No. 10 seed Alabama (16-13, 5-11) faces No. 7 seed LSU (18-12, 8-8), on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. Central time.
The Crimson Tide finished the regular season with an overall winning record and secured one more conference win than a year ago, after starting the SEC with an 0-9 mark and finishing 5-2.
Alabama lost to LSU in the regular season, 72-43, in Baton Rouge on Jan. 9, but the Crimson Tide concluded the season Sunday with a walloping offensive output in the 92-79 win over Arkansas.
That was the same Arkansas team that claimed two wins over LSU – 53-45 in Baton Rouge on Jan. 27 and 42-40 in Fayetteville on Feb. 20 – which, in a nutshell, wraps up the wacky season in the SEC that included two teams with six losses in the conference getting first round byes in the tourney.
"The last seven games were about trying to get on a roll and maybe going into the SEC Tournament playing our best basketball," Coach Wendell Hudson said. "We've won five out of those last seven games that we've played and are feeling pretty good about going into the tournament and looking forward to playing LSU."
Alabama is led by Tierney Jenkins, a senior forward who averaged 15.7 points and 10.9 rebounds a game this season.
"She's been the player of the year for us," Hudson said. "There are a lot of good players in this conference but Tierney without her being on our team I don't think there's any question where we've come from over the last couple of years and what she's meant to the team, I think she should be in consideration for player of the year, and she has played that well all year.
"I know there are other people deserving also, but if you look at somebody in terms of importance of being on your team I think Tierney Jenkins would have to be definitely considered."
Hudson thinks his team has improved since the loss to LSU, which came on the heels of a 110-45 pasting by Tennessee.
"I think we're a totally different team than we were when we played earlier in the season," Hudson said. "I think that was also a situation where we were coming off not playing very well at that particular time and now we are back playing the way we need to play.
"I don't think the game earlier in the year is going to have any effect on the way we're going to approach and the way we're going to play in the SEC Tournament. I think that is too many games ago, and I think we have gotten better, and I think LSU has gotten better.
"We need to play the way we've been playing of late. I think the biggest difference is we're making shots and if we can score and get the game in a transition game, we feel pretty good about our opportunities and our chances to be successful in that particular basketball game."
ARKANSAS COACH TOM COLLEN
No. 9 seed Arkansas (18-10, 6-10) faces No. 8 seed Florida (17-13, 7-9), on Thursday at noon Central time.
Arkansas and Florida will tip off the tourney with the first game at Bridgestone Arena.
The Razorbacks lost a heartbreaker at Kentucky, 55-54, in the penultimate game of the regular season after a late turnover that ended Arkansas' hopes to finish with a .500 record in conference play. That was followed by the loss to Alabama to end the season.
"I think we've been a little bit up and down all year long, and the hard thing for us right now was we potentially had our bubble burst in the last home game against Alabama," Coach Tom Collen said. "We started off with a devastating loss at Kentucky, which might have been the difference maker and put us in the NCAA Tournament in my opinion if we would have pulled off that and we let a five-point lead be squandered in the last minute of the game.
"That was pretty heart-breaking going into the Alabama game, but with that said I think as we entered into the Alabama game I think we felt like if we took care of business there and maybe got to the SEC Tournament and could found a way to win a first round game we'd have a pretty good shot and chance of getting in. The loss to Alabama was a big blow to our kids. It's going to be a little bit of a chore to get them back up."
Collen said he talked to his players after getting a first-round win, which Arkansas hasn't done in awhile, and earning the right to face Tennessee.
"It's a tough draw going against Tennessee, but at the same time it's an opportunity, and if you want to try to play your way back from the bubble, what better way to do it than win your first game, play Tennessee, play them tough and maybe even upset them and then that puts you back in the picture," Collen said.
Arkansas and Florida met in the SEC opener for both teams, and the Gators prevailed, 64-53, in Gainesville on Jan. 2. Arkansas had started the season 12-0 with a win over Oklahoma.
"We went in there undefeated, we thought our kids were up, and they just came out and shot the ball well and kind of stunned us," Collen said. "We chose to play them man to man in that game, and we stuck with that. We battled back and got in the game and we didn't get close enough to say we were going to win it in the last possessions, but we battled back, which was good.
"I think our players' memories of that game is that it got us on a road we didn't want to go down, and so I think if there's a team that we might want to play it might be a team that we lost to as opposed to a team that we've already defeated. So from that perspective I think it'll be a good challenge for our players."
Collen was asked about accepting a bid to the WNIT if the Razorbacks miss the NCAA tourney.
"Yes, we want to get to postseason play," Collen said. "We've still got a relatively young team. The good news for us is we're not losing anybody (in terms of significant contributors) and some of our better players are still freshmen and sophomores and our leading scorer is a junior, so we've still got a lot to accomplish and a lot to prove and want to continue to grow and build this program."
Arkansas is led by C'eira Ricketts, a junior guard, who averaged 14.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.3 steals a game.
Collen said the middle of the pack in the SEC "is certainly of the caliber that can play in the NCAA Tournament. When you look at all the teams that get automatic bids I think a lot of SEC teams could beat 20 or 25 teams that are automatic qualifiers.
"So from a talent standpoint I think everybody in the middle of our league and up is a good enough basketball team not just to get in but to go in and win games. Unfortunately, you've got to look at every person's resume individually."
Entering the last week of the regular season, Collen projected that six SEC teams could receive NCAA bids.
"I don't know whether seven was a stretch or not," Collen. "I feel like we were one of those teams in that five, six hole somewhere even though we weren't there in the standings. I think we dropped off that now and there are a lot of teams ahead of us."
The league has expanded to 16 games for the past two seasons, and Collen said that could carve out a team or two.
"I certainly think a 16-game schedule doesn't help the SEC," Collen said. "I can tell you looking at some of the other conferences the ACC still plays 14 and they don't really have any plans to change, and I think that enhances their opportunities. It enhances their RPI as well.
"And then you look at the Big East, and they've got 16 teams in their conference, and they play single round robin. If you look at it, it looks like they could get 10 teams in the tournament, which would be an incredible amount.
"The last time I looked at it I think those bottom six teams in their conference are going to go 1-59 against the top 10," said Collen, who used to coach at Louisville. "So in that conference it's like you get six wins going in. You don't get those wins in the SEC. If you go 6-0 against the bottom of the Big East and 5-5 against everybody else you've got a pretty good record.
"Every conference is different. They say they don't look at conferences, per se, they just look at the individual resumes, and I think if they do that I think it's likely that the Big East could get a whole lot of teams in and someone is going to get chopped off in the SEC as a result of that."
AUBURN COACH NELL FORTNER
No. 6 seed Auburn (15-14, 8-8) faces No. 11 seed Mississippi State (12-16, 4-12), on Thursday at 9 p.m. Central.
Auburn, which is a host site for the NCAA tourney, lost three of its last four games but managed to finish at .500 in the conference. The Tigers split with Mississippi State this season – a 45-41 win in Starkville on Jan. 20 and a 57-45 loss at home on Feb. 6.
Auburn finished the season with a win over Georgia on the road and a loss to Kentucky at home.
"We are looking forward to playing in the tournament and try to pick up some more wins, compete as hard as we can and give ourselves the best opportunity for postseason play," Coach Nell Fortner said. "I feel like our backs are against the wall in having to recover from losing our point guard and kind of reassembling our team a little bit right here towards the end, but I think we've found a little bit of our footing, and hopefully we can continue finding it during the SEC Tournament."
Morgan Toles, a sophomore guard, missed the last two games of the season after suffering a concussion against South Carolina on Feb. 20.
Auburn already was without senior forward and leading rebounder Jordan Greenleaf, who was dismissed from the team for personal reasons in early February.
The Tigers are led by Alli Smalley, a senior guard who averaged 12.1 points and 3.2 rebounds a game. In conference games Smalley shot 46.2 percent (24-52) from behind the arc.
Fortner is among the SEC coaches who are opposed to the expanded schedule.
"I don't like it," Fortner said. "I wasn't for going to 16 games in the SEC. I thought we were doing just fine with 14. I think this conference is, as if any conference really, tough enough as it is, whether you're playing 14 or 16 games. With the competitiveness of conference play I am not necessarily sure more is better. For me the 14-game schedule I thought was better.
"As far as where the SEC is right now I think we're a tremendous league. When you go and watch games the style of play in every conference is different. I watch Big 10 play, I watch Big 12 play, ACC. The style of play is different. Our league is a very physical league. It's a very athletic, fast paced league. There are battles every night. It doesn't matter if you're the number one team or the number 12 team or somewhere in between it's just a battle every night, as in every conference.
"But I think not having got to the Final Four (since 2008 when Tennessee and LSU represented the SEC) I'm not sure that's a reflection on the strength or lack of strength of our league, it's just the strength of our women's game right now."
Auburn's postseason quest begins with Mississippi State, a Sweet 16 team in 2010 that was gutted by graduation.
"They are recovering from losing such a large amount of players from last year, and I can relate to that from going from 2009 to 2010 and losing a large group of our players," Fortner said. "I think their players are very talented, they're fast, and they're quick, and they can shoot. She's got some size inside, and it was just a matter of them finding their chemistry and finding themselves with pretty much a whole new starting lineup outside of (senior guard) Mary Kathryn Govero.
"It's just a matter of them coming together, and that's something that we had to go through after we lost our starting lineup from two years ago. When we played them both times it was a defensive struggle and when they came here those guards just really had a nice day shooting the ball, and it was a struggle for us to shut them down.
"I think that they're a talented team and a team that has an inside and outside presence."
FLORIDA COACH AMANDA BUTLER
No. 8 seed Florida (17-13, 7-9) faces No. 9 seed Arkansas (18-10, 6-10), on Thursday at noon Central.
The Gators defeated the Razorbacks, 64-53, in the SEC opener in Gainesville on Jan. 2 and finished the season with three consecutive wins over Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Georgia to snap a four-game losing streak to Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Alabama.
"We're really pleased with the way the last three games went and being able to generate some momentum in a lot of different ways," Coach Amanda Butler said. "The Mississippi State win kind of got us going. We had some individuals that stepped and played some of their best basketball.
"That carried right over to Vanderbilt, which is obviously a really tough place to win and a place that we hadn't won since my time here. Going into (Sunday's) win versus Georgia, which is a big rivalry game, a lot of emotion and intensity with two really competitive teams who just want to beat each other so we feel really good, really confident.
"Hopefully we're seeing the best basketball that we've played all year long and that's a trend that we're just going to build on, as we go back to Nashville."
Florida is led by Jordan Jones, a redshirt junior guard who averaged 10.0 points and 2.5 rebounds a game and connected on 60 treys this season.
Florida wrapped up the regular season in quick fashion when its game in Nashville against Vandy was postponed to Friday because of severe weather in the area last Thursday and then had to hustle home to face Georgia on Sunday.
"It was a really huge mental challenge more so than physical," Butler said. "You might look at that and go, wow, you might have one less day to let the kids rest a little bit or manage their rest. But I really felt like it was much more of a mental challenge for our team, and was just really pleased with the way that they handled it.
"Obviously, it was not an impossible feat. Maybe it was a good thing that it was Georgia and someone we were already fairly familiar with although it had been a little over a month since we played them. Personnel familiarity and some of their things they try to do – it was easy to get our kids back in the groove of what to expect. I thought it showed a tremendous amount of poise and leadership and focus on our team's account, and I was really proud of that."
Florida and its foe in the tourney, Arkansas, are both trying to make a case in Nashville for additional postseason play.
"We definitely have been very honest all season long about what we had to do to get into the (NCAA) Tournament and just the realities of that," Butler said. "I think we're in a situation where we've gotten ourselves back into that conversation. The biggest thing is just to stay focused on Arkansas, but will we introduce a little bit more of the big picture, of, ‘This is what we need to do, guys,' certainly.
"But you want to manage that focus. It can't be too big beyond we've just got to beat Arkansas and we've got to keep our focus right there. Because it is, unless we can be playing on that last day, kind of out of your hands. As a team we've tried to maintain a philosophy of about of let's just control what we can control. The only thing we can control right now is our preparation for Arkansas and how we play on Thursday."
Butler is a native of Mt. Juliet, Tenn., which is about 20 miles from Nashville. Needless to say, she's like the SEC tourney being located in the capital city of Tennessee.
"Well, I may not be the best person to ask because I love going to Nashville, because that's where I'm from," Butler said. "I like the tournament being in Nashville because I think that there's great high school girls basketball, especially in the mid-state, and there's a lot interest in girl's and women's basketball.
"So you might not necessarily just be getting the Vanderbilt fan or the Vol fan or the Gator fan or whoever. There's just women's basketball fans who are there. So I think whenever you can draw that sort of local interest, even if there's not a specific fan affiliation, then I think that's good for our tournament."
GEORGIA COACH ANDY LANDERS
No. 4 seed Georgia (20-9, 10-6) has a first-round bye and will await the winner of the South Carolina-Ole Miss game. Tipoff is set for Friday at 6:30 p.m. Central.
Georgia lost its final three games to Tennessee, Auburn and Florida but managed to snare the final first round bye even with six losses.
"Well, obviously we're coming into the tournament a little bit on a down note having lost our last three games," Coach Andy Landers said. "That's not a good way to come into the tournament but yet we're excited about coming up and playing.
"We feel like that when we play well, we're competitive with about anybody. We feel like when we haven't played well, about anybody is competitive with us."
Georgia is led by sophomore guard Jasmine James, who averaged 12.2 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists a game.
Landers said the three losses share a common theme in that his team has a tendency to repeat mistakes.
"If anybody has one of those then there's eight mistakes a game that are repeating that could be corrected," Landers said. "We've missed 16 layups in the last two games, and we're missing free throws."
Landers said those mistakes won't allow a team to win close games, and the last two losses were by four points to Auburn and three points to Florida. As far as the next opponent, the Lady Bulldogs split with South Carolina – a 61-51 win in Athens and a 57-48 loss in Columbia – and defeated Ole Miss on the road, 61-56.
"The good thing is I don't think we're going in the wrong direction," Landers said. "The bad thing is I think we're going in the same direction."
Landers said the flaws in the three losses – missed layups and free throws – have been present all season but Georgia made enough plays in other games to secure the win.
"I really don't think we're going in the opposite direction," Landers said. "We're going in the same direction."
Landers agreed that the 16-game schedule has been more difficult for teams, and he also said that the SEC "isn't quite as strong as we have been." He pointed to high school players in the Southeast opting to play in other conferences more so than in the past.
"It's been a quite a while since kids in the Southeast didn't stay in the Southeast, and that's hurt teams in our conference because those were really good players that left," Landers said.
KENTUCKY COACH MATTHEW MITCHELL
No. 2 seed Kentucky (22-7, 11-5) has a first-round bye and will await the winner of the LSU-Alabama game. Tipoff is set for Friday at 2:30 p.m. Central.
The Wildcats finished the season with three consecutive wins over Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Auburn to secure the second seed in the tourney.
"We were thrilled to win at Auburn (Sunday) and close out the regular season portion with a very good effort from our team," Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I was extremely pleased with how we played. We played with a lot of energy and we were very intense and focused on what we needed to do and that's a good way to end the regular season so I'm proud of our team."
Kentucky is led by senior forward Victoria Dunlap, who averaged 16.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.3 steals a game and will be playing in her hometown of Nashville.
"I just think about the player of the year being the player that probably means the most to their team and all of us that have a chance to coach in this league have players that are very, very important to us, so Victoria clearly is important to Kentucky, and we are very partial to her, and so we certainly think she is worthy of being the player of the year," Mitchell said.
"I know the coaches and everybody else will decide that, but I just think for a player to be so productive in so many areas … a lot of times you associate a valuable player being one who scores or being a lockdown defender or being somebody that impacts the game on the backboard, and Victoria can do all of those things. She's also very, very clutch. She has made some big shots for us in big games. She has shown up big in big games. I just think she is a fantastic player and has a very bright future as someone who going to leave us here pretty soon and head on to the professional ranks."
Mitchell said Dunlap, the 2010 SEC player of the year and 2011 preseason player of the year in the league, had to adjust to being the hunted.
"I think this season for her was much more difficult from an expectations standpoint," Mitchell said. "I don't care what anybody says. We've learned this year, at least I've learned as a coach, how different that is when you are player that doesn't even make the preseason team last year and becomes player of the year. You're sort of flying under the radar and all of a sudden what you do is very appreciated and people are sort of taken by surprise.
"Then you come into the year with the expectation and you're not as appreciated and it's more expected, and that is a different dynamic. The way she has handled it is incredible to me. We had major point guard problems and we made a change there in midseason and she wasn't always getting the ball in the best positions, and she was getting a lot of attention from other people's defense. The way she's handled it and continued to produce this season I just think it's a better season for her.
"I think she was much better as a player this year and appreciative of her effort and glad to see her make progress."
Mitchell said the expanded schedule was set up as fairly as possible because had the SEC gone to East and West divisions, the East schools would have faced Tennessee twice a season. Under the format the league uses, natural rivalries were left in place – Tennessee and Vanderbilt play twice a year, for example – and the other teams rotate. This season, LSU faced Tennessee twice, something that would never happen with divisions because LSU would be in the West.
"The way that we're doing it now I don't have a problem with it," Mitchell said.
Mitchell has always been a booster of the SEC tourney whether earning a first round bye or playing on the first day.
"I just think it's one of the most exciting things we get to do as being a part of this great conference is to play in the conference tournament, and it's something that I really look forward to and have always enjoyed as an assistant coach and as a head coach," Mitchell said. "Anytime I've ever been able to be a part of it I've always enjoyed it.
"It's exciting for our team to go down to Nashville, and we're looking forward to what we know will be a very challenging tournament."
Kentucky defeated both Alabama (82-69 win in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 30) and LSU (49-47 win on Feb. 13 in Lexington), and will face one again on Friday.
"We will prepare for both," Mitchell said. "One good thing about this time of year is it becomes so much more about who you are, who Kentucky is, what we need to do, because after that first day you play another one 24 hours later if you're fortunate enough to win that first day and now it doesn't become as much about what the other team is doing as what you had better do and what you're able to do well.
"The preparation time is not there so I think what's important is to really work on what we need to do no matter who we're playing, and there are certain things we want to do as a team with our defense and our tempo."
LSU COACH VAN CHANCELLOR
No. 7 seed LSU (18-12, 8-8) faces No. 10 seed Alabama (16-13, 5-11), on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. Central.
LSU went 3-3 to finish the season with wins over Ole Miss, Auburn and South Carolina and losses to Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee. The Lady Tigers defeated Alabama, 72-43, on Jan. 9 in Baton Rouge.
"I was proud of our team for beating South Carolina," Chancellor said. "That was a must-win here with a great game and then we go to Tennessee to end the season. I thought our kids played hard and did some really good things. I have never seen Tennessee shoot as well as they did from the 15 to the three-point line. I'm proud of LSU for hanging in. We could have folded about three times and didn't.
"We're excited to be in the SEC Tournament and ready to play Alabama."
LSU is led by sophomore guard Adrienne Webb, who averaged 12.7 points and 3.7 rebounds a game and connected on 70 three-pointers this season.
The Lady Tigers arrive in Nashville trying to shore up an NCAA bid.
"I'd hate to play us (in the NCAA tourney)," Chancellor said. "I've always said if you're an NCAA Tournament team people ought to not want to play you. If we get in, we'll be a lower seed – I think we've got to do some work at the SEC – but if we get in I certainly would not want to play as us as good as our team has played defensively the last 10 games."
Chancellor has never liked the 16-game format, a position he has held since the change was implemented.
"I didn't like it," Chancellor said. "I never have liked it and I'll tell you why I don't like it. It's not just the double games that you catch against Tennessee. … I've been opposed to it back when I was in the league the first time. I'm still opposed to it. It's not going to change. I don't like the 16 games because I think you play too many games. It's really hard night after night after night."
Chancellor favors a division format, but he doesn't expect that to be implemented by the league.
Tennessee, which went 16-0 in the league, is the overwhelming favorite heading Nashville.
"Not only did they go undefeated they didn't play but three close games all year so I'd say they would be as heavy a favorite as there has ever been in the Southeastern Conference," Chancellor said.
"They're shooting the basketball. They made shots (Sunday) we had hands in their faces. They've got depth. They've got size. They've got shooters. I don't know of anything they don't have."
Chancellor didn't seem at all eager to agree with the notion that the SEC was weaker this season.
"I'll say this much. I betcha nobody nationally wants to play an SEC team in the NCAA Tournament," Chancellor said.
Chancellor followed up by assailing the 16-game schedule, in which the teams pound on each other for two months and lose poll votes.
"We just beat up on ourselves," Chancellor said.
OLE MISS COACH RENEE LADNER
No. 12 seed Ole Miss (10-18, 3-13) faces No. 5 seed South Carolina (16-13, 8-8), on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Central.
The Rebels finished the season with seven consecutive losses – including a rain-shortened one at Tennessee when water flew into the air vents at the "Tad Pad" and onto the court – and have had to rely on youngsters in addition to dealing with injuries. Ole Miss lost freshman post player Pa'Sonna Hope to a knee injury last month.
Ole Miss is led by senior guard Kayla Melson, who averaged 15.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists a game. Melson missed six of the final seven games of the season because of a concussion and returned for the regular season finale against Mississippi State and scored 15 points. Freshman guard Valencia McFarland averages 13.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists a game.
"It's been a very difficult season for us due to some circumstances beyond our control with injury, but yet I really believe my young Rebels have played extremely," Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner said.
Ole Miss lost to South Carolina, 63-58, in overtime on Jan. 16 in Oxford.
"We've played South Carolina to overtime, and we played Georgia to within one possession so naturally we have to go in and pull the pieces back together and try to make a little run at the tournament," Ladner said.
In Ladner's estimation the Gamecocks are likely an NCAA tourney team.
"They've gotten better with each game that they played within the year," Ladner said. "I think anytime you finish fifth in our conference that gives you an opportunity to be an NCAA team. I think they have just gotten better, and I think they have the pieces of the puzzle to make it work.
They are just playing with great confidence and a big reason is because of Dawn Staley. She is making them play extremely hard. They are playing a lot like her, so I would say yes."
Ladner said an SEC team with a .500 conference record deserved a bid.
"I believe we have to play every night against every opponent and not many conferences can say that," Ladner said, speaking to the strength of the SEC from top to bottom. "So in my opinion I believe that they should take an 8-8 team out of our conference."
For the Rebels, Ladner wants her young team to build on how hard it played this season, even if the results weren't there in the win-loss record.
"Absolutely," Ladner said. "I really realized how young we were after Kayla had been out for 25 days and when she steps back in the first practice prior to going to Mississippi State all of a sudden we played at a new speed and a new level. Everybody in the gym just kind of stopped. We just didn't realize we were playing at a high school speed versus a collegiate speed.
"With young freshmen they have to learn the physicality and the speed of the league. They have to understand that every possession is very critical. I would say that because of the experience they've had this year – a lot of game experience – that's going to help them overall. That's a part of the process."
MISSISSIPPI STATE COACH SHARON FANNING-OTIS
No. 11 seed Mississippi State (12-16, 4-12) faces No. 6 seed Auburn (15-14, 8-8), on Thursday at 9 p.m. Central.
The Lady Bulldogs finished the regular season with a defeat of Alabama and a sweep of Ole Miss. Mississippi State split with Auburn with a 45-41 loss in Starkville on Jan. 20 and a 57-45 win at Auburn on Feb. 6.
"We're trying to explain to this team as the year progressed the phases of it," Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "We began in January when we started SEC play with 11 new faces. It's been a process for us. The league is so physical and I think everybody from top to bottom has played so hard, pressing and trapping. You can see the energy that is in the league.
"As we got to February I feel like we had made progress, and I feel like they're understanding roles better. They know each other a little bit better. They're playing tougher. … Our goal is to be the most improved team in the league and to finish as strong as we can possibly finish. Right now I hope that we can carry over the success that we've had and the experience that we've gained and understand that this is a new season. It's a whole new level of intensity."
Mississippi State is led by senior guard Mary Kathryn Govero, who averaged 12.8 points and 4.2 boards a game and connected on 67 treys this season.
When the Lady Bulldogs played at Auburn and won, senior forward Jordan Greenleaf was in the lineup for the last time for the Tigers as she was later dismissed from the team for personal reasons.
"Anytime a player is out a team has to adjust," Fanning-Otis said. "And it looks like that they are making adjustments and having other people step into roles that they have not been in. That just makes it an opportunity for someone else and we've all been through that at some point in time."
Fanning-Otis expects every team in Nashville, regardless of seed, to be tuned in for the tourney.
"I expect every team to be playing as hard as they played all year and very focused on winning their next game," she said. "I think we're all about in the same boat. Sometimes it's an easier understanding with players who have been there before because they've been through it and experienced its importance."
Fanning-Otis expects six to eight SEC teams to be under consideration for the NCAA tourney.
"Conference record being even or above I think is important," Fanning-Otis said. "And then of course your record I don't know if there's a magical number anymore of 18, 19, 20 wins, your last 10 games that you've played and then, of course, how you do in the tournament. There are always going to be teams that are on the bubble right now.
"This is always an exiting time and we want for as many teams in our league to get in the tournament every year, and I think that we can continue to have great success as we have through the years."
Fanning-Otis said the impetus for the expanded schedule was "a menu of more games for television and then it got past that point because we could accommodate that anytime they needed it."
She supports the notion of divisions because it would crown two champions in the regular season.
"I thought that we were there and then that changed," Fanning-Otis said. "I would say that whatever is best for the league. We have a great conference office with tremendous leadership there, and I feel like they will always encourage it and want to put in place what's best for the league overall and whatever is best for us to get the most teams in the NCAA Tournament, to have the highest RPI possible and to get those teams there that is what I am for.
"If there is a way to get the most teams in the NCAA Tournament and to have an East-West division then I think that is a win-win situation in terms of the fans being into the rivalries and to the championships as long as it doesn't hurt another side of the league. I think that's probably the biggest question we would find the answer to and then go from there."
In the meantime, Fanning-Otis will direct her young team to enjoy the postseason tourney in Nashville.
"Let's go out and have fun, lay it on the line and let's continue to improve," Fanning-Otis said. "Because with any team they live up to or down to their expectations, and I think that they have to be tough, they have to expect to win, and they have to be able to maintain focus through adversity.
"I think adversity will define you."
SOUTH CAROLINA COACH DAWN STALEY
No. 5 seed South Carolina (16-13, 8-8) faces No. 12 seed Ole Miss (10-18, 3-13), on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Central.
The Gamecocks reached .500 in the conference but lost their last two games to LSU and Vanderbilt. South Carolina defeated Ole Miss, 63-58, in overtime on Jan. 16 in Oxford.
"We're coming off two disappointing losses in the regular season, but still put us in the position to get the fifth seed overall," Coach Dawn Staley said. "So although we ended our regular season on a sour note we are making progress in the league and we were at least able to compete to get a bye in this league and ended up getting the fifth seed."
South Carolina is led by sophomore guard Ieasia Walker, who averaged 12.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.6 steals a game.
Staley's pre-SEC Tournament stance is that South Carolina needed wins in Nashville to secure an NCAA bid.
"As of right now I don't think so," Staley said when asked if the Gamecocks had secured an NCAA tourney bid. "I think we've got some work to do in the tournament. … I don't think we have enough overall wins historically speaking."
Staley said a bye would have been beneficial for South Carolina "with our style of play," which is an aggressive trapping defense.
"But at the same time it still is about basketball, and we've got to perform well on Thursday night against Mississippi," Staley said.
Staley didn't yet have an opinion about the tourney being in Nashville this season.
"I'm still new at this," Staley said. "I don't know. It's more of a personal thing for me where we need to play somewhere to get to the NCAA Tournament. So I would go to Alaska if we needed to go to Alaska to play and win a game."
She also thought the Gamecocks needed two wins to get a spot.
"I believe at least two, three would be nice, but we are in the bracket with Tennessee," Staley said. "It is difficult for any team to win four games in a row. Our style of play we expend a lot of energy on the defensive end. We make it very difficult for teams to run their sets."
TENNESSEE COACH PAT SUMMITT
No. 1 seed Tennessee (28-2, 16-0) has a first-round bye and will await the winner of the Florida-Arkansas game. Tipoff is set for Friday at noon Central.
The Lady Vols swept through the SEC undefeated and the tourney with the usual bull's eye, plus a pack of teams seeking either an NCAA bid or improved seeding.
Coach Pat Summitt has mentioned her team's maturity – an evolving but steady process – and it likely will be needed in Nashville.
"Right now I think our team has really been very, very focused," Summitt said. "We really don't have a true point guard. (Freshman) Lauren Avant has had some injury issues, but we've been able to kind of piece it all together with guard play, especially Meighan Simmons and Kamiko Williams. Hopefully, Lauren will be good to go when we get into the tournament.
"I think our post game has probably been our biggest improvement just with the depth we have at the post. (Juniors) Vicki Baugh, Lyssi Brewer and Kelley Cain bring a lot of size. If we could get them all healthy at one time, I would feel good about our team moving forward."
Tennessee played Florida twice this season and won 83-40 on Jan. 13 in Gainesville and 61-39 on Feb. 10 at home. The Lady Vols defeated Arkansas, 72-53, on Jan. 30 in Fayetteville.
Summitt has warmed to the expanded schedule – she was opposed to it when implemented but voted for the change because she wanted to be in line with the other coaches.
"At this point, I really like the 16-game schedule," Summitt said. "I know there are pros and cons, but I think it has been good for our league. I'm open to what all of the coaches want, but I have been in favor of it."
Tennessee has two SEC Player of the Year candidates in juniors Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson. The coaches' teleconference was Monday before the awards were announced Tuesday by the league. Stricklen was voted by the coaches as the player of the year, and Johnson joined her on the First Team and also made the All-Defensive Team.
"They're two players that have had a great impact," Summitt said. "With Shekinna she's providing great leadership. To me she's playing like an All-American. I think both of those players have demonstrated that they are go-to players.
"Glory has really developed her skills. Her athleticism speaks for itself, but I think her skill set is so much better than it's ever been. They're two players that are very special, and we're not winning games at the level we've been winning games without those two players."
Summitt expects everyone's best shot and knows that leaving Nashville without two trophies – the regular season one awarded to the team before Friday's game and the tourney one – would be a disappointment.
"Of course," Summitt said with a laugh. "That's the way we think. But once you get into this arena and start competing – everyone is fighting, they're battling. What I don't want us to do is have a letdown. We've got to be very focused, and we've got to be a team on a mission.
"If they're satisfied with what they've already accomplished then we are going to be going home early. We've got to keep reminding them of (not only) what they have done, but how much more they can do."
Teams will take their best shot at sending the Lady Vols back to Knoxville without two crowns, especially the ones needing to get the attention of the Selection Committee.
"I know that we're going to get everyone's best shot," Summitt said. "The underdogs want to be the top dogs and they can be, because on a given day or night in this league, as physical as it is and as the coaching goes – we've got great coaches in this league – we've got to bring our A game. If we don't bring our then obviously anything can happen.
"So we will constantly as a coaching staff remind them you never arrive in this game and you had better bring your defense and your board play, and obviously ball security, because we have an aggressive league, and they can turn you over. We've just got to be mindful that we have to do everything we can do to take care of what we want to happen on the court."
VANDERBILT COACH MELANIE BALCOMB
No. 3 seed Vanderbilt (19-10, 10-6) has a first-round bye and will await the winner of the Auburn-Mississippi State game. Tipoff is set for Friday at 9 p.m. Central.
Vandy ended the season Sunday with a 74-60 win over South Carolina on the road in a compacted end to the regular season after a 74-69 loss to Florida in Nashville last Friday when the game was postponed a day because of severe weather.
"I am just really pleased with where we're going as far as our momentum going into the tournament," Coach Melanie Balcomb said. "I think that's something that has always been real important to our teams and why we've done so well in the postseason is that we've had momentum going in.
"We've had some very difficult injuries, on and off, all season, more than I've ever dealt with with a young team and I think a win at South Carolina with our backs against the wall really showed a lot of heart and character and I am just excited to go in with momentum."
Vanderbilt is led by senior guard Jence Rhoads, who averaged 12.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.8 assists a game.
The conference tourney presents the Commodores with a chance to improve its NCAA seeding.
"We started out so slow this year with our injuries, and now we have a full group," Balcomb said. "Right now Jence is the only one who is at half speed, about 50 percent right now, but we've got everybody else back, and we're at full strength. I think if we can do well in the SEC Tournament it would certainly boost our seed for the NCAAs, absolutely."
Vandy beat Auburn 67-59 on Jan. 9 in Nashville and twice defeated Mississippi State – 65-44 on Jan. 6 in Nashville and 74-62 on Feb. 17 in Starkville.
"I think it's a new season for everybody no matter who we play," Balcomb said. "It's a new opportunity for every team and what we have to be careful of is not being satisfied and having a sense of urgency in the very first game and just focusing on that game being the biggest game that we play in our season that day."
Balcomb wants an equitable solution to the expanded SEC schedule.
"I probably have a different perspective than most teams because I play Tennessee twice every season so I kind of look at it totally different," Balcomb said. "At Vanderbilt we're at a disadvantage. We're playing the best team in the conference year in and year out twice a season every year and nobody else does that.
"Nobody has won the regular season that has played Tennessee twice so I look at different things. I don't think divisions are the answer, but I would like to see a conference where you play the same teams. … I think they should be fair and equal and nobody wants to draw Tennessee twice a season."
Vanderbilt has enjoyed success when the SEC tourney has been held in Nashville.
"I think being in your hometown creates comfort," Balcomb said. "I think having a lot of your fans there is a great comfort. We have a great fan base that is very loyal to us. Getting as many people as we can in the arena in Nashville I think it helps us.
"But certainly it's not our home court. We don't practice on that court or play on that court. I just think it's a momentum thing. I like where we're at."
Balcomb likes the rotation of the tourney between Duluth, Ga. – the site of the 2010 event – and Nashville with a preference for the state capital.
"I think geography wise they are good locations," Balcomb said. "I think it helps everybody get their fans there. Obviously I prefer Nashville, not because we're from here but coaches talk about how they like to be in Nashville because it creates such a tournament environment.
"Everybody can walk to and from their hotels, to restaurants, to the game, not worrying about parking and then just that feel of seeing all the different schools, colors, in the city of Nashville. And that's the only problem with Duluth. I think they do a great job up there but it's in a spread-out area where your hotels are farther away and there is not the environment with the fans that we have here in Nashville."
PRACTICE REPORT: The Lady Vols practiced Wednesday at Pratt Pavilion and will travel Thursday to Nashville by bus with their first game Friday at noon Central time against the winner of Florida-Arkansas in the first round.
Tennessee will practice Friday afternoon after arrival and by then will also know who its opponent will be in the quarterfinals of the 2011 SEC Women's Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
Without an opponent to prepare for yet, the Lady Vols used Tuesday and Wednesday practice sessions in Knoxville to fine tune its offensive and defensive sets and also loft a lot of free throws.
Pat Summitt said in her Wednesday teleconference that the team might need a "prayer meeting" after its bus ride to Nashville to remind the players about avoiding a letdown. She opted to start the revival a little sooner with some pointed words delivered after Wednesday's session at Pratt Pavilion to avoid slippage. Summitt also reminded sophomore Kamiko Williams of the need to narrow her focus.
"She's got so much talent, but she's so casual," Summitt said. "That doesn't work, especially when you get ready to go into postseason."
Summitt has not yet determined who would start Friday. She wanted to meet with her staff Thursday, but she anticipated that Shekinna Stricklen, Meighan Simmons and Glory Johnson would be in the lineup. Angie Bjorklund also would be considered, but that depends on how her right foot feels, too.
"When we all get together (Thursday), we'll determine that," Summitt said. "It's kind of a wait and see, and Jenny has a lot of input because she's working with her in the rehab. I think she's got the best pulse so I would definitely talk with Jenny."
Jenny Moshak, the program's chief of sports medicine, has to update Summitt about several players. Bjorklund missed nearly all of February with a foot injury. Freshman point guard Lauren Avant was on the sideline Wednesday but didn't practice. She remains under the concussion protocol and will travel to Nashville.
Redshirt junior center Kelley Cain practiced for the second consecutive day, and was moving even better Wednesday. Junior forward/center Alyssia Brewer injured her right ring finger in a defensive drill Wednesday and left practice to get X-rays, which were negative.
Moshak said Brewer injured the ligament, but she was taped and allowed to return to practice Wednesday and should be cleared for Friday's game.
Clips from Wednesday's practice