Oh, how I wish I could be at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville for the SEC Tournament, which begins today with four games. You’d have to consider Kentucky the favorite, but there are a few teams that could enhance their postseason résumé by knocking off the Wildcats. A team like, say, Mississippi State. The Bulldogs, who arrived in Music City last night, will get to sit back and watch today’s action thanks to a first-round bye. They get the Auburn/Florida winner at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
Colleague Parrish Alford will be covering for me, and he’s got a tournament notebook in today’s Daily Journal.
The games begin at noon with South Carolina vs. Alabama. So you’ve still got time to sign up for our Reed’s SEC Tournament Pickem contest. I’ve already made my first-round picks, and now I’m going to break down each matchup for you.
• South Carolina vs. Alabama: The Gamecocks (15-15, 6-10 SEC) were riding a big high after super senior guard Devan Downey carried them to an upset of then-No. 1 Kentucky on Jan. 26. But they later lost six in a row before ending the regular season with a 77-73 upset of Vanderbilt. Despite that win, South Carolina seems to be feeling the effects of losing Dominique Archie (knee injury) and Mike Holmes (dismissed from team), both starters, early in the season. Downey is averaging 26.2 points in SEC games, but he can’t do it alone.
Alabama (16-14, 6-10) is closer to a complete team than the Gamecocks, who it beat 79-70 on March 3. Mikhail Torrance (15.4 ppg, 5.3 apg) and JaMychal Green (14.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg) are a good outside-inside combo. The Crimson Tide has had issues as well, losing seven of eight before closing the season with wins over SC and Auburn.
My prediction: Alabama 71, South Carolina 66.
• LSU vs. Tennessee: My, how LSU has fallen. Last year’s regular season SEC champion won only two league games this season, and I’m still trying to figure out how they won that many. Much like South Carolina, LSU (11-19, 2-14) leans heavily on one very talented player: Tasmin Mitchell, a senior forward who averages 17.0 points and 9.5 boards per game. The Tigers have a decent point guard in Bo Spencer, who scores 14.9 points per game but has committed 97 turnovers against 79 assists (yuck).
Tennessee (23-7, 11-5) is on a roll right now, having won three in a row over Kentucky, Arkansas and MSU. Coach Bruce Pearl should’ve won SEC Coach of the Year, and he’s got this team clicking beautifully. The Volunteers have plenty of options – any of four guys can lead them in scoring on a given night. Five players are averaging more than nine points per game, led by Scotty Hopson‘s 13.1.
My prediction: Tennessee 81, LSU 67.
• Auburn vs. Florida: The winner of this game gets MSU, and it’s an intriguing matchup. Auburn (15-16, 6-10) ranks 12th in the country in 3-point field goals made (8.6 per game), but it ranks 185th in 3-point percentage (33.6). So yeah, the Tigers just fire away, and when they’re hitting – especially when Tay Waller (15.9 ppg, 42.0 percent on threes) is hitting – they are quite dangerous. Just ask MSU, which uncharacteristically yielded 89 points in a loss to Auburn last week. But when Auburn’s cold – well, look at Saturday’s 73-61 loss to Alabama, in which the Tigers shot 28 percent (7 of 25) from downtown.
Florida (20-11, 9-7) is a curious team. It’s up – three consecutive wins, over Auburn, Ole Miss and Tennessee – and then it’s down – three consecutive losses, to Georgia, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to close the season. Mind you, Vandy and UK are top notch, and the Gators have beaten most of the teams they’re supposed to beat. And against the Commodores and Wildcats, Florida grabbed a total of 38 offensive rebounds and scored 36 second-chance points, which bodes well going against an Auburn squad that ranks 10th in the SEC in rebounding margin (minus-0.6 per game).
My prediction: Florida 75, Auburn 74.
• Georgia vs. Arkansas: The Bulldogs (13-16, 5-11) are a tough out. Six of their league losses came by four points or less, including a two-point setback at LSU to close the season. On the flip side of that, Georgia beat Vanderbilt by 14 and Tennessee by 15 earlier this year. Go figure. Big man Trey Thompkins (17.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg) is a big reason Georgia can be dangerous. In the wins over Vandy and UT, he scored 17 and 25 points.
So I’m very tempted to pick Georgia today. Especially considering Arkansas (14-17, 7-9) has lost its last five games. The Razorbacks beat Georgia on Feb. 3, 72-68 in Athens, but that was a long time ago. But as much as I like Georgia point guard Travis Leslie (13.9 ppg, 47.9 percent field goals), I like Arkansas point guard Courtney Fortson (18.1 ppg, 6.0 apg) even more. And post man Mike Washington (12.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg) can match up with Thompkins. In the first meeting, Thompkins out-scored Washington, 21-15, but it took him 20 shots to get there, compared to 11 for Washington.
My prediction: Arkansas 73, Georgia 71.
I’ll make my second-round picks Friday morning. Join in the fun, people.