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SEC TOURNAMENT — ENTIRELY NEW FEEL, BUT OLD FLAVOR COULD EMERGE

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Everyone who has followed SEC basketball knew this year was likely to be different from the recent past. It was -- but with plot complications and abrupt turns of fortune no one could have anticipated.

Everyone who has followed SEC basketball knew the league was going to be deeper and more formidable in 2018. It has been -- but not to the extent that the league's Final Four prospects are noticeably better than in the days when either Kentucky or Florida took turns ruling the roost.

This year of SEC basketball has simultaneously been predictable and surprising, encouraging but also disappointing. The league will get at least seven teams into the NCAA Tournament, a buffet table of success which casts "SEC Basketball Fever" into the dustbin of history. The league will also lack a team seeded as high as No. 2 unless Auburn wins this weekend's event in St. Louis and gets a pinch of help elsewhere in the country.

The SEC is the league which had as many as 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament hunt in late February, a clear sign that the coaching upgrades and better RPI manipulation in the league over the past few years have paid off. The SEC is also the league where only two teams are likely to be seeded higher than 5, which feels a lot like the Kentucky-and-Florida days, when two and only two conference teams had a realistic shot of going to the Final Four.

The SEC is the conference in which one coach at an Alabama-based member school -- Bruce Pearl -- has become everything his fans hoped he would be... and where another, Avery Johnson, has to beat Texas A&M to avoid a disastrous tailspin to the NIT which would make Anthony Grant look pedestrian by comparison.

The SEC is a league in which three sets of Tigers -- Auburn, Missouri and LSU -- all exceeded expectations. It is also a league in which the bluebloods in Lexington and Gainesville went through miserable stretches and, despite flickers of brilliance, will have very tough paths in the NCAA Tournament due to their struggles. Florida has an outside shot at a top-4 NCAA seed should it win the SEC Tournament, but even then, a four seed is a few notches lower than what the Gators were hoping for this year.

These and many other contradictions encompass an SEC reality in which the league is undeniably better, healthier and deeper than it has been in a long time... and yet has not created the high-end heft many were hoping for heading into this season.

This complicated but improving league now heads to the Scottrade Center in the Gateway City, which is itself a change from the familiar worlds of either Nashville or Atlanta. The "Meet Me in St. Louis" movie plotline gives the SEC Tournament a new feel at a time when the conference is rapidly changing.

The great irony, then, is that if you look at where the chips fell in the tournament bracket, the best bet for a final could be a battle between the members of the Old Guard.

Yes, this SEC Tournament could cut in all sorts of directions. Yes, the larger theme of the 2018 SEC season is that no team other than Auburn remained great for more than two weeks at a time. Volatility was the most constant part of the landscape over the past two months, so if you think chaos will reign in St. Louis, you are using sound logic. (Just don't pick a Day 1 team to win the whole thing by going on a five-game binge. Anything else is in play.)

Nevertheless, one can make a very strong case that in a very deep and balanced league coming off a regular season marked by instability, the two schools synonymous with SEC basketball this century are the teams best positioned to meet on Sunday in the final.

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The first particularly important event at this SEC Tournament will be Thursday afternoon's first game between ninth-seeded Alabama and eighth-seeded Texas A&M. Alabama isn't guaranteed to miss the NCAA Tournament with a loss, but the Tide would certainly land on the middle of the bubble and would have no one else to blame if they don't get in. Alabama would lock up a bid with a win. My advice to the Tide: Beat A&M and remove stress from Selection Sunday.

Once that drama -- the sole point of intrigue at this tournament in terms of reshaping the NCAA Tournament field -- is over, the focus will shift to the chase for a tournament championship and a boost in NCAA seeding. Within that chase, the Price is Right Plinko chips have fallen in such a way that Kentucky and Florida have to like their chances of advancing.

Let's start with the top half of the bracket, where Kentucky managed to snag a double-bye, a primary advantage for any team pursuing a conference tournament title. The Wildcats do not have an easy draw, but within that difficult path lies a pair of notable benefits which could give John Calipari's team a critical boost.

What works against Kentucky at this tournament is having to play Missouri in St. Louis. UK fans will represent themselves well, as they always do, but in The Lou, facing Missouri in a possible Friday quarterfinal will create a less comfortable environment for Big Blue. Nashville or Atlanta would offer bigger partisan crowds for the Cats. This location is not as friendly, given the draw they received. Yet, in a larger context, Kentucky still has reason to think it got a fair deal in this bracket.

The big story beyond the Alabama bubble drama at this SEC Tournament will be the possible return of Michael Porter, Jr. to the court for Missouri. Tiger coach Cuonzo Martin did a better job this year than in any of his seasons at Tennessee and -- it can be argued -- at any of his previous coaching stops. One can legitimately say that with Michael Porter (I refer to "Michael" a second time because brother Jontay is also on the MU roster), Mizzou has a shot at the Final Four. However, common sense suggests that Michael Porter's emergence on the floor does not confer an automatic advantage to the Tigers in a meeting with Kentucky on Friday.

Have you seen the Cleveland Cavaliers play the past few weeks with their new lineup? Even with seasoned professionals, and even with LEBRON JAMES leading the roster, this team needs time to mesh and prepare for the playoffs. Lineup combinations and player rotations -- these delicate blends of roles and responsibilities -- must be juggled and adjusted. The natural, second-nature cohesion basketball players need in order to create a fluid, humming machine at both ends of the floor is not arrived at immediately.

Could it be that Michael will become the "Tele-Porter" Missouri needs to turn into a juggernaut? Yes, he certainly could. Yet, one should not be surprised if the Tigers' identity and rotations become cluttered and do not click together. Kentucky is hardly a finished product in its own right, and Saturday's loss at Florida showed how far away the Cats are from becoming truly great, but it can be acknowledged that the UK lineup has evolved over the course of the season.

P.J. Washington has improved. Quade Green has improved. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been the most consistent player on the team. Kevin Knox dips in and out of top form, but he has generally been a better player over the past month compared to January.

Yet, while those players all deserve recognition in saving Kentucky from a 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament (UK is currently in the neighborhood of a 6 seed), and while Hamidou Diallo lags behind the curve (he is the player UK needs to come alive in March), the Wildcats have become a better team because they have had time to integrate one player into their lineup: Jarred Vanderbilt is a suction-cup, energy-rich rebounder who has given the Cats nine lives... or less metaphorically, many extra possessions in games since he became a regular rotation player. Vanderbilt's prowess on the glass has imbued Kentucky with a newfound toughness while reducing the workload for other interior players. Kentucky is deeper, but more instructively, the Cats have learned how to operate in their new lineup rotations.

Missouri has not had that chance with Michael Porter, and one game against Georgia or Vanderbilt on Thursday will not solve Cuonzo's quandaries.

If Michael Porter had cracked the Mizzou lineup three weeks ago, this would likely be a much more difficult test for Kentucky. As things stand, Missouri is not an easy draw -- especially in St. Louis -- but specific surrounding circumstances make the game more complicated for the Tigers, not the Wildcats.

Should Kentucky get past that test, the semifinals -- like the quarterfinals -- would not be easy, but would also give UK a noticeable benefit in a specific matchup.

Auburn was the SEC's best team this season, and the top-seeded Tigers will not be easy to solve for any opponent they face. Nevertheless, the AU team Kentucky might face on Saturday is not the same team the Cats confronted in February.

Anfernee McLemore gave Auburn heft and ruggedness in the paint and on the glass. He offered a measure of size to what is generally an undersized roster. He helped Auburn turn back Kentucky at a time when the Wildcats were immersed in their four-game losing streak. In Auburn's next game after that Kentucky contest, McLemore was lost for the remainder of the season with an injury. Kentucky, meanwhile, has grown better as a team, specializing in cleaning the backboard with Vanderbilt -- not the Commodores, but Jarred -- leading the way. Don't write-off the Vandy though, if their shots are falling anything can happen. If Mustapha Heron, Bryce Brown, and the rest of Auburn's three-point bombers can shoot well, yes, the Tigers will love their chances against Kentucky. Yet, tournament basketball more easily becomes a grind rather than a track meet, and if Auburn doesn't shoot well or (its Plan B ) feast at the foul line, the Tigers are highly unlikely to stand up to Kentucky in a rebounding contest. If Auburn isn't supremely efficient on offense, Kentucky is poised to wear down the smaller and not-as-deep Tigers over the course of 40 minutes.

Kentucky is not a complete team, but the opponents in its path must overcome significant obstacles to get past the Cats this weekend.

In the bottom half of the tournament bracket, Florida has the best chance of getting to the final for a simpler reason: It is playing the best ball of any team in that part of the draw.

Florida showed how formidable it could be the past few weeks when its talented scorers, Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen, are playing well. This recalls last season's NCAA Tournament, in which the Gators played a virtually perfect game against Virginia (which is certainly no pushover, and more precisely not a team it is easy to play well against) in the Round of 32. Florida did what it often managed to do under Billy Donovan: Craft a very good NCAA Tournament and fall just short of the Final Four.

The 2018 team can author the same story, and recent wins over Auburn and Kentucky show how high the Gators' ceiling is. They were still in their February rut when they lost to Tennessee, their likely opponent in a possible Saturday semifinal. Now they are playing on a much higher plane, the level Mike White expected when this season began. Tennessee was the much better team over the course of the full regular season, but Florida has always had the better high-end talent, and if that talent shows up in St. Louis, the Gators will become the team to beat -- not just in the lower half of the bracket, but in the whole event, given Auburn's limitations in the aftermath of the McLemore injury.

Arkansas and Texas A&M will want to improve their NCAA seedings, chiefly in the hope of avoiding an 8-9 game in the first round of the Big Dance. LSU and Mississippi State will play on Thursday to send the other to the NIT and begin what they hope will be a four-day stretch leading to a surprise automatic bid (which would knock Alabama out of the NCAAs should the Tide fall to A&M). Georgia will try to make a miracle run and extend coach Mark Fox's career, which is likely to end as long as the Dawgs fail to reach the NCAA Tournament. Those are all stories worth keeping an eye on in the shadows of the Gateway Arch.

Yet, at this new-look SEC Tournament in a new city -- following a transformative yet complicated season for the league -- the old reliables from Lexington and Gainesville could very easily decide the whole shebang on Sunday afternoon.

It would be the kind of ironic twist which -- in its own way -- would perfectly end this expected-yet-volatile season of SEC basketball.



DATE TIME (CT) GAME TV
FIRST ROUND - Wed., March 7 6 p.m. Game 1: No. 12 seed Georgia vs No. 13 seed Vanderbilt SEC Network
Game 2: No. 11 seed South Carolina vs No. 14 seed Ole Miss SEC Network
SECOND ROUND - Thurs., March 8 12 p.m. Game 3: No. 9 seed Alabama vs No. 8 seed Texas A&M SEC Network
Game 4: No. 5 seed Missouri vs Game 1 winner SEC Network
6 p.m. Game 5: No. 10 seed LSU vs No. 7 seed Mississippi State SEC Network
Game 6: No. 6 seed Arkansas vs Game 2 winner SEC Network
QUARTERFINALS - Fri., March 9 12 p.m. Game 7: No. 1 seed Auburn vs Game 3 winner ESPN
Game 8: No. 4 seed Kentucky vs Game 4 winner ESPN
6 p.m. Game 9: No. 2 seed Tennessee vs Game 5 winner SEC Network
Game 10: No. 3 seed Florida vs Game 6 winner SEC Network
SEMIFINALS - Sat., March 10 12 p.m. Game 11: Game 7 winner vs Game 8 winner ESPN
Game 12: Game 9 winner vs Game 10 winner ESPN
CHAMPIONSHIP - Sun., March 11 12 p.m. Game 13: Game 11 winner vs Game 12 winner ESPN
Future SEC Men's Basketball Tournament Dates & Sites
DATES VENUE LOCATION
March 13-17, 2019 Bridgestone Arena Nashville, TN
March 11-15, 2020 Bridgestone Arena Nashville, TN
March 10-14, 2021 Bridgestone Arena Nashville, TN
March 9-13, 2022 Amalie Arena Tampa, FL
March 8-12, 2023 Bridgestone Arena Nashville, TN
March 13-17, 2024 Bridgestone Arena Nashville, TN
March 12-16, 2025 Bridgestone Arena Nashville, TN

 

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