SEC hoops get serious, for a week

By By Scooter Hobbs / American Press

If you work under the assumption that

No. 1-ranked Florida has nothing to gain and that preseason No. 1-ranked

Kentucky can

lose to anybody (even South Carolina), then the Southeastern

Conference basketball tournament in Atlanta looks to be a truly

wide open affair, capable of mischief and hijinks.

It begins today, allegedly, and will hopscotch its way through byes and double byes and awkwardly constructed subplots, building

toward a championship of undetermined meaning, probably sometime on Sunday or thereabouts.

It’s hard to tell about hoops in the SEC. The tournament will be played in the same building, the Georgia Dome, that brings

you the SEC football championship, and that’s about where the similarities end.

It’s been a couple of years now since Commissioner Mike Slive admonished his non-Kentucky-based schools to at least try to

fake it and leave the impression that they were as interested in quality hoops as they were in spring football.

The progress has been encouraging. Somewhat.

The SEC might get four teams in the NCAA tournament.

More likely, it will be three, but there’s room for dreaming.

At the least, Slive has gotten several teams upgraded to mediocre.

The only certainty is that Florida and Kentucky are in. The Gators as a surefire No. 1 seed, the Wildcats as more of a legacy.

They couldn’t be much more different.

Florida is 29-2, 18-0 in conference

play, starting four seniors who play lights out with and for each other

because they have

no illusions about ever playing in the NBA. They are what college

basketball would be in the alums’ dreams, guys who are never

going to have it any better than playing with “Gators” across the

front of their jerseys.

Kentucky is everything that is wrong with college basketball — not just in the SEC but across the board.

Since the NBA instituted the toe-tap

rule on the college game — barring players from entering the big show

straight out of

high school — the Wildcats and head coach John Calipari have

welcomed all-comers with the offer of a safe haven for the required

year of college purgatory before heading on to the NBA.

The latest collection was so mind-boggling that — unseen together — it was not only ranked No. 1 in the land, a hot-selling

T-shirt in the Bluegrass was adorned with “UK 40-0.”

With the regular season done, Big Blue is barely ranked, probably as a courtesy, and sales have slowed considerably with the

current “22-9” shirts on the market.

In fact, Georgia, which most years wouldn’t know a basketball from a javelin, tied the Wildcats for second place in the SEC

at 12-6.

But the Bulldogs’ RPI is 74 — Georgia was 6-6 out of conference — well outside any comfort zone for reaching the tournament

without the automatic bid that presumably will still be tendered to the tournament winner.

Try to imagine the uproar if a football playoff invited 68 teams — and some playoff centrists would like to see it — and a

team that tied for second in the SEC was still reduced to polishing its résumé.

Yet, beyond Florida’s excellence and Kentucky’s reputation, the SEC had a whole bunch of LSUs that were teasing fans with

decent talent and baby steps forward, generally followed by titanic pratfalls as they zigzagged through the season trying

to figure out what they wanted to be when they grew up.

The Tigers, for instance, one of three 9-9 teams, finally cracked the code for a second SEC road win last week, only to return

and trip over their second home loss to finish the regular season.

The 9-9 record, the epitome of SEC not bad, not great, was good enough for a first-round bye and the Tigers will open at 6

p.m. Thursday against a bad Alabama team they managed to lose to in the regular season.

A couple of weeks ago there were some encouraging signs. The Tigers had even managed to climb onto the elusive NCAA tournament

“bubble” before losing three of their last five.

Now they probably have to win the whole thing to think about an NCAA bid or at least get to the finals. That’s not out of

the question considering that Florida is on the other side of the bracket.

Of course, most any team in the parity-plagued SEC this year could probably say the same thing and sound reasonable.

Missouri, with an RPI of 50, should make the tournament with a win over Texas A&M Thursday, and definitely will with a win

over Florida the next day.

But if you look at the bracket, hidden kind of in the middle, the key game of the tournament is probably the second game of

Friday’s afternoon session, which will definitely have Tennessee (43 RPI) awaiting after a double bye.

Arkansas (59 RPI) should be the opponent, assuming the Razorbacks win the day before against the winner of today’s Auburn-South

Carolina game.

That game would likely be for an NCAA bid no matter what happens the rest of the tournament.

Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at shobbs@americanpress.com