By Kyle Almekinder
Defending Tourney Champion: Kentucky
F Anthony Davis (MVP)
G Darius Miller
F Arnett Moultrie
G Jeffery Taylor
F Patric Young
Predicted Champion: Kentucky
This year has been a magical run for the Wildcats. Led by freshmen superstars Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, there is no denying that this is the best team in the SEC and arguably the country. This year’s squad has already done what the two previous Kentucky teams did not do by sweeping the SEC slate. They will also be looking to add to what the other teams did do: win the SEC tournament for a third straight year.
Kentucky has the tools to win the tournament with same type of game play that won them 30 games in the regular season: Transition offense that can exploit you with sharp dribble-drive passes and scores. We also know how dominant the defense is (leads the nation in opponents’ effective field goal percentage), but what is becoming most dangerous are the weapons getting hotter and hotter as the season continues.
Sixth man, or as John Calipari states “sixth starter,” Darius Miller has become Kentucky’s go-to guy in clutch situations. In Miller’s last five games, he has shot over 45% from the field (21 for 46) and nearly 43% from the perimeter (12 for 28). Key reserve Kyle Wiltjer has been even deadlier from three point land, shooting a blistering 69% in his last eight games. The 'Cats' 3-point shot becomes crucial if Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, and Co. are unable to score in the paint. Kentucky can morph into any offense it wants; the Wildcats scored zero transition points in their last two games versus Georgia and Florida and won the games by a combined 45 points. Their ability to create half-court sets with a team that is designed around the fast break and passes to the open shooter has become another important tool to use.
I would expect nothing less out of John Calipari’s squad than a back-to-back-to-back SEC Tournament championship.
Possible Darkhorse: Tennessee
Tennessee Head Coach Cuonzo Martin has the Volunteers in the top tier of the SEC in his first year at the helm, a feat many thought would take several years to occur given the recent scandal with former coach Bruce Pearl coupled with many key players leaving. But, to Martin’s credit, he has worked well with the talent in Knoxville. Tennessee accrued several losses early (most notably to Austin Peay) but finished the season strong by winning nine of its last 11 games, leaving the Vols tied for second in the SEC at 10-6.
Freshman newcomer Jarnell Stokes became eligible in January and has become an offensive power in the paint for the Vols. His highest outing came on February 29 at LSU where he posted an 18 point (on 9-for-10 shooting), 7-rebound game in their five point overtime win. Stokes isn’t Tennessee’s go-to player, but he has became another option for Martin and his staff when high-percentage shots are needed. A sweep of Florida in conference play and a series split with Vanderbilt has Tennessee just as dangerous as a legitimate darkhorse for the SEC title.
Things to Watch for:
- Does Mississippi State’s 2nd half slides continue?
- The Bulldogs had high hopes for this season; they returned a veteran point guard in Dee Bost whose floor general skills are almost unmatched in the SEC, a talented yet troublesome-at-times big man in Renardo Sidney and added key transfer Arnett Moultrie from UTEP to fill Jarvis Varnardo's void. A 13-2 start to the season (with a minor slip-up versus Akron) still had Mississippi State in talks of a very high seed come tournament time. But alas, Rick Stansbury’s club has since gone 8-8 in conference, including a five-game losing streak that left the 'Dogs in 6th place in the SEC standings at regular season’s end. Many off-the-court issues have arose in this downward spiral, most notably forward Arnett Moultrie saying the Bulldogs could “probably not” bounce back for a postseason run. Can Mississippi State rebound and be a force in the SEC and NCAA Tournament? The Bulldogs are still more than dangerous to make said run, but the will of the players will dictate what their goals really are.
- What will take to beat Kentucky for the title?
- The best way to beat Kentucky is to have #TeamNoSleep on Twitter (several of the Kentucky players coined a term by staying up late) hold true to their word on the night before a game. Indiana found a way to beat Kentucky. The win involved the following: playing in front of one of the most hostile crowds in the nation this season, finding a miracle way to get Anthony Davis into foul trouble, shooting lights out beyond the arc and a buzzer beater to win. Indiana’s recipe blueprinted the best way to beat the Cats by even then they won by one point to beat the clock. Since, Kentucky has regrouped, rattled off a perfect SEC season and improved all areas of their game. Vanderbilt was able to give Kentucky two good games this season and potentially a third in the conference tournament. But in a best-of-one format, anything can happen and thus it is impossible to rule out a potential Kentucky loss. Still, it's a safe bet that Kentucky wins its third straight title.
- Who gets at-large bids?
- As of now, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Kentucky (projected automatic bid winner), Vanderbilt, Florida, Mississippi State and Alabama in the NCAA Tournament. Deuce2Sports' Bracketography has the same five teams in the field but Mississippi State is a precarious No. 12 seed. Depending on how the SEC Tournament plays out, Tennessee might have an outside shot to earn an at-large bid. For now, the four aforementioned teams besides Mississippi State are locks barring any darkhorse tournament winner.