February 8, 2008

Vols sure to test hot Razorback bunch

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

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

Best matchup: Arkansas at Tennessee. The Razorbacks (16-5 overall, 5-2 in the SEC) finally appear to have hit their stride after stumbling out of the blocks. The preseason favorite in the SEC West, Arkansas was 13-5 on Jan. 19 after suffering the second of back-to-back losses to South Carolina and Georgia, the worst teams in the SEC East. Turn the page to today and the Hogs are on a three-game winning streak in which their average margin of victory is 18.3 points. They walloped West leader Mississippi State 78-58 and humbled Florida 80-61. The Vols, though, won't come in scared. Tennessee (20-2, 7-1) has won four in a row, including Tuesday's 104-82 blowout of the Gators. Both teams will look to run. Arkansas is the better defensive team (second in the conference in scoring defense at 63.7 points per game), Tennessee the better offensive team (first in the conference in scoring at 85.4 points per game). The Hogs hope their size advantage and ability to work the boards will keep it close.

The pressure is on: Ole Miss. The Rebels (16-4, 3-4) were an early season surprise, but they're under .500 in conference play with a two-game road swing coming. The road hasn't been especially friendly to Ole Miss, with all four losses coming away from home. Throw in a surprising home loss to South Carolina on Saturday, and you have a team that has lost three of its past four and is starting to crumble under the weight of expectations. The Rebels play at Arkansas on Saturday and at Alabama on Wednesday. If they fall to 3-6 in the conference, that all-but-sent NCAA Tournament invitation could get stamped "Return to Sender."

Upset alert: Kentucky at Vanderbilt. After a rough non-conference slate, the Wildcats (11-9, 5-2) appear to have righted the ship and sit alone in second in the SEC East. The Commodores (19-4, 4-4) are one of the teams that will be chasing them hard over the next three weeks. UK won the earlier meeting between the teams 79-73 in double-overtime in Lexington. Vanderbilt is especially tough at its quirky Memorial Gym, where it hasn't lost this season. The Wildcats have lost in Nashville three of the past four trips, but they've played surprisingly well on the road in the conference. They've won their past two and lost in overtime at Florida and lost by five at Mississippi State.

RPI watch: Tennessee remains No. 1 in the RPI. Ole Miss has tumbled from 10th to 22nd, while Vanderbilt has moved ahead of the Rebels at No. 12. Only one other SEC team is in the top 40 (Arkansas at 39).

Key stat: During its current three-game winning streak, Arkansas has held its opponents to 33.7-percent shooting (62-of-184).

Freshman to watch: Nick Calathes, Florida. If you're looking for a reason the Gators have exceeded expectations to this point, look no further than the five-star point guard from the Orlando area. Calathes leads the SEC in assists (6.2 per game) and leads the Gators in scoring (15.7 points per game). He's a terrific passer, and he has a knack for scoring.

Who's hot: Tennessee guard Chris Lofton has scored at least 20 points in five consecutive games. He's averaging 23.6 points and shooting 52.9 percent (27 of 51) from 3-point range during that stretch. Tennessee guard JaJuan Smith is shooting 54.8 percent (23 of 42) over the past four games. Arkansas guard Sonny Weems has hit 13 of his past 19 3-point attempts (68.4 percent). Kentucky freshman forward Patrick Patterson is averaging 19.3 points and shooting 66.7 percent (32 of 48) during the Wildcats' four-game winning streak. Kentucky guard Joe Crawford is averaging 23 points and shooting 63 percent (17 of 27) in the past two games. LSU guard Marcus Thornton has topped the 20-point mark in six consecutive games.

Who's not: Vanderbilt swingman Shan Foster is shooting 39.7 percent (31 of 78) in the past six games. Georgia guard Sundiata Gaines is shooting 38.9 percent (14 of 36) in the past three games. Mississippi State forward Jarvis Varnado, who's averaging 4.8 blocks per game to lead the SEC, has only 12 blocks in his past five games (2.4 average). He had 37 blocks in the previous five games.

Worth noting: Mississippi State ranks first in the SEC and second nationally in field-goal percentage defense (36.3 percent). With its win over Alabama on Wednesday, Mississippi State finished off its first sweep of the Tide in nine seasons. Three SEC teams rank in the top 11 nationally in scoring Tennessee (fourth at 84.5 points per game), Ole Miss (eighth at 83.2) and Vanderbilt (11th at 82.5). Bruce Pearl's teams have led their leagues in scoring in 15 of his 16 years as a head coach. The Vols are the only team in the SEC that doesn't have a player in the top 30 in minutes played. LSU is one of only two schools that has a winning record against Tennessee since the start of the 2005-06 season. The Tigers have won two of three from the Vols. South Carolina sophomore forward Dominique Archie has scored in double figures in six consecutive games after doing it just seven times in the Gamecocks' first 15 games.

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

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