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March 12, 2008ATLANTA ? Just about the only similarity between the Florida team playing in this season's SEC Tournament and the Gators team from last season is guard Walter Hodge's locker at the Georgia Dome.
The Dome was the site of Florida's second consecutive national title and third consecutive SEC tourney title last season. A student manager evidently hoped Hodge and the Gators would rediscover their Atlanta mojo if he set up Hodge in the same locker.
This season, the Rebels and Gators may have to reach the semifinals to get an NCAA bid. And this time, both will have to do so by taking the long way ? playing on the first day.
"When you play one-shot games, one-and-done, on a neutral site, anything can happen," Florida coach Billy Donovan said Wednesday at his pre-tournament news conference. "Each game has its own identity and set of competitive challenges."
Florida has the name recognition and better SEC record, but Ole Miss may enter the league tournament with better overall credentials. The Rebels have won three in a row, including a 76-62 win at Georgia, their first-round opponent Thursday. Ole Miss is 22 spots better in the RPI and has won five games against the RPI top 50 to Florida's two. The Rebels also won the head-to-head matchup, 89-87, in Oxford.
"We know it's coming to the end. It's our last chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. We have to take advantage of our opportunity," Ole Miss forward Kenny Williams said. "We still have an opportunity to get in the tournament after all the disappointing losses."
Florida enters its SEC tourney game against Alabama going in the opposite direction. The Gators have lost three in a row, each to a team bound for the NCAA Tournament.
"We've got to win some games," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "Is that one game, is that two games, is that three games? I don't know. I know we're probably one of 24 or 25 teams fighting for 10, 12, 13 bids, depending on the hour of the day you last checked."
If both teams are alive Saturday, they could erase any doubt of which one would deserve an at-large berth. Two wins by each would set up a Florida-Ole Miss semifinal.
Ditch the divisions
That means the Commodores, the third-place team in the SEC East, play on the first day despite having the fourth-best record in the conference. The ACC and Big 12 ? which split into divisions for football but not basketball ? seed the league as a whole.
Without divisional seeding, Vanderbilt would be a No. 4 seed and have a first-round bye. Instead, the Commodores face Auburn, the No. 6 seed in the West. Arkansas, with one fewer league win than Vandy, received the Western Division's second bye.
"I would be a proponent of not having divisional play and figuring out a way to modify our schedule," Stallings said. "I'd want to change the schedule, too. ? I would think that most of the people in the East, most of the coaches in the East, would feel that way. I think you would get some opposition from the coaches in the West."
The SEC East was 23-13 against the West this season.
Not the same
While an SEC team has won the past two national titles, the league still gets beat by the ACC in terms of conference postseason enthusiasm.
"The first two days are not the same (as at the ACC tourney)," said Odom, who is retiring after this season. "The final and semifinals are great (at the SEC event). (The ACC fans) have fun seeing who they can pull against. We have a good number of fans and make money, but we have to do a better job with booster clubs to get them to come and stay."
Playing for keeps
Pierre, an 11-year assistant in Baton Rouge[/db], took over for the fired John Brady on Feb. 8 after the Tigers had won only once in the previous 10 games. Since Pierre took over, LSU is 5-4.
"I've been playing real hard for Coach Pierre," guard Garrett Temple said. "The thought (of him being named permanent coach) has crossed my mind. Coach has been here my four years, and I would love for him to stay my senior year."
And LSU players aren't the only ones saying the Tigers could be dangerous in this tournament. LSU has won four of its past five league games, beat Florida in Gainesville in Pierre's second game and lost to SEC regular-season champion Tennessee 47-45 in his first.
"I think any coach thinks LSU has a chance," Stallings said. "I don't think anyone wants to play LSU right now."
South Carolina plays LSU in Thursday's first round.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.