TAMPA — The Southeastern Conference men's basketball tournament begins here today with a matchup between the University of Kentucky and Ole Miss.
But Kentucky fan Debbie Stephens, 42, has been wearing Wildcat colors since Wednesday.
She checked into the team hotel on Westshore Boulevard —after driving 800 miles from Lexington — wearing a blue pantsuit and shoes, a white Kentucky Wildcats tank top and UK pendant necklace.
"That's all I brought. Everything is blue and white," she said. "I'm dedicated."
Tournament promoters expect about 10,000 fans to descend on Tampa to watch SEC teams compete for a spot in the NCAA tournament. The first tipoff is today at 1 p.m., and games run through Sunday. The University of Florida plays Arkansas at 9:45 tonight.
The SEC has sold about 18,000 of 21,000 available tickets for the 11-game series. With sales sluggish, tickets to individual games were released Monday, earlier than usual for the SEC tournament.
"That's something that's happened all across the country at all conference basketball tournaments this year," said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. "A lot of people are attributing it to the economy. That's a trend. The amount of expendable dollars is probably less than previous years."
Die-hard fans, though, are undeterred.
Jim Corbett and his wife arrived Wednesday in Tampa with plans to meet another couple from Kentucky. He'll be cheering on South Carolina — from his 12th-row, center court seats — Friday night.
Corbett, 48, has been to every SEC men's basketball tournament except one since 1991. And this is his fifth trip to Tampa for a sporting event. He came to the Super Bowl in 1991, and three Outback Bowls that featured South Carolina.
"I like Tampa. Obviously, the weather is a big plus," he said. "It's got a beach, plus some sporting activities, plus a bay. And now you've got Ybor City and Channelside. It's a little spread out, but it's a clean city."
Whitney Gorges and Whitney Fuller, 20-year-old sports management students at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, are among 400 people volunteering to greet visitors at local hotels and assist at the basketball-themed Fan Fare set up next to the St. Pete Times Forum, 401 Channelside Drive.
The two scraped together $500 each for the trip by saving money from summer jobs. They say they'll get no school credit for the firsthand experience.
"We just want to be part of a big event like this," Gorges said.
After their shift Wednesday in the lobby of the Embassy Suites Hotel, the students planned to hit a pep rally at Channelside featuring college bands and cheerleaders.
They were hoping for a little more excitement than they found Tuesday night outside their hotel on the north end of downtown.
"It's like a ghost town up there," Fuller said. "We were walking about a half hour trying to find a variety store. Or a convenience store. Is that what you call it here?"
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.