(SportsNetwork.com) - The 55th-annual SEC Tournament will tip off at the Georgia Dome on Wednesday, March 12th and last through Sunday, March 16th, with the winner earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Florida, the No. 1 team in the nation, earned the outright regular-season conference title for the second consecutive season and for the seventh time in program history by finishing a perfect 18-0 in league play, becoming the first SEC team to ever accomplish that feat and just the fourth team from a major conference to run the table in the league in the past 15 seasons. The Gators are 29-2 overall, having already set a program record for most wins in a season.
The Gators have enjoyed plenty of offensive success this season, as they shoot 46.3 percent from the field for 71.5 ppg, but the biggest reason they have risen to the top spot in the AP poll has been the outstanding play of their defense, which ranks in the top-five nationally in yielding just 58.5 ppg. Casey Prather (14.6 ppg) is the team's top scoring threat, shooting a lofty 62.5 percent from the field, while Michael Frazier (12.9 ppg), Scottie Wilbekin (12.9 ppg), Patric Young (10.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Dorian Finney-Smith (9.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg) round out the deep squad.
Florida is one of four teams to earn a crucial double bye into the quarterfinals, joining second-seeded Kentucky (22-9, 12-6 SEC), third-seeded Georgia (18-12, 12-6) and fourth-seeded Tennessee (20-11, 11-7).
First-round action will tip off on Wednesday night when the 13th-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks take on the 12th-seeded Auburn Tigers. South Carolina endured a tough season at 12-19 overall and just 4-13 in league play, but it carries some momentum heading into this event with wins in two of its last three. The squad has not been very strong offensively this season, shooting 41.9 percent from the field for 68.8 ppg, and its scoring defense (70.7 ppg) has been lackluster as well. Brenton Williams is the top threat with 15.2 ppg on 87-of-202 from 3-point range (.370), and his free-throw percentage (.947) ranks as the nation's best. Sindarius Thornwell (13.5 ppg) has been solid during his freshman campaign.
Auburn finished above South Carolina in the standings at 13-15 and 5-12 in the league and is coming off a solid road win over Texas A&M in the regular-season finale (69-64). The Tigers have had little trouble putting points on the board this season (72.0 ppg) but they have allowed nearly the same production on the opposite end of the floor (71.8 ppg). Chris Denson is the league's second- leading scorer with 19.2 ppg, while KT Harrell is hot on his heels with 18.4 ppg and Tahj Shamsid-Deem adds 9.7 ppg to the mix. Auburn beat South Carolina twice during the regular season by a combined 21 points.
The winner of Auburn/South Carolina will advance to the second round on Thursday to play fifth-seeded Arkansas, who had a chance to earn a top-four seed prior to its loss in the regular-season finale at Alabama (83-58), thus snapping a six-game winning streak. The Razorbacks are still an impressive 21-10 overall this season and finished 10-8 in the league, and they're considered a strong candidate for an at-large selection to the NCAA Tournament regardless of their performance in this event. The squad has the SEC's top scoring offense at 80.6 ppg and possess a deep bench with 12 players averaging at least 2.9 ppg. Rashad Madden (12.7 ppg), Bobby Portis (12.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and Michael Qualls (11.8 ppg) are the most consistent performers.
The other first round matchup is between the 11th-seeded Vanderbilt Commodores and the 14th-seeded Mississippi State Bulldogs. The Commodores won the only meeting between the teams this season in a 55-49 decision on Feb. 1, but they have not been strong down the stretch, having lost four straight games to finish up at 7-11 in the SEC and slide to 15-15 overall. Vanderbilt's offensive production this season has been lackluster to say the least, as it shoots 43.1 percent from the field for just 64.5 ppg, but it has been saved by a stellar defensive effort, which holds opponents to only 40 percent shooting and 65.0 ppg. Rod Odom is the go-to option with 14.3 ppg, having drained 82 3- pointers at a 38.5 percent clip. Kyle Fuller scores 11.1 ppg and hands out 4.2 apg, while Damian Jones (11.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.3 bpg) and James Siakam (7.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.3 bpg) are both solid in the paint.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State (13-18, 3-15) had the unfortunate distinction of being the SEC's worst team, as it comes into the tournament riding a 13-game losing streak. The Bulldogs unsurprisingly rank near the bottom of the league in both scoring offense (67.3 ppg) and scoring defense (71.2 ppg), with Craig Sword (13.4 ppg) and Gavin Ware (10.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg) acting as their only double-digit scorers.
Awaiting the survivor of the Commodores and the Bulldogs will be sixth-seeded Ole Miss (18-13, 9-9), which had lost six of seven prior to earning a 65-62 triumph over Vanderbilt in the regular-season finale. The Rebels, who won this even last year as a No. 3 seed, shoots only 41.6 percent from the field this season, but their up-tempo style and their stellar +2.7 turnover margin has allowed it to generate an impressive scoring offense (75.2 ppg). Marshall Henderson leads the way with 19.0 ppg, and while he shoots just 36 percent from the field overall, his 120 3-pointers are third-most nationally. Jarvis Summers brings 16.9 ppg to the table on 48.3 percent shooting (including 42.7 percent from 3-point range), and Aaron Jones makes up for his lack of scoring (6.0 ppg) with 6.7 rpg and 2.1 bpg.
The second round will begin on Thursday afternoon when the ninth-seeded Texas A&M Aggies square off against the eighth-seeded Missouri Tigers, with the winner earning the right to play Florida in the quarterfinals. The Aggies ended the regular season on a down note with losses in two straight and three of four to end up 8-10 in the league. Their impressive overall record (17-14) has been largely attributed an outstanding defense, which yields a mere 62.5 ppg on 40.1 percent shooting, although their offensive attack (.429, 64.6 ppg) is one of the league's worst. Jamal Jones shoots just 37.4 percent from the floor but generates enough volume to lead the team with 13.4 ppg, while Kourtney Roberson (9.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Alex Caruso (8.6 ppg, 4.7 apg) have also been solid.
Missouri (21-10, 9-9) was once among the likes of the nationally ranked but has gone just 5-6 since Feb. 1 and are now on the bubble for NCAA Tournament consideration. Despite their underwhelming play of late, the Tigers still score more points per game (73.1 ppg) than they allow (69.0 ppg). Jabari Brown is the SEC's top scorer with 19.7 ppg and has knocked down 75-of-180 from beyond the arc (.417). Jordan Clarkson adds 18.1 ppg and 3.5 apg to the backcourt, while Earnest Ross (13.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg) rounds out an strong scoring trio. The Aggies and the Tigers met on March 5 in Columbia, with Missouri coming away with a 57-56 win.
The final predetermined matchup will take place between the 10th-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide and the seventh-seeded LSU Tigers in the second round on Thursday night, with LSU having won the only meeting during the regular season, 82-80 in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 25. Alabama has turned things around of late with wins in three of its last five bouts, but it has still been a disappointment this season at 13-18 while finishing 7-10 in conference action. The Tide's offense has underwhelmed at 68.2 ppg, which spoils a solid defensive effort (67.2 ppg). Trevor Releford is one of the league's premiere playmakers with 18.8 ppg, 3.1 apg and 2.2 spg, while Retin Obasohan (9.6 ppg), Levin Randolph (9.5 ppg) and Shannon Hale (8.8 ppg) have also been solid.
LSU (18-12, 9-9) was once in the conversation for NCAA Tournament consideration, especially after its Jan. 28 win over nationally-ranked Kentucky, but it has gone just 5-6 since then. The Tigers have kept afloat this season thanks mostly to a strong offensive attack, which shoots 44.3 percent from the field for 75.6 ppg. The team is led by a great frontcourt duo in Johnny O'Bryant III (15.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg) and Jordan Mickey (13.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 3.2 bpg), who both shoot greater than 49 percent from the field. Rounding out the balanced unit are Andre Stringer (11.9 ppg), Jarell Martin (10.2 ppg), Anthony Hickey (9.0 ppg) and Shavon Coleman (8.8 ppg).
Surging up to the No. 4 seed and the final double-bye was Tennessee (20-11, 11-7), who closed out the regular season with four straight wins to re- establish itself on the national radar. The Vols most noteworthy asset has been their stout defense, which allows just 61.8 ppg on 41.1 percent shooting, and their offensive output (.447, 72.5 ppg) has been more than good enough in support. Jordan McRae paces the squad with 18.8 ppg, but he's gone cold of late by averaging just 11.0 ppg over the last three. Jarnell Stokes acts as an anchor in the paint with 14.5 ppg, 10.3 rpg and more than a block per contest. Jeronne Maymon (10.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg) is also an asset in the frontcourt, while Josh Richardson nets 9.5 ppg.
Occupying the No. 3 seed will be Georgia (18-12), which finished 12-6 in the SEC, its best season since winning the SEC championship in 1990 with a 13-5 league ledger. Since losing three straight a few weeks back, the Bulldogs have righted the ship with wins in eight of 10. Their modest offense (69.2 ppg) is just good enough to support a stellar defense (66.4 ppg), and they regularly outrebound their opponents with a +5.0 margin on the boards. Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines are tied for the team lead with 13.4 ppg, but Gaines' field-goal percentage (.453) is much better than Mann's (.391).
Second-seeded Kentucky (22-9, 12-6) is the conference's most storied program, having won 27 tournament titles, although only two of those have come since 2005. Once considered one of the nation's elite teams, the Wildcats have shown plenty of flaws in recent weeks with losses in three of the last four games, including an 85-64 drudging at the hands of Florida in the regular-season finale. The well-balanced Wildcats outshoot their opponents from the field, 45.2 percent to 40.1 percent, for a +9.8 scoring margin, and each of their top four scorers are freshmen. Julius Randle has established himself as a premiere power forward with 15.4 ppg and 10.5 rpg, James Young pours in 14.4 ppg and Aaron (13.5 ppg) and Andrew Harrison (10.8 ppg, 3.5 apg) have tremendous chemistry in the backcourt.