Ahead of facing Florida in a pivotal season-finale, Kentucky coach John Calipari curled a wry smile and spit out a pithy mantra upon March’s arrival.
“It’s a one-game season,” Calipari said. “Are you going to play through the ups and downs, or are you gonna die?”
The SEC tournament tips off at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., with a bevy of story lines to track and fates to be sealed in what can safely be described as wide open when No. 12 seed South Carolina and No. 13 seed Mississippi State meet at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
No. 13 Florida (24-6), the regular season champion and laden with seniors, is the No. 1 seed and prohibitive favorite.
From there, pick your cliché to describe a season in which only three games and a myriad of tiebreakers separated second-seeded UK (21-10) and No. 9 seed LSU (18-11) in the 14-team bracket.
“I believe this tournament is going to be crazy,” Calipari said Monday.
Heightening the tension are the bubble fates of UK, No. 3 seed Ole Miss (23-8), No. 4 seed Alabama (20-11) — all of whom have double byes into Friday’s quarterfinals — and fifth-seeded Tennessee (19-11).
Saturday, Kentucky, No. 50 in analyst Jerry Palm’s RPI, notched a critical victory over the Gators to potentially land in one of four play-in games for the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats’ aspirations, though, probably won’t be helped with a victory over the winner of a meeting between seventh-seeded Arkansas (19-12) and No. 10 seed Vanderbilt (14-16) on Friday. Instead, the résumé will probably require defeating Ole Miss or No. 6 seed Missouri (22-9), which is considered an NCAA lock, in the semifinals Saturday.
Calipari understands the tournament’s games might beef up his program’s résumé but is far from keen on a format that requires at least three victories over three days after the grind of a 30-game regular season.
“There’s an importance to the game, but not to the tournament itself,” Calipari said. “Other years, it’s, ‘You’ve got to win this one, or you’ve got to win two, or you’ve got to win the whole tournament.’ There’s an importance to it that way.”
The Volunteers are in the same position as Kentucky, entering with a No. 55 RPI, a solid schedule ranked 41st, and a 9-9 record against the RPI top 100.
After beating Missouri on the season’s final day, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin expressed confidence that the Vols, who in some predictions might be the first team left out of the field, has done enough work to merit an at-large bid.
“I feel like we’ve got it, but we’ve got to keep working,” Martin said.
“The most important thing is Selection Sunday and hearing your name called. To do that, you need to keep winning ballgames.”
Where optimism blooms around UK and UT, there’s pessimism for the Rebels, who had weak strength of schedule ratings and poor losses against lower rated RPI teams in South Carolina (No. 211), Auburn (No. 233), Mercer (No. 135), Dayton (No. 110) and Tulane (No. 188).
“There may be a lot of incentive for teams that have to win the tournament go out there and win four games in a row,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
Donovan’s view hints the coach doesn’t believe this is a venue for the Gators’ dominance.
“I don’t think that’s our view at all,” Donovan said.
In February, the Gators were nicked up with injuries to guards Michael Frazier II, Casey Prather and Mike Roasario, along with forward Eric Murphy. They lost four road games and fell off the pace for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
At the same time, squads such as No. 8 seed Georgia (15-16) and LSU, overcame poor starts and seasoned their young rosters during the grind of SEC play.
“We’ve had a lot of teams that weren’t playing great in November or December,” Donovan said. “When the league started back in January, teams weren’t playing to their capabilities, but all these teams have gotten better.”
Meanwhile, Georgia coach Mark Fox acknowledged the open nature of the field, but remained deferential to Florida.
“Florida, when healthy, was the best team, and they obviously won the championship,” Fox said. “We got to Nashville with great parity, and it should make for a very exciting tournament.”