Originally created 02/08/00

Upcoming games crucial in race for SEC East



A clear front-runner has yet to emerge from the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division, but that might change this week.

Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida each embark on crucial two-game swings that will have a big say in who will be seeded highest come the SEC Tournament on March 9-12.

It all starts tonight, when the No. 11 Wildcats travel to Gainesville, Fla., to play the No. 12 Gators (9 p.m., ESPN2).

Kentucky occupies a shaky perch atop the East with a 7-1 conference record (17-5 overall), while No. 8 Tennessee (19-3, 7-2 SEC) and Florida (17-4, 6-2 SEC) are close behind.

The Gators have the most at stake in their next two games. After tonight's tilt, they'll head to Knoxville for a Saturday showdown with the Volunteers (3 p.m., JP).

"It's a big week for us, just from the standpoint that we're 6-2 in the league right now," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "Kentucky's got one loss. Tennessee has got two losses."

After tonight's showdown, the Wildcats play at No. 25 LSU (17-4, 4-4 SEC) on Sunday (1 p.m., JP). Georgia coach Jim Harrick seems to think that Kentucky, winner of seven straight and 13 of its past 14, has the inside track.

"They're starting to shoot the ball. They're playing great defense; they've got the horse in the middle," Harrick said of Wildcats center Jamaal Magloire, who is averaging 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. "I would never bet against Kentucky, because they just have the kind of attitude that it takes to go a long way."

Tennessee, coming off Sunday's 88-81 win at Mississippi State, plays host to Georgia on Wednesday (8 p.m., JP) before Saturday's meeting with Florida.

The Vols travel to Vanderbilt a week later before their rematch with Kentucky on Feb. 23. The Wildcats administered an 81-68 thumping in the teams' first meeting last week, and Tennessee coach Jerry Green remains irked with his team's desire to rush shots in that game. On 47 of 67 possessions, he said, the Vols shot the ball in 10 seconds or less.

"Individually, we decided that we were going to whoop the world, whether it be one on one or one on five," Green said. "That's not good against a great team, because you're not going to beat them very often."

Though the Wildcats, Vols and Gators are at the top of the conference heap, Vanderbilt might have a say in the end. The No. 22 Commodores (15-4, 5-3 SEC) are a game behind the Gators, and a home game against Mississippi State and a road date with Alabama would appear to make their climb a bit easier.

"There's still eight games left," Donovan said. "There's still a lot of things that could happen."

Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.