What must happen for the Commodores to avoid more of the same? According to Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings, the Commodores must be 100% ready both physically and mentally. Coach Stallings admitted today that his squad was not ready mentally at last year's SEC Tournament.
When asked what Vandy must do differently from the regular season to win the Tournament, he said, "Most importantly, we must rebound more consistently, shoot the ball well, and our guards must commit very few turnovers while producing numerous assists."
Those statements apply to the 11 other conference teams. I have heard coaches say that above average defense, consistent domination of both boards, and intelligent shot selection will win tournaments. With that said, which of the 12 teams is most likely to do these things the best this weekend?
Immediately, I think we can eliminate a few teams that do not have the personnel to win three or four games in successive days. I could be 180 degrees off base here, but I do not see Alabama, LSU, Tennessee, Georgia, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State fitting the bill. These schools either have too little depth or lack the overall talent to play consistently tough defense, dominate the boards, or take mostly intelligent shots for three or four days.
Florida, Arkansas, and Kentucky appear to have the talent to dominate in these areas. The Gators have their weaknesses, but they have fewer weaknesses than anybody else. Their Friday game against more than likely Arkansas should be the key game in this tournament. If the Razorbacks can slow Al Horford, Corey Brewer, and Joakim Noah and force Taurean Green to shoot the ball 12-15 times, the Razorbacks could pull off the upset.
South Carolina to me is the team I wouldn't want to face in this tournament. On any given day, the Gamecocks can dominate just long enough to send someone else home. I don't know if they can do this more than two days, but they could easily make their way to the semifinals.
That leaves Auburn and Vanderbilt. Can the Commodores finally erase the War Eagle demon and beat the Tigers in the post-season? I don't hold much stock in superstitious gobbledygook. Auburn has won these past SEC Tournament games by beating Vanderbilt inside. The Commodores shouldn't have to worry about losing the inside battle in this game. If the perimeter players come out ready to play on the defensive end, the black and gold should be able to shut the Tiger offense down enough to win with just an average offensive output.
We cannot count on Auburn coming out in the same passive 1-3-1 zone they tried against Vandy in the regular season. Shan Foster, Derrick Byars, Dan Cage, Alex Gordon, and Mario Moore will shoot them out of the gym.
Playing with less depth in the paint may force Coach Stallings to rely more on his zone defenses. As long as the perimeter adequately closes the gaps in the weak spots, namely in the high post area, I actually think this could work in Vandy's favor. Teams frequently panic against strong zones in post-season play and turn the ball over more than average.
What I would do in this first game is to use a combination of man and zone defenses and try to force Auburn to shoot a high number of shots from the baseline. This will give the Commodores their best opportunity to rebound missed shots and immediately have a number's advantage. I know I mention this most every game, but it holds even more weight in tournament play. Cheap baskets (which includes fast break and early game points) will decide most every game in March Madness. When you get down to it, most teams are separated by no more than eight to 10 points. Scoring 10 more cheap baskets than the opponent will overcome the talent factor.
So, Vanderbilt needs to not only play consistently good defense, hold their own on the boards, and shoot intelligent shots, they must also find a way to score six to eight cheap baskets each day and hold the opponents to two or three. If you are watching at home, count the number of points scored by Vandy that you know will make the opponents' coaches reach for the antacid. If the Commodores come out on top by +10 every day, then maybe just maybe our heroes will pull off the shocker of the year. They are quite due to get hot for a long weekend.
As The Computers Turn
So how do the binarians rate this tournament? It depends on which computer rating you consult. Some say LSU is the class of the league, but none of them take into account that the Tigers more than likely plan to rest their injured contributors. Coach John Brady sounds like a baseball skipper of a team that has already clinched the pennant with two weeks to go in the season and plans on starting a couple of minor league pitchers, while giving his aces some time off.
Tennessee and Florida are the co-favorites among those ratings that don't agree that LSU is the class of the league.
Then, there is the little matter of determining how much, if any, Tennessee and Vanderbilt should be given for a possible home court advantage. Kentucky could just as easily stake claim to some advantage, as they should paint the seats blue when they play. The Wildcats have done quite well on this floor in the past.
I am going to issue two separate ratings predictions. The first one is the raw mean with no weighting applied whatsoever. The second rating will include some intangibles that I have added. It will penalize LSU for the reasons mentioned. It will penalize Alabama due to a severe lack of depth. It will reward those teams with enough talent to advance while knowing the title is required to advance to the Big Dance.
Raw Computer Predictions
South Carolina 62
Mississippi State 59
Ole Miss 64
South Carolina 75
L S U 74
L S U 70
South Carolina 65
Mississippi State 60
Ole Miss 60
South Carolina 74
L S U 66
South Carolina 70