VeeMan projects the SEC Men's Basketball Tourney

The 2004 Southeastern Conference Men's Basketball Tournament gets underway Thursday afternoon at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, and will produce a champion by Sunday. Which teams have the best chance to reach the finals? How many SEC teams will make the NCAA Tournament field? VeeMan examines the full 11-game tournament bracket from every angle, and attempts to answer these questions in advance.

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Note: All times listed below are Eastern Standard Time. Jefferson-Pilot will televise all games live except the final on Sunday, which will be televised by CBS.

FIRST ROUND, Thursday, March 11

Georgia [E5] vs. Auburn [E4], 1:00 p.m.

Georgia (7-9) defeated Vanderbilt 71-61 Saturday in Athens. The Bulldogs are experienced but lack depth, and are led in scoring by seniors Rashad Wright (14.3 ppg) and Damien Wilkins (12.8 ppg). Two other seniors (Jonas Hayes and Chris Daniels) and freshman Levi Stukes complete the starting lineup. The 6-7 Daniels held Vandy's Matt Freije to eight points on Saturday, and is the team's top defender and the third best rebounder (8.3 per game) in the conference. Hayes (6-8) is the tallest player. The highlights of the season for the Bulldogs were their two victories over the Kentucky Wildcats. Their ability to shut down the opposition's offense is their strongest area.

Auburn (5-11) won over LSU 78-66 at home Saturday. Their leading scorer is burly 6-7 junior Marco Killingsworth (13.5 ppg), who is also the number two rebounder (6.8 per game). The leading rebounder, 6-10 senior Kyle Davis (7.0 per game) is a weak scorer, but is the top shot-blocker in the conference. 6-8 junior Brandon Robinson snares 6.8 rebounds and, together with Killingsworth and Davis, make the Tigers one of the top rebounding teams in the conference. Guard play is less distinguished, but 6-3 junior Ian Young has shown a dangerous shooting touch from the outside.

This looks like a game that could produce a dark horse, a team that could emulate the Arkansas Razorbacks in the 2000 conference tournament and go all the way. Both teams will be playing near home territory. Expect a close win for Georgia.

Arkansas [W6] vs. South Carolina [E3], 3:15 pm

Arkansas (4-12), which has lost seven of its last eight games, is a very young team that ended the season with a 55-45 defeat at Mississippi. They are led in scoring by 6-4 sophomore Jonathon Modica (16.6 ppg), and have one of the top scoring freshmen in the conference, 6-6 Ronnie Brewer (12.6 ppg, 5.7 rebounds). Those two were the bellwethers, backed up by a cast of in-and-outers such as 6-9 junior Michael Jones (who finished strongly), 6-1 sophomore Eric Ferguson, and 6-5 freshman Olu Famutimi. The Razorbacks are weak in shooting and scoring.

South Carolina (8-8) started 6-2 in the first half of conference play, but the last half was a 2-6 reversal, and they ended the season losing 63-56 at Tennessee. Leading scorer Carlos Powell (12.4 ppg, 6.3 rebounds) fell into a serious shooting slump in the last several games because of a nagging injury. Another blow was the loss of 6-9 senior Rolando Howell to a season-ending wrist fracture. 6-2 junior Josh Gonner (11.6 ppg) is the main outside scorer. The Gamecocks are middle-of-the-conference in most areas of offense and defense.

The South Carolina-Arkansas game is not likely to produce a dark horse. Arkansas is too weak and South Carolina is too beaten up. The Gamecocks should win and progress to the second round.

Vanderbilt [E4] vs. Ole Miss [W5], 7:30 pm

Vanderbilt (8-8) had a good run near the end of the season, but tailed off with a close win at home over Tennessee, followed by a loss to Georgia. The Commodores are led by the conference's leading scorer, Matt Freije (19.1 ppg). The only other player who scores in double digits is 5-11 sophomore Mario Moore (10.4 ppg). 6-5 senior Scott Hundley was a double-digit scorer earlier in the season, but in the last dozen games has slumped off to just 7.3 ppg. The Commodores are at or near the top of the conference in several statistical categories, but are conspicuously at the bottom in rebounding margin.

Ole Miss (5-11) ended a five-game losing streak by defeating Arkansas in the final regular season game. The Rebels are completely dominated by two seniors, Justin Reed (18.6 ppg, second in the SEC in scoring) and Aaron Harper (16.7 ppg). Reed was also the top rebounder with 7.6 grabs per game. After those two there has been little punch or consistency, although 6-1 freshman Todd Abernathy did start regularly at point guard. Mississippi ranks close to the bottom in nearly every statistical area and only scrap and their two stars allow them to stay competitive.

The Commodores have a history of not going far in the tournament and of bombing out unexpectedly against underdog opposition. However, Vanderbilt defeated Mississippi on the road recently, and has to be regarded as a substantial favorite to win this game.

Tennessee [E6] vs. Alabama [W3], 9:15 pm

Tennessee (7-9) was tough all year at home but failed to win a single conference game on the road (although it came close at Vanderbilt). 6-5 junior Scooter McFadgon finished as the third leading scorer in the conference (17.2 ppg). He is ably backed up by 6-10 senior Brandon Crump (14.8 ppg and 7.1 rebounds) and 6-1 sophomore C.J. Watson (11.9 ppg), who was second in the conference in assists (5.26 per game). The supporting cast is inexperienced, which is probably why defensive weakness has plagued the Vols. They rank reasonably well in the offensive and rebounding statistical categories.

Alabama (8-8) finished the season strongly, including an upset of Mississippi State on the road and a heartbreaking 82-81 overtime home loss to the Bulldogs in their finale. Sophomore Kennedy Winston (17.2 ppg and 5.4 rebounds) was the fourth leading scorer in the conference and has developed into a solid threat. Earnest Shelton (15.4 ppg) is a top three-point shooter, with able backing in that area from 6-4 senior Emmett Thomas. In the statistical categories, Alabama ranks very good to midway among the conference teams.

Alabama could advance deep into this tournament. Tennessee, with its comparative inexperience and inability to win on the road, is much less likely to do so. Alabama should win this game.

QUARTERFINALS, Friday, March 12

Georgia-Auburn winner vs. Kentucky [E1], 1:00 pm

The Wildcats destroyed Florida 82-62 in the season finale and won their final six games. They have an outstanding starting five but little proven depth. Gerald Fitch (15.3 ppg) is the leading scorer and outside shooter, but 6-8 senior Erik Daniels (14.7 ppg) is not far behind. Solid rebounding is provided by 6-6 junior Chuck Hayes (8.2 per game) and Daniels (5.9). 6-1 senior Cliff Hawkins leads the conference in assists with 5.45 per game. 6-5 sophomore Kelenna Azubuike, an explosive scorer, and 6-5 senior Antwain Barbour complete the cast of regulars. Statistically, the Cats have no weak areas, but do not dominate as they have in other years.

It is an interesting twist that the Cats are likely to play Georgia in this game, the team that twice defeated them in the regular season. Nonetheless, Kentucky has to be favored to move into the semifinals.

Arkansas-South Carolina winner vs. LSU [W2], 3:15 pm

The LSU Tigers limped to the finish line without their leading scorer and rebounder, 6-9 senior Jaime Lloreda (16.9 ppg and 11.6 rebounds per game, best in the conference), who is lost for the season because of a foot injury. Scoring responsibility falls upon 6-8 freshman Brandon Bass (12.7 ppg) and 5-11 sophomore Darrel Mitchell (12.1 ppg). Bass snares 7.2 rebounds per game and Mitchell is one of the best three-point shooters in the conference. 6-5 junior Antonio Hudson, 5-11 freshman Tack Minor, and 6-9 freshman Regis Koundjia (who has returned after an injury) supply most of the help to these two. With Lloreda unavailable, LSU's team statistics are rather meaningless, but they have continued to play good defense without him.

This is a weak bracket. South Carolina should advance to meet LSU, and then it will be two wounded teams playing each other. It is hard to guess which will emerge, but South Carolina is nearer home and Carlos Powell may recover sufficiently by tournament time to be something like the factor that he was earlier, so the Roosters look best.

Vanderbilt-Ole Miss winner vs. Mississippi State [W1], 7:00 pm

Mississippi State (14-2) is probably the best team in the conference, as its record indicates. Statistically they stand out, especially in the rebounding categories, which they completely dominate. 6-9 junior Lawrence Roberts (17.1 ppg and 10.5 rebounds) is the likely SEC Player of the Year. 6-3 senior Timmy Bowers (15.4 ppg), the acknowledged team leader, could well be another first-team All-SEC selection. 6-8 senior Branden Vincent (7.2 rebounds), 6-4 senior Winsome Frazier (13.5 ppg), and 6-4 junior Shane Power make up the soundest starting five in the conference.

Vanderbilt has a chance to score an upset if the Mississippi State players are looking ahead; but realistically, one should expect the Bulldogs to win and advance to the semifinals.

Tennessee-Alabama winner vs. Florida [E2], 9:15 pm

Florida had won four straight games before falling to Kentucky in the season finale in Lexington. They were rocked late in the season by the loss of starter Christian Drejer, who decided to turn professional in Europe. 6-1 sophomore Anthony Roberson (17.2 ppg) is their leading scorer and outside shooter, and he gets plenty of help from 6-6 sophomore Matt Walsh (16.2 ppg) and 6-9 junior David Lee (13.7 ppg). Lee is the top rebounder with 7.0 per game. 6-9 sophomore Adrian Moss and 6-2 freshman Lee Humphrey have also been starting, and the bench consists mostly of freshmen. The Gators are a comparatively inexperienced team, but they rank well in most statistical categories.

If Alabama wins the opening round game, as predicted, the Alabama-Florida second-round game may well be the closest of the four on Friday. Alabama has been playing so well that it seems likelier to advance to the semifinals.

SEMIFINALS, Saturday, March 13

Following the predictions here, the two semifinal games should be Kentucky vs. South Carolina and Mississippi State vs. Alabama. Kentucky is the obvious choice over South Carolina. Mississippi State has had a lot of trouble with Alabama, but should advance.

FINALS, Sunday, March 14

Kentucky and Mississippi State are expected to meet in the final game, as they did last year. Mississippi State is the choice to win, despite a one-point loss to the Wildcats in Starkville, Miss. early in conference play.

NCAA TOURNAMENT REPRESENTATIVES

Kentucky, Mississippi State, and Florida are in the NCAA regardless of what happens in the SEC Tournament. Four teams finished with 8-8 conference records (Vanderbilt, LSU, South Carolina, Alabama) and three of the four are likely to go unless one of the below-the-bubble teams wins the tournament and gets an automatic bid. If that happens, a second one of the four 8-8 teams will probably be left out. The tournament showings should have a lot to do with which one (or possibly two) are omitted. LSU seems to be in the weakest position because of the loss of Jaime Lloreda for the season; but a second-round win over South Carolina or Arkansas would likely reverse that situation, resulting in the omission of South Carolina. Vanderbilt needs to beat Ole Miss, or otherwise the Commodores become vulnerable. Alabama is probably in the best position of the four, mainly because of their late-season win at Mississippi State and the strength of their non-conference schedule.


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