By LARRY VAUGHT
Southeastern Conference play starts Saturday and the only coach to go through non-conference play — Auburn’s Bruce Pearl — believes the league race is going to be a “grind” just like it was last season.
Auburn is 12-0 and ranked in the top 10 going into its first league game at Mississippi State. Kentucky will open SEC play Saturday by hosting Missouri.
LSU won the SEC title last year with Tennessee and Kentucky second. Auburn tied South Carolina for fourth. Kentucky will play at Auburn Feb. 1 on ESPN and then host the Tigers Feb. 29 at 3:45 p.m. on CBS.
“Last year the SEC was as good as I could ever remember,” Pearl said. “We were the fourth best team in the league last year behind Kentucky, Tennessee and LSU.”
Most would agree but remember Auburn got hot in March, beat UK in the Elite Eight and reached the Final Four. LSU and Tennessee did not.
“We got to the Final Four and didn’t see anybody on the way to the Final Four better than those three (SEC teams),” Pearl said. “This year the league has great balance but I think it is wide open top to bottom.”
The NCAA Tournament might be the same way based on how so many “name” teams have lost this year and a dominant team nationally has not emerged going into conference play. Auburn became a Cinderella story on the way to the Final Four, a role Pearl’s teams seldom have had.
“It was different to be Cinderella. We had the blueboods of Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky all in a row. The way our kids were undersized, we shot the 3, we played hard and played together,” Pearl said.
“Our kids were fun to watch. I am grateful for the opportunity but in March of 2019 we were playing about as good of basketball as basketball as was being played in the country. That was really cool.”
With the way this season has already gone, who knows who might be this year’s Cinderella.