Tennessee and Auburn shared the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship last year and head into league competition as prime contenders for the title again.
The No. 3 Volunteers (10-1) and 12th-ranked Tigers (10-2) are the SEC’s highest-ranked teams with league play starting Jan. 5.
This is an unfamiliar situation for both teams.
Auburn made its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003 last year, while Tennessee was a surprise co-champion after being picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the league standings. This year, both have dealt with much higher preseason expectations.
“You have your number in front of your university’s name and that becomes a red-letter game for everybody to build their resume,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “Last year we had to deal with some of that, but what we didn’t deal with until this year is all the talk throughout the summer, fall, all that. I look back and these guys have done a good job” of dealing with it.
Neither Auburn nor Tennessee has ever won back-to-back SEC men’s basketball titles.
Tennessee’s only loss season was an overtime decision against No. 5 Kansas in the NIT Season Tip-Off at Brooklyn, New York. Auburn lost to No. 1 Duke in the Maui Invitational and also fell at No. 20 North Carolina State last week.
Of course, No. 16 Kentucky (9-2) once again looms as a major threat. Although the Wildcats’ string of three straight SEC regular-season titles ended last year, they did win a fourth straight SEC Tournament crown.
Kentucky showed its potential Saturday in an 80-72 victory over No. 14 North Carolina.
“I think it’s big-time just because how hard we’ve been working in practice,” Kentucky guard Tyler Herro said after the North Carolina game. “I think we’re seeing that payoff game by game. We’re getting better each game.”
No. 19 Mississippi State seems intent on making the same kind of impact Auburn and Tennessee did last season. The Bulldogs returned their top six scorers from a team that reached the NIT semifinals last season, and they’ve responded by winning 11 of their first 12 games.
“Bottom line is that is preparing us for what is the most important, which is the SEC,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said after a victory over Wofford last week. “Every night the SEC is going to be a monster. There are no breaks. Every game is difficult.”
Here are some other things to watch in the SEC as the start of league competition approaches.
Tennessee is seeking to earn it first Final Four appearance in school history, and Mississippi State is trying to end the SEC’s longest NCAA Tournament drought. Mississippi State hasn’t earned an NCAA bid since 2009. Tennessee’s best shot at a Final Four berth came in 2010, when it lost 70-69 to Michigan State in a regional final.
The SEC already has lost a couple of potential first-round draft picks. Missouri sophomore Jontay Porter tore an anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament before the season to knock him out for the entire year. Vanderbilt freshman Darius Garland underwent season-ending knee surgery last month after getting injured in a loss to Kent State.
ANOTHER BID BONANZA?
The SEC has a tough act to follow after earning a record eight NCAA Tournament bids last season. Never before had the SEC sent more than six teams to the NCAA Tournament. SEC teams that made the NCAA field last year included Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
Tennessee has the SEC’s two top scorers in forwards Grant Williams (19.6) and Admiral Schofield (18.4). Williams was the coaches’ choice as the SEC player of the year last season.
Four of SEC’s top six scorers are upperclassmen, a group that includes two seniors (Schofield and Mississippi State’s Quinndary Weatherspoon) and two juniors (Williams and Mississippi’s Breein Tyree). The SEC’s top freshman scorer is Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson, who ranks fifth with 16.5 points per game. The SEC’s top freshman rebounder is Vanderbilt’s Simi Shittu, who ranks seventh with 7.6 per game.