Big names still lead SEC basketball race

By By Albert Buford / American Press

When the LSU basketball team begins conference play against Tennessee tonight, the Tigers will have plenty to prove.

They’ll have a chance to do it in a conference with three teams ranked in the top-25, including preseason No. 1 pick Kentucky.

No. 10 Florida is the highest-ranked SEC team, while No. 14 Kentucky and No. 21 Missouri round out the SEC teams in the top-25.

Coming into the season, LSU (9-3) was

picked to finish fourth in the Southeastern Conference and the Tigers

were receiving

votes in the top-25 poll. But after dropping three games on its

non-conference slate, LSU has to make up some ground in SEC

play if it hopes to keep the NCAA Tournament dream alive.

The Tigers’ three losses came by a

combined 13 points and one was against UMass, now ranked No. 21, while

another came to

then-No. 21 Memphis. LSU closed out its non-conference schedule

with a 74-70 loss to Rhode Island at the Pete Maravich Assembly

Center in Baton Rouge.

“We planned a very difficult

non-conference schedule to try to prepare us for a very tough conference

schedule. We certainly

feel like we’ve done that,” said LSU coach Johnny Jones. “There

are some games throughout the year, those nine wins, that

could have been setbacks that we were able to overcome and play

well in. The other games that we had setbacks, we felt that

we played close enough that the game could’ve certainly gone

either way.”

The Tigers’ wins against St. Joseph’s, Butler and Texas Tech highlight their resume so far, but the level of competition will

take a step up in conference play.

“The intensity level certainly has to go up in conference play because of the importance of the games,” Jones said. “When

you look at a league that has been good and you have teams that have won national championships in Arkansas, Kentucky and

Florida in recent years, I think it speaks volumes of the caliber of competition we play day in and day out.”

Florida and Kentucky have combined for

three of the league’s biggest wins during the non-conference schedule.

The Gators then-No.

13 Kansas and then-No. 15 Memphis back-to-back, while the

Wildcats’ last win came against then-No. 6 Louisville.

Three SEC teams made the NCAA Tournament last season— Florida, Missouri and Ole Miss. Florida won the SEC and advanced to

the Elite Eight, while Missouri, Ole Miss and Alabama all finished with 12-6 conference records.

“There’s a lot of parity in terms of

our league. I don’t think we get enough credit for it, but our league’s

strong, it’s

really good, it’s very competitive,” Jones said. “The top end of

it is very good, and unfortunately at the bottom some teams

are trying to get back on solid footing beacause of coaching

changes.”