Welcome to Conference Championship week, when automatic bids get stolen, bubble teams make their final push and top contenders look to affirm their status. As you prepare to fill out your NCAA Tournament bracket, catching up on these teams might give you a better idea of who could make a run.
CBS Local Sports is previewing the six major conference tournaments: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. We’ll break them down by the favorites, contenders and dark horses that will have a chance of locking up the automatic bid to the Big Dance, which starts next week.
For some teams, like Kentucky, Florida and likely Arkansas and South Carolina, the SEC Tournament will be a tune up — albeit, an important one — for the NCAA Tournament.
For others, like Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Alabama and Georgia, it’ll be a chance to pop the bubble they’re sitting on and prove that they belong in the Big Dance.
It all starts here, so let’s take a closer look at the SEC Tournament’s contenders and pretenders before it gets underway.
First, the tournament schedule (courtesy of CBS Sports)…
Wednesday, March 8 (First round)
Game 1: No. 12 Mississippi State vs. No. 13 LSU | 7 p.m. | SEC Network
Game 2: No. 11 Auburn vs. No. 14 Missouri | 9:30 p.m. | SEC Network
Thursday, March 9 (Second round)
Game 3: No. 8 Georgia vs. No. 9 Tennessee | 1 p.m. | SEC Network
Game 4: No. 5 Alabama vs. Game 1 winner | 3:30 p.m. | SEC Network
Game 5: No. 7 Vanderbilt vs. No. 10 Texas A&M | 7 p.m. | SEC Network
Game 6: No. 6 Ole Miss vs. Game 2 winner | 9:30 p.m. | SEC Network
Friday, March 10 (Quarterfinals)
Game 7: No. 1 Kentucky vs. Game 3 winner | 1 p.m. | SEC Network
Game 8: No. 4 South Carolina vs. Game 4 winner | 3:30 p.m. | SEC Network
Game 9: No. 2 Florida vs. Game 5 winner | 7 p.m | SEC Network
Game 10: No. 3 Arkansas vs. Game 6 winner | 9:30 p.m. | SEC Network
Saturday, March 11 (Semifinals)
Game 11: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner | 1 p.m. | ESPN
Game 12: Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner | 3:30 p.m. | ESPN
Sunday, March 12 (Championship)
Game 13: Game 11 winner vs. Game 12 winner | 1 p.m. | ESPN
John Calipari’s Wildcats have plenty to play for in the SEC Tournament, as a potential No. 1 seed could be within reach if they can capture a third consecutive SEC Tournament title.
If it happens, it’ll be thanks in large part to freshman Malik Monk putting on a show. Monk’s flair for the dramatic has been well documented in 2016-17, especially in massive second-half performances against Florida (30 points in the second half) and Georgia (31 points in the second half).
Monk (21.2 ppg average) was just named AP’s SEC Player of the Year and is one of the most explosive scorers in college basketball. He and De’Aaron Fox make up the most formidable backcourt in the SEC.
Stopping them is a nightmarish task, but the other favorite in the SEC might just be up to it.
The Gators — led by SEC Coach of the Year Mike White — are tenacious and relentless on the defensive side of the ball. That much they proved to the Wildcats when the two teams met up in Gainesville back in February for a game the Gators won 86-66.
The Wildcats got their revenge back home on Feb. 25 to put an end to the Gators’ impressive nine-game winning streak. That all but secured the No. 2 slot in the SEC for Florida.
Over the course of the nine-game streak, the Gators routinely held opponents under 70 points while doing enough offensively to get the win.
They’re well-rounded on offense, though they lack the potential to explode — or at least lack a player like Monk who can take over a game. And that can be critical in March when every game is an elimination game.
Arkansas, on the strength of their 23-8 record, will all but certainly be in the NCAA Tournament field for the second time in three years, even though they have work to do to prove that they can compete against the nation’s best teams.
The Razorbacks went 0-4 against RPI Top 25 teams, and their only top-25 win of the year came against South Carolina back on Feb. 15.
The Razorbacks can score with the best of them (27th in the nation in ppg, 80.6 avg), thanks to their well-rounded scoring attack (four players averaging 12+ points per game). However, their defense is a liability.
According to KenPom.com, Arkansas ranks 124th in adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, while the two contenders in the conference — Kentucky and Florida — rank 13th and fourth, respectively.
They’ll need to tighten up on that end of the floor if they’re going to improve their NCAA seeding with an SEC Tournament run.
South Carolina Gamecocks
The Gamecocks are also likely destined for the NCAA Tournament thanks to their strong in-conference RPI and their win over top-25 Florida back in January.
If the Gamecocks are going to make any noise in March, it’ll be thanks to senior guard Sindarius Thornwell, who was just named the SEC’s Player of the Year by the league’s coaches (different from Monk’s award).
Thornwell averaged 21.2 points per game and led the team in assists as well (2.9 per game) while hitting 43.9 percent of his shots from the field.
Thornwell was also named to the SEC’s All-Defensive team for the second consecutive year as he led a stingy Gamecocks defense that ranks No. 2 in adjusted defensive efficiency in KenPom.com’s rankings.
For the Gamecocks to swing an upset in the SEC Tournament, it’ll take consecutive stellar scoring efforts from Thornwell and the team’s most consistent defensive effort yet over a four-game stretch.
The Commodores may be the No. 7 seed in the SEC Tournament, but they have the most to gain with a strong showing in the SEC Tournament. And that makes them dangerous.
On top of that, they’ve already bested Florida twice during the regular season, so you know they have it in them to beat the best.
Vanderbilt ranks 44th in RPI and has a strong enough resume to get into the NCAA Tournament if they can rattle off some wins in the next few of days.
Their offensive and defensive stats don’t jump off the page, but the team does the little things well and will be a tough out in this tournament and the NCAA Tournament, assuming they make it.