Home not so Sweet in SEC

ATHENS - Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson had an eventful first week of Southeastern Conference play. The Volunteers opened the conference season at home with a 24-point victory over Georgia. Four days later, they went on the road and lost to Florida by 38. The 62-point swing wasn't all that shocking in the SEC, where home court advantage has become a key element in victory.

"When we played Florida, I didn't see how anybody was going to beat them down there," Peterson said.

The next week, Mississippi State dismantled Florida 79-68 in the raucous O'Connell Center. But, rather than being an aberration, that result is part of a surprising trend this season in which home teams are finding the "friendly confines" of their home arenas aren't enough anymore.

Seven SEC teams have already won a combined 11 conference road games this year.

"I can't figure it out," Peterson said.

Since 1999, at least one SEC team has gone through the conference schedule with a perfect record at home, but 10 teams have already dropped a game to a visitor this year. Alabama and Vanderbilt are the only teams unbeaten at home, and the Crimson Tide hosts Florida tonight. Vanderbilt still must face Kentucky and Mississippi State at home.

"I think teams are so balanced right now you'll see that happen," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "I said at Media Day I thought it would be the deepest the league has been, and that's proven true. When you're not on top of your game anything can happen."

Georgia, which plays at LSU on Wednesday night, is 1-4 in the league. Its only victory? In Kentucky's Rupp Arena, which is traditionally one of the nation's toughest places to play but is the site of the Wildcats' only two losses this year.

Mississippi State is 3-0 in conference road games and 7-0 away from home overall.

"I'd be surprised if there's any team in America that has (that many) road wins," Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury said. "We know it's early in the SEC season yet, but we're pleased with what's gone on on the road."

The league's coaches offer various explanations for the shift. Smith sees it as an aberration.

"I don't think there's any real reason why people are losing home games," he said. "I think it's going to balance out like it would any other year."

Other coaches think the number of underclassmen playing prominent roles is the main reason for the trend.

"Maybe it's the new players in the league," LSU's John Brady said. "I have a team right now that doesn't really get it."

The Gamecocks were picked to finish sixth in the SEC but is 4-1 overall, thanks in part to a 2-0 road record.

"I think it was pretty well agreed that this was a young SEC coming into the year," Gamecocks coach Dave Odom said. "When you have a young lineup, those teams don't protect their home court the way a veteran team might."

Stansbury thinks the number of teams built around defense plays a factor. His Bulldogs, the Gamecocks and the Wildcats, the three teams unbeaten on the road in the SEC, allow opponents fewer than 64 points per game.

"Offense on the road, you don't control," he said. "You're not going to shoot the ball consistently as well on the road as you will at home, but if you're able to defend and rebound and you gave some toughness on your team, that gives you a chance."

Mississippi coach Rod Barnes expects a return to normalcy soon, he said.

"I think a lot of that has to do with teams in transition, whether it's at Georgia with a coaching transition or just having a bunch of young guys," he said. "I think it's something you'll see for the next couple of weeks. After that, I think you'll see teams hold (home) court."

Peterson, though, doesn't expect the trend to end anytime soon. He foresees a stretch run in which teams that are in a hole due to a home loss or two early in the season are even more determined to steal one on the road.

"You let one slip, you better go find another one and win it," he said.

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