2013 SEC Tournament: Bad Basketball, Fantastic Drama

This year’s SEC Basketball Tournament isn’t going to feature great basketball.  But if you’re looking for great theatre, Nashville is the place to be.

The SEC might be the worst major basketball conference in America, but it’s about to have the most interesting conference tournament.

That’s because the almost half the conference is on the NCAA Tournament Bubble, and even two teams that have the tournament berths assured hardly look invincible.

Florida and Missouri are guaranteed NCAA Tournament bids.  In fact, Missouri’s only contribution to the SEC thus far is saving the league from the potential embarrassment of being a one-bid league,  but that’s another story.  The point of this one is that neither Florida nor Missouri should be considered prohibitive favorites to cut down the nets in Nashville this weekend, because despite the league’s mediocrity, the competition for its title is wide open.

Florida had a hot start, but it has been a .500 team since February.  The Gators haven’t won a close game all season, and the rest of the league seems to have figured them out.  Missouri looks like the league’s second best team on paper, and it’s the only other team with a sub-50 RPI, but the Tigers’ sixth-place finish in the final league standings suggests they aren’t any better than the rest of the pack.

As for the rest of the conference, those teams seem to enjoy the view from the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Four teams, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Alabama, are either listed on Joe Lunardi’s last four teams in, or on his first teams out.  Not too long ago, Arkansas was on that list as well.

Each will be playing for their lives in every game this weekend, including a potential loser-leaves-town contest between Alabama and Tennessee on Friday afternoon.  Kentucky and Ole Miss could have a similar meeting on Saturday, if they can even get there.

The intriguing part is that all of these teams are roughly equivalent. Kentucky comes into the tournament as the number 2 seed with a conference record of 12-6.  Missouri finished 11-7, and is seeded sixth.  The bubble teams are bunched together in RPI rankings in the 50s and 60s, none have more than one impressive non-conference win, and they’ve all beaten each other up to a roughly equal degree.

Of course, most of this parity comes from the fact that none of these teams are all that good.  But one or two teams have a chance to emerge from the conference’s bottleneck and prove their tournament worthiness with a couple of quality wins.

And don’t forget, Florida has proven itself vulnerable.  One–and your guess is as good as mine–of the teams in the pack immediately behind the Gators appears capable of knocking them off and capturing the league’s automatic bid.  After all, someone has to win this tournament.

The champion could even come from beyond the teams with at-large aspirations.  Arkansas is just outside the bubble at this point, but they’ve already beaten Florida once.  The Razorbacks can’t win on the road, but the crowds in Nashville won’t be quite so hostile.

The tournament’s eighth, ninth, and tenth seeds, LSU, Georgia, and Vanderbilt, have all played their best basketball in recent weeks. While the overall profile for these teams won’t merit any of them an at-large bid, their current play really doesn’t look much different from the pack of teams log jammed near the top of the standings.  After all, LSU recently beat Alabama, Georgia just beat Kentucky and Vanderbilt has won 4 of its last five games.

Any of those teams could just as easily win the conference tournament as the teams seeded near the top.

That possibility might be because no team in the SEC looks to be all that good, but it’s going to make for riveting viewing regardless.

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