BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Jordan Howell and Chris Lofton weren't going to pass up the opportunity to ask the experts about dealing with high expectations.
Sharing a plane ride with Tennessee women's coach Pat Summitt and two of her players Wednesday, the two guards picked their brains on an unfamiliar role for the men's team: The Southeastern Conference front-runner.
``They're favored to win the national championship every year and we asked them, 'How do you go about that? How do you start the season No. 1 and go throughout the season and win it all?''' Howell said Wednesday at SEC media days. ``They just told us you take it one day at a time and get better every day. And that's all we can do.''
It's a nice problem to have for a team that has been overshadowed by two division rivals, two-time defending national champion Florida and perennial power Kentucky. Not to mention Tennessee's football team and the defending national champion Lady Vols.
But the Volunteers were picked to win the SEC on 28 of 30 ballots by league and national media. Florida and Kentucky didn't get a vote, with the other two going to Mississippi State.
It's no big surprise with four starters returning, including preseason SEC player of the year Lofton, from a team that went 24-11 and made it to the round of 16 at the NCAA tournament.
The Gators, meanwhile, lost all five starters, including three Top 10 NBA draft picks. Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl thinks Kentucky should be the East Division favorite. However it shakes out, he's happy to be along for the ride.
``I just think it's terrific,'' Pearl said. ``It's going to be so exciting.''
But favorites or not, he doesn't think the SEC hierarchy has changed at the top. Pearl is riled that Kentucky still gets so much more TV airtime than the other teams, and said he brings it up to his team frequently.
``I believe that this conference has become a great basketball conference,'' he said. ``It's not just about Kentucky anymore. And when Kentucky has got seven CBS games and Tennessee has got two CBS games, the torch has not been passed. This league is still about the Wildcats.''
Just not in the state of Tennessee. The Vols have already sold out their season tickets amid all the excitement entering Pearl's third season.
Lofton is pleasantly surprised by the fast turnaround.
``After my freshman year, I thought it was going to be a disaster, going 14-17 and nobody was in the stands except my mom and dad, basically,'' he said. ``It's great to have those expectations. Getting that preseason publicity, who doesn't want that?
``Then again, you've got that 'X' on your chest and realize that people are coming for you.''
It doesn't hurt that the football team is not having a great season and is coming off a lopsided loss to Alabama.
Well, there's always hoops season.
``The student body is ready for Tennessee basketball,'' Howell said. ``It's evident when you can open up the school newspaper and see a countdown to basketball season. I've never seen that before.
``People always are coming up to me and saying, 'We're ready for Tennessee basketball.'''
There's also a renewed buzz at Arkansas where the Razorbacks are picked to win the Western Division under first-year coach John Pelphrey, a former Kentucky star and Donovan assistant. Pelphrey dismisses that as a ``paper championship.''
He isn't counting out Donovan and the Gators on the other side of the league.
``The last time he was in this situation with an inexperienced basketball team, he won two national championships,'' Pelphrey said. ``For anybody to take Florida for granted and underestimate him, that's a mistake.''
Donovan said his current team is taking ``baby steps'' with essentially a whole new team, minus stars Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Taurean Green.
He's not exactly dismissing his team's chances, though. The Gators were picked to finish third in the East.
``Even last year, people talked about repeating,'' Donovan said. ``I never talked about repeating. That was more the media. Nobody's talking about repeating right now, not because I'm not talking about it but because no one else thinks we can repeat.
``It hasn't been anything that's come out of our people, it's been more where people have projected and said, 'Geez, they lost too much.' Right now, we're a basketball team that's trying to find an identity and trying to find a work ethic.''

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