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By Les Johns | @KernelJohns
NASHVILLE — The SEC tourney heats up with a full day of action, starting at 1 p.m. Thursday. The winners of these four contests move to the quarterfinals Friday where they will face the top four seeds, who all earned a double-bye.
Of special note to UK fans is the 7:30 p.m. game between Vanderbilt and Arkansas. The Cats will play the winner of that contest on Friday night.
Game One – 8 seed Georgia (15-16, 9-9 SEC) vs. 9 seed LSU (18-11, 9-9 SEC)
1 p.m. – SEC Network (Channel WKYT 27 locally in Lexington) and ESPN3
SEC Player of the Year Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 22 points to lead the Bulldogs to a, 67-58, win over the Tigers in these teams’ only meeting this season.
“We just come here with the mindset that we are going to win the next game,” Caldwell-Pope said. “We got to keep that mindset and stay focused and do that.”
Both teams have finished with identical 9-9 SEC records with an identical split of 6-3 at home and 3-6 on the road.
After dropping their first four conference contests, the Tigers have finished strong, winning eight of their last 12, including wins against Missouri, Alabama and Arkansas.
“These guys have continued to really amaze me,” LSU head coach Johnny Jones said. “We’re a lot further along right now than I thought we would be. They’ve continued to get better and continued to improve.”
The winner moves on to face the top-seeded Florida Gators at 1 p.m. Friday in the quarterfinals.
“We like how we’ve been playing for the last month and a half, and hopefully we can play well and advance in this tournament,” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said.
Game Two – 5 seed Tennessee (19-11, 11-7 SEC) vs. Mississippi State (10-21, 4-14 SEC)
3:30 p.m. – SEC Network (Channel WKYT 27 locally in Lexington) and ESPN3
Desire and work ethic converged to propel the Bulldogs to a win against South Carolina Wednesday night.
“I tell our guys every single time, you know our goal is to play harder that the other team, play tougher than the other team and play smarter than the other team,” Mississippi State head coach Rick Ray said.
They may not have an appreciable advantage in those intangibles against the Vols Thursday.
Many consider Tennessee the hottest team in the conference, winning eight of their last nine contests. Despite their streak, they are in a precarious position in terms of the NCAA bubble.
“We had some tough losses, some emotional losses,” Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin said. “But to stick together the way they did to continue to compete and keep a level of composure and they just have a passion for each other.”
The Vols simply have to win Thursday, or it is unlikely they will earn selection in to the big dance despite their strong finish in the SEC.
“When you’re talking about a league of this caliber, with only three or possibly four teams in it (the NCAA), that’s ridiculous,” Martin said.
Sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes claimed a double-double, scoring 18 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, to lead the Volunteers to a, 72-57, win against the Bulldogs in their only meeting in the regular season.
Game Three – 7 seed Arkansas (19-12, 10-8 SEC) vs. 10 seed Vanderbilt (14-16, 8-10 SEC)
7:30 p.m. – SEC Network (Channel WKYT 27 locally in Lexington) and ESPN3
Vandy’s Memorial Gymnasium and Arkansas’ Bud Walton Arena are two of the toughest places in the SEC to come away with a road victory.
Case in point?
Vanderbilt was stifled in a January contest at Arkansas, losing 56-33 while shooting just 25 percent from the field.
“We were so bad on offense, we only got 33,” Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings said. “And so the second game, we made shots, were crisper, better and stronger with the ball. We had a better plan of attack, an our guys knew more what they were getting into.”
As Stalling alluded, the Commodores returned the favor one month later, by whipping the Razorbacks in Nashville, 67-49.
“It’s a team we played earlier in the year and played them a month later and just seemed like it was a tale of two games, but that just tells you what Kevin is doing with his young basketball team,” Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said. “This is the rubber match, and it’s a big game. Survive and advance this time of year.”
The game will now take place on the neutral environment of the SEC Tournament, with the winner to move on to Friday’s quarterfinals to face UK.
Game Four – 6 seed Missouri (22-9, 11-7 SEC) vs. 11 seed Texas A&M (18-14, 7-11 SEC)
10 p.m. – SEC Network (Channel WKYT 27 locally in Lexington) and ESPN3
Missouri has threats inside and out, and features six players averaging in double-figures.
“They’ve got so many weapons on the perimeter,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “You can’t just try to take away one guy because you’ve got other guys that can beat you.”
Texas A&M, when they are playing their best, is usually reliant on senior guard Elson Turner to carry the load. Turner leads the Aggies in scoring, averaging 17.7 points per game.
Despite a broken finger in his non-shooting hand, Turner netted 22 points on Wednesday to carry the Aggies to the second round.
“I was concerned. I didn’t know how he would respond,” Kennedy said about Turner playing with the injury. “We were going to play him no matter what. He didn’t know that, but we were going to play him.”
The Tigers are assumed to have secured a NCAA tourney slot, but are preparing to make a deep run in Nashville.
“You have to take every game one at a time. If you find the right confidence throughout your team and guys get going, then you can run through the tournament,” Missouri guard Phil Pressey said. “You have to stay in the moment and take one game at a time.”