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David Paschall | Chattanooga Times Free Press | January 17, 2018

Thanks to Auburn, UT and UK, SEC race is as surprising as ever

After his Auburn Tigers became the lone undefeated team in Southeastern Conference men's basketball play last Saturday with a 76-68 victory at Mississippi State, coach Bruce Pearl hardly sounded like someone assuming the role of a favorite.

"We've got to get better to be able to win this league," Pearl said in a news conference. "We have 14 games left. We could win them all, or we could lose them all.

"It's unbelievable."

SEC basketball coaches have enough of a sample size now to know that "unbelievable" could be a very good way to describe this season's race.

MARCH MADNESS SHOP
Auburn was picked ninth before the season yet has raced out to a 16-1 (4-0 SEC) record that includes the nation's longest winning streak at 14 games. Tennessee was picked to finish 13th in the SEC yet sports a 12-4 record and a No. 13 ranking in the Rating Percentage Index used by the NCAA, while Texas A&M was ranked as high as No. 5 in the Associated Press poll late last month but was 0-5 in league action entering Tuesday night's late contest against Ole Miss.

"Teams that we thought would struggle are leading our league," Kentucky coach John Calipari said on a recent teleconference, "and teams you thought would be in the middle are up. There are teams that have had injuries and taken a step back, but those teams will be back.

"You could lose six or seven and win this league. That's what it looks like to me."

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A true free-for-all has been rare through the years in a Kentucky-dominated conference that has yet to crown an overall champion with more than five league losses.

Calipari's Wildcats won the SEC last season with a 16-2 mark, which was two games clear of runner-up Florida, and they had undefeated runs through the conference in 2015 (18-0) and 2012 (16-0). The Gators went 18-0 in league play in 2014. The only close race recently occurred two years ago when Texas A&M and Kentucky matched 13-5 marks.

"I think the league champion will finish 13-5, and I think that may be the best record it would finish with," LSU's Will Wade said. "The team that wins it is going to be the team that manages the ebbs and flows and makes sure that losing one game doesn't beat them twice. There are some great teams everywhere, and that's going to make for some rough sledding."

The biggest difference, of course, between this year's race compared to two years ago is the league itself. The SEC's 2015-16 season produced just three NCAA tournament teams -- Texas A&M, Kentucky and Vanderbilt -- with the Commodores relegated to a "First Four" game in Dayton, Ohio.

When Vanderbilt lost its NCAA opener to Wichita State, it left the SEC with only two of the final 64 teams for the first time since the NCAA field expanded to 64 in 1985.

MORE: 10 myths about Selection Sunday and how the committee picks the field

Contrast that to the here and now, with ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi projecting eight SEC teams in NCAA play -- Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida, Texas A&M, Missouri and Alabama -- and with Georgia and LSU among his "First Four Out." The SEC, which has never had more than six NCAA bids in a single season, had 12 of its 14 members (all but Ole Miss and Vanderbilt) ranked among the top 75 of the RPI as of Tuesday night.

Only the Atlantic Coast Conference has more projected NCAA tournament teams with nine. The ACC had four of the top six teams in the RPI with Duke, Virginia, North Carolina and Clemson as of Tuesday night, and it had 11 programs among the top 75.

RANKINGS: College basketball RPI

"I think the SEC is the best basketball league in the country this year, and I think it's really time everybody starts realizing that," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "A year ago, people weren't so sure. The league winner could have four, five or six losses, and when you can talk like that, you know you've got a great league from top to bottom."

Said South Carolina's Frank Martin: "The league has gotten old, and when your teams are old, it makes for some incredible basketball games."

And a lot of potentially difficult losses to deal with, even for those at the top of the league ladder.

"This league is just so much deeper than it was a few years ago," Georgia's Mark Fox said. "There are a lot of good teams, and we're going to beat up on each other a lot. You're going to get beat in this league. It's just going to happen.

"There are too many good teams you have to play and too many good atmospheres you have to encounter."

This article is written by David Paschall from Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.