I've been going to Lexington to cover basketball games for more than 30 years, and I've seen it over and over again. The game rocks along, Kentucky seems like it might be in trouble, then just look and it's over.
It happened again last Wednesday. Auburn was hanging tough, playing great defense, pounding the boards. Early in the second half, the Tigers took a 38-37 lead. Kentucky players didn't panic. They didn't even look particularly worried. They went on an 18-2 spurt and settled the issue. What does that mean for an Auburn basketball team that went to Rupp Arena feeling good about itself? Truthfully, it doesn't mean much. Nobody expected the Tigers to go undefeated in the Southeastern Conference. Only two Auburn teams have ever won in Lexington.
Auburn coach Cliff Ellis says back-to-back road trips to Kentucky and Georgia are providing the toughest week on the Tiger schedule.
History has been much kinder to the Tigers at Georgia, where they go Saturday to play the 19th-ranked Bulldogs. But Jarvis Hayes and Ezra Daniels don't have anything to do with Georgia history. They are part of the present, and a lot of coaches say privately that the Bulldogs have the best team in the SEC.
Auburn will probably have to beat the Bulldogs to hang on to its No. 24 national ranking, but that's really just window dressing. No poll in any sport means less than the basketball poll. Winning at Georgia might well be too much to ask. It might be too much to ask of any team. But Auburn doesn't have to win at Georgia just like it didn't have to win at Kentucky. Though the Tigers are leading the SEC West at 15-3 overall and 4-1 in the SEC, this season shouldn't be just about championships. It should be about getting to the NCAA Tournament. To do that, the Tigers probably need to go 9-7 in the SEC. The key to doing that is winning at home.
Go unbeaten at home and the record will be 10-6. Lose on at home and it will be 9-7. It's as simple as that. Road wins are nice, but they are very hard to come by. Home games remain against Tennessee, Ole Miss, LSU, Mississippi State, Florida and Arkansas. The real danger games are against LSU and Mississippi State, though everybody in the SEC is dangerous enough.
This Auburn basketball team has made a dramatic step forward from last season. It has put itself in position to get into the NCAA Tournament, but there are a lot of games still to play and no guarantees.
The biggest surprise since the start of SEC play, clearly, is Auburn. The biggest disappointments are Alabama, LSU and Mississippi State.
Alabama can't win on the road, losing to Vanderbilt, Auburn and Ole Miss. LSU lost to Ole Miss at home and lost on the road to the worst Arkansas team in recent memory. Mississippi State was 0-3 out of the gate before beating South Carolina on Wednesday.
The SEC might never have been tougher from top to bottom than it is this season. Arkansas is clearly the weakest team in the league and it had enough to beat LSU. The league should get seven NCAA Tournament bids, but probably won't get but six. Georgia, Florida and Kentucky appear to be locks. It could be a mad scramble for the other three bids among Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Tennessee.
Ole Miss looked to be in serious trouble after starting 0-2, then the Rebels won at LSU and routed Alabama at home. Suddenly, they found themselves in second place in the West. Tennessee has quietly gone 2-2 and has a road win at Ole Miss. Other than Arkansas, everyone in the West remains very much in the race. The key for them all will be winning at home. Alabama has a huge game Saturday against Kentucky at Coleman Coliseum. The Wildcats aren't as fearsome when you take them away from Rupp Arena. Auburn returns home after Saturday for a three-game homestand against Tennessee, Ole Miss and LSU. It needs to win them all. Such is life in the SEC.