Picking tournament favorite challenge in wide-open SEC field
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Southeastern Conference Tournament features something that coaches and players are looking forward to in Music City, at least everyone not playing against Kentucky and the horde of fans the Wildcats bring.
That something is a neutral court.
That's significant since winning on the road in the SEC this season was difficult. Teams successfully defended homecourts in 69.8 percent (88-38) of league games. Only the Pac-12 had better home success (71.3 percent, 77-31). Throw in the parity factor - four teams had a chance to split the regular season title on the final day - and this tournament is as wide open as it has been in years.
''I don't think there's a lead from anybody as to what might happen,'' South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. ''We all know, the coaches in this league, just how good this league is, how balanced it is, and we all know we're all prepared to have to play these teams again. These games are going to be incredible and should make for a great tournament.''
Only Missouri, sitting out the postseason over NCAA violations, can be counted out before Auburn and Tennessee tip off Wednesday night.
Here's a look at those with a chance to win along with those playing to improve their seed in the NCAA Tournament and those hoping to play their way into the tournament:
LEADING TITLE CONTENDERS
Kentucky and No. 17 Texas A&M are considered the favorites to win the SEC tournament after sharing the regular-season title.
KENTUCKY: The 16th-ranked Wildcats also are the defending champs at a tournament they've won three times since John Calipari was hired. His Wildcats also lost in the title game twice, in 2014 and 2012.
Calipari knows adding the 29th tournament title is what his fans want from the Wildcats (23-8).
''It's a huge thing for Kentucky fans,'' Calipari said. ''We're going to play as well as we can play. We're using the tournament to improve our seed in the NCAA Tournament.''
TEXAS A&M: The Aggies (24-7) come in with the league's longest winning streak at six straight and also posted the only winning road record in SEC play. They have yet to win this tournament since moving to the SEC, but coach Billy Kennedy knows nothing is a given, especially this season.
''It definitely is wide open, and obviously Kentucky to me is playing as well as anybody in the country right now,'' Kennedy said. ''With the people they bring in that arena, it's definitely going to be a challenge.''
PLAYING FOR SEEDING
South Carolina and Vanderbilt, along with Kentucky and Texas A&M, seem to be NCAA Tournament locks, but a strong showing at the SEC Tournament could improve the seed they get.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Martin's Gamecocks won at Texas A&M and also beat Vanderbilt and LSU this season. But they finished the regular season losing four of their final seven games. The Gamecocks (24-7) start Friday night, so two wins would put them in the title game with a chance to make a strong impression.
VANDERBILT: Coach Kevin Stallings has his best team since upsetting then-No. 1 Kentucky in the 2012 title game, and the Commodores (19-12) come in having won four of five. This tournament is just a couple miles from Memorial Gym. They open against either Tennessee or Auburn with LSU waiting in the quarterfinals.
ON THE BUBBLE
Florida and Alabama are firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble, while the rest of the league likely needs to win the SEC Tournament for a spot.
The GATORS: Florida's spot looked secure after beating West Virginia to wrap up January. Instead, they finished the regular season losing five of their last seven. The Gators (18-13) open against Arkansas on Thursday. Then Texas A&M looms on Friday.
ALABAMA: The Crimson Tide (17-13) notched big wins over South Carolina and Texas A&M during the season, the kind good for any resume in March. Alabama opens against Mississippi on Thursday night with Kentucky awaiting the winner on Friday. A win against the Wildcats likely would push the Tide off the bubble, but first things first.
''None of that's going to come into play unless we're able to be successful against Ole Miss,'' Alabama coach Avery Johnson said.
The best ticket for Ben Simmons and LSU (18-13), Mississippi (20-11), Georgia (17-12), Arkansas (16-15) will be the automatic berth that goes to the SEC tournament champ.