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No Favorites At Wide Open SEC Tournament

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - College basketball in March is about getting
hot at the right time. Just ask Georgia, whose shocking run through
last year's Southeastern Conference tournament provided proof that
anything's possible.
A repeat might not be out of the question, either.
SEC coaches agreed Wednesday that the SEC tournament is as wide
open as it's been in years.
Georgia, the No. 6 seed in the East, won four games in three
days to claim the league's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament
last March.
The Bulldogs had a midseason coaching change and finished in the
basement of the SEC East again, yet arrived in Tampa on the eve of
the league tourney talking about having what it takes to defend
their improbable title.
Considering what they accomplished last year in Atlanta and this
season's unpredictable regular season - no team emerged as a
clear-cut favorite for the league tourney - no one's rolling their
eyes.
"When you're coaching in a league that is as competitive as
this league, you have to feel confidence. You have to believe that
your players can win," Georgia interim coach Pete Herrmann said.
"Our players went up to Lexington and won at Rupp, and they
beat a very good Florida team on our court. We just feel you've got
to be competitive, and you've got to feel you can win."
With nine of 12 teams uncertain about their chances of making
the NCAA tournament, it figures to be an interesting week. Auburn
enters on a roll after winning eight of nine, while Kentucky,
Florida and even No. 20 LSU, the league's only ranked team,
struggled down the stretch.
Although LSU, which had won 10 straight before finishing the
regular season on a two-game slide, and Tennessee are likely locks
for the NCAA field, anything short of a 26th conference tournament
title might not be enough for Kentucky.
Florida's resume needs some bolstering, too.
But as Gators coach Billy Donovan notes, all the banter and
speculation means nothing if his team doesn't advance beyond
Thursday's opening round.
"I don't think you can go into this type of tournament or any
type of tournament looking ahead, down the road or what's in front
of you," said Donovan, whose team faces Arkansas (14-15).
"People talk about the tournament or what about Friday or
Saturday or, 'Can you win four games in a four-day period?' We'll
worry about that if it ever gets there. That'll be something we
worry about then."
Kentucky (19-12) plays Mississippi (16-14), Georgia (12-19)
faces Mississippi State (19-12) and Vanderbilt (19-11) takes on
Alabama (17-13) in the other opening-round games.
LSU (25-6), South Carolina (21-8), Tennessee (19-11) and Auburn
(21-10) have byes and begin in Friday's quarterfinals.
Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings and Mississippi State's Rick
Stansbury reject the notion that it's been a down year for the SEC,
which has sent at least five teams to the NCAA tournament each of
the past 12 seasons.
"I think there may be more teams that are capable of winning
this SEC tournament ... than maybe any other that either one of us
have been in 10 or 11 years," Stallings said.
"Hopefully there's going to be a team that comes down here,
gets hot and plays well. Maybe a couple of them. We certainly hope
to be one."
Stansbury defended the quality of play in the league, which has
taken a beating with perennial powerhouse Kentucky and Florida, one
of the stronger teams in the league over the past decade,
struggling.
Tennessee began the year with high expectations, but has been
inconsistent, too.
Stansbury suggested the SEC tournament is wide open because
"everybody's good."
"We've got six, seven, eight, nine teams in this league that
compete with a lot of people anywhere on a given night. So when you
say down, I don't look at us as down. I think it has the most
balance that it's had in a long time," Stansbury said.
Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie went a step further, suggesting
there's really nothing unusual about the lack of a real favorite
for the title.
"When you look at conference tournaments, tell me who is
supposed to win any conference tournament? ... You look at the Big
East, you look at the ACC, the Big 12, Pac 10, you look at every
team every single conference and tell me who," Gillispie said.
"I think they've been wide open forever. It's a different
format. You played 16 games over about a nine- or 10-week period,
and now you're trying to play three or four games over a two-,
three-, four-day period. So I think there's a lot of teams that
could definitely win. But I don't think it's much different than it
is normally all around the country."
Yeah, but what Georgia did - winning four games in three days in
a tournament thrown in disarray by tornadoes that forced a change
of venue for the championship game - was pretty special.
Downright inspirational if you ask Mississippi coach Andy
Kennedy.
"I don't think it would be a surprise to anyone to see someone
do that again this year," Kennedy said.
"Georgia last year wasn't the deepest team in the tournament,
but they certainly caught lightning in the bottle. I know ...
Florida is known for thunderstorms, so I'm going to have my bottle
out this afternoon. Maybe we can catch a bit of that lightning,
because we'll need some."


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