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January 25, 2008

Rivals, styles set to clash in SEC battle

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

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

Best matchup: Ole Miss at Mississippi State. Coach Andy Kennedy has turned the Rebels (15-2 overall, 2-2 in the SEC) into a high-scoring, up-tempo team. They're torching the nets for 84.9 points per game, ranking among the top 10 nationally. Ole Miss has scored less than 70 points only once all season (69 in a win over DePaul). Meanwhile, rival Mississippi State (13-5, 4-0) has put together an eight-game winning streak thanks to a swarming, shot-blocking defense. The Bulldogs give up the fewest points (60.9 per game) of any team in the SEC. No league foe has reached even 65 points against Mississippi State. Which team can impose its will Saturday in Starkville? Who will the Rebels put on Jamont Gordon? Who will the Bulldogs put on Chris Warren? Which veteran frontcourt will control the glass? This has all the makings of a great game.

The pressure is on: Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. Stallings' Commodores (17-2, 2-2) were done no favors by the SEC schedule-makers, with six of their first nine league games on the road. After going 0-2 on the Tennessee- Kentucky swing (thanks, SEC), then winning two at home, Vandy hits the road for games at Florida and Ole Miss this week (seriously, thanks again). Eager to prove their 16-0 start was legit, the Commodores know they need to win on the road in the conference. But more than winning, these first nine games for Vanderbilt are just about survival. Stallings figures if his team can emerge at least 5-4, it will be in good shape with five of its final seven in the cozy confines of Memorial Gym.

Upset alert: Vanderbilt at Florida. All of that said, the Commodores haven't won on the road in the conference, and the Gators (17-3, 4-1) haven't lost at home in the conference. UF freshman guards Nick Calathes and Jai Lucas are preternaturally calm in late-game situations. Calathes had 21 points - including a key 3-pointer - in a late 13-2 run that propelled Florida past South Carolina. Look for a high-scoring game

RPI watch: Billy Donovan's young Gators are on the rise. All the way down at No. 101 in the RPI after an especially weak non-conference schedule, they've climbed to No. 54 and are looking more and more like an NCAA lock.

Key stat: Kentucky is 6-1 when freshman forward Patrick Patterson scores at least 20 points.

Freshman to watch: Georgia forward Jeremy Price. Forced to play a more prominent role on a depleted roster, Price has responded by averaging 9.6 points and 4.7 rebounds. He has scored in double figures in each of the Bulldogs' past two games: 11 points in a win over Alabama and 14 in a win over Arkansas.

Who's hot: Mississippi State guard Jamont Gordon is averaging 21 points over the past three games and shooting 57.5 percent during that stretch, including 9-for-18 from 3-point range. South Carolina guard Devan Downey has made at least eight field goals in each of his past six games. He's averaging 23.2 points over that period. LSU guard Marcus Thornton is averaging 26.3 points over the past three games.

Who's not: LSU is averaging 62 points during its seven-game losing streak. Arkansas guard Patrick Beverley is struggling from the field, shooting just 33 percent (7-for-21) over the past three games and averaging only 6.7 points during the stretch.

Worth noting: Chris Lofton supplanted Arkansas' Pat Bradley as the SEC's career leader in 3-pointers with five against Kentucky on Tuesday night. He has 367 and counting. Lofton has made at least 50 percent of his shots in only three games this season. Two of them were in Tennessee's only two losses. Mississippi State is off to its first 4-0 league start since the 1993-94 season that fizzled into an NIT bid. Bulldogs forward Jarvis Varnado became just the fifth SEC player in the past decade to record a triple-double when he had 10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 blocks against Kentucky. The other four included teammate Jamont Gordon and a former Mississippi State star, Lawrence Roberts. Florida's Corey Brewer and South Carolina's Chuck Eidson were the other two to accomplish the feat. Downey narrowly missed a triple-double this season with 11 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds against The Citadel.

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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