By Teresa M. Walker/The Associated Press
NASHVILLE — Tennessee is ranked 15th in the country and went 11-5 in the Southeastern Conference. So of course, the Volunteers are enjoying a first-round bye at the league tournament, right?
Tennessee (23-7) wound up as the Eastern Division’s No. 3 team and playing Thursday against LSU, the sixth-seeded team from the West. The Volunteers aren’t alone. Florida combined with Tennessee, No. 2 Kentucky and 20th-ranked Vanderbilt to sweep all 24 games they played against the SEC’s Western Division, and the Gators will play Auburn on Thursday night.
The disparity and the first-round byes enjoyed by Mississippi State (21-10, 9-7) and Ole Miss (21-9, 9-7) have prompted talk of reseeding teams one through 12 for the SEC tournament rather than by divisions with the top two teams in each division getting byes.
It’s a topic Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl will be happy to talk about when the season ends.
“Today the format is we play LSU at 2:15 tomorrow. That’s the only answer I have as it relates to the format today. In the offseason, I’ll comment on how conference tournaments … how we think their formats can be improved. Right now, we play LSU tomorrow at 2:15. It’s a fair question. I just don’t want to answer it right now,” Pearl said.
Pearl said he has noticed a discrepancy between the East and West since he arrived at Tennessee in 2005. He noted the Vols played before sold-out, or nearly sold-out, crowds while on the road against the Eastern Division. Empty seats were quite noticeable when playing against the Western Division.
“That opens the door for road teams to be able to come in there and win. What’s impressive as being 24-0 is however many games, 12-0 I guess, on the road,” Pearl said.
That’s exactly what Auburn coach Jeff Lebo is using as motivation for his Tigers in Thursday night’s first-round game with Florida (20-11, 9-7) — win one for the West.
“We know there were a lot of close games with the top four teams in the East,” Auburn senior Tay Waller said.
DESPERATION TIME: Tournament time means lose and go home for a handful of teams here, but South Carolina and Georgia are among the more dangerous opponents. South Carolina beat Kentucky and is coming off a road win over Vanderbilt last weekend. Georgia knocked off Tennessee and Vanderbilt this season.
“It’s do or die. We’re approaching every game as if it’s our last,” Gamecocks senior guard Brandis Raley-Ross said. “We know if we can get some wins and get some momentum, I think we’ll be fine. We’re just going to approach it one game at a time and not think about past events.”
The Georgia Bulldogs are very aware of what the program accomplished two years ago at the Georgia Dome by winning four games in four days, even despite the distraction of a tornado that forced a mid-tournament move to a small arena. Now senior guard Ricky McPhee redshirted that season, while sophomore forward Trey Thompkins watched on TV as a signee.
Georgia coach Mark Fox said a photo of that team holding the tournament trophy is in the Bulldogs’ locker room.
“I’m not going to pray for a tornado,” Fox said to laughs.
This team has 13 wins — just like that 2008 team. Now they start Thursday night in the last game of the first-round against Aransas (14-17, 7-9) and the No. 3 seed in the West to become the fourth Georgia squad since the SEC tournament resumed in 1979 to reach the title game.
“Outside of telling them to pack for a week, our entire focus has been on playing well on Thursday night,” Fox said.
PLAYING FOR JOB SECURITY: Of the coaches needing wins, none may need a victory or two here more than Auburn coach Jeff Lebo. His Tigers are 15-16 (6-10 SEC) in his sixth season, and his record is 96-92 in that time. The worst stat is no NCAA tournament berths and only one NIT appearance in 2009.
It won’t be easy with Auburn playing Florida with the Gators needing a win or two to secure their first NCAA berth since their last national championship in 2007.
“I’m focused on this team, focused on the tournament and focused on Florida, and that’s my total. That’s where all my energy has gone right now and to these kids. As in most cases, I think when the season’s over I’ll sit down with my AD and when the season’s complete we’ll have a conversation at that point,” Lebo said.
Lebo later talked with reporters in the hallway when Georgia coach Mark Fox walked by and patted Lebo on the shoulder.
Follow the SEC Tournament at the NEMS Daily Journal newspaper and NEMS360.com.