The SEC Men's Basketball Tournament tips off Thursday in New Orleans, with Auburn opening its tourney on Day 1 as a 10 seed. The smart money, as it usually is, is obviously on top-ranked Kentucky. But there's only one way to fine out which team will actually win the tournament: ARBITRARILY PREVIEW ALL THE GAMES. Let's take a game-by-game trip through the bracket to find out if this tournament is just a formality, or if there's a team out there with the stones to take down Kentucky.
No. 8 Arkansas vs. No. 9 LSU -- The Tigers and Razorbacks split during the regular season, and if this game was being played on Arkansas' home court, it would be tough to pick against the Hogs. Mike Anderson's team was 18-3 at home this season. Although, the Razorbacks have struggled lately, as those three loses have come in their last three games. In fact, Arkansas hasn't been playing well anywhere in recent games, losing seven out of its past nine. LSU had won four straight before dropping its final three regular-season games, including a 15-point loss at Auburn. Neither team has much momentum right now, but the Tigers should have the advantage in this game. Playing in New Orleans will give LSU the home-crowd advantage, and Arkansas has been awful away from Bud Walton Arena this year (1-10). LSU advances with a 69-60 win.
No. 5 Alabama vs. No. 12 South Carolina -- Alabama started the season ranked in the top 20, has been a projected NCAA Tournament team for most of the year, and South Carolina is easily the worst team in the SEC. So it only makes sense that the Gamecocks won the two teams' previous matchup this season. The Tide has weathered the storm of suspensions and bounced back from a mid-season slump, but it dropped the season finale at Ole Miss after running off a four-game winning streak. Aside from the win over Bama, South Carolina has just one other conference win -- a one-point victory at home over Georgia. If the Gamecocks could pull off another upset, Alabama would be doing some serious sweating on selection Sunday. No chance that happens. Alabama runs away with it, 67-47.
No. 7 Ole Miss vs. No. 10 Auburn -- Here's another matchup of teams that split games in the regular season. Both the Rebels and Tigers won on their home courts, both teams have been pretty bad on the road -- Ole Miss was 4-8; Auburn was 1-10 -- and both teams are coming off big wins to end the regular season. It's very tempting to make the homer pick and go with Auburn here. After all, Tony Barbee's Tigers have shown that when they play at the top of their game, they can hang with anyone in the SEC. Unfortunately, when they aren't playing well, especially at the free-throw line, they have a hard time winning. Auburn is certainly capable of winning this one, but a short bench away from home will keep it from happening. Ole Miss squeaks by, 59-55.
No. 6 Mississippi State vs. No. 11 Georgia -- The last time the conference's two Bulldogs faced off, Georgia pulled off the upset that sent Mississippi State into a downward spiral. Going into the game, the Cowbells were sitting pretty at 19-5 overall and 6-3 in SEC play. They were a top 25 team and considered a lock for the NCAA Tournament. The loss to Georgia sent MSU to a five-game losing streak that all but ended any March Madness speculation. Georgia's win in Starkville was its only conference road win this season, but a recent upset of Florida at home has to give the Dawgs some confidence. Even so, this should be Mississippi State's game. The Starkville Bulldogs win 68-55.
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 9 LSU -- The Wildcats are the closest thing to a perfect team that college basketball has this year. If not for an Indiana 3-pointer at the buzzer up in Bloomington, Kentucky would be going into the SEC Tournament with a 31-0 record. John Calipari's team steamrolled through the conference schedule, playing just three games that were won by fewer than nine points. In their previous game this season, which was in Baton Rouge, The 'Cats won by 24. This one shouldn't be much different. Kentucky cruises, 78-62.
No. 4 Florida vs. No. 5 Alabama -- This one's tough. Florida won in Tuscaloosa earlier this year thanks to a 16-0 run out of halftime, but the Gators are banged up right now. Forward Will Yeguete is still out and center Patrick Young is playing hurt. These teams are polar opposites on the offensive end: Alabama has a solid inside game but rarely hits from outside the perimeter, while Florida is lethal from 3 but doesn't do much damage in the paint. If the Gators get hot from outside, they should be able to win. But Alabama's excellent defense will slow the game down and keep Florida from making too many shots. Alabama clinches its NCAA berth with a 62-58 victory.
No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 7 Ole Miss -- Tennessee is the surprise story of this SEC season. After a recruiting scandal that led to the firing of head coach Bruce Pearl and the loss of some very good players in the offseason, most experts picked the Vols to finish near the bottom of the conference standings. Instead, Tennessee played its way to the No. 2 seed in the tournament. The Volunteers have won eight of their last nine games and, aside from Kentucky, are the hottest team in the SEC. Their last matchup with Ole Miss resulted in a 13-point win in Knoxville. The Rebels have been spunky at times this year, but they won't be able to handle a shockingly good Tennessee team. The Volunteers walk away with a 77-70 win.
No. 3 Vanderbilt vs. No. 6 Mississippi State -- Vanderbilt under head coach Kevin Stallings in the past few years has been a tough team to figure out. The Dores always seem to have plenty of talent and experience, as is the case this season, but they can never make the leap from very good to great. Vandy showed a flash of brilliance in a 10-point win over Florida on Senior Night in Nashville, but then they went to Knoxville for the regular-season finale and lost by seven. Vanderbilt has more talent, more experience and better coaching than Mississippi State, and it still wouldn't be a huge surprise if the Bulldogs won. It'll be closer than it should be on paper, but Vanderbilt wins 68-61.
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 5 Alabama -- Hoo boy, this game really smells like it has upset potential. Of the three SEC games Kentucky won by fewer than nine points, the Alabama game -- in Lexington! -- was one of them. Both teams play great defense, but the Wildcats are much better on the offensive end. Alabama has to be able to find some sort of an outside game to keep from forcing shots against block machine Anthony Davis all game. The Crimson Tide hasn't been able to do that much this year, but its 3-point shooting has improved with the emergence of Levi Randolph and the re-emergence of Andrew Steele. If the Bama gets hot from the parameter, the Cats could be in trouble. The Tide will push Kentucky to the limit, but the Cats prevail in overtime 78-76.
No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 3 Vanderbilt -- The Vols and Dores split their season series, with Vandy crushing Tennessee in the first meeting. Again, this is a game that Vanderbilt should win. As good as Tennessee has turned out to be, it's no match for the talented Vanderbilt roster. And despite that, the Commodores will find a way to lose this game. Whether it's an inexplicably poor outing from the free-throw line, an off night from 3 or foul trouble from the big men on the inside, something will go wrong for Vandy and allow Tennessee to advance to the final. The Vols book their ticket to the championship game with a 69-62 win.
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Tennessee -- Even though this feels like a surprise appearance in the final for Tennessee, this game is straight chalk. Kentucky ran away to a 25-point win at Rupp Arena in their last matchup with Tennessee, but the Volunteers lost by just three in Knoxville in their first game. Kentucky is possibly the best team in the country and is definitely the best team in the SEC, but John Calipari hates tournaments and only thinks they should be used as a means to the end of improving NCAA Tournament seeding. The Wildcats will have locked up the No. 1 or No. 2 overall seed in the Big Dance at this point, and Tennessee will still be fighting to get off the bubble. Look for Tennessee to start fast and hold on for dear life late, claiming the SEC Tournament title with a 75-72 win.
So, there you have it. Tennessee's surprising run will result in an SEC championship. Go ahead and give the Vols the trophy now, because the games are just a formality.