College Basketball Nation: 2010 SEC tournament

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- John Calipari was lobbying for them. So were the Kentucky players.

Freshman guard John Wall called the Mississippi State Bulldogs one of the five best teams the Wildcats have played this season. He raved about Mississippi State senior forward Jarvis Varnado, calling him the best defensive presence in the country.

The No. 2-ranked Wildcats were genuinely impressed.

But unless there’s a surprise on the NCAA tournament Selection Show later Sunday, it doesn’t sound like Bulldogs’ resume is going to be impressive enough.

They played their hearts out and stood toe-to-toe Sunday with the Wildcats before losing a 75-74 heartbreaker in overtime that left Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury in tears.

[+] EnlargeRick Stansbury
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesRick Stansbury and Mississippi State came up just short again against Kentucky.
“I’ve been in that locker room a lot of times, walked into it the last 12 years, win some and lose some,” said Stansbury, who had to pause a couple of times to gather himself. “But I’ve never walked into a locker room where I was more proud of a bunch of guys, what they did out there today.

“The score has no bearing on how I feel about what they accomplished out there today, because it was amazing.”

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the score will have a bearing on their NCAA tournament hopes.

In his latest projection, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Bulldogs (23-11) out of the tournament, the second team out. An emotional Stansbury wasn’t in the mood to do much lobbying in the aftermath of his team’s bitter loss.

“My opinion is like it always is. I have no opinion because my opinion doesn’t matter,” said Stansbury, who’s taken the Bulldogs to six NCAA Tournaments. “I’ve been through this 12 years. My opinion absolutely doesn’t matter.

“What should matter is anybody that witnesses what we’ve accomplished, what our team has done, witness that game right there. … And, again, this wouldn’t even be a conversation if it wasn’t for the other overtime loss we had to them.”

Kentucky rallied from a seven-point deficit in the final three minutes a month ago in Starkville for an 81-75 win.

“That’s twice now that we couldn’t hold them,” senior guard Barry Stewart said in a somber Mississippi State locker room. “We knew what we were playing for. I just hope the committee looks at what we did here this week and how close we came.”

It’s safe to say that the committee will, but it will also no doubt look at the home loss to Rider to open the season, the loss to Western Kentucky and an ugly loss to Tennessee on Senior Day.

“I still think we’ve done enough and proven that we’re one of the teams that should be in the tournament,” said Varnado, who had 18 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots. “If we could have just finished this game, we wouldn’t have to worry about it.”

As it was, the finish -- particularly in regulation -- was about as crazy as it gets.

With a three-point lead, Stansbury made the decision to foul in the final seconds.

“We wanted to take a few seconds off the clock and then foul,” explained Stewart, the one who fouled Kentucky’s Eric Bledsoe with 4.9 seconds left in regulation.

The unfortunate part for Stewart was that he fouled out.

“I can’t tell you how hard it was watching those last few seconds from the bench and then the overtime,” he said.

Bledsoe made the first three throw and purposely missed the second. The ball took a funky bounce and came off the hands of Patrick Patterson toward the corner. John Wall chased it down, stepped back behind the 3-point line and fired up an air ball.

That’s right, if the ball draws iron, the Bulldogs are probably celebrating right now.

But DeMarcus Cousins grabbed the air ball, turned and put it in to just barely beat the buzzer.

Varnado, who was brilliant Sunday with his ability to block shots and alter shots, admitted that he didn’t really go after Cousins’ shot because he was sure the time had run out.

“It’s like those 4.9 seconds went on forever,” Varnado said. “It was just a bad bounce (on the free-throw miss). We’ve gotten a few of those.”

Even Cousins admitted that it almost seemed like fate was against the Bulldogs

“We were not supposed to win this one,” Cousins said. “Out of all the wins we’ve had, this was probably the luckiest one.”

And the hardest one for the Bulldogs, who left Nashville soon after conducting interviews and were scheduled to land in Starkville about the time the Selection Show was beginning.

“That’s the bad thing. It’s in somebody else’s hands now,” Stewart said.

Kentucky 75, Miss. State 74 (OT)

March, 14, 2010
John WallJim Brown/US PresswireJohn Wall and Kentucky outlast Mississippi State in double overtime on Sunday.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Mississippi State gave Kentucky a sliver of daylight Sunday at the end of regulation, and that’s all the No. 2-ranked Wildcats needed to survive 75-74 in overtime in a thrilling SEC tournament championship game.

The Bulldogs, playing for their NCAA tournament lives, had a five-point lead with just under two minutes to play in regulation, but missed three straight free throws, the final one a front end of a one-and-one by sophomore point guard Dee Bost.

Kentucky forced overtime on DeMarcus Cousins’ put-back that just barely beat the buzzer. The officials reviewed the replay and confirmed the basket was good.

The Wildcats (32-2) were trailing 64-61, and Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury instructed his players to foul intentionally. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, it was senior guard Barry Stewart who did the fouling, his fifth of the game, and he wasn’t on the floor for any of the overtime.

Kentucky’s Eric Bledsoe made the first free throw with 4.9 seconds to play and purposely missed the second. It was a “good” miss, with the ball bouncing long. John Wall got off a jumper that was short, but Cousins was there to put it back -- setting off a wild celebration.

"The time never ran out. It was the longest 4.9 seconds of my life," Stewart lamented.

Give Mississippi State credit. The Bulldogs battled in overtime and had their chances despite Bridgestone Arena being filled to the brim with blue-clad Kentucky fans.

But an off-balance 3-pointer by Wall to beat the shot-clock buzzer with 27.6 seconds to play was the knockout blow.

All 11 of Kentucky’s points in overtime were scored by freshmen.

It was a bitter loss for Mississippi State, which according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, needed to win to get into the NCAA tournament.

The Wildcats, meanwhile, probably locked up the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With its NCAA tournament fate hanging in the balance, Mississippi State is playing some inspired basketball.

They’re not backing down, either, from a Kentucky team that’s bigger, deeper and more athletic.

The smaller Bulldogs won the rebounding battle in the first half and took a 35-31 lead into the locker room over the No. 2-ranked Wildcats.

The first 20 minutes was easily the best half of basketball the SEC tournament has seen this week.

Ravern Johnson had 12 points in the first half for the Bulldogs and was 5-of-7 from the field. When he’s shooting the ball well, Mississippi State is a different team. He didn’t play in the first game between the teams a month ago because he was suspended.

For Kentucky, freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins continues to have a yo-yo tournament. After dominating the interior against Tennessee in the semifinals, he was held scoreless in the first half Sunday. He picked up two fouls and only played eight minutes.

It was also a quiet half for Kentucky freshman point guard John Wall, who was 1-of-6 from the field for two points.

The Wildcats only had three offensive rebounds in the first half.

The Bulldogs have been able to stay out of foul trouble. The only guy with two is Barry Stewart.

A look at the SEC tournament final

March, 14, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- John Calipari has changed his tune a bit.

The tournament that counts is absolutely the NCAA tournament, and his Kentucky Wildcats are on track to be the No. 1 overall seed in that field when the selections are unveiled later Sunday evening.

Don McPeak/US PresswireCoach John Calipari is inspired by the amount of Kentucky fans who have traveled to Nashville.
But being a part of his first SEC tournament and seeing the Kentucky fans take over Bridgestone Arena the way they have has caused him to re-evaluate the importance of this event.

Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that he made it clear that he wasn’t brought to Kentucky to win SEC tournament championships.

But with the Wildcats poised to win their first one since 2004 (and their 26th overall), Calipari has warmed up to the idea of this all of a sudden being a big deal.

“Let me tell you what’s changed for me, only one thing because I’ve never worried about a league championship or a tournament championship,” Calipari said. “It’s all based on the seed in the national NCAA tournament. Anybody that says the seed is not important has never coached in the NCAA tournament.

“So for us to play here and finish so that we keep that seed is important. Here’s what’s more important: When I see a building full of blue fans who paid a lot of money for tickets, $500, $1,000, probably people who could not afford to pay a $500 or $1,000, they’re taking their vacation in Nashville, Tennessee to watch our team play.

“Well, then, you kind of feel as coach that you owe it to them to give it your best.”

Now there might have been a vintage Calipari exaggeration or distortion thrown in there somewhere for good measure.

Sort of like this one: “They tell me 180,000 fans came to Nashville. Is that true? Kentucky fans? And only 17,000 could get in that building.”

No, coach, that’s probably not true.

But your point is well taken. This is indeed Rupp Arena South right now. Just ask Tennessee.

The Vols were playing about 170 miles away from campus, in their own state capital, no less, and ranked No. 13 nationally. But the blue in the arena outnumbered the orange 9-to-1. And any time the Tennessee band tried to play “Rocky Top,” it was drowned out by chants of “Go Big Blue.”

“Don’t let Coach Cal fool you,” Kentucky freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins said. “Coach Cal wants to win. We want to win this.”

So, yes, the Big Blue faithful can taste another SEC title, and so it seems can this Kentucky basketball team.

Here’s a closer look at Sunday’s game:

Mississippi State (23-10) vs. Kentucky (31-2), 1 p.m. ET

What’s at stake: This whole bubble thing is obviously a fluid situation, and it didn’t break real well for Mississippi State late Saturday night. According to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, New Mexico State’s upset of Utah State in the WAC tournament championship game knocked the Bulldogs out of the field as an at-large team. That means they would have to knock off Kentucky on Sunday to claim the SEC’s automatic berth. Prior to the WAC championship game, Lunardi had Mississippi State in. Here’s the other thing: If the Bulldogs don’t win Sunday and are indeed left out of the field, it looks like only three SEC teams will make it for the second straight year. Lunardi’s latest projection also has Florida out. The Wildcats certainly don’t want any slip-ups this close to the NCAA tournament. But regardless of what happens Sunday, they’re a No. 1 seed and likely the No. 1 overall seed in the tourney.

Scouting the game: The Kentucky twosome of Eric Bledsoe and Darnell Dodson was 7-of-14 from 3-point range in the 74-45 semifinal win over Tennessee. With the Wildcats getting that kind of 3-point shooting, freshman point guard John Wall said it best: “If we’re knocking down shots, we feel no team can beat us.” And when the 6-11 Cousins plays the way he did on Saturday with his energy and his offensive rebounding, this is a team that’s going to maul people. That said, the Bulldogs had them beat a month ago, but couldn’t hold onto a seven-point lead late and lost in overtime. Senior forward Jarvis Varnado, who’s blocked 10 shots in the last two games, wasn’t on the floor much after halftime. He was saddled with foul trouble. Also, the Bulldogs were playing without one of their top scorers, Ravern Johnson, who was suspended. This is not a deep Mississippi State team, so the Bulldogs have to stay out of foul trouble on Sunday and not allow the Wildcats to wear them down in transition. Getting the play Mississippi State did off the bench from Phil Turner in the semifinals will be big, too. He had 11 points and five rebounds against Vanderbilt.

Wildcat to watch: Wall was in the vicinity of a triple-double on Saturday with 14 points, nine assists and six rebounds. He was the difference down the stretch in the first win over Mississippi State with his ability to get to the basket. There’s nobody quite like him in the college game, but it should be a good matchup at the point guard spot Sunday. Mississippi State’s Dee Bost has the quickness to hang with him and isn’t a shabby penetrator in his own right.

Bulldog to watch: Senior guard Barry Stewart isn’t playing too far away from his hometown of Shelbyville, Tenn., and would love to win a second straight SEC title so close to home. He scored 14 points against Vanderbilt, but was only 1-of-6 from 3-point range. He’s typically a better shooter than that and will need to shoot it better against the Wildcats. He’s also one of the better perimeter defenders in the SEC, which means clamping down on Bledsoe and not letting him get started will be critical for the Bulldogs.

They said it: “We’re going to play like they’re cheering for us out there. That’s the only way you can look at it. Our guys, we understand what we’re up against. That crowd, that’s not what’s going to affect what’s between those lines. We’ve got to control what’s between those lines. That’s our toughest challenge.”- - Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Rick Stansbury and his Mississippi State Bulldogs have been here before.

[+] EnlargeRick Stansbury
Don McPeak/US PresswireRick Stansbury's Mississippi State Bulldogs have to go through No. 2 Kentucky on Sunday.
They had to win four games in four days a year ago to get into the NCAA tournament.

This time, all they have to do is win three games in three days. Never mind that it’s No. 2-ranked Kentucky that stands in their way Sunday in the SEC championship game.

“They’re one of the best teams in the country, and when they came to our place, we had them. But it slipped out of our hands,” Mississippi State senior forward Jarvis Varnado said. “We want this rematch, and we’ll be up for it.”

The Bulldogs (23-10) suffered a bitter 81-75 loss to the Wildcats in overtime on Feb. 16. Not that anybody in Starkville needs a refresher, but the last 10 fouls in that game went against the Bulldogs.

And that’s not to mention an obvious goal-tend that wasn’t called against Kentucky’s John Wall in overtime after he slapped away Dee Bost’s layup attempt.

If just one of those calls goes the Bulldogs’ way, maybe they’re not in this position right now. They’d probably already be in the NCAA tournament with the strength of a win over Kentucky under their belts.

But Stansbury deals in reality, and the reality is that the Bulldogs need to win their second straight SEC tournament championship to be assured of their third straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

He’s not going to consume himself with whether or not the Bulldogs are the “first team out” or the “first team in.”

The only bubble he’s worried about is bursting Kentucky’s bubble.

“I think it’s obvious our kids -- we haven’t worried about [the NCAA tournament talk],” Stansbury said. “They’ve worried about the things that they’ve got to worry about. That’s what happens between the lines. That’s the only thing we’re in charge of.”

Still, it’s impossible not to notice all the different projections out there. About an hour after Mississippi State polished off Vanderbilt 62-52 in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi published his latest Bubble Watch, and it had Mississippi State as the last team in.

In fact, Lunardi now has Mississippi State replacing Florida in the NCAA field in his latest update. (Editor's note: After this post, New Mexico State "stole" a bid by winning the WAC late Saturday night, thus Mississippi State is now the "first team out," according to Lunardi.)

“If we win enough games, that’s going to take care of itself,” Stansbury said.

Varnado, who's blocked 10 shots in the last two games, did a lot of watching the last time Mississippi State faced Kentucky. He picked up his third and fourth fouls in a five-second span early in the second half and only played 23 minutes in the game. The Bulldogs were also without one of their top scorers, Ravern Johnson, who was suspended for the game.

"The last game, we had them," said Bost, referring to the 67-60 lead Mississippi State lost in the final three minutes of regulation. "So we know what we've got to do to win."

Mississippi State 62, Vanderbilt 52

March, 13, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- This SEC tournament thing seems to be right up Mississippi State's alley.

The Bulldogs are back in the championship game after dispatching Vanderbilt 62-52 behind a flurry of blocked shots from senior Jarvis Varnado down the stretch.

With the win, the question will intensify in Starkville: Have the Bulldogs done enough now to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament? They can eliminate all the drama by taking down Kentucky and claiming the SEC's automatic berth on Sunday in the championship game.

The Bulldogs (23-10) got in last year by winning four games in four days. It would be three games in three days this year.

From the outset, Mississippi State looked like the hungrier team, and Varnado took over the game defensively in the final minutes. He finished with 11 points, nine rebounds and six blocks. Three of those blocks came with the Commodores (24-8) trying to make a move in the final minutes.

Wall: We weren't going to be punked

March, 13, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- In the words of Kentucky freshman guard John Wall, the Wildcats weren’t going to be punked this time.

They felt like that’s what happened the last time they played Tennessee. The Vols played harder, played tougher and played like it meant more to them -- particularly to open the game in Knoxville.

AP Photo/Dave MartinKentucky's John Wall was a man on a mission against Tennessee in the SEC semifinals.
Not this time, though. And not in this tournament, which might as well be played in Rupp Arena.

“The blue dust is everywhere. It’s incredible,” Kentucky coach John Calipari exclaimed.

So were his No. 2-ranked Wildcats, who broke the Vols’ will in the second half and handed Bruce Pearl the most lopsided loss of his Tennessee career, a 74-45 beatdown that went from a reasonably close game to a rout about as quickly as Wall goes from one baseline to the other.

“Coach told us, ‘Don’t let them play harder than you,’ ” said Kentucky freshman Eric Bledsoe, who was 4-of-5 from 3-point range in the second half. “That’s how we came out. We knew it was going to be a battle when we first set foot on the court.”

A battle? Maybe. But not a professional wrestling match.

The Wildcats (31-2) suggested the Vols tried to turn it into the latter. There were two double technical fouls called, and Tennessee guard Melvin Goins was ejected with 3:33 remaining for a flagrant foul. Replays showed him delivering a cheap shot to the midsection of Kentucky freshman DeMarcus Cousins that landed a little too close to comfort for Cousins’ liking.

“I was a little heated after that one,” said Cousins, who had 19 points and 15 rebounds. “It was a good, competitive clean game, and that just changed the whole game.”

Cousins said what really got him going was Tennessee reserve forward Steven Pearl, who went after Cousins physically early in the game and tried to get under his skin.

“I know what his job was to do, but he didn’t do a good job of it,” Cousins cracked.

Asked just what that job was, Cousins said. “Foul me and try to get me out of my game.”

Kentucky junior forward Patrick Patterson said the Wildcats made a concerted effort to go to Cousins early, especially after he had such a lackluster start in Friday’s game.

“We got him the ball extremely early,” Patterson said. “Whenever he’s involved early and hitting shots and taking charges, he gets a lot more into it.”

And when these guys are hitting 3-pointers, it’s really almost unfair.

“Like coach said, if we’re knocking down shots, we feel no team can beat us,” Wall said.

He wouldn't get much argument from Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl.

"We got outplayed at every position," Pearl said. "Kentucky is the No. 2 team in the country for a reason. They're a really, really good team, and we just did not have the energy after playing two games and coming back and playing this third game. We just didn't have it."
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Mississippi State is halfway to a second straight appearance in the SEC Tournament championship game.

What’s more, the Bulldogs could be closing in on a trip to the NCAA tournament. They remain one of the first couple of teams “outside the field,” according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi.

Houston winning the Conference USA Tournament championship doesn’t help the Bulldogs any, because UTEP will also go from that league.

All Mississippi State can control is what’s right in front of it, and for a game and a half here at Bridgestone Arena, the Bulldogs have shown they want to keep playing.

They lead Vanderbilt 33-27 at the half after Barry Stewart and Phil Turner each tossed in 10 points in the first half. Turner came off the bench to hit 2-of-3 from 3-point range.

The Commodores have to get more from A.J. Ogilvy in the second half. He had two fouls in the first half with no points and one rebound and only played six minutes.

Kentucky 74, Tennessee 45

March, 13, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The 3-point shots started to fall for Kentucky in the second half, thanks to Eric Bledsoe and Darnell Dodson.

But the defense, the rebounding, the endless pursuit of the 50-50 balls … they’ve been a constant all season.

The No. 2-ranked Wildcats had to work for it, but they were just too physical, too big and too talented for Tennessee and pulled away in the second half for a 74-45 semifinal romp in the SEC tournament.

Something just seems right in the world when the Wildcats are back in the SEC tournament championship game. Think about this: They’ve now played in the semifinals of this tourney 36 times and have failed to make the final only twice.

Kentucky (31-2) will face the winner of the second semifinal between Mississippi State and Vanderbilt in Sunday’s championship game. The Wildcats will be gunning for their 26th tournament championship.

It was a rugged game and void of much finesse. There was a double technical foul called on Tennessee’s Wayne Chism and Kentucky’s DeMarcus Cousins, and Tennessee guard Melvin Goins was ejected a few minutes later for a flagrant foul after replays showed that he delivered a shot to Cousins’ midsection.

Kentucky couldn’t buy a jump shot in the first half and struggled from the free-throw line all game, but Bledsoe connected on two straight from 3-point range early in the second half to open up the game. Dotson opened it up even more with just under eight minutes to play when he knocked down back-to-back 3’s.

In the second half, Bledsoe and Dodson combined to go 6-of-9 from 3-point range, a scary thought for anybody who has to face these guys in the NCAA tournament.

If they're hitting from the perimeter, coupled with Kentucky's muscle inside and John Wall's ability to get to the glass, the Wildcats are as good a pick as any to win the NCAA tournament.

The Vols (25-8) got nothing easy on offense and shot just 30.9 percent from field.

Cousins had his problems at the free-throw line (7-of-17), but he was a beast inside with 19 points and 15 rebounds, his 19th double-double of the season. That's after he looked disinterested in the Wildcats' quarterfinal game.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Maybe Kentucky has made all the jumpers it’s going to make this season.

But say this for the No. 2-ranked Wildcats: When they decide they’re going to guard you, good luck.

Kentucky held Tennessee scoreless in the final 6:10 of the first half and slugged its way to a 32-19 halftime lead in the first SEC tournament semifinal at Bridgestone Arena.

The Wildcats’ defense was suffocating, and the Vols didn’t get any easy looks. It was their lowest scoring half of the season. Making matters worse for Tennessee was that senior forward Wayne Chism only played 10 minutes in the first half after picking up two fouls.

Even off the court, Kentucky proved it can provide plenty of fireworks.

There were two different incidents on the bench in the first half. The first one came after freshman DeMarcus Cousins got mad and threw a towel during a timeout. Kentucky coach John Calipari stormed over to where he was sitting a few seconds later, got in his face and had a few choice words for him.

Just a couple of minutes later, it got even crazier. Freshman Daniel Orton lost his cool and started screaming at the Kentucky coaches. He then stormed off to the locker room (perhaps told to go) with a couple of Kentucky staff members in tow.

He was back a few seconds later, followed by assistant strength coach Scott Padgett, and slapped hands with Calipari.

Hey, call them Team Turmoil.

But, then, that’s what you get sometimes with freshmen. If the Wildcats keep playing defense like this, Calipari can probably live with some of the childishness.

Today in the SEC tournament

March, 13, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The coaches in this league bristle any time they hear it, but they’ve heard it often over the last two years.

The SEC just ain’t what it used to be when it comes to hoops.

That’s what happens when only three teams from the league make the NCAA Tournament, which was the case in 2009, and they manage a grand total of one win among them.

And let’s face it. When Kentucky’s down, the rest of the league is going to be accused of being down, whether it genuinely is or isn't.

This season, Kentucky has ascended back to the top of its Big Blue perch in the SEC thanks to John Calipari and his triumvirate of some of the most talented freshmen in the land.

The knock nationally on the league now is that it’s Kentucky and then everybody else.

Perhaps so, but Saturday’s SEC tournament semifinals should provide some riveting drama with more than a few compelling storylines. Here’s a look:

Game 1: Kentucky (30-2) vs. Tennessee (25-7), 1 p.m. ET

What’s at stake: Both teams are safely in the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky’s a lock for a No. 1 seed, and Tennessee is likely a No. 4 seed. But a second straight win over the Wildcats could push the Vols as high as a No. 3 seed. Tennessee handed Kentucky one of its two losses this season back on Feb. 27 in Knoxville. The Wildcats would love to exact a little payback for that loss. It’s no secret these two coaches aren’t pen pals and have traded barbs in the past, particularly when Calipari was at Memphis. But Bruce Pearl has held his own on the court. He’s 3-3 against Calipari, and two of those wins came over Calipari-coached teams that were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the country.

Scouting the game: Can either of these teams make a 3-pointer? Kentucky was 1-of-13 in its quarterfinal win over Alabama. Tennessee was 4-of-23 in its first-round win over LSU and a little better Friday in its quarterfinal win over Ole Miss. The Vols were 8-of-23 from 3-point range, although most of that was Cameron Tatum. He came off the bench to go 4-of-4 in the first half and keep Tennessee close. Everybody has been playing zone against Kentucky, including Tennessee in both of the earlier meetings this season. Kentucky freshman big man DeMarcus Cousins was a no-show Friday after getting into early foul trouble. It will be interesting to see if he got his bad game out of his system.

Wildcat to watch: Freshman point guard John Wall has been fabulous. For a guy who’s not a pure shooter, it’s uncanny how he can take over games. He has a sixth sense about him -- he knows when the Wildcats need him to go on one of his tears. And when he decides he’s going to take the ball to the basket, there’s nobody in college basketball who's any better. As for not being able to shoot it all that well, he huffs, “I can make shots when it’s time to make shots.”

Vol to watch: Senior forward Wayne Chism is making himself a lot of money right now. He’s always been a good shooter for a big man, but he had 15 rebounds against Ole Miss and 11 rebounds against LSU. He’s also an outstanding defender and can guard anybody on the floor because he moves his feet so well. He’ll have his work cut out against the Kentucky tandem of Patrick Patterson and Cousins.

They said it: “You know they’ve been waiting on this one and would love to take us down, but we haven’t rolled over for anybody all season and aren’t going to start now.” -- Tennessee senior guard Bobby Maze

Game 2: Mississippi State (22-9) vs. Vanderbilt (24-7), 3:15 p.m. ET

What’s at stake: Not a lot for Vanderbilt, which played well in the second half against Georgia in the quarterfinals and should be a solid No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Still, the Commodores want to make sure they're playing their best basketball going into next week. Plus, they haven’t won an SEC tournament title since 1951. Mississippi State has no choice but to win Saturday to have any chance to make the NCAA field. The Bulldogs were one of the last teams out of the field following Friday’s play, according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, which means there’s hope. Beating Vanderbilt would be the kind of marquee win that could push the Bulldogs into the NCAA Tournament. They won four games in four days a year ago to play their way into the field.

Scouting the game: This is Kevin Stallings’ best and most talented team since he’s been at Vanderbilt. The Commodores have size, depth and can score a variety of different ways. When senior point guard Jermaine Beal shoots it well, they’re really tough to beat. Mississippi State has been a difficult team to figure this season. The Bulldogs had played well until the end of the regular season, but lost at Auburn and then played terribly in a home loss to Tennessee on Senior Day. The good news for them is that they shot it well in their quarterfinal victory over Florida, going 10-of-20 from 3-point range. When Ravern Johnson and Barry Stewart get it going from outside, they’re a whole different team.

Commodore to watch: Freshman guard John Jenkins came off the bench to score a career-high 25 points against Georgia and was 5-of-8 from 3-point range. He scored 12 straight points to help the Commodores pull away in the second half. The problem with Jenkins is that you simply can’t leave him. But with Vanderbilt having so many other scoring options, teams are forced to make tough choices.

Bulldog to watch: Senior forward Jarvis Varnado is the NCAA’s all-time shot-blocking king. When he’s on the floor, nothing comes easy against the Bulldogs. The Commodores have good size and will throw several different bodies at him, but Varnado has to stay out of foul trouble if Mississippi State is going to make it to the championship game for the second straight year. For the season, Varnado has 152 blocks. As a team, Vanderbilt has 164.

They said it: “I feel like we have nothing to lose, you know. We just come out here to play hard and play together. We had success last year in playing together, and we wanted to keep that focus coming into this tournament. We ain’t the deepest team, but we’re going to fight hard.” – Mississippi State forward Jarvis Varnado

Final: Vanderbilt 78, Georgia 66

March, 13, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The best shooter in the SEC?

Vanderbilt freshman John Jenkins would certainly be right up there. On Friday night, he was more than a shooter. He was the difference.

Jenkins poured in a career-high 25 points on 5-of-8 shooting from 3-point range and scored 12 straight points in the second half as Vanderbilt spurted past Georgia for a 78-66 win in the quarterfinals.

Jenkins scored 22 of his points in the second half and admitted that Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings instructed him to be more aggressive coming out of the break.

The Commodores (24-7) will move into Saturday’s semifinals against Mississippi State. After two tough matchups with Georgia earlier this season, Vanderbilt showed why Friday that this is Stallings’ best and most complete team since he’s been in Nashville.

Vanderbilt used its size to win the rebounding battle, shot 55.2 percent from the field in the second half and had 10 different players to score in the game.

The Bulldogs (14-17) simply couldn’t keep up after the Commodores ignited their run, although sophomore Travis Leslie was brilliant. He scored a career-high 34 points, pulled down six rebounds and had four steals.

At the half: Vanderbilt 35, Georgia 27

March, 12, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – One of the highlights in the first half of the Georgia-Vanderbilt game was watching a couple of freakish athletes like Travis Leslie and Jeffery Taylor go at it.

Leslie doesn’t back down from anybody, and neither does Taylor.

Leslie looks like he’s going to dunk everything when he gets into the lane and single-handedly kept the Bulldogs in the game in the first half with 16 points.

Vanderbilt leads 35-27 at the break.

The Commodores were led by senior point guard Jermaine Beal’s 12 points. When he’s hitting his jumper, this is a team that’s extremely difficult to defend.

Both teams have good size inside, but Vanderbilt had its way on the boards with a 28-15 rebounding advantage.

Georgia has to get something from sophomore forward Trey Thompkins, who went scoreless in the first half on 0-of-6 shooting.

Mississippi State 75, Florida 69

March, 12, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- There was more at stake Friday for Mississippi State, and the Bulldogs played that way.

They still have some work to do if they’re going to play their way into the NCAA Tournament.

Extremely impressive at times, Mississippi State built a big lead and then held off Florida for a 75-69 quarterfinal victory in the SEC tournament.

The Bulldogs (22-9) moved onto the semifinals and will face the winner of the next game between Georgia and Vanderbilt on Saturday.

When they play the way they did for much of Friday’s game, they’re easily one of the best four teams in this league. More specifically, when they shoot the ball the way they did against the Gators, they’re tough to beat.

Mississippi State was 10-of-20 from 3-point range and shot 57.1 percent from the field. The Bulldogs led by as many as 19 points with 13 minutes to play.

By most accounts, the Gators (21-12) were probably already in the NCAA Tournament prior to Friday’s game. Mississippi State is still one of those teams perched squarely on the bubble. It’s probably going to take at least one more win to make Selection Sunday interesting for the Bulldogs.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Mississippi State is threatening to break the East stranglehold.

The Bulldogs, hitting 7-of-11 3-pointers in the first half, lead Florida 39-28 at the half.

If they can hold on, it would be the first win this season by a Western Division team over one of the top four teams in the Eastern Division -- Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Florida.

As it stands now, the East is 28-0 against the West.

The Bulldogs haven’t looked anything like the team that went through the motions last weekend in a Senior Day loss to Tennessee. They shot 62.5 percent from the field in the first half and led by as many as 15 points.

The Gators haven’t gotten anything easy. Mississippi State’s Jarvis Varnado blocked four shots in the first half.

The only Florida player who could make a shot was guard Kenny Boynton. He kept the Gators in the game by making 4-of-6 3-pointers. Chandler Parsons has been a non-factor.