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VOL. 37 | NO. 9 | Friday, March 01, 2013

No clear favorites in struggling SEC field

By Tom Wood

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Barry Booker

Vanderbilt, which lost its top six players to graduation or the NBA, has struggled much of the season with a young, inexperienced lineup.

But so has almost every other SEC team.

Kentucky has had to deal with youth and injuries, while Tennessee has been one of the league’s hottest teams down the stretch.

But many observers feel this is a down year, and only three or four SEC teams will make the NCAA field. The only way to assure an NCAA berth is by winning in Nashville.

“This year’s tournament is much more balanced,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings says. “Last year, everyone thought that Kentucky would win it, and luckily they didn’t.

“There are a number of different teams that, if they can string a couple of good performances together, then they could make a run. I would certainly put our team in that conversation.”

Here’s SEC Network analyst and former Vanderbilt basketball star Barry Booker’s take on the tournament:

Vanderbilt: “It looks like Vanderbilt is going to be playing on the first night of the tournament with the new 14-team format. So the path to winning that tournament and getting that automatic bid to the NCAA tournament comes with really long odds to do that. You have to win five games in five days. Only a few teams have won four games in four days.

“They’re making a lot of progress and they’re just humming along. People should be optimistic about Vanderbilt’s prospects going forward.’’

Tennessee: “As far as Tennessee, they pretty much need to win every game they play from here.

“The Vols are playing some real good basketball right now, especially offensively. They’ve been hard to stop the last 10 days or so, so hopefully they can keep that momentum going and keep their run going,” Booker said on the eve of UT’s thrilling four-overtime 93-85 victory at Texas A&M on Feb. 23.

“If they do that, they’re going to be hard to stop. With other teams like Ole Miss and Kentucky sliding backward, if Tennessee keeps moving forward at the end of the regular season like they did last year, they could find themselves in the NCAA tournament.’’

Kentucky: “Kentucky is so young and, with (freshman star) Nerlens Noel getting injured, they have to kind of figure out how they can play and be most effective. I think they’ll get going by the end of the year.

“They looked like they were putting it together and that injury really knocked them off, but they’ve got so much talent there, and with all the fans they bring to Nashville, that should help them on a nice run in the SEC tournament.”