Next week practically every college basketball junkie who works in an office will have the opportunity to fill out one of those ubiquitous 65-team NCAA brackets. It's a great way to enjoy the Big Dance, not to mention prove to your colleagues that you know a few things about college hoops. (Or that you don't.)
I've never had much luck with those darn things. Usually by the end of the first weekend, three of my Final Four teams are history, victims of upsets. And I admittedly never have a clue about teams like Rider or Siena or Mount St. Mary's.
Ah, but the SEC Tournament-- that's another story. I'm a lot more comfortable with that. As a Vandy fan, by March I've typically seen all the teams play. I've pored over the rosters, the standings and the stats. By this time of year you pretty much know who's got what. You know who's coming to the tournament on a hot streak, and who's likely to check out early.
So it stands to reason that savvy bracketologists like me should be able to correctly complete the SEC Tournament bracket in advance... right?
If you've ever tried it, you know that predicting the SEC Tournament is a little bit like throwing twelve angry wolverines into a burlap bag and trying to predict which one will emerge alive. That's especially true this year, a year in which the SEC only seemed to get more balanced. (In the eastern division, only four games separated the top three teams from the bottom two.)
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Nonetheless, I've tried my hand at it every year for the last four, with results ranging from pretty good to embarrassing. I have once again gazed fearlessly into my crystal ball, and here's the way I see the 2002 SEC Tournament playing out:
All biases aside, I think Vanderbilt has a much better chance to advance in this tournament than it's had the last two years under Kevin Stallings. The last two years the Commodores have limped into the tournament shorthanded, crippled up and on losing streaks. This year they arrive with a couple of nice February wins, and with ten players whole and ready to contribute solid minutes.
On the down side, no Commodores besides Sam Howard and Darius Coulibaly have played in the Georgia Dome before. If Vanderbilt's sharpshooters (Brendan Plavich, Sam Howard, Chuck Moore, etc.) can't solve the depth perception problems that the unique environment presents, the Commodores may as well not unpack their bags.
But remember Rick Jones' explosion here two years ago against Mississippi State? Maybe I'm dreaming, but this time around I believe Brendan or one of the aforementioned will have a similar explosion... that Corey Smith will bottle up Ronald DuPree... and that John Brady's team will be winging its way home before nightfall.
Arkansas vs. Tennessee follows immediately, to me the most intriguing game on Thursday. I think Vincent Yarbrough and Marcus Haislip will dominate in the paint, and I see the Vols advancing over the Razorbacks, who have been through ten days of emotional turmoil since Nolan Richardson went off on the media last week.
Auburn vs. Florida? Auburn is a team looking for a place to collapse. Gators.
Ole Miss destroyed top-seeded Alabama last Sunday, but that game was essentially meaningless as far as the standings go. Ole Miss defeated South Carolina once already, but that was at the Tad Smith Coliseum. Ole Miss went 8-0 at home in the conference this year, but 1-7 on the road.
Sorry, but I'm not sold on Rod Barnes' team away from the Tad Pad. If there's an upset on Thursday, it will occur here. Gamecocks win, but the Rebels still make the NCAA's.
Vanderbilt vs. Georgia. Actually, this draw couldn't have turned out better for Vanderbilt. The Commodores beat Georgia once in the regular season, so confidence shouldn't be a problem. Jim Harrick's No. 1-seeded Bulldogs come in with high expectations and a slight crowd advantage. But Fridays are notorious for upsets. This will probably put the jinx on, but I like Vandy to upset the Dawgs and advance to the semis for the first time since 1993. (But again, it's all dependent on whether the Dores can find that sweet shooting touch that has mysteriously eluded them at times.)
Alabama is the SEC's marquee team this year. The Tide won the championship, had the best overall record, the Coach of the Year, the Player of the Year, and the Freshman of the Year. This kind of hype and acclaim can sometimes work against you, but I still like Bama to polish off the Volunteers. (If the Vols had Ron Slay, I might have had to pick another upset.)
Lots of people are picking Mississippi State as a tournament darkhorse, and I agree. Having won its last five games, State is the league's hottest team. Rick Stansbury's Bulldogs, a preseason pick to finish in the West cellar, surprised everyone when they surged to second place.
The problem is, in this tournament MSU has ended up with an unfortunate draw. They make their debut Friday evening against a Florida team that is not only more talented, but also ticked off about having to play on Thursday. Look for Florida to win what should be a fabulous prime-time game... but look for the Bulldogs and Mario Austin to rebound and at least make the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA's. (And then look for Mario Austin to be gone to the NBA.)
The Kentucky Wildcats feel as though they own the Georgia Dome... or at least they did until two years ago, when they were upset on Friday to upstart Arkansas. Now, here they are in that dangerous late-night bracket again against South Carolina. Both teams have had their "on" nights and their "off" nights.
Sorry, lightning won't strike twice... the Wildcats will survive based on a much deeper bench. But I expect Dave Odom's Gamecocks to scrap gamely and make a cockfight out of it.
Vanderbilt's big men get into foul trouble and run into a brick wall against Florida. With two wins the Commodores finish 18-14 and head for the NIT. Suddenly Billy Donovan's Gators, fresh off three straight wins, feel as though they've regained their chomp after losing three of their last five down the stretch. The truth, though, is that they have merely emerged from the top half of the bracket, which was much weaker than the bottom half.
Alabama vs. Kentucky should be spectacular as well. Alabama won the previous meeting, but the Cats, as always, have a huge crowd advantage. A couple of things bother me about the Wildcats though... their uncharacteristic inconsistency, plus the fact that the previous night's hard-fought contest didn't end until after midnight. The Tide sends the haughty Cat fans home grumbling about Tubby.
The name of the game is "Survive and Advance." The championship game matches the league's two best young coaches (Donovan and Mark Gottfried) and the two best big men (Erwin Dudley and Udonis Haslem). Both teams have great depth. The previous meeting between these two teams was an absolute classic, with Alabama winning at home on a last-second layup.
ESPN's Jay Bilas said "It may be harder for Florida to make the Final Four than to win its conference tournament." Indeed, it's those four games in four days that are likely to be the mighty Gators' undoing. So give me Alabama winning its first tournament championship trophy since Wimp Sanderson days. Give me Erwin Dudley as MVP, and give me the Tide as a 2-seed in the NCAA's.
Just don't hold me to any of this.
Coming Thursday: News from Vanderbilt's pre-tournament press conference, plus interviews with Coach Stallings and the players.