Saturday Night's Alright

ATLANTA -- The 2008 SEC Men's Basketball Tournament was thrown into chaos by factors outside of anyone's control. When a tornado hit downtown Atlanta (including a glancing blow on the event site Georgia Dome) at 9:40 Friday night, the conference was put in a near impossible situation.

How could they best ensure the safety of fans as well as provide something resembling a fair competitive environment for the teams? The remaining games were moved to Georgia Tech's nearby arena with virtually no fan access and Georgia was forced to play two games in one day against a pair of the best teams in the conference. While it wasn't fair to almost anyone, it was the best the SEC could do on short notice. Now it's time for the conference to take action to avoid ever being put in this position again.

With a 3:30 start time on Sunday, the finalists in this year's SEC tournament clearly won't have their final game considered in the seeding for March Madness. The late start ensures that, but it might have been the case anyway. It's been acknowledged by some previous NCAA selection committee chairmen that all Sunday games were basically ignored in the bracketing process.

So why does the conference continue to reduce the value of the final game of the SEC's event by playing it on the final day possible? Prominent basketball conferences like the Big East and Pac-10 wrap their tournaments up on Saturday, and the SEC would be well served to do the same.

In 2004, Florida lost in the SEC tournament final against Kentucky. After being in Atlanta until Sunday evening, the Gators were assigned to play in the very first game of the NCAA tournament on Thursday at noon. With just a one-day turnaround between getting back to Gainesville and heading to their tournament site in Raleigh, N.C. Tuesday, Florida was put at a disadvantage and was clearly not at their best against Manhattan in an upset loss. Moving the tournament one day earlier in the week would keep any future SEC teams from being set up for a similar struggle in the most important event of their season.

Some may argue that moving the event up will damage attendance, but there's no getting around the reality that SEC tournament crowds are dictated by Kentucky's performance. If Big Blue is still involved in the tournament, games could be played at 2 a.m. on a city park court and UK fans will be there. No other fanbase has shown they will consistently travel for the event, regardless of where and when it's being played. That's why it was so ironic and frustrating that after sparse crowds throughout the SEC tournament before Friday night's crisis, it was the most fervent fans who were denied the opportunity to see their team play Saturday morning at Georgia Tech.

The unique circumstances that led to this year's tournament becoming such a mess may never happen again, but it would have been extremely helpful to have a spare day available as a cushion instead of having to find a way to cram the games into a tight time window. As long as the tournament begins on Thursday it will always be at the mercy of Mother Nature, power outages or some other unimagined crisis that could put it back in this situation.

During the upcoming SEC TV negotiations, the conference's focus should be to get the national distribution of the tournament virtually every other conference already has. There's no reason that new deal shouldn't include an agreeement for the event to build up to the big primetime finish on Saturday night from now on.

The Heath Cline Show airs daily from 11-1 on Gainesville's Star 99.5 FM

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