The biggest difference between this season and last season in the SEC is the arrival of coach John Calipari at Kentucky. Coach Cal has the Wildcats positioned among the elite teams in the country thanks to one of the best recruiting classes in the past decade. Kentucky will now roll the dice with a bunch of freshmen who have no postseason experience but all the talent needed to make a run.
Besides the Wildcats, the three other tournament teams look vulnerable to first-round knockouts. Here is a preview of the SEC’s NCAA Tournament representatives.
Kentucky Wildcats (Overall: 32-2, SEC: 14-2)
No. 1 seed, East Region
When John Calipari bolted from Memphis to Lexington after last season, Kentucky faithful knew they had a proven winner who could lead the Wildcats back to the basketball’s elite. But even the most optimistic fans must be surprised by the immediate success Calipari has enjoyed with one of the youngest but most talented teams in the country. Super-frosh John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins delivered the Wildcats a No. 1 seed in the East Region and have the team poised to make its deepest tournament run since 2005.
However, the Wildcats will need its freshmen to play like veterans, even though no one on this team has played in an NCAA Tournament game. Their lack of big-game experience would seem to bode poorly for the Wildcats’ Final Four chances. However, the team’s balanced offense and defense should easily carry Kentucky to the Sweet 16. Getting any further will be a major challenge, though.
Kentucky’s weaknesses are three-point shooting, occasional sloppiness on offense and downright bad free throw shooting. Either No. 4-seed Wisconsin or No. 5-seed Temple has the defensive fortitude necessary to slow down the Wildcat’s uber-athletic lineup. They also play a painfully slow pace, which will encourage Wall to try to force plays. Wisconsin and Temple are great at getting back on defense, so the Wildcats won’t have many opportunities in transition. And the Owls and Badgers are among the top teams in defensive field goal percentage. That spells trouble for Kentucky.
Look for Wall and company to make some noise with spectacular plays throughout three games before falling to a more veteran and controlled Wisconsin squad.
Vanderbilt Commodores (Overall: 24-8, SEC: 12-4)
No. 4 seed, West Region
Vanderbilt has had another strong season, entering the NCAA Tournament with 24 wins. After seemingly being on the hot seat each year, coach Kevin Stallings has established the Commodores, the No. 4 seed in the West Region, as a perennial SEC contender. That’s impressive in a conference that contains the likes of Kentucky, Florida and LSU.
This season, the Commodores have a squad that can beat great teams or lose to mediocre ones. Vanderbilt needs to be ready to play in San Jose against No. 13-seed Murray State, which has a balanced, experienced lineup. Unlike past seasons, Vanderbilt does not get a high percentage of its points from three-point territory, preferring to work the offense through Aussie big man A.J. Ogilvy. However, the Racers are No. 4 in the nation in field goal percentage inside the arc. If Vanderbilt cannot get good looks inside the three-point line, the Commodores will struggle.
Six of Vanderbilt’s wins this seasons were decided by five points or less. Although it’s good that the Commodores know how to win close games, they might have benefited from a statistical anomaly. Vanderbilt’s opponents shoot an absolutely putrid 63.5 percent from the free throw line. How many points did those opponents leave at the line? Would Vanderbilt even be in the tournament if they had lost four of those six games and had 12 losses? The deciding factor in a major first-round upset will be the Racers’ 70.3 percent shooting from the line, including the performances of three players who log at least 50 percent of the team’s minutes and shoot at least 77 percent from the line.
Tennessee Volunteers (Overall: 25-8, SEC: 11-5)
No. 6 seed, Midwest Region
When we last saw Tennessee, the Volunteers were getting stomped by Kentucky, 74-45, in the SEC Tournament. Will that loss portend a short NCAA Tournament trip, or will coach Bruce Pearl rally the troops, starting against No. 11-seed San Diego State? Tennessee has the defense necessary to bounce back but the offensive inconsistency to lose ugly again.
Tennessee’s defense ranks No. 8 in defense efficiency, mostly on the strength of great three-point defense. Opponents shoot only 29.3 percent from long range. However, that might not matter against San Diego State, which focuses more on the inside game than perimeter. Neither team looks strong, and the Volunteers should find a way to win before losing to No. 3-seed Georgetown in the second round.
Florida Gators (Overall: 21-12, SEC: 9-7)
No. 10 seed, West Region
Several spurned teams, now in the NIT, probably take issues with Florida’s inclusion in the NCAA Tournament. The Gators will try to justify their bid against No. 7-seed BYU, but they won’t have much success. The Cougars have offensive and defensive advantages, while the Gators don’t excel at anything. They are an all-around solid club, as evidenced by wins against Tennessee and Michigan State. But Florida lacks consistency and generally loses to better teams. Look for that trend to continue as the weakest SEC team in the tournament bows out without much fanfare.