SEC teams set for scramble at conference tournament

March 10, 2009

Danny P Smith -


Which team will win this year''s Southeastern Conference tournament? 


The answer is anyone''s guess. 


Most SEC basketball coaches agree any team can win the tournament, which begins Thursday at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla. 


Kentucky will take on Mississippi at noon in the first game, followed by Mississippi State against Georgia at 2:15 p.m. 


It wouldn''t surprise many to see a lower-seeded squad make a run to the championship like Georgia did last season. 


"It''s as wide open as any conference tournament," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said. "It''s wide open because there''s so much balance and teams show the capability of winning on any given night." 


LSU and Auburn from the Western Division and Tennessee and South Carolina from the Eastern Division received byes. The other eight teams will have win four games in four days to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. 


Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said one team doesn''t stand out from the rest. 


"I think there has always been a team in the past that you could look and say someone has got to beat, whether it''s Tennessee, Mississippi State or Kentucky," Stansbury said. "I don''t think it''s that way right now." 


Alabama will take on Vanderbilt at 6:30 p.m. and Florida will play Arkansas at 8:45 p.m. in Thursday''s final two games. 


Arkansas coach John Pelphrey remembers Georgia''s path to the SEC tournament title last year because the Bulldogs defeated his squad 66-57 in the final 66-57. 


Now it is Pelphrey''s team that is seeded last and will attempt to make an improbable run. 


"We don''t have to say a whole lot (to the team)," Pelphrey said. "It all starts with the first (game) and our focus has to be on Florida. If we win, we''ll go on from there." 


Could Georgia again find the magic and defend its crown? 


That''s something the Bulldogs intend to carry out. 


Georgia interim coach Pete Herrmann, who took over for Dennis Felton during the season, said the Bulldogs must play like defending champions. 


"If you practice and carry yourself like champions, then you can go down there and win four games in four days," Herrmann said. "If you are a champion, you need to be aware of how a champion goes about repeating. If it builds confidence, then that''s a good thing." 


The favorite to win the tournament is regular-season champion LSU, but the Tigers have lost their past two games. 


LSU coach Trent Johnson is anxious to get to the event and get back to winning. 


"Everyone''s got a clean slate and we''re moving forward," Johnson said. "For us to be successful, it''s going to be through defending, rebounding, and making some shots." 




Making case for Auburn 


There were plenty of opinions offered Monday on how many SEC teams should make the NCAA tournament. 


Coaches disagree on the number of teams the league will send to the NCAA tournament, but they all seem to agree Auburn (10 SEC victories) deserves to be included in the Big Dance. 


Auburn''s lack of national recognition has surprised some coaches. 


"It seems crazy that a team with 10 conference wins could not make that tournament," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. 


Not only do the Tigers have 10 SEC victories, but they also are 8-2 against Western Division teams, have four league wins on the road, and 21 wins overall. 


One of those victories came at the expense of SEC regular-season champion LSU (69-53), and Johnson feels Auburn and four other conference teams will go to the NCAA tournament. 


"When people talk about teams on the bubble, nobody talks about Auburn," Johnson said. "They handled us as well as anyone has all year. How can you not have five teams out of this league?" 


Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said Auburn or any other SEC team on the bubble could be hurt in other conferences like the Big East and the Atlantic Coast. 


"I think we could be challenged in our numbers," Pearl said. "The fourth, fifth, or sixth teams still have some work to do. I think we can get four or five in depending on how the SEC tournament plays out, but I think we''re probably in the range of three of five teams." 




Give Tampa a chance 


Despite liking a centrally located SEC tournament in Atlanta, there seems to be anticipation about this year''s event in Tampa. 


This will be the first time the tournament has been in the state of Florida since Orlando had it in 1990. 


Besides Florida, Georgia, which borders Florida, is one of the closest teams to the site. 


"It moves around, but (Tampa) should be very exciting for the people and SEC fans," Herrmann said. 


The St. Pete Times Forum has a seating capacity of 21,655 for basketball. It has served as the host for NCAA regionals and the 2008 NCAA Women''s Final Four. 


Pearl doesn''t have a preference where the SEC tournament is held, but he accepts Tampa as a site. 


"From a fan standpoint, they probably like taking Tampa for spring break this time of year," Pearl said. "It''s a great venue. I like Atlanta, Tampa, and New Orleans, but this should be a great celebration for the league and fans to get together in venue like that to see what team is the best." 




Award recipients 


Ole Miss point guard Terrico White was chosen SEC Freshman of the Week for the third time this season. 


White averaged 25 points and 4.5 rebounds against Arkansas and MSU last week. He had a career-high 29 points against Arkansas. 


For the season, White averages 13.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per outing. 


Auburn senior Korvotney Barber was named SEC Player of the Week after averaging 14.5 points and 17 rebounds in wins against Alabama and LSU. He has 11 double-doubles this season. 




Sanderson''s secret 


Alabama won five SEC tournament titles under the leadership of coach Wimp Sanderson. 


Alabama won two of those and finished as runner-up in another when interim coach Philip Pearson played for Sanderson. 


Pearson said Sanderson''s strategy for success was simple and has offered his advice. 


"He would always recommend you get good players," Pearson said. "I think we''re doing OK in that area. 


"The championship game for Alabama is Thursday night against the Vanderbilt Commodores. If you don''t win that game, it doesn''t matter what happens at any game thereafter. The championship game is the first game of the tournament. That more than anything else is what he drilled to us from day one."