The Southeastern Conference sent eight men's basketball teams to the NCAA tournament last year for the first time after an adventurous regular season in which every program finished with a league record ranging from 13-5 to 5-13.
Auburn and Tennessee attained the 13-5 SEC marks and were crowned co-champions, with Florida finishing third at 11-7 and Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri each winding up 10-8. Whether another wild ride is in store this winter will begin unfolding today, when the SEC begins league play.
"I think there are two, three or four teams that have separated themselves a little bit more than the others, and I wouldn't put us in that category," Florida coach Mike White said this week. "I think the middle of the league is very strong, and I think the bottom of the league is strong. We'll see who finishes where.
"Tennessee is the highest-ranked team in our league, and they're awfully, awfully good, but I don't think that they're the only ones."
Four SEC teams are ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 — No. 3 Tennessee, No. 12 Auburn, No. 13 Kentucky and No. 17 Mississippi State. The league also has eight programs among the top 50 in the NET rankings that will be used to assist the NCAA tournament's selection committee, and 12 of 14 in the top 100.
Ten league teams are 9-3 or better entering conference play, with Tennessee's 11-1 record including a win last month over then-No. 1 Gonzaga and Kentucky's 10-2 mark including recent wins over fellow blue bloods North Carolina and Louisville away from Rupp Arena.
"We're getting better," Wildcats coach John Calipari said. "It takes time, but the guys are all dialed in right now. I like where we are. We're having more team- and player-driven practices than coach-driven practices. We've used these last two or three weeks to really spend more time being together."
Auburn still has the talented guard tandem of Bryce Brown and Jared Harper from last season's team that earned the top seed in the conference tournament, with the current bunch of Tigers having more size with the return of 6-foot-11 center Austin Wiley from a season-long suspension. The 6-foot-7 Anfernee McLemore is also back after finishing third in the league in blocks last year despite missing the last month of the season, when coach Bruce Pearl's team lost five of its final eight games after starting 23-3.
"I think Austin is in the best shape of his life and probably playing the best basketball of his life," Pearl said, "and the timing couldn't be better for that. He's such a dominating presence inside, and we don't slow down when he's in there.
"Anfernee is probably 85 percent back from the gruesome (ankle) injury he had last season. There were times he would elevate last year, and he just mentally can't do that right now, but it's a tremendous 1-2 punch right now."
The Tigers are 11-2 with nonconference wins over Arizona, Dayton, Murray State, Washington and Xavier, and their 34-5 nonconference record the past three seasons is tops in the SEC.
Mississippi State and LSU, which is in its second season under former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Will Wade, have been projected as the chief challengers to Tennessee, Auburn and Kentucky. Vanderbilt's 9-3 start is somewhat of a surprise given that coach Bryce Drew's Commodores had the services of five-star freshman guard Darius Garland for only 139 minutes before he sustained a season-ending knee injury in his fifth game.
The former Brentwood Academy standout tallied 81 points, 19 rebounds and 13 assists during his limited time in action, shooting 53.7 percent overall and 47.8 percent from 3-point range.
"Darius was such an impact when he was on the floor for us," Drew said. "He is doing probably as well as a teenager can do in this situation. Obviously he is a hometown kid, and him being on our court was electrifying for our fans and our city. When he went down, it was a big blow in a lot of different ways, but he has a good perspective.
"His main concentration now is to get healthy for his next step."
The SEC schedule tips off this afternoon with Kentucky visiting Alabama, Georgia traveling up to Tennessee before three evening games — Arkansas at Texas A&M, South Carolina at Florida and Ole Miss at Vanderbilt.
The Georgia-Tennessee game pits two coaches who reached the 2003 Final Four, with Georgia's Tom Crean having taken Marquette and Rick Barnes having guided Texas. Crean's Bulldogs were picked to finish 13th in the SEC, and he admitted the more motivation the better going into a conference gauntlet that starts in Knoxville.
"I think you use whatever you can get your hands on," Crean said. "The immediacy of that isn't there like it was, but you're always looking for something that is written or said. You don't want to overdo it, but you want to bring something that you hope strikes a nerve in them and can pierce them a little bit.
"You want to keep them hungry constantly. You don't bank on everything that's said, because they see so much information in this day and age."
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