Originally created 03/09/06

No clear winner emerging in SEC



NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The 18th-ranked Louisiana State University Tigers say they're saving their best for the NCAAs. Other Southeastern Conference teams, including Kentucky, still have lots to prove in the league's tournament.

The first round begins today with the 25-time champion Wildcats playing their first game ever on the opening day. Regular-season champion LSU, No. 14 Tennessee, No. 16 Florida and Alabama hold the top four seeds and byes this year.

The SEC hopes to get six teams in the NCAA Tournament.

The Tigers (22-7) don't have to worry about earning an NCAA berth, but coach John Brady is more concerned about the health of two of his top players. Tyrus Thomas, one of the SEC's best rebounders, is recovering from a sprained right ankle, and point guard Darrel Mitchell has a sprained left ankle.

"I don't think we have anything to prove. I don't think we have anything to accomplish in the SEC tournament besides continuing to try to play well," Brady said.

The Wildcats (19-11) enter as the East's No. 3 seed and are playing in the first round for the first time since the tournament was revived in 1979. They didn't win a first-round bye for the first time since the league split into divisions in 1992.

Kentucky has owned this tournament, winning 25 of the 44 the Wildcats have played. Its all-time record is 107-18. The Wildcats won the 2001 tournament at this arena and are 63-25 all-time in Nashville.

But this hasn't been a typical year for Kentucky, which went 4-4 against SEC opponents in Rupp Arena. Coach Tubby Smith says his team definitely must play well in the tournament.

"Everybody's watching this time of the year. It's another opportunity for us to reach one of the goals we've set at the beginning of the year, knowing we didn't achieve our first goal of winning the SEC regular season title or even tying for it or being second," he said.

The Wildcats' first-round opponent is Mississippi, a team they beat 80-40 at home Feb. 22.

With Kentucky struggling, LSU, Florida, Kentucky and Arkansas are among the favorites to win.

Arkansas (21-8), trying to reach the NCAAs for the first time since 2001, enters on a five-game winning streak.

The Tigers would be at a slight disadvantage without Thomas, who hasn't played since Feb. 25, but they finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak. LSU has reached the finals five times, the last in 1993.

Florida (24-6), the defending tournament champs, won 79-64 at Kentucky on Sunday to earn the East's second seed. Coach Billy Donovan believes there is no real favorite. After all, the Gators were swept by South Carolina, the fifth-place team in the East.

"I don't think anybody beating anybody is going to be a surprise to any coach in this league because of the balance and the parity," he said.

Tennessee (21-6), a team that went from four mediocre years to being mentioned as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, has a lack of size and depth that could prevent a run here. But first-year coach Bruce Pearl promises his team will play hard.

"Anytime you can win a championship, it's worth playing for," he said.

The first round could be the last game Rod Barnes coaches for Mississippi (14-15). School officials announced last week he would not return next season. His Rebels open with Kentucky, having lost 12 of their past 13 games.

When the Rebels were asked Wednesday about playing their last game under Barnes, the coach interjected: "We're going to play in the NCAA Tournament, so this is not their last go-round with me."