Strange: Front Four coaches not sure who has edge

Four teams are dead even at 6-3. Don't assume, however, that the SEC East basketball race is an equal-opportunity affair.

"We would probably have the toughest schedule,'' Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl acknowledged Thursday.

Not probably. For sure.

Nine games down, seven to go. UT, Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina have dribbled, dunked and rebounded to identical records.

The tangible prizes at stake are the top two East seeds, which are good for a free pass on opening day of the SEC tournament in Tampa next month.

Of the four co-leaders - let's call them the Front Four - only the Vols have to play all of the other three on the road.

Kentucky must travel to South Carolina and Florida, but has already notched a win in Knoxville.

Florida and South Carolina have already faced the music on the road against the Front Four.

"I don't think we have any edge,'' Gamecocks coach Darrin Horn insisted. "I think we have Alabama Saturday.

"I hate to be boring.''

The Gators have an additional advantage: They have four home games left, the others only three.

"I don't think anybody's got an edge in the East,'' Florida coach Billy Donovan protested.

"I think it's completely wide open and everybody's got an opportunity.''

Perhaps one edge cancels another.

Florida is the only Front Four team that has to go to LSU. The Tigers (20-4, 8-1 SEC) have emerged as the league's best team.

The Gators also have to go to Mississippi State, another tough trip. So does South Carolina.

Here's another potential disadvantage for the Gators: Their three losses have come against the Front Four.

Why would that matter? Should the race end in a two-, three- or even four-way tie, head-to-head play among the teams involved is prominent in the laundry list of tie-breakers.

If Tennessee is to defend its title, the Vols will have to earn it on the road.

On one hand, they're 3-1 in SEC road games. On the other, they've played their four "easy" road games and now face their four "hard" ones.

(Ouch. That loss at Auburn last Saturday still burns.)

"We think at this point,'' said Pearl, "we are an experienced enough club, and we've been around the league, we've been at Kansas, we've been at Temple, we've been in hostile environments, I think we should be able to play through being on the road.

"Whether we're good enough, I don't know.''

Neither does Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie.

"It's a 16-game schedule and the next game is the most important,'' said Gillispie.

"I have no prognostication ability.''

Instant Classic: While the nation was fixated over North Carolina-Duke Wednesday night, an even better game far from Tobacco Road wasn't televised.

LSU's 97-94, double-overtime win at Mississippi State is the SEC game of the year to date.

"There was really no loser in that game,'' LSU coach Trent Johnson said Thursday. "Rick's team didn't lose. We just matched it one more basket.''

Rick is coach Rick Stansbury, who admitted getting the Bulldogs off the mat to play at Auburn on Saturday will test his motivational skill.

"We left every ounce of energy we had in us on that floor,'' he said.

"We had opportunity after opportunity to win that game and those kinds are harder to swallow than the ones where you just get beat.''

LSU's suspect depth was tested when guard Bo Spencer got hurt midway through the second half and four Tigers fouled out. Tasmin Mitchell was 12-of-15 from the floor and 15-of-18 at the free-throw stripe to account for 41 points. That's the most for a Tiger since Shaquille O'Neal got 43 in 1991.

State saw three players foul out, including center Jarvis Varnado, who scored a career-high 31. The normally dead-eye Bulldogs were betrayed by 5-of-24 accuracy beyond the 3-point arc.

"I always tend to dwell on how hard teams play,'' said LSU's Johnson. "There were 23 possessions where you had loose balls and kids on the floor.''

Elston Turner Honored: Knoxville's Elston Turner was named to the Ole Miss All-Century team on Thursday. Turner, who played with the Rebels from 1978-81, was a star at Austin-East High School.

Last Word: Kentucky's Gillispie on the 3-pointer Jodie Meeks hit to beat Florida on Tuesday in Rupp Arena:

"We had a really, really, really good player make a big shot. But I think he would tell you there was little bit of luck involved in that shot.''

Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276.

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Comments » 9

smashmouth98 writes:

Let's Go Vols, keep it up!!

bfowler1161#262198 writes:

Just win.

billwall writes:

Florida wins the East and TN finishes fourth! Ouch! This is just my prediction from the schedule. We lose to all three on the road that we are tied with and also will lose to Ole Miss.

iowavol writes:

in response to billwall:

Florida wins the East and TN finishes fourth! Ouch! This is just my prediction from the schedule. We lose to all three on the road that we are tied with and also will lose to Ole Miss.

Florida will lose at LSU and MSU.

jasonn1970 writes:

The schedule favors South Carolina. Hopefully Tennessee's surperior talent will win out in the end. Florida would have to be a long shot with those two tough road games remaining. Kentucky, who knows - very inconsistent.

Bigger_Al writes:

C'mon Bruce! We believe, and we want another SEC Championship!

johnlg00 writes:

The Vols have their fate in their own hands. Just hope we hold onto it better than we have with the ball so far! Not too late so far; time to get it done! GO VOLS!!!

Halls3 writes:

in response to iowavol:

Florida will lose at LSU and MSU.

Doubt it they'll go 1-1. I think Florida will win the East but who cares it's not like it matters. Heck, UGA won the SEC Tourney last year & was one of the worst teams in the SEC.

volsportsfan865 writes:

I believe we have a very good shot...I don't think Billwall believes that at all...Very tough road games we have won and lost. We have beaten some very good clubs and lost to some so that tells me We've got it in the vols!

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