After years of hogging BCS national championships, SEC basketball programs have been collecting cobwebs and this season was their comeuppance. The top team in the conference is No. 1 in the nation and the rest are unranked in the latest Ap Top 25 poll. The SEC's top two teams have more philosophical differences than salt and pepper. Kentucky has become that established tech company taken over by young tech geniuses that you decided to invest in based on all the hype on MSNBC and Jim Kramer. Next thing you know, they’ve blown all your money on frivolous expenses, there’s no return on your investment and the University of Kentucky is about to be sold to Mark Cuban and repurposed it into the Dallas Maverick's D-League franchise.
The disparity between the SEC’s football strength and its basketball kiddie pool depth is almost comical. It’s practically impossible for the Florida Gators strength to be gauged when unranked Kentucky is their closest competition in the SEC. However, there is always the possibility of chaos reigning supreme in a conference that begins and ends with the nation's numero uno. The SEC's Conference Tournament begins Wednesday, but it already feels like it's over. 18 is the average age of a Kentucky starter. It's more significant for Florida's senior citizens, who won all 18 conference games they played this season.
1. The Tournament Is A Battle For Second Place
If there was a chance for an automatic bid to be stolen from one of the other conferences seeking multiple bids from its lower rung teams, this may be the conference for it to occur in. Since their humbling loss to Texas A&M on February 22, the Tennessee Vols have won their past four games by an average of 25 points per game.
Ole Miss’ Marshall Henderson turned the SEC upside down last March by beating Florida to take the NCAA Tournament bid rather than waiting on the Selection Committee to issue judgment by swinging its scepter of fate. With last year’s letdown under their belts, it’s hard to imagine anyone wrestling these Gators under the Georgia Dome lights.
2. Kentucky Is the Most Disappointing Team in the Nation
John Calipari runs the most efficient D-League in the nation, but he went bankrupt by going all in on freshmen neophytes. Unfortunately, Kentucky is discovering that getting mined by NBA teams every spring and agents isn’t conducive to creating consistent national championship contenders. Right now, they switch out names above the lockers like Nicki Minaj does her hair color. Conversely, the reigning SEC regular season champions don’t have a single one-and-done player in their rotation and their leading scorer, Casey Prather is captain of TSL’s team late-bloomer team.
Defense is usually the hardest concept for young players to grasp and Kentucky is emblematic of that fact. On the positive side, this is actually an improvement over last season’s tumultuous end.
This year's Kentucky team is entering the SEC Tournament in almost the exact same way they did last year pic.twitter.com/LofSfqsJ1o
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 10, 2014
This March, Kentucky only fell out of the Top 25 instead of the top 68. This year has done damage to the Kentucky brand though. Calipari needs to chill recruiting from prep rankings so indiscriminately and find a few glue guys that can bring his program continuity from year to year. Juniors and seniors have value in this new world after all.
3. Who Has The Most To Gain?
Arkansas and Tennessee are the last four in and may need to make some traction in the SEC Tournament to avoid getting jumped by the likes of Missouri. Mizzou is on the dock while the NCAA Tournament cruise ship takes off without them. The Tigers have gone 3-1 against the combo of Tennessee and Arkansas, but they have to counteract a few of the bad losses they’ve suffered thus far. Marshall Henderson is as much of a threat as any player in the nation to pop off 30 or pull up from 30 feet and frighteningly enough he has nothing to lose. There are no expectations. The legend of Marshall Henderson may have one more final chapter to be written.
4. Is There A Breakout Star In The Waiting?
Julius Randle is establiished as a freshman prodigy, therefore nothing he does suprises anymore. The versatile Casey Prather should be a known commodity by know as Florida's most important cog and he'll have his hands full . Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin’s fluorescent orange blazer creates sunlight and sucks in eyeballs, however, he has the charisma of a coroner. Tennessee has a pair of horses pulling its wagon through SEC country. Jordan McRae is a scoring outburst waiting to happen. In the frontcourt, the Vols burly 6-9 power forward Jarnell Stokes is tied with Julius Randle for the third most double-doubles in the nation and carries himself with the ferocity of an SEC defensive end. Also, keep your eyes peeled for LSU's Johnny Bryant III, who has given Julius Randle fits with his length in the paint and dropped 25 points, 10 boards on Vandy last Thursday.
5. Is There Anything We Can Learn From Florida In The SEC Tournament?
While Kentucky is responsible for creating a dystopian society that promised bliss and harmony and in which anyone over the age of 19 is excommunicated, Florida is the oppositional threat turning the entire system on its head. Of the 73 teams from the six conferences that have claimed the last 23 national tites , 12 start three seniors only Florida tip-off with four in the starting lineup.
True to their nature, the Gators are creeping in underneath the radar like the scaly reptiles cloaked by a swamp fog they’re named after. No team embodies the heart of the SEC like Florida. Not SEC basketball, but SEC football. Florida’s pressure defense is slightly easier to solve than last season when they allowng six fewer points per 100 possessions, scored at a higher rate and ranked five spots higher in defensive efficiency.
Unfortunately, the Gators were unable to get wins in games decided by six points or less—including the SEC Championship game. They put that behind them earlier this season by scraping close wins over Kansas and Memphis. They also ripped through the SEC schedule as one of three teams in the entire nation with an undefeated conference schedule. The cast has changed, but the lesson to be digested here is whether the Florida Gators have learned to close the deal.