The SEC basketball race was all about Kentucky this year. The Wildcats rolled to a 16-0 conference record, only missed a perfect regular season by a single point, when they lost on a buzzer-beating trey at Indiana, and have locked up a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. With a solid six-man rotation that’s anchored by Anthony Davis in the middle, then filled in with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as a forward who can run the floor, Terrence Jones who hits the boards, Doron Lamb who hits the trey and Marquis Teague who runs the show, head coach John Calipari has the horses to get his elusive first national championship. Beyond the Big Blue, TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the rest of the SEC, hands out some individual awards and looks ahead to a conference tournament that starts today in New Orleans.
Florida and Vanderbilt are both in solid shape for the NCAAs, projected as #5 and #6 seeds by ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi. Florida’s a little too undersized to compete with Kentucky, but Vanderbilt should have been stronger. The Commodores have the league’s top two scorers in guard John Jenkins and forward Jeffrey Taylor, and the other pieces in the lineup are filled with a solid post man in Festus Ezeli, Brad Tinsley and his nice shooting touch and Lance Golbourne’s ability on the baseline. I won’t pick them to win the SEC tourney or to make a big run in the NCAAs, because they’ve let me down before–but Vanderbilt has the talent to do it.
If your focus is the NCAA Tournament bubble, then the three teams to watch are Alabama, Mississippi State and Tennessee. The Tide, with a strong forward tandemn of JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell are probably in regardless, but need to take care of last-place South Carolina later this afternoon. Mississippi State is projected as an #11 seed, but if they suffered an upset loss to Georgia tonight, they probably play their way out and even if they don’t beat Vanderbilt in tomorrow’s quarterfinals, they’d still be close enough to the bubble to create nervous moments. If the Bulldogs make it in, they have the talent to do some serious damage. Arnett Moultrie is the kind of big man who can control a game, and Dee Bost is the kind of point guard that can win tournament games. But the five-game losing streak they went through down the stretch still looms large. Tennessee is coming on strong and squarely on the bubble right now. The Vols have a bye tonight and they need to beat the Ole Miss-Auburn winner tomorrow. The Tennessee style is similar to Alabama’s with two solid forwards–Jerome Mayonne and Jarrell Stokes, with a good guard in Trae Golden.
Ole Miss, LSU and Arkansas have played well enough this season to be a live dog in the bracket, althought they probably need to win the automatic bid to get an NCAA invite, and at least to need to be playing in Sunday’s final to even have an argument. Auburn and Georgia are hovering around the .500 level and are playing for the NIT, while South Carolina is off the board. When I was podcasting on Prime Sports Network with Greg DePalma on Monday, I picked Tennessee to win this tournament, but I’m changing my mind and going to Kentucky.
I’m settling on Lexington for the Player of the Year and Coach of the Year honors. I know Calipari has the talent, but to get freshman up to speed as quickly as he does, and to come within a point of a perfect season is an unreal coaching achievment. On the floor, let’s go with Anthony Davis. He averages 14 points/10 rebounds/5 blocks per game and completely alters offensive gameplans with his ability to dominate the interior. The best cases outside Kentucky came from Vanderbilt, with Jenkins and Taylor, and Mississippi State’s Moultrie and Bost. But they benefitted from having each other. While the same can certainly be said for Davis and the talent in the Kentucky lineup, the fact the team dominated to the level they did gives the ‘Cats the benefit of the doubt.