published Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Tide, Gators playing for first

It’s rare when a Tuesday night matchup between Kentucky and Vanderbilt at Rupp Arena isn’t the biggest game on the Southeastern Conference docket.

Yet such is the case tonight when the Wildcats and Commodores play second fiddle to the Alabama-Florida showdown in Gainesville. The Crimson Tide and Gators are each 11-3 in SEC play with two games left in the regular season, so tonight’s winner can claim no worse than a share of the league title.

Florida has not won the SEC since 2007, and it’s been since 2002 for Alabama.

“Those are two good teams that are really playing well,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said Monday. “I would give an edge to Alabama if Florida didn’t have something to play for, because Alabama obviously needs that game to help their RPI and help their NCAA tournament picture. Florida has survived at home, but they’ve been close victories. They’re not unbeatable in Gainesville.

“I think it’s going to be a great, great, great game and great for the SEC.”

Alabama coach Anthony Grant is no stranger to the O’Connell Center, having worked for a decade under Gators coach Billy Donovan before leaving in 2006 for the head-coaching vacancy at Virginia Commonwealth. When asked about his return to Gainesville, Grant said, “Our focus is just trying to get prepared for their team right now.”

The SEC uses head-to-head matchups to determine seeds for the league tournament but awards regular-season co-championships when two or more teams have the best league mark. There have not been co-champions since Florida and Kentucky in 2001, which followed a four-way sharing in 2000 with Florida, LSU, Kentucky and Tennessee.

“It’s great for our league,” Kentucky’s John Calipari said of the Alabama-Florida game. “I wish we had won one or two more so that we could have been in the hunt.”

The road blues

Kentucky enters the final week of the regular season with an 8-6 league mark. The Wildcats are 7-0 against SEC foes in Rupp but 1-6 on the road.

“Playing on the road is just more difficult,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “You’re out of your routine and you’re out of your environment, and young guys, typically speaking, are more unnerved by crowds than older guys. Obviously Kentucky gets everybody’s best shot because of their historical dominance in the league, and it takes a special, seasoned group to handle that.

“We’ve got a tough division, and instead of looking at why they’ve struggled on the road, I think they should be applauded for how dominant they’ve been at home.”

The Wildcats, whose lone SEC road triumph occurred Jan. 22 against South Carolina, get another chance Sunday at Tennessee.

“They’re not the same team they were a year ago,” Donovan said. “They don’t have five first-round draft picks on their team.”

Odds and ends

The latest NCAA bracket projection by ESPN includes Florida (as a 4 seed), Kentucky (5), Vanderbilt (5), Tennessee (9), Alabama (11) and Georgia (11). ... Tennessee has played the nation’s second toughest schedule according to the RPI, trailing only Georgetown. ... Arkansas, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are in the running for the West Division’s second seed and an SEC first-round bye, but MSU could clinch it with a win Wednesday in Fayetteville.

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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