News from the Tennessee Valley Sports
MONDAY, MARCH 14, 2005


Memo to SEC: Don't book Final Four trip

ATLANTA — For almost the entirety of the season, the basketball court of public opinion strongly told the country that the Southeastern Conference was down.

Glancing at this week's SEC tournament at the Georgia Dome, there's reason to believe that assessment was right.

The games were good and hotly contested, sure.

But no team stood out as a viable national championship contender.

By the end of Sunday's 70-53 Florida victory over Kentucky in the conference championship game, the best team in the SEC regular season looked like a shadow of its former respected self.

The possibility of a national champion coming out of the South is still a possibility. However, if it happens, it's sure to be a team from the Atlanta Coast Conference.

Five teams from the SEC are moving on to play for a trip to St. Louis., Mo., for the Final Four.

The NCAA tournament, however, will surely show why the experts were correct about the SEC being weak, with Florida, Kentucky, LSU, Alabama and Mississippi State providing the examples.

Of the five teams making their plans already, only three have a chance at making their way into the last 16:Florida, Alabama and LSU.

Florida, by way of its seven-game winning streak, is the hottest team in the league.

So much criticism has been thrust at coach Billy Donovan and his Gators because they tend to fold late in the season

No more. After winning three straight to take the conference tournament, Florida has proven that theory wrong.

In Alabama's case, the Crimson Tide got an extra day of rest for the NCAA tournament because its offense went through multiple dry spells against Florida in the semifinals.

The defense played well at times, but relying on guard Earnest Shelton is like standing on the side of a state highway outside of Moulton looking to hitch a ride — you're never sure when what you need will arrive at the right time.

Shelton is known to go cold, as he did against Florida a day after tying the tournament record with eight 3-pointers.

But then again, Alabama was in this situation exactly one year ago. It lost to Florida in the SEC tourney before making a run to the NCAA's final eight. The Tide made shots when it counted and stepped up the defense at the same time.

This Alabama team is capable of making another run to the round of 16 and beyond, if not only because its talent level is above what is needed for the NCAA tournament.

As for LSU, the Tigers have the right combination of size and skill. They're a team built for a tournament.

Glen Davis and Brandon Bass provide the size on the inside and Antonio Hudson has become a 3-point specialist.

That trio defeated Auburn in the quarterfinals and almost beat Kentucky in the semis.

But Bass has been silent at times. Hudson has turned reliable only in the last week or two, and Davis is still only a freshman.

Still, there's no doubt from watching LSU in the SEC tournament it can cause a lot of teams problems. Only squads like North Carolina, Duke, Illinois and Wake Forest can boast inside players that will cause LSU trouble.

That brings us to the remaining two teams: Kentucky and Mississippi State.

Mississippi State could be out by the weekend. The Bulldogs haven't recovered from their midseason swoon. Losing by 16 to Florida in the quarterfinals, Mississippi State proved that it didn't have enough heart to resemble the preseason pick to win the SEC West.

Lawrence Roberts, the 2004 SEC player of the year, hasn't dominated like he did last season and appears ready for his college career to be finished. Winsome Frazier, who missed the middle of the season, doesn't look like he's recovered from his foot injury.

Sunday's SEC final proved one thing — crash the boards, play good perimeter defense and quiet the Wildcats' faithful, and you have a good shot at defeating Kentucky. Florida did all three of those things against Kentucky.

The Wildcats are built for a season, not a tournament. They play well over the long haul, but in a one-and-done scenario, cold-shooting or bad boxing-out could spell doom.

All of that means one thing — when the Final Four is contested during the first weekend of April, you can be sure no SEC team will find its way into the Gateway city.

Bradley Handwerger Bradley Handwerger
DAILY Sports Writer

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