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Knoxville News Sentinel photo by Caitie McMekin via AP / Tennessee guard Josiah-Jordan James is swarmed by Alabama defenders on Jan. 2 at Thompson-Boling Arena. Alabama won 71-63 that night in Knoxville and swept the season series between SEC rivals with a 73-68 victory on March 13 in Tuscaloosa. Alabama will visit Tennessee on Wednesday as part of opening night for SEC men's basketball this season.

Come Wednesday night and COVID-19 willing — and how many times has "COVID-19 willing" been at or near the start of a newspaper article in the past 22 months? — the Southeastern Conference will hopefully stage the first five of its 252 league games in men's basketball for the 2021-22 season.

And what a start to a conference campaign for a league that could wind up sending as many as eight teams on to the NCAA tournament come March. Especially the top two of those five games: No. 17 LSU (12-0) at No. 12 Auburn (11-1) and No. 19 Tennessee (9-2) at No. 10 Alabama (9-3).

In other SEC head-to-head matchups set for Wednesday, No. 20 Kentucky (9-2) hosts Missouri (6-6), Florida (9-3) is at Ole Miss (8-4) and Arkansas (10-2) travels to Mississippi State (9-3).

But it's those two games between ranked opponents in the Heart of Dixie that most excite.

After all, LSU is undefeated and Auburn just might be the best team in the league now that wing Allen Flanigan — some folks' preseason pick for SEC player of the year — is back from injury. Without him, coach Bruce Pearl's Tigers have often been just short of spectacular in soundly whipping Syracuse, 89-68, and Nebraska, 99-68, with their lone loss a 115-109 heartbreaker to Connecticut in double overtime in November.

With Flanigan, they might be all but unbeatable with a lineup that includes the young man who just might become the overall No. 1 pick in next summer's NBA draft: superb freshman Jabari Smith Jr., who stands 6-foot-10 and has hit 45% of his 3-point attempts while averaging 16.2 points and 7.2 rebounds so far.

"That kid was at Sandy Creek (Georgia) High School five mornings a week at 6 a.m.," Pearl said of Smith in a 247Sports.com report a few weeks ago. "I was there early before school watching him work out. He has taken advantage of the blessing. He is a hard, hard worker."

Indeed, think former Syracuse great Carmelo Anthony — who led the Orangemen to the 2003 NCAA title as a freshman — and you have a reference point for Smith's talent and potential. And he's two inches taller than Anthony. Comparisons to Kevin Durant could also be made, given Smith's height and shooting range.

Of course, former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach Will Wade's Bayou Bengals are no slouch, with LSU second in all of Division I in scoring defense (54.1 points per game). Perhaps that's why the LSU-Auburn game is drawing secondary market ticket prices at anywhere from $205 (cheap) to more than $550 (most expensive). With prices like that, you'd think this was an important SEC football game.

Noted Wade last week of the atmosphere he expects his team to experience Wednesday evening at Auburn: "They'll be hanging from the rafters up there. It's the toughest environment in our league."

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AP photo by Julie Bennett / Auburn men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl reacts to a play during a home game against SEC foe LSU on Feb. 8.

All the credit for that goes to Pearl, the former Tennessee coach. Love him or loathe him, he brings outsized excitement to every place he works. And with the school's first Final Four appearance coming under his watch in 2019 — and only a blown call by a referee kept the Tigers out of the national championship game that year — he may be building the SEC's top program for the future.

Yet good as LSU-Auburn figures to be when it tips off at 7 on ESPNU, Tennessee at Alabama at 9 on ESPN2 could be even better. Alabama's strength of schedule is seventh in the latest NCAA stats, with the Volunteers one spot behind.

Both teams have notable wins — the Vols crushed North Carolina in November and outlasted previously unbeaten Arizona last week, while the Crimson Tide thumped preseason No. 1 Gonzaga as well as Houston. Both teams have deep benches and numerous 3-point threats. And it was a year ago at this time that Bama sent shock waves through the SEC by winning in Knoxville when Tennessee appeared to be the toast of the league.

This year is not last year, however. Merely soak in this quote from LSU's Wade to Sports Illustrated about playing away from home through a pandemic last season: "There was no such thing as road environments in COVID; you had fricken cardboard cutouts and 20 people in the stands. The students are gonna be jumping on our locker room at Auburn next Wednesday night. It's gonna be totally different."

COVID-19 willing, it will be different. At least for now. But Kentucky's women's basketball game on Thursday at Auburn has already been postponed due to COVID-19 protocols within the latter program. Bowl games have been canceled due to similar issues. NBA and NHL games have been pushed back. One can't help but wonder if we've seen the last of the cardboard cutouts if we can't soon get the omicron variant under control.

But maybe COVID-19 won't alter or postpone Wednesday night's opening act act for SEC men's hoops. Maybe LSU-Auburn and Tennessee-Alabama will go off as planned, with full rosters and full stands. And if so, may the product on the court live up to the current national rankings and hype.

The SEC may well still be a football conference, but with five of its men's basketball teams ranked among the first 20 in The Associated Press Top 25 and Auburn a current dark-horse pick for the Final Four, it would seem SEC game nights throughout the winter should also become must-see TV, COVID-19 willing.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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