The SEC Blog: No lead too big, no hole too deep
So you want to win the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament? You want to be the last team standing Sunday afternoon in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville? You want to sweeten your spot in the NCAA Tournament bracket or shock the world and steal a bid?
Before you hit the Music City, where the tournament starts Wednesday night, visit an amusement park. Ride the rollercoaster. Over and over and over again. There's no better way to prepare for what you're about to face after a topsy-turvy regular season in which no lead seemed too big and no hole felt too deep.
"There's so much parity in the league," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. "Kentucky demonstrated they're head and shoulders above the rest, but beyond that, I think anyone's capable. I do think it's a wide-open field. All the teams are still playing. All the teams are still engaged."
If there was a theme for this SEC season, that was it. With so many quality players and competitive rosters - 12 different teams are represented on the All-SEC first and second teams - it's been impossible to relax without running the risk of getting run down from behind.
The year of the comeback started on the first weekend of the conference season when Florida fell behind Alabama by 21 points in the first half, then stormed back to win in double overtime. It continued all the way to the final weekend when Kentucky put the cherry on its already clinched regular-season title by overcoming an 18-point deficit against ... Florida.
It's no wonder that Florida coach Mike White, having been on both sides of these big swings, goes to Nashville in search of some stability and consistency. As he said, "I'm looking for one night where I can get some really good sleep."
Don't sleep on anyone in this league in this event. Even the teams with the league's best records have been pushed to the limit and beyond this season. Auburn finished in a tie for second place with LSU and earned the No. 2 seed in this week's tournament, but no team had to work longer and harder to secure a double bye in Nashville.
Auburn, the reigning SEC Tournament champion, made a habit of scaling seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The Tigers overcame a 17-point deficit against Tennessee with an 18-0 run on their way to a home win over the Vols. They climbed from a 19-point hole to beat Ole Miss in Oxford in double overtime. They erased LSU's 15-point lead to beat the Tigers in overtime.
Auburn was involved in four of the nine conference games that went to overtime or double overtime, and the Tigers won all four. "Adversity reveals character," Pearl said.
White suggested the SEC's preponderance of young players might have been a contributing factor in the multiple mood swings involving so many teams. Six SEC teams rank among the 50 youngest NCAA Division I teams according to KenPom.com - Florida ninth, Kentucky 17th, Vanderbilt 28th, South Carolina 29th, LSU 39th and Georgia 41st.
"We have a few very young teams in the league," White said. "We can be emotional. The emotions run too high and too low with this team."
While Kentucky was good enough to win its 49th SEC regular-season title by three games - and to make that big comeback to beat Florida to close the regular season - the Wildcats couldn't hold a 17-point lead against Tennessee in the previous game. UK had been 129-0 over the last 10 years when leading by double digits at halftime before that spirited Volunteer comeback.
"As much as anything, it's probably a mindset," UT coach Rick Barnes said. "No lead is too secure."
As Kentucky coach John Calipari said of the relentless Vols that night, "They just kept coming."
Including Mason Jones at Arkansas, one of three players nationally to have multiple 40-point games this season; Breein Tyree of Ole Miss, who scored 40 in a win over Mississippi State; and Vanderbilt's Saben Lee and Maxwell Evans, who became the first SEC teammates to each score 30 or more points in a game since 2008 in an upset win over LSU, there have been 37 instances where an SEC player has scored 30 or more points in a game, the most in the last 20 years. When you have that many big-time scorers who can get that many buckets in a hurry, you get the story of the year in the SEC and the storyline to watch in Nashville.
No lead is too big. No hole is too deep. They just keep coming.