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March 8, 2007

SEC: Are the Gators finally back on track?

The top seed: Florida. There's no question the Gators have the SEC's most talented team. Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey, Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah give Florida a starting five that compares favorably to any lineup in the nation.

The Gators' status as defending national champions gave them an intimidation factor that served them well for most of the season. Florida enjoyed a 17-game winning streak midway through the year and clinched the SEC's top seed with plenty of time to spare. The Gators led the nation this year with a field-goal percentage of .528.

But teams started to figure the Gators out late in the season. Florida lost three times in a four-game span. Vanderbilt, Louisiana State and Tennessee all beat the Gators by double digits.

Florida endured a similar late-season slide last year before cruising through the SEC and NCAA tournaments. The Gators' 85-72 victory over Kentucky in their regular-season finale indicated they're returning to form as they head into the postseason.

Next best bet: Tennessee. This league is so balanced once you get past Florida that you won't find much consensus over which team is the Gators' greatest challenger. The three other teams to earn first-round byes Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Mississippi State own a combined 14-26 record away from their home floors.

Tennessee also struggled away from home this year, but the Volunteers are the SEC's hottest team after winning seven of their last eight regular-season games. Tennessee could struggle in its opening-round game against LSU if the Tigers play inspired basketball and Glen Davis is healthy, but the Vols also are the team with the best chance of knocking off Florida on a neutral court.

Dark horse: A conference with this many teams on the bubble includes more dark horses than a casting call for "Black Beauty."

Alabama and Louisiana State spent part of the year in the top 10 and have enough talent to challenge for a title when they're at full strength. But the precarious health status of Alabama point guard Ronald Steele and LSU's Davis make us wonder if these teams can win four games in four days.

You never can write off Kentucky, though the Wildcats' late-season slide makes a tournament title seem unlikely.

Mississippi State has perhaps the SEC's best one-two punch with point guard Jamont Gordon and power forward Charles Rhodes. The Bulldogs could beat just about anyone if they match the intensity they showed last weekend in a 91-67 thrashing of Alabama.

But we'll go out on a limb and pick Arkansas as the team that could make the biggest surprise. The Razorbacks may be playing to save coach Stan Heath's job and have a favorable draw.

If Arkansas beats South Carolina in the first round, it would face Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals. The Razorbacks already won 82-67 at Vanderbilt in their regular-season finale. Arkansas also wouldn't have to face Florida until the championship game.

Arkansas has one of the conference's deepest frontcourts plus the SEC's top freshman in guard Patrick Beverley. If inconsistent point guard Gary Ervin is having one of his good weeks, the Razorbacks could play their way into NCAA Tournament consideration.

SEC Tournament Schedule
All games at Georgia Dome, Atlanta
*Approximate game times
Thursday, March 8
Game 1: E4 Kentucky vs. W5 Alabama (1 p.m.)
Game 2: W3 Arkansas vs. E6 S.Carolina (*3:15 p.m.)
Game 3: W4 Auburn vs. E5 Georgia (7:30 p.m.)
Game 4: E3 Tennessee vs. W6 LSU (*9:45 p.m.)
Friday, March 9
Game 5: W1 Miss. St. vs. Game 1 winner (1:00 p.m.)
Game 6: E2 Vanderbilt vs. Game 2 winner (*3:15 p.m.)
Game 7: E1 Florida vs. Game 3 winner (7:30 p.m.)
Game 8: W2 Ole Miss vs. Game 4 winner (*9:45 p.m.)
Saturday, March 10
Game 9: Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner (1 p.m.)
Game 10: Game 7 vs. Game 8 winner (*3:15 p.m.)
Sunday, March 11
Game 11: Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner (1 p.m.)
NCAA locks: Florida (26-5, 13-3 SEC), Tennessee (22-9, 10-6), Vanderbilt (20-10, 10-6), Kentucky (20-10, 9-7).

Who still has work to do
Arkansas: Alabama actually has a better RPI than Arkansas (18-12, 7-9), but the Razorbacks' regular-season sweep of the Crimson Tide probably makes them the SEC bubble team most likely to earn an NCAA bid. The Razorbacks own an impressive non-conference victory over Southern Illinois, but they also had a losing record in conference play. Beating South Carolina in the first round won't be enough to earn an at-large bid. The Razorbacks probably also have to beat Vanderbilt in the second round to merit serious consideration.

Alabama: The season-long injury woes of preseason All-America point guard Steele have helped prevent the Crimson Tide (20-10, 7-9) from living up to expectations. Alabama lost five of its last seven regular-season games and was swept by Auburn, a team outside the top 100 in the latest RPI listings. Alabama faces a must-win situation in its first-round game with Kentucky. The Tide also might need to win a potential second-round game with Mississippi State. After all, if Alabama loses that game, it would have a tough time making a case it deserves an at-large bid more than a Mississippi State team that would have beaten the Tide twice in the last week.

Georgia: The Bulldogs (17-12, 8-8) went .500 in SEC competition while playing in the tougher Eastern Division, but their only quality non-conference win is a victory over Gonzaga. That victory doesn't look nearly as impressive as it did at the time. Georgia probably needs to win its first-round game with Auburn and also knock off Florida in the second round to have a realistic shot at an at-large bid. Perhaps playing in front of a friendly crowd in Atlanta could spur the Bulldogs to an improbable victory over the Gators.

Mississippi State: Gordon and Rhodes give Mississippi State (17-12, 8-8) a puncher's chance against just about anyone, but the Bulldogs have trouble closing the deal. They own a 0-6 record in games decided by five or fewer points. If Mississippi State had split those six games, the Bulldogs may have locked up an NCAA bid by now. As it is, the Bulldogs probably need to at least reach the SEC tournament final - and may need to win the whole thing.

Ole Miss: The Rebels (19-11, 8-8) were the biggest surprise in the SEC this year, but this Cinderella story probably will end in the NIT. Ole Miss hurt itself by dropping two of its last three regular-season games to fall to 8-8 in conference play. The Rebels probably needed to post a winning record in the SEC to have any shot at an at-large bid because their non-conference schedule was so weak. The Rebels could give the selection committee a difficult decision by reaching the SEC final, but they probably can't earn an NCAA bid without winning the NCAA Tournament.

Must win the conference tournament: LSU (16-14, 5-11), Auburn (17-14, 7-9), South Carolina (14-15, 4-12)

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