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March 9, 2011
Gators, Cats & Underdogs
SEC Tournament

by John Gasaway

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2011 SEC Tournament
March 10-13
Georgia Dome, Atlanta
Bracket (pdf)

Log5 odds by Ken Pomeroy
Georgia is credited with half a home-court advantage.

Seed                  Qtrs   Semis   Final   Champ
E2 Kentucky            100    86.6    63.8    41.3
E1 Florida             100    74.4    47.1    23.8
E3 Vanderbilt         94.5    79.7    39.1    17.2
E4 Georgia            91.8    51.0    17.5     7.5
W1 Alabama             100    48.2    14.4     5.5
E5 Tennessee          71.2    21.4     9.5     3.0
W3 Mississippi        66.7    10.5     3.6     1.0
W2 Mississippi St.     100    19.0     3.1     0.4
W4 Arkansas           28.8     4.2     1.1     0.2
E6 South Carolina     33.3     2.9     0.7     0.1
W6 LSU                 5.5     1.3     0.08    0.004
W5 Auburn              8.2     0.8     0.05    0.003

The last time the SEC tournament was held at the Georgia Dome, the SEC tournament was not held at the Georgia Dome. On the night of March 14, 2008, Mississippi State and Alabama were halfway through OT in their quarterfinal, when a tornado touched down in downtown Atlanta and damaged the Dome's unique tensegrity-based roof. Later that night the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide snuck back on the floor and finished their game (MSU won), but the tournament's remaining games were played at Alexander Memorial Coliseum on the campus of Georgia Tech.

So first let us hope for fair skies and a strong roof this week at the SEC tournament. Assuming those conditions are met, we should see some good hoops played by all these football-addled schools. Plus Vanderbilt. (Har!) Kentucky and Florida are two of the best teams in the country, and while the SEC's funky divisional seeding causes injustice on a yearly basis (the Commodores have to win a game to face...Mississippi State?), this year the funkiness has somehow relegated the Wildcats and the Gators to different halves of the bracket. Meaning if all goes according to plan we'll get to see John Calipari and Billy Donovan shake hands before tipoff on Sunday.

(But of course all will not go according to plan. Every year Mississippi State insists on being in the title game. It's getting really annoying.)

Here's my read on the tournament's entrants, from most- to least-likely to capture the automatic bid:

Florida (24-6, 13-3)
As seen in the log5 table above, the laptop belonging to my colleague Ken Pomeroy is somewhat suspicious of the Gators -- and with good reason. Billy Donovan's team lost at home to Jacksonville for goodness sake. But there's good news in the more recent past. Florida's only loss since January came on the road, at Kentucky, by eight. This is the SEC's best offense, one that scored 1.12 points per trip in a league that averaged 1.02. (Rather incredibly, the Gators are the only team that made more twos than they missed in SEC play. If you like D, this is the conference for you.) Between Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton, Vernon Macklin, and 2011 SEC Player of the Year Chandler Parsons, opposing defenses have a lot of contingencies to plan for. Then again that's been true for a while now in Gainesville. What's different in 2011 is that UF's defense is tolerable. Florida will face the winner of Arkansas-Tennessee. BONUS incredulity! Parsons is the first SEC POY in Florida history? That is...amazing.

Kentucky (22-8, 10-6)
Last year the Wildcats outscored the SEC by 0.14 points per possession, and they were given a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament. This season they outscored their league by 0.12 points per trip, and I'm seeing UK projected as a 4-seed. I realize no one on this year's Kentucky team started a dance craze, but performance-wise there is much less difference between 2011 and 2010 in Lexington than people realize. The respect afforded the Cats in the log5 table above is justified.

Vanderbilt (21-9, 9-7)
Another year, another efficient offense from Kevin Stallings: only Florida and Kentucky topped the Commodores' 1.10 points per possession in SEC play. Note for instance that Festus Ezeli clearly needs a better PR guy. This season the 6-11 junior's taking on a much larger role on offense and he's making 57 percent of his twos. Between Ezeli, Jeffery Taylor, and a perimeter threat like John Jenkins, this team's equally accurate (very) from both sides of the arc. Only thing: in-state rivals Tennessee really have this offense's number. In two games against the Volunteers this season, Vandy recorded just 115 points in 137 possessions. Good thing for the 'Dores that Florida stands between them and another collision with Bruce Pearl's team. (Though the bad news is they'll probably have to play the Gators.)

Alabama (20-10, 12-4)
With the possible exception of Georgia, no SEC team has more to play for this week than the Crimson Tide. Anthony Grant's team would appear to be on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament at the moment. A couple wins might change that, but it won't be easy. The Tide's most likely first-game opponent is -- well, what do you know? -- Georgia, in Atlanta no less. Bama will need every bit of that great defense they displayed all season long, the one that held conference opponents to 42 percent shooting on their twos.

Georgia (20-10, 9-7)
I like the Dawgs. They really defend on the perimeter, and Travis Leslie, a 6-4 junior who's making 53 percent of his twos, is clearly underrated, perhaps because of the long shadow cast by Trey Thompkins. And, yes, UGA is playing close to home. But picking this team to go on a tournament run requires placing one's faith in the new and unusual: Mark Fox's team hasn't put together three straight wins since December.

Tennessee (18-13, 8-8)
The Volunteers find themselves in an exceptionally strange situation. It is widely assumed that their coach will be removed from his position once the NCAA is done investigating. Meantime Bruce Pearl is still the head coach -- of a team that underperformed this season, going 3-6 over their last nine games. (Tennessee struggles to make shots and is but rarely found at the free throw line.) Maybe the situation and the performance are related.

Mississippi State (17-13, 9-7)
Will Renardo Sidney's "much-publicized fitness issues" prevent the Bulldogs from reaching their third consecutive SEC title game? Actually the big guy's stamina might matter less than you think. As per usual in Starkville, this is a perimeter-oriented team with a post player who happens to grab the headlines. No team devoted a greater share of their attempts to threes in SEC play than MSU. If those threes fall, Rick Stansbury's team -- which otherwise epitomizes "SEC average" on both sides of the ball -- has a shot.

Ole Miss (19-12, 7-9)
It's "Ole," not "Old." The latter word has a "D" but Mississippi didn't this year. SEC opponents made 39 percent of their threes against the Rebels.

Arkansas (18-12, 7-9)
The Razorbacks face Tennessee in the opening round, and while the Volunteers aren't exactly poetry in motion on offense (see above) one thing Bruce Pearl's team can do is crash the offensive glass. Conversely the Hogs are absolutely atrocious on the defensive boards. Watch what happens when Tennessee misses shots -- it could be decisive.

South Carolina (14-15, 5-11)
On January 26, 2010, the Gamecocks defeated previously unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Kentucky 68-62 in Columbia. Since that game Darrin Horn's team has gone 17-23, in part because this is the SEC's least accurate team from the field. And in a conference with the following two teams, that's saying something.

Auburn (11-19, 4-12)
If you wanted to pick a South Florida-level upset for the SEC get-together, you could take a look at the Tigers. Tony Barbee's team forces opponents to shoot an incredible number of threes and to commit a lot of turnovers. And opening-round opponent Georgia is a poor three-point shooting team that gives the ball away often. An Auburn win is still a long shot (very -- see log5, above), but, hey, it's March.

LSU (11-20, 3-13)
The inability of Trent Johnson's team to score points is extreme and remarkably consistent. Next year can't come soon enough in Baton Rouge.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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