March to SEC title gets going

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Saturday, January 4, 2020
The SEC logo is shown on March 14, 2019, during the second round game in the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
Photo by Ben Goff
The SEC logo is shown on March 14, 2019, during the second round game in the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Just waking up from a holidays stupor or maybe bottoming out after riding a bowl game buzz?

It happens.

Plus, the SEC, a mighty 7-2 so far in the bowl season, has a remedy for all that jazz during this winter transition to 2020.

Conference play starts today with five SEC men's basketball games, and the league has a little bit of everything going on, including one of the nation's last two unbeaten teams in Auburn.

Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland called Kentucky the team to beat.

"But I think it's wide open," Howland said on this week's SEC coaches teleconference. "There's no bad teams. All 18 games, you're going to have a chance to win and a chance to lose.

"It's just going to be a Bataan Death March from here to March."

Auburn (12-0) and San Diego State (13-0) were the only Division I teams to make it to the new year without a loss. The Aztecs of the Mountain West Conference are No. 1 in the NCAA's NET rankings, largely due to 3-0 records both on the road and at neutral sites, while the Tigers are No. 8 in those rankings.

"We're a good team, not a great team," said Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl, who led the Tigers to their first Final Four last season. "We're still feeling the effects of losing five very good players.

"Obviously we're thrilled to have the record we have and be one of only two teams that are undefeated. We also recognize we have a long ways to go."

Auburn's best victory came over North Carolina State (79-73) at home, while it has slim wins over South Alabama (70-69) in Mobile, Ala., and Furman (81-78 in OT).

The Tigers open SEC play at Mississippi State at 3:30 p.m.

Next behind Auburn in the SEC in the NET rankings is No. 24 Arkansas (11-1), which has not cracked The Associated Press Top 25 poll but has been one of the best surprises in the league.

"We haven't proven anything," first-year Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman said.

The Razorbacks open league play at 6 p.m. against Texas A&M at Walton Arena. The Hogs join Auburn, San Diego State, Duke and Dayton as the five Division I team without a loss in regulation time.

Every SEC team except for South Carolina is in action today. In nonconference games, Georgia plays at No. 9 Memphis, Ole Miss travels to No. 24 Wichita State and Vanderbilt hosts SMU.

Kentucky, the pick by league coaches for the ninth consecutive year to win the SEC, is 9-3 and ranked No. 17 by the AP and No. 40 in the NET rankings.

The always young Wildcats have losses to Evansville (67-64), Utah (69-66) and Ohio State (71-65), but they've beaten Michigan State (69-62) and Louisville (78-70) heading into their SEC opener against Missouri at 1 p.m.

Kentucky Coach John Calipari was asked about trying to keep his team on an even keel after huge victories and upset losses.

"I coach at this place called Kentucky, where everything is life and death around us," Calipari said. "I'm trying to worry about the players trying to get better. ... This isn't college football, where if you lose three, four, five games early you're done."

Will Wade, coach of defending SEC champion LSU, said he's not worried about Tiger fans still obsessed with the No. 1 LSU football team and its run to the CFP Championship Game on Jan. 13 against Clemson.

"It's great for us," Wade said. "Nobody's worried that we're 8-4. Hopefully we'll have a couple of conference wins by the time they get back from the national championship game."

The Tigers open at Tennessee (8-4) in Thompson-Boling Arena at 11 a.m.

Florida, ranked No. 6 in the AP preseason poll and picked to finish second in the SEC, went 8-4 in nonconference play and dropped out of the top 25 ahead of today's 5 p.m. SEC opener against Alabama.

Coach Mike White said in his zeal to downplay the talented team's preseason hype he might have made it a bigger issue.

"I think our guys were open about it affecting us to a certain extent," White said. "We tried to downplay it as much as possible. ... In trying to avoid it, I wish I could backtrack. In an effort to make it a non-factor it probably became a factor by trying to avoid it."

South Carolina Coach Frank Martin's Gamecocks (8-5) had one of the SEC's best nonconference wins, a convincing 70-59 victory at defending NCAA champion and No. 9 Virginia, but they turned around eight days later and lost 63-56 at home to Stetson on Dec. 30.

"After the Stetson game, that's the most disappointed I've ever been in ... as the head coach at the high school or college level," Martin said. "We've got all week, the next five days, to have conversations and make sure that we figure out a way to get away from that lifeless experience that we had."

Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes, whose Volunteers tied Auburn for the SEC title two years ago and tied with Kentucky for second place last year, has an injury issue to overcome. On the day Barnes posted his 700th career victory with a 75-53 victory over Jacksonville State on Dec. 21, Vols point guard Lamonte Turner, who was averaging 12.7 points and 6.7 assists per game, announced he was undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery to repair thoracic outlet syndrome.

Calipari said Barnes will figure out a way to win SEC games without Turner.

"You know why I know that? He always has," Calipari said.

Sports on 01/04/2020

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