As the college basketball season heads down the home stretch, the SEC race in particular is shaping up to be an interesting one.
Auburn is currently in first with an 8-1 conference record, followed by Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida, each with 6-3 SEC records. With nine conference games remaining on the docket for each squad, what does Tennessee have to do to secure its first conference championship since 2008?
Let’s look at the top four teams in the SEC and try to predict how their seasons will play out.
How good is Auburn?
While the Tigers are currently first in the SEC standings, their conference resume doesn’t exactly impress. Auburn’s only notable win came against No. 18 Tennessee in early January, and the Tigers still have to play No. 21 Kentucky, No. 23 Florida and Alabama again, who was their only current conference loss.
Auburn is undefeated at home so far this season, and that should change during this tough stretch. I think Auburn drops home matchups to Kentucky and Alabama and road games to Florida and either Arkansas or Georgia, who have lost a combined three games at home, to finish the season 13-5 in the SEC.
Gators must chomp at the bit
Florida has to play the other four teams in the SEC’s current top five back-to-back-to-back-to-back to end the regular season. Before that harsh stretch, the Gators have a rematch with South Carolina in Columbia, who beat Florida in late January in O’Connell Center.
Best case scenario, I think Florida can finish 7-2 in conference play, giving them a 13-5 SEC record.
Can Kentucky build momentum?
While Kentucky hasn’t impressed much this season, they are still second in the SEC and can beat any team on any given night. It’s tough to gauge how this Wildcats team will play in this final stretch because they have been so inconsistent. Kentucky can erase a 17-point second-half deficit to beat a top five team on the road like it did to West Virginia or need overtime to barely scrape by the worst team in the SEC at home like in its last matchup with Vanderbilt.
Like Florida, Kentucky has to play the other four teams in the SEC’s top five, but have them spread out throughout its last nine games. Between matchups against Auburn, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama, I think Kentucky loses two of those games and like Florida and Auburn, finishes with a 13-5 SEC record.
Vols can’t afford any upsets
Tennessee is currently sitting in third in the SEC standings and riding a four-game win streak. After a rough start in conference play where they lost their first two games, the Vols have rebounded, winning six of their last seven SEC matchups.
The Vols’ remaining schedule sets up favorably in a couple of different ways. First, the Vols should be favored in all of their remaining games and secondly, Tennessee doesn’t have to play any of the three SEC opponents it lost to earlier in the year, unlike Auburn, Kentucky and Florida.
The toughest facet of Tennessee’s remaining schedule is that five of its remaining nine games will be played on the road, where Tennessee is 2-2 in SEC games.
Looking at the matchups themselves, the toughest games Tennessee has coming up are its two ranked opponents, Kentucky in Rupp arena on Feb. 6 and Florida at home on Feb. 21. Alabama, who is fifth in the SEC, on the road should also be considered as a trap game. While Tennessee has the potential to win each of its remaining games, that may be wishful thinking.
If Tennessee can avoid being upset by an opponent like Georgia, South Carolina or Mississippi State, I think that the Vols drop one of their games to either Kentucky, Alabama or Florida and finish the year 14-4 in the SEC, securing the SEC Championship and the No. 1 seed heading into the SEC Tournament.