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LSU forward Storm Warren (24) battles Arkansas forward Michael Sanchez (31) for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the first round of the 2012 Southeastern Conference basketball tournament at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, Thursday, March 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

LSU forward Storm Warren (24) battles Arkansas forward Michael Sanchez (31) for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the first round of the 2012 Southeastern Conference basketball tournament at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, Thursday, March 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Big names still lead SEC basketball race

Last Modified: Tuesday, January 07, 2014 4:48 PM

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.”

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