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March 12, 2008

Tennessee hopes to break through in SEC

TITLE CONTENDERS

Tennessee: The Vols have been the class of the league all season. They're still a heavy favorite according to the league's coaches despite an embarrassing SEC tournament record: No UT team has reached even the semifinals since the conference split into divisions in 1992. They were the East No. 1 seed two years ago and lost in the first round. "Our fan base is tired of coming down and having to go home on Friday," coach Bruce Pearl said on Monday's SEC teleconference. "We're playing to try to maintain and secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament." If there ever were a season to break through, this is it.

AT A GLANCE
Chris Lofton and Tennessee are hoping to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

WHEN: March 13-16 (title game on CBS at 1 p.m. EDT).
WHERE: Georgia Dome, Atlanta.
EXPECTED NCAA BIDS: 5. Barring any major tournament surprises, the SEC figures to be a lock for no more and no less than five NCAA bids. The givens in the Eastern Division are Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. The invitees from the West will be Mississippi State and Arkansas. Florida, the fourth seed in the East, has a decent overall record but was just .500 in league play and has a crippling strength-of-schedule ranking (85th overall, 274th in non-conference games).

TOURNEY SCHEDULE
FIRST ROUND - THURSDAY
E5 So. Carolina vs. W4 LSU, 1 p.m.
W6 Auburn vs. E3 Vanderbilt, 3:15 p.m.
W5 Alabama vs. E4 Florida, 7:30 p.m.
E6 Georgia vs. W3 Ole Miss, 9:45 p.m.
SECOND ROUND - FRIDAY
E1 Tennessee vs. E5/W4 winner, 1 p.m.
W2 Arkansas vs. W6/E3 winner, 3:15 p.m.
W1 Miss. State vs. W5/E4 winner, 7:30 p.m.
E2 Kentucky vs. E6/W3 winner, 9:45
SEMIFINALS - SATURDAY
Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 1 p.m.
Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 3:15
FINAL - SUNDAY
Semifinal winners, 1 p.m.

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs won the SEC West going away. They're a physical team that has been among the nation's best in field-goal percentage defense, led by SEC Defensive Player of the Year Jarvis Varnado. Offensively, it all starts with playmaking point guard Jamont Gordon, who at 6 feet 4 and 230 pounds is a difficult matchup for any SEC team. Throw in steady forward Charles Rhodes and outside shooters Barry Stewart and Ben Hansbrough and you've got a team that might not have to wait for an at-large bid to the Big Dance.

SLEEPERS

Vanderbilt: The Commodores beat both division champions this season, something no other SEC team can claim. When SEC Player of the Year Shan Foster is hot, which is a whole lot of the time, Vanderbilt is a tough out. Just ask Tennessee, against whom he dropped 32 points, and Mississippi State, on whom he went off for 42.

Kentucky: The Wildcats were supposed to fall apart without freshman forward Patrick Patterson, a terrific low post player who not only scored steadily but opened up the perimeter for Kentucky's talented guards. But since Patterson's injury, coach Billy Gillispie has adjusted his offense to feature the guards more. Also, forward Perry Stevenson suddenly has become a force (11 ppg, 10 rpg since Patterson's injury; 5.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg overall for the season).

Arkansas: The Razorbacks were preseason favorites in the SEC West, so there is belief in the talent on first-year coach John Pelphrey's roster. The Hogs haven't played particularly well down the stretch, losing five of eight. However, anytime you have Sonny Weems and Patrick Beverley, you're capable on any given day.

FILLING OUT THE FIELD

Alabama: The Crimson Tide played well over its final four games and could surprise Florida in the first round. But Richard Hendrix and Co. would have their hands full against Mississippi State, which swept them, in the quarterfinals.

Auburn: The Tigers went 2-10 in their final 12 regular-season games, so there's every reason to believe they're one and done. But they did give first-round opponent Vanderbilt fits at Memorial Gym in their only meeting this season.

Florida: The Gators have a nice inside-outside combination in freshman guard Nick Calathes and sophomore center Marreese Speights. But even if they survive their first-round game against Alabama, which is hardly a given, they'd run into Mississippi State.

Georgia: The Bulldogs won only two of their final 13 games. Unless they upset Ole Miss, they're one and done.

LSU: The Tigers have come on a bit under interim coach Butch Pierre. They're 5-4 during his brief tenure, good enough to get the No. 4 seed in the West. But if they win their first-round game, Tennessee looms.

Ole Miss: The Rebels won 15 of their first 16 games this season. They then won three of 11 before ending the season on a three-game winning streak. If they've gotten back to being the team they were when the year started, they could spring a surprise on Kentucky in the quarters and reach the semis. They probably need to get to the final to have an at-large shot.

South Carolina: The Gamecocks have a devastating force in point guard Devan Downey, but LSU's size is a tough matchup in the first round. Coach Dave Odom already has announced he's stepping down after the season.

MORE: Rivals.com Daily Bubble Watch | Drive for 65: Forecasting the Field | Play Tourney Pick'em

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Tuesday at 8:15 a.m. ET and can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.



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