Tuesday , Mar , 07 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

2006 Southeastern Conference Tournament Preview

The Sports Network

By Pat Taggart, College Basketball Staff Writer

FACTS & STATS: Site: Gaylor Entertainment Center (20,000) — Nashville,
Tennessee. Dates: Thursday, March 9th through Sunday, March 12th. Television:
Jefferson Pilot Sports, CBS (Championship Game). Annual 47th. Defending
Champion: Florida.

OUTLOOK: Beginning March 9th, 12 SEC teams will battle for an automatic bid to
the NCAA Tournament. This year, there are a number of teams that figure to
make a run at the crown in this, the 47th annual SEC Tournament. LSU surprised
many fans and analysts by winning the overall regular season title by a
comfortable margin. The Tigers finished 14-2 against league foes, four games
better than the second place team in the West Division and two games better
than Tennessee, the top seed from the East Division. Florida and Alabama enter
this event with the second seed from their respective divisions, and both are
more than capable of making a run at the title. Of the remaining eight teams,
Kentucky may have the best chance of winning the championship. The Wildcats
have the best coach in the league in Tubby Smith and have won more SEC
Tournament titles than all other 11 teams combined.

The first of four opening round games pits the South Carolina Gamecocks (E-5)
against the Mississippi State Bulldogs (W-4). South Carolina is the only
active member of the league that has never won this tournament, and the squad
owns a 12-14 record at this event. The Gamecocks lost four straight games down
the stretch before finally beating Auburn in the regular season finale.
As for Mississippi State, it owns a horrendous 19-43 mark in SEC Tournament
games, but the program does have a pair of championships to its credit, the
most recent of which was earned in 2002. The Bulldogs were much more
competitive during the second half of SEC play than they were to start things
off, but it has been two months since the team has won back-to-back games.

The aforementioned Kentucky Wildcats (E-3) will take on the Ole Miss Rebels
(W-6) on Thursday. The lone SEC Tournament title for Ole Miss came way back in
1981, and the program has twice as many losses as wins at this event (21-42).
Considering that the Rebels have lost five straight games and 12 of their last
13 tilts, there isn’t much reason for optimism entering this tournament.As for
Kentucky, it has reached the championship game of this tournament in 12 of the
last 14 years and has won the event 25 times, 19 more than their closest
competitor. They are 107-18 all-time in games played at this event, mind-
blowing numbers by any standards. Kentucky was beaten at home by Florida by 15
points in the regular season finale, and it will be interesting to see if the
club can bounce back strong from that embarrassing defeat.

The third opening round game features a matchup between the Vanderbilt
Commodores (E-4) and the Auburn Tigers (W-5). It has been 55 years since
Vanderbilt won its only SEC Tournament title, so saying that the program is
overdue is an understatement. The Commodores were knocked off at home by
Tennessee in the regular season finale, halting a two-game winning streak.
As for Auburn, it is 26-42 all-time at this event and captured its only
tournament crown back in 1985. The Tigers lost two straight and five of their
last seven down the stretch, and they are one of only two SEC teams with a
negative scoring margin this season.

Concluding the opening round is a clash between Georgia (E-6) and Arkansas
(W-3), a pair of teams with one SEC Tournament title to their credit. Georgia
won its crown back in 1983, while Arkansas was victorious in 2000. The
Razorbacks are one of only four teams in the league with a winning record in
games played as part of this event. They possess the league’s leading scorer
in Ronnie Brewer (18.4 ppg), and he gets plenty of help from Jonathon Modica
(15.9 ppg). Brewer also tops the SEC charts in steals and plays with a
tremendous amount of energy. Georgia is tied for last in the league in field
goal percentage and is also second worst in field goal percentage defense. The
Bulldogs lost three straight games and six of seven to close out the regular

The winner of the South Carolina/Mississippi State game will move on to battle
Tennessee (E-1) in the first quarterfinal game on Friday. Tennessee is a solid
54-41 all-time at this event, and it has won the title four times. While those
numbers are impressive, the fact that the Vols haven’t captured the crown
since 1979 puts a damper on the excitement. Generating offense has not been a
problem for Tennessee this season, as it is averaging 81.7 ppg while shooting
a league-best 39.4 percent from three-point range. On a down note, the club is
last in the SEC in rebounding margin (-3.2 rpg). Chris Lofton is the top
offensive performer for the Vols, as he is fourth in the conference with 17.5
ppg on his 45.8 percent shooting from behind the arc.

Alabama (W-2) awaits the winner of the Ole Miss/Kentucky clash. The Tide,
which is 55-39 at this event, is second behind Kentucky with six SEC
Tournament championships to its credit, but not since 1991 has the team
hoisted the trophy. For Alabama to be successful in this tournament, Ronald
Steele will have to be dominant. The team’s point guard has become a much more
active scorer since forward Chuck Davis went down with a season-ending injury
midway through the season. Steele is averaging 13.8 ppg for the Tide, but he
had 21 or more points in six of 10 games during one stretch. Surprisingly,
Alabama ranked second to last in the league in both assists and turnover
margin, despite Steele’s presence.

The victorious team from the Auburn/Vanderbilt clash will certainly be a major
underdog in the quarterfinal round against LSU. The Tigers have not enjoyed a
great deal of success in this tournament, as they own a 40-45 record and won
their only title back in 1980. They have held opponents to 40 percent shooting
from the floor this season, the best defensive mark in the SEC. LSU is also
tops in rebounding margin (+9.5), as the next closest team is outrebounding
opponents by 4.1 rpg. The Tigers possess arguably the league’s top duo, as
Glen Davis and Darrel Mitchell are both more than capable of dominating a
game. Davis is netting 18.3 ppg on 51 percent shooting from the field, and he
is tops on the boards with 9.9 rpg. As for Mitchell, he is scoring 17.6 ppg on
41.9 percent efficiency from three-point range.

The last quarterfinal matchup pits the Georgia/Arkansas winner against the
Florida Gators (E-2). Florida won the tournament championship a year ago with
a 70-53 thrashing of Kentucky in the title game. The crown was the first for
the Gators, who are still a lowly 25-39 all-time at this event. Rather than
rely on one or two individuals to carry the load, Florida has a wealth of
talent in the lineup, and its players have demonstrated a great deal of
unselfishness. Joakim Noah is quickly blossoming into a star, as the standout
forward is scoring 14.1 ppg on his staggering 65.8 percent shooting from the
field. Add Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Lee Humphrey to the mix
and the Gators are capable of winning the National Championship. They are tops
in the league in scoring, besting their opponents by a staggering 15.2 ppg.

There are five teams with a legitimate shot at winning this tournament, as
LSU, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and Kentucky are the class of the league. If
you want a darkhorse pick, Arkansas has a chance to make some noise. When the
dust settles however, Florida will have its second league crown in as many
years. The Gators love to share the ball, and there is no shortage of talent
in the lineup. The SEC will be well-represented in the NCAA Tournament, as all
six teams mentioned in this paragraph could earn bids.

Sports Network Predicted Champion: Florida