SEC East is a beast

It sounds impossible but a squad ranked in the top 25 nationally could finish fifth in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division this season.

That's the belief of Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who says five of the six teams in the SEC East appear worthy of national rankings. Based on the Associated Press ratings, he could be right.

AP voters have 8-0 Kentucky ranked No. 5 nationally. Tennessee (6-1) is No. 9 and Florida (8-0) is No. 13. Vanderbilt (6-1) and South Carolina (6-2) just missed the top 25 and are in the "others receiving votes" category. Georgia (4-3) is the only SEC East team that does not appear on track for a big year.

None of this surprises Pearl one bit. He knew the SEC East was going to be a murderer's row this season.

"We've talked about five teams from the very beginning of the fall that I felt like were top-25 teams," he said. "I don't think I've seen anything that would convince me of anything different."

Whereas Tennessee, Florida, Vanderbilt and South Carolina have most of the key players back from last year, Kentucky is pinning its hopes on the return of one key veteran (Patrick Patterson) and a bunch of superstar signees. Foremost among them is John Wall, a 6-4 guard rated's No. 2 prospect in America. He's leading the SEC in assists (7.7 per game) and steals (2.6 per game), while ranking second in scoring (18.1 points per game).

"Kentucky is certainly as good as advertised - very, very talented," Pearl said. "People didn't know who John Wall was. All of a sudden he signs with Kentucky and you read that he might be the No. 1 player taken in the draft. Then you watch him play, and you see what people are talking about. He's a great player, great competitor."

Vandy's great start can be traced to the play of junior center A.J. Ogilvy, who ranks among the SEC leaders in points (14.0 per game), rebounds (6.6 per game) and blocks (2.1 per game).

"Vanderbilt is off to a great start," Pearl noted. "Everybody's back and Ogilvy's healthy."

South Carolina returns the league's premier point guard in senior Devan Downey. He's third in SEC scoring (17.6 points per game) and second in steals (2.5 per game). The Gamecocks will be even better when center Mike Holmes gets healthy.

"South Carolina returns everybody from a team that played a great year last year," Pearl said. "Holmes is hurt right now but they're a team that's got everybody back."

Tennessee stubbed its toe in a 73-72 loss to No. 6 Purdue but seems to be coming around slowly but surely. And, as Pearl noted, "We're a team that's got everybody back."

Florida has been rebuilding since winning back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007, then losing its entire starting five to the NBA. Billy Donovan's Gators should be back on track this season.

"Florida's had two or three really good recruiting classes," Pearl said. "Do not even begin to think that Florida's not going to the NCAA Tournament for three straight years. That's just not going to happen."

The SEC East was down last year, as Tennessee won the division with a 10-6 conference mark. The division appears back up this year.

"There are five teams right there that are top-25 clubs," Pearl said. "Obviously, that's what we're trying to prepare ourselves to play against but I'm not concerned about a one of them yet.

"I'll focus on Middle Tennessee, Wyoming and USC over the next week."

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