by Peter Walsh

When: March 13-17

Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville, TN

One year after having the top team in the nation, the SEC is coming off a poor showing in the regular season. Florida is the only team to finish in the AP Top 25 and Ole Miss, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky have realistic shots at making the Big Dance but sure could use a win or two this week in conference tournament play. With teams fighting for their lives and the Gators looking to earn a high seed, all the makings for a competitive week of basketball are in place.

Contenders

Florida (24-6, 14-4) — The SEC Tournament is the Gators to lose and barring an upset, they should take home their fourth SEC Tournament Championship and their first since 2006-’07. Florida finished the season unbeaten at home and defeated every team in the SEC at least once. The Gators did stumble down the stretch, going 3-3 over their final six games with a loss at Kentucky to end the season, but this team simply has too much talent to be considered anything but the favorite.

Coach Billy Donovan has a roster stocked with weapons at his disposal and uses them effectively on both ends of the floor—the Gators rank fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency and second in adjusted defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy. The senior backcourt of Mike Rosario and Kenny Boynton form a potent attack on the perimeter—each average right around 12.5 points—and senior power forward Erik Murphy is a viable 3-point threat who stretches the floor to open up the floor for Florida’s talented guards. Senior center Patric Young is one of the strongest players in the nation and brings a toughness inside.

The Gators are deep, experienced and are looking to use the SEC Tournament to get momentum back on their side as they look to get back to the Final Four for the first time since ’07.

Sleepers

Kentucky (21-10, 12-6) — The defending National Champion Wildcats are looking for a few wins in the SEC Tournament to boost their resume and solidify their spot in the Big Dance after closing the season with a huge victory over Florida. Kentucky has been up and down all year and you never know which team is going to show up. One day they’re taking care of business against Florida, the next they are taking an L to an under .500 Georgia team. The loss of super frosh Nerlens Noel to a torn ACL hurt but the ‘Cats are still loaded with green talent. Freshmen Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Willie Caulie-Stein are all highly capable players and sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer has championship experience. Erratic point guard Ryan Harrow will need to play beyond his years to give the ‘Cats a real shot.  UK can win this thing, just as long as they come focused and ready to play for 40 minutes. A trip to the SEC Finals can shoot them up to the 5-7 seed area while an early exit will likely put them as a dangerous 12 seed.

Missouri (22-9, 11-7) — A team with top-15 talent that plays down to their competition, Missouri has a chance to make a run. Mizzou beat Florida on February 19 and finished the season with blowout wins over South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas before losing a tough one at Tennessee to end the season. The Tigers have one of the more explosive offenses in the country, averaging 77.2 points per game (15th in the nation) and crash the boards with reckless abandon, averaging 41.1 boards per (third). The Tigers are led by Phil Pressey, who is one oft the top assist men in the nation at 7.1 per clip—first in the SEC—and senior forward Laurence Bowers has scored 20+ points in three straight games.

Players to Watch

Alex Poythress, Fr. F, Kentucky – At 6-8, 213 pounds, Poythress boasts an explosive game with plenty of untapped potential. While he’s still raw offensively, you can count on at least a few “Whoa, who is that?” plays per game. Kentucky had a down year (by Kentucky’s current standards) but Poythress has been a bright spot, averaging 11.6 points on 58 percent shooting while grabbing 6.2 boards per game. It’s unlikely the current freshman will return to UK—especially with the class Coach Cal has coming in—so look for the forward to try boost his draft stock playing on a grand stage in the coming weeks.

Marshall Henderson, Jr. G, Ole Miss — Henderson is the SEC’s leading scorer with 19.7 points per game and has unlimited range. He has been a huge difference maker after transferring to Ole Miss and has made Rebel basketball relevant for the first time in over a decade. The unpredictable two guard is known just as much for his erratic behavior as he is for his scoring acumen.

Jordan McRae, Jr. G, Tennessee — McRae has improved every year at Tennessee and is peaking at the right time. Over the final five games of SEC play McRae averaged 24.2 points and the Vols went 4-1 with wins over Florida and Missouri. McRae leads a hot Volunteer team into the postseason.

Predicted Winner

Florida — The Gators are the most complete team in the SEC and should have no problem reaching the SEC Final. They will no doubt be met with a challenge but their coaching and senior laden roster will prove to be the difference.