The familiar question throughout the SEC men’s basketball tournament, and the subsequent NCAA tourney, will be: Who, if anyone, can derail the No. 1 and undefeated Kentucky Wildcats (31-0)?
Wrapping up the first 31-0 regular season in the program’s history with a blowout victory over Florida last weekend, the Wildcats and head coach John Calipari are the team to beat in both the SEC and NCAA tourneys.
The SEC tournament officially begins Wednesday night at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville with No. 12 Mississippi State and No. 13 Auburn first clashing at 7 p.m. ET, followed by No. 11 South Carolina versus No. 14 Missouri at 9 p.m.
Like the top four seeds in the conference, the Wildcats won’t have to play until the third round Friday, when they’ll face the victor of No. 8 seed Florida vs. No. 9 Alabama.
Armed with big men Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein, who together average 4.0 blocks per game, the Wildcats have held opponents to 53.4 points per game and on average have vanquished opponents by 21.2 points.
But Kentucky nearly slipped up in their second-to-last game of the regular season. The Wildcats were down by as much as nine points but rallied in the second half to beat Georgia 72-64 behind 19 points and seven rebounds from Towns, and twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison combing for 28 points.
If any team has the best chance of overthrowing Kentucky it’s the No. 21 ranked Arkansas Razorbacks.
With a 24-7 overall record, and 13-5 run in the SEC, Arkansas is second only to Kentucky in the conference and will take on either No. 10 Tennessee or No. 7 Vanderbilt in the third round. The Volunteers and Commodores will tipoff in the second round Thursday at 7 p.m.
The Razorbacks boast the most potent offense in the SEC with 79 points per game thanks to the in-and-out combo of sophomore forward and SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis and guard Michael Qualls, with senior point guard Rashad Madden racking up 4.8 assists per game.
Back on Feb. 28, the Razorbacks struggled mightily against Kentucky’s frontline, with Cauley-Stein swatting four shots and coming up with two steals to go along with his nine rebounds. Arkansas would fall 84-67, but head coach Mike Anderson could very well use that loss as a blueprint for success should the two sides meet again in the tournament.
Georgia is the third seed in the tournament, followed by No. 4 LSU. Both schools will await opponents who make it through the first and second rounds.
TV Channel: The SEC Network will air the first, second and third rounds of the tournament. ESPN will have coverage of the semifinals and finals.
Prediction: The Wildcats remain an undeniable force entering the tournament. Arkansas does present a problem, especially if Portis or Qualls can get either or both Towns and Cauley-Stein into foul trouble down the stretch. LSU boasts sophomore-forward tandem of Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin, who are No. 3 and No. 5 in scoring, respectively, in the conference. Ultimately, the Wildcats should prevail in a thriller over either LSU or Arkansas in the championship.