UT back in the hunt

Tennessee has rejoined the SEC East basketball race the hard way – by winning on the road.

The Vols appeared just about dead in the water after suffering their second home-floor SEC loss of the season last week against LSU. But last night's win at Arkansas, coupled with two home-floor losses by Kentucky, has enabled the Big Orange to jump right back into the division title race.

The current SEC East standings show Florida on top at 6-2, followed by Tennessee (5-2), South Carolina (5-3) and Kentucky (5-3). Of the four, Tennessee and Kentucky probably have the best shot at winning the division title.

Here's why:

Teams that play well on the road typically claim SEC championships. Tennessee went 6-2 in league road games last year and won the Eastern Division. Mississippi State went 5-3 in league road games last year and won the West. None of the other 10 teams finished with a winning road record within the conference.

Tennessee and Kentucky are enjoying remarkable success as SEC road teams this season. The Big Orange is 3-0, while the Big Blue is 3-1. Florida (2-2) has been a good road team, while South Carolina (1-3) has struggled. Thus, the Vols and Cats project to fight it out for the division title if they can simply hold serve at home and continue playing well on the road.

The obvious question: Will Tennessee hold serve? It should, for two reasons. One, the Vols carried a 37-game home winning streak into 2009, so history is on their side. Two, the Vols already have played their four toughest home opponents (Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, LSU). Except for Mississippi State (5-2) on Feb. 25, UT's remaining home games are less than imposing – Georgia (0-7) on Feb. 11, Vanderbilt (2-5) on Feb. 14 and Alabama (3-4) on March 8.

It should be noted that the Vols' 3-0 SEC road record has been fashioned at the expense of the league's three losingest teams – Vanderbilt (2-5), Arkansas (1-6) and Georgia (0-7). Still, Tennessee has a good chance to win its next two SEC road tests – Saturday at Auburn (2-5) and Feb. 18 at Ole Miss (4-4). If so, UT would finish with no worse than a 5-3 league road record. Holding serve would give the Vols a 6-2 SEC home record and an overall mark of 11-5.

Considering how down the league is this year, that may well be good enough to repeat as conference champs.

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