When the Southeastern Conference opened league play in men's basketball on January's first Saturday, nobody got off to a more impressive start than Alabama.
The Crimson Tide traveled to Florida and built a 46-25 lead with two minutes remaining in the opening half, but that 21-point bulge proved not only temporary but foreshadowed the weeks ahead. The 104-98 triumph by the Gators in double overtime Jan. 4 served as the first of 14 games between SEC teams in which the winner erased a deficit of 15 or more points.
"We've been on both sides of the thing, but we've typically been on the wrong side more," first-year Alabama coach Nate Oats said this week. "Basketball is a game of runs, but these have tended to be a lot bigger than they normally should be. When our offense is clicking, I don't think our guys feel it's as important to play good defense, and when your defense isn't playing as hard as it needs to be on every possession, you give up runs and give up leads.
"If we could get a maturity about our guys to guard on every possession, I think we would quit giving up leads that big."
The SEC tournament was set to tip off Wednesday night in Nashville, and all 14 coaches entered the event knowing that no advantage was too safe after a regular season filled with drastic swings.
Florida set a program record with its comeback win over Alabama but broke it Feb. 5 with an 81-75 triumph over visiting Georgia. The Bulldogs built a 22-point lead in that contest, cruising 52-30 with 16:34 remaining, which proved to be more than enough time to stage a rally.
Mike White's Gators, however, endured the opposite experience last Saturday in their home finale, squandering an 18-point advantage with 11:55 remaining in an eventual 71-70 loss to Kentucky.
"A part of our big comebacks is that we got down by that much, so we don't always stay the course like we should," White said. "When things are going well for our team, we're pretty good, but we don't handle adversity as well as a championship-level team should. The emotions run too high and too low at times with this team, and we're hoping to be more consistent and less streaky moving forward."
Tennessee has lived on both sides of the comeback coin as well, defeating Alabama 69-68 after trailing in the first half by 15, losing at Auburn 73-66 after leading by 17 with 14:30 remaining and stunning Kentucky 81-73 at Rupp Arena after trailing by 17 with 16:30 left.
The eighth-seeded Volunteers open their time at the SEC tournament Thursday afternoon against ninth-seeded Alabama and would face top-seeded Kentucky again by advancing.
"There is no lead that's too big with a 3-point shot," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "The biggest thing is probably the mindset, but no lead is too secure."
Auburn is the second seed and has a 25-6 overall mark largely due to its ability to erase sizable deficits. Bruce Pearl's Tigers defeated Ole Miss after trailing by 19, Tennessee after trailing by 17 and LSU after falling behind by 15, and they also overcame deficits of 11 against Arkansas, nine against Mississippi State and seven each against South Carolina and Kentucky.
Eliminating the 15-point hole against LSU inside Auburn Arena on Feb. 8 ultimately decided the second seed between Pearl's Tigers and Will Wade's Tigers.
"There are so many momentum shifts during games, and sometimes you get leads and play a little more conservatively, while the other team is playing more free and more aggressive and with some confidence," Wade said. "When you're in practice and you're on the scout team, those guys can shoot the cover off the ball. Everybody says, 'You should put them in the games,' but there's no pressure when you're on the scout team and no real repercussions when things don't go well.
"It's a lot different when you put them in the game and there are five other things to think about besides just making the shot. When you're down sometimes, you become like that scout-team player just firing it up, and whatever happens, happens."
Controlling the clock, or being unable to do so, has factored into the inordinate amount of sizable comebacks this season. Texas A&M's Buzz Williams said the ability to get fouled and score points when the clock is not moving can be very important to start a significant run or stop one by the other team.
Whether the big comebacks can continue in Nashville will be revealed in the next few days, but they would come as no surprise to those involved.
"In the NBA it happens almost every night, and I think a lot of that is talent-driven and talent-based," first-year Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. "Collegiately, because the shot clock is longer than in the pro game, you can control bigger leads a little bit better. You can't just work on the last two minutes of a game in practice. You have to work on the last 10 minutes to control the clock."
Said Mississippi State's Ben Howland: "A 15-point lead used to be a big deal, and it's no longer that big of a deal or insurmountable in any way. It does make for an exciting game."