ATLANTA (AP) – For top-ranked Florida, it’s nothing more than a warm-up for bigger games to come.
For struggling Kentucky, it’s a chance to, as coach John Calipari puts it, regain a little “mojo.”
For everyone else, the Southeastern Conference tournament looks like the last chance to earn a spot in the NCAAs.
The Gators (29-2) roll into the Georgia Dome, where the tournament will be held for the final time beginning Wednesday night, as a huge favorite after becoming the first team in SEC history to go 18-0 in league play.
“Florida,” said Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy, “has shown no chinks in the armor just yet.”
No matter what happens in Atlanta, the Gators have surely done enough to ensure they will be one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Perhaps the only thing they’re playing for is the top overall spot on the bracket.
Coach Billy Donovan insisted his team won’t be looking ahead to the tournament that really matters.
“We’re getting a chance to play for a championship,” he said. “It’s always exciting to have an opportunity to do that.”
Kentucky (22-9) is certainly eager to turn the page after the way it finished the regular season.
The Wildcats started out ranked No. 1 in the country with their usual hyped group of freshmen, leading some to speculate they might have a chance to go unbeaten.
Not even close.
With three losses in their last four games – an overtime setback at home to Arkansas, a road defeat to lowly South Carolina, and an 84-65 blowout by Florida – the Wildcats dropped out of the Top 25 altogether.
“We’ve got to get our mojo back,” Calipari said. “We’ve got to come together as a group. Now is the time to do it.”
While Kentucky is mired in a tailspin, several SEC teams have surged into contention for NCAA berths.
Tennessee (20-11), Arkansas (21-10) and Georgia (18-12) are all feeling better about their chances, though none is considered a lock for the 68-team field – especially if they stumble in Atlanta.
Among the bubble teams, the fourth-seeded Volunteers have the best RPI rating, the toughest schedule and a bye to the SEC’s quarterfinal round Friday night, where they could find themselves with what amounts to an NCAA play-in game against Arkansas. That’s assuming the fifth-seeded Razorbacks get past their second-round contest Thursday against either Auburn (14-15) or South Carolina (12-19).
Arkansas had won six in a row until an inexplicable 25-point loss at Alabama last weekend. The Razorbacks trailed 39-16 at the break in what coach Mike Anderson called “probably the worst half of basketball I’ve ever been associated with.”
Georgia appears to be the most intriguing team in the tournament. The Bulldogs struggled through the non-conference portion of their schedule, standing just 6-6 in early January, but they rebounded to tie Kentucky for second place in the SEC standings with a 12-6 mark (the Wildcats earned the tiebreaker for the tournament).
“These guys have been a real joy,” coach Mark Fox said. “Throughout the season, whether it’s been success or failures, we’ve tried to use that experience to grow as people and as a team. It’s been a process we’ve all enjoyed.”
But Fox knows the Bulldogs still have some work to do. With an RPI rating in the 70s and no really impressive wins on the resume – Georgia lost by 22 at Florida and by 25 at Kentucky – this team probably needs to win at least two games in Atlanta to have any chance of being considered for the NCAAs. It might take actually winning the whole thing to earn the automatic bid.
“That would sure take the stress out of it,” Fox said. “To have a legitimate at-large chance, we have to advance in the tournament. If we advance, we might as well win it.”
Missouri (21-10) is also in the mix for an NCAA bid, but the Tigers slumped to a 9-9 mark in league play after beginning the season 12-1. The remaining teams – LSU (18-12), Mississippi (18-13), Texas A&M (17-14), Vanderbilt (15-15), Alabama (13-18), Mississippi State (13-18), Auburn and South Carolina – know that for most of them, the only route to the NCAAs is an improbable SEC tournament title.
The tournament begins with a doubleheader Wednesday night: Auburn-South Carolina, followed by Alabama vs. Mississippi State.
Next season, it moves to Nashville, Tenn., where it will be held nine of the next 11 seasons. The earliest the tournament could return to Atlanta would be 2026, when the Dome will be long gone. It is scheduled for implosion after a new retractable roof stadium opens next door in 2017.
The 70,000-seat facility, which will be hosting the SEC for the 11th time, is best remembered for being struck by a tornado during the 2008 tournament. The remaining games had to be moved to Georgia Tech’s campus arena, where last-place Georgia shockingly won the title.
“I hope this last one,” Fox said, “is a memorable one, too.”
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