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March 10, 2009

ANALYSIS: Scouting the SEC tournament

GamecockCentral.com's David Cloninger examines the SEC tournament field and analyzes which teams have the best shot to win and/or advance to the NCAA tournament.

ALABAMA
Record: 17-13, 7-9
Last 10: 5-5
Summary: The Crimson Tide would stand a reasonable shot of winning a couple of SEC tournament games and at least piquing the selection committee's interest, if not for those 13 losses and a losing league record. They're coming in on an extreme high after beating Tennessee on a miraculous shot -- Anthony Brock swears he hollered "Bank!" -- but their first-round game is against the team that nobody wants to play right now -- Vanderbilt.
What to do in Tampa: Have fun. Play hard, play smart, and perhaps they'll pull off a win or two and be in position for another miracle. It also wouldn't hurt Phillip Pearson's chances for landing another job after this year. Little-known fact: Alabama has the best SEC tournament winning percentage of any league team not named Kentucky.
NCAA bid?: Got to win on Sunday.

ARKANSAS
Record: 14-15, 2-14
Last 10:1-9
Summary: In a sense, there could be no more dangerous team than Arkansas. The Razorbacks have the dreaded 9:45 p.m. game, the one nobody wants to stay up and watch. They have only one win since Jan. 30. Precisely why they could run the table. All coach John Pelphrey has to do is look at the history -- Arkansas entered as a third seed in 2000 and won it all; a third-seed in 2007 got them to the championship game. They were third each of those times, not this-year's sixth, but you've got to start somewhere.
What to do in Tampa: Don't think about playing four games in four days. Play the first and realize the lineup of rangy athletes at your disposal is a headache to defend.
NCAA bid?: Got to win on Sunday.

AUBURN
Record: 21-10, 10-6
Last 10: 8-2
Summary: Riding a hot finish, not to mention a regular season-closing defeat of the winningest team in the league, has thrust the Plainsmen into the NCAA tournament picture. They're still not clinched in some eyes -- some feel content to weigh Auburn's measures against the other SEC teams in the same position. But there's no doubting the job Jeff Lebo's done with this team. It grasped the concept more than any other SEC West team that they all had a chance to finish second when it became apparent LSU was running away with the division.
What to do in Tampa: Win at least one game. It may not even be necessary, but it won't hurt. Two wins take the committee's eyes further off those double-digit losses.
NCAA bid?: Likely even without a strong showing in Tampa.

FLORIDA
Record: 22-9, 9-7
Last 10: 4-6
Summary: For the first year in a long time, Billy Donovan's crew didn't play well in the late season. The Gators got a big win over Kentucky to finish the year, but the three straight losses before that hurt. It's a dangerous team, led by Nick Calathes and his supporting cast, but it's a team that hasn't looked dominant since the early season.
What to do in Tampa: Got to win one, probably two. If the Gators don't win the whole thing, they'll have that 10th loss, so increasing the win total is doubly important. It looks prettier, and it'll keep too many folks from looking back through the schedule trying to find quality wins.
NCAA bid?: Shaky, but likely with one win.

GEORGIA
Record: 12-19, 3-13
Last 10: 3-7
Summary: The Bulldogs are taking the same approach they had last year, mostly because they have to. A sixth seed this year and last, Georgia at least has the experience necessary to win four in four. They're actually not playing that badly, despite the record. Before their last 10, they were 0-8. Then they beat Florida, Vanderbilt and Kentucky in the final stretch. No one's knees are knocking at the prospect of playing them but no one is clicking their heels together, either.
What to do in Tampa: They're going to be asked -- and asked, and asked -- if they've got another miraculous run in them. Play it up and act like it.
NCAA bid?: Got to win on Sunday.

KENTUCKY
Record: 19-12, 8-8
Last 10: 3-7
Summary: What has gone on here? The question has flown around Lexington week after week. The Wildcats began the SEC season 5-0 and finished 3-8. They've lost four straight games, including a beatdown at South Carolina where they looked like they never cared and a belittling home loss to Georgia. It's gotten so bad that the Kentucky athletic department had to mention the horrifying phrase, "NIT."
What to do in Tampa: It's always easy to say a Kentucky coach is on the hot seat, and Billy Gillispie's chair is certainly warm, but it's difficult to say the Wildcats will definitely axe him. Winning four games sure would help ease that tension, though.
NCAA bid?: Got to win on Sunday.

LSU
Record: 25-6, 13-3
Last 10: 8-2
Summary: A division and regular-season champion, LSU claimed the West early and never had to be concerned with anybody catching it. An extremely talented team that managed to stay healthy this year, the Tigers are the only team in the league receiving national notice. That being said, they lost their last two games and their focus may be a bit off.
What to do in Tampa: Winning the first game breaks the losing streak, which is important heading into the NCAAs. After that, depends on how well they're feeling mentally and physically.
NCAA bid?: No way they miss.

MISSISSIPPI STATE
Record: 19-12, 9-7
Last 10: 5-5
Summary: If the SEC as a whole was stronger, perhaps the Bulldogs would be getting some bubble consideration. They've played some good teams -- problem is, they didn't beat any of them. Despite a good chance to have 20 wins, the Bulldogs are pretty much locked into having to win the tournament to go anywhere. They've got good talent to do it and their first two opponents (Georgia and with a win, USC), were defeated in the regular season.
What to do in Tampa: Win at least three or get ready for the NIT.
NCAA bid?: A championship game appearance might raise an eyebrow or two, but probably hinges on winning on Sunday.

OLE MISS
Record: 16-14, 7-9
Last 10: 5-5
Summary: It could be worse -- the Rebels could have a coaching search like Alabama and Georgia. It's been an, um, interesting season in Oxford, and the Rebels seem content to perhaps play spoiler. A first-round game against Kentucky offers the perfect opportunity.
What to do in Tampa: Try for as long a run as possible to get fans' minds further off the outside-the-lines distractions. Between the lawsuits and injuries, it's a wonder any games were won.
NCAA bid?: Got to win on Sunday.

SOUTH CAROLINA
Record: 21-8, 10-6
Last 10: 6-4
Summary: Surprisingly solid in the tournament throughout the years, the Gamecocks are in rare waters -- owners of a first-round bye and able to somewhat relax for an extra day. They seem to have a good opening matchup, whichever opponent they face, and another win would probably cinch their NCAA fate. The team is playing loosely, having beaten Georgia convincingly after two straight losses.
What to do in Tampa: Win the first game, then see how long you can stick around.
NCAA bid?: One win probably puts the Gamecocks over the top. Any after that makes it more of a definite.

TENNESSEE
Record: 19-11, 10-6
Last 10: 6-4
Summary: The Volunteers have the SEC wins, but perhaps not the overall wins. Still, their schedule does them a lot of favors, although they only beat a few of those big teams. Tennessee got the No. 1 seed but was forced to split the SEC East title with USC, although it swept USC this year. Getting a 20th win would be nice, running the table would be even nicer, remove all doubt and re-stake the Vols' claim to greatness.
What to do in Tampa: Win one game, although even that might not be necessary.
NCAA bid?: Probably in, but more wins couldn't hurt. One win would be good since it would take some of the eyes off a 22-win Florida team maybe not going and a 19-win Tennessee team heading there.

VANDERBILT
Record: 19-11, 8-8
Last 10: 7-3
Summary: Nobody wants to play the Commodores right now. The hottest team in the league, Vandy has finally become healthy and is playing like everybody thought it would at the beginning of the year. Coach Kevin Stallings said after beating USC that he thought his season would probably come down to winning the SEC tournament, but that may no longer be the case. The Commodores have won three straight and if they get a couple of wins in the tournament (but not the title), perhaps they could sneak in.
What to do in Tampa: Win as many as possible. Got to play like nobody's giving you any respect.
NCAA bid?: A championship game berth might do it but a championship game win definitely would.



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