VETTEL: SEC Weekly Update

While the Florida Gators have pretty much made a mockery of the SEC Basketball race, they certainly have livened up the battle for byes in the upcoming SEC Tournament. With the Gators three games up on Kentucky and at least four games ahead of everyone else, the battle for the conference title is all but over.

However, let’s take a look at the other teams looking to have Thursday, March 8th all to themselves.

Second place in the SEC East right now belongs to Kentucky, but Big Blue has very little breathing room. Vanderbilt is one game behind the ‘Cats while Tennessee is just two games back. Thus, the biggest game this week sends Kentucky to Knoxville where the resurgent Vols will try and solidify their spot in the NCAA tournament and move up in the conference standings.

As for the West, it’s hard to imagine a more complicated situation. Ole Miss and Alabama share the league lead at a scintillating 5-and-5. Right on their heels you have both Arkansas and Mississippi State with 4-and-6 league records. Bama has the toughest week by far with a road trip to Gainesville followed by a home game against the Kentucky Wildcats. This is Arkansas’ best chance to make a move with a game at Mississippi State before hosting Ole Miss on the weekend.

The top two in each division get a bye, and it’s not easy to try and win the event with the extra game on Thursday.

Mercer injury devastating —– The Georgia Bulldogs lost their best athlete as far as I’m concerned with the torn up knee suffered by Mike Mercer. The 6’4” sophomore is their top scorer and # 2 rebounder and losing him is bad enough on stats alone. But he is crucial to Coach Dennis Felton’s rotation since he allows guards Sundiata Gaines and Levi Stukes an occasional break. Georgia’s NCAA hopes took a huge hit when Mercer went down.

Vols ready to surge —– The SEC team most likely to make a strong late-season run has to be Tennessee. Bruce Pearl’s guys had to sweat it out with injured guard Chris Lofton on the shelf, but they survived. Lofton is now back and Tennessee has the SEC’s most talented freshmen in Wayne Chism, Duke Crews and Ramar Smith. Smith averages 14.3 in SEC games while Chism and Crews combine for over 17 points and ten rebounds.

Coach of the Year —– A week ago Kevin Stallings of Vanderbilt seemed to be the man to beat for this honor, but not any longer. Ole Miss first-year coach Andy Kennedy has to be the first choice now. Kennedy’s Rebels never take the floor with superior talent, but they are tied for the SEC West lead with six games to go. If he can coax three more wins out of his over-achieving group Ole Miss could be NCAA bound.

Title three-peat unlikely —– South Carolina rare and mildly dubious achievement of winning the NIT the past two years doesn’t seem to be headed for an encore. The Gamecocks enter the week at 12-and-11 making them the least likely SEC team as far as the post-season is concerned. Coach Dave Odom has to be under at least a little bit of heat in his sixth year in Columbia. His team has made it to one NCAA Tournament and the NIT three times but may miss the post-season for the second time. His record stands at 112-and-81 overall, but the Gamecocks have really struggled to win the in conference with a 34-and-57 mark. With the top two players on the team both seniors (Tre Kelley, Brandon Wallace) it’s hard to see things getting much better despite an influx of transfers next season.

Who is “in” —– Some people declare teams “in” the NCAA Tournament based on how they think things will end up. I don’t. I declare a team “in” when I’m convinced they don’t need another win to get into the field of 65. With that as a standard only Florida and Kentucky are “in”. Alabama and Tennessee probably need two more wins and would be next online right now. Vanderbilt better win three more and all the others are likely to need to win the SEC Tournament. Sure, just about anyone can get in excellent at-large position with four or five straight wins, but there’s only one SEC team good enough to do that. And the Gators are already in.

The better program debate —– The Gators are defending NCAA Champs and have beaten Kentucky five straight times. Florida clearly and undeniably is the best basketball team in the SEC. But anyone who thinks Florida has the superior “program” to Kentucky is delusional. Kentucky fills an arena almost twice the size of the O’Dome. Kentucky has won 43 SEC Championships to Florida’s three; Seven NCAA Titles to the Gators’ one and 25 SEC Tournament titles to two for UF. And this isn’t ancient history. Since 1992 the Wildcats have won ten of 13 SEC Tournaments and seven conference titles. Two of their NCAA crowns and four Final Four trips have also occurred in that time. What Billy Donovan has accomplished in the last nine years is truly remarkable and special. But as he has made very clear, you don’t surpass 50 years of tradition and excellence with a great decade. I made the same point in the eighties when Miami and FSU had superior football teams to Florida, but never superior programs.