LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Kentucky is used to being the cream of the crop in the Southeastern Conference. By this time of year, league foes are batting for the three of the top four spots in the league behind the Wildcats.
Not this year. Two of the surprising teams in the conference — league-leader Auburn and Tennessee — currently hold down the top two spots in the conference standings, followed by Florida, Mississippi State, and Kentucky. The Wildcats (17-7, 6-5) remain in contention for the regular-season title but will have to regroup fast following two straight losses and visits to Texas A&M and Auburn looming in the next five days.
Four of Kentucky’s final regular-season games are in the road (Texas A&M, Auburn, Arkansas and Florida), starting with the resurgent Aggies who have won three straight, including an upset win at Auburn earlier this week. All four teams have a combined record of 45-8 at home this season, making things potentially more difficult for the Wildcats.
Only five teams in the conference — Auburn (6-1), Tennessee (6-2), Florida (3-2), Kentucky (3-3) and Missouri (4-4) — are .500 or better in games played away from home.
“We're all pretty good teams and if you beat each other it shouldn't fluctuate like it is in this league," Calipari said. "It's incredible. Other leagues, you lose three and you're fine. 'Eh, tough schedule. Oh, those guys are tough. Hard road games. Tough.'"
Following his team’s 61-59 win over Kentucky earlier this week, Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said the league still deserves more respect despite the obvious improvement from top to bottom and added there’s not much difference between all 14 teams in the league.
“I mean you look at it – this is the best basketball league in the country and I don’t know why people don’t want to own up to that,” Barnes said after the Volunteers swept the Wildcats for the first time in 19 years Tuesday. “In one week you can go from first to last, somewhere in between, from 10 to four probably, because everyone is so bunched up.”
Like Calipari, Barnes thinks more than four to six teams deserve a bid to the Big Dance.
“If it keeps going like it is right now, this team should have nine teams in the NCAA Tournament,” Barnes said. “It’s going to shake out somewhere down the line. This is as competitive as any league I’ve ever coached in. I don’t know what the other games – how they played out tonight – you look at all of them and their one or two possession games.”
Texas A&M took the Tigers to the wire before escaping with an 81-80 win Tuesday night, while Vanderbilt finally got a long-awaited breakthrough with an 81-66 win over struggling Georgia earlier this week. Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was impressed with Vanderbilt even before the win over the Bulldogs.
“I’ve been talking about how good, top to bottom, the league is, and that team is at the bottom of our league. You can see how they took Kentucky - and they should have won – and why they came back on Tennessee,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “I hope that’s the last time we see Jeff Roberson. He is terrific. We did a lot of game plan to take him away, and there just was no taking him away. These games will help make you better.”
Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy, the longest-tenured coach in the conference, has been impressed with the talent that currently exists in the league.
“This is year No. 12 for me and top to bottom, it’s the best the league has ever been,” Kennedy said. “I think the most bids the SEC has ever gotten is six (bids to the NCAA Tournament), that’s going to be shattered, I think. I think the Big 12-SEC Challenge brought some validity and fuel to the fire as to how good the league is.
“The teams that play on Wednesday night in the SEC Tournament are the teams that finished in the bottom four,” Kennedy said. “The top has always been good in the SEC. The middle has gotten a lot stronger and the back has been a little bit of a fall off. Well, now there’s no fall off. All four teams that were playing last year on Wednesday night in Nashville have all gotten better. I think top to bottom, this is the best that the league has ever been.”
Despite its recent loss, Auburn remains the team to beat going into the next four weeks.
“They are playing really well,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said. “They may be the hottest team in the country right now.”
Unlike the past, most teams in the league aren’t thinking about Kentucky, at least at the moment.
“I’m not really paying attention to Kentucky,” Tennessee guard Jordan Bowden said. “We’re just worried about us and what we got to do game by game. We’re not worried about anybody else.”
However, the Wildcats plan to have the last say in the conference race.
“We have to regroup as a team,” freshman Nick Richards said. “We aren’t taking (the game against Tennessee) as a loss. We’re taking this as a learning process.”
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.