Even when the southeastern conference ultimately expands to 72 teams, divides into 18 divisions and plays a schedule only a cartographer could fathom, the same scenarios will be played out in its postseason tournament: Alabama will win a big game, LSU's Dale Brown will impersonate the rear end of a donkey, and some ancient SEC football diehard will utter, "Damn by-eskit-bawl!"
During the league's unprecedented 11-team soiree in Birmingham last week, all of that happened, and then some: To wit, 1) swarms of gridiron devotees actually forgot all about spring pigskin practice and bought out all of the six sessions of the newly expanded tournament, and 2) in Sunday's final, Kentucky, resurrected from a forced two-year hibernation, courtesy of the NCAA, wore down the physically exhausted, mentally exposed Crimson Tide 80-54 for its first SEC tournament crown since 1988.
Not that the victorious Wildcats of raconteur-restaurateur-coach Rick Pitino got a welcome-back free pass or anything, but they did get to play LSU without Shaquille O'Neal in the semis (more about that later), and they didn't have to play the conference's powerful and heavily favored newcomer, Arkansas (which lost to 'Bama in a wild and woolly semifinal for the ages). And in the championship game the Wildcats erased a seven-point deficit with a 30-8 spurt in the second half that featured not only Kentucky's Jamal Mashburn soaring for baskets but also Alabama's Robert Horry childishly committing technical and intentional fouls while his team, winner of the last three SEC tournaments, died a Horrid death.
"We came out with a different kind of venom," said Pitino of the Wildcats' second-half run. Crimson Tide point guard Elliot Washington may have been even more analytical right on the court when, during the Kentucky resurgence, he said to Wildcat guard Sean Woods: "Man, look at my teammates quitting on me."
That Alabama and Kentucky would converge in the final in this spotlight year for the SEC may have been preordained as the two teams, not to mention several million of their raucous followers, packed themselves into the same 770-room Sheraton hard by the downtown Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center coliseum. So many Kentuckians had booked rooms in advance that Crimson Tide coach Wimp Sanderson, his scrunched-up face glaring as harshly as his plaid sportcoats, had to pull strings so his players could bed down in the prime location.
Nevertheless, the Wildcats were welcome returnees. "Having Kentucky back means everything—they're still the aircraft carrier in the league," said Mississippi coach Ed Murphy before his skiff of a team lost to Georgia in the first round, after which he jumped overboard, a.k.a. resigned. " Kentucky matters" is how Vanderbilt coach Eddie Fogler put it.
But if the Wildcats were important to the league, so was first-year conference member Arkansas. In the SEC's first year of divisional play—a split brought about by its larger numbers—the Hogs won the Western division regular-season race by a game over LSU, while Kentucky won the weaker East in a rout. Just how imposing a force the Razorbacks had become was evident early Friday as Kentucky and Vanderbilt played their quarterfinal game: The SEC's new pigs on the block made a glamorous entrance into the arena—"we bad" walking, stereo headphones squawking, etc. Such a huge roar emerged from the crowd that one would have surmised that somebody had blocked a punt. "I thought it was a pretty lady," said Pitino. Suddenly Hog partisans were everywhere, squealing their obligatory Pig Sooeys and showing veteran SEC hands what real basketball rooters sound like.
When Birmingham last hosted the tournament, in 1985, there were a shameful 2,300 no-shows for the championship game between Alabama and Auburn. Shoot, that many Razorbackers will squeeze theirownselves into a U-Haul trailer. And last week 8,000 Arkansas fans invaded Birmingham—the arena's capacity is 16,556—some having gone to the extreme of joining booster clubs at Ole Miss and Mississippi State just to get tournament tickets. Others were there without hotel rooms. Never fear. The Arkansas Alumni Association bought out the entire Crown Sterling Suites hotel for Hog supporters. "When we hear those folks calling the hogs, I can't tell you what a feeling that is," Razorback coach Nolan Richardson said Friday. "Better watch out. By the end of this thing, we'll have all the tickets."
In the Southwest Conference the Hogs were used to having most of the best athletes as well. But in the SEC they have found competitive nirvana. "In the other league we always got booed on the road, but in the SEC everybody seems to appreciate good basketball," said Hog guard Todd Day. "And everywhere we go, we meet our own match of athlete...on the athletic side."
As for producing a bizarro...on the bizarre side, the SEC tournament annually gives LSU's Brown a platform for his eccentricities. In 1987 Brown wanted to prove that "fatigue is no factor." So he went without sleep for four days while his team reached the final. Over the last three tournaments LSU had gone 0-3 while Brown quoted Kierkegaard, wore a lucky hat from somebody named Ambrose Antelope and repeatedly declared the tournament, for which his team casually prepared and rarely cared, "a joke."