SEC Basketball Tournament Preview
Under coach Kevin Stallings, Vanderbilt has steadily built an identity as a good SEC Tournament team. The Commodores have reached the semifinals or better in four straight SEC tourneys, and given the weak nature of this year's field, the right bracket path could have given VU a chance to get back to the semifinals again… and maybe even make the final.
As the 2014 SEC Tournament approaches, with first-round Wednesday upon us, the Dores know two things: First, they have the best section in the bracket. Second, if they didn't have to deal with a game on Wednesday, their odds of making yet another semifinal – and having a chance to play their way into Sunday's championship game – would have been far more realistic than a lot of national pundits might have expected a week ago.
We've seen teams at the SEC Tournament win four games in four days to grab an automatic bid. Arkansas did so in 2000. Georgia pulled off the feat in 2008. Mississippi State turned the trick in 2009. Those three examples stand out. Vanderbilt has been very competitive throughout the SEC season, even on most of the occasions when it has lost a conference game. The Dores, by landing in the third seed's quarter of the bracket (Georgia's quarter), have a path of Mississippi State-Ole Miss-Georgia-Kentucky on the way to Sunday's final. Moreover, Kentucky might lose to LSU (the Tigers came within an eyelash of winning in Rupp Arena, and they throttled Big Blue in Baton Rouge), meaning that Vanderbilt could avoid the Wildcats in the coming days. These are very beatable opponents.
Playing on Wednesday, though, is what makes the notion of reaching the championship game hard to view as a strong possibility. Starting this tournament on Thursday in the second round would have given the Dores a genuinely good (not great, but good) chance at returning to the semis and creating some mischief on Saturday afternoon. Relegation to the play-in round makes it hard to see this team having the legs and the resources needed to get beyond Friday's quarterfinals.
Nevertheless, if VU wanted a sequence of opponents, it couldn't have asked for a better section of the bracket, and that's the hope upon which this week's journey rests.
In a conference tournament preview – or the preview of any other tournament, for that matter – it's generally accepted as good form to spend more time and column space on the first opponent, not the second or third one. With all due respect to the Mississippi State Bulldogs – there's no reason for Vanderbilt to overlook them, given the way the Dores have been sputtering of late – Wednesday's tournament game is the kind of game in which Vanderbilt can't afford to empty its tank. The 11-14 play-in game is something VU needs to get through; Stallings needs to win that game without overextending his starters. Assuming that goal can be achieved, a Thursday second-round game with sixth-seeded Ole Miss would become the true centerpiece of Vanderbilt's tournament, the game in which the Dores would have the chance to show how far they can go in Atlanta.
TOURNAMENT PREVIEW, PART ONE:
THURSDAY SECOND-ROUND LOOK-AHEAD: OLE MISS
You saw Vanderbilt play Ole Miss this past Saturday. The narrow loss to the Rebels occurred in spite of the brilliance of Dai-Jon Parker, who carried VU on a day when no other Commodore could hit consistently from the field. Parker poured in 25 points on 8-of-11 field goal shooting, 5-of-7 from three-point range. The Dores also limited Ole Miss sniper (and antagonist par excellence) Marshall Henderson to 2-of-13 three-point shooting (5-of-19 overall). Henderson scored only 18 points, Jarvis Summers only 12. Vanderbilt did so many things well on Saturday at the "Tad Pad," so why did it lose to the same Ole Miss bunch that dismissed VU from last year's SEC Tournament in the semifinal round?
The answers aren't hard to identify: turnovers and foul shots.
Vanderbilt coughed up the rock 17 times, while Ole Miss committed only 5 turnovers. Vanderbilt guarded Ole Miss well and contested shots with great consistency, but in exchange for taking away Henderson's shooting hand, the Dores sacrificed a measure of on-ball pressure and didn't take the ball away from the Rebels on many occasions. That part is perfectly fine, though; the act of surrendering 17 turnovers is what can't recur on Thursday if Vanderbilt gets to play the Rebels one more time.
The foul line was the other main point of differentiation between the two teams this past weekend. Ole Miss gacked at the charity stripe, missing 15 free throws, but the Rebels earned 39 to Vanderbilt's 16. Ole Miss was therefore able to outscore VU by 10 points at the line (24-14), even though the Dores hit 87.5 percent of their free throw tries. Defending without fouling will become a central point of emphasis on Thursday, if indeed Vanderbilt gets past Mississippi State.
TOURNAMENT PREVIEW, PART TWO:
ASSESSING THE 14-TEAM FIELD
Throughout the season, you've received scouting reports of teams through the prism of their projected starting lineups and their benches. For this preview, let's give you a brief look at each team and its odds of winning the tournament:
14 – MISSISSIPPI STATE
The Bulldogs should be a decent team next season. For now, though, they're still in "limp to the finish line of their season" mode. That's not a criticism of their work ethic, because they've given it the ol' college try. They just don't have enough in the way of resources or skills at this point. ODDS OF WINNING: Not worthy of discussion.
13 – SOUTH CAROLINA
The Frank Martin mess is the last thing this team needed. Auburn is probably more likely to win the 12-13 play-in game on Wednesday. Next season must witness substantial forward movement in Columbia, S.C., at least to the extent that the Gamecocks get out of Wednesday at the SEC Tournament. If South Carolina must once again play an 11-14 or 12-13 game in 2015, how much enthusiasm will Martin be able to create? He has to begin to make a more positive imprint on his program. ODDS OF WINNING: Not worthy of discussion.
12 – AUBURN
Auburn can expect to beat South Carolina… and that's it. Tony Barbee's career seems to be going nowhere, but the Tigers did come close to beating Florida this season – not once, but twice. Maybe, if Barbee is kept on the job for one more season (though Auburn fans won't like it), he could break through. That's not a likely outcome, but if Barbee is retained, there is at least a coherent argument to be made for such a move. ODDS OF WINNING: Not worthy of discussion.
11 – TEXAS A&M
The Aggies have lower odds of winning this tournament than two lower seeds (Vanderbilt at 11, Alabama at 10). Why? They don't have anyone or anything that can enable them to hang with Florida in a possible quarterfinal, should they manage to get past Missouri in the second round. ODDS OF WINNING: Not worthy of discussion.
10 – ALABAMA
Unlike Vanderbilt, the Crimson Tide managed to escape Wednesday. However, LSU-Kentucky is a tougher path to the semifinals than Mississippi State-Ole Miss-Georgia. The Tide's odds of making Saturday (and then winning the whole thing) fall just below VU's. ODDS OF WINNING: 1 percent.
9 – VANDERBILT
The Commodores can very definitely get to Friday. Saturday will be hard. Sunday? Really hard. Winning the whole shebang? Gulp. ODDS OF WINNING: 2 percent.
8 – MISSOURI
The Tigers have talent, but they're poorly coached and show little resilience away from their home floor. They could take out Florida in the quarters, but would you trust them to do so? Exactly. ODDS OF WINNING: 3 percent.
7 – OLE MISS
The Rebels received the right section of the draw, but unlike last season, they'd have to win four games, not three, to take home the SEC Tournament title. Moreover, the odds of seeing Ole Miss repeat as tournament champion are low. ODDS OF WINNING: 4 percent.
6 – ARKANSAS
Before the Hogs' loss to Alabama, this seemed to be the hot team, the dangerous floater in the brackets that would storm into Atlanta and cause a lot of trouble. It appeared that this team had acquired a new, more mature identity. However, the cream-pie-in-the-face loss in Tuscaloosa changed everything for Woo Pig Sooie. Can this team beat Tennessee in the quarters? Possible. Is it made of stern-enough stuff to then beat Florida in the semis, roughly 20 hours later? Probably not. ODDS OF WINNING: 5 percent.
5 – LSU
Of the 10 teams that do not have a double-bye into the quarterfinals, this is the team with the best odds of winning the whole thing. LSU is that classic team – one the SEC has produced in recent years (think of a Rick Stansbury-coached Mississippi State team) – that struggles throughout the regular season but then regroups in the league tournament to get an autobid for the Big Dance. LSU fits that profile. It almost beat Kentucky in Rupp Arena and would stand a very good chance against the Wildcats in a possible quarterfinal. A semifinal against Georgia/Ole Miss/Vanderbilt would be very winnable. Adrenaline and confidence could push the Tigers through Sunday's final. Watch out. ODDS OF WINNING: 10 percent.
4 – GEORGIA
The Bulldogs, by getting a double-bye, have to win only three games, not four, to cut down the nets in Atlanta. Kentucky's a mess, so a semifinal against the Wildcats isn't as daunting as it might sound. If Tennessee knocks off Florida, Georgia could realistically win an autobid on Sunday… but it's hard to see the Bulldogs beating the Gators in head-to-head combat. ODDS OF WINNING: 12 percent.
3 – KENTUCKY
Maybe – MAYBE – this young team will coalesce and buy into what John Calipari is selling. Maybe the light will go on for the Wildcats' wings and guards. If you listen to the writers and broadcasters who closely follow this program, though, such a "rally-round-the-flag" scenario is not likely to unfold in Atlanta. This team is loaded with ability, but it's not likely to win three games in three days. ODDS OF WINNING: 13 percent.
2 – TENNESSEE
Historically, Tennessee – the men's team, not the women's team – has a terrible time at the SEC Tournament. Moreover, the Vols have often lost precisely when they've been the popular pick as either a co-favorite or a floater. Well, they just happen to be the team best positioned to take this tournament away from Florida.
It's not hard to understand: Florida is focused on the NCAA tournament. The Gators also know that they'd play in a Thursday-Saturday pod in Orlando to start the Big Dance. Does Florida really need to play three games in three days and, more specifically, play on Sunday? The Gators' incentive to win this tournament just isn't that high, even though Billy Donovan's national champions won the SEC Tournament in both 2006 and 2007. Tennessee – which might be in if it beats Arkansas in Friday's quarters – will be playing to put itself firmly in the field of 68 against Florida. That's a much stronger motivator than anything on Florida's plate. The Gators went 18-0 against the SEC. Just how much more does this team need to prove within the conference? Pay attention to the Vols… as much as it might pain a Vanderbilt audience to do so. ODDS OF WINNING: 15 percent.
1 – FLORIDA
The first team to go 18-0 in the SEC is naturally the favorite, but not to the extent you might think it should be. Purely in terms of rest and overall freshness, not playing on Sunday would help the Gators in advance of a Thursday-Saturday pod at the start of the NCAAs. A top seed is also secure. There's just not that much for this team to chase in Atlanta. The number one overall seed? Yes, that's true. Yet, Florida will also stay in its home region, the South. If NCAA seeding and bracketing are already locked in, a conference tournament just doesn't mean that much. ODDS OF WINNING: 35 percent.
TENNESSEE OVER LSU IN SUNDAY'S FINAL
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