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February 1, 2008

Tennessee expects another test at Miss. State

MORE BREAKDOWNS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10

Kentucky at Georgia
LSU at Alabama
Florida at Arkansas
South Carolina at Ole Miss
Auburn at Vanderbilt
Tennessee at Mississippi State
Florida at Tennessee
Vanderbilt at Georgia
Alabama at Mississippi State
Kentucky at Auburn

Best matchup: Tennessee at Mississippi State. The Vols (18-2, 5-1) had a tussle with Alabama on Tuesday, and things don't figure to get any easier in Starkville. The Bulldogs (14-6, 5-1) are smarting from Wednesday's whipping at the hands of Arkansas and need to prove their 5-0 league start was no fluke. Tennessee is the SEC's highest-scoring team (84.9 ppg). Mississippi State is the SEC's stingiest defensive team, allowing only 61.3 ppg. The Bulldogs are second in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (36 percent) and in blocks (8.6 per game). The Vols don't rebound particularly well (10th in the conference in rebounding margin), and the Bulldogs are one of the best rebounding teams in the SEC. The outcome will depend on Tennessee's ability to neutralize Mississippi State's front line of Charles Rhodes and Jarvis Varnado.

The pressure is on: The Florida freshmen. The Gators (18-3, 5-1) are off to a surprising start after losing their top six scorers from last year's national championship team. They owe much of that record to a freshman class that Rivals ranked No. 1. Point guards Nick Calathes (16 ppg, 6.0 apg, 5.0 rpg) and Jai Lucas (9.7 ppg, 2.9 apg) have started all 21 games and handled everything that has been thrown at them. They've made good decisions with the ball, and they've scored well. Because of their play, Florida is one of only three BCS schools that is shooting better than 50 percent this season (Georgetown and Kansas are the others, so that's nice company). The Gators already have won twice on the road in conference play, tied for the most road wins of anybody in the SEC. But those wins came at Alabama and South Carolina, both of which are in last in their respective divisions. The Gators' next two games are on the road at Arkansas and Tennessee. We'll know more about Florida after it plays the Hogs and the Vols.

Upset alert: Vanderbilt at Georgia. Maybe it isn't fair to consider this an upset at this point. The Commodores (17-4, 2-4) haven't won on the road in the conference. The Bulldogs (11-7, 2-3) haven't lost at home. The schedule has been brutal on Vanderbilt, already with road losses to Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida and Ole Miss. It's not the only SEC team that would have lost all four of those. Yet, Vandy had expectations soaring after a surprising 17-0 start and a climb into the top 25. If coach Kevin Stallings hopes to get things back on track, winning in Athens on Wednesday night would be a big help.

RPI watch: Tennessee remains No. 1 in the RPI, with Ole Miss the next-highest team from the SEC at No. 10. Vanderbilt is 14th, with Arkansas No. 42 and Florida No. 44.

Key stat: All five Florida starters have scoring averages in double figures in SEC play.

Freshman to watch: Patrick Patterson, Kentucky. The Wildcats 6-8 power forward is the only SEC freshman who ranks in the top 10 in the league in scoring (fifth at 17.1 ppg) and rebounding (fifth at 8.1). He has posted five double-doubles, but only one in league play. Kentucky is 0-4 on the road this season, and it plays four of its next five games on the road. In his two SEC road games Patterson has shot a combined 9-for-23 (39.1 percent). For the season he shoots 58.8 percent. He'll have to be the 58.8 player if UK is to reverse its fortunes on the road.

Who's hot: Tennessee forward Tyler Smith is shooting 63.2 percent (12 of 17) and averaging 17 points, nine rebounds and six assists over the past two games. Tennessee guard Chris Lofton has hit 50 percent (21 of 42) of his shots from behind the arc over the past four games and has averaged 21.3 points. He was hitting just 33.3 percent from 3-point range before this stretch. Arkansas guard Sonny Weems has hit 66.7 percent of his 3-pointers (10 of 15) over the past two games and averaged 21.5 ppg, 7.1 ppg higher than his season average. Alabama guard Alonzo Gee is shooting 54.8 percent (17 of 31) and averaging 22 points and eight rebounds over the past two games.

Who's not: Vanderbilt swingman Shan Foster is shooting just 37 percent (20 of 54) and averaging 13.3 points over the past four games. His season scoring average is 19.2 ppg, and he was shooting 53.1 percent for the year before the recent slump. Billy Humphrey, Georgia's leading scorer, has gone just 7-for-26 (26.9 percent) from the field over the past two games. Auburn guard Frank Tolbert is shooting just 34.6 percent (9-for-26), down 10 percent from his season average, over the past three games.

Worth noting: LSU's last-second win at Auburn on Wednesday night snapped a 15-game road losing streak dating to a victory over Oregon State in December 2006. LSU guard Marcus Thornton dropped 38 points on Auburn, the most for any SEC player this season. The junior-college transfer now has taken over the scoring lead in the conference at 19.7 ppg. Florida coach Billy Donovan is 40-11 against the SEC West this decade. No SEC coaches have closer ties than Donovan and Arkansas' John Pelphrey, whose teams meet on Saturday. Donovan was an assistant at Kentucky when Pelphrey played for the Wildcats, and the Gators coach had the Hogs coach as an assistant to him at Marshall and at Florida for five seasons before Pelphrey landed his first head-coaching job. Arkansas guard Stefan Welsh doesn't have a single turnover in his past two games (46 minutes). Alabama forward Richard Hendrix leads the SEC in double-doubles with 11, including four in conference play. Vanderbilt guard Jermaine Beal has 36 assists and just seven turnovers in conference play. He has had at least five assists in each of the Commodores' six SEC games.

MORE BREAKDOWNS: ACC | Big 12 | Big East | Big Ten | Pac-10

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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