Written by The Judge
Kentucky, 26-7 (NET Ranking #5)
The preseason favorite to win the SEC got off to a relatively shaky start, dropping its first two quality nonconference games to Duke and Notre Dame. From that point, Kentucky has been nothing short of stellar. The Cats boast no home losses and no losses to teams outside of this year’s tournament field. Kentucky finished third in the conference and lost to Tennessee in the conference tournament semifinals. A season high came with an 18-point road win at Kansas. Led by Naismith candidate Oscar Tshiebwe and Tyty Washington, the Wildcats have the talent to win it all.
John Calipari’s squad is once again a favorite to win it all. Wins at Kansas and against Tennessee show this team’s ceiling is as high or higher than any other team in the field. The East Region provides some formidable obstacles to Kentucky’s path to New Orleans. A potential second round matchup against 30-win Murray State and a potential Sweet 16 matchup against Purdue would not be easy. Baylor and UCLA are the other big dogs on the other side of the region. Don’t forget about a hot North Carolina team that would love a rematch.
2 Kentucky (-17.5) vs. 15 Saint Peter’s
Thursday, March 17, 7:10 ET, CBS
Auburn, 27-5 (#11)
The SEC Champions have been a terror for opponents all year. The Tigers took advantage of one of the best home court advantages in the country on the way to Bruce Pearl’s second SEC Championship in the last five years. The Tigers won 19 straight and rose all the way to #1 for the first time in program history before finishing the last nine games of the season at 5-4. The Tigers have the best backcourt in the country but will only go as far in March as its guards will take them. That could be all the way to New Orleans.
Auburn drew an in-state matchup for round one in a seemingly favorable region. The Tigers will have to shake off their early exit from the SEC tournament if it wants to take advantage. While the Midwest may not have the firepower of the others, Auburn would still have to go through Big Ten champion Wisconsin and Big 12 champion Kansas or Big East champion Providence. Big Ten Tournament champion Iowa is lying in wait, as well. If Auburn’s guards can’t get going, it could struggle to get to the second weekend. If the guards get going, it can beat any team in the field.
2 Auburn (-16.5) vs. 15 Jacksonville State
Friday, March 18, 12:40 ET, truTV
Tennessee, 26-7 (#7)
Tennessee is playing better than anyone in the conference and it is coming at the perfect time. The Vols had some virus issues towards the beginning of conference play and took a few weeks to get going. Since then, they have played like a title contender and carried that all the way to an SEC Tournament championship. While the guards are what make Tennessee one of the best in the conference, the frontcourt has come on as of late to certify Tennessee as a legitimate title contender.
Tennessee has a great draw to get to the Elite 8, but the Elite 8 game is what most fans will be eyeing. A potential rematch with Arizona with a trip to the Final 4 on the line would be the type of matchup that makes this event the best in all sports. The South Region might be the toughest of all regions, but luckily for Tennessee, most of the meat is at the top. The Vols would avoid two of Arizona, Illinois, and Houston if they were to get past Villanova. If Rick Barnes can lead his team through this gauntlet, they will certainly have what it takes to cut nets on Monday night.
3 Tennessee (-17) vs. 14 Longwood
Thursday, March 17, 2:45 ET, CBS
Arkansas, 25-8 (#20)
The Razorbacks have been one of the hottest teams over the last two months, taking down each of the league’s three best teams and winning 15 of its last 18 games. Eric Musselman has Fayetteville buzzing as the Hogs have been one the most exciting programs to follow this year. Guards JD Notae and Chris like form a formidable one-two punch at guard and forward Jaylin Williams might be the most improved returning SEC player. Arkansas can beat anyone on a given night.
Arkansas does not get the courtesy of a warm-up game, drawing a very dangerous Vermont team in the first round. Beyond that, the Hog days of March are seemingly numbered with Gonzaga at the top of the West Region. If the tournament was played at Bud Walton Arena, Arkansas would have a chance. Unfortunately, the Razorbacks just might be another casualty of the overall number one seed. Making the second weekend would be a success for Arkansas, and anything beyond that would be reason to squeal.
4 Arkansas (-5) vs. 13 Vermont
Thursday, March 17, 9:20 ET, TNT
Alabama, 19-13 (#30)
The only thing known about this Alabama team is that it is unknown how they will play on a given night. This team carries wins over three of last year’s Final Four teams (Gonzaga, Baylor, Houston), good for some of the best wins of any team in the country. The Crimson Tide also has losses to Missouri and Georgia. If Nate Oats can get his team to play to their potential, they have a chance to make a run. Nobody would be surprised by such given the talent of this team, but given the recent performance of this team, nobody would be surprised by a first-round exit.
A play-in game to determine who Alabama’s first round matchup will be, but a potential date with Texas Tech awaits in round two in the West Region. Similar to Arkansas, Alabama seemingly has an eventual death sentence that goes by the name of Gonzaga, even though the Tide defeated Gonzaga in December. That goes to show you that this Tide is capable of anything. However, more realistic expectations would suggest that success for this Alabama team means getting to the second weekend.
6 Alabama vs. 11 Rutgers/Notre Dame
Friday, March 18, 4:15 ET, TNT
LSU, 22-11 (#18)
LSU started the season 12-0 in nonconference before having a streaky season in conference. The Tigers have a top defense in the SEC, but struggle taking care of the ball offensively. Breaking down this LSU team further would be ignoring the elephant in the room. Will Wade was fired on Saturday due to his connection to the notice of allegations received by the school. Kevin Nickelberry will serve as interim head coach as the Tigers hope to make some noise in the big dance.
Any analysis for LSU’s tournament chances got more difficult as soon as Wade was terminated following the loss to Arkansas in the conference tournament. A distraction like this does not bode well for the Tigers. Advancing in March is often about continuity and momentum. Inserting an interim coach after a relatively noncompetitive loss against Arkansas seems like the worst possible scenario. Advancing to the second round would be an achievement for a program in this state, even in a more vulnerable Midwest Region. Anything more would be lagniappe.
6 LSU (-4) vs. 11 Iowa State
Friday, March 18, 7:20 ET, TBS