The SEC Tournament tips off Wednesday night in Nashville. For the fourth time in John Calipari’s eight seasons at Kentucky, the Wildcats are the top seed. Here are five storylines to keep an eye on this weekend.
Who’s Getting Into the Tournament?
This question actually isn’t as difficult as it’s been in recent years. Four teams come to Nashville looking like they’re solidly in the field, and those four are the top four seeds in the tournament (Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas, and South Carolina). Meanwhile, nine teams would appear to need either the automatic bid or a minor miracle to make it in — we’ll talk if Georgia beats Kentucky, but the Bulldogs appear to be on the wrong side of the bubble for now, and Ole Miss might have an interesting case if it gets to the final.
That leaves Vanderbilt, who is ... controversial. The Commodores are currently 17-14, and a loss in the SEC Tournament would give them 15 losses for the season, and you’ll probably be reminded ten thousand times between now and Selection Sunday that no team has ever gotten an at-large bid with that many losses. With that said, if there’s ever going to be a 15-loss team to get in the field, it’s this one; the Commodores played the nation’s toughest non-conference schedule and have five top 50 wins. The Commodores probably need to beat Texas A&M in their first game on Thursday, though, and might need to beat Florida on Friday for good measure. But five bids might be the maximum: a surprise automatic bid winner might well come at Vanderbilt’s expense, particularly in light of the final being not long before the Selection Show airs.
Can One of the Wednesday Teams Make Noise?
In each of the last three years, one of the Wednesday teams — the bottom four teams in the conference standings since the SEC expanded to fourteen teams — has won a game on Thursday. In 2014, South Carolina knocked off Arkansas and might have ended the Razorbacks’ tournament hopes. In 2015, Auburn won three games to make it all the way to the semifinals before losing to Kentucky. And last year, Tennessee knocked off Vanderbilt when the Commodores’ attempt at a buzzer-beater came just after the horn.
This year, two of the bottom four -- LSU and Missouri — have already announced that they’re making coaching changes, so this is really about Auburn and Mississippi State. Both are young teams that have shown some promise this season, and either one is capable of winning on Thursday. The good news for the SEC is that neither would probably be ending anyone’s tournament hopes, though, as Vanderbilt is conveniently the 7-seed and wouldn’t see either of them on Thursday.
Does Sindarius Thornwell Have an Encore?
The South Carolina senior took home the SEC Player of the Year award on Tuesday after averaging 22.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 2.4 steals per game in conference play; the last number led the SEC. Thornwell is actually the first South Carolina player to win the award, and the first South Carolina player to win any conference Player of the Year award since John Roche won his second ACC Player of the Year in 1970 (Of course, it must be pointed out that South Carolina was not in a conference when the great Alex English played for them). Thornwell practically carried South Carolina on his back for much of the season; could he do the same in the SEC Tournament?
How Motivated Is Kentucky?
Kentucky has won four SEC Tournaments under John Calipari, including the last two. This year, they come in as the outright regular season champion and the top seed in the tournament.
That said — on paper, this team doesn’t really have a great deal to play for. They’re going to get a high seed in the NCAA Tournament — but they probably don’t have a real shot at a 1-seed. Even their spot in Indianapolis seems to be fairly secure. Of course, John Calipari is one of the best motivators in the business so all of this may not matter. But if there were ever a year that Kentucky could be excused for sleepwalking in the SEC Tournament, this might be it.
Kentucky has the best record in the league. Florida might actually be the best team in the league ... but might need to get past a Vanderbilt team that’s beaten them twice. South Carolina has the best player in the league. Vanderbilt probably has the most to play for — and is also playing two miles from campus.
While it feels like this is the most wide-open the conference tournament has been in a while, Ken Pomeroy’s forecast disagrees, seeing this as mostly a contest between Kentucky and Florida. The Wildcats have, per Pomeroy’s formula, a 39.2 percent chance of winning the tournament, while the Gators have a 36.4 percent chance. On the other hand, since 2012, the only time that the favorite has had lower odds of winning the thing was last year — when Kentucky and Texas A&M tied for the regular season title.
I think Florida will be cutting down the nets on Sunday, but given the way this season has gone, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if something weird happens, either.