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As SEC tourney begins, Florida’s road just got tougher

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Once upon a time the Florida Gators were in a strong position to be firmly ensconced in the NCAA Tournament field. After losing six of their final nine games, that is no longer the case.

The Gators will need a strong showing in the SEC Tournament that is set to begin on Wednesday evening at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. Analysts believe Florida must win at least two games to get into the 68-team field to be announced on Sunday.

Awaiting the eighth-seeded Gators on Thursday is ninth-seeded Arkansas. The teams played only once this season with Florida coming out on top, 87-83 at the O’Connell Center on February 3.

Both teams finished with identical 9-9 records in the conference, but Florida is the higher seed due to the one head-to-head matchup. The Gators were 18-13 on the regular season while the Razorbacks were 16-15.

Whatever hopes the Gators held for a strong run, if not a tournament championship, were dealt a severe blow on Tuesday. Center John Egbunu suffered a torn ligament in his right thumb during the team’s final practice prior to departing for Nashville.

While Florida’s strong 6-foot, 11-inch inside force will suit up for Thursday’s game, his effectiveness is clearly in doubt.

“Realistically, I don’t know how much he’ll be able to go,” said Gator Coach Mike White.

Realistically, Florida now has little chance to make the run they need. Should they get by the Razorbacks, top-seeded Texas A&M would await. Thursday’s tip-off is set for noon and will be shown on the SEC Network.

Whether or not the Gators can will themselves to two victories while playing at less than full strength, the tournament will have some interesting matchups. Texas A&M and Kentucky, who both finished the conference season with 13-5 conference records, are the clear favorites.

South Carolina, LSU and Vanderbilt all finished with 11-7 marks to tie for third. Any game featuring LSU’s Ben Simmons is worth watching.

The Tigers are expected to play Vanderbilt on Friday before a largely pro-Vandy crowd. Alabama and Ole’ Miss are evenly-matched.

Kentucky will have their share of fans as well. Big Blue Nation travels as well as anyone and they will make their way to Music City to see the Wildcats take on the winner of the Alabama/Ole’ Miss game on Friday.

According to ESPN “Bracketology” expert Joe Lunardi, four SEC teams are currently in the 68-team NCAA field. After Texas A&M and Kentucky comes Vanderbilt and South Carolina. All four appear to be safely in the field.

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Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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