Topics, trends and picks as we head into the heart of the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament:
Who’s hot (team): LSU. The league’s regular-season champion (16-2) has won five straight and nine of its last 10. The Tigers were a perfect 9-0 in conference road games. That’s hard to do. Given all the chaos going on in Baton Rouge right now — see “Biggest mystery” category — maybe we should say that technically speaking LSU is the hottest team in the league.
Who’s not (team): Alabama. After beating Vanderbilt on Feb. 9, Avery Johnson’s club was 15-8 overall, 6-4 in the SEC and in good shape to make the NCAA Tournament. Since then, Bama has lost six of its last eight, including its last three. Three of the six losses were by double digits. The Tide needs a turnaround.
Who’s hot (player): Auburn’s Chuma Okeke. The 6-foot-8 sophomore from Atlanta is averaging 15.4 points and 7.0 rebounds over his last five games. He scored 17 points with 14 rebounds in Auburn’s 66-60 win over Alabama, then followed up with 22 points in the Tigers’ 84-80 victory over Tennessee.
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Who’s not (player): Florida’s KeVaughn Allen. The senior guard is 5-of-31 from the floor, including 3-of-17 from three-point range over the last four games. The Gators need wins to impress the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. To win, Mike White needs his leading scorer (11.9 points per game) to rediscover his range.
Biggest mystery: LSU. The Tigers lost their head coach, Will Wade, to an indefinite suspension after news of his voice on an incriminating wiretap broke last week. Then they lost key freshman Javonte Smart, who is being held out because of eligibility questions. Then for the regular-season finale, LSU was without freshman forward Naz Reid. (The Tigers won anyway.) How the regular-season champion will react in Nashville is anybody’s guess.
Most to prove: Tennessee. Back on Feb. 16, the Vols were No. 1 in the nation and had won 19 straight games. Rick Barnes’ team went 4-3 the rest of the way and slipped from best in the nation to the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament. Surely, the veteran Vols want to prove they are better than that.
Biggest wild card: Arkansas. The Razorbacks rode a roller coaster all season. They lost four straight. They won three straight. They lost six straight. Then they finished on a three-game win streak. They boast the league’s best big man in Daniel Gafford — 29 points, 16 rebounds against Alabama last time out. And Mike Anderson’s teams have been known to make an SEC tourney run.
Most dangerous: Ole Miss. Rebels head coach Kermit Davis won Coach of the Year honors for a reason. He has a guard-oriented team, led by Breein Tyree and Terence Davis, that is capable of getting hot at the right time and making a surprising run. Consider: Six of Ole Miss’s eight league losses were by six points or less.
Sleeper pick: Auburn. The Tigers bring a four-game win streak to Music City. In must-win games, Bruce Pearl’s club beat Mississippi State, Alabama and Tennessee. Overall, Auburn has won six of its last seven, the lone defeat coming 80-53 at Kentucky. The Tigers should keep the momentum going. They’re my pick out of the upper bracket to reach Sunday’s finals.
Favorite with the quants: Ken Pomeroy’s numbers like Tennessee. The Vols are No. 7 nationally in kenpom’s adjusted efficiency rankings, followed by Kentucky (nine), Auburn (14), LSU (16), Mississippi State (24) and Florida (31).
My pick: Kentucky. Yes, LSU won the regular-season title. Yes, Tennessee was the conference’s only team to reach No. 1 in the AP rankings. But Kentucky has won this tournament each of the last four years. There is no reason to think the Cats won’t make it five, which would be a first since the tournament restarted in 1979.