2022 SEC Tournament Preview: It’s a free-for-all and a four-for-all in Tampa

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Can anyone win the 2022 SEC Tournament? Any of the top six seeds, yes. Not any of the lower seeds in the tournament. Six teams with a chance to cut down the nets on Sunday? That speaks to the depth and competitiveness of the conference. Yet, when we look at the 2022 SEC in basketball, the big overarching storyline heading into the conference tournament is that four teams have legitimate Final Four material.

By Matt Zemek

Auburn, the regular-season champion, is joined by Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas in the group of SEC teams which can go to New Orleans for a Southern-flavored Final Four.

All four of those teams will be top-four seeds (maybe even top-three) at the NCAA Tournament. All four teams separated themselves from LSU and Alabama and the rest of the conference this season. All four teams traded punches with each other.

Auburn beat Kentucky but lost to Tennessee and Arkansas away from home. Tennessee and Kentucky traded decisive wins over each other. Tennessee and Arkansas traded tough home-court wins over each other. Kentucky lost at Arkansas but humiliated Tennessee at home while challenging Auburn in a game which might have gone the other way had key Wildcats not gotten hurt.

Auburn won the conference title, but Kentucky might have been the best team when fully healthy.

Tennessee is looking for its first-ever Final Four. Arkansas sustained momentum from last season’s Elite Eight run. These are the foremost – or is it four-most? – teams in SEC basketball. It would be delicious if they met on Semifinal Saturday. Auburn could play Arkansas in a 1-versus-4 semifinal, while Tennessee and Kentucky could meet in a 2-versus-3 semifinal.

Yet, as enticing as that prospect is, Alabama and LSU hope to bust some brackets in Florida.

John Calipari of Kentucky
John Calipari
Alabama certainly has the potential to be a dangerous team, but the Crimson Tide also lost to Georgia and Missouri and got blown out at home by Texas A&M. One never knows which version of Alabama will show up, but if the Tide do hit 3-pointers, they can be a menace. They beat Gonzaga, Baylor, Houston, Tennessee, Arkansas, and gave Auburn all it wanted. They led Kentucky by double digits in Rupp Arena before losing the plot. Alabama could certainly make noise at this tournament, because we have seen how high the ceiling is for the Tide when they are firing on all cylinders.

LSU was crushed by injuries this season but is now healthy again. The Tigers are a tough team to play against because they always defend so well under coach Will Wade. They will be an annoying, pesky opponent for Arkansas in a likely quarterfinal, and if LSU gets past the Hogs, the Tigers will be an irritant in the SEC semifinals.

Auburn will be favored to play LSU in that semifinal in the top half of the bracket, but Florida – if it can get past Texas A&M in the second round on Thursday – would get a shot at the SEC champions in the quarterfinals on Friday. Playing in Tampa in front of a lot of Gator fans, UF would have a chance to beat Auburn and play its way into the NCAA Tournament field.

Bracketologists generally agree that Florida is not in the NCAA Tournament right now, and that the Gators need two wins – over A&M and then Auburn – to make the field. We see this with a lot of SEC bubble teams each year: They need to survive the early-round game and then hit the jackpot against a highly-seeded team to get that quality win which puts them into the field of 68. Florida is that team this year. UF beat Auburn in Gainesville a few weeks ago; beating Auburn a second time will be a huge challenge.

No one should be especially surprised if Alabama or LSU get on a roll in Tampa, because they both have shown at points in the season that they can be high-level teams when they are at their best. However, Bama and LSU will both be doubted because they can’t consistently maintain a high standard.

Auburn and Kentucky are both playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament at this SEC hoops festival, so they don’t figure to

Georgia Cheerleader
Georgia Cheerleader
drift through this tournament. However, the teams they will play will have even more incentive to play well, so we could see some busted brackets.

There’s an argument to be made for SEC chalk, with all the higher seeds advancing, and there’s an equally compelling case to be made for the view that Alabama, Florida, and LSU will shake things up in Tampa.

The big questions entering this tournament:

Will Auburn reliably get the ball to Jabari Smith in big moments, instead of having its guards shoot ill-advised 3-pointers? Can the Tigers’ offense find more consistency and structure instead of devolving into a scrambled mess?

Will Tennessee get the perimeter shooting it needs in order to become a complete team?

Will Arkansas be able to thrive away from Bud Walton Arena?

Will Kellan Grady and Kentucky’s other role players give Oscar Tshiebwe the level of support he needs?

Will Alabama be able to make 3-pointers at a much higher rate?

Will LSU’s offense avoid crippling scoring droughts?

Will Florida’s guards help Colin Castleton?

Will Georgia, Vandy, Missouri or Ole Miss navigate a gauntlet of games to the finals?

Those are the topics on everyone’s mind heading to Tampa.

All that’s left is for the ball to be tipped.

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