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THE ULTIMATE SEC tournament preview

With no clear favorite, the SEC tournament could be one of the most competitive contests of the postseason.

TAMPA -- Is the Southeastern Conference trending toward irrelevence in men's college basketball?

Irrelevance is probably and exaggeration but how's this for perspective: In the Big East, the conversation this weekend will be whether or not three of its teams are worthy of No.1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. SEC logo In the SEC, the conversation this weekend will be whether or not the league is worthy of having more than three teams just make the Big Dance.

Say this for the SEC: With so much parity -- 11 teams have at least six conference losses -- it should be an exciting four days of basketball in Tampa. If you live in the area, I suggest you go buy a ticket. Walk-ups are certainly welcome.

Only two teams enter this weekend's SEC Tournament at St. Pete Times Forum enter with an RPI better than 40: LSU (37) and Tennessee (22). The Tigers and Volunteers are considered locks for at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. Beyond that, everything else is guesswork leading up to Selection Sunday.

The NCAA Tournament's selection show will be televised by CBS on Sunday evening following the SEC tournament's championship game. Here's a breakdown of the eight SEC teams that we think could make a run at Sunday's championship game. We'll start with the best and work our way down...

LSU TIGERS (25-6, 13-3)
COACH: Trent Johnson (184-127 overall, 25-6 at LSU)
STARTERS: G Marcus Thornton (6-4) 20.9 ppg, F Tasmin Mitchell (6-7) 16.4 ppg, G Bo Spencer (6-1) 11.7 ppg, C Chris Johnson (6-11) 7.9 ppg, G Garrett Temple (6-6) 7.1 ppg
RECORDS: 19-2 home; 6-3 away; 8-2 last 10 games; 3-2 last five games
QUALITY WINS: Washington State (RPI 88) 64-52; South Carolina (RPI 49) 85-68; Mississippi State (RPI 83) 81-57; Florida (48 RPI) 81-75; Vanderbilt (RPI 85)
QUARTERFINAL GAME: LSU plays at 1 p.m. on Friday against the winner of Thursday's match-up between Kentucky and Ole Miss.
THE SKINNY: LSU coasted to the SEC regular-season championship and the Tigers are a lock for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. In is first season in Baton Rouge, La., Trent Johnson was named the SEC's Coach of the Year. Tigers guard Marcus Thornton was named SEC Player of the Year by league coaches. Will LSU's guaranteed spot in the NCAA Tournament lead to complacency this week. Eleven other teams certainly hope so. The Tigers lost their final two games of the season (Vanderbilt 75-67 and Auburn 69-53).

TENNESSEE (19-11, 10-6)
COACH: Bruce Pearl (413-119 overall, 96-35 at UT)
STARTERS: F Tyler Smith (6-7) 17.1 ppg, F Wayne Chism (6-9) 13.1 ppg, G J.P. Prince (6-7) 9.9 ppg, G Scotty Hopson (6-7) 9.3 ppg, G Bobby Maze (6-2) 8.6 ppg
RECORDS: 10-5 home; 6-5 away; 6-4 last 10 games; 3-2 last five games
QUALITY WINS: Georgetown (RPI 60) 90-78; Marquette (RPI 31) 80-68; South Carolina (RPI 49) 82-79, 86-70; Vanderbilt (RPI 85) 76-63, 69-50; Florida (48 RPI) 79-63, 79-75; Mississippi State (RPI 83) 81-76; 
QUARTERFINAL GAME: Tennessee plays at 7:30 p.m. on Friday against the winner of Thursday's match-up between Alabama and Vanderbilt.
THE SKINNY: Tennessee, sporting the nation's second highest strength of schedule, punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament after late-season wins against Florida and South Carolina. Forward Tyler Smith is a first-team all-conference selection. The Vols are a trendy pick to win the SEC Tournament but Tennessee hasn't had much success in the SEC Tournament under Bruce Pearl. LSU defeated Tennessee in the first round of the 2008 SEC Tournament.

SOUTH CAROLINA (21-8, 10-6)
COACH: Darrin Horn (111-48 overall, 21-8 at USC)
STARTERS: G Devan Downey (5-9) 20.2 ppg, G Zam Fredrick (6-0) 15.5 ppg, F Dominique Archie (6-7) 10.9 ppg, C Mike Holmes (6-7) 10.9 ppg, G Brandis Raley-Ross (6-2) 7.2 ppg
RECORDS: 16-2 home, 5-6 away, 6-4 in last 10 games, 3-2 in last three games
QUALITY WINS: Baylor (RPI 74) 85-84; Auburn (RPI 66) 68-56; Florida (RPI 48) 70-69; Vanderbilt (RPI 85) 86-76; Kentucky (RPI 78) 78-77, 77-59
QUARTERFINAL GAME: South Carolina plays at 3:15 p.m. on Friday against the winner of Thursday's match-up between Mississippi State and Georgia.
THE SKINNY: First-year coach Darrin Horn beat both Kentucky and Vanderbilt twice. Pretty nice start. Guard Devan Downey is a first-team all-conference player with a knack for clutch shooting. The Gamecocks are projected to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament but a win of Friday wouldn't hurt considering the perception of the SEC this season.

AUBURN (21-10, 10-6)
COACH: Jeff Lebo (193-137 overall, 78-74 at AU)
STARTERS: G DeWayne Reed (6-1) 13.1 ppg, F Korvotney Barber (6-7) 12.8 ppg, G Tay Waller (6-2) 12.4 ppg, G Rasheem Barrett (6-5) 9.4 ppg, G Quantez Robertson (6-3) 5.1 ppg
RECORDS: 16-3 home, 5-5 away, 8-2 in last 10 games, 4-1 in last five games.
QUALITY WINS: Tennessee (RPI 22) 78-77; Mississippi State (RPI 83) 91-76; Ole Miss (RPI 80) 77-64; LSU (RPI 37) 69-53
QUARTERFINAL GAME: Auburn plays at 9:45 p.m. on Friday against the winner of the Thursday's match-up between Florida and Arkansas.
THE SKINNY: Might want to pay attention to this one, Gators fans. Auburn is the hottest team in the SEC and came out of nowhere in the final month of the regular season to play its way in NCAA Tournament consideration. The Tigers lost to Mercer at the beginning of the season yet defeated SEC regular-season champ LSU in the final game of the season. Auburn 6-7 senior forward Korvotney Barber had 16 points and 17 rebounds against LSU and was named SEC player of the week. Surrounding Barber are four athletic guards who have found a way despite a short bench. Sixth-man Lucas Hargrove is averaging 8.2 ppg.

FLORIDA (22-9, 9-7)
COACH:
Billy Donovan (342-144 overall, 307-124 at UF)
STARTERS: F Dan Werner (6-8) 8.7 ppg, F Chandler Parsons (6-9) 9.6 ppg, C Alex Tyus (6-8) 12.4 ppg, G Nick Calathes (6-6) 17.7 ppg, G Walter Hodge (6-0) 9.0 ppg
RECORDS: 16-1 home, 2-7 away, 4-6 in last 10 games, 2-3 in last five games
QUALITY WINS: Washington (RPI 13) 86-84; Ole Miss (80 RPI) 78-68; Auburn (66 RPI) 68-65; Vanderbilt (85 RPI) 94-69, 82-68; South Carolina (49 RPI) 97-93; Kentucky (78 RPI) 60-53
FIRST-ROUND GAME: Florida plays Arkansas at 9:45 p.m. on Thursday. The winner plays Auburn at 9:45 p.m. on Friday.
THE SKINNY: The Gators salvaged their season at the 11th hour with its win against Kentucky on Saturday. Now Florida must at least two more games to even be considered for an at-large bid. Florida lost to Alabama in the first round of the 2008 SEC conference tournament. A few wins this weekend would restore some much needed confidence to a program that won three straight SEC tournaments from 2005-2007. Florida guard Nick Calathes is one of only two players in the country averaging more than 15 points, five rebounds and six assists but the sophomore has fallen off that pace in his last two games. He scored a season-low five points against Kentucky. The Gators will need a resurgent effort from Calathes to make a prolonged run in the SEC Tournament and reach the NCAA Tournament. Florida's thin bench could pose a problem, especially in the frontcourt. Reserve freshman center Kenny Kadji (6-10) is the Gators' only big man off the bench and he is averaging a mere 13 minutes a game. Freshman forward Allan Chaney (6-8) might not be available due to a foot injury. He has a strained ligament in his arch, according to UF coach Billy Donovan.

KENTUCKY (19-12, 8-8)
COACH: Billy Gillispie (137-83, 37-25 at UK)
STARTERS: G Jodie Meeks (6-4) 24.7 ppg, F Patrick Patterson (6-9) 18.4 ppg, C Perry Stevenson (6-9) 7.4 ppg, F Ramon Harris (6-7) 5.3 ppg, G Michael Porter (6-3) 4.0 ppg
RECORDS: 12-6 home, 6-3 away, 3-7 in last 10 games, 1-4 in last five games
QUALITY WINS: Kansas State (RPI 75) 74-72; West Virginia (RPI 26) 54-43; Vanderbilt (RPI 85) 70-60; Tennessee (RPI 22) 90-72, 77-58; Auburn (RPI 66) 73-64; Florida (RPI 48) 68-65
FIRST-ROUND GAME: Kentucky plays Ole Miss at 1 p.m. on Thursday
THE SKINNY: Kentucky limps into the SEC Tournament a shade of its former self. With two first-team all-conference players (Meeks and Patterson) among its starting five, the Wildcats are an underachieving bunch but worst of all Kentucky's misque has gradually faded since coach Billy Gillispie took over for Tubby Smith last season. Is Gillispie's job in jeopardy? That story could suffocate the Wildcats this week. The Wildcats are a long shot for an at-large bid and likely need to win the conference tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (19-12, 9-7)
COACH: Rick Stansbury (227-127 overall, 227-127 SEC)
STARTERS: F/C Jarvis Varnado (6-9) 13.0 ppg, G/F Ravern Johnson (6-7) 12.5 ppg, G Barry Stewart (6-2) 12.1 ppg, G Dee Bost (6-2) 11.4 ppg, G Phil Turner (6-3) 8.5
RECORDS: 13-5 at home, 5-4 away, 5-5 in last 10 games, 2-3 in last five games
QUALITY WINS: Houston (RPI 95) 82-65; Western Kentucky (RPI 45) 95-67; Vanderbilt (RPI 85) 73-66; Kentucky (RPI 78) 66-57; South Carolina (RPI 49) 75-70; Florida (RPI 48) 80-71; Mississippi (RPI 82) 82-80
FIRST-ROUND GAME: Mississippi State plays Georgia at 3:15 on Thursday.
THE SKINNY: Mississippi State could make a run through the SEC tournament and no one would really be surprised. Led by former Gator David Huertas, the Bulldogs lead the SEC in made three-pointers (8.5 per game) and come to Tampa on a two-game winning streak. State coach Rick Stansbury has quality become one of the veteran coaches in the SEC. This is his 11th season in Starkville. UF coach Billy Donovan is in his 13th season in the SEC.

VANDERBILT (19-11, 8-8)
COACH: Kevin Stallings (312-190 overall, 199-127 SEC)
STARTERS: C A.J. Ogilvy (6-11) 15.9 ppg, G Jermaine Beal (6-3) 12.8 ppg, G/F Jeffery Taylor (6-7) 11.9 ppg, G Brad Tinsley (6-3) 10.6 ppg, F Steve Tchiengang (6-8) 5.2 ppg
RECORDS: 13-4 home, 3-7 away, 7-3 in last 10 games, 3-2 in last five games
QUALITY WINS: Virginia Commonwealth (RPI 50) 71-66; Auburn (RPI 66) 82-75; Ole Miss (RPI 80) 71-61; Kentucky (RPI 78) 77-64; South Carolina (RPI 49) 75-67; LSU (RPI 37) 75-67
FIRST-ROUND GAME: Vanderbilt plays Alabama at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday
THE SKINNY: Center A.J. Ogilvy has found new life late in the season. He had 33 points and 10 rebounds against LSU last week. The Commodores are a darkhorse pick to win the SEC Tournament and earn the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

-jo-

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