SEC's balance could create wide-open tournament
By STEVE MEGARGEE, AP Sports Writer
Southeastern Conference coaches believe the depth of their league should give all 14 teams reason to believe they could win the postseason tournament that starts Wednesday in St. Louis.
“You just never know,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said. “I wouldn’t be surprised by anything that happens in the tournament because of how balanced the league is.”
The standings reflect that balance.
No. 13 Tennessee and No. 16 Auburn tied for first place with 13-5 conference records, matching the highest loss total for any SEC champion in league history. Every team in the SEC won at least five conference games, the first time that’s happened since 1988.
“After going through this league, I think I could tell any team in this league, ‘We have a chance if we’re willing to do what we need to do,’ “ Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I really believe that. There’s not a team in this league that can’t do it.”
The tournament opens Wednesday with 11th-seeded South Carolina (16-15, 7-11 SEC) facing 14th-seeded Mississippi (12-19, 5-13) and 12th-seeded Georgia (16-14, 7-11) meeting 13th-seeded Vanderbilt (12-19, 6-12).
Auburn’s Bruce Pearl says this is the most competitive the SEC has been in his nine years coaching in the league. Auburn has the No. 1 seed in the tournament because it won 94-84 at Tennessee in their lone regular-season meeting.
The SEC enters its conference tournament with three teams in the Top 25: Tennessee, Auburn and No. 23 Florida , the third seed this week. Kentucky is seeded fourth and joins Auburn, Tennessee and Florida in getting byes into Friday’s quarterfinals.
Here are some things to watch this week in the SEC Tournament:
HOW MANY BIDS? The SEC never has sent more than six teams to the NCAA Tournament in a single year, but that figures to change this month. Most mock brackets have the SEC getting seven or eight teams into the field. Tennessee, Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas A&M seem like safe bets to make the field. Alabama has more work to do, and Mississippi State may have knocked itself out of at-large consideration by ending the regular season with lopsided losses to Tennessee and LSU .
BIG WEEK FOR BAMA: Perhaps no SEC team has as much at stake this week as Alabama, which ended the regular season with five straight losses. Alabama (17-14, 8-10) seemed in good shape to earn an NCAA bid until that late slide. Johnson acknowledged the tournament gives his team a chance to “hit the reset button.” ”This is a new season, a new opportunity,” Johnson said. “Anything can happen.” Alabama is the ninth seed and plays its first tournament game Thursday against eighth-seeded Texas A&M (20-11, 9-9) in a rematch of a game the Aggies won 68-66 on Saturday.
FAREWELL FOR FOX? The SEC already has dealt with one coaching change this year, as Ole Miss’ Andy Kennedy stepped down last month with Tony Madlock taking over on an interim basis. Georgia could be the next SEC school to make a coaching change if the Bulldogs don’t make some noise this week.
Georgia’s Mark Fox owns a 161-132 mark at Georgia, but the Bulldogs have earned just two NCAA bids in his nine seasons. Georgia tied for 11th in the league standings this year despite having the AP SEC player of the year in Yante Maten.
“Really all we’re doing, in fairness to our players, we’re just trying to get them to win the next game,” Fox said this week. “This is about their season. I think that anything more than that would be undue pressure for them and unfair pressure for them.”
POSSIBILITIES FOR PORTER: One of the biggest questions surrounding this tournament is whether it will mark the highly anticipated return of Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr.
Porter Jr. arrived on campus last fall as one of the nation’s most highly touted freshmen but played just two minutes this season before undergoing lower back surgery. Porter has been cleared to return by doctors, but hasn’t returned to action yet.
Georgia’s Maten also enters this tournament with health concerns. Fox said Maten took a hit to the jaw Saturday at Tennessee, but he’s hopeful the 6-8 forward will be ready to go this week.
DROUGHTS FOR LEAGUE LEADERS: Auburn is the No. 1 seed but hasn’t won the SEC Tournament since 1985. Tennessee, the No. 2 seed, hasn’t won this event since 1979 .
Auburn has a quarterfinal matchup Friday with either Texas A&M or Alabama. Tennessee’s quarterfinal opponent will be either seventh-seeded Mississippi State or 10th-seeded LSU.
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