New Orleans Arena will look something like this.
The SEC Tournament gets underway tomorrow in New Orleans, with eleven games in four days, concluding with one team cutting down the nets just hours before the NCAA Tournament Selection Show. Below are some key questions to look for this week:
What happens if Bama falls to South Carolina? Alabama finished 5th place in the SEC this year, meaning the Tide just missed the cut for a bye on Thursday. Bama's reward for being the highest seed to play on Thursday? Facing the Gamecocks, who finished dead last in the league with a 2-14 conference record. As for Bama's chances of advancing in the SEC Tournament, this is indeed a reward, but as for Alabama's NCAA Tournament seeding, this game does Alabama absolutely no good. A win won't help Alabama's seeding even one iota, as a win over a team ranked nearly 200th in the RPI isn't going to leapfrog Alabama over any teams currently projected to be 7 or 8 seeds. A loss to such a team, however, would be devastating.
Right now Alabama's loss to South Carolina is by far the biggest blemish on the Tide's resume. A second loss to the Gamecocks would raise serious red flags for the selection committee. It is doubtful this would push Bama all the way out of the field, but it would push Alabama down fairly close to the cut line and might even put the Tide in danger of getting placed in one of the play-in games. Some fans have pointed out (correctly, I will admit) that this could potentially be a good thing, as a 10 or 11 seed often gives a team a better chance of advancing to the Sweet 16 than an 8 or 9 seed. As a cautious Alabama fan, though, I know I want no part in playing with that fire. There may not be a great chance of Alabama missing the field or getting put in the play-in game with a loss to South Carolina, but it's a chance nonetheless and not one I think we want to take.
How high can Bama climb in the seeding with a strong performance in New Orleans? Surviving the South Carolina game on Thursday but then losing to Florida on Friday would leave the Tide's resume pretty static, possibly even dropping Bama a seed or so. But what if Alabama can take down the Gators? Beating Florida, projected to be around a 6 or 7 seed, would definitely be a big feather in Bama's cap, possibly even becoming the 2nd-best win on the resume behind the win over Wichita State, who are projected around a 4 or 5 seed. Getting this win should at minimum keep Alabama in the 8/9 range, and would give the Tide a very good shot at possibly moving up to a 7 seed depending on what other teams do, which would allow Bama to avoid playing a 1 seed in the 2nd round of the Big Dance.
Of course, if Alabama does get beyond Florida, Kentucky would in all likelihood be the Tide's opponent on Saturday (does anyone really give Arkansas or LSU--both slumping at the moment--a chance at the upset Friday?). Being the first team to beat the #1 Wildcats in over 20 games would be big beyond words. At that point, a 7 seed would seem a guarantee and Bama would probably be in the conversation for a coveted 6 seed. At any rate, if Bama wants to get any higher than a 7 seed, a win over the Wildcats will probably be required. To feel assured of a 6 seed, Alabama might need to win the whole SEC Tournament.
Can anyone stop Kentucky? The Cats went through conference play with a very rare 16-0 mark. Whether they can top it off with yet another SEC Tournament title most likely depends on their own mentality. They already have the SEC championship for this season, they already have a #1 seed for the NCAA Tournament sewed up, so many are asking, "what does Kentucky have to play for?" You could argue the #1 overall seed is at stake between Kentucky and Syracuse, but really that matters very little as both teams will get to play close to home through the first two weekends of the NCAA Tournament. If Kentucky comes out flat and uninspired, they could certainly fall victim to one of the teams in the top half of the league under the right circumstances.
If the Cats do come focused and hungry, though, they're still a very good bet to win the whole thing. New Orleans is a little further from Big Blue country than typical SEC Tournament sites Atlanta and Nashville, but still, you know the vast majority of New Orleans Arena is going to be packed with blue as thousands upon thousands of Kentucky fans create a virtual home atmosphere for the Cats. That combined with the fact that there are no sure-fire top-15 type teams in the league might make it very difficult to wager on the field against the Cats in this one.
What do the SEC bubble teams need to do? The SEC team most squarely on the bubble entering the SEC Tournament in Mississippi State. The Bulldogs limped to the finish in league play but managed to crack .500 after knocking off lowly South Carolina and slumping Arkansas in the final week. Most bracketologists have them as one of the very last teams in the field right now, so they can't afford to fall any further. This means at minimum the Bulldogs need to get a win in their opener against a Georgia team ranked just outside the RPI top 100 on Thursday night. Lose that one and they are likely done. Winning that but then losing to Vanderbilt on Friday night would probably give them a good shot, but they may not be a lock and may be sentenced to the play-in game. If they can get through Georgia and then beat projected 6 or 7 seed Vanderbilt on Friday night that should seal the deal for them.
Two other SEC teams will be coming to New Orleans with very interesting resumes. Tennessee is probably the most interesting. They appear to be a carbon copy of Alabama last season: miserable results in pre-conference play followed by very solid results in conference play. Like Alabama last year, though, they probably need to get at least to the final to book their spot. They will open on Friday night against the winner of the Ole Miss-Auburn game. If they can advance in that one and then beat the Vanderbilt/Mississippi State/Georgia semifinalist on Saturday, it just might be enough to get them in, especially if that second win came against a projected tournament team like Vanderbilt or Mississippi State.
The third team to keep an eye on is Ole Miss. They haven't gotten much bubble talk this season, but they quietly managed to get to .500 in league play and have a strong enough RPI. What they are lacking are big wins, but if they can survive Auburn on Thursday night and then take down Tennessee in what would be a virtual bubble elimination game, they might could book a spot with a big win over a projected tournament team like Vanderbilt or Mississippi State in the semifinals on Saturday. Whatever happens with these bubble teams, though, it's pretty clear the most interesting action for neutral fans will be in the bottom half of the bracket, where all three bubble teams reside and where just about anyone could emerge and make a run to the final.