SEC home-court dominance reflects league's increased parity
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Nowhere is it tougher to win a road game this season than in the Southeastern Conference.
Home teams have won 71.4 percent of the time in SEC games this season, the highest home winning percentage in league play of any Division I conference according to STATS LLC. The league is on pace for its highest home winning percentage in league competition since 2006-07.
''Every game we've played on the road is an absolute war,'' Kentucky coach John Calipari said. ''I understand it's us, and it's the Super Bowl for everybody. But then I look around the league and I'm thinking teams are playing well at home. They're playing with great confidence. Maybe young teams are better at home than they are on the road.''
It's a dramatic change from last year, when SEC home teams won only 53.2 percent of league games. That was the SEC's lowest home winning percentage in league competition since 1996-97, according to STATS.
When SEC coaches discuss the reasons for the home dominance this season, one word keeps coming up: Parity.
Last season, Kentucky won all its conference games – home or away – and remained unbeaten all the way up to its NCAA semifinal loss to Wisconsin. This year, the SEC lacks a truly elite team that would be favored to beat anybody on any floor. The latest Top 25 has no SEC school listed among the top 15 teams.
''The difference between the best teams in the league and the worst teams in the league has never been smaller,'' Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.
As a result of that, there's a logjam in the conference standings.
Kentucky (20-7, 10-4) owns a one-game lead over South Carolina (22-5, 9-5), Texas A&M (20-7, 9-5) and LSU (16-11, 9-5) in the race for the regular-season title. Only once before in the last 13 seasons has the top seed in the SEC Tournament finished the regular season with as many as four conference losses.
The last time everyone in the SEC lost at least five conference games was 1991, when Mississippi State and LSU tied for first place with 13-5 league records.
''There's not as big a difference (this year) between the teams,'' Georgia coach Mark Fox said, ''so the advantage then that separates you sometimes can be the home-court advantage, which we all know gives you a couple of points here and there.''
That home-court advantage has enabled the conference's weakest teams to pull some major surprises. South Carolina lost last week at Missouri, which sits alone in the SEC basement. Auburn is next-to-last in the SEC standings but has a home victory over first-place Kentucky on its resume.
Because so many SEC teams are struggling to win on the road, there is plenty of intrigue heading into the final two weeks of the regular season and the SEC tournament next month in Nashville, Tennessee.
The only SEC teams in the Top 25 are No. 16 Kentucky and No. 21 Texas A&M. They're also the lone SEC teams in the top 30 of the RPI, with Kentucky 12th and Texas A&M 24th.
But the SEC does have three other top-50 RPI teams in South Carolina (31st), Florida (32nd) and Alabama (48th). That doesn't even include Vanderbilt and LSU, teams that may be playing their way out of NCAA Tournament at-large consideration after opening the season with high expectations.
''I think we're heading in the direction where we're going to have six teams minimum in the tournament,'' Alabama coach Avery Johnson said.
The SEC's postseason contenders could improve their chances by getting more road wins. This season, that's easier said than done.
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, contributed to this report.