There is no doubt that regular-season champion Florida has been the class of the Southeastern Conference all season long.
Despite three league road blemishes, including losing Saturday at Kentucky, the Gators — the only ranked SEC team at No. 13 heading into the postseason — remain atop the SEC Rankings, the position they have held every week. Florida takes the No. 1 seed into the Southeastern Conference Tournament being staged Wednesday through Sunday at Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville, Tenn.
For the first time, the SEC tourney will field 14 teams playing over five days in search of the championship and subsequent automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. Other than Florida, it appears Missouri is the only other lock for a NCAA tourney berth.
That means five teams are sitting on one side or the other of the NCAA Tournament bubble, leaving the league tourney as the final proving ground for NCAA field worthiness. With the new tourney format, the bottom four teams in the regular-season standings open play Wednesday, while the top four teams have byes to the quarterfinal round Friday.
Heading into the SEC tourney, here are this week’s SEC Power Rankings…
1. Florida (24-6, 14-4)
With Florida’s RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) sitting at sixth nationally, the Gators appear to be a No. 2 NCAA tourney seed. But a strong run to an SEC tourney title could bump them into a No. 1 slot, depending upon what happens in other league tourneys. The Gators head into the SEC tourney off a 61-57 loss at Kentucky in which they scored no points and committed five turnovers on their final 14 possessions.
The Gators’ 14 league wins tied the team record set in 1966-67. Senior Patrick Murphy scored in double figures the last three games, including 17 points to go with 11 rebounds against Kentucky. He has made at least one 3-pointer in 18 straight games. Florida lost all six games this season that were decided by 11 points or less. Florida opens tourney play in the quarterfinal round Friday at noon (CDT) against the winner of Thursday’s game between Georgia and LSU.
2. Missouri (22-9, 11-7)
While the road loss Saturday at Tennessee slipped the Tigers to a No. 6 tourney seed, they still have a solid enough body of work to remain second in this week’s SEC Power Rankings. And with the RPI sitting at 33, Missouri figures to be NCAA-tourney bound. Senior forward Laurence Bowers, the team’s leading scorer, finished strong by averaging 22.3 points the last three games and is fully recovered from a knee injury that sidelined him for five league games.
Missouri is the only team in the country with six players averaging double figures in scoring. The Tigers average 41.1 rebounds per game, second-best in the country. They are tourney-tested, too, after winning the Big 12 tourney last season. Good thing the Tigers will not play another game on an opponent’s court after going 2-8. They were 17-0 at home. Missouri opens SEC tourney play at 9 p.m. Thursday against the winner of Thursday’s game between Texas A&M and Auburn.
3. Kentucky (21-10, 12-6)
Look for a blue mist to converge on downtown Nashville as Wildcats fans always show at the SEC tourney, especially when it’s in Nashville. With a No. 2 seed in the SEC tourney and RPI sitting at 51, third-best among SEC teams, Kentucky could use a win or two in the SEC tourney to guarantee the NCAA at-large bid. Then again, the SEC tourney has also been dubbed the Kentucky Invitational over the years. The Wildcats have won it 27 times, while the remainder of SEC teams has combined for 24 titles.
Home wins the last two weeks over Florida and Missouri helped ease the pain of a NCAA-tourney debilitating road loss at Georgia. The Wildcats closed the win over Florida with an 11-0 run. After scoring a team-high 16 points against Florida, freshman guard Archie Goodwin has scored in double figures 22 times and six in a row. Kentucky opens SEC Tourney play Friday at 6:30 p.m. against the winner of Thursday’s quarterfinal match between Vanderbilt and Arkansas.
4. Ole Miss (23-8, 12-6)
The Rebels used that embarrassing loss to league cellar dweller Mississippi State on March 2 as motivation to close strong with solid wins at home over Alabama and on the road at LSU, vaulting them to the No. 3 seed in the SEC tourney. The Rebels had lost six of 10 games before beating Alabama. With the RPI at 58, Ole Miss needs a deep run in the SEC tourney to garner NCAA tourney consideration.
Junior guard Marshall Henderson, the league’s top scorer at 19.7 points per game, won the Howell Trophy that honors the best college hoops player in Mississippi. He is the first Rebel to ever win the award. The award is named after Mississippi State legend Bailey Howell. The last Rebel to lead the SEC in scoring was Justin Reed in 2003-04. Ole Miss opens SEC tourney play at 9 p.m. Friday against the winner of Thursday’s game between Missouri and Texas A&M or Auburn.
5. Tennessee (19-11, 11-7)
The Volunteers enter the SEC tourney on a roll by winning eight of nine contests, including Saturday’s 64-62 home win over Missouri. The four-guard starting lineup that surrounds sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes is 7-1. Stokes was named SEC Player of the Week after notching 13 points and 13 rebounds against Missouri. His 14 double-doubles this season is most for a Vol since Ian Lockhart in 1989-90. When he scores at least 13 points, the Vols are 13-3.
With the RPI at 56, the Vols can’t stub their toes at the SEC tourney. Most NCAA tourney experts have Tennessee precariously in the field. Attendance in the season finale Saturday was over capacity at 21,767. The final home average of 17,935 is sixth-best in the nation and top six eight years in a row. Fifth-seeded Tennessee opens SEC tourney play at 2:30 p.m.Thursday against the winner of Wednesday’s game between South Carolina and Mississippi State.
6. Alabama (20-11, 12-6)
Despite losing three of five games to limp into the SEC tourney, the Crimson Tide still received the No. 4 seed and a bye until Friday’s quarterfinal round. The win Saturday over visiting Georgia came only after senior guard Trevor Releford hit a game-winning shot from midcourt. Sophomore guard Trevor Lacey is the only Tide player to start every game this season. Alabama trailed by 19 points before cutting the lead to three in the loss at Ole Miss.
Alabama has won at least 20 games in three straight seasons under fourth-year coach Anthony Grant, who took the Crimson Tide to the NCAA tourney last season for the first time since 2006. With an RPI at 60, Alabama needs to win two games and get to Sunday’s title game to have a shot at a NCAA tourney at-large berth. The Crimson Tide open SEC tourney play at 2:30 p.m. Friday against the winner of Thursday’s game between Tennessee and South Carolina or Mississippi State.
7. Arkansas (19-12, 10-8)
With their RPI at 80, the Razorbacks are below the SEC line where teams can’t make the NCAA tourney field unless they win the SEC tourney. Per usual, Arkansas closed the regular season with a 73-62 home win over Texas A&M, finishing the season 17-1 at Bud Walton Arena. The 17 home wins ties the team record set last season. That means the Hogs went 2-11 on the road, including a midweek 30-point blowout loss at Missouri.
In the win over Texas A&M, five underclassmen scored in double figures. The Hogs forced 23 turnovers, second-best this season. Their bench also outscored the Aggies 73-39. As the No. 7 seed, Arkansas opens SEC tourney play at 6:30 p.m. Thursday against Vanderbilt. The teams held serve at home to split the regular-season series.
8. Georgia (15-16, 9-9)
After solid home wins over Tennessee and Kentucky, the Bulldogs lost a heartbreaker at Alabama on Releford’s game-winning shot from halfcourt. After trailing by 17 points, the Bulldogs pulled even with Alabama on a 3-pointer by sophomore guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with 48 seconds to play. With 24 points and 10 rebounds against Kentucky, Caldwell-Pope has six career double-doubles and is the only SEC player and just one of 10 players nationally to score in double figures in every game this season. He was the first player in the country this season with 500 points, 200 rebounds, 50 assists and 50 steals.
To get eligible for the postseason, the Bulldogs need to win at least two SEC tourney games to get the overall record to .500. No. 8-seed Georgia opens SEC tourney play on at noon Thursday against LSU.
9. LSU (17-10, 9-9)
Along with Tennessee’s Stokes, LSU sophomore forward Johnny Bryant shares the league lead with 14 double-doubles, including 17 points and 12 rebounds in Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss. At 9-9 in league play in the first season under coach Johnny Jones, it is only the seventh time in 20 seasons the Tigers finished at .500 or worse in the SEC.
After making nine 3-pointers against Ole Miss, LSU set a single-season record for treys at 217, surpassing the previous mark of 215 set in 2002-03. Ninth-seeded LSU, which has won eight of 11 games, opens SEC tourney play on at noon Thursday against Georgia.
10. Vanderbilt (14-16, 8-10)
After starting the season slowly with the league’s youngest squad, the Commodores showed life down the stretch by winning six of nine games. That got Vanderbilt the SEC tourney’s No. 10 seed to avoid having to play Wednesday. Junior forward Rod Odom has emerged as the offensive leader, scoring in double figures 13 times after scoring 18 in Saturday’s win over South Carolina.
“I’m real proud of our team for hanging in there this regular season and fighting all the way to the end and never giving in through some of the disappointments we had,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. The Commodores open SEC play at 6:30 p.m. Thursday against Arkansas.
11. Texas A&M (17-14, 7-11)
The Aggies, losers of four of five games, didn’t find their first season in the SEC to their liking, unlike their football team, which was the only team to beat national champion Alabama last season. In as much, they finished as the No. 11 seed heading into the SEC Tournament and open at 9 p.m. Wednesday against Auburn, meaning the Aggies must win five games in five days to claim the tourney title.
In a loss to LSU, senior guard Elston Turner scored 11 points, giving him double-digit scoring in 52 of 63 career games. He didn’t play against Arkansas on Saturday after injuring his left wrist and pinkie finger in the LSU game. His status for Wednesday’s game is questionable. Junior guard Blake McDonald made his first career start in Turner’s place and scored two points in 13 minutes.
12. South Carolina (14-17, 4-14)
In the loss Saturday at Vanderbilt, junior guard Brenton Williams scored 17 points to lead the Gamecocks for a second-straight game. Forward Michael Carrera, likely a member of the SEC’s all-freshmen team, continued his solid play with a game-high 13 rebounds.
The Gamecocks of first-year coach Frank Martin, the former Kansas State skipper, had won only one of 10 games before beating visiting Mississippi State to halt a three-game skid. As the No. 12 seed, the Gamecocks open SEC tourney play at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday against Mississippi State.
13. Mississippi State (9-21, 4-14)
After spending most of the season in the cellar of the SEC Power Rankings, the Bulldogs showed some life the last two weeks, including knocking off instate rival Ole Miss. In a duel between the two worst teams in the league on Saturday, the Bulldogs beat Auburn 74-71 in overtime to conclude the regular season.
In the season finale, the Bulldogs of first-year coach Rick Ray played only six scholarship players. Junior forward Colin Borchert had his first double-double with 20 points and 13 rebounds. As the No. 13 seed, Mississippi State opens SEC tourney play against South Carolina at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
14. Auburn (9-21, 4-14)
Adding insult to injury during a disappointing third season under coach Tony Barbee, the overtime loss to Mississippi State has the Tigers at the bottom of the SEC Power Rankings.
Auburn finished the regular season by losing nine in a row and 15 out of 16. Auburn did get a solid effort in the loss at State from junior guard Chris Denson, who notched career highs of 24 points and nine rebounds. As the No. 14 seed, the Tigers begin SEC tourney play against Texas A&M at 9 p.m. Wednesday.