It's that time of year when the eyes of the South (Eastern) turn toward Nashville. The regular season conference play has been completed and all 14 schools in the SEC will make their way to Bridgestone Arena this week to determine who gets the automatic qualifier to the "Big Dance" from the Southeastern Conference.
Storylines to watch Alabama comes into the SECT as regular season champs (16-2) and the clear-cut favorite to cut the nets down in Nashville. The Crimson Tide has been the most dominant team in the conference this season, lead by top 5 NBA Draft projected Freshman, Brandon Miller. Miller has lived up to the hype surrounding him entering college this season, averaging 19.6 ppg, 8.0 rebounds, and shooting an insane 40.4% from 3pt line. On the court, he has been sensational, off the court is where the drama begins. Miller has been linked to the shooting of Jamea Harris by his former Tide teammate, Darius Miles, back in January. He was never charged with anything despite allegedly bringing Miles the gun. Since the information of Miller's potential involvement, he has played exceptional but the Crimson Tide have struggled. Close wins over South Carolina, Arkansas, and Auburn were then followed up with a defeat to end the regular season on the road at Texas A&M. Does this mean 'Bama is slipping at the wrong time or merely they hit a rough patch with everything going on? Texas A&M enters the SECT as the 2 seed after having a spectacular run in conference play. The Aggies played a weak non-conference slate and even dropped 5 of those games, but relied on their defense to punish the league in SEC play. After going on a run to make the SEC Championship last year, the Aggies fell short and just missed the NCAA Tournament. Coming into this week's action in Nashville, A&M is projected safely in the field by most bracketologist. Keep an eye on Wade Taylor IV, a do it all guard for A&M who is quietly putting up SEC POY performances. Kentucky is getting hot at the right time of the year with winners of 11 of their last 15. John Calipari's ball club has struggled with poor performances, injuries, and a lack of understanding of defined roles. The 'Cats have seemingly put that behind them as they have been a top-10 offense in the country the last month of the season and are playing more connected on defense. Kentucky has become a sexy pick for people now to cut the nets down in Nashville AND make a deep NCAAT push based on their recent play. Calipari's team will open their SECT up on Friday Night but any run toward a championship will depend on getting Freshman point guard, Cason Wallace, healthy. Wallace was injured during the Kentucky Senior Night loss to Vanderbilt and did not suit up for the season finale at Arkansas, a game in which Kentucky won 88-79 without a point guard on the floor!
Sleeper teams to watch Vanderbilt! Yes, I said Vandy is a team to watch as a sleeper to make some noise. Jerry Stackhouse has his team playing as hot as anyone in the Conference right now. The Commodores have won 3 in a row and 8 of their last 9. They shoot 35% from 3pt land as a team and have the 3rd best offense in the SEC this season. Coach Stackhouse runs a beautiful, modern offense that puts pressure on the opposing defense by spacing the floor with shooters. They did lose their best player in 7'0 center, Liam Robbins, during the Kentucky game, which definitely hurts them, but Stackhouse isn't afraid of going small ball with 5 guards and spreading the floor even more. I wouldn't bet my mortgage on Vandy winning the SEC Tournament, but I would bet $10-20 on them. Momentum means a lot in this sport and no-one is carrying more "momo" than Vanderbilt at the moment. Missouri has been one of the biggest surprises in the conference and the nation this season. They had to completely turn the roster over from last year's 12-21 team led by then-Head Coach Cuonzo Martin. Dennis Gate's 1st season at the helm of the Tigers was thought to be a year of growing pains. New roster, new coach, not many expectations right? All Coach Gates has done is lead Missouri to a 23-8 record, go 11-7 in the SEC, and have Mizzou firmly in the NCAA tournament. They have done all that by playing an exciting brand of basketball. The Tigers have the #9 ranked offense in America, shooting 36.2% from 3, and will press your socks off after makes and misses. Oh, and they are led by SEC POY candidate, Kobe Brown, who is averaging 15.9 ppg/6.2 rpg/ 2.5 apg/ 45.3% 3pt. Gates should be in the running for NCOY and if you haven't seen his team play yet, I'd suggest checking them out Friday when the Tigers take the floor for the first time in Bridgestone Arena for the SEC quarterfinals.
The SEC Tournament is always one of my favorite post-season tournaments of the year as all 14 fanbases from the Southeastern Conference come together. The passion is real for basketball as the level of coaching and players have risen in recent years from a conference known for its football. This event usually produces some of the best semi-finals and Championship games in the sport on Saturday and Sunday. Will the dominance of Alabama continue? Can Buzz Williams get the Aggies over the hump after coming up one game short last season? Does Kentucky get to celebrate amongst Big Blue Nation in a place they take over every single time? Or do we see the re-emergence of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Auburn? All of these questions will be answered (and a lot of bourbon drank) but I do know one thing about the SEC for sure... IT JUST MEANS MORE