SEC leaders suffer setbacks, top of standings wide open
A look at the upcoming week around the Southeastern Conference:
GAME OF THE WEEKEND: Florida at No. 18 Kentucky: Although Kentucky is the only Top 25 team in this matchup, Florida is the program currently atop the SEC standings. The Gators will try to maintain their SEC lead Saturday by winning for the eighth time in their last nine games. Kentucky is 11-0 at home this year but has split its last four games overall while struggling to protect leads. Kentucky blew a nine-point lead Jan. 6 in a 76-65 loss at No. 21 Tennessee and squandered a 14-point edge Tuesday in a 76-68 defeat at South Carolina .
LOOKING AHEAD: While the SEC undoubtedly has more good teams than usual and consequently should get more NCAA Tournament bids, the league lacks a true front-runner. Florida won its first four conference games and then suffered a surprising loss at Mississippi . No. 17 Auburn is the highest-ranked team in the conference, but its 14-game winning streak ended Wednesday with a loss at Alabama . The Crimson Tide played that game without injured leading scorer Collin Sexton. All three SEC teams in the Top 25 — Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee — lost this week. The SEC should have a wide-open race for the conference title, as five teams have two conference losses or less: Florida (13-5, 5-1), Auburn (16-2, 4-1), Kentucky (14-4, 4-2), Alabama (12-6, 4-2) and Missouri (13-5, 3-2).
NUMBERS GAME: Missouri’s 59-55 victory over No. 21 Tennessee on Wednesday marked the first time the Tigers had beaten a ranked team since a victory over No. 18 UCLA on Dec. 7, 2013. ... Auburn’s 14 straight victories had given the Tigers the nation’s longest active winning streak before they fell to Alabama on Wednesday. ... South Carolina is 11-0 when it scores at least 70 points and just 1-6 when it fails to reach that mark. ... The SEC has eight teams ranked in the top 40 of the NCAA’s RPI rankings, including No. 9 Auburn, No. 12 Kentucky, No. 14 Tennessee, No. 25 Arkansas, No. 26 Alabama, No. 33 Missouri, No. 36 Florida and No. 37 Texas A&M.
IMPACT PERFORMER: South Carolina was picked to finish 11th in the conference one year after reaching the Final Four, but junior forward Chris Silva is making sure the Gamecocks (12-6, 3-3) stay competitive and challenge for an NCAA bid again. Silva has put together two 27-point performances in South Carolina’s last four games. The first came Jan. 6 in a 71-60 victory over Vanderbilt . Silva scored 27 again to go along with eight rebounds as South Carolina rallied to beat Kentucky. He also had 14 points, nine rebounds and four assists Saturday when the Gamecocks won 64-57 at Georgia .
ON THE WOMEN’S SIDE: No. 3 Mississippi State is one of only three remaining undefeated Division I teams along with No. 1 Connecticut and No. 2 Louisville. The Bulldogs face their biggest test of the season thus far Sunday at No. 6 Tennessee. Sunday’s matchup ends a demanding four-game stretch for the Lady Vols and marks their return home after three straight road matchups with No. 16 Texas A&M, No. 10 South Carolina and No. 5 Notre Dame. Tennessee beat South Carolina but fell in overtime at Texas A&M and blew a 23-point lead in a loss at Notre Dame.
AP Sports Writers Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee, and David Brandt in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this story.