John Clay

Kentucky, LSU, Tennessee atop SEC basketball feels like old times

First there was Ray Mears, the Tennessee basketball coach and master showman, with players on unicycles, spinning orange-and-white basketballs during warm-ups. Mears so irritated Big Blue Nation that UK students were known to throw oranges on the floor whenever the Volunteers came to Memorial Coliseum.

Mears’ biggest sin: Tennessee started winning.

Then there was Dale Brown, the LSU basketball coach and master showman who once took off his sport coat and hurled it across the floor at Memorial Coliseum covering the outline of the state at midcourt. Brown so irritated Big Blue Nation that whenever he brought his team to Lexington you thought just about anything might happen.

Brown’s biggest sin: LSU started winning.

So with two weeks and four games to go in the Southeastern Conference’s regular season, there is a touch of nostalgia and fun that the three teams tied for first place atop the men’s basketball standings with identical 12-2 records are the three teams that have won the most regular season titles — Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee.

To be sure, Kentucky is way ahead of the pack. Miles ahead, in fact. The “greatest tradition in the history of college basketball” owns 49 SEC regular-season titles. Kentucky won the conference’s very first title in 1933 and has won at least three titles in every decade since. Over the past four years, UK has won or shared three regular-season and won four conference tourney titles.

Second place in the title standings, however, is shared by, yes, LSU and Tennessee. Each have won 10 conference regular-season championships. Tennessee tied with Auburn for the regular-season crown last season. LSU last won the league title in 2009.

Tennessee had won only three SEC titles when Mears arrived on the Knoxville campus in 1962 after a successful stint at Wittenberg. Coaching basketball at a football school, Mears immediately took steps to get Vols basketball noticed. His teams wore orange-and-white striped warmups. They executed Harlem Globetrotters style passing and dribbling drills before games. And there were those unicycles.

By 1967, Tennessee had won the SEC and reached the NCAA Tournament. Soon the “Bernie and Ernie” Show featuring Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld would come to the Stokely Athletic Center. Mears would win two more league crowns, in 1972 and 1977, before retiring because of health issues. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 80, but it was Mears who showed UT it could have a winning basketball program.

Meanwhile, Brown arrived in Baton Rouge in 1972-73. A North Dakota native, he had be an assistant at Utah State and Washington State before replacing Press Maravich at LSU. Much like Mears, Brown needed to make basketball relevant at a football-oriented staff. Much like Mears, he was a tireless promoter and recruiter who didn’t mind a little controversy.

By 1979, the Tigers had won their first SEC title since 1954. That started stretch in which LSU reached the NCAA Tournament in 13 out of 15 years, including Final Four appearances in 1981 and 1986. From 1989 through 1992, first Chris Jackson and then Shaquille O’Neal won back-to-back SEC Player of the Year honors. Brown retired after the 2006-07 season having gone 448-301. Still kicking at age 83, it was Brown who showed LSU it could have a winning basketball program.

Fast forward to now. Veteran coach Rick Barnes has revived Tennessee, lifting an experienced team to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 for four consecutive weeks before an 86-69 loss at UK on Feb. 16. Meanwhile, 36-year-old coach Will Wade has revived LSU in short order. The Tigers improved to 22-5 with Saturday’s 82-80 overtime win over Tennessee before a packed house at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

And then there’s Kentucky, the hoops program that never goes away. The Cats blew out Auburn 80-53 on Saturday to join LSU and Tennessee at the top of the leaderboard heading into the home stretch. Just like old times.

Next game

Arkansas at No. 4 Kentucky

9 p.m. Tuesday (SEC Network)

SEC men’s basketball regular-season titles

TeamTitlesLast
Kentucky492017
LSU102009
Tennessee102018
Alabama82002
Florida72014
Miss. State62004
Auburn32018
Vanderbilt31993
Arkansas21994
Georgia Tech21944
Georgia 11990
South Carolina11997
Texas A&M12016
Tulane11944
Ole Miss0

Missouri0

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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