The field is evenly distributed for the Southeastern Conference tournament, but that does not mean it’s balanced.
The strength of the conference throughout the regular season was in the Eastern Division, where Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee all proved their mettle in various ways. It was the Volunteers who finished third, however, which relegated them to a spot in Thursday’s opening round of the tournament, which begins when South Carolina faces Alabama at noon at Bridgestone Arena.
Tennessee faces LSU in the 2:15 p.m. contest.
“During the course of the regular season, I think the East has been ahead of the West every year I've been in the league,” UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “… (LSU) beat us two years ago in an East three, West six matchup (so) there's plenty of motivation for us. Our focus is there. We need to … we've worked real hard this week to prepare for LSU and LSU only.”
The East, in fact, was so far ahead that the top four teams were a combined 24-0 this season against teams from the West.
The Vols won five of their final six — the last two against teams from the West — and finished with an 11-5 record in conference play. No one in the West was better than 9-7, and four of the six finished with losing records in league play.
Despite that performance, UT still will have to win four games in four days if it is to claim the tournament title.
“It's just the grind,” UT senior forward J.P. Prince said. “It's a long weekend. … It's just a new challenge. But I think coach has prepared us well.”
The question for some is whether or not the grind is worth it. First-year Kentucky coach John Calipari recently made headlines when he said he did not consider the conference tournament title an important goal for his team.
Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee all are considered locks for the NCAA tournament. Many of the conference coaches publicly have stated their belief that Florida — also from the East — has done enough to warrant inclusion, regardless of what happens this weekend.
That does not mean that all of those schools already have turned their attention to the NCAA tournament.
“We’ve spent this week trying to do the things that we feel we need to do to get ready for the next two weeks,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “But what we need to do to get ready for this weekend is the same thing we need to do to get ready for next week.
“The thought process has been: Do we need to add new wrinkles? What do we presently do that needs to be fixed and made better?”
Vanderbilt is slated to face the winner of Thursday's Georgia-Arkansas matchup at 9:45 p.m. on Friday.
Pearl made it clear that he believes there is a better way to set the field for the conference but declined to elaborate … for now.
“In the off-season, I'll comment on how conference tournaments should, you know, how we think their formats can be improved,” he said. “But right now we play LSU (Thursday). It's a fair question.”
The same likely is not true in regard to the seeding process for this event.