NASHVILLE — Kentucky must win its first game in the Southeastern Conference Tournament to solidify an NCAA Tournament bid.
That's what self-styled "bracketologist" Joe Lunardi of ESPN said Wednesday.
"If they win, I'm convinced they're in," Lunardi said on a teleconference. "If they lose, they're a conversation for 48 hours" until Selection Sunday.
As of Wednesday, Lunardi had Kentucky beginning NCAA Tournament play in the so-called "first-four" preliminary sub-bracket in Dayton early next week.
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"I just wouldn't want to see them lose (in the SEC Tournament Friday)," he said.
A loss Friday, when UK plays the winner of Thursday's Vanderbilt-Arkansas game, might give a rebirth to questions about how good Kentucky is without Nerlens Noel.
ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, who also participated in the teleconference, noted that Kentucky had gained its two best victories — against Missouri and Florida — without Noel.
Meanwhile, Mike Bobinski, the chair of the Selection Committee and Xavier's athletic director, said Noel's absence would be a factor in deliberations about a bid and seeding. An emphasis will be placed on how Kentucky performed without Noel, who underwent successful surgery Tuesday to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament, UK said.
"We don't play games or fantasy-league it," Bobinski said of UK's team with and without Noel. "It's in our thinking somehow, someway, but how each individual committee member does it, it's their own choice."
Bobinski acknowledged that subjectivity plays a part in the selection/seeding process. He noted the parity that exists in college basketball, saying he's considering seven teams for the four No. 1 seeds.
After the first four seeds in each region, the process figures to be "as sticky and as fine a distinction as we've had to make," Bobinski said. "There's maybe not as clear a distinction of where people fit after the first four lines."
Mark Fox of Georgia and Johnny Jones of LSU voiced appreciation for John Calipari saluting how they've guided their teams this season.
"I have a great deal of respect for Coach Cal," Jones said. "It meant a lot to me."
Added Fox: "I thought it was very classy of him to do."
Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings spoke of a home-court advantage for UK.
"I've got a feeling there's going to be more people in blue than in black and gold," he said. "There's two teams in black and gold. I'll still bet on more people in blue. . . .
"A lot of times, you feel it's just Rupp Arena transferred to a different city."
During the Mississippi State-South Carolina game Wednesday night, there were five people in the upper deck behind one basket. Two were UK fans Robert and Shirley Holman. They sat three rows from the top despite the festival seating in the first round.
"This is where our seats are," Robert Holman said. "We wanted to see where they were. We're probably moving at halftime."
Wednesday's announced crowd of 7,879 was a record low for Session 1 since the revival of the tournament in 1979. Previous low: 8,047 in 1996 in New Orleans.
Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said he voted for Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for SEC Player of the Year.
"Quite honestly, it was an easy vote for me," he said. "I think he's the best player in the league. He's great on offense. He's great on defense. He's a very, very under-rated defender, in my opinion."
The vote would have been more difficult if Noel's season had not been curtailed.
One man, one vote
Tennessee strong man Jarnell Stokes acknowledged his disappointment in being named to the coaches' All-SEC second team.
"I definitely think I should have been (first team) by leading the conference in rebounding," he said in a quiet, thoughtful tone. Stokes averaged 10.7 rebounds in league play.
Stokes' 14 double-doubles this season tied Johnny O'Bryant of LSU for the league high.
"I guess I can just use that as fire," he said. "If we win this thing, they should definitely reconsider."
Noel 'doing fine'
Kentucky center Nerlens Noel is "doing fine" after surgery on his left knee to repair a torn ACL.
Calipari provided the update on his Facebook account Wednesday. He said Noel called him after Tuesday's operation. The coach said the surgery "went well" for the 6-foot-10 freshman, who was hurt at Florida on Feb. 12.
Noel's call was placed on speakerphone so he could talk to his Wildcats teammates. Calipari said, "It was great for his teammates to hear from him after surgery, and I think it helped Nerlens, too."
Noel's rehabilitation is expected to take six to eight months. Projected as an NBA Draft lottery pick, his pro prospects played a major role in the surgery's timing and famed orthopedic surgeon James Andrews performing it.
Noel averaged 10.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and a nation-leading 4.42 blocks en route to being voted the SEC's freshman and defensive player of the year by league coaches.