SEC Tournament tips off today

NASHVILLE – The 2008 SEC Women's Basketball Tournament gets underway today at the Sommet Center as eight teams battle on the first day and the top four seeds wait to see who's still standing. Over the next four days teams are trying to keep postseason hopes alive, get off the NCAA bubble and solidify seeding.

Tennessee's team practiced Wednesday in Knoxville and will use Thursday as an off day to travel. The Lady Vols play at 3:30 p.m. Eastern on Friday against the winner of Thursday's South Carolina-Florida game. The first three days of the tourney will be televised on Fox Sports Net South (FSN South).

Wednesday's practice was used to install some new looks offensively and defensively, get in some shooting drills and work on transition on both sides of the ball.

Tennessee is the No. 2 seed in the tourney and Pat Summitt wants to end the weekend with no doubt about getting a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. That means taking home the SEC tourney crown.

"I think to guarantee a one we do," Summitt said. "So rather than put it in someone else's hands we need to take control of our own situation by winning the whole thing."

On Tuesday Summitt had been somewhat peeved at the results of the SEC coaches' votes for postseason awards. Candace Parker, the frontrunner for multiple national player of the year awards, lost the SEC player of the year nod to LSU's Sylvia Fowles, though Summitt did note that Fowles was a very worthy candidate. Summitt also had bristled at what she called "so-called experts" who had opined on an ESPN broadcast that Tennessee could be a number two seed in the NCAA tourney.

She had pondered talking about it with the players but opted to drop the topic.

"We didn't talk about it," Summitt said. "We had such a good practice – the last two days we had really good practices – so we'll try to keep everything on the next game."

The coaches will travel to Nashville a tad earlier than the players – they will leave after Thursday classes – so that they can scout the South Carolina-Florida game.

After two days of practice Summitt was pleased with what she saw from her players.

"I think they're focused," Summitt said. "They appear to be."

The coach, like her players, is ready for postseason to tip off.

I love it," Summitt said. "Plus playing in Nashville it'll be a great atmosphere, lot of Tennessee fans so that's a good thing."

GAME ONE: No. 8 seed Ole Miss vs. No 9 seed Mississippi State, 1 p.m. Eastern

The in-state rivals will play for a third time this season to officially open the tournament. Ole Miss finished conference play at 6-8 and is 12-15 overall. Mississippi State was 4-10 in the SEC and 16-13 overall.

The teams split in the regular season and held court at home – Mississippi State won in Starkville, 57-52, and Ole Miss won in Oxford, 73-65.

Ole Miss lost on Sunday to the Gators to fall to the eighth seed spot.

"I'd much prefer to be in that six seed," Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner said. "I think we let one get past us. I'm excited about taking our kids in. We're going to have to play a really good team in Mississippi State."

Ladner said her team competed in SEC games but folded too many times at the end.

"We were almost in a lot of things," Ladner said. "I think our kids have struggled to finish. We've just been unable to finish in the SEC."

Ladner was encouraged by one sign: her team responded after each loss to instruction.

"Every game that we played in we came back the next day and practiced harder," Ladner said.

The in-state schools should provide a competitive game to open tournament play.

"I have a lot of respect for Coach (Sharon) Fanning," Ladner said. "Every time the two of us get together it is that true in-state rival. It's an intense rivalry, and we play extremely hard. We match up well. I think it will be a fight to the finish if both of us come to play."

Fanning was not available Monday for the media teleconference.

The winner plays top seed LSU on Friday at 1 p.m. Eastern.

GAME TWO: No. 7 seed Florida vs. No. 10 seed South Carolina, 3:30 p.m. Eastern

Florida and South Carolina will also be playing for a third time this season, but the home team lost in both previous matchups – the Gators won in Columbia, 60-57, and the Gamecocks won in Gainesville, 69-65.

Florida finished the season 6-8 in the SEC and 17-12 overall. South Carolina was 4-10 in the conference and 15-14 overall.

"Both of our matchups have gone right down to the wire, and we're just going to have to value every possession," Florida Coach Amanda Butler said. "Every single possession can't be taken for granted, whether it's offense or defense, two seconds into the ballgame or the last two seconds of the game."

The two teams play different styles – Florida wants to run; South Carolina will set up in the half-court – but they managed to play each other to the last possession in both previous games.

"Florida is a very athletic team," South Carolina Coach Susan Walvius said. "They pressed us the entire time at their place. They do a great job defensively and attack the rim extremely well offensively, and they've got players that can shoot the ball.

"They're quicker, a little stronger, a little more experienced from the perimeter, although I think they've got one of the best post players in the league on their team (in Marshae Dotson) while we're a little bit bigger and deeper in the post position. It's a good game. There's no question about that. It will be a good game. It will be a scrappy game. I think both teams will play hard. If the game that we play in the SEC Tournament is anywhere close to the two games we played already this year it certainly will be an exciting game."

The Gamecocks come to Nashville healthy – Lakesha Tolliver, a 6'3 forward is back – and looking for some postseason success.

"Entering the tournament we're probably as healthy as we've been all year," Walvius said. "I think we're playing a little bit better right now, especially on the defensive end. Our kids are motivated, and I think they're playing hard. That's all you can ask for coming into the tournament. The season is long, February is hard, people are tired, so for us I'm real excited that we've got a healthy group and a healthy attitude."

Both coaches see a conference that remains formidable and they pointed to the battles for all the middle seeds that weren't settled until the last day of the regular season. Seeds four through 11 were up for grabs last Sunday.

"We've got a lot of teams that have battled this year for that middle ground," Walvius said. "LSU has been extremely strong and certainly Tennessee has been absolutely fantastic, as good as ever. I'm real impressed with the job Amanda Butler has done. A lot of teams are playing with a lot of energy. Every year in the SEC is different, but it's an extremely competitive situation, and I think the teams in the league are playing their best basketball right now."

Butler noted the postseason, especially the conference tourneys, allow for surprises and upsets.

"This tournament brings another level of energy and intensity," Butler said. "We know that anything can happen in this tournament. I think history's proven that. "We've got to take it up another level and be ready for anything because absolutely I think it's open. I think Vanderbilt plays well no matter where it is. They're a team that traditionally does well. Certainly with it being in Nashville their fans don't have to travel and the Tennessee fans do a great job of showing up no matter where the tournament is."

The coaches expect Tennessee and Vanderbilt fans to turn out in force, but Butler pointed out the outcome is still decided on the hardwood.

"Will there be an advantage with their fans not having to drive across state lines?" Butler said. "I think it's going to be decided between the basketball lines. The location isn't going to have as much impact as which team is the most ready and playing with the most energy and playing with the most confidence."

Butler isn't buying the notion that the SEC is down this year, not based on what she saw all season.

"It's the best conference in the country in terms of every night the battles that take place," Butler said. "I think some people say SEC isn't as tough as maybe it was last year, but it's really hard to believe with the physical nature of every game on Thursday and Sunday no matter where it's played, no matter who the matchup is between."

The winner of this game will play Tennessee on Friday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern. Florida just played the Lady Vols last Thursday and lost in Knoxville, 88-61.

"I think if we're able to play well enough on Thursday to be fortunate enough to be in that game Friday that will be the advantage that we have that we will have hopefully picked up some confidence," Butler said. "I don't know that it's an advantage or a disadvantage to have just played them. It's hard to speculate whether it's in your favor or not in your favor. If we're fortunate enough to be in that situation Friday we'll be tickled to death, and we'll make the most of it and see what happens."

GAME THREE: No. 5 seed Georgia vs. No. 12 seed Alabama, 7:30 p.m. Eastern

Georgia could have grabbed a first-round bye with a win last Sunday over Tennessee, but the Lady Vols won in Athens, 72-63, and the Lady Bulldogs fell to the No. 5 seed. Georgia finished 8-6 in the SEC and 21-8 overall. Alabama was 1-13 in the conference and 8-21 overall.

"We go into Southeastern Conference play without a lot of success and with a lot of youth," Alabama Coach Stephany Smith said. "I think the tournament will be a great experience and great environment for all of our youth to gain some experience and learn what the tournament is all about."

From Smith's vantage point the SEC remains plenty strong.

"When you're in the middle of it, night in and night out, never really a night off," Smith said. "Just the speed of the game and the athleticism of the game I think is something that makes the Southeastern Conference unique from other leagues. I think the athleticism and the pace at which SEC teams play is something that separates our league from other leagues."

Georgia Coach Andy Landers joined the teleconference the day after the disappointing loss to Tennessee in a night game and still sounded a little tired.

"We are excited I guess that the postseason is here," Landers said. "It's something that we focus on from the first day of practice getting ready for the postseason and being good in the postseason. I feel that in the past month our basketball team has improved so we're anxious to go to the SEC Tournament and get the postseason side of this started."

Georgia will have to make a four-day run to win the tourney and Landers noted upsets will happen – the number one seed has been ousted with regularity either before or in the title game – but he also pointed out the strength of the top seeds.

"I think the history of the tournament has been half the time or more someone other than the number one seed has won it and often times there have been upsets beyond that," Landers said. "In one sense it's an opportunity for anyone if they're playing good basketball but on the other hand I think that LSU, Tennessee and Vanderbilt have all separated themselves a little bit from the rest of the league in the manner in which they've played during the regular season and any one of those three could be favored to win it."

If Georgia wins Thursday the Lady Bulldogs get a rematch with Kentucky, which beat them in Athens, a game that ultimately determined the No. 4 seed because of the tiebreaker. Georgia and Alabama played once in the regular season in Athens and Georgia won, 71-53.

"The Alabama game is really the only thing that is important at this point," Landers said when asked of the possible matchup with the Wildcats.

The winner will play Kentucky at 7:30 p.m. Eastern on Friday.

GAME FOUR: No. 6 seed Auburn vs. No. 11 seed Arkansas, 10 p.m. Eastern

Auburn and Arkansas played twice this season and Auburn won both times – 73-68 in Fayetteville and 74-57 in Auburn. Auburn finished the season 7-7 in the conference and 19-10 overall. Arkansas finished 2-12 in the SEC and 17-12 overall.

"We're looking forward to playing in the tournament and we get Arkansas again," Auburn Coach Nell Fortner said. "We just played them (Sunday). That will cut down on our scouting time. That is probably a good thing for both teams."

Auburn is considered a bubble team for an NCAA tourney bid so a win Thursday is a must.

"I hate to even speculate anymore," Fortner said when asked if the Tigers had done enough to date for an invitation to the Big Dance. "I think we just have to keep winning as many games as we can prior to the selection. I want to think that we've done enough to get into the tournament, but I don't know. I just know that if you keep winning that definitely helps your chances. That's what we're focusing on, just trying to get as many wins as we can."

Arkansas Coach Tom Collen said his team has hopes for a WNIT bid in the back of its mind. The Lady Razorbacks lost preseason All-SEC First Team forward Lauren Ervin in the first league game and struggled without her.

"We're entering on a little bit of a low note," Collen said. "We struggled to win games. Lauren Ervin went down in the first game of the conference. We battled awfully hard and had a chance to win several of our games. Playing Auburn a third time is a tough challenge for us. We're going to keep battling. We need to keep working hard. If we could find a way to win a game down there I think it would really be a high note on our season."

Collen was an assistant at Arkansas from 1993 to 1997 and noted the sea change in other conferences catching up to the SEC.

"This is my first year back in the league and when I was in the league 10 years ago it was without question the strongest league in the country, and there really were no other challengers," Collen said. "I think some of the other leagues have stepped up. I think the Big East and the Big 12 have had banner years.

"I think we're in a situation where we're really fighting to gain back the respect that we want. I think we've got some teams that are shoo-ins for the NCAA and we've got some other teams that are on the bubble. I think we've certainly got five teams that deserve to get in and maybe six. The one thing we know for sure is once we get teams into postseason play because of the rugged schedule in the SEC we've got an awfully good track record of winning games. It's just a matter of how many teams we're going to get in right now."

Fortner said the history of the SEC tourney is such that the first two days of play will produce surprises.

"I think the SEC Tournament is always tough," Fortner said. "There are always upsets in this tournament. It's a grueling four days of basketball, but a very exciting four days of basketball. Anything can happen at this point in time.

"People are fighting for position to get into the NCAA Tournament. People are fighting for a better seed in the NCAA Tournament. Every game matters. You want to finish your season out on a good note. There's so much more energy, and the quality of play is outstanding. It's a great time. I'm looking forward to it."

The winner of this game will play Vanderbilt on Friday at 10 p.m. Eastern.

No. 1 seed LSU

The Lady Tigers, 25-4 overall, went undefeated in regular season league play with 14 wins and enter the tourney as the SEC champions.

"I'm really proud of our team for going undefeated for, outside of the national championship, when LSU has to go to Tennessee, I think it's the second hardest game to win in the country," LSU Coach Van Chancellor said. "I've been a fortunate coach."

Chancellor didn't want to talk about how hard it was to win both – the regular season and the tourney.

"I think when you start thinking about who you're going to play on Sunday you usually go home on Friday," he said.

LSU will play the winner of the Mississippi State-Ole Miss game at 1 p.m. Eastern on Friday.

Chancellor was just happy to be in Nashville and thrilled to be on the sidelines as a coach after several years of providing TV commentary for the tourney.

"I don't know of a better place in the world to be, a wonderful city," Chancellor said. "Great basketball, good coaching. LSU might not have a good coach, but the rest of them do. It's going to be a lot of fun.

"TV is just like stealing money. You don't have any pressure on you. I'm looking forward to the competition, especially with the team that we have. I'm going to miss doing the tournament. That was my favorite thing to do in TV was the SEC Tournament."

No. 2 seed Tennessee

The Lady Vols, 27-2 overall, lost just once in the conference to LSU. They will play Friday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern against the winner of the South Carolina-Florida game. If Tennessee makes it to Sunday and the seeds hold to form it would mean a rematch with LSU.

"Right now I think we have to be very mindful of playing one game at a time," Pat Summitt said. "I'll be interested to see how important it is. Obviously the loss to LSU I would think there would be some motivation to try and win two games to get to the championship game. Right now it's kind of wait and see. I hope our team is motivated. If they are then hopefully we can be in that championship game. It's not going to be easy. This tournament has always been a real challenge and teams step up because they know this is their one opportunity to get into the (NCAA) tournament."

A number one seed in the NCAA tourney has been on Summitt's mind this week.

"I think we've put ourselves in a position right now to secure a number one seed," Summitt said. "If we lose out the first game we put that in jeopardy. If we're in that championship game I think that we're still in good shape. That's yet to be determined. I did tell our team before we played Georgia we're playing for the right to keep our number one seed. I do think we played a very tough schedule and hopefully we can keep that regardless."

No. 3 seed Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt, 22-7 overall, went 11-3 in the SEC with two losses to Tennessee and one to LSU. The Commodores finished the season strong and are playing in their backyard.

"I like our momentum going into the tournament," Vanderbilt Coach Melanie Balcomb said. "I think our kids are excited and looking forward to postseason. This is a team that is very young. We're playing well right now, playing our best basketball, and that's what you want to be doing in March. We're looking forward to getting started and also looking forward to be playing in Nashville."

Vanderbilt is the defending tourney champion – the Commodores beat LSU for the crown in 2007 in Duluth, Ga. – and will play at 10 p.m. Eastern on Friday against the winner of the Arkansas-Auburn game.

Vandy has had considerable success when the tourney is played in Nashville, and Balcomb agreed there is a carryover effect.

"I think so because it's something that's familiar, will be talked about, has been talked about," she said. "It always going to help that you have a lot of your hometown fans there. We won last year and we're defending champs, and we want to defend our championship very strong.

"I love Nashville and I'm so happy to be playing here and coaching here so I don't ever think there's a better place to be."

The Commodores struggled early in the season as they adjusted to the loss of three seniors and a tough out of conference slate. That schedule turned out to be a blessing, Balcomb said.

"I think we've matured a lot," she said. "I think our tough preseason schedule turned out to really help us to see where we were at and force us to look at ourselves early enough where we could make some changes. We're much better because of some of the losses that we had before we got in the SEC.

"You want to be playing your best basketball, you want to be getting better, and we compete very, very hard still every day in practice with these young players. It's just been a lot fun. There's no pressure and when you have a team that there's no pressure you do things. We won 11 games, which we just made history at Vanderbilt and I would have never guessed that this would be the team that would set a record. It's interesting what happens when you don't have a lot of pressure, and you feel like it's a free year."

Vandy has succeeded in the tourney format whether it had a bye or had to play for four days. Balcomb noted all coaches cut their rotations in the postseason and the best approach is to focus on the daily task at hand and not worry about minutes played.

"We've done it with six or seven players," Balcomb said. "I don't think anybody at this point in this year has a big rotation. I don't think that really matters. I just try to get our kids in the same mental state no matter who they're playing or what bracket it is. I don't think there are a lot of things that you do differently if you're going to play three games or four, if you have the bye or you don't. I haven't treated it any differently."

No. 4 seed Kentucky

Kentucky earned a first-round bye but needs to keep winning to get into any other postseason tournaments. The Wildcats finished 8-6 in the SEC but are 14-14 overall and need to win out in Nashville to get in the NCAA tourney or win at least once and guarantee a .500 overall record to help secure a WNIT bid.

Kentucky will play Friday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern against the winner of the Georgia-Alabama game.

"It's very exciting on one hand to earn a number four seed and first round bye and that's something that has not happened a lot here," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "For Kentucky that's a great thing and real proud of our players for the way they navigated a very difficult SEC schedule.

"We are pretty upset from our game (Sunday, a loss to South Carolina). We let an opportunity to do something special pass us by. We need to focus on playing well in this tournament. I think we need to go in with the mindset of winning the tournament because that can help us achieve one of our goals and get to the NCAA Tournament. I really believe that if we can go down there with the proper frame of mind and have the mentality that we're going to try to survive and advance every day we'll have a chance to do that."

Mitchell needed no more proof than last Sunday's game in Lexington to convince him of the SEC's overall strength.

"I think (Sunday) is a very good example of how strong the league is," Mitchell said. "I think South Carolina could beat anybody on a given day. I think that's one of the best examples of how deep the league is. I think the league is very tough, very deep. The seeds five through 12 there are some very strong teams there and obviously the top four seeds are strong teams. I think it's a tough league and very difficult to navigate your way through it."

He noted favorites to take the title in Nashville but that's no guarantee that it will happen.

"I think there are a lot of teams with the opportunity to win the tournament," Mitchell said. "I thought Georgia played very well against Tennessee. The favorites will be LSU, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. They've done the best job of anyone in the league and in particular LSU. I think those top three seeds are very dangerous teams and they're going to be hard to beat, but I definitely think there are other teams in the bracket that could win it."

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