By STEVE MEGARGEE, AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Auburn has followed up a banner season by picking up where it left off. The same can’t be said for the rest of the Southeastern Conference.
Auburn (12-0) carries an unbeaten record into conference play despite losing first-round draft pick Chuma Okeke and the backcourt duo of Bryce Brown and Jared Harper from a team that reached the Final Four last year.
“I felt like this is what I expected, and I’m pretty sure this is what the coaching staff and the players expected,” Auburn guard Samir Doughty said earlier this month.
Many of Auburn’s conference rivals aren’t performing as well as expected.
The SEC garnered plenty of attention for its improved men’s basketball performance after sending eight teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2018 and earning seven more bids last year, but the league has been unable to build on that momentum so far this season.
No. 8 Auburn and No. 19 Kentucky (9-3) are the only SEC teams in the Top 25 as the league prepares to open conference play Saturday. The SEC hasn’t performed particularly well in nonconference play, though South Carolina’s 70-59 upset of defending national champion Virginia on Dec. 22 and Kentucky’s 78-70 overtime victory over No. 3 Louisville on Saturday should give the league a boost.
The victory over Louisville ended a two-game skid for Kentucky, which also suffered a stunning early-season home loss to Evansville. Even so, Kentucky currently shapes up as Auburn’s toughest challenger in the SEC.
“I think we really needed it,” Kentucky guard Immanuel Quickley said after the Louisville game. “It feels good to get a good win like this, for sure. Everybody, I think, played their hearts out.”
The SEC will need more efforts like that the next couple of months in order to get as many NCAA bids as it’s earned the last two years.
Here’s a look at where the SEC stands heading into conference play.
LSU’S TITLE DEFENSE
LSU (8-4) won the SEC regular-season championship last year but have been shaky so far this season. The Tigers lost back-to-back games to East Tennessee State and Southern California before ending the skid Sunday with a 74-57 victory over previously unbeaten Liberty.
Georgia boasts arguably the nation’s top freshman in Anthony Edwards, who is considered a potential No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NBA draft. Edwards has provided credibility to a Georgia program that went 11-21 overall and 2-16 in SEC competition last year during coach Tom Crean’s debut season.
The 6-foot-5 guard is averaging 19.7 points for the Bulldogs (8-3) to rank second in the league.
TENNESSEE REGROUPING WITHOUT TURNER
Tennessee already had to replace first-round draft pick Grant Williams and second-round selections Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone from a team that owned the No. 1 ranking for nearly a month last season.
Now the Volunteers also are missing fifth-year senior guard Lamonte’ Turner, who announced Dec. 21 that he has thoracic outlet syndrome and would miss the rest of the season to undergo shoulder surgery.
Turner’s absence seriously hinders Tennessee’s hopes for a third straight NCAA bid. The Vols lost 68-48 to Wisconsin on
Saturday in their first game without Turner.
“The fact is, we’ve got to get better guard play,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said after the game. “To make our offense work the way we want it to, we’ve got to get better decisions made by our guards.”
LOOKING AT THE LEADERS
Vanderbilt’s Aaron Nesmith currently leads the SEC in scoring with 23.5 points per game. The top rebounder heading into Sunday’s action was Auburn’s Austin Wiley with 9.4 per game. Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans has a league-high 7.3 assists per game.
The SEC had six first-round picks and 12 overall selections in the 2019 NBA draft, which helps explain the conference’s youth this year. The SEC has eight of the 65 youngest Division I teams according to KenPom.com. That list includes Kentucky, Florida, LSU, South Carolina, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Alabama.
AP Sports Writer John Zenor contributed to this report.
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