What to watch at SEC tournament

Everything can change in a year.

A year ago, the SEC entered its conference tournament with a sense of certainty. By then, Kentucky's young NBA roster was the favorite to win the national title. Vanderbilt had the veterans and talent to make a run. Florida was led by lottery pick Bradley Beal and an experienced supporting cast. Alabama cracked the field, too.

The season ended with the Wildcats dusting confetti off their shoulders at the Superdome in New Orleans. The SEC's best was the nation's best squad, too.

The 2012-13 campaign has been far more uninspiring and perplexing for the entire conference as it prepares for the start of the SEC tournament on Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn. Florida commenced league play as a titan and ended with losses in its last three road games. Missouri and Arkansas played like title contenders at home and pretenders on the road.

Alabama (59.7 PPG allowed, second in the conference) could guard any team in the league but couldn't find the rim when it needed buckets. Andy Kennedy's Ole Miss program led the SEC with 76.3 PPG in SEC play, but the Rebels' defense was so suspect that it gave up 75 points or more six times. In the SEC.

Kentucky and Tennessee overcame significant injures to finish in the top half of the standings. Overall, however, the SEC was a disappointment. The SWAC earned two road wins over SEC teams. As a league, the SEC amassed a 25-65 record against the RPI's top 50.

And that sets up the most intriguing conference tournament in the country.

Why? Because the SEC tourney features a minimum of four bubble teams (Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama and Ole Miss). One loss could be the difference between the NCAA tournament and the NIT for those schools. If Florida's lukewarm finish continues in Nashville, the Gators could end up in a first-round matchup with a dangerous underdog. Missouri is 2-8 on the road since Dec. 22, and could slip in the eyes of the selection committee, too.

The regular-season chaos affected the league's overall reputation. But it might have been a good precursor for the action in Nashville. The stakes are high.

Top three storylines

Which SEC squads will get off the bubble?

Right now, Kentucky (last four in), Tennessee (first four out), Ole Miss (first four out) and Alabama (next four out) are all in danger of missing the NCAA tournament, per Joe Lunardi's most recent Bracketology report. The SEC could earn anywhere from two to six bids. The latter figure is very unlikely with so many squads on the brink of elimination that have a lot to prove in the SEC tournament. Their résumés are quite similar in terms of their limited impressiveness. They're all ranked somewhere between 50 and 60 in the RPI, and the SEC possesses so few quality teams that an early loss could end their March Madness dreams. A run, however, won't necessarily guarantee a berth, either. Stay tuned.

Will Florida prove road losses were flukes?

By the numbers, Florida is one of the best teams in the country. The Gators are ranked No. 1 by Ken Pomeroy, ninth in the RPI and fourth in the BPI. But the Gators are 1-4 in their past five SEC road games. Many of the Top 25 schools in the country have struggled on the road, but the Gators have been one of the nation's most dominant teams, although those off-campus losses are troubling and belie the praise the advanced stats have given them in 2012-13. An SEC tournament title would silence many critics. An early departure would attract only more scrutiny and doubt entering the NCAA tournament.

Which version of Missouri will show up?

At times, the Tigers have looked great. At times, they've looked average. Depends on when you've watched them, I guess. They've encountered their greatest struggles outside Columbia. They've defeated VCU, Illinois and Florida. They've also been outplayed in critical late-game stretches in losses to Texas A&M, Arkansas and LSU. Florida beat Missouri by 31 points in Gainesville, Fla. Did the Tigers quit? The worst moments for Frank Haith's program have featured ballhandling mishaps (ranking 113th with turnovers on 18.9 percent of their possessions per Ken Pomeroy). But when the Tigers are good, they're fearless and potent (9-5 in past 14 games). They can win this tournament. They're certainly capable of that. They could also lose before the semis. Neither outcome would surprise me.

Five players to watch

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Georgia: The SEC Player of the Year received that honor because he carried more weight than any player in the league, maybe even the country. The 6-foot-5 sophomore averaged 18.0 points for a team that scored 60.7 PPG in the regular season. That's 30 percent of Georgia's offensive production. The Bulldogs' No. 2 scorer, Nemanja Djurisic, averaged 8.1. Everybody in the SEC knew Caldwell-Pope would have the ball in his hands on most possessions, and they still couldn't stop him. Georgia (9-9) might not have won an SEC game without him.

Phil Pressey, Missouri: Mention Pressey's name to a Missouri fan, and he or she will probably sigh. Missouri certainly needs him, but sometimes there's just too much of him. Pressey (11.9 PPG, 7.1 APG and 1.8 SPG) is the best player on Haith's roster, and he's also Missouri's most significant athlete. But his turnovers, especially in the final minutes of tight games, have been an issue for the Tigers. In the team's past six games, however, he has been a more focused and trustworthy distributor (52 assists, 22 turnovers during that stretch). He's a maestro when he wants to be, but sometimes Pressey can't get out of his own way.

Trevor Releford, Alabama: Don't expect any more half-court buzzer-beaters like the one he hit over the weekend in a win over Georgia, but Alabama's top playmaker is the main reason the Tide are still in contention for an at-large bid. Releford is averaging 15.6 PPG and 2.1 SPG. He's also shooting 43.6 percent from beyond the arc. And he's tough. He'll try to score against bigger players without hesitation, and then he'll hustle to get back on defense and make a stop. He's a complete player, one of the SEC's gems.

Jordan McRae, Tennessee: Cuonzo Martin's program finished strong with wins in eight of its last nine games. McRae (16.2 PPG, 37 percent from the 3-point line) has been the catalyst for the rally that has positioned the Vols to secure a berth in the NCAA tournament. He has certainly been modest in spurts this season, but has been a beast in recent weeks. He scored 23 or more in four of Tennessee's last six games. He can work off screens, he can get to the rim off the dribble and he's clutch.

Archie Goodwin, Kentucky: You have to watch someone on the most intriguing team in the field, right? As I mentioned earlier, Lunardi says Kentucky is in right now. I'm not so sure. The bottom line is that a loss to Arkansas or Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals could lead the Wildcats to the NIT. On talent alone, however, John Calipari's team could win the whole thing. (That last statement applies to about 80 percent of this league, though.) Goodwin (14.1 PPG) has to be a star in Nashville. Good things happen when he's in a rhythm.

Around the tournament

Hottest team: Tennessee is 8-1 over its past nine games. The Vols have more momentum than any team in the field. They lost four of their first five SEC games but have been a top-three squad in this conference since early February.

Coldest team: Auburn hasn't won since Feb. 6, a promising victory over Alabama. Then, the Tigers lost their next nine SEC games.

Sleeper pick: There are multiple options, but I'll go with Arkansas. The Razorbacks average 73.7 PPG, and they're led by BJ Young (15.1 PPG), a sophomore who can heat up quickly. Plus, they have wins over Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri. But they've been subpar on the road.

Potential upset victim: Not many upset possibilities when you have so many teams with parallel résumés. But Florida has suffered multiple SEC losses against hungry bubble squads. Alabama or Tennessee could send the Gators home early in the semis, considering everything that's on the line for those two teams. Let's say the Gators meet LSU in the quarterfinals. The Tigers are not the same team that Florida beat by 22 in January, and they held SEC squads to a 29.4 clip from the 3-point line. It could get interesting for Florida in the coming days if those scenarios materialize.

Best first-round matchup: Texas A&M versus Auburn? Sure, let's go with that. A hand injury could affect Aggies star Elston Turner, but Auburn hasn't won since 2012. Well, not really. It just feels like it.

Best potential quarterfinal: Alabama versus Tennessee. This game could eliminate one of the two from NCAA tournament consideration. The Vols are in a slightly better position to earn entry into the field of 68, but Bama is on the bubble, too. The loser should prepare for the NIT.

Predicting a champion: I like Tennessee. I think the Vols are playing their best basketball at the right time. They're versatile. Jarnell Stokes is confident now. They have momentum, and they've defeated the other contenders they'll see in Nashville.