SEC’s automatic bid goes through Florida

By: Wally Hall
Published: Thursday, March 13, 2014
Florida head coach Billy Donovan yells to his player's in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Florida head coach Billy Donovan yells to his player's in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

ATLANTA - While Mount St. Mary’s was on top of the world Wednesday after winning the Northeast Conference Tournament, Atlanta was starting to take on an orange and blue glow.

The Mountaineers (16-16) will travel most likely from Moon Township, Pa., home of this year’s Northeast Conference Tournament, to Dayton, Ohio, to play against another NCAA Tournament No. 16 seed to see who advances to the main body of the tournament.

No one wants to go to Dayton before starting March Madness.

Yet some of the experts have Tennessee, as a No. 11 seed, and Arkansas, as a No. 12 seed, headed to what the NCAA politely calls “The First Four.”

Granted, being in a play-in game is better than the NIT, and it would give the SEC four teams in the Big Dance, and that would be a definite improvement over last year when the league received three bids. Indeed, it probably received that many because Ole Miss ran the table in the SEC Tournament, winning three games in three days to earn the league’s automatic bid.

The SEC had its own play in games Wednesday night, and today the nitty-gritty of the tournament begins with four games.

For years this tournament has been known as the Kentucky Invitational, but this year it has a definite Sunshine State appearance. Florida Gator fans have flocked here to support their team, which awaits the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday if it can remain undefeated against SEC opponents in the conference tournament this weekend.

It is here, today, where Arkansas and Tennessee must win if they hope to fulfill the predictions of others. If they advance to fight another day, it will be against each other and could serve as an elimination game for the Razorbacks.

The year before Atlanta became a fairly regular part of the Razorbacks’ travel plans because UA was joining the SEC, the Razorbacks rolled through this town like Gen. Sherman.

In 1991 the No. 1 seeded Razorbacks beat Georgia State and Arizona State and sent a van full of reporters and photographers driving onward to Charlotte, N.C.

The night we hit town here, starved, we found a wing joint that was open 24 hours a day. We also ate barbecue at a place where a guy offered to pinstripe our rental van while we ate. We thought we were in the ’hood. We were near Buckhead.

Just saying, Atlanta is a lively place.

The Hogs followed that up with a 93-70 victory over future conference foe Alabama in Charlotte, where they would win the national championship three years later. They were eliminated in the Elite Eight by Kansas in 1991, but notice had been served.

With Final Four and Elite Eight appearances, the Razorbacks were a new powerhouse on the block.

Arkansas has a history here, and it made history in 2000 when it went into the SEC Tournament after finishing a disappointing third in the SEC West and beat Georgia (71-64), Kentucky (86-72), LSU (69-67) and Auburn (75-67) to become the first SEC team since expansion to win four games in four days to secure the NCAA Tournament bid.

Only one other team has done that, Georgia, and it was during a crazy week when a tornado hit the Georgia Dome and the games were moved to Georgia Tech.

Anything can happen in any tournament. Mount St. Mary’s beating highly favored Robert Morris is a prime example of that. But this week, for any team to earn the automatic bid, it is most likely going to have to go through Florida, and the Gators may be the best team in the nation.

They have proved beyond a doubt this season that having four seniors is better than having six McDonald’s All-American freshmen.

It isn’t the Kentucky Invitational this year. It’s the Florida Challenge.

Sports, Pages 19 on 03/13/2014