"Tennessee, they might have been challenged, but the bottom line is they swept through," Ole Miss Coach Carol Ross said. "There is no question they are the favorite. The mountaintop is still orange."
The top four seeds – Tennessee, Georgia, Vanderbilt and LSU – all earned first-round byes with LSU slipping into the fourth coveted spot after Auburn beat Ole Miss on the last day of the regular season to give the Rebels their fifth conference loss.
The other eight teams get started today at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga. The first three days of the tourney are scheduled to be televised by Fox Sports Net. Sunday's title game will be aired by ESPN2 at 7:30 p.m. Eastern.
The coaches participated in a media teleconference this week. Here are their comments leading into the tournament.
ALABAMA, No. 12 seed, 10-19, 0-14
The Crimson Tide enters the tournament without a regular season conference win. Alabama will face No. 5 seed Ole Miss at 7 p.m. Thursday.
"Everybody I assume takes the tournament with a clean slate and a clean approach," Coach Stephany Smith said. "That's something that we hope to do as well. Unfortunately not having any success in the regular season we are very fragile in our mental approach but look forward to getting this started on Thursday."
Smith said her team's downfall has been its inconsistent play, and "Ole Miss' bread and butter is how hard they play."
Smith brings a very young team into the tournament with five freshmen so she hopes the experience gives them a glimpse into postseason excitement, media coverage and bigger crowds on a neutral court.
"I'm hoping that we will be able to take it some of that environment," Smith said. "They'll see what they'll be looking forward to and into the future."
ARKANSAS, No. 10 seed, 18-12, 3-11
The Lady Razorbacks got off to a great start and then entered conference play and struggled. They will face No. 7 seed Kentucky at 3:30 p.m. Thursday. Arkansas took Tennessee to overtime last week and hopes to use that performance as a confidence boost going into postseason, which represents a chance to start over.
"I don't know if I've ever welcomed a tournament more in my life," Coach Susie Gardner said. "I feel new energy. I'm exciting to be on a zero-zero playing field. I'm excited that we have our second chance."
Gardner played at Georgia and remembers "back in the day" when the tournament was held on campus sites. This year's tournament is centrally located for a lot of conference schools and is near a big city in Atlanta. Gwinnett Center is a neutral site – and located in Georgia's home state – but Gardner noted that Tennessee's fan flock to the tournament no matter where it's been held over the years from Albany, Ga., to Chattanooga, Tenn., to Little Rock, Ark., to Nashville, Tenn.
"I think Tennessee has home-court advantage anywhere we host it," Gardner said. "We had a big orange presence in Arkansas the other day. I asked my SID where did these people come from? He said, ‘Oklahoma.' They're everywhere, especially during tournament time. Everybody's going to have their fans, but orange seems to dominate the stands."
AUBURN, No. 9 seed, 19-11, 6-8
The Tigers secured a win on the last day of the regular season and will try to keep their winning streak moving forward. Auburn faces No. 8 seed South Carolina at 1 p.m. in the tournament opener in a game of the most interest to Tennessee fans since the Lady Vols play the winner.
"We're pleased to be coming off a win … getting a little momentum going," Coach Nell Fortner said. "It will be a good matchup."
Fortner's team had a strong week to close the season, and she hopes another win, which would be the 20th of the season, will tilt the Tigers into the NCAA Tournament.
"It gives us definitely new life," Fortner said. "I think we're in a good place right now."
If Auburn advances to Friday the Tigers will face Tennessee in the second round for the third consecutive year.
FLORIDA, No. 11 seed, 8-21, 2-12
The Gators will close out the first day of play by matching up with No. 6 seed Mississippi State at 9:30 p.m. Coach Carolyn Peck will not return next season so this tourney will be her last with the Gators team.
"We're looking forward to this tournament," Peck said. "It's been a rough season. It took until the latter part of the season to get a couple of (conference) wins."
Florida's quest to keep the coach on the sideline a little longer means facing "one of the toughest teams to defend in the conference," Peck said of Mississippi State.
But the Gators have a sense of purpose entering the postseason.
"I think their mindset is that they don't want the season to be over," Peck said. "They're playing hard for each other. They're playing hard for their coaches. They just don't want this to end."
The wins late in the season over Alabama and Kentucky gave the Gators some much-needed confidence.
"They were able to convince themselves of what they're capable of doing," Peck said. We've come close in so many games, but we've fallen short."
GEORGIA, No. 2 seed, 24-5, 11-3
The Lady Bulldogs have the tournament in their home state, and Coach Andy Landers has a formidable group of veterans and some key youngsters, including SEC freshman of the year Ashley Houts and Sixth Woman of the Year Christy Marshall, also a freshman.
Georgia will play at 3:30 p.m. Friday against the winner of the Arkansas-Kentucky game.
Coach Andy Landers welcomed the tourney to Georgia – the state has hosted before and the coaches cited fond memories of the ones in Albany – as a way to showcase the state and celebrate its "tradition-rich" basketball reputation at all levels of hoops.
Landers remembered fondly the days in Albany because of how the community put forth considerable effort to plan and promote the tournament. The players were made to feel special and the volunteers worked hard "to create an environment that the Southeastern Conference deserved," he said.
He's happy to have it back in the state for many reasons, not the least of which is "when you have a tournament this close, you remove the wear and tear of travel," Landers said. He also cited "the added support of our fans and convenience for them."
Although Tennessee is the favorite based on its regular season performance Landers believes that the path to the title isn't cleared for any team.
"I think that that makes the tournament that much more attractive from a fan's standpoint and certainly more exciting from a player's standpoint. I think the teams are fairly evenly matched," Landers said. "It gives everyone hope. I think it will create a little bit more buzz with regards to the tournament atmosphere."
KENTUCKY, No. 7 seed, 17-12, 6-8
The Wildcats come into the tournament seeking wins to keep their NCAA tourney hopes alive. Kentucky gets started on its quest at 3:30 p.m. Thursday against Arkansas, the No. 10 seed.
"I think that they're a very dangerous team," Coach Mickie DeMoss said, citing Arkansas' overtime game against Tennessee.
Kentucky has had an up-and-down season with some tough losses – the loss to Florida on the Gators' emotional Senior Night and sendoff to Peck plus some close games that were lost in the final seconds – and enters the postseason with a small window of time to right the ship.
"We've got to see what we can get better at in a short amount of time," DeMoss said. "… It's hard to predict when you're on the bubble, but I would certainly say we need to get at least two and there's no guarantee" of an NCAA bid.
DeMoss agreed that her team's best approach was to tackle one game at a time and hope to be one of four that survives Thursday and moves onto Friday.
"I think you've got to go into the tournament certainly believing that," DeMoss said of a wide-open chance to take the title. "That's why they play the games. It has been a real interesting season for the SEC."
DeMoss said the teams took turn beating up on each other and although Tennessee did run the table, the Lady Vols had a few challenges.
"I think when you go in as an underdog like we are you certainly want to believe that anything is possible," DeMoss said.
LSU, No. 4 seed, 24-6, 10-4
The Tigers earned a first round bye and will play at 7 p.m. Friday against the winner of the Alabama-Ole Miss game. For the past two years LSU has met Tennessee in the title game, but that won't happen this year. If both teams win Friday they will meet in a semifinal Saturday.
LSU Coach Pokey Chatman said she had been second-guessing herself for not taking advantage of an SEC open date – some teams do; others don't – and wondering if the time could have been used for extra rest and "fine tuning." But with a first round bye – "It's huge," Chatman said – she is ready to let that go and look ahead to the postseason.
LSU's success hinges in large part on the performance of Sylvia Fowles, who has led the Tigers all season.
"Sylvia is an integral part of what we need to do," said Chatman, who said it was true in October and it's true now.
Chatman had no doubt that Tennessee was the favorite and any suggestion otherwise indicated that the Lady Vols "become a victim of their own success," she said. "Anytime you run the table in this conference I don't know how you can't be the clear-cut favorite."
At the same time Chatman noted that Tennessee had some close games – particularly with LSU – and "I think you have the feeling and hope because of the toughness. I think there's a shot for others to advance as well."
MISSISSIPPI, No. 5 seed, 20-9, 9-5
Ole Miss lost to Auburn on the last day of the regular season, which proved costly, because it forced the Rebels into playing on Thursday. Ole Miss takes on No. 12 seed Alabama at 7 p.m.
"I don't know if we're stumbling, slinking or sliding into (Duluth) for the SEC Tournament," Coach Carol Ross said. "We certainly didn't finish it the way we wanted."
If Ole Miss gets past Alabama, LSU waits on Friday. The Rebels beat the Tigers in the regular season in a game in which Ross had no illusions about.
"We were really lucky," Ross said. "They're a special team. They've got a lot of pieces to the puzzle. They lost the national player of the year (Seimone Augustus) and they gracefully put together another fine team.
"We probably just made them mad. We just hit the monster in the head and ran off. We slung the slingshot in the right direction that day."
Ross wasn't buying any notion that Tennessee wasn't the favorite entering the tournament.
"Now the rest of us are showing up with high hopes," Ross said. "They drew first blood. They're the ones who took care of their business and did it better than the rest of us."
MISSISSIPPI STATE, No. 6 seed, 17-12, 7-7
The Lady Bulldogs come to Duluth looking for wins and a berth in the NCAA tournament. They have to wait until the final game Thursday to take on Florida at 9:30 p.m.
"We're playing for seedings," Coach Sharon Fanning said. "We want to be the best basketball team we can be starting this Thursday."
When asked if her team had done enough to make the NCAA Tournament, Fanning said, "We're in the SEC Tournament. I know that. I think we're a bubble team right now."
Fanning's focus was getting herself and her team ready and not fixating on the NCAA bids because so much still needed to play out in other conferences.
"You can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out all this early," said Fanning, who added her team "should be on the board" but needs to have some success in Duluth.
Her approach for the tournament is possession basketball.
"The value of every possession … I'm big on fundamentals," said Fanning, citing ball security, rebounding, the extra pass and shot selection. "We have to play smarter basketball."
SOUTH CAROLINA, No. 8 seed, 16-13, 6-8
The Gamecocks face Auburn in the opening game of the tournament. If they survive round one Tennessee waits Friday at 1 p.m.
Coach Susan Walvius noted how many SEC teams were "playing with a lot of grit and intensity," and added that her team would "have to play great basketball" to advance in the four-day event.
Walvius sees a shot for another team to win the tournament but also acknowledged the success that the Lady Vols had had throughout the regular season.
"Tennessee is very good," said Walvius, who noted the SEC had plenty of parity this season. "I'm really impressed with the Tennessee team."
Walvius added that the Lady Vols were also a national title contender and so they would have everyone's respect this weekend – based on that and the perfect run through the league – but "anything can happen come SEC Tournament time."
TENNESSEE, No. 1 seed, 27-2, 14-0
The Lady Vols certainly understand how hard it is to win both the regular season and the conference tournament. They last did it in 2000 and won the last two tourneys by beating LSU, the regular season champion.
The Lady Vols play Friday at 1 p.m. against the winner of Auburn-South Carolina and are carrying the momentum of an undefeated regular season and a 20-point wipeout of in-state rival Vanderbilt last Sunday.
Coach Pat Summitt believes her team has accomplished enough to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but she knows postseason success in a conference tourney can be crucial for placement.
However Summitt said the degree of difference between this season's No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the Big Dance isn't all that far apart and those teams "are all going to be capable of making a lot of noise."
Summitt's crystal ball sees the top four SEC seeds in the NCAA tourney, along with Ole Miss. She thinks Mississippi State and Kentucky need a win or two in Duluth to secure a spot.
To win in the consecutive-day format, "I think you really have to have the ability to maintain your focus," Summitt said. "It's a challenge."
The Lady Vols formula for success is letting the staff do the bulk of the work and then presenting the team a thorough scouting report. Combine that with short and concise preparation sessions to allow the players plenty of rest.
Another piece of that success is fan support, especially on a neutral court.
"We have great fan support," Summitt said. "There's been a history of our fans traveling. We're proud of that."
VANDERBILT, No. 3 seed, 24-5, 10-4
The Commodores experienced some emotional swings in the last week of the regular season – a Senior Night win over LSU in Nashville and then a Senior Day loss to Tennessee in Knoxville.
Vandy will await Thursday's winner between Florida and Mississippi State and then wait all day Friday to play at 9:30 p.m.
"I'm just excited to regroup and get ready for the SEC Tournament," Coach Melanie Balcomb said. "We have a team who is wanting to keep playing. This is a very close team off the court as well as on. I don't think we'll have any problem getting up for this tournament."
Balcomb was grateful for how the regular season shook out Sunday. The Commodores lost, but Ole Miss also fell to Auburn, which meant LSU and Vandy didn't have to worry about which one of them would play Thursday.
"It's ironic with a loss that we ended up moving up," said Balcomb, but her team will welcome the extra day of rest."
Balcomb said her team looked forward to hitting the road in the postseason, partly because of how tightly knit they are.
"This is the best team chemistry that we've had," she said.