Originally created 03/02/98

Four ranked teams get first-round byes in SEC tournament



ATLANTA -- The Southeastern Conference's four ranked teams earned first-round byes for the league's postseason tournament.

No. 7 Kentucky, No. 12 Arkansas, No. 13 Mississippi and No. 14 South Carolina -- all sure bets for the NCAA Tournament -- won't play on the first day of the SEC Tournament that begins Thursday in the Georgia Dome.

The top two finishers in the SEC's Eastern and Western divisions got the first-round byes in the league's tournament. Kentucky won the East ahead of South Carolina, while Ole Miss and Arkansas finished 1-2 in the West.

The SEC tournament's first game, at 1 p.m. EST Thursday, has NCAA bubble team Vanderbilt (18-11, 7-9 SEC) playing Alabama (14-15, 6-10). Georgia (15-13, 7-9) and Mississippi State (15-14, 4-12) play at 3:15 p.m.

Tennessee (19-7, 9-7), another NCAA bubble team, plays LSU (9-17, 2-14) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Auburn (15-12, 7-9) takes on Florida (13-13, 6-10) in the final game of the first day.

Kentucky (26-4, 14-2), which has won five of the last six SEC tournaments, won the overall league title for the 39th time this season under new coach Tubby Smith. The Wildcats play at 1 p.m. Friday against the Vanderbilt-Alabama winner.

Kentucky is the defending tournament champion. Ole Miss, the No. 1 seed from the West, won its only SEC Tournament title in 1981, the same year as the Rebels only other NCAA Tournament appearance before last season.

Ole Miss (21-5, 12-4) overcame a three-game deficit in the West standings the last three weeks to defend its only regular-season SEC title. The Rebels carry an SEC-best seven-game winning streak into its 3:15 p.m. Friday game against Georgia or Mississippi State.

Arkansas (22-7, 11-5), which has lost four of its last six games, plays Tennessee or LSU at 7:30 p.m. Friday. South Carolina (21-6, 11-5) takes on the Auburn-Florida winner after that.

The semifinals are Saturday afternoon, and the championship game that will determine the league's automatic NCAA berth will be played at noon Sunday.

Jefferson-Pilot will televise the SEC tournament games played Thursday through Saturday. CBS will broadcast the championship game.

Vanderbilt's NCAA chances took a hit with a four-game losing streak to start February. The Commodores bounced back to win three of their last four regular season games, including a 73-56 victory over Florida on Saturday night, but will likely have to win two SEC Tournament games for an NCAA chance.

The Commodores face an Alabama team that upset No. 12 Arkansas 65-63 Saturday to deny the Razorbacks a share of the SEC West title. The Crimson Tide ended the regular season with three straight victories for outgoing coach David Hobbs.

Tennessee lost 77-72 at Georgia on Saturday, but the Volunteers got on the NCAA bubble by winning nine of 10 games before then. The Vols have won this year against Ole Miss, South Carolina and Arkansas, and lost by just six points at Kentucky.

The Volunteers' first-round opponent, LSU, has lost its last 11 games. The Tigers lost 63-62 to Mississippi State on a last-second basket Saturday night.