The SEC Tournament starts Wednesday night, which sadly will only consist of one game with Missouri voluntarily sitting out the postseason due to possible NCAA violations. Over the next five days, twelve games will decide the champion, but aside from the championship, here are five storylines to watch.
1. The Bubble
The bubble, she is massive in the SEC. Entering this week, only two teams -- Kentucky and Texas A&M -- can feel secure about their spot in the NCAA Tournament. At the same time, there are probably just four teams -- Arkansas, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Auburn -- that have absolutely no hope of an at-large bid.
Everybody else is somewhere in between, but they are in varying degrees of desperation. For Vanderbilt, the Commodores likely just need to win their first game on Thursday (against either Tennessee or Auburn) to feel safe, and they'd be a virtual lock with a win over LSU on Friday. South Carolina's standing is less secure than a lot of people think -- despite a 23-7 record against Division I teams, the Gamecocks have little heft to their resume thanks to a very weak nonconference schedule. They will be sweating bullets on Selection Sunday if they lose in the quarterfinals, and while a win over Georgia or Mississippi State won't move the needle much, they should be okay with one win.
The rest of the teams are on the fringes of bubble conversation -- they can make a case for themselves this week, but they might just want to take things into their own hands and win the automatic bid. Florida and Alabama seem reasonably close to the cut line, and both have an opportunity for a marquee win on Friday if they can get past their first game -- Florida against Texas A&M, Alabama against Kentucky. Could either of them get an at-large bid if they get to the semifinals? It's certainly possible, and I think if either of them get to the finals they will have a pretty good case. Ole Miss, Georgia, and LSU, on the other hand, probably need to get to the finals to have a chance, and all three might be better off winning it all.
The SEC should ultimately get at least four bids, and may get five if somebody makes a run in the tournament.
2. Is Kentucky ready to make a championship run?
The Wildcats were ranked #2 in the country in the preseason, but they've had an up-and-down season -- showing flashes of the team everyone thought they would be at times, and at other times looking like, well, a team composed mostly of underclassmen. Kentucky could roll to the SEC Tournament championship -- or they could lose in the quarterfinals. Neither result would be much of a surprise, but if we're going to believe that Kentucky can win a national title, they need to have a strong showing in Nashville.
3. BEN SIMMONS
While Ben Simmons is ineligible for the Wooden Award, and probably wouldn't win it even if he were (thanks to playing for a mediocre LSU team), he's also the most talented player in the SEC, if not the entire country. And yet, his team limped to a 18-13 record, losing along the way to the likes of College of Charleston, Houston, and Wake Forest.
Still, if you're a team that's fighting for its NCAA Tournament lives, it's better to have a player like that than to not. Just because of the presence of Simmons, LSU is likely to be a popular dark horse pick in Nashville.
4. Which Vanderbilt will show up?
Vanderbilt, like Kentucky, is a team that had high preseason expectations, but the Commodores have had an up-and-down season. A four-game winning streak before a loss in College Station solidified the Commodores' case for the NCAA Tournament -- but the game at Texas A&M reminded everybody that this team doesn't show up sometimes. If Vanderbilt gets hot from the perimeter, they can obviously win this thing; but they're also capable of shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers and poor rebounding. Will the Commodores make a run at Bridgestone Arena, or will they make an early exit and sweat it out on Selection Sunday?
5. The last hurrah for seniors
One of the oddities of the SEC this year is that many of the teams at the middle and the bottom of the standings aren't exactly young -- Tennessee, Auburn, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss all have rosters that are heavy on seniors, and the best players at Florida (Dorian Finney-Smith) and Alabama (Retin Obasohan) are also seniors. These aren't young teams that are building for next year; instead, they're teams with a lot of players who may be hanging it up after this week.
How could that impact the SEC Tournament? Watch out for Mississippi State -- the Bulldogs are better than their 14-16 record would indicate, and five players in their eight-man rotation are seniors, none of whom have ever played in the NCAA Tournament. If you're looking for a real dark horse to make a run in Nashville and steal a tournament bid, the Bulldogs are my pick.