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The Race to the Finish in the SEC East

Thanks to the Vols' win over Mississippi State on Wednesday, we still get to be in this conversation, and that means we still get to scoreboard watch as the battle for the Eastern Division stays four teams deep with nine days remaining in the regular season.  And the nation at large will be able to do more than scoreboard watch, with six games among contenders being shown on national television between now and next Sunday.  So here are the remaining games for division leader South Carolina (9-4), and Florida, Kentucky & Tennessee (all 8-5):

(all times eastern)

Saturday, February 28

  • LSU at Kentucky - 4:00 PM - CBS
  • South Carolina at Vanderbilt - 9:00 PM - ESPNU

It's a potentially season-defining game for Kentucky at Rupp Arena today.  LSU has become a marquee team at 12-1 in the SEC and 24-4 overall, so UK's NCAA Tournament hopes can get an enormous boost or take another step backwards.  Billy Gillispie continues to struggle with this team (by the way, Gamecock Man at Garnet & Black Attack wrote a great piece from a neutral perspective on Gillispie and the hot seat), while LSU has simply kept winning throughout the SEC schedule and is playing with a ton of confidence.  If there's anywhere in the SEC that can steal your confidence, it's Rupp Arena...huge, huge game there today.  As for South Carolina, from a UT perspective Tennessee will have to beat them in Columbia to win this thing either way, so the focus there is on Thursday's game.

Sunday, March 1

  • Tennessee at Florida - 2:00 PM - CBS

Vol and Gator fans all know the story by now:  Bruce Pearl is 6-1 against Florida since arriving in Knoxville, and Tennessee pounded Florida 79-63 in Knoxville earlier this season.  The Gators are coming off a loss against LSU and have lost three of their last five, and like Kentucky (and potentially everyone in this race) are on shaky NCAA Tournament ground.  The Vols have the RPI and the SOS to get in the field easily, but they were failing the eyeball test until Wednesday night.  Tennessee is by no means a lock and needs wins for their division and tournament prospects.  Can Tennessee continue to play a step ahead of Florida?

Wednesday, March 4

  • Florida at Mississippi State - 8:00 PM - Raycom
  • Georgia at Kentucky - 8:00 PM - Raycom

For Kentucky, you either win this game or your don't make the tournament.  For Florida...playing MSU is a little less daunting than it seemed a few weeks ago, as the Bulldogs' tournament and division hopes have gone up in flames, and State could finish as low as fifth in the West.  Still, Florida has only won two conference road games this season.  If either UK or UF lose this weekend, they'll be playing desperation basketball on Wednesday, for better or worse.

Thursday, March 5

  • Tennessee at South Carolina - 7:00 PM - ESPN

This should become the biggest home game in recent South Carolina basketball memory (and tickets are available for as little as $11, Vol fans), because the Cocks could wrap up the Eastern Division on this night.  With a national television audience - something I would imagine is a big deal in Columbia - with Bob Knight and Mr. "You are looking live!", this could be the final stamp of approval on USC's season.  The Vols almost blew a huge lead to Carolina way back in early January, holding on to win by three.  No one realized how good this team would become back then.  If Tennessee beats Florida and LSU beats Kentucky, this game will decide the division.

Saturday, March 7

  • Kentucky at Florida - 2:00 PM - CBS
  • South Carolina at Georgia - 2:00 PM - Raycom

The SEC keeps putting Kentucky/Florida at the end of the season, CBS keeps putting it on national television...and while this year it may not be the game that decides the East (though it still could), this could turn into "winner goes dancing/loser goes home" as the bubble gets tighter and tighter, making it still a very, very important basketball game.  And there's no way South Carolina would stub their toe at the end at Georgia, right?

Sunday, March 8

  • Alabama at Tennessee - Noon - CBS

Likewise for the Vols, this game exists as a cushion of sorts for the NCAA Tournament; even if the Vols lose at Florida and at South Carolina, a win here gets them to 9-7 in the SEC and 18-12 overall, and with their RPI and SOS, that might be enough.  If they manage to win it.

Remember, the top two teams in the SEC East get first round byes in the SEC Tournament, so finishing second is still a very important goal if you can't win it.  And this year, it could be that only the top two teams get in to the NCAA Tournament, depending on how things play out.  Can South Carolina hold their lead?  Can the Vols play well on the road?  Can Florida hold serve at home?  And starting in a few hours, can Kentucky find the necessary wins to keep their NCAA Tournament streak alive?

We've said it all year - the conference may be down, but it's still exciting to the finish.