Who's Who At SEC Basketball Tournament

Phillip Marshall sorts out the pretenders from the contenders at this week's SEC Men's Basketball Tournament.

Atlanta, Ga.--It's easy to be optimistic before a game has been played. Coaches of the eight teams that will play today in the Southeastern Conference Tournament insisted Wednesday that it is not such a stretch to think a team could win four straight games.

Can it happen? Sure. It happened in 1985 when Auburn won the tournament in Birmingham and in 2000 when Arkansas won it at the Georgia Dome. But that's twice in 23 years since the modern tournament began. The odds strongly favor the top four seeds--Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State and Kentucky.

Here is a look at each of the 12 teams and their chances:

ALABAMA--The Tide proved itself the best team in the league, winning the overall championship by two games. It has the best player in the league in center Erwin Dudley and perhaps the most talented point guard in freshman Maurice Williams. The Tide staggered down the stretch, falling in a blowout at Ole Miss in its last regular-season game. It doesn't have a lot of depth, particularly inside. There's not a whole lot to play for. A No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament is probably a lock win or lose.

AUBURN--About the best news you can find is the fact that the Tigers upset Florida in the first round of the 2000 tournament. It could happen again if only Doc Robinson, Daymeon Fishback and Mamadou N'diaye could come back and Mack McGadney's knee could miraculously heal. There's too much youth, too little offense, too little confidence, a depleted inside game. For Auburn to advance past the first round, it would take a collapse by Florida, an 89-61 winner over the Tigers in Gainesville less than two weeks ago.

OLE MISS--The Rebels play great defense. They have one of the league's top players in forward Justin Reed. A veteran team, they feel urgency make sure the NCAA selection committee is convinced. Point guard Jason Harrison is fun to watch, but at 5-foot-5, he can be a defensive liability.

MISSISSIPPI STATE--The Bulldogs are on a tremendous roll with five straight wins. They have a powerful center in Mario Austin and experienced and talented players around him. Rick Stansbury isn't the world's greatest coach, but he doesn't have to be with this bunch.

LSU--The Bayou Bengals played great defense down the stretch, holding their last four opponents in the 50s. But they can't score enough to advance far in the tournament. They come in with some confidence, having won two of their last three.

ARKANSAS--The Razorbacks could be a threat to make some noise. They are on a mission because of the loss of Nolan Richardson, their head coach. They want to make a statement for interim coach Mike Anderson, Richardson's long-time assistant, who wants his old boss' job.

GEORGIA--The Bulldogs have a bona fide great player in Jarvis Hayes. They have experience and talent around him. Jim Harrick isn't the most personable guy you would ever want to meet and he has some trouble with expense accounts, but he's a heck of a basketball coach.

KENTUCKY--It's been a down year for the Wildcats. All they did was win 21 games and share the East Division championship. Don't ever count Kentucky out. The Wildcats still have the deepest and most talented roster in the league, and they think they are supposed to win it.

FLORIDA--If anybody has a good shot at winning four games in four days it's the Gators. They're ranked No. 11 in the country, but they couldn't secure one of the East's top two seeds. They can score from inside and outside. If they hit their shots consistently, they'll be tough on anybody.

TENNESSEE--The Vols' 13-14 record is deceiving. They lost a bunch of close games. They have future NBA players in Vincent Yarbrough and Marcus Haislip. The only thing they don't have is a quality point guard, which is why they are 13-14 and why they aren't likely to win this tournament.

VANDERBILT--The Commodores got things going late, beating Kentucky at home. When they are hitting from outside, they can beat anybody. Can they hit enough shots to win four straight games? Nope.

SOUTH CAROLINA--The Gamecocks are the least athletic team in the league. They struggle to score. Chuck Eidson, who seemed a future star when he was a freshman, is good but far from great. South Carolina is the No. 6 seed in the East for a reason. It's the sixth best team.

For what it's worth, my pick to win the tournament is Kentucky. The Wildcats seem to take it to another level in the postseason. They'll have so man fans in the Georgia Dome it will seem like a home game.

There's really not a lot at stake in this tournament. Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia, Kentucky and Florida are locks for the NCAA Tournament. Nobody is on the bubble. Any of the remaining six would have to win the tournament to get an NCAA bid.

Until next time...

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