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SEC/ACC BASKETBAL TOURNAMENT PREVIEWS: Bulldogs need good showing to lock up NCAA spot; FSU limps into conference tourney

Photo by Aaron Daye

Photo by Aaron Daye

ATLANTA -- As soon as the regular season was over, Mark Fox spent some time going over his bracket.

Who's already in with an automatic bid? Who's struggled down the stretch? Who's making a late push to grab a bid?

As things stand now, the Georgia coach figures his team has done enough to lock up its NCAA spot. But Fox, of course, isn't the one making the call. So, it would probably behoove the Bulldogs to win at least one more game in the Southeastern Conference tournament, which begins Thursday at the Georgia Dome.

Ditto for Alabama and Tennessee.

Not to confuse sports, but this tournament should probably be called the Bubble Bowl.

"I don't know what assures us of getting in," Fox said. "With our RPI and strength of schedule, you could make an argument that we don't have to do anything more to get in. But I certainly don't feel comfortable saying that."

Only three SEC teams seem assured of NCAA bids, no matter what they do in Atlanta: No. 12 Florida, the regular-season champion; No. 15 Kentucky; and Vanderbilt, which has an RPI rating inside the top 30.

Beyond that, it's all guesswork:

-- Tennessee (18-13, 8-8) has an RPI in the mid-30s and played one of the nation's toughest schedules, including huge wins over Big East powerhouses Pittsburgh and Villanova. But the Vols are still tainted by a one-point defeat to 20-loss Charlotte and they only finished fifth in the SEC East.

-- Georgia (20-10, 9-7) also has a solid RPI (No. 39) and no ugly losses on its resume. On the down side, the Bulldogs lack a bunch of signature wins, outside of beating Kentucky at home. Also, their national reputation is lacking, having reached the NCAAs only once since an academic and pay-for-play scandal brought down former coach Jim Harrick in 2003.

-- Alabama (20-10, 12-4) won the SEC West with the second-best mark within the league. But its schedule was weak, its RPI a dismal 83rd. The selection committee will not look favorably on hideous losses early in the year to Seton Hall, Iowa and Saint Peters.

"I think this next week will kind of answer some questions for everybody," Crimson Tide coach Anthony Grant said. "We can't really focus on the past. We've just got to make sure we take care of today, and hopefully at the end of the day the selection committee will feel that (Alabama is deserving) with us going 12-4 in the SEC and winning 15 of the last 19."

Tennessee certainly isn't taking anything for granted, even though its RPI would normally be considered well within the range for an at-large bid.

"You never want to feel like you've done enough," coach Bruce Pearl said. "We feel like we've got something to play for. We know the more we win, the more we'll improve our resume."

The tournament starts off with four games, including a downright crucial one for Georgia. The Bulldogs take on last-place Auburn (11-19, 4-12), a steadily improving team that took them to overtime in Athens last month. By most calculations, this is a must-win for Fox's team.

Tennessee might be in the same boat, trying to avoid a potentially devastating one-and-done when it opens against Arkansas (18-12, 7-9). The Razorbacks beat the Vols early in the season, while Pearl was serving an eight-game SEC suspension for lying to investigators in an NCAA case.

The other games Thursday: South Carolina vs. Mississippi and Vanderbilt vs. LSU.

For those on the outside looking in, such as Ole Miss, the conference tournament provides a second chance to pull out an improbable NCAA bid.

Stranger things have happened. The last time the SEC was in Atlanta back in 2008, a tornado struck the Georgia Dome during the quarterfinals. The remaining games were shifted to Georgia Tech's campus arena, and last-place Georgia won the tournament -- and the automatic NCAA bid -- in a stunning upset.

"This is a new life for everybody," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "Most definitely for a team in the situation that we are in. For us, it's about survival and advance."

The top two in each division -- Florida and Kentucky from the East, Alabama and Mississippi State from West -- receive byes into Friday's quarterfinals.

With the balance of power clearly swinging toward the East this year, there has been talk of changing the brackets for the conference tournament to give a bye to the top four, regardless of which division they play in.

Fox, not surprisingly, is among those who favors a new system.

"I voted to change the format last year," he said. "This season hasn't changed my stance on that. I really feel like we need to take a hard look at it."

Florida is just relishing the thought of coming into the SEC tournament without the pressure of having to play its way into the NCAAs. The Gators missed out in 2008 and '09, slipped in a year ago.

Now, they're tuning up for the Big Dance.

"When you focus on just making the NCAA tournament, it's harder to focus on the goal of winning the SEC championship," guard Erving Walker said. "You're focused on how many games you have to win."

He'll gladly let other teams fret about that.

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DUKE STILL FAVORITE TO WIN ACC:

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- While fifth-ranked Duke isn't the top seed in this week's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, the Blue Devils have history of winning regardless of where they're seeded.

Duke is the No. 2 seed as it tries to win the tournament for the 10th time in 13 years, a run that has pushed the Blue Devils ahead of rival North Carolina for most titles with 18.

"We always thought it was really important, and it is, and prepared as such," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It's a lot, there's no question about that. You have to be a little bit lucky. ... We were good and probably healthy and we placed a lot of importance on it."

The emphasis has worked for the Blue Devils (27-4), the highest ranked ACC team in The Associated Press Top 25. Their run has spanned some of Duke's biggest names like Elton Brand, Jay Williams, Shane Battier and J.J. Redick.

Now, with reigning ACC player of the year Nolan Smith and returning Final Four most outstanding player Kyle Singler, the Blue Devils can erase some of the sting of losing the regular-season title to the Tar Heels in Saturday's winner-take-all matchup with another strong showing in Greensboro.

"Any tournament situation, every team's kids are going to go out and play as hard as they can," Smith said. "But if you're prepared better than the opponent, then you have a better chance of winning. And our coaching staff just does a great job of staying up all night, waking us up early and having film ready for us to see who we're getting ready to play. We listen."

Duke had a record run of five straight titles from 1999-2003, then lost in overtime to Maryland in the 2004 final. The Blue Devils came back to win two more in 2005 and 2006, then won the past two seasons. Five of those nine championships have come as a No. 2 or a No. 3 seed, while the 2001 and 2010 ACC tournament titles helped propel the Blue Devils on NCAA championship runs.

The Blue Devils have remained steady while other teams have risen then fallen away over the years. They've beaten six different teams in the final and won the tournament in years when Maryland (2002) and North Carolina (2005, 2009) went on to win national championships.

Duke's immediate concerns are regrouping after the emotional loss to the Tar Heels as well as Singler's shaky shooting of late.

"They've set the standard which right now a lot of the programs in the ACC are being compared to on a yearly basis," said Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, whose Seminoles lost to Duke in the 2009 final. "But with all that said, I think anything is capable of happening when you have two ACC teams together.

"Duke's been able to be more consistent than the rest of us, but not because they haven't been in some very competitive games. They've just had a little bit of an edge and they've been able to overcome some of the things the rest of us have not been able to overcome."

Of course, the Tar Heels will wear an equally glaring bullseye as the No. 1 seed even after spending all season climbing the league standings. North Carolina has won 17 of 19 games since a December loss to Texas on a last-second shot in the Greensboro Coliseum.

"It's just a slight change of focus knowing that the target's on our back," said freshman Harrison Barnes, the ACC rookie of the year. "We're coming in as the No. 1 seed so everyone's going to come have it out for us. We have to come ready to play."

There's plenty of intrigue behind the top two seeds. Third-seeded Florida State hopes top scorer and rebounder Chris Singleton might return after missing a month with a broken right foot. The 6-foot-9 junior practiced with the team in Greensboro on Wednesday night and appeared to move well, but Hamilton said Singleton's status remains in question.

"If I'm ready," Singleton said, "I'll play."

The next three seeds -- Clemson, Boston College and Virginia Tech -- are playing to help their chances of making the NCAA tournament.

The NCAA uncertainty has become an annual tradition for the Hokies, who missed the NCAAs the past three seasons. This time, they followed a resume-enhancing upset of Duke by losing to the Eagles and Tigers to close the regular season. Virginia Tech faces Georgia Tech in Thursday's last first-round game.

"Right now, we're not playing this game for the bubble talk," Hokies all-ACC guard Malcolm Delaney said after Wednesday's practice here. "We're trying to win a championship. If we don't get there, then we don't."

In addition, there's are questions about the job security for Miami coach Frank Haith, North Carolina State coach Sidney Lowe and Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt. Their teams are seeded 9, 10 and 11, respectively.

Lowe called the questions "part of the business" and said he wasn't focused on whether he's done enough to return for a sixth season.

"You know what, that's not in my hands," Lowe said. "That's in other people's hands and we're going to see what we'll do here. Right now the focus is to try to come into this tournament and try to win."