NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The SEC tournament returns to Nashville for the first time in four years, and tickets are hard to come by.
Even some of the seats in the upper reaches of Bridgestone Arena are going for three times their face value, and watch those prices continue to soar if Kentucky is in the championship game on Sunday.
The Wildcats get a bye on Thursday along with Vanderbilt in the East and Mississippi State and Ole Miss in the West.
Here’s a quick glance at Thursday’s first-round games:
Game 1: Alabama vs. South Carolina
What’s at stake: Alabama coach Anthony Grant said his team is playing some of its best basketball of the season entering the tournament, but it’s been a bumpy ride at times for the Crimson Tide in Year No. 1 under Grant. Unless the Gamecocks get hot and win the tournament, they’re looking at a sixth straight season of staying home for the NCAA tournament. They haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1973.
What to look for: If South Carolina senior guard Devan Downey is on, he’s one of the most dangerous guards in the country. Just ask Kentucky. He had an ankle injury that bothered him the latter part of this season. Keeping him out of the lane will be Alabama’s greatest challenge.
Noting: The Gamecocks played their final 24 games this season without two of their best players, Dominique Archie and Mike Holmes. Alabama forward JaMycal Green, the team’s top rebounder and second leading scorer, was suspended and didn’t play in the Crimson Tide’s 79-70 win over the Gamecocks in Columbia. He’s back in Grant’s good graces now and will play Thursday.
Game 2: LSU vs. Tennessee
What’s at stake: The Tigers won just two conference games this season after winning the SEC regular-season championship a year ago under Trent Johnson. Two of those wins have come in their last four games. The Vols are already penciled into the NCAA Tournament, but a deep run in Nashville could improve their seeding. Right, now they’re probably a No. 4 or No. 5 seed.
What to look for: The Vols have been one of the hottest teams in the SEC, knocking off Kentucky at home a couple of weeks ago and whipping Mississippi State to ruin the Bulldogs’ Senior Day last Saturday. They’ve traditionally struggled in the SEC tournament, though, and have had some epic flame-outs early in the tournament.
Noting: Guard play has not been LSU’s strength this season, but junior Bo Spencer has turned it up in these last couple of weeks and averaged 17.7 points in his last three games. He’s also shot the ball better from 3-point range. Tennessee is 7-1 in Bridgestone Arena and has won six straight games in this building.
Game 3: Auburn vs. Florida
What’s at stake: It’s pretty simple for the Gators. Win or else. They’re sitting precariously on that NCAA tournament bubble for the third straight year. A loss to Auburn would make it difficult to make a case that the Gators deserve an NCAA bid. The next loss for Jeff Lebo may be his last one as the Auburn coach.
What to look for: If Auburn is going to pull the upset, the Tigers have to knock down 3-point shots. They attempt an SEC-high 25.6 3-pointers per game. Chandler Parsons has been the catalyst for the Gators. He’s a big guy who can shoot, handle the basketball and has also gotten better at working his way inside for tough shots. If the game’s on the line, he’s the one Florida will go to. He sank game-winning shots this season at the buzzer against North Carolina State and South Carolina.
Noting: The Gators would like to have a repeat performance at the free-throw line. They made 32-of-40 at the stripe to beat the Tigers during the regular season. Auburn is one of two teams in the SEC to have either led or been tied at some point in the second half this season in conference games. The other is Kentucky. Auburn senior guard Tay Waller has scored 20 or more points in five straight SEC games, the first Auburn player to do that since Wesley Person in 1994.
Game 4: Arkansas vs. Georgia
What’s at stake: Auburn’s Jeff Lebo may be the SEC coach with the hottest seat, but Arkansas’ John Pelphrey will be next in line if the Hogs don’t get it going. They enter the tournament on a five-game losing streak. Georgia has some of the best young talent in the league and also has enough muscle inside to make a run this week.
What to look for: Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie pose an explosive inside-outside tandem for Georgia. Thompkins has been a force scoring inside this season and is usually automatic on that turnaround jumper in the lane. The high-flying Leslie is one of the best finishers in the league. If you’re looking for a freshman who doesn’t play like a freshman, keep your eyes on Arkansas forward Marshawn Powell, who’s averaging 15.1 points, 6.7 rebounds and also becoming the Hogs’ best leader.
Noting: Arkansas guard Courtney Fortson, who was suspended for the first 14 games of the season, has averaged 18.1 points per game in his 17 games back as a starter. When he has it going, he’s good enough to take over games. But he’s also been known to shoot you out of a game. Fortson had 27 points in Arkansas’ 72-68 win over Georgia in Athens back in February. That’s a game the Bulldogs led by 15 points at the half. Georgia enters the tournament having lost three of its last four games.