give them a boost of energy. But it is not enough to win more than one game at most.

8. Georgia

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    First Matchup: No. 9 Tennessee (Thursday, 1 p.m.)

    Prediction: Lose in the quarterfinals

    Georgia (18-13, 9-9) is a team to watch this week because the Bulldogs may do something special. They should be motivated because a few good wins this week could lift Georgia into the NCAA tournament. Winning the conference tournament is unlikely, but not out of the question.

    Georgia is better than its record suggests. It was on the cusp of several quality wins this season but came up just short each time. The Bulldogs took both Kentucky and Florida to overtime in losses on the road, and they lost to South Carolina by two points on the road as well. In the home game against Kentucky, the Bulldogs led Kentucky by two with less than two minutes left before losing by five.

    No team in the country has a more impressive collection of good losses, if there is such a thing.

    The Bulldogs have played well lately, winning five of their last seven games. One of those losses was the close defeat against Kentucky, although the 18-point loss at Arkansas in the final regular-season game was not encouraging.

    The Bulldogs finished strong despite the absence of Yante Maten, who averages 18.7 points per game but has missed the past four games after suffering sprained knee in the opening minutes of the game against Kentucky, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It is uncertain whether he will return for the SEC tournament, according to the Athens Banner-Herald.

    J.J. Frazier, the team's other star, has more than made up for Maten's absence with his standout play lately. In the five games Maten missed, including the Kentucky contest, Frazier has averaged 29.6 points.

    With or without Maten, the Bulldogs should beat Tennessee, and they might upset Kentucky in the quarterfinals as well. That is virtually a tossup game, and we are going with the Wildcats simply because they will be rested.

7. Vanderbilt

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    First Matchup: No. 10 Texas A&M (Thursday, 7 p.m.)

    Prediction: Lose in the quarterfinals

    Vanderbilt (17-14, 10-8) may be the sleeper of the Southeastern Conference tournament for three reasons.

    First and foremost, the Commodores are playing their best basketball of the season right now. They have won five of their last six games, including victories over South Carolina and Florida. Their only loss in that span was a six-point road loss against Kentucky, a game Vanderbilt led by 12 points with 15 minutes to go.

    Secondly, the Commodores will be hungry because they may need a win or two this week to ensure a berth in the NCAA tournament as they cling to a spot on the bubble. Their two wins over Florida may be enough, but the at-large bubble could shrink based on results in other conference tournaments.

    The final reason for optimism is that the SEC tournament is being played in Nashville. Though Bridgestone Arena is not the Commodores' home court, playing in their hometown presumably will give them an edge.

    Scratch that third reason. The SEC tournament was played at Bridgestone Arena each of the past two years, and Vanderbilt lost its opening game to a lower seeded team both years.

    However, Vanderbilt's recent play is enough to make it an SEC tournament title contender. No specific player has carried the team recently, although 7'1" Luke Kornet scored 21 and 24 points in the final two games against Kentucky and Florida. The Commodores are making plays at crunch time and winning close games, although that 20-point loss to Missouri on Feb. 11 indicates Vanderbilt has flaws.

    The Commodores should win their opener against Texas A&M, a team they beat twice this season, but beating Florida for a third time in the quarterfinals is a lot to ask. 

6. Mississippi

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    First Matchup: No. 11 Auburn/No. 14 Missouri winner (Thursday, approximately 9:30 p.m.)

    Prediction: Lose in the quarterfinals

    Mississippi (19-12, 10-8) won both games this season against Auburn, the Rebels' likely opponent, although both games were close. In fact, the Rebels have played a ton of close games this season and done well in them, going 9-3 in their 12 games decided by five points or less. That ability to perform well in the clutch should serve them well in the conference tournament.

    Mississippi went 7-3 over their final 10 games, with the best of those wins being a road victory against Vanderbilt and a home win over South Carolina in the regular-season finale.

    Their biggest asset is their ability to get to the foul line and make free throws when they get there. The Rebels lead the nation in free throws made and average 26.5 made foul shots per game. Mississippi made 51 foul shots in its two games against Auburn.

    Mississippi has one significant problem, though. Deandre Burnett, the team's leading scorer at 16.5 points per game, did not play in Saturday's victory over South Carolina because of a leg injury, and it's uncertain whether he will play in the Rebels' SEC tournament opener on Thursday, according to the Oxford Eagle.

    The Rebels should win their opening game, with or without Burnett. But they will probably lose to an Arkansas team that has played well lately and beat Mississippi by 18 points in their only regular-season meeting.

5. Alabama

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    First Matchup: No. 12 Mississippi State/No. 13 LSU winner (Thursday, approximately 3:30 p.m.)

    Prediction: Lose in the semifinals

    Alabama (17-13, 10-8) lacks star players, instead relying on depth, with 10 players averaging more than 11 minutes of playing time per game. That includes Shannon Hale, who has not played since being suspended on Feb. 18 but might return for the conference tournament, according to Al.com. He is not a critical component, however.

    The Crimson Tide have a road win over South Carolina and a home win over Vanderbilt on their resume, but they probably need to reach the SEC tournament final to earn an NCAA tournament berth and may need to win it. That is a little beyond Alabama's capabilities.

    Alabama lost three of its final four games, and none of those three losses was against a team that finished with a winning SEC record. 

    The Tide are a good defensive team that limits opponents to 39.9 percent shooting, and they rebound well. However, they lack the offensive weapons needed to get to the SEC final. Alabama averages just 68.4 points per game on 42.1 percent shooting overall and 31.5 percent on three-pointers. That's good enough to beat either Mississippi State or LSU in their opener, and it may be good enough to pull an upset in the quarterfinals against sagging South Carolina, a team Alabama beat on the road in quadruple overtime.

    Because Alabama is the beneficiary of a favorable draw, it could find itself in the semifinals of the SEC tournament, only to get swatted aside by Kentucky at that point.

4. South Carolina

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    Sean Rayford/Associated Press

    First Matchup: No. 5 Alabama/No. 12 Mississippi State/No. 13 LSU winner (Friday, approximately 3:30 p.m.)

    Prediction: Lose in the quarterfinals

    South Carolina (22-9, 12-6) was outstanding through most of the season, but its recent struggles are reminiscent of last season's late-season decline.

    The Gamecocks were 19-4 overall and 9-1 in the conference at one point, but they lost a four-overtime home game to Alabama on Feb. 7 that seemed to mark a turning point in the wrong direction. The Gamecocks went 3-5 over their final eight games.

    Before playing Mississippi in their regular-season finale, South Carolina players suggested in a report by David Cloninger of The State that they needed one more win just to be absolutely certain of getting to the Big Dance. 

    They didn't get it, losing to Mississippi.

    Three prominent projection sites (ESPN.com, CBSSports.com and USA Today) all have the Gamecocks comfortably in the NCAA tournament field, with none giving them a seed lower than eight. Nonetheless, South Carolina had a better record last season (24-8 after losing its SEC tournament opener) when the Gamecocks were left out of the NCAA field.

    The Gamecocks are an outstanding defensive team, limiting opponents to 39.6 percent shooting. They also have a star in Sindarius Thornwell, who is averaging 21.2 points and has scored more than 20 points in seven of the last eight games. They could win their first game and get to the semifinals, but we expect the late-season woes to continue with a loss in their first game.

    South Carolina will still get into the NCAA tournament.

3. Arkansas

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    First Matchup: No. 6 Alabama/No. 11 Auburn/No. 14 Missouri winner (Friday, approximately 9:30 p.m.)

    Prediction: Lose in the semifinals

    Arkansas (23-8, 12-6) may have assured itself an NCAA tournament berth with a strong late-season surge, but it would do well to win a game or two this week to make sure.

    The Razorbacks' recent play makes them a threat to win the SEC tournament. They won six of their final seven games, with their only loss being a road defeat against Florida.

    Center Moses Kingsley is starting to play like the preseason SEC player of the year was expected to play. His scoring average of 12.0 points is down nearly four points per game from last season, and his rebounding average of 7.8 is more than one rebound per game less. However, in the final two games, Kingsley averaged 16.0 points and 9.0 rebounds.

    The wild card is Daryl Macon, who has been coming off the bench in recent games. He can be great, as he was when he scored 30 points against Mississippi and 22 against Florida, or he can disappear, as he did when he went scoreless against Oklahoma State and tallied three points against Georgia.

    Arkansas beat its likely quarterfinal opponent, Mississippi, by 18 points in their only meeting this season. The Razorbacks should get to the SEC tournament semifinals, but losing its three regular-season games against SEC kingpins Kentucky and Florida by a combined margin of 48 points indicates Arkansas may be incapable of beating either of those teams.

2. Florida

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    First Matchup: No. 7 Vanderbilt/No. 10 Texas A&M winner (Friday, 7 p.m.)

    Prediction: Lose in tournament final 

    A Florida-Kentucky title game seems to be looming, and it will be an intriguing contest if that matchup materializes. The teams split the season series, each winning on its home floor, but the Gators' 22-point beatdown of Kentucky back on Feb. 4 is one of the most impressive wins by any team in the country this season.

    Florida's two-point loss to Vanderbilt in the Gators' final regular-season game is a bit worrisome since it was Florida's second loss to the Commodores this season. But that defeat can be explained away by the fact that Vanderbilt was at home and needed the game a lot more than Florida did in terms of inclusion in the NCAA tournament.

    Before that, Florida had won 11 of 12 games, beating Kentucky, South Carolina and Arkansas by double-digit margins in that stretch, and losing only to Kentucky on the road.

    KeVaughn Allen and sixth man Canyon Barry are the Gators' offensive stars, and Allen averaged 18.8 points over his final four games. But Florida's calling card is defense. The Gators allow opponents to shoot just 40.2 percent overall and just 30.2 percent from long range. Kentucky shot just 37.7 percent in its loss to Florida, and Arkansas shot just 35.6 percent in its late-season defeat.

    Vanderbilt, Florida's likely quarterfinal opponent, will obviously be a handful since the Commodores won both regular-season meetings and match up well with the Gators. Florida will be ready this time, though.

    Arkansas could provide a challenge for Florida in the semifinals, but the Gators won both regular-season games against the Razorbacks. The problem will be Kentucky in the title game. That shapes up as a toss-up, with Florida falling a point or two short.

1. Kentucky

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    First Matchup: No. 8 Georgia/No. 9 Tennessee (Friday, 1 p.m.)

    Prediction: Win SEC tournament 

    The pick to win the SEC tournament might have been Florida, had it not been for Kentucky's victory over Texas A&M in the final regular-season game. The fact that Kentucky controlled the entire game on the Aggies' home floor was significant, but more important was the way the Wildcats did it, winning rather comfortably despite a horrible game by Malik Monk.

    Monk had scored in double figures in every game to that point and was coming off a 33-point game against Florida and a 27-point game against Vanderbilt. But against Texas A&M, he was just 2-of-10 from the field, including 0-of-4 from three-point range, for a measly six points. Yet, the Wildcats still won by eight after carrying a 13-point lead into the final minute.

    That showed something about the Kentucky team as a whole, namely that it does not need Monk to have a great game to survive.

    Since its humbling 22-point loss to Florida, Kentucky has won eight in a row, including a 10-point home win over Florida when Wildcats freshman point guard De'Aaron Fox was out with a knee injury. Fox is back and is starting to be a deep threat, making four of seven three-pointers in his final three games. His 19-point, one-turnover game in the finale against Texas A&M was one of his most complete games.

    Bam Adebayo became a bigger factor down the stretch, averaging 17.3 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks over the final four games.

    Offense remains the Wildcats' strength, ranking fifth nationally in scoring at 86.8 points per game. But the Wildcats have improved defensively. None of their final four opponents shot better than 45 percent, and Florida was limited to 36.6 percent shooting.

    Florida proved it has the ability to beat Kentucky, but not the way the Wildcats are playing now.