Atlanta, GA (TAKE2SPORTS) - As sure as Kentucky WIldcat fans will converge and dominate the SEC Tournament no matter where it's held, this year's league tournament features a wide open world of possibilities.
While Florida (13-3) and Alabama (12-4) emerged to lead the league in 2010-2011 (East & West respectively), neither is a certainty, nor perhaps even a heavy favorite, to win through this coming Sunday. In this year's conference tournament bracket, other variables besides conference records will serve as mitigating factors.
For one, you never want to rule out Kentucky, and while the Wildcats have been less than stellar away from Rupp Arena this year, they may have the most advantageous seeding in the field. John Calipari will try to make it 2-for-2 in SEC tourneys as the #2 East seed, resting on Thursday with a bye, then getting a relatively light match up Friday from whoever emerges from Ole Miss/South Carolina the previous day. From there, only Alabama, Georgia, or Auburn could stand the 'Cats way.
In contrast, the bottom bracket, featuring the East #1 seed, Florida, appears more difficult. If you asked Billy Donovan, I think he'd tell you he'd much rather face Ole Miss or South Carolina rather than the possibility of Tennessee on Friday, which is precisely what is lined up to occur. From there, Vanderbilt (a team that's been ranked nearly all season) and a very dangerous Mississippi State team await the Gators in the semi's. Oh, and this one bit... Florida lost 71-64 to the Bulldogs in Starkville on Jan. 29th.
Speaking of Mississippi State, it would be foolish for anyone to laugh off the idea of the 'Dogs being a real threat to win this weekend. We've seen it before, such as in 2009 when MSU reeled off 4 wins in 4 days to break into the NCAA Tournament. Or, even last year when a last-second, OT-forcing basket from Kentucky robbed Rick Stansbury of back-to-back titles. State went 9-7 in the league but had more issues than Sports Illustrated this season. When you have a PG like Dee Bost, a pure shooter like Ravern Johnson, and a big body like Renardo Sidney, you better not rule them out.
Meanwhile, Georgia remains exciting for a couple reasons. Obviously, the home cooking is one, but also the fact the Bulldogs possess the obvious talent -- size most especially -- to make a 4-game run. Travis Leslie, Gerald Robinson, and Dustin Ware are all factors from the perimeter, while Trey Thompkins (an NBA 1st-rd pick in a few months) and Jeremy Price are a load to deal with down low. When the outside shot goes cold, Georgia may be best suited to grind it out for buckets around the rim.
Cases could even likely be made for Vanderbilt and Tennessee, considering the intrigue of each: The Volunteers are a team that you watch and say, "Wow, that team is talented", yet seemingly underachieved this season. They've certainly got the cavalry to ruin several team's championship plans, but to take the 2011 title, the Vols will have to do something they couldn't manage to do all season long-- win 4 SEC games in a row.
As for Vandy, it won a stretch of 5 straight in late February, including wins over Kentucky, Alabama, and Georgia. The Commodores have shown their mettle, now it's simply a matter of starting with win over LSU and Mississippi State, then closing with 2 more. Vanderbilt is in the NCAA Tournament regardless, but the help with seeding a 4-game run will provide would be a boost, something to consider after the 'Dores were upset in last year's 1st round.
Finally, yet surely not the least of these is Alabama. The Tide surprised everyone all year with the run they made in winning the west, and if the criteria is the ability to win 4 straight, 'Bama's done it twice already. Anthony Grant has impressed in his 2nd year as coach, and with the harassing defense his team has come to be known for, a title game run cannot be out of the question.
As usual, Wednesday is a day of practice and potential heading into Thursday's tournament play. Every SEC team has a chance to extend its season, but to do it, one program will have to own 4 consecutive days inside the Georgia Dome. Let the games begin...
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