Analysis: Desperation is the flavor of this SEC tournament

The story arcs are simple to trace.


Well, the Southeastern Conference men’s basketball tournament might find that in short supply when it opens Wednesday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Realistically, it’s Florida’s crown to lose. Whether any of the other 13 programs showing up mount a coup might depend on whether the top-seeded Gators, who enter on a 23-game winning streak and with the nation’s No. 1 ranking, let their focus drift.

NCAA tournament bubble intrigue?

Arkansas and Missouri, both fending for their lives, were blitzed Saturday. The Razorbacks, who lost by 23 points at Alabama, figure to be in better shape. Bracket gurus still have them (barely) in the field of 68.

The Tigers may need an extended stay. A 72-45 blitzing at the hands of Tennessee — Missouri had its lowest scoring night in 33 years — made that a necessity.

LSU and Georgia staged a de facto NIT run-off in Baton Rouge and, after falling short, the Tigers enter the week needing to plug a hole in their hull.

So, are you excited?

Desperation is what will be on display from Wednesday through Sunday. Whether that produces a better brand of basketball is open to debate.

Ripping the SEC is a rote task now — so common that mocking the criticism has become a new form of irony. Yet generating intrigue requires the parties involved to play up to a standard beyond being a bunch of middling programs trying to take advantage of a soft bubble.

Seeing a worthy squad — such as borderline tournament team from the Big 12 like Baylor or Oklahoma State — make a late-season push to nab a bid injects the drama that makes March Madness endearing.

Seeing Tennessee trounce Missouri and live off its lone quality win over No. 5 Virginia — notched back in December — can be like watching a con man dupe a target.

That said, here’s what to keep tabs on before the melee:

Are the kids all right ? Kentucky is the No. 2 seed, but it enters coming off a 19-point loss to Florida on Saturday. In the past two weeks, the Wildcats have losses to Arkansas and cellar-dweller South Carolina, not to mention a near upset by LSU at Rupp Arena.

For a team loaded with six McDonald’s All-Americans and hype that blew out eardrums, needing a tiebreaker to hold off Georgia for the conference’s second seed ... the question is which personality coach John Calipari’s crew decides fits the day. UK is entirely capable of bowing out in the quarterfinals or pushing Florida in the title game.

Last appeals : Three SEC teams are trying to sway the NCAA tournament selection committee for two at-large bids. Arkansas now has an ugly loss to Alabama on the season’s final day and, as the No. 5 seed, can’t bomb out against No. 12 Auburn or No. 13 South Carolina.

Mizzou, which started 12-1 but limped to a 9-9 SEC record, needs a run to the final to revive its hopes. But as the No. 8 seed, it would face Florida in the quarterfinals.

Tennessee, which nabbed the final double bye as the fourth seed, appears in the best shape. Still, don’t be surprised if the Vols increase the level of difficulty.

Spoil sports : LSU, which enters as the No. 7 seed, likely needs a win over No. 10 Alabama to shore up its NIT hopes after its RPI slid to No. 70. But the Tigers have struggled on the road, and whether they can set those woes aside is up for debate.

If the Tigers advance, they could ruin UK’s efforts to enhance its NCAA tournament seeding.

Remember, LSU came within 3.9 seconds of an overtime victory in Lexington.

And what about Ole Miss, the No. 6 seed? A year ago, gunner Marshall Henderson helped carry the Rebels to the SEC tourney crown. Given that teams in spots Nos. 3 to 9 are all relatively equal, chaos might reign.

Or, perhaps, Florida simply renders all these plots moot with a dominant run to lock up the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

But if the arrival of March imparts any wisdom, it’s that conference tournaments don’t always follow best-laid plans.

Maybe in Atlanta, the SEC will simply make it up as it goes along.