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Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl celebrates with players following Saturday afternoon's 79-70 win over South Carolina that clinched the program's first SEC title since 1999. Auburn is the top seed in this week's league tournament in St. Louis.

The 2018 Southeastern Conference men's basketball regular season ended last weekend with a team picked ninth in the preseason, Auburn, and a team pegged 13th, Tennessee, sharing the league crown.

If the last several weeks provided numerous unexpected results, shouldn't the same be expected the next several days in the SEC tournament in St. Louis?

Absolutely, according to the league coaches.

"This is as wide open as this tournament has been in quite some time," Mississippi State's Ben Howland said Monday. "Anybody can beat anybody on a given day, and that's been proven over and over again this year. I think Tennessee is the hottest team in the league right now and probably is playing the best of anybody, but Missouri is in its home state, so that will be an added advantage for them.

"Texas A&M comes in with momentum. There are a number of teams you can look at, and you can never discount the fact Kentucky's had the most success of any program in the history of the SEC tournament. A lot of teams come into this tournament with the chance to come out Sunday as the champion."

Kentucky has won a staggering 30 of the first 57 SEC tournaments, including the past three, and John Calipari's Wildcats (21-10, 10-8) are seeded fourth this week, joining top-seeded Auburn (25-6, 13-5), second-seeded Tennessee (23-7, 13-5) and third-seeded Florida (20-11, 11-7). The top four teams have the advantage of not having to play until Friday's quarterfinal round.

Auburn, which enters this week having lost three of its last five games following the season-ending injury to sophomore forward Anfernee McLemore, got the top seed due to its 94-84 win at Tennessee on Jan. 2. The Volunteers will enter St. Louis having won four straight, more than any other league member.

"As long as I've been in basketball, I'm not sure if there is a tournament where I think any team in our league can go there and get it going and win the tournament," Tennessee's Rick Barnes said. "That's how good our league has been this year. It's going to be a great tournament. It really is."

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For the first time since 1988 and for only the third time in SEC history, every team compiled at least five league wins and sustained at least five league losses. Ole Miss (12-19, 5-13) is seeded last yet owns a January win over Florida and a February win at fifth-seeded Missouri (20-11, 10-8).

Regardless of this week's outcome, an SEC-record seven teams are assured of advancing into NCAA tournament play: Auburn, Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, Arkansas (21-10, 10-8), Texas A&M (20-11, 9-9) and Missouri. All seven are comfortably in ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi's latest tournament projection.

Alabama (17-14, 8-10) is still listed in Lunardi's projected bracket despite losing five straight games, but the Crimson Tide currently are being pegged for a "First Four" game in Dayton, Ohio. Avery Johnson's Crimson Tide open Thursday afternoon against Texas A&M, which is a rematch of last Saturday's contest won 68-66 by the Aggies.

"It's a good time for us, because we need to hit the reset button," Johnson said. "We haven't won a game in the last five games, so this is a new season and a new opportunity. Anything can happen. We have to take care of what's in front of us, and right now that's Texas A&M."

Mississippi State had climbed toward NCAA tournament "bubble" conversation until the Bulldogs (21-10, 9-9) closed the regular season with a 76-54 home loss to Tennessee and Saturday's 78-57 road loss to Will Wade's LSU Tigers (17-13, 8-10). Mississippi State and LSU play again Thursday.

Howland's Bulldogs may have to win the SEC tournament to reach NCAA play.

"Our goal is to beat LSU," Howland said. "Obviously our players are aware that if we beat LSU, we would get another game, which would be Tennessee. Those are the last two teams we played in the regular season, and we had losses to them, so that will be added motivation for our guys."

Auburn coach Bruce Pearl pointed out that his Tigers will be at a size disadvantage Friday no matter who wins the Alabama-Texas A&M game. And if they advance to Saturday, the Tigers could face a considerably larger Kentucky team.

Though it expects be a wide-open event, several coaches Monday were hinting that the second seed could be the team to beat.

"Tennessee lost its first two SEC games, and we had them down 12 in the first half of their third game," Calipari said. "Rick got that team right, and from that point on you know what their record is."

Florida and Texas A&M enter this week having each won three consecutive games.

"For the first time, we've put a stretch of a few games together where we've played really hard and we've played together," Florida's Mike White said. "Hopefully being the postseason will be enough motivation for our guys to have the approach that we've had these last two or three weeks.

"It's obviously been a great year in our league, and it should be a really exciting weekend."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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