Most observers of college basketball would say that Tennessee and Kentucky are the two best teams in the country, and, in terms of consistency, they’re right.
Attempting to differentiate these two is a bit of a challenge. Why? Because their resumes are nearly identical at this point.
The Vols finished the regular season one game better than the Wildcats, but UK currently sits one spot higher than UT at fifth in the NET rankings. Both teams finished 15-3 in league play, and they split their season series against each other, with the home team taking each matchup.
However, by virtue of both teams losing their lone matchup with LSU, the Tigers won the regular season title, forcing Tennessee and Kentucky into the same side of the bracket.
They will presumably meet in the semifinals, and Kentucky — behind the excellent play of P.J. Washington and Tyler Herro — will eke out a win en route to a title game victory over Auburn to take its seventh tournament title in nine years.
But what of No. 1 seed LSU?
The now Will Wade-less Tigers will enter the tournament helmed by interim coach Tony Benford after Wade’s indefinite suspension. This came just in time to catch the eighth-seeded Gators coming off an opening-round win over Arkansas.
Florida is on the easier side of the bracket, and with all the uncertainty surrounding LSU’s program, UF will accomplish what it couldn’t on its home floor and knock off the Tigers in Nashville, Tennessee, before falling to Auburn in the semifinals.
It should be more than enough to propel Florida into the NCAA tournament.
A highly motivated Tennessee team will enter Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on Friday.
The Volunteers spent four weeks ranked No. 1 during the regular season. Their 27 regular-season wins were the most since the 2008-09 season.
Despite a historical season, a brutal schedule that saw them finish 4-3 in their final seven games left the Vols at No. 8 in the AP Top 25 and out of conversations for a No. 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee is still a top-three team in the SEC Tournament behind LSU and Kentucky, and it has all the necessary tools to make a run and win it all.
The Vols got a much needed double-bye to start the tournament, along with LSU, South Carolina and Kentucky. They have the advantage of two veteran first-team All SEC players in guard Admiral Schofield and forward Grant Williams.
Williams was named SEC Player of the Year after he led the conference in scoring with 19.3 points per game, averaging 7.7 rebounds and three assists.
They’ll face either No. 11-seeded Texas A&M, No. 14 Vanderbilt or No. 6 Mississippi State in the quarterfinals on Friday. The Bulldogs are the biggest threat of the three, and Tennessee beat them by 17 on March 5.
From there, it’ll likely face Kentucky in the semifinals, who they split the regular-season series with, and then — probably — LSU in the championship on March 17.
If it plays out that way, a distracted LSU team will meet a well-prepared, experienced Tennessee team fueled by a drop in rankings. All that equals a 2019 tournament win for Rick Barnes’ Volunteers.
— Alanis Thames
LSU enters the SEC Tournament as the top team. It went 26-5 during the regular season — 16-2 in conference play — and ended the year on a five-game win streak.
The Tigers still aren’t getting the respect they deserve. Everyone points to Tennessee and Kentucky to win it all, teams that dominated the regular season and were usually placed near the top of the polls.
But they won’t win it. LSU will, especially if it escapes its first game. Here’s why.
It’s the only team in the SEC to have beaten every other team.
It only lost to two teams in conference play: Florida and Arkansas. And both of those teams are facing off on Thursday, with the winner taking on the Tigers on Friday at 1 p.m.
But they also played both the Gators and the Razorbacks a second time each and won those contests, effectively avenging those losses.
As for the tournament, LSU has the easiest path to the championship game. It has a double-bye, meaning it doesn’t have to play in the first two rounds. Then, assuming it beats Florida or Arkansas, it would play either No. 4 South Carolina, No. 5 Auburn, No. 12 Missouri or No. 13 Georgia for a spot in the finals.
Tennessee and Kentucky will have to play each other, barring any upsets, to make it to the championship.
A player to look out for is guard Tremont Waters. He is agile and has a quickness to him that could exploit some of the conferences biggest players at the basket. He averaged 15.3 points per game this season, shot 43.6 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from beyond the arc.
A Waters-led LSU team could be dangerous in the tournament.
— Jake Dreilinger