The SEC won't graduate any top seeds into the NCAA tournament, but a lack of juggernauts only adds to the conference tournament's intrigue.
Other major conferences will churn out six or seven tournament contestants, but the selection committee could limit the crop of SEC representatives to as few as four. As LSU, Alabama and Florida teeter on the bubble, this 13-team tournament—Missouri is ineligible because of a self-imposed postseason ban—could force a March Madness bracket rewrite.
Even those harboring grander aspirations could use a conference crown to boost their seeding. With Kentucky no longer running roughshod over college hoops, the door is wide open for a new SEC champion to emerge.
After examining the full schedule with bracket projections, let's look at three of the most interesting teams competing for conference supremacy in Nashville, Tennessee.
|2016 Men's Basketball SEC Tournament Predictions|
|First Round: Wednesday, March 9||7 p.m.||SEC Network||Game 1 - No. 12 Mississippi State vs. No. 13 Auburn||Mississippi State|
|Second Round: Thursday, March 10||Noon||SEC Network||Game 2 - No. 9 Arkansas vs. No. 8 Ole Miss||Arkansas|
|TBD||SEC Network||Game 3 - No. 12 Mississippi State vs. No. 5 LSU||LSU|
|6 p.m.||SEC Network||Game 4 - No. 10 Georgia vs. No. 7 Florida||Georgia|
|TBD||SEC Network||Game 5 - No. 11 Tennessee vs. No. 6 Alabama||Alabama|
|Third Round: March 11||Noon||SEC Network||Game 6 - No. 9 Arkansas vs. No. 1 Texas A&M||Texas A&M|
|TBD||SEC Network||Game 7 - No. 5 LSU vs. No. 4 South Carolina||LSU|
|6 p.m.||SEC Network||Game 8 - No. 10 Georgia vs. No. 2 Kentucky||Kentucky|
|TBD||SEC Network||Game 9 - No. 6 Alabama vs. No. 3 Vanderbilt||Vanderbilt|
|Semifinals: March 12||Noon||ESPN||Game 10 - No. 5 LSU vs. No. 1 Texas A&M||Texas A&M|
|TBD||ESPN||Game 11 - No. 3 Vanderbilt vs. No. 2 Kentucky||Kentucky|
|Finals: March 13||Noon||ESPN||Game 12 - No. 1 Texas A&M vs. No. 2 Kentucky||Kentucky|
|SECSports.com, author's predictions|
Unless the LSU Tigers capture their first SEC title since 1980, the NCAA tournament will likely transpire without Ben Simmons.
In his latest bracket projections, ESPN.com's Joe Lunardi has the 18-12 Tigers sitting out March Madness. Such an outcome would rob the proceedings of Simmons, a prominent top-pick candidate for the upcoming NBA draft.
FiveThirtyEight's Neil Paine examined top prospects' recent tournament history to highlight the outlier of the nation's premier talent not partaking:
And, sure enough, in the 15 years before Simmons only one No. 1 prospect was on a team that missed the NCAA Tournament: Nerlens Noel, in 2012-13. The other 92 percent of No. 1s at least got to the round of 64, and even Noel’s case comes with a huge asterisk. Before Noel was lost for the season with a knee injury, his Kentucky team was on the bubble at 17-6, but improving; afterward, the Wildcats closed out the season 4-5 and stamped a nonrefundable ticket to the NIT.
Don't blame the star freshman, who leads his squad in points, field-goal percentage, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. Per Sports-Reference.com, he also leads the conference in player efficiency rating (PER) and win shares while boasting the highest plus-minus.
The Tigers, however, lack a proper supporting cast. They have particularly struggled on the defensive end, relinquishing 76.8 points per game with a 104.3 defensive rating.
"Simmons can change, alter or block so many shots, but he doesn't do it often enough," an unnamed coach told ESPN Insider Jeff Goodman.
But there's hope, as the Tigers have already defeated Kentucky, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt, the SEC tournament's probable top three seeds. LSU is capable of surviving the gauntlet, but it's more likely to falter against Texas A&M or Kentucky's high-powered offense.
Experience and great guards have long existed as popular tropes for tournament success. That's good news for Texas A&M, which wields plenty of both in the backcourt.
Seniors Jalen Jones and Danuel House lead the way with 15.7 and 15.4 points per game, respectively. Alex Caruso and Anthony Collins, another pair of senior guards, have guided the team to 17.3 total assists per contest. Combining a pair of lengthy attackers and savvy ball distributors gives the Aggies great depth, which they have ridden to a 23-7 record and the No. 20 RPI rank.
Their veteran leadership especially pays off on defense, where they have allowed an SEC-low 65.8 points per bout. Experience, depth and defensive fortitude are all excellent qualities that usually foster stability. The Aggies, however, have undergone dramatic peaks and valleys.
After rattling off 11 straight victories earlier in the season, they promptly suffered five losses, all to SEC foes, in a six-game stretch. They have since righted the ship, registering five consecutive wins. Suddenly, they're again perched in the driver's seat.
With a victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday afternoon, the Aggies can fend off the Wildcats for the SEC regular-season crown. Having already lost to Vanderbilt, LSU and South Carolina, a No. 1 or 2 seed won't protect them from an uncomfortable semifinals showdown either away.
Yet it's the possible final battle—a rematch from a February overtime thriller—that proves the most problematic.
This isn't the typical Kentucky powerhouse battling for an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed. After falling to No. 22 in the latest AP poll, the Wildcats need a strong finish to secure a No. 4 slot. Even if they don't enter the proceedings as the prohibitive favorite, they're a strong bet to seize their 29th SEC title.
Head coach John Calipari's newest batch of freshmen hasn't lived up to last year's group. Anything other than world domination would have been a letdown to chasing perfection, so eight losses feels like way too many. Yet there's hardly cause for panic in Lexington.
The Wildcats rank No. 13 in RPI and No. 11 in KenPom.com's team ratings, both SEC bests. Led by the scorching-hot Jamal Murray, their 113.9 offensive rating rates No. 22 in the NCAA. At this pace, they might possess the SEC's most prolific freshman.
With the spotlight shining on Simmons, Murray has scored over 20 points in each of the last nine games while draining 40 of his 80 three-point attempts. After Murray exploded for 33 points in a losing effort at Vanderbilt, ESPN Stats & Info put his offensive outburst into perspective:
That's saying something considering he plays for a notorious one-and-done factory that has temporarily hosted several future NBA stars. It also reflects the program's atypical lack of depth, which will cause problems if Murray cools down. That doesn't appear like it will happen anytime soon.
On Feb. 21, Kentucky suffered a two-point overtime loss to Texas A&M without senior Alex Poythress. If Calipari's club again shoots 50 percent from the floor while limiting the other side to a 38.9 field-goal percentage, expect a different outcome for the SEC title.