No Clear-Cut Favorite In SEC Tournament

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As far as South Carolina coach Dave Odom is concerned, March Madness has already started.

"The conference tournaments set our sport apart," Odom said on the eve of the SEC basketball tourney, which begins Thursday in the Gaylord Entertainment Center. "When you get everyone together in a friendly, family-feud situation, it's great for our sport. The road to the Final Four begins with the conference tournaments."

Odom has heard the arguments about how the round-robin race is the true measure of a league champion -- LSU, in this season's case -- but the league tournaments make money, give second chances to teams like South Carolina and provide fans with a fun get-together.

"I'd hate to see the demise of conference tournaments," Odom said. "They do matter, once you get there on Thursday."

Especially this Thursday, when proud programs like Kentucky and Arkansas are on hand for the first round and listed among the tournament favorites.

"People would be foolish to go to sleep on the big 'Cats," Odom said. "They're dangerous when they're mad, and their coach (Tubby Smith) is mad. One thing required to win this tournament is depth, and Kentucky plays 10 or 11 guys every game."

Indeed, Smith has been doing that as a strategy.

"We've played a lot of players this year to keep them fresh for postseason play," said the UK boss. "But we've gotta prove we belong in the NCAA Tournament."

At 19-11, the Wildcats aim to claw their way to the magical 20-win mark in a 2:15 p.m. tussle on Thursday with beleaguered Ole Miss.

"We're coming off a bad loss to Florida," Smith said, steam presumably coming from his ears. "We didn't match their intensity. We probably should have gone with a bigger lineup in the second half."

Ole Miss is guided by lame-duck coach Rod Barnes, whose team has beaten only Arkansas in its last 13 games, but scared LSU on Saturday.

"It's been a tough year, but our guys have always played hard," Barnes said. "I'd like to hope it would be a compliment to our staff and the way we've carried ourselves. The last time we played Kentucky, there was uncertainty about my job. I think there's more clarity now, we're in a better state emotionally and we have a better focus."

There seems to be little clarity about who will win the tournament.

Partly because LSU is hampered by injuries to Tyrus Thomas and Darrel Mitchell, Odom said, "I don't know that there's a prohibitive favorite. I would point to Florida, with its great depth, Arkansas, with its great depth, and Tennessee, which has proven over the course of a season its depth and purpose. Those three, plus Kentucky."

Vols coach Bruce Pearl might appreciate the compliment, if not the reference to depth.

"We've only been playing seven guys -- which makes playing three games in a row (in three days) challenging," Pearl said.

Rick Stansbury, whose Mississippi State team opens the tourney against South Carolina at noon Thursday, sounded somewhat optimistic.

"We've won three of our last five, and we've won our last four home games by double digits," Stansbury said. "We're playing better. But South Carolina handled us (83-61) about as well as anybody has."

Tennessee will play the South Carolina-Mississippi State survivor.

Looking to Thursday's third game, matching Vanderbilt and Auburn at 6:30 p.m., Stansbury said, "Vanderbilt is not going to be an easy out for anybody. But there's a fine line between the No. 2 through 6 seeds in this league most of the time."

Auburn coach Jeff Lebo, whose team has won two of its last four, said, "It's a tough draw, playing Vandy in Nashville. But sometimes that brings some added pressure for the home team."

LSU awaits the Auburn-Vanderbilt winner.

Despite LSU coach John Brady's low-key comments about just trying to get his team healthy for the NCAA Tournament, Odom reminded, "Coach Brady has played around a lack of depth this year. He doesn't play at a breakneck pace."

Georgia coach Dennis Felton, whose team opens against Arkansas at 8:45 p.m. Thursday, listed LSU, Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky and Arkansas "in the mix of teams playing really well."

Felton added, "I'd say Kentucky is more than dangerous. They're certainly capable of winning it."

Stansbury quickly added his two cents.

"You pull our the stats and see how many times the Big Blue has won this tournament or been in the finals," he said. "They'll travel well and the place will be packed with blue. Kentucky has as much opportunity as anybody to win the tournament."

Arkansas figures to see a good amount of red in the stands, not to mention on Broadway.

Hogs guard Ronnie Brewer, who leads the SEC in scoring with an 18.6 average, said, "We want to be the best we can be, because our fan support in the SEC Tournament has been so good. We don't want to be one-and-done again."

Against Georgia, Brewer said, "We need to find our big guys more. Darian Townes is a big key -- he's a crucial part of our offense. Georgia has 3-point capability and they could be a totally different team (from Sunday, when Arkansas beat the Bulldogs 74-57)."

The Georgia-Arkansas winner will meet Florida in the late game Friday.

Pearl pointed out, "Florida comes in playing extremely well, as does Arkansas."

Heath agreed, "Florida and us is going to be a good matchup if it gets to that point."

Waiting on the Ole Miss-Kentucky winner is Alabama (17-11, 10-6 SEC), which may or may not have clinched an NCAA bid.

"('Bama coach) Mark Gottfried believes his team has to play well this week," Brady said.

Gottfried, for his part, said, "Alabama has made the NCAA Tournament at 7-9 (in the SEC) before and missed at 8-8. There's never been a 10-6 SEC team left out. We were No. 1 in strength of schedule the year we went 7-9, and this year our strength of schedule is sixth or seventh, I think."

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