TAMPA, Fla. — College basketball in March is about getting hot at the right time. Just ask Georgia, whose shocking run through last year’s Southeastern Conference tournament provided proof that anything’s possible.
A repeat might not be out of the question, either.
SEC coaches agreed Wednesday that the SEC tournament is as wide open as it’s been in years.
Georgia, the No. 6 seed in the East, won four games in three days to claim the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament last March.
The Bulldogs had a midseason coaching change and finished in the basement of the SEC East again, yet arrived in Tampa on the eve of the league tourney talking about having what it takes to defend their improbable title.
Considering what they accomplished last year in Atlanta and this season’s unpredictable regular season — no team emerged as a clear-cut favorite for the league tourney — no one’s rolling their eyes.
“When you’re coaching in a league that is as competitive as this league, you have to feel confidence. You have to believe that your players can win,” Georgia interim coach Pete Herrmann said.
“Our players went up to Lexington and won at Rupp, and they beat a very good Florida team on our court. We just feel you’ve got to be competitive, and you’ve got to feel you can win.”
With nine of 12 teams uncertain about their chances of making the NCAA tournament, it figures to be an interesting week. Auburn enters on a roll after winning eight of nine, while Kentucky, Florida and even No. 20 LSU, the league’s only ranked team, struggled down the stretch.
Although LSU, which had won 10 straight before finishing the regular season on a two-game slide, and Tennessee are likely locks for the NCAA field, anything short of a 26th conference tournament title might not be enough for Kentucky.
Florida’s resume needs some bolstering, too.
But as Gators coach Billy Donovan notes, all the banter and speculation means nothing if his team doesn’t advance beyond today’s opening round.
“I don’t think you can go into this type of tournament or any type of tournament looking ahead, down the road or what’s in front of you,” said Donovan, whose team faces Arkansas (14-15).
“People talk about the tournament or what about Friday or Saturday or, ‘Can you win four games in a four-day period?’ We’ll worry about that if it ever gets there. That’ll be something we worry about then.”
Kentucky (19-12) plays Mississippi (16-14), Georgia (12-19) faces Mississippi State (19-12) and Vanderbilt (19-11) takes on Alabama (17-13) in the other opening-round games.
LSU (25-6), South Carolina (21-8), Tennessee (19-11) and Auburn (21-10) have byes and begin in Friday’s quarterfinals.
Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings and Mississippi State’s Rick Stansbury reject the notion that it’s been a down year for the SEC, which has sent at least five teams to the NCAA tournament each of the past 12 seasons.
“I think there may be more teams that are capable of winning this SEC tournament ... than maybe any other that either one of us have been in 10 or 11 years,” Stallings said.
“Hopefully there’s going to be a team that comes down here, gets hot and plays well. Maybe a couple of them. We certainly hope to be one.”
Stansbury defended the quality of play in the league, which has taken a beating with perennial powerhouse Kentucky and Florida, one of the stronger teams in the league over the past decade, struggling.
Tennessee began the year with high expectations, but has been inconsistent, too.
Stansbury suggested the SEC tournament is wide open because “everybody’s good.”
“We’ve got six, seven, eight, nine teams in this league that compete with a lot of people anywhere on a given night. So when you say down, I don’t look at us as down. I think it has the most balance that it’s had in a long time,” Stansbury said.
Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie went a step further, suggesting there’s really nothing unusual about the lack of a real favorite for the title.
“When you look at conference tournaments, tell me who is supposed to win any conference tournament? ... You look at the Big East, you look at the ACC, the Big 12, Pac 10, you look at every team every single conference and tell me who,” Gillispie said.
“I think they’ve been wide open forever. It’s a different format. You played 16 games over about a nine- or 10-week period, and now you’re trying to play three or four games over a two-, three-, four-day period. So I think there’s a lot of teams that could definitely win. But I don’t think it’s much different than it is normally all around the country.”
Yeah, but what Georgia did — winning four games in three days in a tournament thrown in disarray by tornadoes that forced a change of venue for the championship game — was pretty special.
Downright inspirational if you ask Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy.
“I don’t think it would be a surprise to anyone to see someone do that again this year,” Kennedy said.
“Georgia last year wasn’t the deepest team in the tournament, but they certainly caught lightning in the bottle. I know ... Florida is known for thunderstorms, so I’m going to have my bottle out this afternoon. Maybe we can catch a bit of that lightning, because we’ll need some.”