By this time of the year, it’s Kentucky then everybody else in the Southeastern Conference race. That’s not been the case this season. Parity reins supreme.
With seven games remaining in the regular season, Auburn holds a slim one-game lead over Tennessee, another surprise team in the conference, which defeated the Wildcats 61-59 earlier this week in Lexington.
Before Wednesday night's loss to Texas A&M 81-80, the eighth-ranked Tigers (21-3, 9-2) won five straight games, while the 15th-ranked Volunteers (18-5, 8-3) are on a six-game winning streak. Mississippi State (18-6, 6-5) is on a roll and has collected five straight victories and is tied with the Wildcats for fourth in the current conference standings.
Despite the competitiveness in the league, Kentucky coach John Calipari (pictured) said the conference still isn’t getting the respect it deserves.
"I mean, we're all pretty good teams and if you beat each other it shouldn't fluctuate like it is in this league," said Calipari. "It's incredible. Other leagues you lose three and you're fine. 'Eh, tough schedule. Oh, those guys are tough. Hard road games. Tough.'"
Calipari is right. Only five teams are .500 or better on the road, with Auburn leading the way at 6-1. Tennessee (6-2), Florida (3-2), Kentucky (3-3) and Missouri (4-4) have also played well away from home.
For a league that once played for second place behind Kentucky, as many as five teams have a chance to win the regular-season title. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, whose team is right in the mix, doesn’t think there’s a large gap from top and bottom of the league.
“I mean you look at it – this is the best basketball league in the country and I don’t know why people don’t want to own up to that,” Barnes said after the Volunteers swept the Wildcats for the first time in 19 years Tuesday. “In one week you can go from first to last, somewhere in between, from 10 to four probably, because everyone is so bunched up. If it keeps going like it is right now, this (league) should have nine teams in the NCAA Tournament. It’s going to shake out somewhere down the line. This is as competitive as any league I’ve ever coached in. I don’t know what the other games – how they played out tonight – you look at all of them and their one- or two-possession games.”
Mississippi’s Andy Kennedy, the longest tenured coach in the league, said every team is evenly matched, providing close encounters in nearly every conference contest.
“This is year No. 12 for me and top to bottom, it’s the best the league has ever been,” Kennedy said. “I think the most bids the SEC has ever gotten is six (bids to the NCAA Tournament), that’s going to be shattered, I think. I think the Big 12-SEC Challenge brought some validity and fuel to the fire as to how good the league is.
“The teams that play on Wednesday night in the SEC Tournament are the teams that finished in the bottom four,” Kennedy said. “The top has always been good in the SEC. The middle has gotten a lot stronger and the back has been a little bit of a fall off. Well, now there’s no fall off. All four teams that were playing last year on Wednesday night in Nashville have all gotten better. I think top to bottom, this is the best that the league has ever been.”
Even Vanderbilt, which was winless in the conference through the first eight games, has been a challenge for teams to beat. Kentucky needed overtime to hold off the Commodores 83-81 last month. Even Auburn pushed the pedal to the metal to defeat Bryce Drew’s squad 93-81.
“I’ve been talking about how good, top to bottom, the league is, and that team is at the bottom of our league. You can see how they took Kentucky - and they should have won – and why they came back on Tennessee,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “I hope that’s the last time we see Jeff Roberson. He is terrific. We did a lot of game plan to take him away, and there just was no taking him away. These games will help make you better.”
Although the race is wide open, Drew said the Tigers will be hard to beat, even when Kentucky visits Auburn on Valentine’s Day.
“They are playing really well,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said. “They may be the hottest team in the country right now.”
Unlike the past, Kentucky isn’t playing the role of the hunted.
“I’m not really paying attention to Kentucky,” Tennessee guard Jordan Bowden said. “We’re just worried about us and what we got to do game by game. We’re not worried about anybody else.”
Keith Taylor is a veteran and award-winning sports writer based in Richmond, Ky. He has been covering University of Kentucky athletics for daily newspapers and online publications for the past 25 years. Taylor currently is sports editor for Kentucky Today and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.
John Calipari Photo by Mike Cyrus
Bruce Pearl Photo by Jamie H. Vaught