SEC women's tourney tips off Thursday

The 2012 Women's SEC Tournament gets under way Thursday in Nashville. Go inside with Inside Tennessee to read what the 12 league coaches had to say before tipoff.

The coaches agreed on one thing about this year's tournament: There is not an overwhelmingly clear-cut favorite as in years' past.

Kentucky, the regular season winner, gets the nod as the team to beat based on that crown, but the Wildcats had three league losses, the most for a league champion since 1985.

It should be an entertaining tournament for fans since several teams have a legitimate shot to make it to Sunday and hoist the tourney trophy.


No. 11 seed Alabama (12-18, 2-14) faces No. 6 seed South Carolina (21-8, 10-6) at 10 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

"We have played pretty well on the past five or six games," Wendell Hudson said.

Alabama claimed the upset of the season when it beat Kentucky in February, underscoring the competitive balance of the SEC.

"I think without any question since I've been in the league that it is the most wide-open tournament," Hudson said. "I do think the tournament is going to be a real exciting tournament."


No. 5 seed Arkansas (21-7, 10-6) faces No. 12 seed Ole Miss (12-17, 2-14) at 7:30 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

Arkansas ended the regular season with a win at Tennessee – its first-ever in program history on the Lady Vols home floor – and a close loss to South Carolina, which sums up the SEC rather neatly this season.

"It could have went either way right at the end," Tom Collen said.

The same could be said of the Tennessee-Arkansas game and the matchup of the Lady Vols and the South Carolina, which the Gamecocks won.

The Razorbacks' tourney opponent is a team that they lost to early in the season to start 0-4 before completing steering onto a new SEC course and saving its NCAA postseason.

"I think there is some motivation there for our players to play against Ole Miss, but at the same time we've got total respect for them," Collen said. "They played a lot of close games down the stretch."

Arkansas last won an SEC tourney game in 2005 and then sustained six consecutive losses in the first round, so the Razorbacks also are motivated to get a win.

"You've got to win your first game," Collen said. "For us it's all about that first game."

In recent years, Tennessee or LSU have entered this tournament as the dominant team. That isn't the case in 2012.

"Tennessee has lost twice on its home court, so the feeling is that they're vulnerable, as compared to what they have been in the past," Collen said. "You've got a team like Kentucky who won the regular season championship and yet got beat by 40 at Tennessee late in the year and got beat by Alabama, who is the 11 seed.

"So, yeah, I think there is that feeling, although there probably is some clear separation in terms of which teams have the opportunity to go to the NCAA this year – there's that top eight and then there's the bottom four that would have to win the SEC Tournament – but I think there's that feeling that anybody in that bottom four could beat anybody in that top eight on any given night.

"I would say this is probably the most wide-open tournament that anybody could win."

Collen noted that Vanderbilt, if it survives the first day against Mississippi State, faces Tennessee in the quarterfinals.

"How many times has that happened?" he asked.

Just twice since the tourney began in 1980. Vandy and Tennessee met in the second round in 1982 and 1991. In every other matchup it was in the semifinals or title game.

"Or at team like Florida that gets an eight seed (and faces Kentucky if the Gators beat Auburn on day one)," Collen said. "I watch them and I think they can beat anybody in our conference.

"It's going to be interesting to see if those traditional teams, those higher seeds just march on or whether there are going to be some upsets involved."


No. 9 seed Auburn (13-16, 5-11) faces No. 8 seed Florida (18-11, 8-8) in the tournament opener Thursday at 1 p.m. Eastern.

This will be Nell Fortner's last SEC tourney as she announced her retirement in February.

"It's not an emotional time," Fortner said. "It feels good. I'm happy for these kids playing well right now and I am excited to play in the SEC Tournament."

Auburn closed the regular season with two wins over Alabama and Ole Miss.

"We feel good about that momentum that it gives us going into the SEC Tournament," Fortner said. "Hopefully we can make some noise in that tournament. We feel like we haven't peaked yet, and really we haven't played our best basketball yet.

"We feel good about where we are right now, and we'll see what we can do."

Fortner believes the tourney has an odds-on favorite in Kentucky, but with plenty of parity arriving in Nashville.

"I personally think Florida is one of the best teams in our conference," Fortner said. "They are really tough. It does seem like it's kind of wide open, but I do think there's some definite strong teams.

"I just have a lot of respect for Kentucky and what they are able to do on the floor."


No. 8 seed Florida (18-11, 8-8) faces No. 9 seed Auburn (13-16, 5-11) at 1 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

"I think it's going to be a really fun tournament and a great representation of the strength of our league, because there has been so much parity," Amanda Butler said.

Butler agreed that several teams have a solid chance to lay claim to a tourney title.

"I think it's going to be an amazing demonstration of the strength of our league," Butler sad. "I think it's going to be so fun for the fans, because there are going to be a lot of really, really good basketball games.

"It really is anyone's game. When you look at the way the regular season went there were very few games what we consider blowouts or one-sided. It had very little to do with records in terms of who won on any given night.

"I think we're going to see great basketball and whoever is playing the best and can stay focused day to day is probably going to be the one that comes out with the big trophy."

One year after the SEC had just four teams in the NCAA tourney, the league could get eight teams bracketed in March. Seven seem guaranteed – Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Arkansas – and the Gators have compiled a resume worthy of inclusion.

"I think overall when you look at what we've done and our strength of schedule and RPI and the February that we've had, I think we have a really strong argument," Butler said. "However, our only focus right now in the SEC Tournament.

"We have more basketball to play and a great opportunity ahead of us to continue to enhance that resume."


No. 3 seed Georgia (22-7, 11-5) plays Friday at 10 p.m. Eastern and faces the winner of Alabama-South Carolina.

"I have been pleased overall with how our basketball team has played recently," Andy Landers said. "I am very excited that we have all of our kids healthy and playing well as we go into the tournament."

Landers also envisions an engaging four days of play.

"The tournament itself promises to be an interesting one," Landers said. "In my view, we have a group of teams that are closely matched. It has the chance to be the most competitive tournament that we have had in recent years.

"There have been very competitive basketball teams who have competed well against each other. It certainly promises to be an interesting one."


No. 1 seed Kentucky (21-8, 12-4) plays Friday at 1 p.m. Eastern and faces the winner of Auburn-Florida.

The Wildcats arrive in Nashville as the 2012 SEC champs. Given the bloodbath spilled in the league this season that can't be overlooked.

At the same time, Kentucky had three losses in the regular season. No SEC champion ever lost a trio of games. Auburn lost two in 2009 and claimed the title. Tennessee and Georgia won the league and lost four games each in 1985 and 1983, respectively.

In 1986, 1988, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2011, the regular season league champion went undefeated.

In 1984, 1987, 1990, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2006 and 2010, the champ had one loss.

Amid that backdrop, enters thrice-loss Kentucky, which will be honored before its first game Friday with the SEC trophy.

"We were very proud of our players and very excited for them to earn the championship for the regular season," Matthew Mitchell said. "I am real proud of them and they are a wonderful team to coach."

Mitchell has always enjoyed the SEC tourney and would likely attend as a fan if we were not coaching it.

"The SEC Tournament, to me, is one of the most special times of the year," Mitchell said. "I love the SEC Tournament. I think it is one of the toughest championships to win. I think it takes a herculean effort."

Mitchell realizes there is not a prohibitive favorite in the tourney. < p> I would agree with everyone," Mitchell said. "I do think it's a wide-open tournament. I don't think that we are an unbeatable team by any stretch of the imagination. We suffered three losses, so it's certainly possible for us to lose, and we are aware of that.

"Having said that I also think that we have a team that can beat anybody in the tournament. It was a really good year for our conference. I think that makes for a very exciting tournament."


No. 4 seed LSU (20-9, 10-6) plays Friday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern and faces the winner of Arkansas-Ole Miss.

"I am excited to be back in the SEC having gone through the regular season, arguably the best conference in the country, having played in it and coached there for six years (at Tennessee) and now back," said Nikki Caldwell, who is in his first year at LSU as head coach.

"We have such great players in this conference and great teams. But we've also got great coaches. In regards to our team, we are just a work in progress."

LSU has dealt with injuries, including the loss of its point guard, Destini Hughes, who shredded her knee in the game against Tennessee.

"I have truly enjoyed coaching this team," Caldwell said. "We've had some ups and down but through all of it we're very grateful and humble to be at LSU."

LSU earned a vital first-round bye by getting the fourth seed.

"The bye is critical for us," Caldwell said. "It is definitely crucial because we've been plagued with some injuries, and we're playing people in different positions.

"That helps us have our legs, one less game to go the distance with, but most importantly this group has shown that they can play with the best in our conference."

Caldwell also has scanned the bracket and seen parity. When she was an assistant at Tennessee, the Lady Vols and LSU were the ones who rolled into the tourney as the prohibitive favorites to win it.

"I've only been away for three years," Caldwell said. "When I was here you had two or three favorites. But this year this probably is the most wide-open that I've seen it in a long time, which is great.

"To me this is going to be one of the toughest conference tournaments in the country because you don't have a clear-cut favorite."


No. 12 seed Ole Miss (12-17, 2-14) faces No. 5 seed Arkansas (21-7, 10-6) at 7:30 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

"For us, our kids are going to have to have the approach that it's a four-game season," Renee Ladner said. "Records are not really that important and we're going to have to be able to do something we have not been able to do throughout the regular season – finish games.

"I want our kids to have the full experience and realize that that they're going to see SEC basketball at its finest and we have to come and compete and battle hard."

Ladner also expects a hard-fought affair in Nashville among all the teams.

"It is definitely the most competitive," Ladner said, comparing the 2012 tourney to past ones. "I feel probably the way most coaches feel. On any given day it's anybody's tournament. You just have to be able to put it together for four straight days in my particular position."

Ladner said Kentucky's style of play with the "barrage of substitutions" make the Wildcats the front-runner, but she also noted that Tennessee would be "playing their heart out for Coach Summitt."

"But all in all across the board, top to bottom, if somebody gets hot – in particular as Arkansas has been; they've won 10 out of 12 – it could come down to who has the last possession or the last run.

"It is wide open, it is the most competitive and I would tell everybody to come see SEC basketball at its finest because it's going to be an interesting tournament."


No. 10 seed Mississippi State (14-15, 4-12) faces No. 7 seed Vanderbilt (21-8, 9-7) at 3:30 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

This will be Sharon Fanning-Otis' last SEC tourney as she announced her retirement in February, and she said the last week was rather distracting, so she needed to stay focused on the task at hand in Nashville.

"There is so much parity and some great experience in this league," said Fanning-Otis, who noted she has been "blessed" to coach in the SEC. "We've had to learn a lot but I felt like we've progressed. We've had some challenges along the way.

"In this league it takes 40 minutes, and that's what I am asking them for as we go into this tournament is to play with heart and passion for that 40 minutes and stay focused on that."

Fanning-Otis also thinks the field is loaded with contenders.

"I think there is such tremendous parity," she said. "I think anybody can win this tournament, but I hope that we can leave our best effort on the floor. That's all I've ever asked from our team."


No. 6 seed South Carolina (21-8, 10-6) faces No. 11 seed Alabama (12-18, 2-14) at 10 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

"We look forward to the SEC Tournament," Dawn Staley said. "It's something that we've been chomping at the bit all season long. I think we put ourselves in a position where we're able to compete with some of the upper echelon teams in this conference.

"I think we're going to come into the tournament thinking wins just like everybody else and send the seniors off with a bang."

Staley's team got a signature win this season at Tennessee and the Gamecocks are part of the league's depth.

"This will be my fourth SEC Tournament, and there are some teams that are playing very well," said Staley, who rattled off a list. "It is a wide-open tournament. Every team is going to like their chances coming in because of parity."


No. 2 seed Tennessee (21-8, 12-4) plays Friday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern and will face the winner of Mississippi State-Vanderbilt.

"Hopefully, we are going to be focused," Pat Summitt said. "Obviously this is tough tournament, but I think our team has had some good focus and hopefully we'll come in ready to play."

Tennessee enters the tournament with four conference losses after sweeping the league last season, an indicator of how balanced the SEC is now.

"You've got to think Kentucky is going to be really strong," Summitt said of the tourney's No. 1 seed. "But across the board I think teams are very competitive, and it's going to be a great tournament.

"Every time you go out you'd better be ready to play. And if you're not you're going to go home. We want to go and give it our best shot and stay in this tournament."


No. 7 seed Vanderbilt (21-8, 9-7) faces No. 10 seed Mississippi State (14-15, 4-12) at 3:30 p.m. Eastern on Friday.

"I like where our team is right now," Melanie Balcomb said. "We went on a three-game losing streak earlier in the SEC, and we turned around and won our next seven out of 10 games, and I think that's hard to do in such a competitive conference from top to bottom.

"I feel like we have improved all season, and we'll put the best team that we have had all season on the court here in Nashville."

It is Vandy's hometown, but it's not the Commodores' home court since the tourney is played at Bridgestone Arena. Vandy will have its share of supporters, but Balcomb also sees several teams who can get to Sunday and win.

"I definitely do," Balcomb said. "I've been in the conference 10 years and a lot of time teams with a bye have a huge advantage and there hasn't been that many upsets. But this year you can kind of throw out the seeds and throw out the records.

"When you have Alabama, a team that was on the bottom beating Kentucky, a team that was on the top, in February that means anybody can beat anybody on a given day and there's been no rhyme or reason for a lot of things that you've seen.

"I definitely think in my 10 years here it's the most open tournament."

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