And then there were three.
With six games to go, the battle for the Southeastern Conference’s regular-season championship and the top seed in the league tournament next month has narrowed to a three-team race with barely any breathing room among the trio.
Tennessee and LSU are tied atop the standings with identical 11-1 records. Thanks to its 86-69 drilling of the No. 1-ranked Vols at a packed to the rafters Rupp Arena on Saturday, Kentucky is just one game behind, sitting 10-2 in SEC play.
Who has the edge over the last three weeks before we motor into March Madness? In a 14-team league with an unbalanced schedule, the competitive advantage might go to the lucky team facing the most favorable to-do list.
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That could be LSU, benefactors of last Tuesday’s disputed tip-in win over Kentucky in Rupp Arena. After returning to planet Earth, Will Wade’s club wobbled at Georgia on Saturday before pulling out an 83-79 victory. Key: The Tigers did not commit a single turnover in the second half to beat the Bulldogs, now 1-11 in league play.
LSU faces a made-to-order trap game Wednesday night against Florida in Baton Rouge. Then comes the super Saturday showdown likely to snap that first-place tie. That’s when Tennessee comes to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center for the Vols’ only matchup with the Tigers.
After that, LSU has Texas A&M at home, Alabama and Florida on the road before Vanderbilt comes to Cajun Country for the regular-season finale. Combined opponents’ record in league play for LSU’s final six games: 32-40.
Meanwhile, Tennessee must peel itself off the pavement. The Vols were a shadow of their former selves Saturday while their 19-game win streak circled the drain. Rick Barnes called his team “selfish” and “soft” and “not up to the challenge” presented by John Calipari’s we’ve-got-something-to-prove squad. The Vols had not played a ranked team since defeating Gonzaga on Dec. 9. UK had played five ranked teams in that time frame, beating four. The toughness showed.
Lucky for Barnes, his experienced group quickly accepted responsibility for its Saturday dud. (“We were phonies tonight,” said UT star Grant Williams.) The Vols get a chance to heal their wounds Tuesday when Vanderbilt, 0-12 in SEC play, comes to Thompson-Boling Arena. They’ll need a confidence boost before heading down to Baton Rouge.
After that, Tennessee travels to Ole Miss, winners of four straight, for another tough road game. Kentucky comes to Knoxville for a March 2 rematch. Mississippi State is the final name on UT’s home guest list before the Vols finish regular season play at Auburn where Bruce Pearl would love nothing more than knocking his old school out of the top seed. Combined opponents’ record for Tennessee’s final six games: 41-31.
No doubt Barnes hopes his team responds to a loss the same way John Calipari’s club did after the sudden ending against LSU. Stewing since Tuesday, Kentucky kept focus nearly from start to finish against Tennessee, shooting 54.7 percent, winning the boards 39-26 and outscoring the Vols in the paint 36-20.
Tuesday, UK travels to Missouri to face the 3-9 Tigers. Auburn comes to Lexington on Saturday, followed by Arkansas on Feb. 26. After Tennessee swept the Cats in the regular season last year, Kentucky can return the favor with a road win in Knoxville on March 2. Next comes a tough road game at Ole Miss, followed by the regular season finale March 9 against visiting Florida. Combined opponents’ record for Kentucky’s final six games: 39-33.
That’s if you played the games on paper, which you don’t. LSU has never been in this position under its 36-year-old head coach. How will the Tigers react? This time last week, Tennessee was considered a powerhouse. Now, everyone’s pointing out UT’s cracks. After answering Saturday’s bell, can Kentucky keep the momentum going? Three contenders. Three weeks. Buckle your seat belts.
No. 5 Kentucky at Missouri
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)