UK Men's Basketball

SEC Tournament appears wide-open affair

This week's Southeastern Conference Tournament appears as wide open as Rush Limbaugh's mouth.

Young, inexperienced players mixed with the lack of a dominant team make for an anything-goes spirit as the league shifts its focus to Tampa.

On a teleconference Monday, Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings called it the most open league tournament in his 10 SEC seasons.

"More options this time around than any other year I can remember," he said.

Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl saw two favorites.

"I think the hungriest team could be the team to win it short of LSU," he said, making an exception of the regular-season champion. "LSU is the best team (and) the most talented team throughout the season.

"If you get past LSU, you could lump a lot of us together and there's not that much separation."

LSU Coach Trent Johnson suggested there wasn't all that much to separate his team, despite its three-game cushion.

When a reporter noted how LSU had been "rocking along" during a 10-game winning streak (longest by a league team since Kentucky went 19-0 against SEC teams in 2003), Johnson offered a good-natured protest.

"I don't think we were rocking along," he said. "We were winning games, but it's not like we were blowing anybody out."

During its 13-3 championship run, LSU won seven games by seven or fewer points.

So when LSU lost its final two regular-season games (to Vanderbilt and Auburn), Johnson saw the odds catching up to the Tigers rather than a serious problem emerging.

"I don't think we lost our edge," he said. "The ball didn't go down for us. We're not playing bad. We're not playing well. We just didn't make shots and the other teams played better."

The regular season supported expectations of a wide-open SEC Tournament. Two games went to overtime, two more to double overtime. Then there were such last-second heroics as Jodie Meeks' winning shot against Florida, Devan Downey's buzzer-beater against Kentucky, South Carolina's length-of-the-floor play in the final seconds against Florida. To name a few thrillers.

As always, the specter of NCAA Tournament bids hangs over the SEC Tournament.

Conventional wisdom suggests LSU, Tennessee and South Carolina are assured of bids.

The coaches lobbied for Auburn, the hottest SEC team. The Tigers bring a four-game winning streak into the league tournament. That capped a streak of eight victories in the regular season's final nine games, a drive that left it in second place in the Western Division at 10-6. Only one Auburn team had won 10 SEC games in a season since 1987-88.

Stallings saw the talk of three bids as a sign of disrespect, and sounded particularly irritated at the lack of national discussion of Auburn's merits.

"I'd be really disappointed and surprised if Auburn — with 10 conference wins — doesn't get in (the NCAA Tournament)," the Vandy coach said. "That seems crazy to me."

The lack of speculation about Auburn left Coach Jeff Lebo sounding almost more amused than angered.

"The only way we could get a mention was to win just about every game coming down the stretch for a whole month," he said.

Under-sized Auburn breathed life into the old saying about the size of the fight in the dog being more important than the size of the dog in the fight.

He called the Tigers "one of our tougher teams mentally and physically."

As for Kentucky, the Cats appear to need to win the SEC Tournament to get an NCAA Tournament bid. That would require four victories in four days, a feat achieved by Georgia last season.

UK Coach Billy Gillispie said he wasn't holding up Georgia as proof positive that the unlikely can be done. Better to pay undivided attention to the first opponent, he said.

Although UK has lost its last four league games (the program's first such streak since 1989), Gillispie dismissed the notion of a demoralized team.

"We'll be ready," he said. "They'll be excited."

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