An SEC Basketball Tournament preview:
Team to beat: Be serious.
Hottest team: Vanderbilt. While Kevin Stallings was being (unfairly) slammed for his fiery tirade at freshman Wade Baldwin IV after a win at Tennessee, few noticed the Commodores themselves are on fire.
Vandy brings a five-game win streak to Bridgestone Arena. Most league members said they did not look forward to the day the young but talented 'Dores grew up. That day may have already arrived.
No longer hottest team: Arkansas. The Razorbacks had won seven straight and 10 of 11 before being caught under Kentucky's wheels in Rupp. The Hogs apparently can't shake the memory.
Beating lowly South Carolina in Columbia required a furious Razorbacks rally. Arkansas closed the season losing at home to an LSU minus Jordan Mickey.
Coldest team: Auburn. Bruce Pearl knew building a basketball program on The Plains would require heavy lifting. Auburn has lost six straight.
Most dangerous team: LSU. Talk about playing to the level of competition. The Tigers lost to Missouri, Mississippi State, Auburn and Tennessee. They also pounded Florida, beat Ole Miss (twice), beat Arkansas in Fayetteville and lost to UK at home by two points. They are also expected to get Jordan Mickey back from a shoulder injury.
Team looking for redemption: Florida. The Gators held the No. 7 spot in the AP's preseason poll. Then stuff happened. Injuries. Suspensions. More injuries. More suspensions. And a whole lot of losses.
Dorian Finney-Smith has returned from suspension. Michael Frazier is back from a costly high-ankle sprain. Perhaps Billy Donovan has a postseason "tweak" up his sleeve.
Team that most needs to play well: Texas A&M. At 19-7 overall and 10-4 in the league on Feb. 21, the Aggies appeared Big Dance-bound. Then the stumbles started. A loss at Arkansas. A week later, a loss at Florida.
Saturday, Billy Kennedy's club suffered an attention-grabbing loss to visiting Alabama. The wrong kind of attention. The Aggies need to give the Selection Committee something else to think about.
Coach on the hot seat: Anthony Grant. Unless Alabama takes the tournament title, this will be the fifth year in Grant's six in which the Tide did not make the NCAA Tournament. His SEC record is 54-48. Attendance has tanked in Tuscaloosa.
The lack of fannies in the seats — C.M. Newton's old term — may fix Grant's fate more than the wins and losses. Grant needs to give Alabama AD Bill Battle something good this week.
Player to watch: Karl-Anthony Towns. NBA scouts exited John Calipari's pre-season combine raving about the 6-foot-11 freshman. After understandable rookie bumps, Towns' strong finish has returned the scouts to rave mode. There are precious few games left to enjoy his talent.
Non-Kentucky player to watch: Bobby Portis of Arkansas. While Kentucky successfully navigated conference requirements with barely a wobble, Portis deserved his SEC Player of the Year honor from the coaches. The 6-11 sophomore was the league's most consistent offensive player, failing to score in double figures just once, leading the Razorbacks in scoring 19 times and in rebounds 23 times.
Tournament prediction (SEC): Kentucky beats the league's third-best (Florida) and second-best (LSU) rosters en route to Sunday's finals. In the bottom bracket, Vanderbilt takes down Arkansas, but loses to Georgia in one semifinal. Kentucky makes it three-for-three over Georgia in the finals.
Tournament prediction (NCAA): Sunday night, the grand pooh-bahs in Indianapolis — not to be confused with Basketball Bennies — will select five SEC teams for their corporate jackpot, er, NCAA Tournament. Ole Miss gets in. Texas A&M does not.
Still, it will be a triumph for a league recently ridiculed for being bereft of good basketball. It's not all the way back yet, but SEC hoops is pointed in the right direction.