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SEC Tournament Preview

March 5, 2002 Conference Notes No Comments

SEC Tournament Preview

It’s been an exciting and unpredictable year in the Southeastern
Conference and as the scene shifts to the Georgia Dome, the action promises
to be gripping. Unlike most other leagues, the SEC is devoid of any “bubble”
teams. Six schools figure to have tournament bids sewn up (Alabama, Florida,
Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss), and are jockeying for
seeding position. In the case of Alabama, a triumphant weekend may catapult
them into a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The remaining six schools
(Tennessee, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, LSU, Arkansas, and Auburn) likely
need to win the SEC tournament to reach the big dance. These teams need look
no further than two years ago and Arkansas’ improbable run to the tournament
crown. This year newly appointed Razorback interim-coach Mike Andersen will hope to
pull off a similar feat. How his team reacts to the sudden departure of Nolan
Richardson is but one of the many story lines that will unfold this week in
what promises to be an incredible five days of basketball.

First Round Bye:
Alabama – The Tide finished with a modest 4-3 record down the stretch but it
was enough to capture the SEC West crown and the top seed in the conference
tournament. The highlight in a season filled with remarkable moments may have
been a spine-tingling victory over Florida in Tuscaloosa. Down 64-63 and the
final seconds ticking down, Earnest Shelton found himself trapped in the
corner by two Gators. Shelton somehow spun away from pressure and found
Antoine Pettway cutting to the basket for the game-winning lay-up as the
clock expired. Bama’ will hope for similar heroics this week as they look to
capture their first SEC Tournament crown since 1991. They should benefit from
a first round bye as they await the winner of the Arkansas-Tennessee clash.
The Tide split their two meeting with the Razorbacks and won their only
match-up with the Vols at home.

Georgia- Jim Harrick’s squad was the toast of the college basketball world in
mid-January following victories at Kentucky and at Florida which vaulted the
Bulldogs atop the SEC East standings. Injuries and off-the-court problems
derailed them as they won just 3 of their next 7 games. But Harrick rallied
his troops behind inspired play from point guard Rashad Wright as Georgia won
3 of their last 4 games to claim a share of the SEC East title. Wright’s
heroics included a game-tying three pointer at the end of regulation in an
overtime victory against South Carolina, and a game-winning basket at LSU.
The Bulldogs last won the SEC tournament in 1983 but with Harrick in charge
they are poised for a strong run. They will face the winner of Vanderbilt-LSU
game. Georgia won its only meeting with the Tigers in Baton Rouge and split
their two meetings with the Commodores.

Kentucky – It’s been a trying season for Tubby Smith and Kentucky. Tabbed as
one of the premier teams in the country heading into the season, the Wildcats
struggled with injuries, suspensions, and inconsistent play from their star
performers. The latest transgression came when guard Gerald Fitch and
forward Erik Daniels were suspended for three games after attempting to use
fake identification to get into a Lexington nightclub. But Fitch returned for
the final regular season game against Florida at Rupp Arena and drained a
three-pointer with under a minute remaining in a 70-67 victory, which gave
the Wildcats a share of the SEC East title and a first round bye. Fitch’s
performance was emblematic of how the Cats’ have dealt with adversity all
season and persevered. Given their remarkable pedigree in this stage
(Kentucky has won 24 of the 42 SEC Tournaments), the Cats’ must be considered
the team to beat. They will await the winner of the South Carolina-Ole Miss game. Kentucky was a combined 3-0 against those two teams.

Mississippi State – Perhaps the most unheralded of the four teams with first
round byes, the Bulldogs nevertheless arrive at the Georgia Dome playing
perhaps the best basketball of any team in the conference. Mississipi State
earned a first round bye and second place in the SEC West by virtue of
winning six of their last seven games, including victories against Alabama
and Mississippi. The Bulldogs also boast a victory against Kentucky proving
they can play with the elite in the conference. After losing to Kentucky in
the final last year, Mississippi State would love another shot at the team
they defeated in the 1996 title game to win their only ever SEC Tournament
crown. Unfortunately, they will likely face Florida in the second round, the
team that drubbed them by 28 points in their only meeting this season. The
Bulldogs no doubt will be rooting for an Auburn upset of Florida.

First Round Games:
Vanderbilt vs. LSU – Buoyed by strong non-conference campaigns, both the
Tigers and Commodores entered SEC play with hopes of a tournament berth. Yet
both floundered in the middle of the season, finishing with identical records
in the league (6-10) and overall (16-13). LSU lost 6 consecutive games at one
point while the Commodores struggled mightily losing seven of their last 10
games and finishing tied for last in the SEC East standings. The winner of
this game should receive an NIT bid while the loser may be completely shut
out of postseason play. The Commodores won the team’s lone match-up in
Nashville, 68-63.

Arkansas vs. Tennessee – Two years ago, a struggling Arkansas team finished
the regular season with a sub-.500 record and promptly turned the SEC upside
down by winning the conference tournament and capturing an automatic bid to
the field of 64. If the Razorbacks, who dropped 5 of their last 7 games are
to duplicate that remarkable feat, they must overcome the distractions from
Nolan Richardson’s tumultuous departure. The Hogs open against Tennesse, who
defeated them 64-53 in Knoxville. The Vols actually appear a likelier
candidate to make a strong run. Had it not been for some terrible luck early
in the season, Tennesse might very well be headed to the NCAA Tournament. The
Volunteers lost seven games by 3 points or less, many coming on
buzzer-beating shots by their opponents.

Auburn vs. Florida – After climbing to as high as No. 2 in the national
rankings early in the conference season, the Gators failed to secure even a first
round bye in the SEC tournament. However, if any team is talented enough to
win four straight games it is Florida. The Gators sealed their fate by
failing to win their last three road games, including gut-wrenching losses at
Alabama and at Kentucky. They will face an Auburn team who they thumped early in
the season in Gainesville, 89-61. The Tigers will be without center Kyle
Davis, the conference’s leading shotblocker, who broke his wrist in practice
and it is out of the postseason.

South Carolina vs. Mississippi – Ole Miss appeared headed for a first round
bye until Mississippi State caught fire, winning their last 5 games and
surpassing the Rebels in the standings. At 9-7 in the conference and 20-9
overall, Mississippi appears to have an at large bid locked up but would
prefer to win at least a game to eliminate any anxieties on selection Sunday.
They will face a dangerous test in South Carolina. The Gamecocks finished
with a dissapointing record but hung tough with some of the elite teams in
the conference, including 1-point losses to Kentucky and Alabama and an
overtime loss at Georgia. Mississippi won the only meeting in Oxford, 71-53.

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