What to watch for as the SEC Basketball Tournament tips off

Posted on Mar 8 2017 - 8:00am by Griffin Neal

The 2017 SEC Basketball Tournament tips off Wednesday evening at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. Per usual, the talk of the tournament will be centered around the literal and figurative “blue blood” Kentucky Wildcats. UK finished SEC play 16-2 and currently ranks eighth in the nation. Kentucky, led by the freshman trio of Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo, has won eight straight games heading into Nashville and is gearing up for a deep tournament. But despite its recent run and propensity to win SEC tournaments, there are in fact other things to watch for. Here are four questions to think about while watching next week’s conference tournament.

Will Vanderbilt ride out this momentum?

The Vanderbilt Commodores have won five of their last six games, with their lone loss coming by way of a six-point defeat at the hands of Kentucky. Despite its average overall record, most bracketologists predict Vanderbilt to receive an at-large bid in Sunday’s tournament selection. Vanderbilt’s tournament resume is padded by five RPI top-30 wins, including not one but two wins over projected No. 3 seed Florida.

Vanderbilt is a team that embodies the mantra, “live by the three, die by the three.” It leads the conference in 3-point attempts, makes and percentage (38 percent). In a single elimination-style format, this basketball philosophy can be problematic. If the three balls aren’t falling for the Commodores, an early exit may be in the future. But if they are playing like they have been lately, a deep tournament run could be in the mix, as well.

Who will be this year’s darling?

In four of the past five SEC Tournaments, a No. 11 seed or lower has reached the conference quarterfinals, with a double-digit seed making it to the semifinal round in three of the last five. This year’s bottom four, Missouri, LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn, are unusually weak this year. Of the four bottom-dwellers, Mississippi State possesses the greatest fire power for a potential upset. The Bulldogs played close contests with SEC powerhouses Kentucky and Florida, almost securing an upset in both. They’re led by the dynamic combo of Quinndary Weatherspoon and freshman point guard Lamar Peters. When “on,” this pairing is lethal. And they have arguably the easiest road to a semifinal, facing off with potentially LSU, Alabama and South Carolina – all teams trending downwards of late.

Is this just a delayed Wildcat coronation?

As mentioned, Kentucky is the talk of the tournament. Winners of eight straight games, the Wildcats are far and above the gold standard in a conference that is regularly regarded nationally as an after-thought in college basketball. And Kentucky, with all of its NBA talent and recruiting prowess, continues to churn out teams that roll through SEC play. Winning five of the past eight SEC Tournaments, head coach John Calipari is no stranger to the challenges of post-season basketball. The team boasts two projected lottery picks in its backcourt in De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, a “veteran” sophomore do-it-all guard in Isaiah Briscoe and Dwight Howard lite (aka Bam Adebayo).

Critics of the team will point to bad losses this year against Tennessee and Florida, but those can honestly be attributed to the fact that this team is comprised of a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds. As they’ve matured and learned how to more effectively work as a cohesive unit, they have begun to throttle teams. Over their recent eight-game win streak, they’ve averaged 77 points a game and beaten their opponents by more than 10 points a game on average. Vegas has UK as a +100 to win the SEC crown; it’ll be interesting to see if it shows up for its coronation.

Which Ole Miss team will show up in Nashville?

The Ole Miss Rebels, a team mired all year by inconsistency, have their final shot this week to prove that they’re a contender and not a pretender, like most of college basketball seems to think. This 2016-2017 team is one that has pushed Baylor, Creighton and Florida to the brink, won 19 games and boasts two of the SEC’s more dynamic offensive threats in Sebastian Saiz and Deandre Burnett. This team has also lost to Georgia by 22, lost to Arkansas by 18 and consistently fails to show up when the lights get a little bright.

Predicted to finish ninth in the SEC, head coach Andy Kennedy’s squad defied expectations once again, finishing tied for fifth with Alabama. Despite their No. 6 seed, Vegas oddsmakers give them the tenth best chance to bring the SEC title back to Oxford. It wasn’t too long ago that an unproven Ole Miss team 3-point-bombed its way to an SEC title, and despite its No. 3 seed, it was only given +1200 odds to win it all. If anything can be learned from this year’s Ole Miss team, it’s to never underestimate it. Led by the double-double machine Saiz, the Ole Miss Rebels will face the winner of Missouri and LSU Thursday night.

SEC Tournament action tips off at 6 p.m. Wednesday as Mississippi State takes on Tennessee.