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SEC Southeastern Conference

Auburn's basketball team had a stretch last February when it lost three straight games, had a week off and then posted a 10-point whipping of Mississippi State.

The Tigers have lost five straight games entering tonight's trip to Alabama, and there is no break in sight. With the Southeastern Conference implementing an 18-game league schedule with nine straight weeks of two games a week, there is no longer time for rest and readjustments.

"Whether you're a team struggling like us or the hottest team in the league, to have a bye week in the middle of league play is always big," Auburn coach Tony Barbee said Monday. "It lets everyone recharge their batteries and try to finish out strong. With no bye week this year, you get in a flow or a rut, and right now we're not in a good rut and are struggling to get out.

"Getting a bye week like we've had in the past definitely could have helped."

The SEC employed an 18-game, round-robin schedule throughout the 1970s and '80s but went to 16 games when Arkansas and South Carolina joined before the 1991-92 season. Under the 16-game format, teams had options of open dates or scheduling quality nonconference games.

With four games remaining in this year's conference schedule, the lack of a bye opportunity has been noticed by all.

"At some point during the league schedule, we've always had that week where you could rest some guys or work on different situations," Florida's Billy Donovan said, "but this year has been a nine-week grind. I don't think the adding of the two games is that different going from 16 to 18, but I would say playing twice a week for nine straight weeks certainly is challenging."

Said Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings: "It's certainly a marathon and not a sprint. You have to keep your focus and your wits about you, because the games keep coming."

The Southern Conference employs an 18-game league schedule and starts it in December. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga hosted Davidson on Dec. 1, but the Mocs got a week off between road trips to UNC Greensboro on Jan. 26 and to Georgia Southern on Feb. 2.

Stallings would be against starting SEC play in December, while Barbee wouldn't mind starting as close to New Year's Day as possible. The SEC opened league play Jan. 8, one night after Alabama defeated Notre Dame for college football's national championship.

"Obviously we try to avoid a conflict with our fans as it relates to football and bowl games and all the things that come with that," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "That's part of the thinking into starting once everything is done as it relates to college football."

Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina played bowl games on New Year's Day, and Florida, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Alabama played after that.

The 18-game SEC basketball schedule also has prevented the league from making any sort of national statement with a quality January or February nonconference win. The league suffered several embarrassing losses in November and December, and Florida is the only SEC team ranked in this week's Associated Press poll or among the next 10 teams receiving votes.

"I do think in the NCAA tournament that you've got to look at a team's full body of work," Donovan said. "I get that, but to say a team is the same team today as they were back in November or December I think is crazy. All these coaches in this league do a very, very good job of coaching their guys and getting them better, and I think that case can be made for every team in this league."