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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

SEC Tournament Preview: Can Auburn Be Stopped?

Now that the regular season is over, The Hustler takes a look at each SEC team before the postseason begins.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Vanderbilt guard Tyrin Lawrence hit a 3-pointer as time expired in the first half of Vanderbilt’s win over Georgia on Jan 29, 2022. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

March has finally arrived, and with it comes conference tournaments. 

The SEC men’s basketball tournament will start on Wednesday, date and carry on until the championship game on Sunday, March 13. For some teams, an NCAA Tournament berth will be hard to come by. Then there are teams like Auburn, who clinched their postseason berth along with the SEC regular season championship. Regardless, all 14 teams have something to play for, and the action should be non-stop for five straight days. 

Auburn (27-4, 15-3)

The Tigers were crowned SEC regular season champions last weekend after their victory over South Carolina. They’ll enter postseason play as a projected No. 2 seed, according to Joe Lunardi’s bracketology. Their biggest strength is their big-three: Jabari Smith, K.D. Johnson and Walker Kessler. Smith has been on an absolute tear lately, averaging 24.8 points over his last six games. Johnson’s presence on the defensive end—most notably his two steals per game—cannot be understated. Then there’s Kessler. The big man has accumulated 140 blocks this season (4.5 per game), which is more than 10 different SEC teams have altogether. 

Auburn’s biggest weakness is their propensity to fall behind early on in games, as we saw against Vanderbilt back in February, when Vanderbilt led 14-3 four minutes into the game. They’ll be the favorites to win the SEC Tournament—and rightfully so. That would propel them into a No. 1 seed going into the tournament, where anything but a Final Four appearance would be a letdown. They’ll have two byes to start, but will face the winner of Florida and Texas A&M on Friday. 

Prediction: Win against Florida in quarterfinals, loss against Arkansas in semifinals (tournament berth)

Kentucky Wildcats (25-6, 14-4)

Kentucky was nip and tuck with Auburn all through the SEC season, clinging onto the No. 2 position from the jump. Led by Oscar Tshiebwe, Kentucky will enter the SEC Tournament as a projected No. 2 seed in bracketology. Their biggest strength is their rebounding. They lead the SEC in boards per game—much due to Tshiebwe’s rebounding prowess—with 40.3 per game. Another strength for the Wildcats is their depth, as they have ten players averaging double figure scoring per game. 

When a team is this well-rounded, it isn’t easy to find many weaknesses, but one concern to look out for is their presence at the free throw line. They rank towards the bottom of the SEC in free throw attempts, makes and percentage, which certainly merits observation. As the tournament proceeds and Kentucky gets matched up with more even opponents, they’ll need all the points they can get, and leaving them at the line is something good teams can ill-afford to do. Kentucky is one of the most well-rounded teams in the country, and they’ll enter the SEC Tournament with loads of confidence. They’ll face either Alabama, Vanderbilt or Georgia on Friday. 

Prediction: Win against Alabama in quarterfinals, win against Tennessee in semifinals, win against Arkansas in finals (tournament berth)

Tennessee (23-7, 14-4)

All season long, the Volunteers have been one of those teams that has all the tools, and shown flashes of dominance, but constantly folds under pressure. They’ve been dominant at home, finishing with an undefeated record at 16-0. Their strength, similar to Kentucky, is their exceptional depth at the guard position. Their four leading scorers are all guards, led by future lottery pick Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi. Those two make up one of the most, if not the most, dominant backcourts in the country. The only problem? They aren’t consistently dominant. When they’re on, nobody is stopping Tennessee, but if a worse team catches them on an off day, the Volunteers could get sent packing before winning a game in the tournament. It’ll be quintessential for them to build up some momentum and enter the tournament hot, and the SEC Tournament presents the perfect opportunity to do so. They’ll take on the winner of Mississippi State and South Carolina on Friday. 

Prediction: Win against South Carolina in quarterfinals, loss against Kentucky in semifinals (tournament berth)

Arkansas (24-7, 13-5)

Arkansas is perhaps the hottest team in the country entering the SEC Tournament. Winners of 14 of their last 16, including home wins against Kentucky, Auburn and Tennessee, the Razorbacks have all the momentum going into the tournament. They’ll have a bye through the first two rounds until Friday, where they’ll either face Ole Miss, Missouri or LSU. A sneaky strength for Arkansas is their ability to get to the line: they got there an astounding 709 times this season, 46 more than any other conference team. Beyond that, they converted more than any other team, leading the SEC in free throws made and free throw percentage at 531 and 74.9, respectively. Something to monitor is their struggles with shooting the 3-pointer: they sit at 11th in the SEC in 3-point percentage at 31.1%. Past that, there isn’t much to dislike about the Razorbacks. 

Prediction: Win against LSU in quarterfinals, win against Auburn in semifinals, loss against Kentucky in finals (tournament berth)

LSU (21-10, 9-9)

The LSU Tigers, simply put, are overrated. Their 12-0 start to the season was met with a 9-10 finish, including a 2-8 record on the road. When a team is dominant at home, the hope is that they can hold their own on the road, and for the Tigers, this simply wasn’t true. Their biggest strength is undoubtedly their defense, as they allow the fewest points per game in the SEC at 62.9 while also leading the SEC in steals per game with 11.2. As stated earlier, their lack of quality wins is concerning, along with their inability to win outside of Baton Rouge. In terms of offensive production, they don’t do anything particularly well, sitting in the middle of the pack among SEC teams in terms of 3-point shooting (32.3%), free throw shooting (72.2%) and points per game (73.2). They have top tier talent in Tari Eason and Darius Days, but everything about LSU just screams first-round exit. They’ll face the winner of Ole Miss and Missouri on Thursday. 

Prediction: Win against Ole Miss in second round, loss against Arkansas in quarterfinals (tournament berth)

Alabama (19-12, 9-9)

Alabama is the most terrifying team in the country, and it isn’t close. Any avid college basketball fan would tell you that on a good night, they’re unbeatable, as seen in their victories over No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 3 Baylor. On a bad night, they’re incredibly vulnerable, as seen in their losses to Georgia, Iona and Missouri. Their inconsistency is somehow their greatest strength and their greatest weakness, as it manages to keep both everyone on their toes. They have plenty of other weaknesses, though, including their defense: The Crimson Tide allow 76.2 points per game, second worst in the SEC. Alternatively, they average 80.1 points per game on offense, tied for first with No. 5 Kentucky. If their star backcourt of Jaden Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly can get it going come tournament time, Alabama could run away with the whole thing. They’ll face the winner of Vanderbilt and Georgia on Thursday. 

Prediction: Win against Vanderbilt in second round, loss against Kentucky in quarterfinals (tournament berth)

South Carolina (18-12, 9-9)

Despite entering the SEC postseason as a higher seed than both Florida and Texas A&M, the Gamecocks are not listed as a bubble team according to Joe Lundardi, hinting at the fact that they may need a deep run to get into the dance. It will start on Thursday with a matchup against Mississippi State. South Carolina doesn’t do any one thing exceptionally, but they are solid across the board. They sit towards the top of the SEC in rebounds per game with 38.3, and are actually second in the SEC in offensive rebounds per game with 13.0. 

The most glaring concern for South Carolina—and it’s a big one—is their horrific numbers from the free throw line. They rank dead last in the SEC in free throw percentage (67.4) and 12th in total attempts with (528). Things look bleak for South Carolina, but thanks to their somewhat high seed, it may not take them winning the whole SEC Tournament for them to reach March Madness. 

Prediction: Win against Mississippi State in second round, loss against Tennessee in quarterfinals (No tournament berth)

Texas A&M (20-11, 9-9)

Texas A&M, thanks to their mid-season implosion, finds themselves in the “Next Four Out” category according to Joe Lunardi, meaning that they are going to need to move up about eight spots if they want any chance at securing an NCAA Tournament berth. Fortunately for them, they’ll enter their matchup against Florida on Thursday with some solid momentum after winning their final four regular season games. Quenton Jackson is fresh off of an SEC Player of the Week distinction and their postseason aspirations are much more alive than they were two weeks ago after their loss to Vanderbilt. Texas A&M is the definition of a solid team—they don’t do anything exceptionally well, but they do everything at a proficient rate. They are middle of the pack in rebounding, scoring offense, scoring defense, 3-point shooting, blocks and assists. They are an aggressive team defensively, averaging 10.3 steals per game, second in the SEC. Their lack of size (four of their starting five are guards) makes them susceptible to struggles on the boards, as they rank 10th in total rebounds per game (35.0) and 13th in defensive rebounds per game (22.6). It may take an upset or two, but not all hope is lost for the Aggies. 

Prediction: Loss against Florida in second round (No tournament berth) 

Florida (19-12, 9-9)

The Gators are right there with Texas A&M on the bubble, listed in Bracketology’s “Next Four Out.” They will need to defeat Texas A&M and No. 4 Auburn, at the very least, if they want to go dancing. They took down Auburn earlier in the season, but that was in Gainesville, and they’ll have to do it this time without the help of the hometown crowd. Colin Castleton and his rim protection has given Florida a boost all season, as they average 5.2 blocks per game, second best in the SEC. If they want to stand any chance, they’ll need their role players, who have been utterly silent for the majority of the season, to step up. Players like Tyree Appleby and Philandrius Fleming will need to play the Robin to Castleton’s Batman. The Gators’ biggest weakness all season was their inability to provide Castleton with the help he needed, and if there was ever a time to do it, it’s now.  

Prediction: Win against Texas A&M in second round, loss against No. 4 Auburn in quarterfinals (No tournament berth) 

Mississippi State (17-14, 8-10)

Mississippi State was a bubble team for the majority of the season, but losses in three of their four final games derailed any hopes of that. Mississippi State is one of the few teams in the SEC that lacks a signature win: they defeated Alabama back in January when they were ranked, but in the near two months since then they have failed to impress. Mississippi State is another one of the middle of the pack teams that doesn’t have too many strengths, as they do most things pretty well, but nothing extraordinarily. 

Their biggest weakness is a glaring one: they are the worst 3-point shooting team in the SEC, taking (491) and making (144) by far the fewest 3-point shots of every team, leading to a 3-point percentage of 29.3%. Opposing teams will know this and adjust their gameplans accordingly, forcing them into taking more 3-pointers than they would ever intend to. The Bulldogs will take on South Carolina on Thursday with the hope of keeping their season alive. 

Prediction: Loss against South Carolina in second round (No tournament berth)

Vanderbilt (15-15, 7-11)

Vanderbilt had their opportunities to build their resume all season. Winnable games against Alabama, Florida, Tennessee (2x), Kentucky and South Carolina (2x) were all lost. Winning even half of those games would have put them on the bubble and in position to make the tournament, but poor second-half play and heavy reliance upon Scotty Pippen Jr. led to their demise. Now, the only thing that can save them is running the table and winning the SEC ˇournament, and that will be an extremely tough task. Their biggest strengths could aid them to a deep run, as they sit atop the SEC in 3-point percentage at 33.6%. They also do an excellent job of getting to the line, as they have attempted  650 free throws, third-most in the SEC. The Commodores action will begin on Wednesday with a matchup against Georgia. 

Prediction: Win against Georgia in first round, loss against Alabama in second round (No tournament berth) 

Missouri (11-20, 5-13)

Missouri had an absolutely catastrophic end to their season, losing six of their final seven games with the lone victory against Georgia. There isn’t much to love about the Tigers, as they rank towards the bottom of the SEC in nearly every statistical category. Missouri is the worst offensive team in the SEC, and there’s no getting around it. They average 65.2 points per game, fewest in the league, and shoot an abysmal 27.8% from downtown, worst in the SEC. It’s hard to have any confidence in them going into the postseason, considering they also rank towards the bottom of the conference in points allowed per game, at 70.6. Barring a miracle, Missouri will not be making the tournament this season. They’ll face Ole Miss on Wednesday to kick off the SEC Tournament.

Prediction: Loss against Ole Miss in first round (No tournament berth)

Ole Miss (13-18, 4-14)

Don’t let the abysmal 4-14 conference record fool you, Ole Miss is a much better team than Missouri despite their finish in the regular season. Their biggest strength is their 3-point shooting ability—they rank fifth in the SEC in shots made from behind the arc (218), and fourth in the league in percentage (32.7%). This ability to shoot at a prolific rate is key for any team to make a run, as it allows for quick momentum changes and scoring runs that can keep a team in a game. There still isn’t much to love, though, as they rank second to last in points per game with 68.4, and dead last in free throws made and attempted. It hasn’t helped that their two leading scorers,Daeshun Ruffin and Jarkel Joiner,have both spent a lot of time injured this season, but perhaps now that Joiner is back, the Rebels can look to make a splash. 

Prediction: Win against Missouri in first round, loss against LSU in second round (No tournament berth) 

Georgia (6-25, 1-17)

It’s sad to think that Georgia has not left this last place standing in over three months, but there was simply no other case to be made. Georgia is unequivocally the worst team in the SEC, and perhaps the worst team in all Power 5 conferences at that. They lost the last 11 games of their season, and only won one of 18 conference games. If there’s any solace, it’s that they have remained competitive despite all of the tribulations that they have gone through, as most of their losses are within single digits. One strength to note is their prowess at the free throw line, as they shoot it at 74.6% from the charity stripe, the second highest in the SEC. Their biggest weakness, as it has been all season, is their defense. They allow a league-high 78.2 points per game, with a scoring margin of -7.8. They’ll be put out of their misery on Wednesday when they take on Vanderbilt. 

Prediction: Loss against Vanderbilt in first round (No tournament berth)

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About the Contributor
Aiden Rutman
Aiden Rutman, Sports Editor
Aiden Rutman (‘25) is a student in Peabody College majoring in human and organizational development and minoring in communication studies. He formerly produced The Hustler’s sports podcast, Live from West End. In addition to writing and podcasting, Aiden is an avid New York sports fan, and he loves playing sports, spending time outdoors and trying new foods. You can reach him at [email protected].
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