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Southeastern Conference Men

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


WHEN/WHERE: Today-Sunday; Gaylord Entertainment Center, Nashville, Tenn.

TV/RADIO: Ch. 38, Ch. 10 (final); WDAE-AM 620 (UF games).

FAVORITE: No. 15 Kentucky lost two of its final three regular-season games, but it's hard to call anyone else the favorite in an event the Wildcats have won 22 times. UK shared the regular-season title with Florida, but as the Eastern Division's top seed, appears to be in the easier half of the bracket. It would not face a ranked team until the final. The bracket's upper half contains No. 5 Florida and No. 14 Mississippi, plus Alabama and Tennessee, which were ranked much of the season.

DARK HORSE: A year ago, Arkansas stunned the league and the NCAA Tournament selection committee by winning four games in a row to claim the SEC's automatic bid. Riding a five-game win streak, the Razorbacks have the tools to repeat: savvy coach Nolan Richardson, marquee player Joe Johnson, depth and confidence. This time, they even have a first-round bye as the West's No. 2 seed.

LOCKS FOR NCAA TOURNAMENT: Florida (22-5), Mississippi (23-6), Kentucky (19-9), Tennessee (21-9), Alabama (20-9) and Arkansas (19-10) are rock solid. The Gators have a shot at an NCAA No. 1 seed.

ON THE BUBBLE: Arkansas' late-season surge leaves the bubble to Georgia (16-13), which has lost six of nine but might impress the committee with its strong schedule and a deep tournament run. Very deep.

WHAT UF HAS TO DO: Florida has won 11 of 12 to rank among the nation's hottest teams. The Gators, who have never reached the semifinals under fifth-year coach Billy Donovan, have a bye for the first time in Donovan's tenure. And did they ever need it. UF, which likely will be without injured senior forward Brent Wright (foot), is undermanned in a format that requires victories on three consecutive days. Down to a three-player bench, starters are playing 30-plus minutes a game. Center Udonis Haslem and guard Brett Nelson must live up to All-SEC status and stay out of foul trouble.

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