Halfway home

The SEC basketball season has reached the midway point, and the Tennessee Vols are leading the Eastern Division with a 7-1 record. That's the positive slant. The negative slant: The eight remaining SEC games will be a lot tougher than the eight played to date.

Tennessee played five of its first eight league games at home, which means five of the remaining eight will be on the road. They aren't easy road tests, either – at Kentucky (15-7 overall, 5-3 SEC), at Georgia (14-8, 4-5), at Alabama 12-8, 5-3), at Florida (20-2, 6-2) and at Vanderbilt (12-7, 3-5).

"I take them one at a time as far as scouting but I know what's coming up," UT coach Bruce Pearl said, flashing a pained grin. "I know exactly where we're at. We held serve. We had a three-game home stand (South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss) and we did what we had to do.

"We've talked about beating the teams we're supposed to beat and beating a couple we're not. We're getting ready to enter into a portion of our schedule where some of those ‘couple we're nots' are ahead."

Kentucky, which hosts UT Tuesday night, has struggled at home this season. The Big Blue lost home games to Vandy and Alabama, then edged South Carolina and Arkansas by two points each. Still, Rupp Arena is a tough place to play. Playing Florida at the O'Connell Center will be a formidable challenge for UT. So will playing Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where the Tide handed LSU its first league loss on Saturday afternoon.

It appears that Tennessee's best chances to steal a road win will be at Georgia and at Vanderbilt.

"It's tough to win on the road in any league," Pearl said. "But if you can get one – especially some of the places where we're going to have to go – it separates you. Not many people are going to beat Kentucky at Kentucky, Florida at Florida, Vanderbilt at Vanderbilt, Alabama at Alabama. LSU found that out (by losing at Tuscaloosa)."

Asked to pinpoint the biggest surprise of the first half of the SEC season, Pearl paused briefly, then replied:

"We're 16-3 and in first place right now; I guess that probably surprises me a little bit. But who could've anticipated the attendance being what it is, the support we're receiving? We're very happy with the position we're in but it's not where you start, it's where you finish."

The Vols already have two SEC road victories to their credit, winning at South Carolina and at Mississippi State. That's why they're leading the East and that's why they're one of the surprise teams in college hoops.

"Yeah, no question," Pearl said. "To have swept South Carolina on the front side and have two wins on the road is great. But it's all about getting better."

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