Wiedmer: Music City has produced some great SEC tourneys

Wiedmer: Music City has produced some great SEC tourneys

March 14th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

SEC Southeastern Conference

SEC Southeastern Conference

Sometime around 9:30 this morning I'll climb into my 2005 Honda Accord, brush aside an unfortunate collection of old newspapers, hamburger wrappers and empty Starbucks cups and head up I-24 to the Southeastern Conference Men's Basketball Tournament in Nashville.

Other ink-stained wretches in my profession might understandably list the Super Bowl, the Masters or World Series as their dream event each year, but the SEC tourney is my baby.

I've witnessed 32 of the last 34 going back to 1979 in Birmingham, that year ending a 25-year hiatus for the event, at least partly because Kentucky won 13 of the first 19 between 1933 and 1952.

I'd have been a perfect 34 for 34 if not for budget constraints, not that I'm bitter or anything.

Tennessee fans might note that 1979 also remains the only year the Vols have won the event since its return, UT outlasting UK in overtime inside a less-than-full Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center.

Yet in one of those the-more-things-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same factoids, Big Blue bounced back from that defeat to bully its way to 14 more official league tourney titles over the 32 Marches since, with a 15th won in 1988 later vacated by the NCAA, though that tourney inside LSU's Pete Maravich Center will live forever as the year signs promoted "The Official Catfish of the SEC."

What any of that has to do with this year's tourney is this: Nashville has previously provided some of the more dramatic SEC tourney finishes and could easily add to that this weekend.

For instance, there was 1984 inside Vanderbilt's marvelous Memorial Gym, the one won by UK when sophomore forward Kenny Walker hit a jumper just inside the foul line that appeared to first hit the bottom half of the rim, yet somehow bounced up and in for a 51-49 win over Auburn and its Round Mound of Rebound -- Charles Barkley.

Sadly, we hadn't yet learned to hang on Sir Charles' every word as we do today, but if we had, he surely would have muttered something about Walker's winner being "Turr-ible."

The event returned to Nashville in 1991, and Tennessee -- entering with a losing record -- actually reached the final behind Allan Houston and our own Jay Price before being thumped by Alabama in the title game.

Gone for 10 years, the SEC came back to the Music City in 2001 and Kentucky ran away with the championship, crushing Ole Miss in the final.

Though Florida squeezed past gritty South Carolina 49-47 on its way its first NCAA crown in the tourney's next visit to Nashville in 2006, I'll remember it as the weekend the father of one of my oldest, closest friends passed away. On the way home for his funeral, my mother called to tell me my own father was about to undergo emergency surgery. My father survived, but that was a weekend I try in vain to forget.

Then came 2010, and a sea of UK blue watched the Wildcats nip Mississippi State in overtime after a DeMarcus Cousins tip-in just ahead of the horn in regulation saved John Calipari's first Kentucky squad.

A couple of hours later, the NCAA left State out of March Madness, causing Cal to observe that if he'd known State's bid hung on beating UK, he might not have minded a different outcome.

This isn't to say that Nashville has produced every great SEC tourney moment. My favorite day remains March 1, 1979, when UK nipped Alabama 101-100 in what I still argue was the best-played SEC tourney game ever -- both teams shot over 50 percent from the floor -- and Auburn outlasted Georgia 95-91 in four overtimes.

The best game was Kentucky's 1995 title win over defending national champ Arkansas. Cats were down nine with 90 seconds to play in overtime before winning 95-93 in front of 30,057 fans inside the Georgia Dome, still the largest SEC tourney crowd ever.

Naturally, the worst moment was the tornado that hit the Dome five years ago, forcing Georgia to win three games in 30 hours at emergency site Georgia Tech to claim the most unexpected title ever.

But the best tournament was probably 1984 in Nashville, the quarterfinals producing two overtimes and a one-point game, with both semifinals and UK's title win all decided by exactly two points.

If we're lucky, that same Music City Magic will return this weekend to the Bridgestone Arena, producing another two-point final, perhaps Florida over Missouri.

Just no tornadoes, please. At least none other than the one that mysteriously seems to ransack the inside of my car each night.