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Tournament Time

SEC Tourney viewed differently by many coaches

Georgia men’s basketball coach Mark Fox and the Bulldogs have a lot of work to do in the SEC Tournament if they want to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament. (Reuters)

Georgia men’s basketball coach Mark Fox and the Bulldogs have a lot of work to do in the SEC Tournament if they want to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament. (Reuters)

What does the SEC tournament mean for the teams playing in it? Depends on who one asks.

For some, it’s the end-all event that will determine whether seasons are extended beyond this week. For others, it’s a chance to validate what they’ve done in the regular season. For a select few, it’s little more than a nuisance, a speed bump for which they have to slow on their way to greater goals.

Kentucky normally fits into the latter category. But this year coach John Calipari sees the proceedings at the Georgia Dome as a more relevant affair for the Wildcats.

“Is it important for my team this year? Yeah,” Calipari said on the SEC coaches’ teleconference call earlier this week. “We’ve got to get our mojo back. Two weeks ago we were playing pretty good, and right now we’re not. So we’ve got to get it back.”

The Wildcats (22-9, 12-6 SEC) are NCAA tournament-bound as usual. But they aren’t in their normal position of playing for top seeding or to remain close to Lexington. The preseason’s No. 1-ranked team has lost three of its past four games, including an 84-65 drubbing at the hands of Florida on Saturday, and enters the postseason unranked. The Wildcats narrowly missed losing another game when it pulled out a one-point, overtime victory at home against LSU.

Calipari is trying to make sure his team doesn’t make an embarrassingly quick exit either from this tournament or the next one.

“It’s very important the next few days to get our mindset where it has to be,” Calipari said.

Florida, on the other hand, is in a place that Kentucky and Calipari are accustomed to being. The Gators enter as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team and the first SEC team in history to go 18-0 in league play.

It could almost be said that the Gators (29-2) could go nowhere but down in this event. Coach Billy Donovan this week expressed concerns about the energy his team might expend playing for the championship Sunday and having to turn around and play an NCAA tournament first-round game Thursday.

“I think the NCAA tournament needs to do something to move any teams that are playing championship games on Sunday in their conference tournament to playing on Friday,” Donovan said.

“They have to come home Sunday night, get on a plane and miss Selection Sunday, have to leave on Tuesday, have an open shootaround on Wednesday and have to play Thursday. It’s awful difficult for teams playing championship games on Sunday. I think those teams would have an automatic Friday play. That doesn’t always happen.”

Georgia is among many SEC teams that would love such a worry. The Bulldogs (18-12, 12-6) won eight of their past 10 games to run down Kentucky and tie for second place in the SEC. Georgia gets the No. 3 seed in the SEC tournament and the double-bye into the quarterfinals that comes with it.

But the Bulldogs need to win as many games as possible to have any chance of earning an NCAA tournament at-large bid. In fact, many bracket experts insist Georgia’s only way in is to win the SEC tournament and get the automatic qualifier that comes with it.

“They need to win,” Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com said of the Bulldogs. “They’re not an at-large. They’ve got way too many bad losses. There’s nothing for them as an at-large.”

Georgia coach Mark Fox thinks his team’s situation is decidedly less desperate, but knows full well this week’s tournament is hugely important.

“I don’t know if we’ll have to win it, but it sure takes the stress out of it if you do,” he said. “I think we’d have to advance to have a legitimate at-large chance. But if you advance you might as well win it.”

The Bulldogs have continued to be dogged by a 6-6 start to nonconference play that included losses to Georgia Tech, Davidson, Temple and Nebraska. They enter the SEC tournament with an RPI of 75, which is seventh among SEC teams. Generally anything higher than 50 in RPI is doubtful to receive an NCAA nod.

“Unfortunately there have been some teams in our league that have been in our situation — Tennessee a year ago, Alabama two years ago — where maybe a slow start, it cost them in the end,” Fox said. “But the truth is, without a slow start we don’t become who we are now. We had to experience. So we’re going to keep pushing. We still have lots of opportunity in front of us, and we have to be sure we address it accordingly.”

Tennessee (43 RPI), Missouri (52), Arkansas (57) and LSU (72) are in similar predicaments. And with the SEC ranked seventh among conferences in collective RPI, it’s hard to gain much ground beating each other.

“A couple of years ago we beat Florida in the finals and beat them really good, and it made no bearing on our seeding,” Calipari said. “That’s why I’m saying (then), ‘OK, what is the conference tournament for?’ … Now I’m saying whether it’s to play in or improve your seed, that’s why you’re playing in the tournament. My teams historically have been pretty good in tournament play, but it’s not been the end-all. The end-all is that next tournament.”