SEC Tournament Preview: Just like football? We’ll soon find out

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Alabama is the regular big dog in SEC football. At the 2021 SEC Tournament, we will see if the Crimson Tide can fend off all challengers in basketball.

By Matt Zemek

Alabama has never made the Final Four. The best coach in Alabama basketball history is clearly Wimp Sanderson, who won five SEC Tournaments and reached five Sweet 16s in Tuscaloosa. (C.M. Newton, who also coached at Vanderbilt and was athletic director at Kentucky, won three SEC regular-season titles but didn’t leave as big a mark in postseason play.)

Wimp’s best Alabama team is, by far, the 1987 team which won the SEC double – the regular season and tournament championships together – and got a No. 2 seed. Yet, that great Tide team could not reach the Final Four. It didn’t even get to the Elite Eight.

Providence and a pair of future SEC icons – Rick Pitino (who won a national title at Kentucky) and Billy Donovan (who won two national titles at Florida) – knocked out Wimp Sanderson’s Tide and prevented the plaid-wearing coach from having his moment in the sun.

Just over a third of a century later, Alabama is once again in possession of an SEC championship in men’s basketball and a team which will be seeded No. 2 in the NCAA Tournament.

The immediate question surrounding the Tide: Can this 2021 team match the SEC double of Wimp’s boys from 1987? The legacy of this Crimson crew won’t take a hit if it falls short, but the point is that it can greatly enhance its legacy if it pulls off an SEC Tournament title. It’s the main question everyone is asking at this particular SEC tourney, the rare SEC Tournament in which Kentucky is not the team everyone is worried about.

It’s so easy to wonder if Kentucky will get hot and once again own this tournament – which it has done so many times in the past – but in 2021, Kentucky is surprisingly irrelevant. John Calipari is a Hall of Fame coach who has authored so many escapes and late-season turnarounds at the SEC Tournament. He did this in 2011. He did it in 2014. He did this in 2018. Kentucky has won the SEC Tournament as a dominant goliath and a No. 1 seed, but it has also won this tournament from lower-seeded positions, as the 2011 and 2018 tournaments reflected. Kentucky didn’t win the tournament in 2014 but took Florida to the wire and set the stage for that remarkable NCAA Tournament run to the title game as a No. 8 seed. Calipari and Kentucky have had a Harry Houdini identity at times in the past.

This year, it doesn’t seem as though any such resurrection is likely to occur.

Calipari has confessed that he doesn’t have answers. Losing a game to an Ole Miss team which is on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble definitively affirmed that the Wildcats simply aren’t very good. We have seen Kentucky limp into the SEC Tournament before. We have very rarely (if ever) seen a Calipari team come to the SEC tourney without any proven ability to flip the switch and catch fire for four days. If Alabama is the main story, Kentucky ought to be the second story… but the Cats haven’t earned that status.

So, what IS the second-biggest story at this tournament? It doesn’t seem to revolve around any one school. It is more a matter of which challenger to Alabama will get on a roll and cause some trouble.

Arkansas established itself as the second-best team in the SEC this season. Eric Musselman continues to do superb work, and his team continues to respond when pushed. If the Razorbacks win this tournament, they won’t just revive memories of the Nolan Richardson days; they will cause the 2021 SEC basketball season to be remembered as a year in which the two “U of A” schools – Bama and Arkansas – stood above the rest of the crowd.

If Arkansas doesn’t win the SEC Tournament, the other team observers will identify as a possible champion is Tennessee, the team picked to win the conference regular season championship before this basketball campaign began in late November. What sank the Volunteer Navy on the hardwood this winter was the lack of a proven go-to scorer in crunch time. Tennessee’s defense is terrific, but the offense bogs down far too often and doesn’t get the clutch shooting it needs to be successful at an elite level.

It is hard to expect much out of Florida without Keyontae Johnson, and it is hard to expect Missouri – which fell all the way to the No. 7 seed – to revive itself after a steady downturn over the past month. LSU, as the No. 3 seed, could get a crack at No. 2 Arkansas in a potential SEC semifinal, but the Tigers were a few notches below the Hogs in their most recent clash. LSU rates as less of a threat to Alabama than Arkansas or Tennessee.

Alabama is everyone’s target, and Arkansas and Tennessee are the main challengers. Kentucky versus Alabama could be an interesting tournament quarterfinals during lunch hour on Friday, but if the Crimson Tide play a moderately good game and simply avoid a nightmare shooting performance, they ought to have more than enough for a diminished version of Big Blue. Unless Kentucky rouses its fans and turns the tournament on its head in that first Friday quarterfinal (assuming it gets by Mississippi State on Thursday), this SEC Tournament is likely to be a story of one champion – Bama – and the two teams trying to turn down the Tide this week: the Hogs and the Vols.

Alabama is trying to party like it’s 1987. Eric Musselman and Rick Barnes will try to stop the music before it starts.

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