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Friday, March 9, 2012
SEC tournament: Friday preview

By David Helman

NEW ORLEANS -- The first round of the SEC tournament has come and gone, and it passed without much more than a whimper.

The opening day of action had some decent moments, but compared to the overtime thrillers in the Big East and the upsets in the Pac-12, the SEC was lacking in the drama department. That seems fitting for a league that was basically decided a month ago, but there should be several opportunities for the conference to play catch-up starting Saturday.

Here are four things to get excited about as we prepare for the quarterfinals of the SEC tourney.

1. The stars will be out: A few of the SEC's top players found their way onto the court Thursday in the first round. But the talent level is set to go up considerably as the tournament rolls along. Seven of the league's top 10 scorers will take the floor Friday, highlighted by Vanderbilt's duo of John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor -- averaging 20 and 17 points per game, respectively. No. 19 Florida has its own trio of Kenny Boynton, Bradley Beal and Erving Walker going against Alabama linchpin JaMychal Green.

And then of course, there's the Wildcats. No. 1 Kentucky and its mega-freshmen, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, will get their first taste of the postseason on Friday.

The bottom line is that all of the SEC's squads with realistic postseason dreams will be on the floor, and they'll have their playmakers with them.

2. A worthy atmosphere: The words "underwhelming" and "pathetic" don't do justice to how small, quiet and boring Thursday's crowds were. With most of the SEC's bottom-feeders squaring off, and with New Orleans located so far away from schools such as Georgia and South Carolina, not many fans made the effort.

The largest contingent of supporters was easily the Kentucky fan base, whose team didn't even tip off.

But the Wildcats will be there for Day 2, and Big Blue Nation will be behind them in full force. On top of that, UK is facing LSU in its home state, which should bring a healthy number of Tigers fans to New Orleans Arena.

All of the SEC's legitimate NCAA contenders are tipping off on Friday. That should give us a slightly more March-like vibe than Thursday did.

3. Résumé building: With its 30-1 record and regular-season championship, Kentucky probably has a No. 1 seed sewn up no matter what happens. Conversely, Georgia is done for the year unless the Bulldogs claim the tournament crown.

There's a lot up for grabs for the other six teams, however. Tennessee comes to mind immediately, as the Volunteers sit squarely on the bubble heading into their matchup with Ole Miss. Tennessee is currently considered one of the first four teams to be left out, so a win is probably a necessity. Alabama's odds of dancing look better than Tennessee's, but a win wouldn't hurt its prospects.

The Gators and Commodores don't have to worry about being left out, but both squads will want to improve their standing for the selection committee. Florida let the SEC No. 2 seed slip away by finishing 0-3 to close out the regular season, and Vanderbilt closed the season by losing two of its last three. Another loss would be detrimental to each team's seeding, so these teams would do well to be inspired.

The NCAA tournament is more of a long shot for LSU and Ole Miss. But the tournament's No. 7 and No. 8 seeds would give themselves a better chance at the NIT by performing admirably.

4. One way or another: The way the bracket is set up in the SEC this year almost guarantees something interesting will happen.

On one side of the bracket, No. 1 seed Kentucky and No. 4 seed Florida, who have arguably the best basketball rivalry in the modern SEC, are one game away from a third meeting. On the other side, in-state rivals Tennessee and Vanderbilt find themselves in the same position.

This leaves two possibilities. We're either going to get a pair of juicy SEC semifinals, or we're going to see something fun happen in the quarterfinals.

The possibility of rematches sounds plenty intriguing. The Commodores and Vols split the regular-season series, and Tennessee's win in the regular-season finale gave it the conference's No. 2 seed. The Wildcats handled the Gators pretty easily in both meetings this season, but there's always the adage about the difficulty of beating a team three times in a season.

The alternative would be an unanticipated upset.

All four of the SEC's higher seeds beat their quarterfinal opponents handily in the regular season. But all four underdogs have reason for hope. LSU saw the best performance of Johnny O'Bryant's young career in Thursday's drubbing of Arkansas. Ole Miss' win against Auburn gives the Rebels a four-game conference win streak going into the Tennessee game. Alabama will have Green, who was suspended in the Tide's first game against Florida. Georgia's zone defense held Mississippi State below 40 percent shooting as a team, which is encouraging against hot-shooting Vanderbilt.

One way or another, we're either going to get some strong semis, or some March Madness. Either one is worth getting amped for.