As the SEC convenes in Nashville this week for the 2021 SEC Tournament, let’s take a moment to remember that it hasn’t been that long since the days of SEC Basketball Fever, when the league would normally go into the conference tournament with maybe two teams (one of them inevitably Kentucky) feeling good about their chances of making the NCAA Tournament, and a couple more teams on the bubble, while everyone else was just hoping to claim the automatic bid.
That is... not the case this year.
Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket (released Monday night) has six SEC teams in it, and the lowest-ranked teams (LSU, Missouri, and Florida) are all 8-seeds. Tennessee is a 6-seed, while Arkansas is a 3-seed and Alabama is a 2-seed. In other words, six teams are all pretty solidly in the field. Things could conceivably get dicey for Florida if they were to lose their first game of the tournament (against Vanderbilt or Texas A&M on Thursday), but even then, the Gators would probably just drop to a 10-seed.
On the flipside, there’s only one team that’s really on the bubble: Ole Miss. The Rebels are listed as the sixth team out of the bracket, meaning they need to pass five teams to get in. The other six teams playing all presumably need the automatic bid.
So, first, let’s go through the schedule (since the freaking images won’t work, I’m having to type this out.) All times Central.
Game 1: (12) Vanderbilt vs. (13) Texas A&M, 6:00 PM, SEC Network
Game 2: (8) Kentucky vs. (9) Mississippi State, 11:00 AM, SEC Network
Game 3: (5) Florida vs. Game 1 winner, approx. 1:30 PM, SEC Network
Game 4: (7) Missouri vs. (10) Georgia, 6:00 PM, SEC Network
Game 5: (6) Ole Miss vs. (11) South Carolina, approx. 8:30 PM, SEC Network
Game 6: (1) Alabama vs. Game 2 winner, 11:00 AM, ESPN
Game 7: (4) Tennessee vs. Game 3 winner, approx. 1:30 PM, ESPN
Game 8: (2) Arkansas vs. Game 4 winner, 6:00 PM, SEC Network
Game 9: (3) LSU vs. Game 5 winner, approx. 8:30 PM, SEC Network
Game 10: Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 winner, 12:00 PM, ESPN
Game 11: Game 8 winner vs. Game 9 winner, approx. 2:30 PM, ESPN
Game 12: Semifinal winners, 12:00 PM, ESPN
All right. So, what the SEC Tournament lacks in bubble drama, it will probably make up for in good basketball. One thing you might have missed if you’ve just been watching Vanderbilt and not watching the rest of the SEC is that the league has finally made the shift to playing fun basketball again, driven by the likes of Nate Oats, Eric Musselman, and Will Wade’s child-bearing hips. Kentucky is still a team that mostly tries to use its size to gum up the works, but they’re also the 8-seed here and probably aren’t about to make a run; they’re 9-15 on the season and would play Alabama on Friday if they can even get past Mississippi State.
As usual, Wednesday night isn’t going to be good (and you, dear reader, would probably take a pass on it were you not a Vanderbilt fan), and the afternoon session on Thursday isn’t going to be much better. Things should start to pick up a bit on Thursday evening: Missouri is probably safely in the tournament, but Georgia already beat them once back on February 16. And Ole Miss, as mentioned before, is on the bubble, but they absolutely need to beat South Carolina.
Anyway, back to that “good basketball” thing: once you get to Friday, Alabama will probably destroy whoever emerges from the 8-9 game, but after that, everything should be good. The three other matchups will be good games if the favorites in the Thursday games (Florida, Missouri, and Ole Miss) advance, and good stories if the favorites don’t advance (can an underdog keep the magic going?) Again, outside of Ole Miss, there won’t be much bubble drama, but there’s going to be a lot of jockeying for seeding. LSU, Missouri, and Florida would all probably love to get out of the 8/9 game in the NCAA Tournament, while Alabama looks to wrap up a 2-seed in the NCAA (they probably can’t get up to the 1 line) for the first time since 2002. Arkansas is currently a 3-seed in Lunardi’s bracket, and the last time the Razorbacks got a top-3 seed in the NCAA Tournament was all the way back in 1995. (To put that in perspective, every other SEC team except Vanderbilt has gotten a top-3 seed at least once since 1995. It’s been a while.)
Conceivably, Arkansas can get up to the 2 line if they win the SEC Tournament, and the Razorbacks are easily the hottest team in the conference; they won their final 11 conference games after a 2-4 start to SEC play, and they’ve won eight straight overall since a loss at Oklahoma State in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Alabama has looked weirdly mortal since a 9-0 start; in addition to dropping two games, they’ve had weird close calls against the likes of South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Mississippi State. But none of the top seven seeds would really surprise me that much if they won the thing, and Ole Miss should probably feel good about their chances of making the tournament if they can just get to the finals in Nashville (which would add a couple of Quad 1 wins to their resume.)
Anyway, it should be a fun week even if Vanderbilt doesn’t do anything.