NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A handful of Southeastern Conference teams are heading to Music City looking to prove the league’s tournament isn’t just Kentucky’s annual March gift to the Wildcat faithful.
Yes, the eighth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats just won their 48th SEC regular season title and are the two-time defending champs at a tournament they’ve won 29 times . They also have impressive Malik Monk, John Calipari’s latest freshman star.
The Wildcats have shown they may not be as dominant as previous Kentucky teams, dropping not one, but two games in league play this season. The postseason also offers teams a fresh start at a time where confidence — and a bit of luck — can go a long way.
“The biggest thing in the tournament is, ‘Do you believe you can win?’” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said Monday.
Kentucky, No. 19 Florida, Arkansas and South Carolina all have byes in the tournament starting Wednesday night. Alabama coach Avery Johnson said he wouldn’t be surprised if a sleeper wins, even someone seeded as low as No. 9 Tennessee.
“Any of those teams, I think if we play the right way and get a couple bounces our way, can win the SEC Tournament,” Johnson said.
Vanderbilt is the No. 7 seed, but the Commodores jumped out to a 19-point lead at Rupp Arena last week before losing to Kentucky. Vanderbilt finished the regular season as the SEC’s only team to sweep Florida , likely why Gators coach Mike White might be rooting for Texas A&M against the Commodores on Thursday night. A possible semifinal opponent could be No. 3 seed Arkansas, which Vandy split with only after blowing a 15-point lead on its own court in January. The Commodores must first prove they can win their opener after being one-and-done each of the past three years under former coach Kevin Stallings.
Monk has been on pace all season to become the first freshman to lead the SEC in scoring since 1989 when Chris Jackson averaged 30.2 points per game for LSU. But Sindarius Thornwell of South Carolina could have something to say about that. Both are averaging 21.2 points per game, though Monk has played six more games. The Gamecocks senior not only scores but plays a major role for the league’s stingiest scoring defense. Thornwell also averages a league-best 2.2 steals per game.
MISSING IN ACTION?
Georgia coach Mark Fox would like junior forward Yante Maten back. The Bulldogs leading scorer sprained his right knee Feb. 18 and will meet with doctors before No. 8 seed Georgia travels to Nashville. “We’ll wait and see what the doctor says and progress from there,” Fox said.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Senior guard J.J. Frazier has been carrying Georgia averaging 29.6 points per game over the past five games. Sebastian Sainz of Mississippi is the SEC’s top rebounder and seventh nationally averaging 10.9 boards per game. He’s also sixth with 19 double-doubles this season. Texas A&M freshman Robert Williams is the second-leading rebounder (8.1) and blocks 2 ½ shots per game.
Kentucky seems to be peaking at the right time. The Wildcats are riding the league’s longest winning streak at eight straight into the tournament. Arkansas has won six of its last seven, while Florida won 10 of its last 12 with the Gators’ losses in that stretch both on the road at Kentucky and at Vanderbilt.
LSU has lost 16 of 17 going into the tournament, and Mississippi State has lost six of its last seven. But only Missouri heads to Nashville with its coach already fired and the Tigers losers of six straight. Kim Anderson is gone once the Tigers wrap up their stay at the SEC Tournament after winning only twice in league play. “The bottom line in this business you have to win games, and we weren’t able to do that,” Anderson said.
NCAA BRACKET WATCH
A year ago, the SEC got only three teams into the NCAA Tournament, and Kentucky and Texas A&M both played in the league’s championship game. Vanderbilt squeaked in and was routed by 20 in Dayton. Now the SEC could put five teams into the tournament with Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas and Vanderbilt all within the top 44 RPI.