SEC races turned upside-down

Most of the past 20 years saw Tennessee and Vanderbilt battling to stay out of the basement in the SEC East basketball race, while Ole Miss and Mississippi State were waging the same battle in the West.

This year, however, the conference standings appear to be turned upside-down.

The two hottest teams in the Eastern Division are the two from the Volunteer State and the two hottest teams in the Western Division are the two from the Magnolia State. That's a bit mind-boggling, considering that tradition-rich Kentucky and two-time defending national champ Florida reside in the East, while perennial powers Arkansas and Alabama grace the West.

All of that said, Tennessee (16-2 overall, 3-1 SEC) and Vanderbilt (17-2, 2-2) appear to be the cream of the crop in the East, while Ole Miss (15-2, 2-2) and Mississippi State (13-5, 4-0) appear to be the best of the West.

Is this some sort of early-season anomaly that will correct itself as the season progresses? Probably not. An in-depth look at the SEC statistics shows that these four teams are winning with effort and execution, not smoke and mirrors. Consider:

Tennessee leads the SEC in 3-point defense (28.8 percent), assists (19.56 per game), steals (11.06 per game), turnover margin (+8.17 per game) and assist/turnover ratio (1.61 to 1). The Vols are second in scoring margin (plus 16.1) and third in scoring offense (84.5 points per game).

Vanderbilt leads the SEC in 3-point percentage (42.4) and shares the league lead in scoring offense (84.9 points per game). The Commodores are second in free-throw percentage (73.4), second in assists (18.79 per game) and third in field-goal percentage (48.1).

Ole Miss leads the SEC in rebound margin (+7.1 per game) and shares the league lead with Vandy in scoring (84.9 points per game). The Rebels rank third in scoring margin (+12.9), third in turnover margin (+2.88), third in assist/turnover ratio (1.36 to 1), fourth in 3-point percentage (35.7), fourth in assists (17.47 per game) and fifth in field-goal percentage (46.9).

Whereas these three teams are succeeding by scoring points, Mississippi State is winning by preventing points. The Bulldogs lead the SEC in field-goal defense (35.9 percent), scoring defense (60.9 points per game) and blocked shots (8.67 per game). They rank second in 3-point defense (30.4 percent) and rebound margin (+6.9). This toughness has enabled them to stand fourth among SEC teams in scoring margin (11.9), despite ranking eighth in scoring offense (72.6 points per game), eighth in field-goal percentage (46.1) and 10th in 3-point percentage (33.2).

The idea of the two Tennessee schools atop the East and the two Mississippi schools atop the West would've seemed outrageous a few years ago. Midway through 2007-08, however, it appears these four teams aren't going anywhere ... except to NCAA Regional sites in March.

Parity is no longer a rarity in SEC hoops.

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