2011 SEC Tournament Preview

The SEC Tournament begins Thursday afternoon, or as it should be called, the SEC East vs. West Challenge. The Commodores, as most fans of the Black and Gold know by now, are matching up with the Tigers of LSU in the late game (Game No. 4 at approximately 9 p.m. CT time.)

The winner moves on to the quarterfinals to take on Mississippi State on Friday in another 9:00 p.m. affair.

The SEC Tournament has not been a memorable event for Vanderbilt or its fans. 2011 marks Vandy's 50th appearance in the tournament, which it has only won one time in its history, in 1951 over Kentucky. Only 10 times have the ‘Dores even gone to the semifinals, and only twice have they advanced that far in Kevin Stallings' 12 years as head coach.

Stallings enters this year's SEC Tournament with a 5-10 record in SEC Tournament play. Last year, with the tournament in Nashville (though obviously not at Memorial Gym), Vandy split two games, defeating Georgia in the quarterfinals before losing to Mississippi State in the semifinals.

This year, the Commodores open against an LSU team they defeated handily two weeks ago in Baton Rouge, 90-69. The game was not as easy as the final score makes it sound. The Bayou Bengals actually led by two at the half, and it took a 12-0 run early in the second half to tilt the game in the favor of the Dores. Half-court defense is what made this game a blowout in favor of Vandy. After allowing LSU to shoot 57 percent in the first half, VU held the Tigers under 30 percent in the second half.

Two matchups made the difference for Vanderbilt. Storm Warren, a 6-7 power forward for LSU, scored 24 points and grabbed eight rebounds. He scored 18 of his points in the first half, before Stallings assigned Festus Ezeli to guard him. Ezeli essentially shut down Warren in the second half and finished with six blocked shots. The other key matchup was Jeffery Taylor on Ralston Turner. Turner, a 6-6 freshman guard with a bright future ahead of him, scored 16 of his 18 points in the first half. After being challenged by the coaching staff to pick up his defensive game – Taylor was having a stellar offensive game with 20 points – Taylor controlled Turner in the second half.

LSU is the youngest Division I team in the country and it shows. The young Tigers have lost 13 of their last 14, their only victory a two-point road win in Starkville, 84-82. Despite that lack of on-court success, Stallings believes his opponent Thursday night is "playing much better than they were earlier in the season." Provided everyone sticks around in Baton Rouge, LSU may be a force to be reckoned with in the future; as for now, Trent Johnson's team will be hard-pressed to find success under the bright lights of the Georgia Dome.

Vanderbilt should win this game. After all, it is the higher seed. The key to dominating a vastly inferior opponent is to perfect the things you do well. In Vandy's case that involves playing inside-out with Ezeli, attacking the middle of the defense with Taylor and Jenkins, and playing good field-goal-percentage defense. Too often this year, the Dores have been content to shoot 3-pointers early in the offense, forget about Ezeli on the block, and fail to rebound on the defensive end of the floor.

Quarterfinal Opponent: Mississippi State

Awaiting the winner of Vanderbilt-LSU are the Bulldogs of Mississippi State. The Bulldogs (17-13) have been an enigma this year. Many college basketball pundits believe MSU has the best starting lineup in the SEC. (I would argue for Florida but I digress.) However, the Bulldogs are notorious for dropping games against lesser teams. These losses include Florida Atlantic, East Tennessee State, Hawaii, Auburn, and the aforementioned LSU ballclub.

6-7 guard Ravern Johnson leads the Bulldogs offensively. Johnson is similar in style to Jeff Taylor. He is long, athletic, and at his best when he is penetrating the middle of the defense off the dribble. Unlike Taylor, however, Johnson has lately been deadly from 3-point range. After missing two games for tweets critical of his coach, Johnson has made 27 of 49 shots beyond the arc, bringing his percentage on the year to 40 percent. He has also had three straight games of 20 points or better.

The most well known player for the Bulldogs is of course sophomore center Renardo Sidney. He came to Starkville with much attention but, despite his solid low post presence, has been inconsistent. This reality was on display earlier this season against the ‘Dores when Sidney only scored six points due to fouling out in 13 minutes of play. When he can stay on the floor, he is one of the best low post scorers in college basketball. He has done that lately, having been able to keep himself from fouling out for a streak of six games. Sidney can be frequently caught out of position on defense – hence the fouling out. He tends to reach and can be exploited as the Commodores did to him on January 27.

The other key player to watch for MSU is point guard Dee Bost, who is equally dangerous as both a scorer and a passer. He averages 15.3 points per game and dishes out 5.9 assists a game. While his turnovers are high, at 3.6 a game, coach Rick Stansbury can handle that with the frenetic pace he likes to have his team play.

Mississippi State is in a quandary with how it likes to play. Stansbury's teams typically like to push the pace, and that style fits players like Bost, Johnson, and Kodi Augustus. The Bulldogs could push the tempo more if Sidney was a dominant rebounder. He averages only 7.6 rebounds, though, so it hinders MSU's ability to get out and run. When Sidney catches up to the rest of the team, MSU tries to run its offense into him so it becomes a team of two conflicting offensive styles.

Semifinals: Potential Rematches With Tennessee or Florida

Bruce Pearl's squad will play Arkansas in the game preceding Vanderbilt's SEC opener. While Arkansas would need to win the SEC Tournament championship to make the NCAA Tournament, Tennessee is probably in the tournament. The Volunteers however cannot leave anything to the whims of the committee and should be focused on the Razorbacks. More important than being focused, the Vols are more athletic, deeper, and better skilled. Look for UT to control the game against a slumping Arkansas team.

A UT win sets up an interesting quarterfinal with Florida. Tennessee has struggled lately. It has gone 3-6 in its past nine and its only solid performance is well-known in Nashville, the Vols' 60-51 win over Vanderbilt on February 22, in a game when the Dores had a big lead. Tennessee's only other wins in this nine-game stretch came against South Carolina, though it nearly pulled off an upset in Gainesville, losing by one to the Gators.

Tennessee is a tough guard defensively for the Gators. Chandler Parsons has been playing outstanding basketball for Florida, but he is a liability against UT's flex offense. In the flex, players are routinely interchanged out of the post, wing, and corner. The player on UT that makes the most sense for him to guard is Scotty Hopson. Hopson, though, is much too athletic for Parsons, and in their last meeting Hopson got 22 points. Where the Vols have trouble is finding physical players to match up with Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin. Tyus is usually the x-factor with the Gators. Against UT, just as he did recently against Vandy, Tyus scored in double figures.

Should Vanderbilt face either Tennessee or Florida in the semifinals, it would be an intriguing game. Vandy will have one disadvantage if it is still alive on Saturday. VU's game against Mississippi State will tip off at roughly 9:00 p.m. on Friday night. The semifinal on Saturday starts at 2:30 p.m. Assuming the Dores get back to their hotel rooms around 1:00 a.m. (2 a.m ET) following the quarterfinal, that leaves little time for sleep, meals, and a walk-through. The timing plays into the hands of the Arkansas-Tennessee/Florida winner.

What happens if Vandy plays Tennessee again? The Dores have essentially dominated the early and middle parts of both UT games this year, only to lose them in the final ten minutes. The difference in both games was Tennessee physically dominating the Commodores on the boards. Can Vandy concentrate on rebounding long enough to make the third time the charm?

If the opponent is Florida, three things stick out which show that this is a tough matchup for the Dores. In both games, Festus Ezeli only got five shots. For some reason, Stallings's club forgets about the big guy on the block, who in my opinion is the most improved player in the country this year. Second is VU's inability to contain Chandler Parsons. This sounds simple: Put the athletic Jeff Taylor on him. Taylor often has to guard Erving Walker, though (see point No. 3), so that creates a mismatch in Billy Donovan's favor with Parsons. Third is the quickness of Florida point guard Erving Walker. Simply put, Brad Tinsley is not quick enough to guard him all game. In order to avoid wearing out John Jenkins, Taylor often guards Walker. Tinsley has to find a way to keep Walker in front of him.

Opposite Half Of The Bracket: Potential Final Against Kentucky

All signs point to Kentucky coming out of the other bracket. The Wildcats did not struggle in their earlier game at South Carolina and dominated Darrin Horn's team when it game to Lexington. While UK did lose at Ole Miss, that setback emerged in a stretch when the Cats lost to everyone on the road.

Alabama desperately needs Georgia to defeat Auburn. Tide fans must go nuts every time they are reminded on sports talk radio and message boards that "winning a division in a major conference doesn't earn you anything." The expected Georgia win over Auburn could potentially set up what amounts to an NCAA at-large play-in game. A Bama win over Georgia gives it 21 wins and a reasonable case for an NCAA invite.

Kentucky has a distinct athletic advantage against whomever it might face in the semifinals. Kentucky is too quick off the dribble and has a dominant inside presence to boot. Georgia may try to zone Kentucky, which might cause the Wildcat offense to stagnate, but on paper any matchup favors John Calipari's club.

SEC Tournament Predictions

EARLY ROUNDS

Games No. 1 and 5 (Thursday's first round and Friday's quarterfinals) – Georgia defeats Auburn, loses to Alabama in the quarterfinals.

Games No. 2 and 6 – South Carolina beats a struggling Ole Miss only to lose to Kentucky.

Games No. 3 and 7 – Tennessee defeats Arkansas, but Billy Donovan outcoaches Pearl in the quarterfinals.

Games No. 4 and 8 – Vanderbilt wins easily over LSU and has enough to get by Mississippi State.

SEMIFINALS AND FINAL

Kentucky beats Alabama in one semifinal. Florida beats Vanderbilt in the other semifinal.

Florida beats Kentucky in the championship game.

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