The SEC tournament will open with a pall over its top two teams, for very different reasons.
Top-seeded Alabama is fine on the basketball front. It enters tournament play ranked fourth in the nation with an inside track to an NCAA No. 1 seed. But the program is under scrutiny after SEC Player of the Year and NBA Draft lottery prospect Brandon Miller was accused of delivering a gun to then-teammate Darius Miles before a fatal shooting in January. He's continued to play and is expected to do so the rest of the way.
Tennessee will enter play without one its most important players. Point guard Zakai Zeigler tore his left ACL on Feb. 28 and is done for the season. A Vols team that had its sights set on the Final Four will face a much stiffer challenge this week and beyond having lost its floor leader and one of the nation's best defenders.
SEC tournament basics
SEC tournament bracket
Will anybody challenge Alabama?
The SEC is deep with nine teams alive for NCAA at-large bids. Alabama's up top, while Kentucky and Texas A&M lead a pack of contenders that could challenge for the conference crown. Kentucky's rallied from a 16-9 (7-5 SEC) start to win five out of six and safely secure an NCAA tournament bid after tumbling from its preseason No. 4 ranking. A home loss to Vanderbilt last week renewed questions about its readiness for March.
Led by All-SEC guard Wade Taylor, the Aggies have won eight out of nine and closed the season with a home upset of the Crimson Tide on Saturday. Tennessee looked like a Final Four contender midseason, but lost five of eight down the stretch to exacerbate its injury misfortune.
On the bubble: Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Auburn need runs
Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Auburn are all in for serious sweats. For the Commodores, it's a pleasant surprise after eight wins in nine games put them in the mix. They remain long shots despite the heater and need a string of wins to move from the wrong side of the bubble.
Mississippi State and Auburn are on the right side of the bubble, but would put their postseasons at risk with an early exit in Nashville. Arkansas just needs to avert disaster, but its second-round matchup against Auburn looms large.
Sleeper pick: Arkansas
A three-game losing streak to Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky doesn't bode well for the Razorbacks. But their talent does. Its freshman backcourt projects to produce not one, but two top-10 picks in the upcoming NBA Draft in Anthony Black and Nick Smith Jr.
Smith returned in February from a nearly two-month absence with a knee injury. He's now playing without a minutes restriction. If he and Black can find their rhythm and spark a second-round win over Auburn, watch out.
Our pick: Alabama
As long as Miller plays, Alabama is the clear favorite and remains on the short list of national championship contenders. This explains in part why Miller continues to play. There's no reason to believe that he'll be sidelined as the stakes increase, so look for the Crimson Tide to continue their run through the SEC in Nashville.