While #March has already seen several tickets punched to the NCAA Tournament (hello, ETSU, FGCU, Iona, Jacksonville State, UNCW, Wichita State, and Winthrop), Championship Week begins in earnest around this time every year. SEC fans will need to wait one more day for the postseason to get kick off as the league’s men’s basketball tournament has set up shop in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena for the third straight year. Nashville will play host to the event until 2025, but will take a break in 2018 and 2022 as those will be held in St. Louis’s Scottrade Center and Tampa’s Amalie Arena, respectively.
Things get underway at 7pm ET on Wednesday with Mississippi State and LSU. Note that Nashville is in the Central Time Zone, so add an hour to the times below.
Is it Kentucky’s to lose?
It certainly looks that way, doesn’t it? The Cats have caught fire in recent weeks with last defeat coming at the hands of Florida in a 88-66 blowout on February 4 in Gainesville. Since then, they’ve won eight straight, including a stirring 76-66 come-from-behind victory over the Gators at Rupp Arena on February 25. However...a few of those games have been far from convincing. They struggled with putting LSU away before finally taking a 92-85 decision in a game in which they led by 25. Georgia gave them a battle but couldn’t hold on in a 82-77 loss at Stegeman on February 18. In fact, during this eight-game winning streak, five games have been won by single digits. Kentucky might be the last team standing on Sunday night, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they weren’t.
An SEC title for John Calipari and the Wildcats would be their third straight and their 30th overall. The next closest? Alabama, with six.
OK. So who might win if Kentucky doesn’t?
Without a doubt, I’d have to go with Florida. Yes, the Gators lost to Vandy to close out the regular season, but Mike White’s squad, I think, is about as well equipped as anyone to take down the Cats and win their first SEC title since 2014. If their trio of sophomore KeVaughn Allen, senior Canyon Barry (Rick’s son) and junior Devin Robinson are clicking, the Gators are going to be tough to beat this week. Here’s a fun little stat for you: Florida has won the SEC Tournament on four occasions - 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2014. Their NCAA results in those four seasons? Round of 32, national champions, national champions, Final Four. Not bad.
Where does South Carolina figure?
Frank Martin will say that he has no preference in who the Gamecocks play on Friday. But given a pick between LSU, Mississippi State and Alabama, I’m sure he’d want no part in Avery Johnson’s Crimson Tide or Ben Howland’s Bulldogs. While the Tide have lost three of their last four coming into Nashville, they dealt the Gamecocks a 90-86 four-overtime loss that saw Sindarius Thornwell’s legendary performance (44 points, 21 boards) come up short. Then again, perhaps Martin would want to see Alabama again to exact revenge on a team Carolina by all accounts should have beaten. As for Mississippi State, they gave the Gamecocks fits both times they played them in the regular season before eventually losing, but Howland would relish a third crack at beating them.
If the Gamecocks are able to beat their quarterfinal opponent, they should be fine as far as getting into the NCAA Tournament. Their potential semifinal opponent would be either Kentucky, Tennessee, or Georgia. If it’s Kentucky and the Gamecocks can grab the upset on Saturday, that will give their seeding a magnificent boost. But they’ve got to take care of business on Friday first and can ill afford to look past anyone.
Once again, every single game through the quarterfinals will be on SEC Network. Saturday’s semifinals and Sunday’s 1pm ET championship game are on ESPN.
Since the ESPN family of networks have the TV rights to the SEC Tournament, all games can be streamed for free on WatchESPN.com. You’ll obviously need to check with your local cable/satellite/streaming TV provider to see if you have the ability to do so, but pretty much most, if not all, give you that perk as a subscriber. If you’re a cordcutter (like me) and don’t have traditional cable, the minimum tiers of each of the major streaming TV services (Sling TV - Orange; DirecTV Now - Live a Little; PlayStation Vue - Access Slim) have ESPN, so you’re set for the semifnals and championship game. However, you’ll need to shell out a little extra dough to get SEC Network since it’s on the next highest tier for all three (Sling - Orange Extra; DirecTV Now - Just Right; PS Vue - Core Slim).