SCOTT: Teams on edge on Selection Sunday

Even for those teams assured of a spot in the NCAA Tournament, the days and hours leading up to the NCAA Tournament selection show provides some uneasy moments. Where will we be seeded? Who will we play? Where will we go?

For those teams that just can't be sure about their place in the tournament, the wait can be excruciating.


"No question, it will be nervous," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said last week after his team lost 68-61 to Kentucky in the second round of the SEC Tournament. "In 2001, I walked out that door right over there. I had 25 people tell me, 'You're a lock. You're in, you're this, you're that.' And you know? When you've been shunned like that, you're a little nervous."


Now that the final selections have been made and the SEC has placed six teams in the NCAA Tournament, with Alabama joining LSU, Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky and Arkansas in the field of 65, it's time to put aside the nervousness and take a look at how much momentum and confidence each SEC team carries into the tournament.



Seed: 4th

Region: Atlanta

Opponent: 13th-seeded Iona, Jacksonville, Thursday


Where they stand: Yes, the 17th-ranked Tigers lost 81-65 to Florida in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, but things could be worse for the Tigers. Coach John Brady made the choice to give SEC Freshman of the Year Tyrus Thomas more rest and rehab last week. Thomas, who averages 12.7 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, has been battling a high ankle sprain and should be much better prepared to make an impact this week.


 "We accomplished what we needed to here," Brady said after the Florida loss, "and everyone knows we played without the freshman of the year for four straight games, and everyone knows he's going to be back next week and help our team be a little bit better than it is right now."


Instead of worrying about Thomas, Brady must be more concerned with the possibility that Iona (and either Syracuse or Texas A&M in the second round) will play a 2-3 zone similar to the one Florida used to hurt the Tigers and limit LSU center Glen Davis. One day after scoring a career-high 28 points against Vanderbilt Davis scored only two points in the first half against Florida and finished with 12.


"We were just trying to contain him the best we could, and I think we did a pretty good job even though he got a lot of our front court in foul trouble," Florida post Joakim Noah said.


The zone exposed some of LSU's uncertain offensive execution, but then again, with Thomas back a zone might not be nearly as effective as it was on Saturday.


"He cuts a lot of slack off me and the rest of the team," Davis said.


"We just hope he gets well and we can get all the way to the top."




Seed: 2nd

Region: Washington D.C.

Opponent: 15th-seeded Winthrop, Greensboro, N.C., Thursday.


Where They Stand: No SEC team has lost more momentum in the past three weeks than Tennessee. It wasn't long ago that the national analysts were pushing the Vols for a possible No. 1 seed, but that was before they lost three of their last five regular-season games and got outplayed in a 79-71 second-round tournament loss to South Carolina.


"We're not playing our best basketball right now and haven't been," first-year Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "I think that for the first time the confidence has to be shook a little bit. ...


"How do you fix that? You usually try to fix it in practice. I'm just not able to because of the body count."


Tennessee likes to play a full-court game and run the floor but that's difficult to do with a thin roster that includes nine scholarship players with seven playing most of the minutes.


"Our challenge all year long, as we talk about trying to get better, has been our inability to be able to practice because of our depth," Pearl said. "In addition to that, it's late in the year and you've got to back it down a bit. It's just really hard to practice with seven guys."


In the meantime, the Vols must learn to adjust their game and play better in the halfcourt, a necessity for success in the NCAA Tournament. For example, Chris Lofton missed 10 of 14 shots against South Carolina and the Gamecocks harassed him constantly with a physical game plan.


"Teams are playing a lot more physical and limiting my touches and trying to make me do stuff I don't want to do," Lofton said. "They did a real good job on me."


It also doesn't help that forward Dane Bradshaw is playing with an injured right wrist. Bradshaw has tried hard to fend off questions about the injury but South Carolina coach Dave Odom accidentally betrayed him last week during his post-game interview. Odom immediately realized his mistake and apologized, but it was too late.


For now, Bradshaw will continue to put off surgery after the season and attempt to do the best he can in the tournament, but it's a tough blow for a Tennessee team that depends on his knack for making the right play and the big play at the best time.


It's time for the Vols to adjust – or else.


"More than anything else, our personnel has been figured out," Pearl said. "That's the problem. What we do is what we do. You take that away, and it's challenging for them."



Seed: 8th

Region: Washington D.C.

Opponent: 9th-seeded UAB, Philadelphia, Friday


Where They Stand: Of all the SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament, none is more difficult to understand than Kentucky. Just watch Tubby Smith on the sideline. He often bears the look of father whose teenage girl has just accidentally put the car in drive and driven through the garage door.


Is Kentucky the team that rallied to beat Alabama in the second round?


"To come back from 11 down in the final five or six minutes at a neutral site against a great team does show a lot about our toughness," Patrick Sparks insisted.


"This is the fight we're going to need going into the (NCAA) tournament," Joe Crawford added.


Or, is it the team that never could get over the hump against South Carolina in the semifinals?


"We've been doing some things well. That's how we got to the semifinals," Smith said. "I thought we matched South Carolina's energy for the most part, but you've got to make some clutch shots and clutch stops."


They also need to do a better job of taking care of the ball and keeping their pose against a UAB team that beat Kentucky in the second round of the tournament two years ago.



Seed: 3rd.

Region: Minneapolis.

Opponent: 14th-seeded South Alabama, Jacksonville, Thursday


Where They Stand: The Gators have a reputation for struggling late in the season, and whether that's perception or reality it's still true that Florida lost three consecutive games against Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama in late February.


It's also true that the Gators bounced back to win five consecutive games, with wins over Kentucky, Arkansas, LSU and South Carolina in the SEC Tournament championship game.


"Someone made a comment to me, ‘Were you worried because it seemed like your team wasn't playing very well when you lost three games in row?'" Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I said, ‘We lost three games by a total of five points.' If we win those games, everything is great. Sometimes when you lose, people don't think you're playing well. When you win, people think you're playing a lot better than you really are."



Seed: 8th.

Region: Oakland.

Opponent: 9th-seeded Bucknell, Dallas, Friday.


Where They Stand: One 74-71 loss to Florida doesn't change the fact that Arkansas has been one of the SEC's best teams over the past three weeks, winning six consecutive games and going 23 days without a loss, with wins over Florida, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia (twice) before the second-round tournament loss to the Gators.


"Give Arkansas credit," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "They are a talented team."


The Razorbacks fell behind against Florida by 11 points with 13:53 to play but rallied to make it a game, showing some of the toughness they lacked earlier in the SEC season.


"We scrapped and we hustled and we did everything we could to give ourselves a chance to win," Arkansas coach Stan Heath said.


The Razorbacks may benefit from the extra time off, giving senior guards Jonathan Modica and Ronnie Brewer extra time to heal physical problems and giving Heath more time to help his team learn how to attack the zone Florida used to hurt Arkansas.


"We felt like if we didn't have to guard Modica, Ferguson and Brewer so much in the motion offense, it would help us," Donovan said. "They wear you down with their scoring and physicality. They had some shots that just didn't go down."


If those shots go down in the NCAA Tournament, the Razorbacks could do some damage. If those shots don't go in ...



Seed: 10th.

Region: Oakland.

Opponent: 7th-seeded Marquette, San Diego, Thursday


Where They Stand: Like Tennessee, Alabama is headed in the wrong direction come tournament time and faces the very real possibility of a second consecutive "one and done" in the NCAA Tournament. Last year the Crimson Tide helped turn Pearl into a candidate for several head coaching jobs. This time around it's Marquette coach Tom Crean's chance to improve his stock.


With consecutive losses to Mississippi State and Kentucky, three losses in the past five games and four in the past seven, the Crimson Tide appears to be weighing down under the weight of its own roster limitations.


"We are who we are," Gottfried said. "We don't have a lot of depth."


Gottfried said the Tide's late-season struggles will have no effect on Alabama's performance in the NCAA Tournament.


"None. I don't think it has any bearing whatsoever on it," Gottfried said. "If we're fortunate enough to play (in the NCAA Tournament), it's a brand-new season. If you play in the NCAA Tournament, everything is wiped out," Gottfried said. "Your record is zero-zero."



While LSU, Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, Arkansas and Alabama move on to the NCAA Tournament, the rest of the conference has to figure out how to get better.

No SEC coach faces a more difficult offseason challenge than Auburn's Jeff Lebo, regardless of who gets the Ole Miss job.


The Auburn job has been one wrong turn after another since Lebo took over, between four players leaving soon after he took over in April 2004, his leading scorer, Toney Douglas, transferring to Florida State after the 2004-05 season, and NCAA penalties for rules violations under former coach Cliff Ellis.


As if struggling with inexperience as well as a lack of depth and size isn't enough, the Tigers also play in a gray, musty morgue known as Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum.

Lebo didn't make his job any easier two weeks ago when he admitted, "I think it's probably been harder than I even thought it'd be. Had I known just how hard it was, I probably wouldn't have come."


Some media outlets printed the quotes out of context, but given a second chance to explain himself Lebo said, "if I had known all those players were going to leave, and if I had known the NCAA sanctions would be as severe as they were, maybe I wouldn't have taken it. People forget, I got here and all those players left and we had to sign eight players that spring, with only nine visits. But all of that happened after I took the job."


Auburn leaders will either have to be patient with Lebo or make a change, but he insists he's not going to compromise in his attempt to build a winning program.


"I'm not a quick-fix kind of guy," Lebo said, "but I've laid awake at nights wondering when we were going to get players, when our facilities would be upgraded, when we'd see an emphasis on basketball.


"The coaches knew we'd struggled, but kids tend to feel invincible. When reality sets in, it's hard. Hopefully, we've stopped the bleeding, but we're still probably two years away from being solid."



While Auburn has a long way to go, Georgia is showing signs of progress in its three seasons under coach Dennis Felton. The Bulldogs finished 15-15 despite taking a constant beating in the low post and occasionally turning the SEC's more anonymous opposing centers and power forwards into temporary stars.


Between injuries and lack of progress, the Bulldogs just weren't very good in the low post this season. That's why Felton's first offseason priority will be signing big men. He can only hope he'll get as lucky as he did when he stumbled on to Chris Marcus during coaching days at Western Kentucky, but at least Felton can offer the possibility of immediate playing time for post prospects.


The Bulldogs did sign 6-9 Albert Jackson of Madisonville, Ky., in the early signing period, but he didn't even start at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and may not be the immediate answer Georgia needs.


"We're still recruiting," Felton said. "We'd like to get another frontcourt player to add to our team. We're turning every stone, knocking on every door.


"This offseason is really, really important to us. We need to see a lot of improvement in all our players. Strength development is going to be very, very important. Skill development is going to be important. We have some guys who have a chance to make some big jumps from this year to next. We need them to."



QUOTE OT THE WEEK: If Alabama's impressive strength of schedule had not been enough to get the Crimson Tide in the NCAA Tournament, Gottfried already had his schedule plan set for the 2006-07 season: "Patsies. We'll play 13 straight next year against teams we can beat left-handed."




Richard Scott is a Birmingham based sports writer and a featured columnist in Tiger Rag. Reach him at

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