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Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina tied atop Eastern Division

 

Danny P Smith

 

There is a competitive race at the top of the Southeastern Conference''s Eastern Division. 

 

At 7-3, Kentucky and Tennessee were expected to compete for an Eastern Division title.  

 

But first-year coach Darrin Horn has helped South Carolina (7-3) become the surprise of the league. 

 

Even though Horn inherited quite a point guard in SEC Player of the Year candidate Devan Downey, coaches say the Gamecocks have found a way to come together and win games. 

 

"They are playing with so much confidence," Kentucky coach Billy GIllispie said. "As coaches and players, they have really improved. When you win the games they''ve won, you believe you are never out of a game." 

 

South Carolina''s only SEC losses has come at Tennessee, at Florida, and at LSU. 

 

The Gamecocks (18-5) also have the third-best overall record in the SEC behind LSU (21-4) and Florida (19-6). 

 

"I thought they were pretty good from the beginning," Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said. "They''ve probably got the best backcourt in the league." 

 

South Carolina, which is shooting for its first 20-win season since 2005-06, can get a step closer Wednesday night if it beats Mississippi State in Starkville. 

 

In other midweek games, Vanderbilt plays host to Kentucky tonight, while Ole Miss plays host to Tennessee, Alabama travels to Florida, LSU travels to Arkansas, and Georgia entertains Auburn on Wednesday.  

 

 

 

LSU on a roll 

 

Since losing its conference opener to Alabama, LSU has reeled off nine consecutive SEC victories to take control of the Western Division. 

 

At 9-1, the Tigers have a three-game lead against Mississippi State (6-4) and four-game lead against Auburn (5-5). 

 

LSU coach Trent Johnson said his team has done a decent job in all phases of the game to build its lead. 

 

"We have defended and rebounded with a sense of urgency," Johnson said. "We have done a good job defensively in terms of keeping teams in front of us and not letting two or three of the best players go off on us. Experience helps that some, but, at this point and time, it''s about execution." 

 

The Tigers have two veterans -- senior Marcus Thornton and junior Tasmin Mitchell -- ranked among the SEC''s top 10 scorers, while senior Chris Johnson and Mitchell are in the top 15 in the league in rebounding. 

 

"They have high-character, tough guys who mean a lot to them," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "Those guys refuse to let their team lose. That experience factor, there''s to substitute for that. Their team is put together awfully well." 

 

LSU has a nine-game winning streak in conference games for the first time since it won the final nine conference games of the 2000 season, when it won the regular season title. 

 

On paper, the Tigers'' matchup against the Razorbacks (13-10, 1-9) appears to be a mismatch. 

 

But Johnson won''t take anything for granted, especially at Bud Walton Arena. 

 

"(Arkansas) is very capable when operating on all cylinders, and they have shown that in beating two nationally ranked teams (Texas and Oklahoma)," Johnson said. "We can not and will not overlook anybody. They have our attention." 

 

 

 

Four for Meeks 

 

For the fourth time this season, Kentucky junior Jodie Meeks has been named SEC Player of the Week. 

 

Meeks, who averaged 34 points and six rebounds in victories against Florida and Arkansas last week, also was honored Dec. 1, Dec. 22, and Jan. 19. 

 

When Meeks scored 45 points against the Razorbacks, he broke the Bud Walton Arena scoring record. He had previously broken the Thompson Boling Arena record with his 54-point effort against Tennessee. 

 

"It''s nice to see him killing someone else other than the Vols," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "If he''s seeing it, he''s making it. He''s definitely a national player of the year candidate." 

 

Meeks, who averages 25 points per game to lead the SEC, is the 56th player in Kentucky history to reach 1,000 points. He has 1,037 career points. 

 

"He has the ability to explosively put up a lot of points, and I think Billy Gillispie has put him in a situation to be able to do that," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. 

 

Auburn''s Frankie Sullivan was honored as SEC Freshman of the Week. He averaged 10 points and three assists in wins against Arkansas and MSU. He had 14 points in 27 minutes against the Bulldogs. 

 

 

 

Hip injuries 

 

Alabama interim coach Philip Pearson said freshman forward JaMychal Green still has a hip pointer, but he believes he will play against Florida. 

 

"We''ll continue to evaluate him and make a decision," Pearson said. "We think he will be fine to play, but it does bother him. It''s a tough injury to get rid of." 

 

Ole Miss leading scorer David Huertas, a junior guard, injured his hip at the end of the LSU game, and his status is uncertain. 

 

"We didn''t practice (Sunday), but he took a knee above the hip," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "It was more to the muscle than to the hip bone. There was some pain and some swelling, but we plan to evaluate him (Monday) afternoon." 

 

 

 

Quotable 

 

"It''s always challenging and you have to win games. There are challenges every day and every game. With two coaching changes in the league in the middle of the season, that''s something that doesn''t happen very often," Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said about the pressures of coaches in the SEC.

 

 

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