Before Matthew Mitchell became head coach at Kentucky, he would always try to get to the Southeastern Conference Tournament a little bit early.
He liked to see the regular-season champion hoist its trophy before the post-season basketball tournament began.
"I've always watched that trophy presentation and just said, 'Boy, how cool would that be to be that team?'" Mitchell said this week. "And now we're that team. I think that's going to be a cool moment."
But that moment will pass quickly.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Even though Kentucky managed to win its first regular-season championship in 30 years, few of the SEC's coaches seem ready to hand over the tourney trophy and its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"This year you can kind of throw out the seeds and throw out the records," said Vanderbilt Coach Melanie Balcomb, who added that this is the most wide-open tournament in her 10 years coaching in the SEC.
"When you have an Alabama — a team on the bottom beating Kentucky, a team that was on the top in February — that means anybody can beat anybody on a given day and there's been no rhyme or reason for a lot of things you've seen."
Twas life in the SEC this season.
There was no unbeaten perfection like Tennessee managed for the past two seasons.
Mitchell's team had to gut out its title by surviving a three-game losing streak on the road, which included the aforementioned loss to Alabama and a 37-point dressing-down by the Lady Vols in mid-February.
Just one year after getting only four teams into the NCAA Tournament last season, the SEC now has a legitimate eight teams with résumés strong enough to get in.
That means the SEC Tournament, which starts Thursday at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena, could go to anyone. It could go to UK. It could go to Tennessee for the 16th time in history.
It could go to any number of teams.
"It could naturally come down to who has the last possession or the last run," Mississippi Coach Renee Ladner said. "It is that wide open."
Nearly every coach in the conference mentioned the Alabama upset of Kentucky as the ultimate sign of parity in the league, but there are plenty of head-scratchers from the regular season.
The Lady Vols, who had been dominant at home for several seasons, fell twice in Knoxville this season, to South Carolina and most recently to Arkansas. They also lost at Vanderbilt, a team they beat handily earlier in the season.
The top four seeds in this tournament have a combined 18 league losses.
"Florida's one of the best teams in our conference and they finished eighth," Auburn's Nell Fortner said. "They're really tough."
The Tigers' coach, who will be bidding the league farewell after this tournament along with Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis, said UK is still the team to beat.
"Kentucky's played some fantastic basketball this year," she said. "You have to think they'd be the odds-on favorite."
But even Fortner wavered in her predictions.
"Maybe there's more parity near the top with Tennessee, Georgia and LSU, Vanderbilt. More people have kind of beaten each other and it gives everybody hope."
It also can make things complicated for people like TV analyst Carolyn Peck. She's calling the semifinals (ESPNU) and finals (ESPN2). Usually, she's able to pare down the contenders during her preparation for the tournament.
Not this year. Not in this SEC.
"It's more than just the top four, it's the top six, really," Peck said. "Or even the top eight. ...
"Normally I can predict at least two or three teams that I expect to be there, but I'm going in early so I can be there from Thursday on. Teams that are playing on the first day ... could easily end up in the finals."
It would be understandable if Mitchell and his Cats — who on Friday will meet the winner of Thursday's game between Auburn and Florida — would be bothered they're getting so little respect as the No. 1 seed in the tournament.
But Mitchell understands.
"I'd agree with everyone," he said. "I do think it's a wide-open tournament. I don't think we are an unbeatable team by any stretch of the imagination. ...
"It's certainly possible for us to lose and we're aware of that. But we also think we can beat anybody in the tournament. It's that kind of year."