Even when the southeastern conference ultimately expands to 72 teams, divides into 18 divisions and plays a schedule only a cartographer could fathom, the same scenarios will be played out in its postseason tournament: Alabama will win a big game, LSU's Dale Brown will impersonate the rear end of a donkey, and some ancient SEC football diehard will utter, "Damn by-eskit-bawl!"
During the league's unprecedented 11-team soiree in Birmingham last week, all of that happened, and then some: To wit, 1) swarms of gridiron devotees actually forgot all about spring pigskin practice and bought out all of the six sessions of the newly expanded tournament, and 2) in Sunday's final, Kentucky, resurrected from a forced two-year hibernation, courtesy of the NCAA, wore down the physically exhausted, mentally exposed Crimson Tide 80-54 for its first SEC tournament crown since 1988.
Not that the victorious Wildcats of raconteur-restaurateur-coach Rick Pitino got a welcome-back free pass or anything, but they did get to play LSU without Shaquille O'Neal in the semis (more about that later), and they didn't have to play the conference's powerful and heavily favored newcomer, Arkansas (which lost to 'Bama in a wild and woolly semifinal for the ages). And in the championship game the Wildcats erased a seven-point deficit with a 30-8 spurt in the second half that featured not only Kentucky's Jamal Mashburn soaring for baskets but also Alabama's Robert Horry childishly committing technical and intentional fouls while his team, winner of the last three SEC tournaments, died a Horrid death.
"We came out with a different kind of venom," said Pitino of the Wildcats' second-half run. Crimson Tide point guard Elliot Washington may have been even more analytical right on the court when, during the Kentucky resurgence, he said to Wildcat guard Sean Woods: "Man, look at my teammates quitting on me."
March 23, 1992
That Alabama and Kentucky would converge in the final in this spotlight year for the SEC may have been preordained as the two teams, not to mention several million of their raucous followers, packed themselves into the same 770-room Sheraton hard by the downtown Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center coliseum. So many Kentuckians had booked rooms in advance that Crimson Tide coach Wimp Sanderson, his scrunched-up face glaring as harshly as his plaid sportcoats, had to pull strings so his players could bed down in the prime location.
Nevertheless, the Wildcats were welcome returnees. "Having Kentucky back means everything—they're still the aircraft carrier in the league," said Mississippi coach Ed Murphy before his skiff of a team lost to Georgia in the first round, after which he jumped overboard, a.k.a. resigned. "Kentucky matters" is how Vanderbilt coach Eddie Fogler put it.
But if the Wildcats were important to the league, so was first-year conference member Arkansas. In the SEC's first year of divisional play—a split brought about by its larger numbers—the Hogs won the Western division regular-season race by a game over LSU, while Kentucky won the weaker East in a rout. Just how imposing a force the Razorbacks had become was evident early Friday as Kentucky and Vanderbilt played their quarterfinal game: The SEC's new pigs on the block made a glamorous entrance into the arena—"we bad" walking, stereo headphones squawking, etc. Such a huge roar emerged from the crowd that one would have surmised that somebody had blocked a punt. "I thought it was a pretty lady," said Pitino. Suddenly Hog partisans were everywhere, squealing their obligatory Pig Sooeys and showing veteran SEC hands what real basketball rooters sound like.
When Birmingham last hosted the tournament, in 1985, there were a shameful 2,300 no-shows for the championship game between Alabama and Auburn. Shoot, that many Razorbackers will squeeze theirownselves into a U-Haul trailer. And last week 8,000 Arkansas fans invaded Birmingham—the arena's capacity is 16,556—some having gone to the extreme of joining booster clubs at Ole Miss and Mississippi State just to get tournament tickets. Others were there without hotel rooms. Never fear. The Arkansas Alumni Association bought out the entire Crown Sterling Suites hotel for Hog supporters. "When we hear those folks calling the hogs, I can't tell you what a feeling that is," Razorback coach Nolan Richardson said Friday. "Better watch out. By the end of this thing, we'll have all the tickets."
In the Southwest Conference the Hogs were used to having most of the best athletes as well. But in the SEC they have found competitive nirvana. "In the other league we always got booed on the road, but in the SEC everybody seems to appreciate good basketball," said Hog guard Todd Day. "And everywhere we go, we meet our own match of athlete...on the athletic side."
As for producing a bizarro...on the bizarre side, the SEC tournament annually gives LSU's Brown a platform for his eccentricities. In 1987 Brown wanted to prove that "fatigue is no factor." So he went without sleep for four days while his team reached the final. Over the last three tournaments LSU had gone 0-3 while Brown quoted Kierkegaard, wore a lucky hat from somebody named Ambrose Antelope and repeatedly declared the tournament, for which his team casually prepared and rarely cared, "a joke."
Because the Tigers felt they had lost the 1991-92 SEC West on a critical no-call at Arkansas on March 3, Brown vowed that this year would be different: He declared that the '92 tournament would determine the league's true champion and that he and his team would actually try. "I've been cheating our fans," he said.
Which made it all the more disappointing when Brown cheated the event out of its showcase star, O'Neal, on Friday evening, moments after a row broke out in the second half of a quarterfinal game LSU would have won even had Brown (wish, wish) slept through it.
O.K., Tennessee forward Carlus Groves, with his team trailing 73-51, should not have intentionally fouled O'Neal, who had 16 points and 16 boards. Shaq shouldn't have retaliated with a vicious elbow. But when, after the combatants had already been separated. Brown stalked across the court and shoved Groves, he exacerbated the volatile situation, and more fighting erupted. Still, the hopelessly inferior officiating crew probably overreacted when it then issued ejections for fighting, meaning that O'Neal and Groves were automatically suspended from their teams' next game. The refs then compounded that error by incorrectly throwing out four players for leaving the bench to join the fray, even though they were in the game at the time.
"Throw Dale Out!" the crowd chanted during the 20-minute delay. Indeed, a strong official would have. But Brown remained in the game, and he was without remorse through the ensuing two days as he issued the expected manifesto: "I didn't push anybody....
It's an embarrassment to the league...unfair to LSU...an injustice to Shaquille....
He did not start anything....
One of America's finest ambassadors has been driven down like some common street thug....
I will now advise him to go to the NBA....
If he's going to get hurt, let him get paid for it...."
And then there was this: "Those screamers...are the same people who paint swastikas on synagogues."
The Shaq-less Tigers exited meekly against Kentucky in the semifinals as the Wildcats paraded into the paint for 21 of their 29 baskets. Afterward, Brown issued one last decree: "Following such a week of hatred and bitterness and vicious feelings...it's just what this team needs to win the national championship."
What the SEC needed to recover from this debacle was precisely what it got in the other semi: Alabama's heart-racing, yo-yoing, 90-89 last-second defeat of Arkansas. "A beautiful game," said the losing coach, Richardson. "The greatest game. Something to behold on every possession," said the winner, Sanderson.
Sanderson could have been describing 'Bama guard James (Hollywood) Robinson's 360-degree drives or Horry's shoulder-brushing-rim blocks or the marvelous Day's 39-point show. But surely he was including the Tide's last possession when, with Alabama down 89-87, Robinson drew the entire Ozark population before dishing to an all-alone Washington in the corner. "James screamed at me to shoot before I even caught the ball," said Washington, who promptly swished the trey with barely a second left—a Hollywood ending. The state of Arkansas hadn't suffered such a shock since Gennifer Flowers won the New Hampshire primary.
Alabama's state of mind remained ecstatic until there were about 12 minutes remaining in Sunday's championship game, when Kentucky's superior depth and character—and Mashburn—took over. Mashburn, the MVP, made 26 of 31 shots in three tournament games, scored 28 points in the final and scoffed at the notion that there was any taint on a victory over an LSU team without O'Neal.
"The game will show up in our win column, and it won't say Shaquille didn't play," Mashburn said. "A couple of years from now I won't even remember."
Unfortunately, the SEC tournament may never forget.