SEC MEN'S TOURNAMENT
Bridgestone Arena, Nashville
(on SEC Network)
• Game 1: (12) South Carolina vs. (13) Miss. State, 7:30 p.m. EDT
• Game 2: (11) Texas A&M vs. (14) Auburn, 10 p.m.
(on SEC Network)
• Game 3: (8) Georgia vs. (9) LSU, 1 p.m. EDT
• Game 4: (5) Tennessee vs. Game 1 winner, 3:30 p.m.
• Game 5: (7) Arkansas vs. (10) Vanderbilt, 7:30 p.m.
• Game 6: (6) Missouri vs. Game 2 winner, 10 p.m.
• Game 7: (1) Florida vs. Game 3 winner, 1 p.m. EDT
• Game 8: (4) Alabama vs. Game 4 winner, 3:30 p.m.
• Game 9: (2) Kentucky vs. Game 5 winner, 7:30 p.m.
• Game 10: (3) Ole Miss vs. Game 6 winner, 10 p.m.
• Game 11: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 1 p.m. EDT
• Game 12: Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 3:30 p.m.
• Game 13: Game 11 winner vs. Game 12 winner, 1 p.m. EDT
Florida has been the premier team in Southeastern Conference basketball this winter, provided its games aren't close.
Billy Donovan's top-seeded Gators are anything but overwhelming favorites for the league tournament that begins Wednesday at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena. Florida is 24-6 overall and matched a program record with 14 SEC victories, but the Gators have whiffed in their five games this season decided by six points or less.
Their most recent close call occurred Saturday at Kentucky, when the Gators took a 57-50 lead with less than eight minutes remaining but then had 14 straight possessions without scoring and lost 61-57.
"We were up seven and didn't get to the free-throw line to score a point," Donovan said Monday. "We've got to continue to work to get better. I think we've got confident guys, and I think we've got guys who are capable. But for whatever reason in those situations -- it hasn't been like a game-winning shot as much as it's been a stretch where we've had a drought."
Dribbling away close ones has become too familiar for the Gators, who have been bounced from the Elite Eight of the last two NCAA tournaments by Butler and Louisville. Florida led each of those games by 11 with less than 10 minutes left.
In Florida's first loss this season, a 65-64 heartbreaker at Arizona on Dec. 15, the Gators were outscored 7-0 in the final minute. They led Missouri by 13 with less than 11 minutes remaining in a 63-60 loss on Feb. 19, and the collapse at Rupp Arena may have taken Florida out of the conversation for a No. 2 seed in NCAA play.
"I can't sit here and say we've have taken poor shots," Donovan said, "but I will say the one common theme in those games to me is that our turnovers have been way too high. In the last seven minutes against Kentucky, we turned it over five times.
"We had a stretch against Missouri with about 11 minutes to go where we're up but we turn it over in three of four possessions, and inevitably it led to a [Tigers] run."
Florida's 6-4 finish after an 8-0 league start has provided a free-for-all feeling to this week's event.
Kentucky, Ole Miss, Tennessee and Alabama are NCAA tournament bubble teams who could use deep runs in the Music City. UK's Wildcats entered Monday night as one of the last four projected teams in the 68-team field according to ESPN's Joe Lunardi, while the Volunteers and Rebels were among the first four out.
"I feel like we've got it, but we've got to keep working," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said.
Tennessee is certainly the hottest team entering Nashville, having won eight of its last nine games. Vanderbilt has quietly won four of five, though Commodores coach Kevin Stallings isn't convinced late-season success has any type of carryover.
"A lot of it is matchups -- who you get paired with and who you end up playing," Stallings said. "There are certain teams in this league that we match up with better than others, and I think the same can be said for every team in the league. Last year we probably matched up with that great Kentucky team as well as if not better than anybody in the league did."
This will be the first SEC tournament in which the bottom four seeds -- Texas A&M, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn -- will be required to win five games in five days to claim the title. On the subject of titles, Missouri will be trying to win the SEC tournament a year after prevailing in its final Big 12 tournament.
"That would be great," Missouri coach Frank Haith said. "I would have to do some research to see if anybody has ever done that, but it would be a neat thing."
Such a feat hasn't been accomplished by teams switching major conferences, but it has been done. Nashville's Belmont University won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament title Saturday after winning the Atlantic Sun event last year.
So an SEC tournament low on powerhouse teams isn't lacking for unique angles.
"I think Florida, when they were healthy, was the best team and they obviously won the championship," Georgia's Mark Fox said, "but like all of us, they've had to deal with some injuries and things. So we go to Nashville with great parity, which should make for a great tournament."
Odds and ends
Kentucky has won 27 SEC tournament titles, while the other current league members have combined for 24. ... Florida also won 14 league games back in 1966-67 under first-year coach Tommy Bartlett, who later coached UTC's tennis team. ... Texas A&M senior guard Elston Turner, the league's third-leading scorer, is questionable for the tournament with a broken left pinky. ... Kentucky coach John Calipari on the SEC event: "I wish none of us played in the tournament, and let's go on to the next tournament."
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 ...