SEC Tournament Preview: Kentucky and Auburn are best bets

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Now that the SEC regular season is over, what does the conference look like heading into the 2020 SEC Tournament in Nashville? It’s that time of year: Let’s break down the bracket and see what this tournament is poised to deliver.

By Matt Zemek

Start with the first round on Wednesday. It is shocking to see Arkansas as the No. 11 seed, having to play on Day 1 in Bridgestone Arena. Arkansas was certainly hurt by the injury to Isaiah Joe. If that had not happened, the Razorbacks would be an NCAA Tournament team right now. Yet, Arkansas had a chance to show that with Joe back in the lineup, it was an NCAA-caliber team. Losses to Georgia and Texas A&M completely undercut that argument. The Hogs will have to win at least three games in Nashville, probably four, if they want any chance at an at-large NCAA bid. Playing that first game against Vanderbilt gets in the way of their aspirations. They really could have used a day of rest, but they won’t get it.

There isn’t much to say about the other Day 1 game between Georgia and Ole Miss. Florida should be able to handle the winner in round two on Thursday.

Speaking of round two, let’s dive into that part of the tournament. Round two of the SEC Tournament has always been a highly bubble-licious Thursday. We have become accustomed to seeing Alabama and South Carolina playing for their bubble lives in this round of the SEC Tournament. That will be the case this year as well. Alabama-Tennessee is a bubble elimination game. The winner will face Kentucky in the quarterfinals and will have to win that game to have ANY chance at an at-large bid.

Vanderbilt versus Kentucky Basketball February 11, 2020South Carolina will have to beat (presumably) Arkansas. The Gamecocks would then face LSU in the quarterfinals. South Carolina has to win that game, and very probably the following semifinal versus Auburn, to have any shot at an at-large bid.

This is a broader theme about the 2020 SEC Tournament: Given that almost all of the SEC bubble teams lost on Saturday – Alabama to Missouri, Tennessee to Auburn, South Carolina to Vanderbilt, and Arkansas to Texas A&M – this year’s bubble dimension of the SEC Tournament is more clear-cut than it usually is.

A typical SEC Tournament bubble drama involves intense debate over whether a team needs to make the quarterfinals or semifinals to make the NCAA Tournament. Is that quarterfinal win over a high seed enough to make the difference, or does a team have to then win its semifinal as well? That is a normal bubble scenario at SEC Tournaments, and in recent years, Alabama’s NCAA Tournament fate has in fact depended on its quarterfinal results, not its semifinal results. Alabama beat Auburn in a 2018 quarterfinal and got in the Dance. It lost a 2019 SEC quarterfinal to Kentucky and was left out.

Quarterfinals

In 2020, though, there is not a lot of drama surrounding the quarterfinals, because the various SEC bubble teams are generally in a position where they have to make the FINAL, not the semifinals, to have a realistic shot at an NCAA bid.

All of the bubble losses from this past weekend significantly reduced the margin for error belonging to the various SEC bubble teams. They now need to make up that much more ground in Nashville. It’s final or bust in terms of an at-large bid, and automatic bid or bust if teams want to feel safe about making the NCAA Tournament.

The Alabama-Tennessee winner, South Carolina, and Arkansas all need to make the final of the SEC Tournament. Anything less probably keeps them out at this point.

If there is one exception to the list of SEC bubble teams needing to make the final in Nashville to qualify for the NCAAs as an at-large team, it is Mississippi State… though that is hardly guaranteed.

Emmitt Williams
Emmitt Williams
Mississippi State won this past Saturday instead of losing more ground. The Bulldogs got a No. 4 seed, which means a double bye and no second-round game on Thursday. The situation for MSU is double-sided: On one hand, the Bulldogs have to win only two games to make the SEC final. That’s the good news. The bad news is that if MSU can’t parlay an extra day of rest into a win over (likely) Florida in the SEC quarterfinals on Friday, it won’t make the NCAA Tournament.

Mississippi State MUST beat Florida on Friday, assuming the Gators aren’t ambushed by Georgia or Ole Miss. The carnage in the conference tournaments, with bids being stolen – such as Utah State in the Mountain West, for example – will reduce the size of the at-large bid pool. Mississippi State has to have a good win to show to the selection committee.

The Bulldogs might be in if they beat Florida. They will DEFINITELY be in the NCAA Tournament if they can beat Kentucky in the semifinals. MSU will want Kentucky to beat the Tennessee-Alabama winner, since the Bulldogs can use a high-value win to improve their resume and punctuate their NCAA Tournament argument.

We have talked about the bubble. Now let’s talk about who will win the SEC Tournament.

Looking at the bracket in Nashville, this sets up well for Kentucky and Auburn. Kentucky has handled Mississippi State without too many problems. UK just took Florida’s best shot without Ashton Hagans and came back from an 18-point deficit to win on the road in Gainesville. Big Blue should feel very confident about its ability to handle UF or Mississippi State in a possible semifinal.

In the other half of the bracket, South Carolina could be thorny for LSU in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Auburn will play either Texas A&M or Missouri. Both the Aggies and Tigers recently defeated Auburn, so Bruce Pearl has a revenge game to prepare for. Auburn has to like that. AU should be very sharp and motivated in the quarterfinals.

Semifinals and Championship Game

If the semis produce an Auburn-LSU rematch, LSU’s marked decline at the defensive end of the floor in recent weeks bodes well for Auburn. LSU is not the same team compared to January. The team which went 8-0 in the SEC has not been rediscovered since. If you want an SEC Tournament title game matchup, the prediction here is Kentucky versus Auburn.

Who wins? Auburn needed 44 foul shots to beat UK on its home floor. That was unlikely to replicate itself, and sure enough, Auburn lost in Rupp Arena when gaining only 22 free throw attempts.

All other things being equal, Kentucky’s defense and Auburn’s penchant for bad shot selection give John Calipari the edge in pursuing another SEC Tournament championship.

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