ATLANTA, GA — This is not the place that Tubby Smith or Mark Gottfried expected to be on day one of the Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament. Not only were they expecting a first round bye back when the season began back in November, but neither one figured he would be sitting squarely on the two hottest seats in the Georgia Dome.
Some publications had Alabama penciled in one of the Final Four berths. To say 20-10 and a 7-9 SEC regular season record is disappointing is one of the bigger understatements of the year. Losing to Kentucky, 79-67, in the first round of the tournament was not part of the plan. Nobody expects Kentucky to make the Final Four, but no one expected the Wildcats to come into the SEC Tournament playing on day one with double-digit losses for a second straight year, either. When talking about the Big Blue Nation, 25 wins in the regular season is bare minimum acceptable and anything short of making the SEC Tournament finals is fodder for an off-season filled with rumors and innuendo about the sad state of Kentucky basketball.
Kentucky at least had the advantage of entering this tournament a mortal lock for the NCAA Tournament. Past history isn’t supposed to matter, but who are we fooling here? Any time Kentucky makes it to 21 wins it’s money in the bank that the Wildcats will be somewhere in the field of 65 for the Big Dance. Making it to the NCAA Tournament, however, and measuring up to the through the roof expectations of Kentucky fans is a totally different story. That’s why columnists such as Rick Bozich of the Louisville Courier-Journal have called openly for Tubby to resign. That letter of “support” from Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhardt wasn’t exactly a shot in the arm for Tubby, either.
Alabama doesn’t have that luxury. Thanks to a below .500 SEC regular season and this first round loss, you can pencil in Alabama to host a first round game in the Nobody’s Interested Tournament (NIT). There will be plenty of talk about Mark Gottfried’s future between now and that first NIT game and heaven forbid if the Crimson Tide exit early. There was plenty enough talk here at the Georgia Dome Thursday that Gottfried could be a goner with a loss to Kentucky. An early NIT loss might make all the speculation hard hitting reality.
Kentucky sitting just above the Big Blue Nation’s Mendoza Line doesn’t fare well with the Wildcat faithful who keep wondering when Tubby will finally land a seven-footer that can actually play? Has there ever been a team so cursed by seven-footers? Last year Kentucky had 28-plus feet of seven-footers on the bench, all of them playing behind 6-11 Randolph Morris, who tends to play when he feels like it. This year there is only Lukass Obrzut to maintain the legacy of the seven-foot stiff. That Kentucky has so much trouble landing a seven-footer that can actually play is the finger on the pulse of what’s wrong at UK. It’s called bad recruiting, pure and simple.
Alabama’s situation is a bit more complicated. Ronald Steele’s bad knee has turned a surefire first team All-American into 12 non-eventful minutes off the bench here Thursday afternoon. If it isn’t bad enough that Jermareo Davidson lost his girlfriend and his brother within a couple of weeks, throw in a chronically sore back. It says a lot about him that he isn’t sitting on the sofa with a puddle of drool at gathering at his feet but it’s easy to understand that his resolve to play hasn’t exactly translated into a dominating performance on the court. There isn’t a program in the country that could live up to preseason expectations issues like that so it’s almost unfair that Gottfried is on the hot seat.
A look around the Georgia Dome Thursday afternoon spoke volumes about the collective mindset of Alabama and Kentucky basketball fans. Under normal circumstances, an Alabama-Kentucky basketball game in the SEC Tournament would fill the Georgia dome but there were plenty of fans disguised as empty seats. There was a large Big Blue Nation contingent but nothing like we’ve seen in years past. Because Kentucky won, there will be a larger Big Blue presence Friday but you get feeling that it’s a wait and see approach. Let the Wildcats win Friday and we’ll probably see the typical Kentucky contingent on Saturday. If they lose? Well, let’s just look at last year’s attendance at the SEC championship game in Nashville. It was announced at something like 11,000 but realistically, there were no more than 7,000 in the joint and at least 6,000 of those were Gator fans.
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Kentucky (21-10) got one of its most balanced scoring games against Alabama with five players in double figures including a 17-point, 11-rebound game from Morris who actually contributed on the defensive end with a blocked shot and a pair of steals. Ramel Bradley had 17 points while Joe Crawford knocked down 16. Jodie Meeks (12 points/four assists) and Bobby Perry (10 points) helped the Wildcats pull away in the second half and win comfortably. Richard Hendrix led the scoring for Alabama with 21 points.
The Wildcats will face Mississippi State in the quarterfinals Friday.
Arkansas moved on to the quarterfinals with an 82-52 win over South Carolina, which probably won’t get a chance to do a three-peat in the NIT thanks to a 14-16 record. Arkansas (19-12) needs at least one more win and probably two to get an invitation into the big dance. The Razorbacks play Vanderbilt Friday.
Arkansas was led by Gary Ervin and Darian Townes with 16 points apiece.
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Entering the tournament, the futures of Arkansas Coach Stan Heath and South Carolina Coach Dave Odom were thought to be rather shaky. With the win Thursday afternoon and the fact that Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles is retiring in May, Heath probably bought himself one more year. Broyles will probably leave the problem of replacing any coaches to the next athletic director and it might be September before there’s a new one in Fayetteville.
Odom’s status is a bit more precarious. Even though he’s won two straight NIT championships, the greatest accomplishments in Gamecock basketball history, Odom is not a particularly popular figure with South Carolina fans that want their program measured by trips to the NCAA Tournament, not the NIT.
Odom has recruited one of the best classes in the nation so that could save his coaching neck. If he gets the axe, however, look for a swift decision.