LaKeem Jackson walked away impressed.
Playing in his last college game, the South Carolina forward didn’t have high expectations for the crowd at the opening round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. With the league expanded to 14 teams, for the first time the tournament started a day earlier. On Wednesday, the opening two games featured the four lowest teams — seeds No. 11-14.
Surprisingly, though, a modest crowd filled out most of the lower bowl at Bridgestone Arena for the first game between the Gamecocks and Mississippi State. Neither involved local interest — Tennessee and Vanderbilt begin play Thursday and Kentucky opens on Friday — but an announced crowd of 7,189 enjoyed the first session.
And blue, of course, was still the dominant color.
“You know Kentucky fans are everywhere,” Jackson said laughing. “[The crowd] really was better than I expected. When we first came out there weren’t really too many people out there. When we’re getting ready to get it rolling, there was a good bit of people out there cheering, coming to watch the game. It was a good atmosphere.”
For the first time in the history of the 80-year-old league tournament, it will take five days to crown a champion. By winning Wednesday, No. 13 seed Mississippi State and No. 11 seed Texas A&M each have a chance to accomplish the feat. Behind 21 points from Fred Thomas, the Bulldogs defeated South Carolina 70-59. In the Aggies’ SEC Tournament debut, Elston Turner scored 22 points in a 71-62 victory over Auburn in the nightcap.
Mississippi State (10-21) plays No. 5 seed Tennessee on Thursday (2:30 p.m., SEC Network). Texas A&M (18-14) once again gets the last game of the day, squaring off against former Big 12 foe and No. 6 seed Missouri (9 p.m., SEC Network).
The Big East is the only other BCS conference to play its tournament over five days. Since switching to the format in 2009, only Connecticut in 2011 has rattled off five straight wins.
“It is not impossible,” Mississippi State forward Colin Borchert said. “It is asking a lot but we’re going to go out there every day and give it our all. We have nothing to lose. We don’t have any NCAA bid, nothing like that. This is our spring break. This is what we enjoy doing so this is what we’re going to do.”
Just a handful of fans sprinkled throughout the second and third levels of the 19,395-seat arena. In the lower bowl, many of the seats behind the basket went untouched. But most of the seats behind both sidelines were filled for the early game before a noticeable exodus around 10 p.m., during halftime of the second game. The games drew significantly less than the first day last year. With four games split over two sessions last year in New Orleans, more than 10,000 fans showed up for each session.
Still, even with much of the arena vacant, neither game seemed lifeless. With the countless Kentucky fans quietly observing, both Mississippi State and Auburn brought boisterous fans.
“It was surprising how many supporters we had,” Borchert said. “It kind of fueled our energy. We kind of fed off it and we got a win for the hometown crowd.”
The Bulldogs hope it won’t be their last.
Instead of being on the outside looking in, which was the case for the lower four teams in the Big East before the tournament expanded to 16 in 2009, Mississippi State gets to keep playing.
“It gives an opportunity for the underdog to take the spot,” Bulldogs forward Gavin Ware said. “It is an honor and privilege just to be here and playing with teams that matchup against us. It is good to be a lower seed and work our way up because it means we have a lot to prove. I believe that [winning the title] can be achieved. We just have to keep the same motivation we had [Wednesday].”