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Stansbury: SEC tourney better off in Atlanta

TAMPA, Fla. | Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury would rather be somewhere else, someplace closer to home, someplace more centrally located for all 12 Southeastern Conference teams, someplace most out-of-state fans could get to without getting on a plane.

Someplace called Atlanta.

Stansbury made it clear Wednesday that he felt the SEC tournament would be better off about 400 miles north in the Mecca of the South.

"I think Atlanta has really been good for all 12 teams," Stansbury said. "I don't know if there's another spot that consistently is centrally located that's any better for all 12 teams or all 12 fan bases. I think our fans have gotten accustomed to being there. Atlanta is a good city. ... Once you get used to doing something, your fans look forward to being in one place."

Nine of the 12 conference teams are within a five-hour drive of Atlanta. Only Kentucky, LSU and Arkansas are farther away.

The SEC tournament has been played in Atlanta eight times in the last 11 years, taking one-year hiatuses in 2001 (Nashville), 2003 (New Orleans) and 2006 (Nashville).

It's in the Sunshine State for the first time since 1990, when Orlando hosted the event and posted the worst attendance (75,982) since the league resumed the tournament in 1979. Kentucky was on probation that season and was ineligible for postseason play and the Gators were eliminated in the first round, leaving Orlando without what would have been its top two draws.

Attendance could be a problem in Tampa, too, but for different reasons. The economic crisis could keep fans away, and hometown favorite Florida has the late tip-off on a school/work night.

"Hopefully, there will be a large contingency of Gator fans," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose team bused two hours Wednesday. "Tampa has always been a good city for that. But I think you also realize that with the way the economy is, the difficulties people are having, that something like that is expensive and tough."

Stansbury agreed, but also noted that the league couldn't have seen the economic downturn coming when the tournament site was picked several years ago.

"To come to Tampa now, it's not quite as easy," Stansbury said. "It's a longer haul, be more expensive and more time. There's a lot of factors. Again, if you were to try to fly, you know the expense of trying to fly a family. And those tickets are not discounted because he's 4 or 5 years old, either. It's all the same.

"In Atlanta, you can jump in the back of a car or pickup truck and you're there in four hours. ... I think everybody's sitting back to see how the ticket sales are going to go and how these fan bases are going to show up. I don't think anybody really knows right now."

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BACK TO TAMPA: Vanderbilt players must have felt a little something when they walked into the St. Pete Times Forum on Wednesday, right? After all, the arena was the site of the Commodores' humbling, first-round loss in last year's NCAA tournament. No. 13 seed Siena thumped fourth-seeded Vandy 83-62 last March.

But guard Jermaine Beal said it didn't even cross his mind.

"Is it the same place you play?" he said.

The memory was that bad?

"Yeah, it was last year," he added.

Center A.J. Ogilvy said the loss was easy to erase.

"That was a long time ago," he said. "And I've tried to forget most of that."

South Carolina coach Darrin Horn might not feel the same way about his return to Tampa. Horn was coaching Western Kentucky last March when guard Ty Rogers hit a desperation 26-footer at the buzzer in overtime to pull off the first big upset of the NCAA tournament.

The 12th-seeded Hilltoppers knocked off No. 5 seed Drake 101-99, then beat No. 13 seed San Diego two days later to advance to the round of 16 for the first time in 15 years.

"I'd love to stay undefeated in that building," Horn said. "That would be great."

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HUERTAS UPDATE: Mississippi guard David Huertas jogged up and down the court during shoot-around Wednesday, seeing how his bruised left foot felt after a few days of rest. It was still sore, but the team's leading scorer doesn't expect it to keep him out of Thursday's first-round matchup against Kentucky.

"Little bit in pain," Huertas said. "But they're trying to do what they can. I'm getting treatment every day, so hopefully I'm going to try to come out and play, try to help the team. This is win or go home, so I've got to play."

Huertas, averaging 18.2 points a game, played sparingly in the last two games because of the injury. He sat out last week's game at Arkansas, then played just 16 minutes in the home finale Saturday against Mississippi State.

"The doctors have told us that we're not going to do anything to further the injury by playing," coach Andy Kennedy said. "So then I go back to him and ask him, 'How do you feel? Can you play?' And he'll tell me whether or not he can play. If he says he can go, we'll play him. If he says he can't, then we'll have to make do."

The Rebels already are playing without three guards. Trevor Gaskins, Eniel Polynice and Chris Warren suffered season-ending knee injuries before conference play began.

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KENTUCKY BLUES: It's no secret that Kentucky's opponents have focused their attention on guard Jodie Meeks and center Patrick Patterson. The result? The Wildcats have lost eight of 11 heading into the SEC tournament, a slump that has them on the verge of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.

Coach Billy Gillispie acknowledged the problem Wednesday, saying his team needs to find a consistent No. 3 scorer to help take pressure off his dynamic duo. Meeks has been the most affected in recent games, averaging 18.8 points in the last five games and shooting just 9-of-38 (23.7 percent) from 3-point range.

"As far as what other people have tried to do to him, it's been tough," Gillispie said. "It's been really tough. That is usually dictated by how much help we give him. Some nights we have one guy has a really great night, but a couple of other guys don't play as well. Then the next night a different guy has a good one, but the other two or three guys don't play as well.

"That's really probably hurt him because teams aren't going to continue to focus all their attention on one or two players if other guys prove consistently that they're going to beat them. So we have to do a better job of helping him. When he struggles, it's not because he struggles so much, it's really because we've struggled."

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