Tennessee heavy favorite at SEC tournament, despite history works against the Vols Print
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Wednesday, 12 March 2008 10:31
NCAAB Headline News


 ATLANTA (AP) -Bruce Pearl already checked one big thing off his list: Tennessee is the Southeastern Conference champion for the first time in 41 years.
Now comes the SEC tournament, where the fourth-ranked Volunteers are a huge favorite but again find history working against them.
Tennessee hasn't won the event since 1979 - heck, it's been 17 years since the Vols made it as far as the semifinals. One-and-done has been their motto, which casts a bit of doubt over what is expected to be another coronation for the SEC's best team, the next step in its inevitable march toward a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
``We've just not had a lot of success historically in the SEC tournament,'' said Pearl, the Vols' flamboyant third-year coach. ``I myself have not won a game in the SEC tournament.''
Indeed, while Pearl has quickly built Tennessee into one of the nation's top programs, he's fallen flat at this time of year.
In 2006, the Vols won the SEC East, earned a first-round bye and had the advantage of playing in their home state (Nashville was the host). Not that it mattered. South Carolina pulled off a stunning 79-71 upset in the quarterfinals after finishing six games back in the regular-season standings.
A year ago, Tennessee tied for the SEC's second-best record but lost in the opening round of the tournament to LSU, which was a dismal 5-11 in conference play. The Tigers knocked off the Vols 76-67 in overtime.
Big Orange can't afford another slip-up if it wants to see a ``1'' beside its name when the NCAA brackets are announced Sunday night.
The tournament opens Thursday with four games involving teams that finished third or worse in their respective divisions: South Carolina vs. LSU, Auburn vs. No. 18 Vanderbilt, Alabama vs. two-time defending national champion Florida and Georgia vs. Mississippi.
Tennessee, Kentucky, SEC West champion Mississippi State and Arkansas will play their first games Friday.
``Our fan base is getting tired of coming down there and having to go home right away,'' Pearl said. ``We're playing for a lot this time around. Not only are we playing for the tournament championship, like all the other schools, we're playing to maintain our position and secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.''
History aside, the Vols (28-3, 14-2) are clearly the league's top team. They are deep, talented bunch that handed No. 2 Memphis its only loss in one of the season's most memorable games and made it to No. 1 for the first time in school history, albeit for just one week.
Tennessee's only losses were to No. 6 Texas, No. 18 Vanderbilt and rapidly improving Kentucky - all of them away from Knoxville.
``Number one, they're the best team in our league. Number two, they have as much or more depth of talent as anyone in our league. There's no drop-off when they go to their bench at all,'' Georgia coach Dennis Felton marveled. ``I wouldn't just make them the prohibitive favorite. I would make them the heavy favorite.''
Then again, Pearl placed so much emphasis on winning the regular-season title, some wondered if the Vols might be primed for a letdown in the SEC tournament.
They already had a raucous celebration after routing South Carolina last weekend in their home finale. A championship banner was unveiled, orange and white streamers poured from the rafters, and the players cut down one of the nets at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Auburn coach Jeff Lebo remembered a similar situation when he was an assistant coach at South Carolina in 1997. The Gamecocks won their first SEC championship, romping through the regular season with a 15-1 mark, only to get blown out by Georgia in the semifinals of the conference tourney.
``We had not won anything in a long time at South Carolina,'' Lebo recalled. ``One we had done it, we were not very good from there on out. You've got to keep doing it. It can work against you at times when you put so much emphasis on winning something, like Tennessee put into winning the regular-season championship. All of a sudden, you feel like you've gotten it. I know that's what happened to us a little bit at South Carolina.''
Florida (21-10) has won this tournament three years in a row, but the Gators no longer have players such as Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Cory Brewer. In fact, they probably need to win at least one game and maybe two just to ensure another trip to the NCAA tournament.
A weak non-conference schedule has Florida at No. 65 in the RPI rankings, trailing six other SEC schools. Also working against the Gators: three straight losses to end the regular season, though the schedule had something to do with the slump.
Florida was beaten at home by division champs Mississippi State and Tennessee, then finished up with a loss at Kentucky.
``Our guys have gotten better. Those last three games were against three really good teams,'' coach Billy Donovan said. ``Even though we ended up on the wrong end in all three games, I think those experiences put us in position for growth.''
The Gators aren't the only team on the NCAA bubble. Arkansas (20-10) and Ole Miss (21-9) go into the SEC tournament knowing they might need a win or two to hear their names called Sunday night.
The remaining schools would have to pull off monumental upsets in Atlanta to get into the NCAAs. In fact, LSU and Georgia might be playing for their coaches' jobs.
Butch Pierre took over as the interim coach at LSU after John Brady was fired last month, just two years after taking the Tigers to the Final Four. Felton is feeling the heat after failing to show much progress in five years as the Bulldogs coach; his team finished last in the East after giving the boot to several top players for violating team rules.
South Carolina coach Dave Odom is more certain about his future, having already announced his retirement.
``Everything I do this time of year, there's some significance to it,'' Odom said. ``I'd be less than honest if I didn't tell you I've tried to keep my mind busy with things that have a real bearing on my team so I don't think about myself.''
 

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