Pearl: Tourney 'wide open'

Florida dominated the Southeastern Conference this season, winning 13 of 16 league games – three more than runners-up Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Thus, the smart money is on the Gators to win the SEC Tournament.

Still, the league has enough pretty good teams to make things interesting when the 2007 tourney tips off today at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

"I think Florida has demonstrated that they are the best team in the tournament, with their record," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said this week. "But I do think it's wide open because, 1 through 12, there has been a good demonstration that anybody can win."

The Gators have the league's most talented starting five, thanks to three probable first-round NBA Draft picks – 6-11 Joakim Noah, 6-10 Al Horford and 6-8 Corey Brewer. They also have a quality point guard in Taurean Green and the league's most accurate 3-point shooter in Maryville native Lee Humphrey (51.1 percent in SEC games).

Florida has not played up to its potential, however, and may have trouble getting up for the SEC tourney since it already is assured a high seeding for the NCAA Tournament. Teams such as Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky may be more motivated, since they could play their way into better NCAA seedings. Then there are teams such as Alabama (20-10), Ole Miss (19-11), Mississippi State (17-12) and Georgia (17-12) who are trying to play their way into The Big Dance.

"I think you have a lot of teams trying to play their way into the NCAA tournament and a number of teams trying to improve their seeding," Pearl noted, adding: "We had a good regular season, but don't have anything to show for it ... no championships.

"Plus, Tennessee has the worst tournament record since 1992," he added, "so we have an awful lot to play for."

Many observers believe NCAA bids will be extended to four teams from the SEC East – Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky – and none from the West, since Ole Miss and Mississippi State shared the division lead with mere 8-8 conference records. Pearl is too diplomatic to suggest that will happen.

"There is not a team in the West that couldn't beat a team in the NCAA field of 65," Pearl said. "I feel for a number of teams. I think we as coaches did a poor job in our attempt to get the field expanded. We have to play the tournament in the time frame CBS gives us.

"There are going to be more teams on the bubble this year than ever before. I think we could add eight teams (pushing the field to 73), and I hope we can figure out a way to get it done."

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