SEC men's teams try to gain solid footing on NCAA bubble

March 3, 2009

Danny P Smith -


This is the time of the year when the phrase "on the bubble" is used quite a bit in college basketball. 


Teams are trying to move into the best position possible to make the NCAA tournament in a couple of weeks. 


After winning their 10th Southeastern Conference championship in school history, the LSU Tigers (25-4, 13-1 SEC) are a lock for the NCAA tournament, while the South Carolina Gamecocks (20-7, 9-5) and Tennessee Volunteers (18-10, 9-5) also are in a good position. 


The Florida Gators'' (21-8, 8-6) chances of making it to the Big Dance might depend on their play this week against Mississippi State on Wednesday and Kentucky on Saturday. 


Florida coach Billy Donovan is used to hearing the speculation that surrounds programs at this time of the season. 


"It''s the same thing for every team across the country," Donovan said. "If your team is definitely in the NCAA, what''s talked about is the seed and playing for the seed. If you are on the cusp of getting in, they are talking about the bubble. 


"The one thing that cures all those things is if you win. That''s what it comes down to. The more wins you put under your belt, the better chance you have of being a higher seed or just getting into the tournament." 


South Carolina''s hope of making the NCAA tournament hasn''t been an issue. 


But first-year coach Darrin Horn isn''t going to assume anything when it comes to postseason opportunities. He said the important thing for his team is to beat Tennessee on Thursday night. 


"Those are things beyond our control," Horn said. "I have no idea what the thoughts are of the committee." 


Some coaches attempt to play down expectations so they don''t become a distraction. 


The Auburn Tigers (19-10, 8-6) are second in the SEC West, and a strong finish could earn them a bid to the NCAA tournament. Auburn plays archival Alabama tonight in Tuscaloosa, Ala. 


Auburn coach Jeff Lebo kind of likes playing for something after his team went 14-16 (2-12 in the SEC) last season. 


"It keeps you from just going through the motions in practice and keeps you focused mentally and physically," Lebo said. "When you play meaningful games, it makes you practice better going into March, like you did back in October. It keeps you sharp and makes you excited to play in the games. 


"Coming down the stretch, all games are very important and it causes you to fight through and play with pride." 


Other games this week include: Ole Miss at Arkansas, Georgia at Kentucky, and Vanderbilt at LSU. 




If tournament started today 


Mississippi State sophomore guard Phil Turner believes the Bulldogs could still make the NCAA tournament if they can make a run at the SEC tournament like the Georgia Bulldogs did last season. 


If MSU is to make that happen, it would have to beat Georgia in the first round, at least if the season ended today. 


The battle of the Bulldogs would be the second game of the first day, with Ole Miss and Florida tipping things off at noon in Tampa, Fla. The second session would feature Alabama against Vanderbilt at 6 p.m. and Kentucky against Arkansas at 8:45 p.m. 


LSU, Tennessee, Auburn, and South Carolina would earn byes. 




Thornton is team player 


LSU coach Trent Johnson said senior guard Marcus Thornton doesn''t get enough credit for being a team player. 


Thornton commented to Johnson recently that he was having fun playing late in the season with something on the line. 


"We knew early on that Marcus was very talented and could score, but I don''t think he''s gotten credit for making others better, rebound the ball, and defending," Johnson said. "He wanted to be playing meaningful games in March and late February, so that speaks volumes. His commitment to wanting to win and becoming a complete basketball player proves he is as good as any player in this league." 


Thornton was named Monday the SEC Player for the Week. It is the second time this season he has received the award. 


Thornton averaged 27.5 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists in wins against Florida and Kentucky. He scored 23 points against Kentucky and 32 points against Florida. 


For the season, Thornton averages 21 points per outing. 


Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl believes Thornton deserves strong consideration for SEC Player of the Year. 


"The award should be given to the best player on the best team," Pearl said. "I just think that''s the way to do it and that''s just how I''ve always felt. You could be an outstanding player, but not be on the best team. If LSU is the best team, it should be Thornton or Tasmin Mitchell." 




Hopson coming on 


Freshman guard Scotty Hopson continues to develop at Tennessee and is coming off the best week of his career. 


After averaging 14 points in the past two games, including a career-high 21 points against MSU, Hopson was named the SEC Freshman of the Week for the second time this season. 


"He''s been much more confident and he is understanding where he fits in," Pearl said. "He is really a good kid and was brought up the right way. He had to wait his turn a little bit and let the veteran guys be more aggressive. 


"He has come to realize we''re not going to win unless he looks to score and make plays."