Questions abound as the Southeastern Conference basketball season winds down to its final week:
• Can Kentucky go undefeated in league play? The Wildcats play host to Georgia on Thursday and then travel to Florida on Sunday for their regular-season finale. Given that Kentucky has won a Division I-best 51 straight at home, it’s safe to assume Florida is all that will stand between the Wildcats and a 16-0 regular season.
Florida is 14-1 at home in 2011-12, having lost only to recent pain in the backside Tennessee, which swept the Gators for the third time in five seasons. For a team that starts three freshman and two sophomores, the Wildcats have taken on all comers, and save for a loss on a last-second 3-pointer at Indiana, have answered every challenge.
The loss of sophomore forward Will Yeguete
won’t help the Gators’ chances. He broke his foot in the Gators’ win over Auburn on Feb. 21 and is out indefinitely. Yeguete was Florida’s second-leading rebounder and top frontcourt reserve.
The last time an SEC team finished unbeaten in league play? It was Kentucky, in 2002-03.
• What teams besides Kentucky and Florida, which have already clinched, will claim first-round byes into next week’s SEC Tournament?
Here’s how muddled that picture is - Tennessee, picked by the media to finish 11th in the regular season, still has a chance to finish second in the league.
At 9-5 in the SEC, Vanderbilt would appear to have a bye in the bag, but the Commodores’ play Florida at home on Tuesday night and end their season at Tennessee. The Vols (16-13, 8-6) still have to play at LSU (17-11, 7-7) in addition to Vanderbilt. Alabama (19-9, 8-6) hosts Auburn and travels to Ole Miss (16-12, 6-8). LSU finishes its season at Auburn.
If Alabama and Tennessee wind up tied for fourth, Alabama claims the bye by virtue of its win over the Vols.
• How many NCAA Tournament bids can the SEC claim? If the season ended today, the number is still five (Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, Alabama, Mississippi State). But ESPN bracket guru Joe Lunardi
has circled the Bulldogs’ Wednesday night game at South Carolina as one to watch. State (19-10, 6-8) has lost five straight, and as Lunardi put it, “the Bulldogs are one disaster away from ruining a once-promising season.”
As in the case of Florida, a key injury has come into play for Mississippi State. Rodney Hood
, who’s on anybody list of the best freshmen in the SEC and the nation, suffered a knee injury in the Kentucky game last week and his status is uncertain. He didn’t play in State’s loss at Alabama on Saturday and coach Rick Stansbury
said on Monday that Hood is doubtful for the South Carolina game.
The Bulldogs close their season at home against Arkansas, so the opportunity is there to get things turned around.
After Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Mississippi State, the only way the SEC will claim a sixth NCAA bid is if another team wins the league tournament.
Winning four games in as many days isn’t easy, but the feat has been accomplished twice in the last four tournaments. Actually, Georgia had to win four games in three days after a tornado trashed the Georgia Dome in 2008 and the SEC had to scramble to get the tournament finished in time for the NCAA Tournament selection committee to set its bracket.
Mississippi State had no weather issues in winning the 2009 SEC Tournament with four wins in four days.
History is on the Bulldogs’ side. The tournament will be played in New Orleans for the third time. In the previous two appearances, Mississippi State defeated Kentucky for the championship (1996) and lost to the Wildcats in the title game (2003).
• Can Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis
pull off the hat trick of winning national player of the year, national freshman of the year and national defensive player of the year? He’s got the latter two locked down. His competition for player of the year is going to come from just one player - Thomas Robinson
Robinson is having a great year, leading the Jayhawks to a record eighth straight Big 12 championship while averaging 17.8 points and 11.8 rebounds and racking up 21 double-doubles.
Davis’edge? Kentucky has lost once, Kansas five times. And a reasonable argument can be made that no player in the country has impacted both ends of the court the way Davis has, especially now that he’s begun to utilize all the tools in his offensive belt.
• Who will win the league’s coach of the year award? The tendency might be to hand it off to Kentucky’s John Calipari
. The No. 1-ranked Wildcats have won the SEC regular-season title going away and Calipari has done a great job in getting his young team to buy into the defensive end.
If Cal has any competition for the award, it could well come form Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin
, who took a team gutted by the loss of personnel - including first-round NBA Draft pick Tobias Harris
and All-SEC guard Scotty Hopson
- and still reeling from the abrupt dismissal of former coach Bruce Pearl
and molded it into a unit that, as mentioned earlier, still has a chance to finish second in the league.
It took a while for Tennessee to get going - as evidenced by a homecourt loss to a 1-9 Austin Peay team in December - but in SEC play, the Vols have become a tough, defensive-minded team that has gone 7-3 in their last 1