One coach called the top three seeds “national championship good.” Another coach said he would not be surprised if a team other than the top three seeds won the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Welcome to the anything-could-happen SEC Tournament, which began Wednesday night.
“It’s going to be an unbelievable, great five days of basketball,” South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said Monday. He also said that Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU were good enough to win the NCAA Tournament.
“They’re not good,” he said. “They’re national championship good.”
Other SEC teams did not sound intimidated after workouts in Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday afternoon.
For instance, Ole Miss guard Terence Davis reminded reporters of how in the last three weeks the Rebels played Tennessee and Kentucky in games that weren’t decided until the final minute.
“I feel we can hold our own,” he said.
Ole Miss Coach Kermit Davis Jr. referenced college basketball’s grandest stage in describing what he expected to unfold.
“Our side of the bracket is like going to a Final Four,” he said. That side includes Kentucky, a possible Ole Miss opponent on Friday, and Tennessee.
The other side includes regular-season champion LSU.
Alabama Coach Avery Johnson spoke of the hope the other teams brought to Nashville.
“The teams at the top have had awfully good years,” he said. “But in our league now, I wouldn’t be shocked if one of the top three teams doesn’t win the tournament.”
Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said seven or eight teams could win this SEC Tournament.
Arguably no team’s regular season served as a better prelude to the expected competitive basketball here than Ole Miss. Ten of the Rebels’ 18 league games were decided by six or fewer points. That includes the last five decided by four or fewer points.
Ole Miss guard Breein Tyree all but predicted more of the same in the SEC Tournament.
“It’s going to be a crazy tournament,” he said. “(There’s going to be) a lot of really, really fun finishes.”
In terms of mood as well as geography, Kentucky’s possible opponents in Friday’s quarterfinals came to Nashville from different directions.
Ole Miss came on a high despite losing three of its five most recent games. The high resulted from Tennessee needing a last-second basket by Grant Williams to win in Oxford on Feb. 27, while the Rebels played competitively in an 80-76 loss to Kentucky.
“I think we have good energy,” the Ole Miss coach said, “and a good mindset.”
Meanwhile, there was talk about “changing the lyric of the season” in a group interview with Alabama Coach Avery Johnson. The Tide lost its three most recent games.
Johnson said he wanted his team to “be more disciplined” and not take shortcuts.
Johnson pointed to victories over Kentucky and Ole Miss when those teams were ranked as a reason to believe.
“If I hadn’t seen a team play to its full potential, there would be no hope,” the Alabama coach said. “If we want to experience the post-season (in the NCAA Tournament), you can’t be one-and-done (in the SEC Tournament).”
Auburn announced that assistant coach Ira Bowman did not make the trip to Nashville. Pearl declined to elaborate beyond a statement released by the Auburn Athletics Department earlier in the day.
The statement read: “As we continue to gather information regarding a situation that recently arose, it is important that we be thorough and proactive, yet prudent and cautious. Therefore, Ira Bowman will not coach or participate in any responsibilities with the men’s basketball program until we fully assess all the issues.”
Auburn hired Bowman in July. He played at Penn, where he was the Ivy League Player of the Year one season. He was linked this week to a bribery scandal at his former school.
Alabama beat Ole Miss 74-53 in January. It was the Rebels’ most lopsided loss of the season.
Alabama out-rebounded Ole Miss 44-32, which equaled the Rebels’ second-most lopsided rebounding deficit of the season. Ole Miss had six assists and 16 turnovers.
“They just out-toughed us,” Tyree said. “They worked for every loose ball. They had 20 offensive rebounds. That was probably our worst game all season. We’re really looking forward to having another chance at them.”