SEC Tournament Preview: A Cranial Crucible
And so, the final few battles arrive for Jeffery Taylor, Festus Ezeli, Brad Tinsley, Lance Goulbourne, and quite possibly John Jenkins as well. This band of basketball brothers is about to lead Vanderbilt into a third straight NCAA Tournament, but when one considers the talent residing on this roster, the 2012 Commodores and their senior class would feel quite unfulfilled if they didn't leave a major imprint on this season. For all of this senior class's abilities, it has not made an SEC Tournament championship game, thereby continuing the postseason struggles of a program that has won the SEC Tournament title only once, in 1951. It is coming off a second straight loss in Knoxville, having failed to sweep two of Tennessee's more deficient teams over the past two seasons. Nobody was going to touch Kentucky this season, given the way the Wildcats have been playing, but this past Saturday's loss served as a reminder that other teams in the SEC – Tennessee being the primary example – have made more of their talent than Vanderbilt has.
Alabama has weathered multiple suspensions and off-court problems to push through to a likely NCAA Tournament bid. That's more impressive than what Vanderbilt has done in a larger context; a team ranked seventh in the nation in preseason polls, possessing the talent of a Final Four contender, is about to take a No. 5 or 6 seed to the Big Dance. That's not what VU fans had in mind in early November; a No. 3 seed was a reasonable goal for 2012, offering a prime path to a deep run in March. At this point, however, it's hard to see how this team – which competed so marvelously in two games against Kentucky – can play with the same energy level against everyone else. It couldn't outwork Tennessee; the Vols won more battles for 50-50 balls and generally ground down the Dores at crunch time, making Vanderbilt look smaller in the spotlight. Goulbourne was the only Commodore who spilled the tank on a regular basis, cutting a lonely figure inside Thompson-Boling Arena. The statement might be harsh, but it's not inaccurate, which makes it entirely fair: As NFL Films said of the Dallas Cowboys of the late 1960s, Vanderbilt "Had a Roman appetite for victory but lacked the Spartan will needed to achieve it."
The drama of the SEC Tournament – and of the NCAA Tournament the following week – is simply this: Can a terrifically talented team treat every game like a Kentucky clash, bringing maximum focus and fire to the building against each and every foe for each and every minute of competition? A Vanderbilt team operating at full throttle is a Final Four contender, but VU so rarely maintains peak intensity that it's hard to be optimistic about a bold March rally. This senior class – and Mr. Jenkins – has a few final chances to prove its doubters wrong. All that's left is for the Commodores to stand and deliver.
TOURNAMENT OVERVIEW, PART ONE: LIKELY QUARTERFINAL OPPONENT
Vanderbilt received an ideal SEC Tournament draw… no, not the easiest one imaginable, but a draw that will test this team yet still offer a good shot at reaching the final on Sunday in New Orleans. Vanderbilt's No. 3 seed steers clear of Kentucky until the final, but the Dores will still have their work cut out for them in the quarters and – should they advance – the semis. VU will play the winner of the first-round game between 11th-seeded Georgia and sixth-seeded Mississippi State. There are three basic points to be made in relationship to this game:
1) Mississippi State is capable of anything, including losing to Georgia (which it has already in fact done this season… at home). No explanation needed. This is Mississippi State.
2) Mississippi State is not a revived team. It merely got bailed out at South Carolina by a horribly dumb Gamecock shooting foul in the final seconds of regulation, down by two points. It then received the get-well tonic of a home date with an Arkansas squad whose tank is running on empty at the moment. On the raw merits, MSU has not returned to the form it showed in December and early January. Coach Rick Stansbury – doing what he normally does in Starkville – has failed to squeeze a supreme level of production out of a very talented lineup. The Bulldogs flatly imploded in February, losing five straight games and coming internally unglued. Things got so bad in the MSU locker room following a Feb. 18 loss to Alabama that Arnett Moultrie – who transferred to the program from UTEP – lashed out at his team. The words speak for themselves:
"Things have definitely been down the wrong path lately and we let it get too deep," Moultrie said. "It shouldn't have (gone) this far. A five-game losing streak is unheard of at any level in basketball, especially when you have all this talent… I see how they (my teammates) come up here and say how bad they want to win and how bad they want to go to the Final Four, but everybody doesn't work as hard as they say, with as bad as they want to win… Everybody's got their own agendas."
Clearly, it's not all sweetness and light in Starkville. Mississippi State needs to beat a good team to show that it's back. However, this leads us to our third and final point about the Bulldogs, who should be able to fend off Georgia (we think… maybe…) on Thursday and set up a quarterfinal with the Commodores on Friday in the Big Easy.
3) Mississippi State, after a regular season filled with failure and foolishness, usually gets serious and plays to its potential at the SEC Tournament. You know the story: The Bulldogs won the 2009 event when that was their only way to make the NCAA Tournament. MSU then came within one possession of doing the exact same thing a year later, but Kentucky improbably nipped the Bulldogs in the 2010 SEC final. Vanderbilt is playing a dysfunctional team that, in the SEC Tournament, stops being dysfunctional. Naturally, coach Kevin Stallings will need to pound home this point to his players if indeed MSU is the foe for the Dores. We're left with a dynamic in which the calculus is not that complicated for the VU crew: It must play with Kentucky-level energy and focus. If the best Vanderbilt team shows up, it should beat Mississippi State, but the issue – once more with feeling – is simply that the best version of the Dores so rarely emerges, and when it does, it doesn't stick around for long.
TOURNAMENT OVERVIEW, PART TWO: LIKELY SEMIFINAL OPPONENT
Perhaps NIT-bound Ole Miss will surprise Tennessee in the other section of the bottom half of the SEC bracket, but the likely semifinal foe for Vanderbilt, should the Dores get past Mississippi State, is Tennessee, the No. 2 seed in the tournament. That's right – Tennessee, the team that couldn't untie its shoelaces in December – overachieved its way to second place because Cuonzo Martin got his players to buy into a defense-first approach, one that (as mentioned above) got the better of Vanderbilt on March 3 in Knoxville. The Dores naturally need to focus on their quarterfinal first; no looking ahead for the players. However, in this preview of the entire SEC Tournament, we can naturally examine a possible semifinal with Tennessee and view it as a put-up-or-shut-up occasion for both teams. Tennessee must make the SEC final to have a shot at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Vols have too many bad losses to absorb a semifinal loss. Making the final puts them in the conversation, but still very much on the bubble. The Vols need to win this game for their postseason prospects.
Vanderbilt would need to win the game for a different reason: Their manhood is at stake. Stallings, right after the Tennessee loss, was overheard by Wes Rucker of The Knoxville News Sentinel and 247Sports yelling, "Good luck in the NIT!" to Tennessee fans near the VU bench in Thompson-Boling Arena. News of this incident has circulated, so the always-nasty rivalry between these schools will only escalate into an even bigger hate-fest in a possible semifinal. Vanderbilt would have a chance to send Tennessee to the NIT and make the SEC final in one fell swoop. However, the prize of victory would be matched by the cost of defeat. A second loss to the Vols would possibly put Tennessee in the tournament and give the Vols a huge push into the 2012-2013 season, especially since Vanderbilt's roster will be completely different… and a lot less talented. Vanderbilt doesn't have to win this tournament to make a successful run in New Orleans, but beating Tennessee in the semifinals? Yes, that's a non-negotiable requirement for a good weekend in the Crescent City.
The key to a win over UT is the same as it is for the quarters against MSU: Playing hard, playing focused. The Xs and Os are so minimal in the larger scheme of things for Vanderbilt at this point. It's all about the Jimmies (Jefferys, as it were) and Joes (or Johns, as the case may be) and the challenge of being rock-solid between the ears. Making pressure foul shots. Grabbing late clutch rebounds. Matching A-grade talent with a championship work ethic. Stallings knows how to scheme and draw up plays, but all that knowledge – Stallings' craftsmanship has never been in question during his tenure in Nashville – doesn't mean much if motivation flickers and the gameday attitude is deficient. If Vanderbilt wants to win, it's about the heart and the mind more than anything else. This would especially be true against a Tennessee team that might lose because of its imperfect parts, but never because of its energy level.
TOURNAMENT OVERVIEW, PART THREE: THE REST OF THE SEC BRACKET
There's not too much to say or see here. Kentucky is by far the best team in the top half of the SEC bracket, especially since Florida lacks forward Will Yeguete, a reserve it counted on for substantial minutes as a defender and rebounder. The only thing that could get in Kentucky's way is… well… there's nothing that can get in Kentucky's way. The Wildcats will lose this tournament only if they choose to, and that's something coach John Calipari might be considering this week.
You will recall that in 1996, a one-loss Kentucky team that hadn't suffered a setback in quite some time reached the SEC Tournament final… in New Orleans, too… and lost to Mississippi State as coach Rick Pitino soft-pedaled the game against the Bulldogs. Pitino rested his starters and did not chase a conference tournament title with his whole being. Kentucky, looking very mentally refreshed, stormed to the Final Four without being remotely threatened. It then fought off hard, vigorous challenges from Massachusetts (and Mr. Calipari) in the national semifinals and Syracuse in the championship game to win the NCAA Tournament. Calipari might think about resting his prime players in this tournament. That's the only way Kentucky doesn't win this tournament… unless the Vanderbilt team we've all been waiting for shows up for three straight days in New Orleans.
SEC Tournament Bracket:
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