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Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Tournament preview: SEC

By Dana O'Neil


This season started with talk about a special group of classmates in this league, one so talented and exceptional that it just might go undefeated.

Which is exactly what happened, only not with the team or the group anyone expected.

Kentucky and its ubertalented freshmen grabbed the headlines in the preseason, a squad so once-in-a-generation special it spawned silly talk of a 40-0 season. The Wildcats instead endured the reality of growing pains, and they have yet to realize their potential.

Casey Prather
Senior Casey Prather leads the No. 1 Gators in scoring with 14.6 points per game.
In the meantime, Florida, with its ubertalented seniors, finished the SEC regular season undefeated, the first in the conference to go 18-0 and only the fourth team from a major conference to finish a league slate unscathed in the past 15 seasons.

Were it not for a certain team in Wichita, Kan., we might be singing more loudly the praises of Florida and its consistency. This college basketball season has been anything but stable, marked by strange upsets, wild rants and teams that, for one reason or another, could never find their footing.

Florida, with its own set of issues, hardly faltered. Despite problems both accidental (injuries) and self-inflicted (suspensions), the Gators lost only two games this season, finishing the regular season with 23 straight wins. Within the SEC, their average margin of victory was a gaudy 13 points per game.

It is worth noting, as well as impossible to ignore, that, in a year and a sport dominated by freshmen, Florida succeeded with and because of seniors. Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young already have racked up 113 wins in their career, with two tournaments left to break the school record (117).

“When you invest four years like these guys have invested, it means something to them," Florida coach Billy Donovan said after his team's season-finale win against Kentucky.

What’s at stake?

Conference pride. The SEC has a legitimate national title contender in Florida, but other than that, it has a lot of "meh." No team outside the Gators has done much all season to distinguish itself, with more teams trying, it would seem, to stay on the bubble than get off it.

The SEC needs three teams especially to prove their worth -- Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri. The Razorbacks, seeded fifth, lost a dismal regular-season finale against Alabama to put them back in the bubble conversation.

Meanwhile, in a pick 'em NCAA game, Tennessee did everything right and Missouri everything horrifically wrong in a 72-45 Vols win.

All three have been woefully inconsistent this season, putting together questionable résumés that have made for that uncomfortable bubble perch. Arkansas managed to sweep Kentucky but lose to both Alabama and Texas A&M. Tennessee, the least guilty of the three culprits, has no real notable wins but some bad losses (A&M, Vanderbilt). Missouri beat UCLA way back when and lost to Vandy, Georgia (twice) and Alabama.

To avoid an uncomfortable viewing party on Sunday, all three need to make sure they don’t have any more awful losses, not just for themselves but for the sake of their league.

The football kingpin SEC continues to promise an improved product on the hardwood but, season after season, coach after coach, struggles to make it happen. It’s time the teams helped the league office out.

Team with the most to gain

Kentucky. Yes, the Wildcats are firmly in the NCAA tournament, but if there is a team that can use a dose of feel-good medicine, it is the Wildcats. Kentucky ended the regular season with a 19-point loss to Florida, the disheartening exclamation point on a season that never quite became what anyone expected.

The Wildcats, the preseason No. 1 team in the nation,  needed a tiebreaker to beat out Georgia for the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament.

But nothing cures the November-December-January-February blues quite like a good month of March. Kentucky is one good run from becoming a very dangerous team, and a hot start at the SEC tournament could be the spark.

This is a team that needs to believe in itself as much as anything. The only way for the Wildcats to do that is to start stringing together wins.