Over the course of the 2017 season, the Southeastern Conference has shown why it’s one of the nation’s best conferences, and the results have produced one of the tightest races in the country when it comes to winning the SEC.
Believe it or not, over half of the SEC is separated by just three games or less when it comes to trailing the conference-leading Auburn Tigers (7-1, 19-2). The most exciting part? The final ten games for every SEC team is a conference game and the current top five teams all play each other once - sans a second UT vs. Auburn matchup - leaving the door wide open for whoever ultimately claims the top spot come March.
So which teams have the best shot at finishing the regular season as the number one seed going into the SEC Tournament? You could place a bet on just about every team in the top five and probably come out in the plus, but that doesn’t mean an outsider could go on a late-season run and totally screw things up.
With just ten games left - shit is about to get real. Let’s take a look at the top five teams’ remaining schedules and see who has the best shot at finishing the regular season at number one in the SEC.
Auburn Tigers (7-1, 19-2)
Toughest games remaining: v. Texas A&M (2/7), v. UK (2/14), @ SC (2/17), v. ALA (2/21), @ UF (2/24) = 130-79 remaining record (62% opponent winning pct.)
Out of these five teams, Auburn has a slight edge when it comes to the rest of their schedule. The Tigers play just two ranked teams in their final ten games, but face a pretty daunting stretch in mid-February with four straight games against Kentucky, South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida.
If Auburn can go 2-2 or even 3-1 in that stretch, then they should be able to hold on to the top spot in the SEC with a 15-3 conference record at worst. The game against Florida could end up determining who finishes number one.
Florida Gators (6-2, 15-6)
Toughest games remaining: @ SC (2/10), @ UT (2/21), v. AUB (2/24), @ ALA (2/27), v. UK (3/3) = 135-72 remaining record (65% opponent winning pct.)
Florida has looked solid during SEC play thus far, but any lingering questions will be answered during a four-game stretch that includes back-to-back ranked opponents in UT and Auburn, a trip to Alabama (who beat Auburn in Tuscaloosa without stud point guard Collin Sexton), and the season finale against Kentucky at home.
Throw in a trip to South Carolina - who just beat the Gators at home last week - and the Gators could find themselves limping into the tournament.
Front-court injuries have taken their toll on the Gators, who are still awaiting the return of fifth-year senior John Egbunu, but head coach Mike White’s squad keeps finding ways to win big in the SEC, leaving them with more than a chance to claim the top spot.
Kentucky Wildcats (5-3, 16-5)
Toughest games remaining: @ Mizzou (2/3), v. UT (2/6), @ AUB (2/14), v. ALA (2/17), @ UF (3/3) = 136-73 remaining record (65% opponent winning pct.)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before - the Kentucky Wildcats are in perfect position to finish with the first seed in the SEC tournament come March.
With their season-changing win against the West Virginia Mountaineers this past weekend, the Cats seem to finally have things on track for a late season push.
Kentucky has already shown the ability to overcome adversity this season. Before the WVU game, they had fallen out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in 68 weeks and had lost three out of five games before earning back-to-back victories against Mississippi State and West Virginia.
Showing the resolve to overcome tough situations is a major factor for such a young, athletic team and it will play a major role in these last ten games.
Oh, and don’t forget to add in the fact that the last time UK dropped out of the Top 25, they made it to the national championship. Barf.
Tennessee Volunteers (5-3, 15-5)
Toughest games remaining: @ UK (2/6), @ ALA (2/10), v. USC (2/13), @ UF (2/21), @ MISS (2/24) = 131-76 remaining record (63% opponent winning pct.)
Yes, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Our Vols are up next on the docket.
The Vols have performed above-and-beyond expectations this season, where they were picked to finish a demoralizing 13th in the SEC during the preseason. That prediction fell flat on its face as soon as UT took the court in November.
Next to Auburn, the Vols have the easiest schedule when it comes to opponent winning percentage, but still face a tough seven-day stretch that includes consecutive road games at Kentucky and Alabama.
They aren’t listed here, but the Vols also have to travel to Georgia and Mississippi State, making it five out of seven games on the road during a span of three weeks. There is always a chance for a team to slip up somewhere while playing away from home, especially this frequently.
If the Vols take care of business where they should and split the tough games - at worst - UT will surely be in the mix for the top spot in the tournament.
Alabama Crimson Tide (5-3, 14-7)
Toughest games remaining: @ UF (2/3), v. UT (2/10), @ UK (2/17), @ AUB (2/21), v. UF (2/27) = 148-60 remaining record (71% opponent winning pct.)
When it comes to Alabama’s remaining schedule, I’m sorry if I don’t offer up much sympathy in regards to its difficulty. It’s about time the damned elephants struggled in something.
Bama is coming off a very impressive win against Oklahoma in Tuscaloosa - where the Tide does their best work. Head coach Avery Johnson has them at 5-1 in their last six games that include wins over the aforementioned Sooners and the SEC’s top-ranked Auburn Tigers.
But the rest of Alabama’s schedule may not fair as well as the earlier portion of the year. They have the toughest remaining schedule of these teams by far, including five games against ranked opponents. Three of the Tide’s final five games come against said opponents, while two of those three games are away from home.
It will be tough to pick Bama to win on the road against Florida and Kentucky, but crazier things have happened. If they can pull off the upsets there, then they will surely be in the final race for the tournament bye.
Prediction: UK will finish with the number one seed.
This prediction relies solely on whether or not Kentucky finally found their groove against WVU. If they can get the physical play and scoring performance from forward Kevin Knox and offensive rebounding success that they had in Morgantown, then the Cats can play with - and beat - anyone in the country, much less the conference.
The SEC is arguably the toughest conference in the country, but the Wildcats seem to have the easiest path towards winning the majority of their remaining games. If they can pull off road wins against Auburn and Florida - which I expect they will - then head coach John Calipari and the Blue Storm will be taking over St. Louis as they do every year during the SEC tournament.