By Gene Phelps
NEW ORLEANS Welcome to the Kentucky Tournament, a.k.a. the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Kentucky’s tournament? Why the name change? Why not? The Wildcats come to this postseason conference dance at the Louisiana Superdome as the unbeaten, undisputed leader of the band. The Wildcats, ranked No. 1 by both national polls, cruised through the league, racking up 16 consecutive wins and smacking opponents by an average of 23.3 points per game.
This team, with its controversial un-Kentucky blue denim uniforms, the league’s player of the year, Tony Delk, and the bench that averaged 32.6 points, 15.2 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game, comes in the runaway favorite to claim a fifth straight tournament championship.
True blue UK fans see this visit to the Crescent City as a stopover on the way to a national title for Rick Pitino’s talented bombinos.
“It will be interesting to see if anybody can give them a contest,” said Mississippi State forward Whit Hughes, whose own SEC Western Division championship team was pulverized 74-56 by the Wildcats in Starkville.
Added Hughes’ coach, Richard Williams: “Until somebody beats them they are the favorite.”
The Wildcats’ first tournament test will be Friday against one of two lightweights Ole Miss or Florida. That’s like saying, you two mugs fight it out and the winner gets a piece of Mike Tyson. Gee, thanks.
But enough about Kentucky. The preliminaries start today with four games on the docket.
Florida (11-15) and Ole Miss (12-14 tip off the festivities with a noon game. Vanderbilt (17-12) and Auburn clash at 2:15 p.m., with the winner playing No. 25 Mississippi State (19-7) in a Friday matchup.
Ironically, State’s final two games of the regular season were against Vandy (69-64 loss) and Auburn (67-51 win).
The night session has South Carolina (16-10) and LSU (12-16) meeting at 6:30, followed by Alabama (16-10) and Tennessee (13-13) at 8:45. Arkansas (17-11) plays the Gamecock-Tiger winner while Georgia (18-8) takes on the Tide-Vol winner in Friday’s other two games.
Georgia comes in as the league’s second hottest team. First-year coach Tubby Smith’s Bulldogs have won four straight and seven of their last eight.