The 2016 regular season was parity-filled and rigorous. The 2016 SEC Tournament shouldn’t be much different.
The tournament is already unorthodox because only 13 teams will be participating after Missouri slapped a postseason ban on itself following a slew of NCAA violations. So on Wednesday night, only Auburn and Tennessee will tip off the tournament inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
Numerous storylines fill this first dose of March Madness: Will Kentucky earn its second consecutive automatic bid? Can Texas A&M break its 29-year conference tournament drought one week after snapping its 30-year regular-season championship rut? Can LSU, Florida or Alabama put together a run to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, or even win the SEC title outright?
All that and more will be answered as we go game-by-game to determine which team will cut down the nets in Nashville.
(12) Tennessee vs. (13) Auburn (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
2016 head-to-head results: Auburn, 83-77 (Jan. 2); Tennessee, 71-45 (Feb. 9)
Auburn was the SEC Tournament darling last season as the No. 13 seed and upset three teams before falling to eventual champion Kentucky in the semifinals. The Tigers aren’t as equipped for that kind of run this week, even against a Tennessee team that will be without its leading scorer, Kevin Punter. The Vols went a combined 1-14 in road or neutral games this season.
Prediction: Tennessee 63, Auburn 60
(8) Florida vs. (9) Arkansas (Thursday, 1 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
2016 head-to-head results: Florida, 87-83 (Feb. 3)
Gators coach Mike White said his team will take this process one game at a time and can’t think about making the NCAA Tournament without beating the Razorbacks for a second time this year. The problem is the Gators have struggled offensively down the stretch, and Arkansas finished the season with three players ranked in the top 10 in scoring in the SEC. The Razorbacks are 4-1 in their last five contests, while Florida is 1-4.
Prediction: Arkansas 77, Florida 72
(5) Vanderbilt vs. (12) Tennessee (Thursday, 25 minutes after early game, SEC Network)
2016 head-to-head results: Vanderbilt, 88-74 (Jan. 20); Vanderbilt, 86-69, (March 1)
These in-state rivals meet again, this time in Vanderbilt’s backyard. The Commodores should have a strong homecourt advantage and that doesn’t bode well for Tennessee. Vandy should be safely in the NCAA Tournament field, but this win solidifies its status.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 85, Tennessee 67
(7) Ole Miss vs. (10) Alabama (Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
2016 head-to-head results: Ole Miss, 74-66 (Jan. 7)
It’s the Crimson Tide and not the Rebels who are on the bubble entering this game. Granted, Alabama’s NCAA Tournament shot all but depends on it winning the SEC Tournament. The battle between Ole Miss guard Stefan Moody and Alabama guard Retin Obasohan will be great to watch. In the end, Moody has a better supporting cast than Obasohan, who has to be a one-man wrecking crew too often. Don’t be surprised if both drop 30 points.
Prediction: Ole Miss 72, Alabama 68
(6) Georgia vs. (11) Mississippi State (Thursday, 25 minutes after early game, SEC Network)
2016 head-to-head results: UGA, 66-57 (Feb. 13)
Kudos to Mississippi State coach Ben Howland, who has rallied his team to a 5-3 record in their final eight games after starting conference play 2-8. Both teams possess talented backcourts, but UGA forward Yante Maten may be the difference-maker.
Prediction: Georgia 67, Mississippi State 66
(1) Texas A&M vs. (9) Arkansas (Friday, 1 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
2016 head-to-head results: Texas A&M, 92-69 (Jan. 2); Arkansas, 74-71 (Jan. 27)
The Razorbacks snapped Texas A&M’s 7-0 start to conference play and began the Aggies’ ugly stretch of five straight league losses. That should be fresh in the Aggies’ minds as they hit the floor Friday. The Razorbacks have something to look forward to next season, but for now, Texas A&M’s senior-laden group won’t allow an upset to occur.
Prediction: Texas A&M 75, Arkansas 70
(4) LSU vs. (5) Vanderbilt (Friday, 25 minutes after early game, SEC Network)
2016 head-to-head record: LSU, 90-82 (Jan. 2)
LSU beat Vanderbilt on the road in the conference opener, but both teams are in drastically different positions now. LSU is fortunate to have backed into a double-bye, whereas Vandy has played some of the best basketball in the conference during the homestretch. Tigers freshman sensation Ben Simmons will put on one final show in his collegiate career, but Vandy’s depth will trump LSU’s star power.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 87, LSU 83 (OT)
(2) Kentucky vs. (7) Ole Miss (Friday, 7 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
2016 head-to-head results: Kentucky, 83-61 (Jan. 2)
Kentucky’s run to another SEC Tournament championship begins with a very favorable matchup. The Wildcats have the defensive prowess to shut down Moody, and that’s about all it takes to handle the Rebels.
Prediction: Kentucky 81, Ole Miss 66
(3) South Carolina vs. (6) Georgia (Friday, 25 minutes after early game, SEC Network)
2016 head-to-head results: UGA, 69-56 (Feb. 2); UGA, 74-72 (Mar. 3)
South Carolina is a tough team to trust right now. The Gamecocks have gone 9-7 since starting the season 15-0 and are suddenly leaking oil at the worst part of the season. UGA’s athletic backcourt, led by J.J. Frazier, matches up well with South Carolina’s physical defense, and the Bulldogs have enough talent to pull off another upset. However, as the old adage says, beating a team for a third consecutive time is always the hardest. It will be important to monitor Michael Carrera’s status for SC. If he can’t go, the Gamecocks are in trouble.
Prediction: UGA 71, South Carolina 69
(1) Texas A&M vs. (5) Vanderbilt (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN)
2016 head-to-head results: Vanderbilt, 77-60 (Feb. 4); Texas A&M, 76-67 (March 5)
This is the rubber match for what’s been an interesting regular-season series. The Commodores got their season back on track with that early February win over the Aggies. But Texas A&M clinched the regular-season crown by derailing Vanderbilt’s hot streak. Both teams are deep, vastly talented and have multiple scorers who can go off at any moment. But keep in mind, this game is only a couple of miles from Vanderbilt’s campus. The de facto home-game environment could prove pivotal in a matchup between virtually even opponents.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 88, Texas A&M 86
(2) Kentucky vs. (6) Georgia (Saturday, 25 minutes after early game, ESPN)
2016 head-to-head results: Kentucky, 82-48 (Feb. 9)
Meanwhile, Kentucky’s road to the final practically gets easier. The Wildcats obliterated the Bulldogs at Rupp Arena during the only meeting between the schools. Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray will match Frazier and Kenny Gaines for UGA. Kentucky’s frontcourt has to be the difference. Skal Labissiere and Alex Poythress will be key players for UK down the stretch.
Prediction: Kentucky 79, UGA 69
(2) Kentucky vs. (5) Vanderbilt (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN)
2016 head-to-head results: Kentucky, 76-57 (Jan. 23); Vandy, 74-62 (Feb. 27)
Here’s a fun stat from the second meeting between these two teams: Of the 136 total points scored, only one point came from a bench player from either team. The Commodores threw the usually unflappable Ulis off of his game that day. The SEC Player of the Year scored 12 points on 5-of-20 shooting with six assists. If not for Murray’s 33 points, the Wildcats wouldn’t have even been within striking distance.
The key to this game will be in the paint. Vanderbilt’s big men, Luke Kornet and Damian Jones, must win the battle against Poythress, Labissiere and Marcus Lee. If that happens, Vanderbilt could be on its way to an SEC Tournament championship.
Vanderbilt has been a team that many pundits expected a lot from this season. The Commodores have underachieved, but seem to be a team that’s been ready to take off for a while. The 2016 SEC Tournament just might be their opportunity to see that potential come to fruition.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 78, Kentucky 75