Stakes High at SEC Tournament

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas guard Gary Ervin is a self-proclaimed college basketball junkie.

Practicing nearly every day and playing 35 games a year aren't enough to satisfy him. In his own words, he eats, sleeps and breathes the game during free time, too.

So it wasn't surprising to hear Ervin has been glued to his television set watching teams like San Diego and Siena playing this week. Or that he's kept a mental list of at-large bids, bubble teams and Arkansas' postseason positioning.

"I pay attention to all of it," Ervin said Tuesday. "I pay attention to what analysts have to say and the analysts haven't really mentioned us on the bubble. ...

"They have us in (the NCAA Tournament). But that's nothing to be satisfied with because that's on paper."

Ervin and the Razorbacks are confident they have the resume to play in the NCAA Tournament, but don't want to tempt fate on Selection Sunday. They're not alone.

Ole Miss, Florida and even Kentucky enter this week's Southeastern Conference Tournament in Atlanta hoping to erase any lingering questions about their postseason destinations with a weekend run in the Georgia Dome.

The first round of what should be a high stakes tournament tips off today. Arkansas, the SEC West's second seed, will play Vanderbilt on Friday at 2:15.

"Hopefully we don't leave anything up to someone else," center Steven Hill said. "That's too scary. I wish I had a crystal ball and knew for sure, but at this point you don't.

"Some people say we are in. Some people say we're not."

For now, the consensus is Tennessee, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt have done all they've needed to secure spots in the 65-team field. Kentucky may have, too, following its 6-7 start with a 12-4 record in SEC play.

Arkansas is in better position than last year, when the 18-12 Razorbacks needed three wins to convince the NCAA Tournament selection committee it deserved a spot.

But Ole Miss and Florida aren't as lucky. Both enter the tournament needing wins to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. If both win their first two games, they'll meet in one of the tournament semifinals on Saturday.

"I think we're like a lot of people — not only in our league, but throughout the country — that still have work to do," said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, whose team has won two straight. "We realize that and any time that we have games we still have opportunities."

In addition, Alabama, Auburn, LSU, South Carolina and Georgia have something to play for, too. The only way the five will play in the NCAA Tournament is by earning an automatic bid by winning the conference tournament.

That's one reason Alabama coach Mark Gottfried believes the tournament will be as "wide open" as it's ever been.

Ervin said the number of teams in dire positions will definitely make things interesting the next four days.

"It's going to be hard-nosed and nasty," he said. "It's something that you look for when you play college basketball. ... Everybody's playing to survive. Everybody is playing for a place in the NCAA Tournament. Everybody is going to play with intensity and toughness."

But coaches don't want their teams getting too wrapped up in the big picture.

Arkansas coach John Pelphrey said nobody really knows which teams are on the proverbial bubble. With that in mind, he said the only thing the Hogs — or any other team — can do is prepare and play well against their first opponent.

"All that stuff we're all going to be aware of it," Pelphrey said. "But it isn't really anything for us. The only thing that really you can do that's a good use of your time is to work hard and get your game plan down, communicate with your guys and try to get them to play as high of a level as they possibly can and win a basketball game. If you're lucky enough to do that, start the whole thing over again and try to win another one. If you win enough games, you'll get in."

How many wins it takes for teams like Arkansas, Ole Miss, Florida and Kentucky to secure bids remains to be seen.

Not even Ervin, the hoops junkie, can say for sure.

But his teammate — forward Sonny Weems — said he knows of one surefire way the Razorbacks can wrap up an NCAA Tournament spot. To him, it's the only thing they should think about when they step on the floor Friday night.

"I think we've got to do something in Atlanta," Weems said. "What we plan on doing is win the SEC Championship."

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