The Florida Gators (22-9, 9-7 SEC East) are one of 10 teams that have a legitimate shot of winning the Southeastern Conference Tournament which begins in Tampa at the St. Pete Times Forum Thursday. This is one of the most wide open tournaments ever and realistically, Georgia and Arkansas are the only two teams that don’t have a prayer.
Georgia won last year’s bizarre championship, winning two games on Saturday after the tournament was shifted to Georgia Tech after a Friday night tornado ripped a hole in the roof of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. The Bulldogs were the worst team in the league going into the tournament but they had Sundiata Gaines, who took the team on his back and led them to the championship in one of the greatest upsets ever in SEC Tournament history. Georgia doesn’t have Gaines and interim coach Pete Herrmann is in charge this year so a repeat of last year just isn’t going to happen. Arkansas is one of the youngest teams in the country and the Razorbacks thin bench got one player shorter this week when Jason Henry was suspended. Arkansas could possibly spring an upset if Florida doesn’t come ready to play, but even those odds are long.
Florida has one of the easier draws in the tournament. The Gators get Arkansas Thursday (9:45 p.m.) and if they win that one, they get Auburn (21-10, 10-6 SEC West) in round two Friday (9:45 p.m.). Auburn is the hottest team in the league right now but the Gators match up well against the Tigers and should be favored.
If Florida can get two wins, you can write them into the NCAA Tournament. Two wins and they’re in the semifinals on Saturday. Tennessee is the top team in the Florida half of the bracket, but for the Vols to make the semifinals, they’re going to have to beat the winner of Thursday’s Alabama-Vanderbilt game. Tennessee will be praying for Vandy to win that one because Alabama has enough inside strength to be a bad matchup and the Vols have already beaten the Commodores handily this season. The Crimson Tide beat the Vols in Knoxville Sunday and if they face the Vols again, they will be a very confident team.
The top half of the bracket could be dicey. Kentucky has its back against the wall and that makes the Wildcats a dangerous team. If Kentucky gets past Ole Miss in the first round, the Wildcats are more than capable of knocking off SEC regular season champion LSU in the second round. In the bottom of that bracket, Mississippi State should get past Georgia in round one, setting up a very good second round encounter with South Carolina. Either South Carolina or Mississippi State will be a tough semifinal opponent for either LSU or Kentucky.
FLORIDA’S KEYS TO WIN TWO: Nick Calathes has to play two very good games. He ended the season on a sour note, poor games against both Mississippi State and Kentucky. If he returns to form and doesn’t force the issue, he can be the dominating player the Gators will need to win two games and make the NCAA field. The Gators will have to get something like 12-15 points per game out of Alex Tyus and he’ll need something like 6-9 rebounds per game. The third key will be to get some production off the bench from Ray Shipman and Kenny Kadji. Erving Walker is a very capable scorer off the bench but the Gators will need Shipman and Kadji to deliver.
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