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Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Kentucky the favorite in SEC tourney

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

Kentucky won the SEC regular-season title by six games.

Stop and think about that for a second. There hasn't been this much dominance in a Power Six league for quite some time.

The SEC was supposed to have depth of Final Four teams and go at least half deep with NCAA bids.

Now it appears there is only one title contender and only two other teams that deserve lock status: Vanderbilt and Florida. Alabama should be in as well, but it's not like the Tide have room to complain about their status. Mississippi State has blown a number of chances to be a team worthy of consideration.

And if Tennessee is the dark horse as the No. 2 seed, it speaks volumes about the status of the SEC. The Vols under Cuonzo Martin are a hard-working crew. But they've been inconsistent, and rightfully so, with so many changes. Still, with Tennessee as a No. 2, the SEC hasn't been what it should have been this season.


Top three storylines

Kidd-Gilchrist/Davis
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis certainly lived up to their hype last season as star freshmen.

1. What are the chances Kentucky goes 19-0 against SEC competition? The Wildcats are trying to get through the conference slate undefeated. Kentucky will get the winner of LSU-Arkansas on Friday. The Wildcats could then play No. 4 Florida, which they've handled twice in the past month. Playing either Tennessee or Vanderbilt in a potential Sunday title game won't be a walk, but it's certainly winnable based on past matchups.

2. How will the bubble play out? Tennessee has the momentum for serious NCAA consideration with a sweep of Florida and a win over Vanderbilt. But the Vols have to beat either Ole Miss or Auburn, and they can also help their cause with another victory over Vandy or Mississippi State, if the Bulldogs can survive against Georgia. Alabama shouldn't fret, but beating South Carolina would help. Mississippi State is limping into the SEC tournament. The Bulldogs have the talent but not the discipline to win four games. Still, they must take down Georgia and beat Vandy.

3. Will Vanderbilt and Florida gain momentum going into the NCAA tournament? The Commodores and Gators were trendy picks to reach the second weekend of the NCAAs a few months ago. They still can salvage their seasons with tournament runs. But it would help their cases if they could string together at least two wins in New Orleans. Florida needs some self-confidence, and knocking off Alabama and Kentucky would certainly do wonders for its psyche. Vandy has the most experience of any team in the SEC, but it needs to prove that it can rise up in a big moment. Beating Mississippi State and possibly Tennessee, in a rival game, would answer some of the critics.


Five players to watch

Anthony Davis, Kentucky: Davis has been the most dominant player in the country at his position. He changes the game at both ends. He blocks shots. He alters shots. He can now make face-up shots and 3s. If he displays his full game, Kentucky won't lose.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky: If Davis weren't on board, Kidd-Gilchrist would be receiving more national respect than he does now. He's as tough a player as there is in the country. He looks for his shot, but not at the expense of disrupting the offense. Expect Kidd-Gilchrist to have a noteworthy run through the SEC tournament.

Arnett Moultrie
Will Arnett Moultrie help Mississippi State pick up some wins in New Orleans?

Arnett Moultrie, Mississippi State: There was a stretch where Moultrie was the most important four-year transfer in the country. The former UTEP forward looked like the player of the year in the conference earlier in the season. But the Bulldogs faded a bit and so did his candidacy. He can still reclaim his dominance if he can block shots and post double-doubles like he's capable of doing. Oh, and it would help if the Bulldogs won two to three games.

Kenny Boynton, Florida: The Gators still have a run left in them, but it will be determined by Boynton's ability to drain the 3 and keep teams off balance defensively. He needs to make smart plays. He cannot be too reactive. If he runs a solid floor game, the Gators have a shot against Kentucky in the quarterfinals. Of course, they must get by Alabama first.

John Jenkins, Vanderbilt: He is the purest shooter in the SEC. But will Jenkins help Vandy advance in the tournament? A lot of that depends on the help he receives. If Festus Ezeli is a factor inside, Jenkins will likely get a slew of opportunities from the perimeter. He'll have to convert for the Dores to advance.


Hottest team: Kentucky. The Wildcats didn't lose an SEC game in the regular season, so there's really no other choice. Kentucky had three difficult road games down the stretch: Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Florida. There were tense moments for the Cats in each game, but Kentucky managed to pull away. Tennessee's climb to second place makes the Vols a team on the rise heading into the tournament.

Coldest team: South Carolina. The Gamecocks won two games in the SEC this season. South Carolina has lost five in a row but played well when it nearly beat Mississippi State in overtime last week. But the Gamecocks will likely be done by 5:30 p.m. ET on Thursday. Then they'll wait and wonder if Darrin Horn can keep his job.

Sleeper pick: Vanderbilt. I'm not giving up on the Commodores yet. There is simply too much talent on this starting roster. If Vandy can make shots (specifically Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and Brad Tinsley) and Ezeli can stay out of foul trouble, there is plenty in place for the Commodores to be playing for the SEC title on Sunday, likely against Kentucky. If the Wildcats are bored and tired of seeing the same teams, they could be ripe for an upset, which would definitely help Vandy's NCAA seed.

Potential upset victim:Alabama over Florida. The Gators will need to make 3s to win. It's that simple. Alabama is one of the top defensive teams in the SEC. If the Tide can lock in on Boynton and Erving Walker and keep Erik Murphy in check, they will have a legit chance to pull off an upset. This is assuming, of course, that the Tide beat South Carolina in the first round on Thursday. JaMychal Green can handle Patric Young in the post, so it will come down to which perimeter can lock in defensively.

Best first-round matchup: Arkansas versus LSU. The Tigers and Hogs have both had their moments this season, with Arkansas defeating Michigan and LSU beating Marquette. They have also had their moments in the conference, notably taking down Mississippi State. But neither is heading into the SEC tournament with momentum. Still, this is an even matchup.

Best potential quarterfinal: Mississippi State versus Vanderbilt. The two teams played a close game earlier in the season, with the Bulldogs winning in overtime in Nashville 78-77. If they play up to their potential, especially in the post, this could be the best game of the tournament. The guards can all make big buckets, especially from the 3-point arc.

Pick: Kentucky. Not sure how I could pick anyone else. The Wildcats have been the most dominant team in a Power Six conference. They are the only team to go undefeated in league play. Kentucky is capable of winning the next nine games and finishing the season a remarkable 39-1.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.