Parity Reigns In The Southeastern Conference

FAYETTEVILLE -- Stan Heath walked into his news conference Thursday and joked with reporters, wondering aloud where his Razorbacks ranked in the Southeastern Conference Western Division.

"We in first, second, last?" Heath asked. "Where are we? I never know. It's a wacky West."

The wackiness isn't limited to the Western Division. The SEC, as a whole, is as balanced as ever this season, and the standings in each division have changed drastically on a weekly basis.

For instance, in the Eastern Division, the division race has gotten crazy in the past few weeks. Vanderbilt quickly elevated from last place to third. Tennessee, after an injury to Chris Lofton, swiftly dropped from second to fifth. Georgia flattened out after a quick start, falling to fourth.

It's all a product of balance and parity, the kind the conference's coaches have never seen.

"If you can win back-to-back anytime in this league, it's a badge of honor," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said.

In the Western Division, coaches seem to almost ignore the division standings. Hard to blame them, considering each team has spent time in the top and bottom halves of the standings.

Right now, Alabama holds a one-game lead over Ole Miss and Arkansas. The Crimson Tide haven't played great basketball by any means. Arkansas swept them, and Alabama has held on for close home victories over Georgia, South Carolina and Mississippi State.

Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said there was no shame in winning ugly.

"This is my ninth year as a coach, and I've never seen our league as strong from top to bottom," Gottfried said. "Look around the country at other conferences. It seems like there's always two, three or four teams at the bottom that aren't competitive. Our league doesn't have that at all. LSU and South Carolina, the last-place teams, are excellent regardless of records."

Mississippi coach Mark Gottfried said any of the conference's schools could prove worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid.

"Two through 12, it's the best it's ever been," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "I don't know how much difference there is between any of those teams. There just aren't any easy games."

To Heath, the reason is simple. Several teams that finished near the bottom of the conference standings last year returned most of their impact players.

Heath has mentioned many times this season that every game in the SEC is a "dogfight," and he hasn't back off that term.

In years past, trips to destinations such as Oxford, Miss., Columbia, S.C., Athens, Ga., and Auburn, Ala., could result in victories if the road team didn't play its best basketball.

No longer.

"Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn have everybody back," Arkansas coach Stan Heath said. "LSU lost Tyrus Thomas and Darrel Mitchell. We lost Ronnie Brewer, Jonathon Modica and Eric Ferguson. The gap between all those teams has closed."

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