Down year in SEC hoops?

Limping along with a 7-5 pre-conference record, Tennessee's basketball team is searching high and low for silver linings. The Vols think they've found one: The SEC may not be nearly as strong as usual this year.

Kentucky is still Kentucky, of course. The Wildcats are 9-1 and ranked No. 8 nationally. Arkansas is 12-1 but hasn't played anybody. The same could be said for Mississippi State (12-2) and Alabama (11-2). Everyone else in the league is struggling a bit.

Florida is 8-3 and coming off a 13-point loss to Florida State. Auburn, like Tennessee, struggled on its home floor to subdue tiny Belmont 73-69. Georgia recently suffered a shocking 56-52 home loss to Stetson.

From all appearances, the SEC is down. And that's good news for a Vol program that must go 10-6 in league play just to have a shot at an NCAA Tournament bid.

After noting that the SEC is ranked fifth among conferences in the RPI (Ratings Power Index), Vol head man Buzz Peterson added: ''It's always been No. 1 or No. 2 since I've been here. It's interesting the way it's playing out right now.''

The UT skipper said there have been some ''surprise scores'' in league play this year, singling out Florida's loss to Florida State as a prime example.

While Tennessee's 7-5 record is disappointing, Peterson thinks his team has a chance to rally once SEC play begins Wednesday night at Georgia. The Vols just need to be more consistent, he believes.

''You've got to do it every night,'' he said. ''You try to play at your best and keep on improving as the year goes on.''

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