SEC races heat up

Looking at the SEC basketball race this year is like looking through a kaleidoscope: The picture is constantly changing.

The Tennessee Vols are a prime example. They looked like the team to beat in the Eastern Division after opening SEC play with a road win at Georgia. Following a home-floor loss to Kentucky three days later, however, the Vols looked like also-rans.

Tennessee appeared to get back in championship contention with a road win at Vanderbilt, then crash-landed with another home-floor loss ... this time to LSU.

Just when it appeared that the Big Orange would be no factor in the conference title chase, two things happened to change the picture drastically: Tennessee trounced Florida and South Carolina stunned Kentucky at Rupp Arena. That combination of events leaves Kentucky, Florida and Carolina with matching 5-2 league records, while Tennessee is just one-half game back at 4-2.

Suddenly, the Eastern Division is a horse race again ... and the Vols are smack in the middle of it.

"When you go in a period of 2½ hours from being one loss and being out of (the division race) to one win away from being tied for it, it does do a lot for your outlook," UT coach Bruce Pearl said. "Our guys understand it's a long conference race ... 16 games. It's a marathon."

Because the race is a marathon and not a sprint, teams such as Tennessee have a chance to overcome a slow start. Meanwhile, teams who start well – Florida and Kentucky, for instance – have time to come back to the pack.

"It's going to be a grind," Pearl said. "Our depth, the way we prepare for every opponent, in the long haul has always benefited us."

Heading into last weekend it appeared that Kentucky and Florida would dominate the SEC East, with LSU and Mississippi State doing the same in the SEC West. South Carolina's win at Kentucky, coupled with Ole Miss' win at Mississippi State, basically turned both races upside-down.

"With the exception of Georgia – because of all they've gone through – everybody is still right there, in terms of being where they want to be (contending for a division title)," Pearl said. "In another week or two you'll see more teams, other than just Georgia, that are maybe out of it (but right now) I think 11 teams are still in it for postseason play."

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