Teams fighting for postseason life at SEC Tournament

Tennessee guard Quinton Chievous (31) celebrates a 3-pointer while Missouri forward Tony Criswell (3) looks on during their game Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn.

Tennessee guard Quinton Chievous (31) celebrates a 3-pointer while Missouri forward Tony Criswell (3) looks on during their game Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn. Photo by The Associated Press.

When it comes to teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble, the Southeastern Conference seems to have more than its share.

Combine that with a lack of dominant teams at the top, and the SEC Tournament that tips off today in Nashville, Tenn., has the makings to be an interesting five days.

With only Florida a certain lock for the NCAA Tournament, the remainder of the week will feature a string of desperate teams clinging to NCAA Tournament hopes. Teams such as Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi all have things to prove to the selection committee if they want to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.

“It’s definitely wide open,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said.

It’s been that way all conference season. Only one game separated second from sixth place and all of those seeds were up for grabs entering the final day of the regular season.

Another sign it could be anybody’s tournament? Only Auburn, which enters the tournament on a nine-game losing streak, has a winning or losing streak of more than two games entering postseason play.

“I think it’s going to be crazy, I think it’s going to be crazy,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.

If the final few weeks of the regular season were any indication, the tournament may play out just as Calipari said.

Aside from streaking Tennessee, which has won eight of nine to put itself into tournament contention, other SEC bubble teams have had recent head-scratching losses that could prove costly when Sunday rolls around.

Mississippi may lead the pack when it comes to what the selection committee may deem as bad losses.

After starting out 17-2 and reaching the top 25, the Rebels went 6-6 in their final 12 games, including a loss to Mississippi State, which has just six scholarship players.

“We try not to speculate on that,” Mississippi assistant coach Bill Armstrong said of his team’s NCAA Tournament chances. “Our goal is to try and win the SEC Tournament. So we’re going to go in and try to win Friday night ... We just know that we’re going to the SEC Tournament to try and get as many wins as we can and after that it will be left up to everyone else.”

Mississippi is not alone.

After losing starter Nerlens Noel to a torn ACL in February, defending national champion Kentucky was left for dead. It lost to Tennessee by 30 in its next game and had a loss at Georgia mixed in. But the team rallied at home to beat Florida and Missouri, keeping its hopes of a berth alive.

“I’m proud of what this team has accomplished with all the injuries and all the other stuff that’s gone on,” Calipari said. “But we’re still fighting. That’s what tournament time is all about.”

Alabama finished 12-6 in league play and looked like it was playing its way into the tournament. But the Crimson Tide dropped three of their final five games. With a 49-37 loss to last-place Auburn on its record, Alabama may need to reach the title game to have a shot at the tournament.

Missouri appears like it has done enough to reach the Big Dance for the fifth straight season. But if the Tigers are upset in Thursday’s second round by either Texas A&M or Auburn, all bets could be off.

Some of the late wildness to the season could be attributed to parity, or the lack of an elite pack of teams at the front. Only Florida was ranked in the final regular-season AP Top 25 poll. But even the Gators have been in a late-season funk, entering tournament action having split their last six games.

The SEC ranks eighth as a league in RPI according to CBS Sports, behind conferences such as the Atlantic 10 and Pac 12.

“Already we have a team (Liberty) that has 20 losses in the NCAA Tournament,” Haith said. “It’s just a new season basically. Who’s going to get hot right now? Who’s going to play their best basketball? Liberty did that in their conference tournament and they are in the NCAA Tournament. That gives hope for everybody.

“We’re going to play Texas A&M (or) Auburn. They are both going to be playing very hard. They’ve got a chance. ... Anybody can beat anybody. Everybody’s got hope.”

Note: Missouri is the No. 6 seed and has a first-round bye. The Tigers will play the winner of today’s game between No. 14 Auburn and No. 11 Texas A&M at 9 p.m. Thursday (KMIZ-TV). The winner Thursday advances to the quarterfinal against No. 3 Mississippi at 9 p.m. Friday.


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