NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The coaches in this league bristle any time they hear it, but they’ve heard it often over the last two years.
The SEC just ain’t what it used to be when it comes to hoops.
That’s what happens when only three teams from the league make the NCAA Tournament, which was the case in 2009, and they manage a grand total of one win among them.
And let’s face it. When Kentucky’s down, the rest of the league is going to be accused of being down, whether it genuinely is or isn't.
This season, Kentucky has ascended back to the top of its Big Blue perch in the SEC thanks to John Calipari and his triumvirate of some of the most talented freshmen in the land.
The knock nationally on the league now is that it’s Kentucky and then everybody else.
Perhaps so, but Saturday’s SEC tournament semifinals should provide some riveting drama with more than a few compelling storylines. Here’s a look:
Game 1: Kentucky (30-2) vs. Tennessee (25-7), 1 p.m. ET
What’s at stake: Both teams are safely in the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky’s a lock for a No. 1 seed, and Tennessee is likely a No. 4 seed. But a second straight win over the Wildcats could push the Vols as high as a No. 3 seed. Tennessee handed Kentucky one of its two losses this season back on Feb. 27 in Knoxville. The Wildcats would love to exact a little payback for that loss. It’s no secret these two coaches aren’t pen pals and have traded barbs in the past, particularly when Calipari was at Memphis. But Bruce Pearl has held his own on the court. He’s 3-3 against Calipari, and two of those wins came over Calipari-coached teams that were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the country.
Scouting the game: Can either of these teams make a 3-pointer? Kentucky was 1-of-13 in its quarterfinal win over Alabama. Tennessee was 4-of-23 in its first-round win over LSU and a little better Friday in its quarterfinal win over Ole Miss. The Vols were 8-of-23 from 3-point range, although most of that was Cameron Tatum. He came off the bench to go 4-of-4 in the first half and keep Tennessee close. Everybody has been playing zone against Kentucky, including Tennessee in both of the earlier meetings this season. Kentucky freshman big man DeMarcus Cousins was a no-show Friday after getting into early foul trouble. It will be interesting to see if he got his bad game out of his system.
Wildcat to watch: Freshman point guard John Wall has been fabulous. For a guy who’s not a pure shooter, it’s uncanny how he can take over games. He has a sixth sense about him -- he knows when the Wildcats need him to go on one of his tears. And when he decides he’s going to take the ball to the basket, there’s nobody in college basketball who's any better. As for not being able to shoot it all that well, he huffs, “I can make shots when it’s time to make shots.”
Vol to watch: Senior forward Wayne Chism is making himself a lot of money right now. He’s always been a good shooter for a big man, but he had 15 rebounds against Ole Miss and 11 rebounds against LSU. He’s also an outstanding defender and can guard anybody on the floor because he moves his feet so well. He’ll have his work cut out against the Kentucky tandem of Patrick Patterson and Cousins.
They said it: “You know they’ve been waiting on this one and would love to take us down, but we haven’t rolled over for anybody all season and aren’t going to start now.” -- Tennessee senior guard Bobby Maze
Game 2: Mississippi State (22-9) vs. Vanderbilt (24-7), 3:15 p.m. ET
What’s at stake: Not a lot for Vanderbilt, which played well in the second half against Georgia in the quarterfinals and should be a solid No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Still, the Commodores want to make sure they're playing their best basketball going into next week. Plus, they haven’t won an SEC tournament title since 1951. Mississippi State has no choice but to win Saturday to have any chance to make the NCAA field. The Bulldogs were one of the last teams out of the field following Friday’s play, according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, which means there’s hope. Beating Vanderbilt would be the kind of marquee win that could push the Bulldogs into the NCAA Tournament. They won four games in four days a year ago to play their way into the field.
Scouting the game: This is Kevin Stallings’ best and most talented team since he’s been at Vanderbilt. The Commodores have size, depth and can score a variety of different ways. When senior point guard Jermaine Beal shoots it well, they’re really tough to beat. Mississippi State has been a difficult team to figure this season. The Bulldogs had played well until the end of the regular season, but lost at Auburn and then played terribly in a home loss to Tennessee on Senior Day. The good news for them is that they shot it well in their quarterfinal victory over Florida, going 10-of-20 from 3-point range. When Ravern Johnson and Barry Stewart get it going from outside, they’re a whole different team.
Commodore to watch: Freshman guard John Jenkins came off the bench to score a career-high 25 points against Georgia and was 5-of-8 from 3-point range. He scored 12 straight points to help the Commodores pull away in the second half. The problem with Jenkins is that you simply can’t leave him. But with Vanderbilt having so many other scoring options, teams are forced to make tough choices.
Bulldog to watch: Senior forward Jarvis Varnado is the NCAA’s all-time shot-blocking king. When he’s on the floor, nothing comes easy against the Bulldogs. The Commodores have good size and will throw several different bodies at him, but Varnado has to stay out of foul trouble if Mississippi State is going to make it to the championship game for the second straight year. For the season, Varnado has 152 blocks. As a team, Vanderbilt has 164.
They said it: “I feel like we have nothing to lose, you know. We just come out here to play hard and play together. We had success last year in playing together, and we wanted to keep that focus coming into this tournament. We ain’t the deepest team, but we’re going to fight hard.” – Mississippi State forward Jarvis Varnado