The SEC put eight teams in the NCAA Tournament and has two other teams in the NIT. It’s a good time to be an SEC basketball fan. We will see if it’s a great time after this next week of high-stakes hoops.
By Matt Zemek
Let’s try to get a sense of each tournament game for these 10 SEC teams. Forecasting a whole tournament is a risky business to begin with, but as coaches will tell you, it’s pointless to worry about the second game in a tournament when the first one hasn’t been won yet.
Now, the NIT is all a matter of motivation. Which teams care and which ones don’t is the question which typically decides a first-round NIT game played right after Selection Sunday. Teams which thought they deserved to get in — or which hoped to make a big run to an automatic bid in their conference tournaments — are often depressed. Fighting that natural depression is central to winning a first NIT game.
On with the show, then:
LSU (vs. Louisiana-Lafayette): The Tigers are exactly the kind of NIT team which SHOULD be motivated to do well. This team did not expect an NCAA bid. It came closer to one than many felt it would. Will Wade shows signs of becoming a very good coach for this program. There is reason for optimism, and players should be fully invested in making a big run to set the table for what should be an NCAA Tournament season in 2019. That alone should help the Tigers get off to a winning start.
SCORE: LSU 81, ULL 73
MISSISSIPPI STATE (vs. Nebraska): If the Bulldogs had to go to Lincoln, they would be in huge trouble, but they have erected a fortress around Humphrey Coliseum this season. Tennessee broke through that fortress. Nebraska is not even close to the Vols in terms of quality or athleticism. Mississippi State is also in a position to take the NIT seriously. The program has steadily improved and hopes that next year will be even better than this one. Reminder: With the Big Ten Tournament being played a week earlier than usual, Nebraska will enter this game off a long layoff. That could help the Huskers… or it could hurt. In the end, this depends on MSU and how it plays.
SCORE: MSU 66, Nebraska 63
The main course, from the highest-seeded SEC teams to the lowest:
TENNESSEE (vs. Wright State): The Horizon League Tournament featured painfully bad basketball. Offenses struggled a lot, and many of the higher seeds struggled just as profoundly as the offenses did. Wright State escaped that mess in Detroit. Tennessee received a relatively kind draw in this 3-14 game. The Volunteers might be able to score well, but they should definitely be able to lock down the Raiders. This does not feel like an upset in the making.
SCORE: Vols 72, Wright State 53
AUBURN (vs. Charleston): This game feels much more like an upset possibility. First, Auburn lacks Anfernee McLemore and is plainly — as a point of fact — shorthanded. Second, this game is in San Diego. It is very curious that the NCAA didn’t put Arizona in San Diego and slot Auburn in either Nashville or Dallas. At any rate, Auburn won’t have a favorable logistical situation (not that Charleston will, but that’s a separate matter). Third, Auburn’s guard play has been inconsistent in recent weeks, likely affected by the smaller roster and increased demands on the rotation players Bruce Pearl must lean on.
What helps Auburn? Being mad after the Alabama debacle. This team will be too angry to allow itself to lose in round one.
SCORE: Auburn 78, Charleston 75
KENTUCKY (vs. Davidson): Bob McKillop, head coach of the Davidson Wildcats, is an elite coach. He simply chose to stay at Davidson instead of climbing the ladder. Don’t laugh — he is nearly as good as the coaches of blue-blood programs and belongs in the room with them, John Calipari included. This game figures to be very tight. Davidson is likely to frustrate the young Kentucky lineup with its precise halfcourt sets. Kentucky, though, has better players who have grown in terms of responding to tough in-game challenges. Kentucky is also in position to win this all-Wildcat battle because it can win an ugly game. Davidson wants a pretty game; UK can muck it up and win this game with defense and rebounding.
SCORE: UK 62, Davidson 58
FLORIDA (vs. UCLA/Saint Bonaventure First Four winner) — Nothing needs to be said about Florida’s NCAA Tournament history against UCLA. Bonaventure did not play very well at all in the Atlantic 10 Tournament. To use a tennis turn of phrase, “The match is on Florida’s racquet.” If the Gators play up to their capabilities, they should win this game big. The question: Will the Gators do that? They have been exasperating to watch this season.
SCORE: Florida 83, UCLA 74 / Florida 72, Bonaventure 67
ARKANSAS (vs. Butler): It’s not very scientific, but Arkansas-Butler comes down to which version of each team shows up. Don’t overthink the matchup. Butler beat Villanova and struggled against the bottom-tier teams in the Big East. Arkansas throttled Auburn and beat Tennessee but got swept by LSU. Insert “shrug emoji” here. It’s a guessing game — not what one expects to hear from a commentator, but sometimes, commentary has to be honest enough to acknowledge it doesn’t have all the answers and can’t offer a satisfying explanation for everything. If pressed to render a prediction, Arkansas’ better-than-expected 2017 NCAA Tournament performance suggests the Hogs will be ready to answer the bell.
SCORE: Arkansas 70, Butler 65
TEXAS A&M (vs. Providence): Will leaving the SEC and playing a non-conference opponent liberate an A&M side which flourished in November and December, before the SEC slate began? The nagging reality facing the Aggies is that Robert Williams is not a lottery pick-level player. He was supposed to become a total beast for this team, but that hasn’t happened — not even close. If Williams comes alive, this is a Final Four-caliber team… but there’s no reason to expect that to happen, so the Aggies will probably put this frustrating season to bed. SCORE: Providence 66, A&M 65
MISSOURI (vs. Florida State): Missouri’s integration of Michael Porter Jr. into the lineup had only one game in St. Louis at the SEC Tournament. Missouri desperately could have used a second game at the very least to give Porter — and coach Cuonzo Martin — more of a sense of how to proceed this week. Missouri’s loss of Cullen VanLeer hurts as well. Florida State was good enough to beat Clemson and North Carolina, weak enough to lose to some of the worst teams in the ACC. FSU was tied at home with Pittsburgh — 0-19 in the ACC Pittsburgh, mind you — with six minutes left in regulation. This could be a one-score game which is tight all the way, or it will spin out of control into a 20-point laugher.
SCORE: Missouri 60, Florida State 58
ALABAMA (vs. Virginia Tech): The Crimson Tide will have a very hard time with Villanova in round two. Their slide down the board put them in a position to have to face a 1 seed in the second round. That’s a problem. This Virginia Tech game should be manageable as long as Collin Sexton plays even 80 percent as well as he did in the SEC Tournament — heck, even 70 should be good enough.
SCORE: Alabama 74, Virginia Tech 68