1. Where do the Gamecocks figure into this whole thing? They haven't exactly had smooth sailing in February/early March. How confident do you feel about them stringing together a win or two in Nashville?
SMcDowell93: Luckily for us, and the players' confidence, Frank Martin has done an outstanding job of having his team ready to play come SEC Tournament time the last two years. The only downside to that the last couple seasons is we've been one of the lowest seeds, so two wins simply put us in the quarterfinals. This year we are a three seed in the conference tournament, so I think that bodes well for us in terms of grabbing some W's there.
Sydney: That 3 seed looks very good on paper, but when you turn the clock back and take a look at how the Gamecocks have played against both of their potential quarterfinal opponents - sixth-seeded Georgia and 11th-seeded Mississippi State - you have to consider that they're 1-3 in the regular season in matchups between those two teams. They split against MSU, winning in Columbia and losing in Starkville, while getting swept in the season series against Georgia. Obviously, the tournament's a different monster, and anything can happen, but to that same point, the Gamecocks can't be making plans for Saturday just yet. Even if they do win, they'll likely run into Kentucky unless Ole Miss or Alabama can pull off some magic against the Wildcats on Friday.
David: I think the undefeated non-conference record against a weak slate of teams may have elevated the expectations for the team a bit higher than they should've been. It's hard for teams to completely make The Leap in just one year, so the inconsistency we've seen from them is probably appropriate for a program in the phase it's in during Martin's rebuild.
The Gamecocks have one of the more unfavorable draws in Nashville. Their first opponent will either be Georgia, who swept them this year, or Mississippi State, who split the series despite being an inferior team. The next opponent then is likely to be Kentucky, who Carolina didn't come close to beating despite the game being in Columbia. South Carolina is definitely capable of winning one, because they ultimately are a better team than either Bulldog squad, but I don't think I see two.
Davis Williams: I'm pretty confident the Gamecocks could lose their first SEC Tournament game and be in the NCAA Tournament. Their overall resume isn't all that great considering a weak nonconference slate and an average performance in SEC play. However, they've done enough to warrant an invite. They've been a tough out in the SEC Tournament the last few years, and that has largely come as an underdog. Now they'll be the higher seed against either Georgia or Mississippi State, teams that have beaten USC this season. It's tough to prepare for Frank Martin's team in a tournament style setting and they'll have a rest advantage against whatever set of Bulldogs they face. I feel confident in at least one win in Nashville, but I'd be cautious if you're expecting a second.
2. IF the Gamecocks miss the Big Dance, what are we to make of this season? On one side of the coin, they'll at least be in the NIT, but on the other side, this was a team that looked in good shape to make the NCAAs but suffered several bad losses to put their fate into question.
SMcDowell93: If we miss the Big Dance, it's going to sting for a while. However, once we recover our heads and get some perspective on this season it will largely be looked at as a success. This program is, without a doubt, headed in the right direction. NIT will be disappointing, but given where we were four years ago, it's not an accomplishment to scoff at.
Sydney: Overall, this season has been a success, but if they miss the NCAA tournament (which, if they win a game or two in the SEC tournament, shouldn't happen) and end up in the NIT, a lot of people will be pointing at the fact that they faltered down the stretch. Big picture, NIT is much better than no tournament at all, but missing out on the Big Dance will really leave a bad taste in the players' mouths - especially the seniors. But Frank Martin should be applauded for building and developing this team for sure.
David: First of all, the Bracket Matrix had South Carolina right on the 9/10 line even before the win over Arkansas. They most likely are in, with the only thing that could put that in doubt being a loss to Mississippi State (who's not good outside Starkville).
In any event, this year showed Martin's path to success. The way that Michael Carrera blossomed to become another big player next Thornwell speaks well of Martin's player development skills, and that's probably what it's going to take for him. He hasn't outrecruited the SEC programs with more history, but being able to get guys like Carrera to break out will allow him to compete in the SEC and for Big Dance bids.
Besides, it takes some time to get a down program in a place where it consistently wins. Just look at the football team in Steve Spurrier's early years. Martin has improved the team's overall and SEC record in every year so far. They're moving in the right direction.
Davis: Man, that would be tough to swallow, especially considering I'd be shocked if USC was left out at this point. The program is undoubtedly headed in the right direction but that would be a black eye and would make you wonder how good this team really was. It's very unlikely that South Carolina isn't dancing, but it would be a major disappointment if somehow that happened.
3. It's been a topsy-turvy SEC season. Is this Kentucky or Texas A&M's tournament to lose, or is there a dark horse that we should keep an eye on?
SMcDowell93: It's Kentucky's tournament to lose. They are by far the most talented team in this conference. I think if there is a true dark horse its Vanderbilt. They were underwhelming early on this year, but they've really rounded into form and they have some real talent as well. Coach Stallings always does a good job of getting the Commodores ready to play in the postseason.
Sydney: Kentucky may win, and I think they will, but I'm with Sam on Vandy. They're getting hot at just the right time, and, if they can sustain that for another few games, they might make some noise. Plus, and Sam didn't mention this, that will be a very partisan crowd on their side at the Bridgestone Arena, so they should hopefully be able to draw that energy from what will basically amount to home games up there in Nashville.
David: One of A&M and UK should win this thing. Twelve of their 15 combined losses came in true road games, and Wildcat fans will flood the arena whenever their team plays. I wouldn't give it to the ‘Cats entirely since they're not flawless in neutral site games - they lost to KenPom No. 63 Ohio State on a neutral floor - and they lost to the Aggies in the regular season.
I agree with the others that Vandy is the best dark horse bet thanks to their draw. Their first game will either be against Tennessee or Auburn, a pair of teams they swept. They did lose to their next opponent LSU, but it was by single digits and the Tigers seem to be kind of checking out of the season. Next would probably be Texas A&M, who they thumped in the teams' other game in Nashville. They're set up to make a run. Deeper than that? Maybe Ole Miss just on the idea that Stefan Moody could carry the team by scoring 30+ a game. But they're on Kentucky's side of the bracket, so probably not.
Davis: Kentucky is the favorite in this tournament. They are peaking at the right time and I expect them to be a trendy Final Four pick this time next week. Texas A&M and Vanderbilt are certainly capable of winning the whole thing in Nashville but the Wildcats are the best team in the league. No one travels like Kentucky and you can bet Big Blue Nation will be all over the Music City. After all the Ben Simmons-hoopla, wouldn't it be something if LSU made a run and got an automatic bid?
4. What do you foresee for the SEC teams that make it to the tournament this year? It kind of derives itself from the previous question, but no one team, not even Kentucky, has truly asserted itself as a team that could make a strong run.
SMcDowell93: I don't see any team, save Kentucky, making it past the Sweet Sixteen. Texas A&M is the next likely team, in my mind, to make a deep run. But they're too inconsistent for my taste.
Sydney: Kentucky's a good team. Granted, it's not as good as past Kentucky teams, but they're still good. Having said that, while I feel they're the only team in the conference most capable of winning the national championship, I don't think they will, simply because there are much better teams out there.
David: The standard tournament disclaimer applies that it's all about the draw. That said, I could see Texas A&M make a good run. People got down on them when they lost five-of-six a month ago, but four of the losses were on the road. Since then they've six straight including victories over Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Jalen Jones and Danuel House are the kind of guard duo that wrecks shop in the tourney every year, and freshman big man Tyler Davis has come on strong lately. I can definitely see them making the second weekend.
When this year's Kentucky team wants to do well, it does. The second weekend and beyond is more likely than not for the Wildcats. Vandy and South Carolina are 9-seeds in the Bracket Matrix right now, which often means a max of one win before getting trucked by a 1-seed. The glimmer of hope there is that Villanova is in line for a 1, and Nova flamed out in the Round of 32 each of the last two years despite having a 2-seed and 1-seed, respectively. So is Kansas, actually, which has done the same thing the last two years from the 2-seed line each time. Maybe VU or Carolina can sneak into the Sweet 16, but they feel like early round bow outs with that kind of seeding. And if Florida sneaks in to make a fifth SEC team, I wouldn't expect an extended stay either.
Davis: I really like Kentucky to make it far, I've just really enjoyed watching the basketball they've played lately and John Calipari is a fantastic coach. I mentioned the Wildcats as a trendy Final Four pick above and I may be one of the people jumping on that bandwagon. Texas A&M was a team that I came away impressed with early on and they've recovered nicely from a rough early February. Vanderbilt has all the talent in the world but failed to live up to expectations. Teams like that can be exciting come tournament time. The Aggies and Commodores can both reach the Sweet Sixteen if they get favorable match-ups.
Read more of David's stuff over at SBNation's SEC community, Team Speed Kills.