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January 26, 2007
SEC Breakdown: Vandy on a hot streak
Best matchup: Florida mystique vs. Auburn home-court magic: Auburn has made an improbable surge to the top of the Western Division standings by posting a perfect conference record at home. Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Alabama already failed to survive trips to Auburn. Now comes the biggest test of Auburn's home-court dominance. The top-ranked Gators squeaked past Mississippi State on the road and head into Auburn on Saturday in a showdown of division leaders. The Gators' early season loss to Florida State indicates they can be vulnerable when they face inferior teams away from home.
Worst matchup: Vanderbilt 3-point shooting vs. Ole Miss 3-point defense: Vanderbilt leads the SEC with 188 3-point baskets and has shot 36-of-76 from beyond the arc during a three-game winning streak that includes victories over ranked foes Alabama, Kentucky and Louisiana State. Vanderbilt's long-range assault should continue Saturday against an Ole Miss team that ranks 11th in the SEC in 3-point field-goal percentage defense.
The pressure is on: Alabama. Don't be fooled by the fact that Alabama is ranked No. 12 in the latest Associated Press poll. Alabama's no sure bet to reach the NCAA Tournament unless it turns things around in a hurry. The Tide was blown out by Vanderbilt and Auburn in its last two road games. Only a dramatic comeback against Georgia last weekend has kept the Tide from taking a three-game losing streak into Saturday's game with Arkansas. A loss to Arkansas would drop Alabama's conference record to 2-4.
Upset alert: Arkansas at Alabama. We incorrectly picked Alabama to get upset at home by Georgia last week, but the Crimson Tide trailed almost the entire way and needed a Ronald Steele buzzer-beater to escape. So we'll go ahead and pick against the Tide at home again, even though the home court has meant everything in the Western Division so far this season. Arkansas needs this game just as much as Alabama, and we believe the Razorbacks have the frontcourt strength to match up with Alabama's Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix.
Who's hot: Vanderbilt guard/forward Derrick Byars has averaged 23.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game in his last five contests. Byars is shooting 40 of 70 overall and 19 of 34 from 3-point range during that stretch. Auburn forward Korvotney Barber scored 18 points Tuesday and shot 8-for-11 in an 81-57 victory over Alabama. Georgia guard Sundiata Gaines has shot 16 of 28 from 3-point range in his last six games. Kentucky guard Joe Crawford collected a career-high 29 points Wednesday in a 78-69 overtime loss to Georgia. Crawford has scored in double figures in nine consecutive games. Georgia forward Takais Brown has averaged 20.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game in his last two contests. Tennessee guard JaJuan Smith has shot 22 of 42 while averaging 19.7 points per game in his last three outings. Ole Miss guard Clarence Sanders has averaged 18.5 points per game in his last two contests.
Who's not: LSU guard Terry Martin has shot 3-for-16 during the Tigers' two-game losing streak. Kentucky forward Bobby Perry missed all five of his shots Wednesday in a 78-69 overtime loss to Georgia. Perry has scored in double figures just once in his last four games. Arkansas guard Patrick Beverley has shot 5-for-19 in his last two games. Tennessee forward Duke Crews has a total of 15 points and 18 rebounds in his last four games.
Must-see TV: Tennessee at Kentucky (CBS, Sunday at 1 p.m.). Both teams enter this Eastern Division showdown desperate for a victory. Tennessee has lost four of its last five games, while Kentucky has dropped two in a row. Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl delivered a signature victory last year when the Volunteers won 75-67 at Kentucky to end an eight-game losing streak in this rivalry. Chris Lofton scored 31 points and sank seven 3-pointers in that game, but an ankle injury leaves the SEC scoring leader's status uncertain at best for Sunday's showdown.
Key stat: SEC Western Division teams are 0-16 in road conference games this season.
Bench bonus: Georgia guard/forward Terrance Woodbury came off the bench and collected 16 points and seven rebounds Wednesday to spark the Bulldogs' 78-69 overtime victory over Kentucky. Woodbury shot 3-for-6 from 3-point range. Mississippi State's reserves scored 33 of the Bulldogs' 67 points Wednesday in a 70-67 loss to Florida. Barry Stewart led the bench brigade with 16 points.
They said it: "There are 12 teams in the league capable of playing in the postseason. The difference this year is that the bottom has come way up in the East, Vanderbilt and Georgia in particular, and in the West, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn. For those of us who are young and undersized, it's a difficult time in the league." - Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl.
Injury update: Tennessee guard Chris Lofton missed an 83-69 loss to Ole Miss on Wednesday with a sprained right ankle. The length of time he will miss remains uncertain. Lofton leads the SEC with 21.5 points per game.
Worth noting: Vanderbilt's 64-53 victory over LSU on Wednesday marked the first time LSU had lost a home game in football, men's basketball or women's basketball since the football squad fell 30-27 to Tennessee on Sept. 28, 2005. Vanderbilt's victories at Kentucky and LSU in the last week mark the first time in school history the Commodores have won back-to-back road games over ranked opponents. Mississippi State has lost 12 consecutive games against ranked teams. Auburn's 81-57 triumph over No. 12 Alabama on Tuesday represented the largest margin of victory ever by an unranked Auburn team over a ranked foe. Auburn already has surpassed its win total from last year, when the Tigers went 12-16. Alabama has lost its three SEC road games by an average margin of 24 points.
Freshman to watch: South Carolina F Evaldus Baniulis. It's been a long season for South Carolina, but Baniulis has emerged as one of the bright spots in the Gamecocks' dreary year. Baniulis has scored 10 points in each of his last two games and scored the go-ahead basket Wednesday as South Carolina defeated Arkansas 66-60 to end a five-game losing streak.
Something you may have missed: Mississippi State may not have pulled the upset Wednesday, but the Bulldogs at least can take pride in forcing top-ranked Florida to shoot just 41.7 percent in the Gators' 70-67 victory. Florida entered the game leading the nation in field-goal percentage (54.7) and had shot better than 60 percent in each of its last two contests.
RPI watch: Vanderbilt has beaten ranked opponents in each of its last three games including road victories over Kentucky and LSU but that recent surge hasn't particularly helped the Commodores' RPI rating. Vanderbilt was only 55th in the RPI index as of Wednesday.
On the other hand, Kentucky was sixth in the RPI index Wednesday despite losing back-to-back games.
Vanderbilt is hurt by its No. 177 non-conference strength-of-schedule rating, while Kentucky's non-conference strength of schedule is ranked sixth.
The most puzzling aspect of the RPI remains the lack of respect for Florida. The top-ranked team in the nation was only 26th in the RPI index as of Wednesday.
Florida's non-conference strength-of-schedule rating is 206th, though the Gators did have a quality non-conference victory over Ohio State.
Other SEC teams in the top 50 of the RPI index as of Wednesday included No. 19 Tennessee, No. 21 Alabama, No. 33 Arkansas and No. 41 Georgia.