ESPN bracket guru Joe Lunardi's (almost) final bracket predictions has just four SEC teams included. He has Mississippi State as the last team out, replaced by Drexel, which could in turn be replaced by St. Bonaventure if the Bonnies don't win the A-10 Tournament.
Kentucky is Lunardi's No. 1 overall pick. He's got the Wildcats bracketed for Louisville, which feeds to St. Louis and then on to New Orleans again. Can the Cats win two tournament titles in New Orleans in three weeks time?
Cal's Interesting Take On "Blue Orleans"
Kentucky coach John Calipari has an interesting take on the hordes of Wildcat fans who annually make the trek to the SEC tournament and the impact it has on the team's success.
Besides the obvious advantage of turning any arena the tournament is played into Rupp Arena South, Calipari says his team also extends itself, playing hard to repay its fans for their support.
“These fans, they saved money to come to this event, and I'm going to guess 95 percent of the people in this arena cannot get in Rupp Arena for a game,” Calipari said. “Can't get a ticket. So this is their event. You have Rupp; we have the tournament. And they save their money. Do whatever they can to scrape it together and let's go.
“I'm not a big fan of tournaments at the end of the season because I think you played a whole season, and it should be right there. But you almost say, ‘You’ve got to compete for these fans.’
“These fans are sacrificing to get here; probably most of them have driven down here to be here, and now you want to win enough to say, hey — and they're everywhere. They're in the hotel, they're in the street, outside the bus. But we pulled up, there they were. I don't know what was going on, but they were everywhere. But it's neat to see.”
Offensive Rebounds Key For Kentucky
How did Kentucky withstand Florida's upset bid? Easy. The Wildcats grabbed 12 offensive rebounds in the second half. Florida shot 48 percent, as well as any team has against Kentucky's stingy defense, but Kentucky survived by getting on the glass. The 'Cats out rebounded Florida, 39-25.
It also helped Kentucky's cause that Terrance Jones was engaged. He scored 15 points and grabbed a game-high nine rebounds to lead Kentucky to the SEC title game.
Florida played well and can build on what it did in New Orleans. Erik Murphy in particular played well in Florida's two games and led all scorers with 24 points against Kentucky. Murphy was 14 of 23 from the field against Alabama and Kentucky, and dropped in 4 of 4 3-pointers on Saturday.
The Gators' guards didn't fare so well. In the two games, junior Kenny Boynton was 4 of 18 from the field, and senior Erving Walker was 6 of 19.
The zone defense Ole Miss used against Tennessee in the SEC tournament semifinals was effective, so effective Rebel coach Andy Kennedy trotted it out against Vanderbilt in Saturday's semifinals.
For 30 minutes, the zone worked. And then the Commodores' deadly shooters got their acts together. Behind five 3-pointers from the SEC's leading scorer, John Jenkins, and a couple more from point guard Brad Tinsley, Vanderbilt swept past Ole Miss into the SEC title game.
The last time Vanderbilt played in that game, gas cost 19 cents a gallon. The year was 1951, and the team the Commodores beat to win the title was none other than ... Kentucky, the same team they'll play on Sunday.
Stallings Not Surprised By Zone
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings wasn't surprised Ole Miss used a zone, even though the Commodores don't see much of them, thanks to the presence of the best 3-point shooter in the country, Jenkins, and a host of other long-range marksmen.
"That was a good game plan, it was good strategy," Stallings said. "Their third game in three days, it’s very difficult, they’re trying to preserve some energy, I think. It really worked, for the most part. But eventually we're going to make shots. And in the second half, we did.
"They played zone for at least 37 minutes of the game, and we’ve never seen that," Jenkins said. "Teams usually don’t zone us. We kind of thought it was coming, but we didn’t know for sure until it happened. So when they did were were kind of shocked. Very stagnant. In the second half, coach told me to start moving and the shots would fall. And they did."
Wildcats Prepared For No Davis
Kentucky doesn't want to play without national player-of-the-year candidate Anthony Davis, but the Wildcats have begun to prepare in the event he's not in the lineup because of foul trouble. It paid off against LSU.
Davis picked up two fouls in the first half and played just 13 minutes. LSU didn't exploit that as much of it could have, but the Tigers trailed by just a point, 25-24, at the half.
LSU saw plenty of Davis in the second half. He played all 20 minutes and put up his usual monster numbers: 12 points, 14 rebounds, six blocked shots and a ton of altered shots that don't show up on the box score. Kentucky won, 60-51.
"When he’s on the floor, he’s blocking shots for us, playing great defense," said Kentucky freshman point guard Marquis Teague. "You can through him alley oops and get it to him in the post. When he’s not on the floor we’re missing all of that. That’s a lot."
"He’s a key player on the team, arguably, he’s the best player on the team," said senior guard Darius Miller. "He does a lot for us. It’s always tough when he gets in foul trouble or something happens where he has to go out. But we’ve just got to get used to playing without him in case something happens. We don't change a lot of stuff, it's just a matter of getting used to him not being out there."
Young Key For Florida
Florida’s 66-63 win over Alabama on Friday earned the Gators a third crack at Kentucky in Saturday’s semifinals. The two previous games didn’t go so well for Florida, which lost both by an average of 17.5 points.
A key player in Saturday’s semifinal matchup will be sophomore post man Patric Young, who had one of his better games of the season when the Gators played Kentucky in Gainesville on March 4, scoring 21 points on 10 of 15 shooting and grabbing nine rebounds. That was a pretty good day’s work against Kentucky’s menacing front line, led by Anthony Davis, the country’s leading shot blocker.
On Friday, Young wasn’t ready to say he’s solved Davis, but he did talk about what he’ll have to do on Saturday to try and duplicate his last game against the Wildcats.
“Everyone knows [Davis] has great length,” Young said. “The key is, when you get the ball in the post, you’ve got to go straight up into his body, and then go make your move and shoot it. Because he just plays straight behind you and times your shot so he can block it every time.
“The few times I did try and make a move [in the March 3 game], he was able to block it. But the times I just got it and went straight up, he wasn’t able to, because when you go into his body, it neutralizes his jumping ability.”
Ole Miss Gets It Done On Friday
Three times in the six years Andy Kennedy has been the coach at Ole Miss, the Rebels have come to the SEC tournament needing a win to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive. The first two times, they couldn't get it done. Friday night was another story.
By virtue of its 77-72 overtime win over Tennessee Ole Miss still has a chance to earns its bid to the NCAA Tournament. It's not a great chance, — ESPN bracketology guru Joe Lunardi called it "slim", in fact — but it's a chance. And that's all Kennedy could ask.
"One year Georgia beat us in double overtime or we may have gotten in," Kennedy said. "The next time Tennessee beats us. Both of those teams go to the NIT Final Four. But we were right there with a game to get over the hump. And we couldn't make a play. Tonight we made the play, live to fight another day."
There were heroes aplenty for Ole Miss, but Kennedy was particularly proud of Terrance Henry, the senior who delivered 19 points and seven rebounds and drained 10 of 12 free throws. Free-throw shooting had plagued the Rebels most of the season. Friday night Ole Miss made just enough of them to advance.
"We had the right guy shooting them," Kennedy said. "Terrance Henry is our most veteran guy. We tried to put the ball in his hands, and he did some good things off the dribble. And when we needed him to make free-throws, he made them."
Interesting Matchup On Saturday
And so the quarterfinals are set. Vanderbilt's easy win over Georgia in the last game of the day on Friday set up an interesting semifinal against Ole Miss, which has struggled at times this season but is playing its best basketball when it matters.
"I’ve got a group of guys who do have a sense of urgency, and they do understand that our backs are against the wall and we need to win games," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "And they’re playing like that."
The Ole-Miss/Vanderbilt matchup will be a game of physicality versus perimeter firepower. Kennedy's team doesn't shoot particularly well, forcing it to compete on the backboards to have a chance to win. Vanderbilt does most of its damage with the four 3-point shooters it usually has on the floor at any given time.
In the first semifinal game on Saturday, Florida will play Kentucky for the second time in a week, and the third time this season. The game features another team that depends on the 3-pointer (Florida) and another that can get physical when it wants to in Kentucky. Although it might seem likely that a team built with deep shooters like Florida would have a better chance of beating the Wildcats, who guard the paint as well as any team in the country, that isn't necessarily the case. Kentucky isn't too bad stopping the 3-pointer either.
Will the old coaching standard that it's hard to beat a good team three times in one season hold true? Florida hasn't fared well against the Wildcats, losing their two previous games by an average of 17.5 points. But in March, anything can happen. If the Gators make 12 3-pointers, they'll have a chance.
Game 1 Thoughts (Chris Dortch)
Arkansas' 70-54, opening-round SEC tournament loss to LSU turned out to be the Razorbacks' season in microcosm. "It was a tell-tale sign in the games we've struggled in," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. "We're limited in terms of a post presence. And that puts a lot of pressure on your guards." Arkansas' one true low-post scorer, Marshawn Powell, lasted two games before suffering an ACL injury that sidelined for the season. He was averaging 19.5 points and six rebounds before he went down, production that Anderson tried to replace all season, but with limited success. The difference in the game turned out to be LSU freshman Johnny O'Bryant, who used his 6-foot-9, 262-pound frame to pound Arkansas in the paint. He finished with 18 points and 11 boards. "In the second half, [O'Bryant] came out on the boards pretty tough and we didn't respond," said Arkansas senior forward Michael Sanchez. "He controlled the glass." For the game, LSU out rebounded Arkansas 41-28.
Johnson All About Competition (Chris Dortch)
LSU coach Trent Johnson doesn't mince words when discussing the challenge his team will face when it takes on Kentucky in the SEC tournament quarterfinals on Friday.
"The challenge for us is huge," Johnson said. "We have to play well and they have to help us by not playing as well as they've been playing."
Johnson knows all about how well the Wildcats have been playing. In late January, Kentucky went to Baton Rouge and whacked the Tigers, 74-50. The Wildcats limited LSU to 39 percent shooting, just 11 percent from the 3-point line. They out-rebounded the Tigers 39-29.
"They compete like the dickens," Johnson said. "They play for each other and they play extremely hard. Forget their talent and how well they're coached. It's about how hard they compete."
Johnson loves that word compete. Asked how the Tigers would try and handle the No. 1-ranked Wildcats, his answer was simple.
"It's competition," Johnson said. "It's all about how competitive are you gonna be. "That's pretty much it for me."
Alabama Not Looking From Deep (Chris Dortch)
Alabama has struggled from behind the 3-point line this season, and the Crimson Tide's game plan heading into its first-round SEC tournament game against South Carolina was to rein in the long ball in favor of penetrating into the lane.
So it was no surprise that, with less than a minute to go in the game, Alabama hadn't made a 3-pointer. What was surprising is that, with 57.8 seconds left, freshman guard Trevor Lacey jumped up and drained a 3. The basket gave the Tide some separation in a tight game and helped seal a 63-57 win that also solidified Alabama's NCAA tournament at-large bid.
"Andrew Steele gave me a great pass, they double-teamed him and I was open at the top of the key and I had to help my teammates out by making them pay for leaving me open," Lacey said.
Kennedy Stresses Rebounding (Chris Dortch)
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy knows his team struggles to manufacture points. That's why he places such a big emphasis on rebounding. When the Rebels compete on the boards, they have a chance to win.
Case in point was Ole Miss' 68-54 win over Auburn on Friday night. The Rebels grabbed 45 boards, 19 on the offensive glass. Auburn managed just 31.
"That's the key to the game," Kennedy said. "That's what we do. In the three games we lost in a row [in late February], we got out-rebounded by Kentucky, Tennessee out-rebounds us double figures and Vandy shoots it so well rebounding was probably insignificant. We're a team that has to [out-rebound] others."
It also helps when a player steps up and has a good shooting night. Against Auburn, it was Nick Williams, who scored a game-high 22 points on 9 of 14 shooting, including 4 of 8 from 3.
"He was big," said Ole Miss junior forward Murphy Holloway, who grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds, six on the offensive end. "He was on fire tonight, and when he catches fire, it's hard to put him out. We need him to keep doing that."
Mississippi State One Of Last Four In
ESPN bracketology guru Joe Lunardi has spoken: Mississippi State's loss to Georgia in the last SEC tournament game of the day has placed the Bulldogs in a precarious spot as it relates to the NCAA Tournament.
"Mississippi State drops to 'Last Four In' with loss tonight," Lunardi posted shortly after the game ended.
If that's true, it won't take much to bump the Bulldogs from the tournament field.
Those other Bulldogs didn't have much riding on this game, and they played like it—hard and freed of any pressure. Georgia's guards played as well as they have as a group all season, Gerald Robinson leading the way with 23 points and Kentavious Caldwell Pope and Dustin Ware scoring 13 each. But the difference in the game may have been that the Bulldogs got big-time production from their front line.
Nemanja Djurisic came up with 11 points and 11 rebounds for the 'Dogs' first double-double of the season. Donte Williams chipped in with 11 points one 5-of-6 shooting.
"This was a terrific win for us," Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "We played within our system and played together."
"This was a big win," Robinson said. "Because the season is going to continue for us. We still live."