SEC Madness Headed Here In March
After this weekend's Super Bowl XLIII festivities end, Tampa can turn its attention to hosting another big-time sporting event - the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament on March 12-15. Who expected the Arizona Cardinals to reach Tampa? When March Madness gets here, what can we make of the unpredictable SEC? Just a few of the storylines to date:• Georgia, last season's miraculous SEC Tournament champion, has fired its coach (Dennis Felton) and Alabama's coach (Mark Gottfried) resigned in midstream. • The SEC went two weeks without a team in the USA Today rankings. Kentucky snuck in this week, then promptly lost at Ole Miss. • Arkansas made major non-conference waves by defeating Big 12 powerhouses Oklahoma and Texas. But the Razorbacks (13-5 overall) have lost four of their first five SEC games. •Tennessee (12-7, 3-2), once considered the league's best hope for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, has lost five of its last eight games - including four defeats at home. This season is an interesting juxtaposition to recent years of SEC basketball. In 2006, Florida and LSU made the Final Four. The next year, the Gators completed their second consecutive national championship. Tonight's Florida-Tennessee game will say something about the SEC's direction. If the Gators win, it will set up Florida-Kentucky as the conference's big game - and further plummet Tennessee into the SEC's depths. Or Tennessee could re-emerge and tighten up the standings. Either way, it looks like the SEC race is too close to call. Whether you define that as parity or mediocrity, the Road to Tampa already looks like a confusing path. WHO'S HOT The Penn State Nittany Lions. Penn State has won three straight games and is 5-3 in the Big Ten (its best conference start since going 6-2 in 1995-96). But watch out! Sunday, the Nittany Lions travel to powerful Michigan State. WHO'S NOT The Georgetown Hoyas (12-7, 3-5 Big East), who have dropped four straight games. It won't get easier today at Marquette. The Hoyas have lost 13 of their last 15 road games against ranked teams. BY THE NUMBERS Consecutive games lost by the Wisconsin Badgers, the program's first five-game losing streak in the Big Ten since 1998. Tennessee's record against Florida in the last nine matchups, covering the span when the Gators won back-to-back national championships. Winning streak by Marquette, its longest since the 2002-03 Final Four season, led by guard Dwyane Wade. Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference record of the Siena Saints (17-5), one of the Cinderella teams at last season's NCAA Tournament event in Tampa. Siena has lost against Kansas, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Wichita State. Career 3-point field goals by Texas guard A.J. Abrams, who has tied former Kansas player Jeff Boschee for the all-time Big 12 Conference record. THEY SAID IT "When I was younger, my father would talk to me about Dr. J, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney. But coming from Philly, it's the Spectrum. Everyone loves the Spectrum, respects it. It's just great to finish it off like that." - Villanova's Reggie Redding, a Philadelphia native who had 18 points in Wednesday night's 67-57 upset of Pittsburgh in the last basketball game to be played at Spectrum, which will be torn down later this year. "If we don't stop anybody and play better D, we can't be the team we want to be." - Syracuse's Jonny Flynn, after a 100-94 loss at Providence on Wednesday night. "If you don't get your defense set and don't keep them off the glass, every team in the nation will be in trouble. Their commitment to rebounding is second to none." - Iowa coach Todd Lickliter, after a 71-56 home loss against surging Michigan State. "I put on the board, 'Play humble, stay hungry and just play for the next game.' Don't answer any questions about seedings. Don't answer any questions about the tournament. Just answer questions related to the next game." - Louisville coach Rick Pitino on his team's one-game-at-a-time approach. The Cardinals (16-3, 7-0) are tied with Marquette for the Big East Conference lead. "Sometimes, you can tell a child not to touch the stove, but until he touches it, he really doesn't believe it's hot. Maybe we kept thinking we were OK." - Washington coach Lorenzo Romar after a 106-97 loss to Arizona, in which the Wildcats made 41 of 51 free-throw attempts (including 34 of 40 in the second half).
Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7353.