Thursday, March 11, 2010
UK aims for 26th SEC title
By Chris Low ESPN.com
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A quick glance around the Music City this week could be misleading.
You're not in Lexington, Ky., Louisville, Ky., or even Frankfort, Ky. It just looks that way.
This city has already turned a distinct shade of blue, and No. 2-ranked Kentucky doesn't play until Friday. The No. 1 seed in the SEC's Eastern Division, the Wildcats are seeking their 26th SEC tournament championship.
For perspective, their 25 tournament titles are more than all the other current SEC teams combined.
No wonder this tourney was dubbed the Big Blue Invitational a long time ago, although Kentucky last walked away with the crown in 2004.
John Wall and Kentucky are the clear favorites and are looking for their first SEC title since 2004.
It would be a major upset if the Wildcats (29-2) didn't end that drought this week at Bridgestone Arena. But, then, they're not playing for a whole lot, either.
Even with a loss in Friday's quarterfinals to the Alabama-South Carolina winner, Kentucky is a lock for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
In addition to Kentucky, Vanderbilt (23-7) and Tennessee (23-7) are locks for the NCAA tournament. The Commodores and Vols are both probably No. 5 seeds at worst and could move all the way up to No. 3 seeds. After that, it gets dicey for the rest of the league. Florida (20-11) is probably in, but the Gators better not lose to Auburn in Thursday night's quarterfinals. Ole Miss (21-9) and Mississippi State (21-10) are both on the outside looking in. The Rebels have won four in a row entering the tournament, but all four wins came against teams ranked in the bottom six of the league. The Bulldogs are in even worse shape and probably need to win the tournament for the second year in a row to return to the NCAA tournament.
Winning four in a row: Remember the old rule of thumb that nobody comes out of the first round to win four games in four days to win the title? Well, it's happened each of the past two years. Mississippi State did it last year and Georgia the year before. Previously, only one team had done it since the league's expansion in 1992, and that was Arkansas in 2000.
Taking a pass on the byes: The top two seeds in each division receive byes, which means No. 13-ranked Tennessee has to play in the first round Thursday afternoon against LSU because the Vols are the No. 3 seed in the East. Meanwhile, Mississippi State and Ole Miss will both get byes as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the West. Even though Tennessee's 11-5 conference record is two games better than any team in the West, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl declined Wednesday to weigh in on whether the teams should be seeded 1 through 12 without regard to divisional play. "The only point is that we play LSU at 2:15 [CT Thursday]. That's the only answer I have as it relates to the format today," Pearl said. In other words, check back with him in May.
East vs. West: The SEC West combined to go 0-24 against the top four teams in the East -- Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Florida -- this year in regular-season play. LSU and Auburn both get shots at breaking that East stranglehold on Thursday. LSU faces Tennessee at 3:15 p.m. ET, and Auburn takes on Florida at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Players to watch: If you're looking for shooters, keep an eye on Vanderbilt's John Jenkins. Everything the freshman tosses up looks like it's going in. If you're looking for scorers, keep an eye on South Carolina's Devan Downey. He appears to be getting over an ankle injury that's plagued him since the middle of February.
If it's defenders you're looking for, count how many shots Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado swats into the third row. If you're looking for dunkers, check out Georgia's Travis Leslie. Better yet, go back and watch the one he threw down over Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins in Rupp Arena.
And speaking of the Wildcats, if you're looking for players, don't take your eyes off Kentucky freshman guard John Wall, who gets to the glass with frightening ease. Wall is far from a finished product, but he's at his best when the Wildcats need him most.
Game to watch: The Auburn-Florida matchup on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET should provide plenty of drama. If the Tigers lose, it could very well be coach Jeff Lebo's last game with the Tigers. He's scheduled to meet with Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs after the season, and there are rumblings on the Plains that he won't be back after six seasons without an NCAA tournament appearance. If the Gators lose, they may be looking down the barrel of a third straight season without an NCAA tournament trip. That's after winning back-to-back NCAA championships in the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
Red-hot: Ole Miss junior guard Chris Warren averaged close to 23 points per game during the Rebels' four-game winning streak to close the regular season. He finished one shy of his career high with 31 points in a 68-66 comeback win over Arkansas, scoring 20 points in the second half and helping Ole Miss erase an 11-point deficit with just over five minutes remaining.
Under the radar: Vanderbilt forward Jeffery Taylor is one of the more underrated and complete players in the league. The 6-foot-7, 210-pound sophomore earned a spot on the SEC's All-Defensive team, while averaging 13.9 points and 5.1 rebounds and shooting 51.1 percent from the field.
They said it: "I think right now as a basketball team we're pretty much hitting on all cylinders. I think we've got a lot of guys that are doing a lot of good things for our team right now on both ends of the floor, a lot of things that go into building a season and trying to prepare to win, and I think our guys are starting to understand what allows us to win on a consistent basis." -- Alabama coach Anthony Grant
Chris Low covers the SEC for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.