SEC Tournament Preview

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

It didn't take long for LSU to jump back on top of the
Southeastern Conference.
The Tigers are the No. 1 seed in this week's SEC tournament --
just one year after missing the field entirely -- and hope to win an
expanded version of the event, which begins on Tuesday at Regions
Park in Hoover, Ala.
Though LSU (42-14 overall, 19-11 SEC) will almost certainly earn
one of the top eight national seeds in the NCAA tournament field no
matter its performance this week, coach Paul Mainieri said his
team's return to the SEC postseason after a disappointing 2011 is
reason to celebrate.
"Going to Hoover is not anything you ever take for granted,"
Mainieri said.
The SEC tournament field has expanded to 10 teams from the usual
eight, a move made in advance of the league's expansion to 14 teams
next season. But the coaches hope there's another added benefit --
more teams making the NCAA tournament.
The SEC has won three straight national titles and is regarded
as one of the best overall leagues in college baseball. But that
depth has sometimes been a detriment for teams on the NCAA bubble
because programs that didn't finish in the top eight didn't make it
to Hoover. Though teams that have missed the SEC tournament have
occasionally made the NCAA tournament in the past, it's been rare.
LSU and Mississippi were left out of the NCAA tournament field
last season after missing the SEC tournament, despite having RPI
numbers that would normally garner NCAA consideration.
"Having 10 teams is definitely the way to go," Mississippi
State coach John Cohen said. "If you look at the nine and 10
seeds, they can get on a roll and into the NCAA tournament. It's
about giving opportunities to go deep into the postseason and
certainly we have more teams capable than any other league in
America ... Long term, it makes so much sense for every program in
this league."
If there is a downside to the new format, it's that an already
grueling tournament becomes a day longer. The top two seeds get a
first-round bye and could possibly win the tournament in four
games, but every other team will need to win five games to take
home the title. The earlier start has also juggled pitching
rotations, as some teams have opted to use their ace on a day's
less rest, while others will go with lesser pitchers who are fresh.
But you won't hear the league's coaches complaining. Praise for
the new format has been overwhelming.
"We're all out of school," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said.
"We'd rather be playing baseball than sitting around."
LSU didn't need an expanded tournament to make the field this
year. The Tigers have one of the league's best pitchers in
right-hander Kevin Gausman, who has a 9-1 record, 2.86 ERA and 118
strikeouts. They also have Raph Rhymes, who leads the SEC with a
.469 batting average after flirting with .500 through much of the
regular season.
The Tigers won the SEC's regular-season championship by taking
two of three games from South Carolina last weekend. The Gamecocks
(39-15, 18-11) -- who have won two straight national championships --
are the tournament's No. 2 seed.
LSU and South Carolina will rest on Tuesday while four games
will be played: No. 3 Florida faces No. 10 Auburn, No. 4 Kentucky
plays No. 9 Ole Miss, No. 5 Vanderbilt faces No. 8 Georgia and No.
6 Arkansas plays No. 7 Mississippi State.
LSU, South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky all hope a strong
showing at Hoover will be enough to garner one of eight national
seeds in the NCAA tournament. Those teams will host all of their
postseason games until the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
The rest of the field is still trying to solidify a place in the
NCAA tournament field. The Commodores might have the most
intriguing resume in the league after recovering from a dreadful
start to win 10 of 12 games down the stretch.
Ole Miss and Auburn are the two teams that get to take advantage
of the SEC's tournament expanded format. Rebels' coach Mike Bianco
hopes his team will have a good week after an inconsistent regular
season. With only two games separating the league's 5th place and
9th place teams in the SEC regular-season standings, every win in
the tournament could be important when it comes to the NCAA
tournament selection process.
"The better you can do (in Hoover), the better your resume is
for the postseason," Bianco said.


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