JOHN L. PITTS: Another wild tournament expected in Atlanta

By John L. Pitts/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The last time the SEC men’s basketball tournament was held at the Georgia Dome, in 2008, it nearly brought down the house.
Remember? A mighty storm blew through downtown Atlanta during Friday night’s Mississippi State-Alabama game, forcing a delay of more than an hour – with the clock stuck at 2:11 in overtime – before the game, a 69-67 Bulldogs’ victory – could be completed.
Damage to the facility forced the remaining games to be moved to the Georgia Tech gym. The next day, Georgia played and won twice – beating heavily favored Kentucky and Mississippi State.
And the Georgia Bulldogs, who entered the tournament with a 13-16 record, won the whole thing on Sunday by beating Arkansas.
So when the weather started getting rough in the Southeast on Tuesday night, you bet SEC folks were paying attention.
“When I saw this morning there were tornado warnings in Alabama and Georgia, I said ‘Of course there is, because it’s tournament time,’” said Gregg Ellis, the media contact for Mississippi State’s men. Three years ago, he was in Atlanta as the MSU beat writer for the Daily Journal.
He was on press row when all heck broke loose during the 2008 storm. “You hear people say that a tornado sounds like a train,” Ellis said. “Heck yeah it does. …
“I remember looking up at the scoreboard above the court and it was swaying. That fabric in the Dome roof, whatever it is, was shredded and it was almost like it was snowing.”
Ellis has an unlikely souvenir of that night, a washer that fell from the supports in the ceiling.
“To this day, I don’t think people fully appreciate the job the SEC did to get that tournament back on track,” Ellis said. “In 12 hours, we went from a tornado to playing basketball again.”

Another wild tourney?
With or without a helping hand from the weather, could another extreme underdog storm through the SEC tourney field this weekend? And how would that affect the number of SEC teams that get invited to the NCAA tourney?
As of Wednesday morning, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi was projecting five SEC teams to make the field – Florida (3 seed), Kentucky (4 seed), Vanderbilt (6 seed), Tennessee (10 seed) and Georgia (12 seed).
Georgia just makes Lunard’s bracket by a whisker, though, and is projected to appear in one of the four play-in games – not all of which have to dump teams into the dread 16 seed this season.
What about Alabama, the SEC Western Division champs? Ask last year’s brutally snubbed Mississippi State team about that. If the Crimson Tide – or an other league team, including MSU and Ole Miss – want to go dancing, they’ll have to be cutting down the nets on Sunday. Which could, in turn, KO a team on the bubble, like Georgia.
It would be interesting to see regular-season champion Florida and its experience put to the test by Kentucky’s corps of one-and-done young players for the league title. That’s two very different approaches and would make for a dandy final.
A couple of dangerous teams, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, will have to play today and thus face a steeper path to Sunday. Georgia has a feasible path to the semifinals, at least, against Auburn and Alabama.
The X factor in all this is Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have played well enough lately – especially with a couple of big road wins – to make some serious noise this weekend.
The folks at the Georgia Dome will be hoping the teams and their fans are the ones doing all the roaring this weekend.

John L. Pitts (john.pitts@journalinc.com) is sports editor of the Daily Journal.