SEC Tournament preview and predictions: All eyes on Michael Porter Jr.

The Dagger

The 2018 SEC tournament tips off Wednesday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Here is an in-depth look at the tournament including a complete bracket, TV information, analysis and predictions.

The 2018 SEC men’s basketball tournament bracket. (Screenshot: SEC on Twitter)
The 2018 SEC men’s basketball tournament bracket. (Screenshot: SEC on Twitter)

WHO IS THE FAVORITE?

Tennessee has won 11 of its last 13 and comes into the SEC tournament playing some really good basketball. The Volunteers have the nation’s fourth-defense defense according to KenPom, swept Kentucky for the first time since 1999 and also own a win over Purdue from early in the year. Tennessee is battle tested — several metrics have its strength of schedule among the top five toughest in the nation — and have solid depth.

Four separate players shoot over 37 percent from deep, and the Volunteers are 48th in the nation in three-point percentage. But the Volunteers aren’t solely dependent on the long ball: their most-used player on the offensive end is 6-foot-7 forward Grant Williams. And as Williams goes, the team goes. In wins, Williams is shooting nearly 50 percent. In losses, he’s shooting just 44 percent. It’s not a star-studded team, but it’s a certainly a tough-nosed and well-coached one.

WHO ELSE CAN WIN?

The SEC is truly wide open, perhaps more so than any other league. Auburn has a lot of individual firepower on offense but lost defensive anchor Anfernee McLemore to a horrific ankle injury. Florida has a host of talented guards, rarely turns it over and is coming off a big win over Kentucky. Arkansas has two senior guards — Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon — who reached 1,000 career points on the exact same date and will make the Razorbacks a tough out. Kentucky, meanwhile, might be the most talented team but has had plenty of ups and down.

Two teams that could crash the party from a lower seed are Missouri and Texas A&M. The Tigers are anxiously awaiting the return of superstar freshman Michael Porter Jr., who has missed essentially the entire season with a back injury. Seniors Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett have been terrific this season holding the ship together, and if Porter Jr. returns, they are a dangerous group. Texas A&M, meanwhile, has dealt with injury issues and inconsistency but has shown that it can be as good as anyone when at its best, as shown by a two-week stretch in which the Aggies beat Arkansas and South Carolina by double digits, won at Auburn and then returned home to handle Kentucky by 11.

Again, it’s truly wide open.

BUBBLE IMPLICATIONS

Alabama (17-14, 8-10, KenPom: 53, RPI: 58): If you said the Crimson Tide would be squarely on the bubble a month ago, you’d get some perplexed looks. Avery Johnson’s club was coming off a massive win at a then-top 25 Florida squad. But Alabama has dropped five in a row heading into the conference tournament. The Crimson Tide will likely need a win or two to make its first Big Dance since 2012.

Mississippi State (21-10, 9-9, KenPom: 63, RPI: 68): Mississippi State stacked up wins in a relatively tame non-conference slate but haven’t exactly inspired confidence in conference. The Bulldogs will need to pull off an upset or two over the next few days. If they don’t, they’ll look back at the stretch from Feb. 10-14 — when they lost in overtime at Missouri and then by one at lowly Vanderbilt — as a particularly damaging stretch.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

1. Kevin Knox, F, Kentucky: Kentucky’s top five scorers are freshmen, and Knox leads the way at 15.4 points per game. He’s a special talent and can take over games: In a crucial win at West Virginia in late January, he scored 34 points, hit five threes and grabbed seven rebounds.

2. Daniel Gafford, F, Arkansas: As mentioned above, Arkansas is led by two seniors guards who have hit the 1,000-point plateau. But Gafford is the most exciting player on the team. A 6-foot-11 freshman, Gafford is an excellent athlete who runs the floor as well as any big. He’s averaging roughly 12 points, six rebounds and two blocks per game. If he leaves for the NBA, he could be a lottery pick because of plays like this:


3. Yante Maten, F, Georgia: Maten explored the NBA Draft last year by entering his name but not hiring an agent. He decided to return to Athens for his senior year and has been terrific. A strong contender for conference player of the year, Maten is averaging over 19 points and nearly nine rebounds per game. He’s recorded a double-double in four of the last six games. He leads the SEC in KenPom’s individual offensive rating. The Bulldogs have struggled, but Maten is outstanding.

ONE BIG STORYLINE

Michael Porter Jr. has played two minutes this year. That’s it. On Nov. 21, the school announced he was “likely” out for the rest of the year due to spinal surgery. But he recently got medical clearance. If he does indeed play in the SEC tournament, it will be the first competitive basketball he’s played in nearly four months. But it’s important to not forget just how good Porter Jr. is. He was the nation’s top recruit. He’s a professional scorer who can get it done at all three levels (at the rim, in the midrange and beyond the arc). In an exhibition matchup against Kansas, he scored 21 points and nabbed eight rebounds. If he returns is one big story. How he plays if he does return is another one.

Will Michael Porter Jr. be back in uniform for the SEC tournament? (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Will Michael Porter Jr. be back in uniform for the SEC tournament? (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

SCHEDULE

All times Eastern

Wednesday, March 7 | First round
No. 12 Georgia vs. No. 13 Vanderbilt — 7 p.m., SEC Network
No. 11 South Carolina vs. No. 14 Ole Miss — 9:30 p.m., SEC Network

Thursday, March 8 | Second round
No. 8 Texas A&M vs. No. 9 Alabama — 1 p.m., SEC Network
No. 5 Missouri vs. No. 12 Georgia/No. 13 Vanderbilt — 3:30 p.m., SEC Network
No. 7 Mississippi State vs. No. 10 LSU — 7 p.m., SEC Network
No. 6 Arkansas vs. No. 11 South Carolina/No. 14 Ole Miss — 9:30 p.m., SEC Network

Friday, March 9 | Quarterfinals
No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 8 Texas A&M/No. 9 Alabama — 1 p.m., ESPN
No. 4 Arkansas vs. No. 5 Missouri/No. 12 Georgia/No. 13 Vanderbilt — 3:30 p.m., ESPN
No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 7 Mississippi State/No. 10 LSU — 7 p.m., SEC Network
No. 3 Florida vs. No. 6 Arkansas/No. 11 South Carolina/No. 14 Ole Miss — 9:30 p.m., SEC Network

Saturday, March 10 | Semifinals
Winners of quarterfinals 1 and 2 — 1 p.m., ESPN
Winners of quarterfinals 3 and 4 — 3:30 p.m., ESPN

Sunday, March 11 | Final
Semifinal winners — 1 p.m., ESPN

PREDICTIONS

First round
No. 12 Georgia
over No. 13 Vanderbilt
No. 11 South Carolina over No. 14 Ole Miss

Second round
No. 8 Texas A&M over No. 9 Alabama
No. 5 Missouri over No. 12 Georgia
No. 7 Mississippi State over No. 10 LSU
No. 6 Arkansas over No. 11 South Carolina

Quarterfinals
No. 8 Texas A&M
over No. 1 Auburn
No. 5 Missouri over No. 4 Kentucky
No. 2 Tennessee over No. 7 Mississippi State
No. 3 Florida over No. 6 Arkansas

Semifinals
No. 8 Texas A&M over No. 5 Missouri
No. 3 Florida over No. 2 Tennessee

Final
No. 3 Florida over No. 8 Texas A&M

Other conference tournaments: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

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