JW: Just when you thought you were through with our "lively banter," "unique writing approach," and "lack of any knowledge or research whatsoever," Mike and Jay have decided to team up once again to relive the magic of our football picking days with a stab at a sport with which we have even less knowledge, college basketball! And what better way to put our skills to the test then to make a few predictions about the upcoming SEC Tournament? The SEC had quite an interesting year, with the East dominating the West, and a mad rush near the end of the season for the all-important first round bye. Vanderbilt snagged that second seed, but then kind of stumbled into the tournament with a really bad loss at home to Arkansas. Will the 'Dores be able to rebound from that and put together a good tournament run? Can Florida get back to top form? How many hits is www.firetubbysmith.com going to get if UK loses to Bama? Will the West get a single team into the semifinals? Sure, all these questions (and more) will be answered in just a few days, but c'mon, it's always fun to speculate!
MO: It's the second of three times this season when all teams involved start with a clean slate, the past serving only as a pecking order and the standard by which each team will be judged. While that might be far too poetic for a basketball column, it's the state of affairs as we continue the most exciting month in all of college sports. After watching the Commodores roar through the Women's SEC Tournament last week-end, can we expect the men to show the same inspiration? Will the West decide to play basketball this weekend, or tuck tail and prepare for the Commodores top-ranked baseball squad? Will anyone be able stop Vanderbilt's claim to the throne in the three biggest sports currently running in the SEC? Do I have any more melodramatic questions to ask you? No! Onto the picks, which, as always, are meticulously researched by pulling facts out of thin air and have absolutely no bias, aside from those of the authors.
MO: We're going to pick sleepers first, those teams that might elude others in their analysis but won't miss our keen eye. In the East, I think you have to be wary of Georgia. They got the worst of the four-way battle for the second seed in the East and sit in fifth, just above the lowly Gamecocks. They have to play Auburn in the first round, but then face Florida in the quarterfinals. While the Gators looked good in their home win against Kentucky, let's face it -- who hasn't looked against in their home wins against Kentucky this season? (Again, that's www.firetubbysmith.com – tell ‘em Mike and Jay sent ya!) Georgia has one other key intangible here: they HAVE to have that win (and maybe even one more) to get into the Tournament. Florida needs it for a one seed, but should still be a two seed if they lose, as long as they're not blown out. The Bulldogs should come out on fire, and I'm not sure if Florida will be able to catch up before it's too late. I'll take Georgia in the upset to make it to the semifinals.
JW: It's hard to pick a "sleeper" team out of a division that was just so strong this year. Even South Carolina is capable of making a run, despite their relatively bad season. However, I'm with Mike here. It's hard to overlook a Georgia team that was essentially one game out of a bye in the Tournament. That five seed is very misleading, and like Mike said, they have a lot to play for. While I'm not as confident that they'll go as far, I think the Bulldogs have the potential to do some damage. They should have no problem with Auburn, and if Florida continues to nap until the NCAA Tournament, Georgia could definitely surprise them as well. While I don't think this will happen (as you'll see below), if I'm going to pick a sleeper in a division where four teams are almost expected to make the semifinals, Georgia's the way to go.
JW: It's tough to pick a "sleeper" for the West, if for no other reason than it's so muddled with mediocre teams. I guess you could say the Bulldogs are favored due to them winning the West and having a somewhat stronger close to their season, but let's face it - it's definitely no East. Honestly, I would pick LSU as my sleeper pick if not for one thing - they're up against UT to start things off, and I think UT is probably the strongest SEC team out there right now (sigh). If the Tigers didn't have to match up against UT this early, I'd pick them as a sleeper to make it to at least the semis, simply because they do have the talent - they just never got it together this season (Florida win notwithstanding). With all of that in mind, I think Alabama might actually be able to make some noise in the tournament. I know, I know, they've lost 5 of their last 7, including a home loss to Auburn, but hear me out. They're up against an underperforming UK squad that just had a demoralizing loss to Florida, and they beat UK by double figures back in February. If they can get past UK they get Mississippi State, another team that is certainly beatable. While this might be a little too much, I still think of all the teams not expected to do much, Alabama might be the most able to, uh, do something. How's that for a ringing endorsement?
MO: That's about as ringing as I'd be able to give anyone in the West – I just don't think that anyone from this year's junior division is going to be able to make it into the semifinals. Consider that fact that the West's top seed, Mississippi St., has the same record as the fifth seed in the East, Georgia, and since Georgia won this season's battle of the Bulldogs, MSU would actually be ranked BELOW Georgia! That said, I will take Arkansas, because of all the West teams playing on Thursday, they've got the best shot at making it to Saturday, if only since they play South Carolina in the first round. I don't see any team from the West beating Tennessee, Kentucky, or Georgia, so it'll just be the Razorbacks heading into a game with a Vanderbilt team that should be ready for revenge after a season-ending loss in Nashville. At least the Razorbacks will have that one SEC tournament win to comfort them as they head to the NIT. Um, congrats?
MO: It's really hard to pick just one, because this should be a case where there are 4 SEC East teams in the semifinals. Florida has the national spotlight for having a great season, though the ending might have been a little sour. Vanderbilt has raised a lot of eyebrows with how well they're playing, and Kentucky, despite being a shell of their usual selves, is still Kentucky and still looked upon favorably by a lot of folks in the media. You have to say, though, that going into this tournament, the favorite out of the East is Tennessee. They've won seven of their last eight, including a win over Florida, and have been playing inspired basketball since the return of Chris Lofton. They've got a great draw to the semis, facing LSU on Thursday and Ole Miss on Friday before a possible rubber match with Florida. If Bruce Pearl can keep this young team playing the way it has been, they should be able to at least reach the final, if not win the whole thing. They've gotten a lot of attention recently, and all of it deserved (aside from that woman's coach debacle), and a lot of folks will be looking for them to make noise this weekend.
JW: I'm going to disagree, if for no other reason than it makes for fun sportswriting! Seriously, though, I think Florida snaps out of its late-season funk and starts playing "17-game winning streak" basketball, as opposed to "lost to the worst team in the West" basketball. We all know they have the weapons, it's just a matter of desire. With the NCAA tournament just around the corner, I don't think the Gators want to give up their hold on a #1 seed. I definitely see them making the semifinals, and I would say they would be favored to run the table in the tournament. That's why I have them as a favorite out of the East. Whether being the favorite plays out in their favor remains to be seen, but it's just too difficult to overlook a team as talented as Florida, no matter how much I personally dislike them.
JW: My favorite in the West right now is actually Arkansas. They might have been inconsistent this season, but they have shown that when they're on, they can do some damage. It all comes down to whether or not Arkansas can put it together for the tournament. After seeing them take a sluggish Commodore team to the woodshed (after a 9-point win against West champion Mississippi State), on senior night no less, I've convinced myself that Arkansas is actually a better team than they are on paper and they're finally coming on strong. Sure, maybe that's what I want to see, because I also want to believe the loss to the Hogs wasn't nearly as bad as it looked. They had a few good wins early in the season (home against Bama, and then down in Tuscaloosa, as well as LSU when they were ranked), and as previously noted, they finished pretty strong. Arkansas has a pretty strong inside presence and could cause some serious problems for their first two opponents, South Carolina and Vandy. If they get through those first two rounds, they have a pretty favorable match-up against either Bama, Kentucky, or Miss. State. Sure, it's by no means an easy draw, but a more favorable draw than any of their other seeding would have gotten them (in my humble opinion). Of course, I think there are at least three East teams that could take Arkansas, so let's face it, I'm only picking Arkansas because we're trying to be fair and pick a favorite out of the West.
MO: Geez, do I have to pick a favorite out of the West? I think that, yes, Arkansas has been playing well recently, and took Vanderbilt to task in Nashville on Senior Day. However, I think you have to look at Mississippi St. as a favorite out of the West. They've played well all season, but more importantly, have a great draw to get there. After a bye on Thursday, they'll play either Auburn, who they swept in the regular season, or Kentucky, who only beat them by four at Rupp. Kentucky has also struggled down the stretch, losing five of their last 7, so I think that Mississippi St. has a great shot to pull of the upset (yes, I'd call it an upset despite UK being the E4 and MSU being the W1) and pull itself into the semifinals. Having said all that, I actually don't see ANY teams in the West making it to the semifinals. I'm merely thinking that of all the teams, the Bulldogs has the best shot at breaking through, and will in reality lose by the least.
MO: It's gonna be a fight between the beasts from the East. I'm going to go ahead and carry over my sleeper and favorite picks from the East and give you the following semi-final matches:
Vanderbilt v. Kentucky, and Georgia v. Tennessee
That's right, it's the same battle we saw for the first-round bye at the close of the season! In truth, I like Vanderbilt's match-up here better than against Mississippi St., as we swept Kentucky yet again this season. I know that Vandy ended the season with a disappointing loss to Arkansas, but I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and chalk that up to having little to play aside from seeding, and, let's face, winning this weekend is a lot more important than Saturday's game. Kentucky will be fighting to regain supremacy in the East, and will be looking for revenge after having lost to the Commodores in their last four meetings. Unfortunately, I just don't see it in the cards for the Tubster this weekend. Vanderbilt gets yet another first for the team as they reach the SEC tournament finals for the first time since its re-instatement, winning 73-64.
The Georgia/Tennessee game should be interesting from this standpoint – Tennessee will have 24 wins by that point and a lock for a good seed in the tournament. However, Georgia will be smack-dab on the bubble; 19-12 and just off a win over Florida. Neither team has a bye, so each team will be on their third game in as many nights. I have to say that, despite having played better basketball recently, I don't see Tennessee coming out with NEARLY the same desire that we'll see out of Georgia. The Bulldogs will know that they would need 20 wins to be a near-lock, and getting their 20th win over Tennessee would be a boon to their chances. I think a young Tennessee under-estimates a team they swept in the regular season and goes down in what will be the ugliest, yet closest game of the tournament. Georgia holds off Tennessee in the end, winning 62-58.
This sets up a Vanderbilt/Georgia final. The teams split the regular season series, and by now, both should be in the tournament with an at-large bid. This is one of the many things that Vanderbilt will have in its favor. Georgia simply won't have that same sense of urgency now that they're locked into a tournament bid. I think Vanderbilt's bye will loom large here, especially with Georgia having just been banged around by Florida and Tennessee in the previous 48 hours. I think the final key here is experience – Vanderbilt's lineup centers around juniors and seniors, something that the Bulldogs just don't have this season.
I like Vanderbilt to win easy here, not because Georgia is a bad team, but because I just don't think they'll be able to carry themselves for four games, especially with their brutal stretch before Sunday. I think that Vanderbilt will be able to get the advantage on the glass, which, combined with a good shooting performance, could result in one of the more lop-sided SEC Tournament finals in recent history. Look for Ross Neltner to make a name for himself here, especially with teams keying on Foster and Byars. I like Byars to lead all scorers in every game this weekend, and to be named MVP of the tournament with Neltner on the all-tourney team, as Vanderbilt cuts down their second set of nets in a week, bringing home an SEC Tournament title to match the women's.
JW: This speculation about East/West favorites and "sleepers" is all well and good, since it gives me an opportunity to do what I do best - waffle! Sure, Alabama could be a sleeper surprise, but since I picked them as a sleeper, nobody's going to come after me if I'm wrong, right? (Right?) Same with favorites, since we all know the favorites can always lay a giant egg, and I still would be in good company with my "favorites" picks. But now I'm being forced by the powers that be to actually make a prediction for how the semifinals and finals of the SEC Tournament shape up. There's no way around actually going out on a limb here, so I'll do my best. Of course, keep in mind my performance in actually picking games during football season...
Anyway, here are my semifinal match-ups - Alabama vs. Vanderbilt, and Florida vs. Tennessee.
These match-ups aren't too gutsy, aside from the fact that I'm sticking to my prediction of Alabama being a sleeper surprise. I just think they are going to benefit from Kentucky's rough season and they can definitely take State, considering how evenly matched most of the West teams are against each other. I just think 'Bama is fortunate to have the draw it got and will be able to win a couple. Sure, Vandy has a tough draw against either an Arkansas team that, well, we all know what happened last time they met, and a South Carolina team who always seems to have our number, even when we win. However, I think the Commodores are embarrassed about the Great Senior Night Debacle and are going to roll into the tournament with something to prove. Vanderbilt is a flat-out better team than USC or Arkansas, and I believe the Commodores will actually play like they are come Friday afternoon.
The other side of the semifinal match-up is somewhat of a no-brainer, if you ask me. Sure, Florida has been slumping lately, but I'm sure Coach Donovan will have them playing lights-out, now that it's important again. Florida wants to defend its championship and prove that they're still a legit #1 seed and national title contender. Also, they'll be up against Auburn or Georgia. Yeah, that shouldn't be too difficult for the Gators. As for Tennessee, I already said it once, and I'll say it again, the Vols are currently playing the best basketball in the SEC. If they can continue this roll, they should be able to handle LSU and Ole Miss without much problem.
As for the finals, this is much tougher. Of course, my heart is already pulling me in one direction, while my mind is forcing me to try to look at things objectively. The question really is, which Vanderbilt team will show up in the tourney? However, since I've already decided they'll make the semis, I must think that "good" Vanderbilt will show up, at least enough to beat Arkansas or USC. And if that happens, I think Vanderbilt certainly can take it to Alabama. The 'Dores overwhelmed the Tide early this season, and I believe they can do it again. Therefore, I say Vanderbilt makes the finals, winning 83-67.
On the other side, maybe I picked Florida/Tennessee because I know it would make for a ridiculously good game. If this match-up happens, I'll be happy - not just because I actually predicted something correctly for a change, but also because it should be a fun game to watch, no matter who you're rooting for. If it plays out this way, I'm going to say that Tennessee edges the Gators, namely because the Vols once again feel like they have something to prove and will embrace their underdog status as a team that didn't receive a first-round bye. I know I said earlier that Florida will play like it counts, but I just don't think they can stop the momentum of the big (ugly) orange machine. UT has the energy to win three tournament games back-to-back, beating the Gators 82-74, and setting them up for an historic match-up with the Black and Gold.
So there you have it, an SEC finals showdown between Vanderbilt and Tennessee. How does it go down? Let's see, I've said that Tennessee is playing the best basketball in the SEC right now, the teams split their previous series with Vanderbilt winning in Nashville on a last-second putback and Tennessee absolutely destroying Vandy in Knoxville, and Vanderbilt's end to the season left, shall we say, something to be desired. All signs point to UT winning this match-up if it happens, but I'm not convinced. If Vanderbilt makes it to the finals, and I think they can and will, it will mean that the 'Dores will have rediscovered how to play some serious basketball as they did when they were beating top 25 teams left and right. They'll also have the advantage of having only played two games to get there, whereas Tennessee will have played three games in back-to-back-to-back days. Momentum or no momentum, the Vols will be tired and almost out of gas. While playing a third game in as many days is no cakewalk either, it's obviously better than playing a fourth, and I believe this is ultimately what gives Vandy the edge. I see a close, hard-fought game until the final eight minutes, when the Vols just simply run out of steam and Vanderbilt pulls away. Ultimately, I see a Vanderbilt win, somewhere in the neighborhood of 78-63, with Shan Foster named tournament MVP thanks to his hot shooting, and Derrick Byars on the all-tournament team.
As much as this sounds like "Jay's Vanderbilt SEC Tournament Fantasy World," I really do think this can happen. I'll go ahead and say the two words that might come back to haunt me, and cause the blame for any tournament exit by Vanderbilt to be placed squarely on my shoulders:Book it.