Vols, Wildcats chasing Tide as SEC race nears midway mark

Crimson Tide photos / Alabama has won two of the past three SEC regular-season championships in men's basketball under coach Nate Oats, who has the Crimson Tide in first place entering Saturday's midway mark of the league schedule.
Crimson Tide photos / Alabama has won two of the past three SEC regular-season championships in men's basketball under coach Nate Oats, who has the Crimson Tide in first place entering Saturday's midway mark of the league schedule.

If the Alabama men's basketball program wins its third Southeastern Conference regular-season championship in four years, this could be the week people remember.

Or the midweek, to be more specific.

The Crimson Tide will enter Saturday's midway mark of the league race alone in first place with a 7-1 conference record, having defeated Georgia in Athens 85-76 Wednesday night. Alabama trailed the Bulldogs 17-2 out of the gate.

"This was a big win," coach Nate Oats said on a Zoom call after prevailing inside Stegeman Coliseum. "If you're going to try and win the conference, these are the games you've got to win on the road."

While Alabama pulled out a game it seemed destined to lose until the closing minutes, both Tennessee and Kentucky suffered setbacks inside their home arenas. The Volunteers were stunned 63-59 by South Carolina on Tuesday evening, with the Wildcats falling to Florida 94-91 in overtime Wednesday.

Alabama is followed in the SEC standings by Auburn and South Carolina, who are each 6-2, and Tennessee at 5-2. Florida, Kentucky and Ole Miss are 5-3 within the conference, Georgia is 4-4, and LSU and Texas A&M are each 3-4. Rounding out the standings are Mississippi State at 3-5, Arkansas at 2-6, Vanderbilt at 0-7 and Missouri at 0-8.

It's a very different look from the preseason predictions in October, which had Tennessee winning the league followed by Texas A&M, Arkansas, Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State.

"It's great that we've been able to figure out how to win some games in January, but we've yet to play well on both sides of the ball for 40 minutes," Oats said. "We were super intense against Auburn and our defense was a lot better, but our offense wasn't very good. Against LSU, our offense looked great — we were one of the best offenses in the country that night — but our defense wasn't very good.

"Tonight, our offense scored 58 in the second half, but it was awful in the first half. If we're going to win a championship, we've got to get to the point where we play 40 minutes on both sides of the ball. It may not be perfect, but your effort and execution has to be there for 40 minutes, and we haven't seen that yet."

Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee enter the league schedule's midpoint certainly battling their share of inconsistencies. The Vols overwhelmed Alabama 91-71 in Knoxville on Jan. 20 but looked nothing like that team Tuesday, while Auburn coach Bruce Pearl actually felt the need to address Tigers fans after Wednesday's 81-54 drubbing of Vanderbilt.

Pearl's Tigers, who have 17 double-digit triumphs but have lost all four games decided by six points or fewer, entered this week coming off road losses to Alabama and Mississippi State that followed their 5-0 league start.

"There was too much negativity in the sense that this team was not supposed to be in the position that we're in this year," said Pearl, who is trying to lead Auburn to a third SEC title in the last seven seasons. "They've put themselves in that position. We don't know how it's going to finish, and if we don't improve, then it's just going to be an OK year.

"To this point right now, I will defend my team and say they've worked hard to be in the position they're in."

South Carolina second-year coach Lamont Paris, who coached the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to a 27-8 record two years ago and to the Southern Conference title, has the SEC's surprise team this season, though Georgia's Mike White, LSU's Matt McMahon and Chris Beard of Ole Miss have noticeably upgraded their programs as well.

The league's biggest disappointment has been Arkansas, the SEC's bright spot in NCAA tournament play the past three years with two Elite Eight appearances, another Sweet 16 trip, and consecutive upsets of Gonzaga in 2022 and Kansas last year when those opponents were West Region top seeds.

Not only are Eric Musselman's Razorbacks 2-6 in league play this winter, but five of those losses have been by double digits.

The SEC's biggest showdown this weekend is Saturday night's pairing of the No. 5 Vols and the No. 10 Wildcats inside Rupp Arena. Kentucky is hoping to have freshmen D.J. Wagner (ankle) and Justin Edwards (knee) back from injuries, while neither team wants to sustain a second straight loss.

"We've got no choice," Kentucky coach Calipari said in a news conference Wednesday night when asked about bouncing back. "They're coming in here, and they're really good. They're really veteran. They've got a couple of guys who can break you down and score."

Tennessee and Kentucky are the SEC's two highest-ranked teams in the Associated Press poll, with Auburn No. 16 and Alabama No. 24. Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee rank among the top eight teams nationally in both the NET and KenPom rankings.

As for the NCAA tournament, the SEC began this week with Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas A&M in ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi's 68-team mock bracket, and with Florida just missing the cut. The SEC's eight projected teams are behind only the Big 12, which has nine.

"There are going to be a lot of 9-9 teams that make the NCAA tournament," Pearl said. "There could be some 8-10s that make the NCAA tournament out of this league. How you respond to adversity will be important."

With Saturday night in Lexington providing an example of that.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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