The wide-open divisional races expected this winter in Southeastern Conference men's basketball have been nothing of the sort.
Florida and Alabama are dominating their respective sides by three games in the win column with three weeks remaining in the regular season. Georgia and Vanderbilt are the only other teams currently with winning SEC marks, leaving their Wednesday night matchup in Athens as big as it gets these days in the league landscape.
"It will be a tremendous challenge, and it always is when we play them," said Vandy coach Kevin Stallings, who has won twice in his last 10 trips to Stegeman Coliseum. "There is a lot at stake in the game as far as placement in the conference and in the divisional race, so we're excited about the opportunity and feel good about how our team is playing."
The Bulldogs and Commodores are each 6-4 in league games, with Florida 9-2 and fellow East teams (and former Top 10 members) Kentucky and Tennessee 5-5. Alabama's 8-2 conference mark is safely ahead of the West logjam of Mississippi State (5-5), Arkansas (5-6) and Ole Miss (4-6).
The top two teams in each division receive first-round byes in the conference tournament.
"As a coach, you would rather have to win three in a row than four in a row," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said of the SEC tourney, "but that's just so far down the road for us right now."
Incidentally, Florida and Alabama have met seven times in the SEC football championship game but never have won outright division titles the same season in basketball. The Gators finished in a three-way tie for the East in 2002, when the Crimson Tide won the West, but Florida was the third seed in its division for the conference tournament.
Praising the Vols
Tennessee may be 15-10 overall and a .500 team in league play, but the Vols have the respect of South Carolina coach Darrin Horn. The Gamecocks visit Knoxville on Wednesday.
"I think one through 10 that they're still the most talented team in our league when you take all the factors into consideration like size and athleticism and experience," Horn said.
Leading Gamecocks scorer Bruce Ellington is questionable for the game because of a bruised calf he suffered early in Saturday's 60-56 home loss to Georgia. South Carolina scored nine first-half points against the Bulldogs.
"I've never been in a game where somebody had single digits in the first half," Horn said. "That was just a fluke, and I wouldn't expect to see that again."
Auburn first-year coach Tony Barbee directed UTEP to 26 victories and an NCAA tournament trip last season but said Monday that this has been the "funnest" year he's had in coaching. The Tigers won their second league game Saturday by rallying from 19 down to stun Mississippi State 65-62.
"We would all like to have more wins at this point, but it's gratifying because of what these kids have put in all year long," he said. "They haven't backed down, even given our record. To see them down 19 and not hang their heads or act like it was over -- they just keep battling every single possession."
Odds and ends
ESPN's projected bracket for the NCAA tournament continues to include six SEC teams: Florida (as a 3 seed), Kentucky (5), Vanderbilt (5), Tennessee (7), Georgia (10) and Alabama (12). ... One season after losing 12 consecutive SEC games, LSU has lost eight league games in a row. ... Florida senior forward Chandler Parsons is questionable for Sunday's game with LSU with a deep thigh bruise that has resulted in some internal bleeding.