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March 10, 2010
All Eyes on UK
SEC Tournament Preview

by John Gasaway


SEC: March 11-14 (all games in Nashville)

Seed                 Qtrs    Semis    Final    Champ
  E1 Kentucky         100     84.1     58.7     40.8
  E2 Vanderbilt       100     82.6     56.3     26.8
  E3 Tennessee        93.0    58.1     23.7     13.1
  W1 Mississippi St.  100     55.7     22.5      7.3
  W2 Mississippi      100     41.1     12.5      5.4
  E4 Florida          72.3    36.5     14.9      4.9
  W4 Alabama          59.9    10.8      3.7      1.3
  E6 Georgia          56.5    12.2      4.1      0.7
  E5 South Carolina   40.1     5.1      1.3      0.7
  W3 Arkansas         43.5     6.6      1.9      0.3
  W5 Auburn           27.7     7.8      1.7      0.3
  W6 LSU               7.0     0.8      0.04     0.004

This is a log5 table, courtesy of Ken Pomeroy. It's explained here. Vanderbilt has received credit in these figures for half a home court.

While Kentucky's clearly the favorite to win the 2010 SEC Tournament, note that there's almost a three-in-five chance that someone besides the Wildcats will claim the conference's automatic bid. In part this reflects the fact that the tournament's taking place in Nashville, the home city of the second best team in the league, Vanderbilt. But the larger factor at work here is that despite their gaudy 29-2 record, John Calipari's team didn't dominate the SEC on a per-possession basis to the same extent that, say, Duke and Kansas dominated the ACC and Big 12, respectively.

The other striking aspect of the probabilities shown above is that the tournament's division-specific bracketing--which for example gives a West team like Ole Miss a quarterfinal slot that a superior East team like Tennessee will have to win for itself on the court--doesn't boost the West's division's chances very much. If there's a single "favorite" in Nashville it's the East division.

That being said, I'd be remiss if I didn't note here that in each of the past two seasons this tournament's been won by a gate-crasher that wouldn't have received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Georgia in 2008 and Mississippi State last year beat the odds and took an NCAA bid away from some bubble team somewhere. It could happen again. Let's take a look at each team in the field, sequenced here according to their chances of winning the tournament.


Kentucky (East 1-seed)
We're nearing mid-March so my attempts at correcting popular perceptions have officially reached the tilting at windmills stage. But since this is Prospectus and I'm me, I have to try one more time: Kentucky is defined by its defense. I love John Wall's shooting sleeve as much as the next guy, but the fact remains that the Wildcats have arrived at their current lofty status by keeping the other team from scoring. SEC opponents mustered just 0.94 points per trip against this D, easily the best figure recorded by any defense in this league since the shut-down days of Tyrus Thomas and Big Baby at LSU. (Ask J.J. Redick about that defense sometime.) With a front line featuring Patrick Patterson, DeMarcus Cousins, and, when Cousins picks up his first two fouls, Daniel Orton, the 'Cats forbid opponents to make twos. And, as chance would have it, those opponents fare even worse on their threes. Kentucky's FG defense was sublime this year.

As for the UK offense, you've heard that this team struggles to make threes. True enough, but don't get too caught up in whether Kentucky's opponent plays zone. You can play man and still sag off Wall (who's made just seven of his last 32 threes) or, especially, Eric Bledsoe (four of his last 20--if Cousins weren't a freak of offensive rebounding nature this would be even more of an issue). Then again failing to pressure the ball just makes it easier for Wall and Bledsoe to feed Cousins and Patterson in the paint--and you don't want that. John Calipari's half-court offense pretty much rises and falls according to how many touches and, more especially, shots are recorded by the automatic two-point twins down low.

Vanderbilt (E2)
Last week the Commodores popped up on my list of most fortunate teams, as Kevin Stallings' group went 12-4 while playing at a per-possession level that would more often yield a 10-6 record. That's all well and good, but if anything Vandy's luck has actually improved this week. The tournament's being played in their front yard and the brackets have given the 'Dores an excellent opportunity to make it all the way to the title game. Vanderbilt's most formidable competition, Kentucky and Tennessee, is safely sequestered on the other side of the bracket. So we'll get to see what happens when tournament kismet hits the SEC's best offense, one that scored 1.10 points per trip in-conference. Watch how many free throws A.J. Ogilvy and Jeffery Taylor shoot. This group gets to the line like a Big 12 team.

Tennessee (E3)
Everyone picks on Kentucky for not being able to hit threes, but in conference play the Volunteers were even worse, making just 30 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc. (And if you want to get picky about it the Vols actually dipped below the Mendoza line, hitting 29.9 percent.) Still, Bruce Pearl's team has offset iffy offense with really good defense. Tennessee always forces turnovers, but this year they forced misses as well. Wayne Chism is blocking and altering more shots while still anchoring the defensive glass for the Vols.

Mississippi State (West 1-seed)
The defending SEC tournament champions are coming off a regular season where they were surprisingly mediocre, particularly on offense. This is far and away the league's most perimeter-oriented offense but, alas, this year those threes did not fall. (Though MSU sports a good looking number for the year, in-conference they made just 32 percent of their threes.) Jarvis Varnado still blocks a ton of shots, of course, but opponents score their points through sheer repetition. Only Georgia forced fewer opponent turnovers in conference play.

Ole Miss (W2)
Last year the Rebels' season was sabotaged by a flurry of knee injuries, as Andy Kennedy's team went 7-9 in a weak SEC. This year everyone stayed healthy, but the result was oddly similar: 9-7. Ole Miss therefore has as much on the line in Nashville as any team, seeing as they're currently projected as a 12-seed in the NCAA tournament. An 0-1 record at the SEC get-together could push the Rebels off the bubble and, unfortunately for Kennedy's men, their likely quarterfinal opponent is Tennessee. Nominally an underdog in this bracket, the Vols would actually be favored on a neutral floor over Ole Miss. (Seeding is everything. You'll hear that from me a lot next week.) Anyway, watch Chris Warren in that game. As part of a committee of point guards Warren couldn't compile big assist numbers, but you can watch a lot of hoops before running into a 5-10 guard this efficient on both sides of the arc.

Florida (E4)
The Gators scored points in SEC play at a rate (1.08 points per trip) that was identical to Kentucky's, but Billy Donovan's defense was far from Wildcat-like. And while I'm here let me say a word in defense of Chandler Parsons. He's been typecast, albeit for obvious reasons, as merely a YouTube thing, the Susan Boyle of college hoops. Actually he makes 59 percent of his twos. If I'm Donovan I throw more possessions Parsons' way, this week and next year, and see what he can do with them. Oh, and one more thing. If Kenny Boynton ever gets this whole three-point shooting thing squared away, wow. Look out.

Alabama (W4)
If you wanted to pick a team to carry on the Georgia-Mississippi State tradition of gate-crashing at this tournament, you could do worse than the Tide. They were better than their 6-10 record would suggest, and in particular their defense has been very good. Then again if they beat South Carolina in the opening round, Anthony Grant's team gets Kentucky. Did I mention seeding is everything?

Georgia (E6)
Mark Fox put together pretty much the ideal Year 1 for a new coach overhauling a struggling program. But even assuming UGA can make it past Arkansas in the opening round, the collision of a permissive Dawg defense with an excellent Vanderbilt offense--in Nashville, no less--would not figure to be pretty.

South Carolina (E5)
Devan Downey gets the ink--deservedly so, Kentucky might say--but it turns out Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes are important too. Both players went down with injuries in November and in their absence the Gamecocks have suffered on both sides of the ball compared to last year.

Arkansas (W3)
The Hogs enter the tournament having lost their last five games, during which time they were outscored by 0.13 points per trip. If John Pelphrey's been saving up any Tom Izzo-variety dramaturgy--be it smashing game tapes with a mallet, hosting a sleep-over, or perhaps both--now would be a good time to use it.

Auburn (W5)
I thought it was cool that the Tigers won the last game ever played at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. But you have to admit it's even cooler that the arena's individual scoring record (46 points) was set by Pete Maravich in the first game ever played there, on January 11, 1969.

LSU (W6)
Speaking of Pistol Pete, Trent Johnson could have used him this year.

John also pores over 41-year-old box scores on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

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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Five Thoughts (03/10)
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2010-03-15 - Seeding is Everything: This Bracket is Proof
2010-03-11 - What's Gotten into Notre Dame?:
2010-03-10 - Is Duke for Real?: ACC Tournament Preview
2010-03-10 - All Eyes on UK: SEC Tournament Preview
2010-03-08 - Tuesday Truths: Final Reality
2010-03-05 - Breaks of the Game: The Role of Chance
2010-03-04 - Player of the Year: Evan Turner

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