After months of slogging it out through a tough regular season, the Southeastern Conference ramps up play Tuesday with the beginning of its conference tournament.
The SEC has won four of the last six national championships, giving it a stranglehold almost equal to that of its football prowess. Vanderbilt is currently the defending national title holder and holds the No. 2 seed, finishing behind only 2009 champion LSU. With both teams off until Wednesday having earned a first-round bye, it'd be easy to say the first day is a battle of SEC also-rans.
|Tuesday SEC Tournament Schedule|
|Game No.||Matchup||TIME (ET||Network||Radio|
|Game 1||#6 Ole Miss vs. #11 Alabama||10:30 a.m.||SEC Network||Sirius 219/XM 190|
|Game 2||#7 Missouri vs. #10 South Carolina||TBD||SEC Network||Sirius 219/XM 190|
|Game 3||#8 Kentucky vs. #9 Auburn||5:30 p.m.||SEC Network||Sirius 219/XM 190|
|Game 4||#5 Arkansas vs. #12 Tennessee||TBD||SEC Network||Sirius 219/XM 190|
That, of course, would ignore all the solid teams in action.
Winners of the 2010 and 2011 national championships, 10th-seeded South Carolina is easily the most identifiable in Tuesday's action. The Gamecocks opened the regular season 17-3 and appeared headed for their 15th straight NCAA tournament appearance before falling apart in conference play.
Chad Holbrook's team went just 13-17 in the conference, including a 6-12 mark on the road. It was the first time since 1997, Ray Tanner's inaugural campaign, that South Carolina posted a losing mark in the SEC. The Gamecocks enter Tuesday's matchup with seventh-seeded Missouri on the brink.
"We'll see if we can keep playing," Holbrook said, per Scott Hood of the Times and Democrat. "I'm sure there are a lot of teams out there that are probably in the same boat we are in. Some teams are going south. We want to make sure we're going north. I just want to go there and play our butts off on Tuesday and see if we can win and compete in the double-elimination part of the tournament and see what happens."
Jack Wynkoop is expected to start for South Carolina. Wynkoop is 8-4 with a 3.13 ERA this season. The Gamecocks have won each of the last four games he's started.
Reggie McClain will be on the mount for Missouri. He's 6-7 on the season with a 3.83 ERA. The junior righty throws with strong command and should be able to keep scoring low.
Missouri-South Carolina will take place after sixth-seeded Ole Miss takes on 11th-seeded Alabama. The Rebels enter having went 15-14 during conference play after an up-and-down nonconference slate. They closed with five wins in their last six games, putting them right on the edge of clinching their fourth consecutive NCAA berth. A good showing in Hoover should put them over the top.
“Now you kind of start a new season,” coach Mike Bianco said, per the Local Voice. “There was a point that we didn’t look real good, they held together, and we got better.”
Alabama went just 12-18 during conference play. The program will almost certainly be sitting out the NCAAs for the first time since 2007 but can revel in playing the spoiler. Its shutout of Vanderbilt in the regular-season finale could spell big things in the coming days. Ace Geoffrey Bramblett was pulled after one inning of the season finale, so he could start Tuesday for the Tide.
The nightcap features one game that could be a thriller and another that should be a walkover. No. 8 Kentucky and No. 9 Auburn both have tournament-level talent. The Tigers were absolutely dominant in nonconference play, starting with a 21-5 record before things got a little more difficult. Putting themselves in an NCAA regional will be the goal heading into this week.
“Our players have done a tremendous job of staying mentally tough all year long,” head coach Sunny Golloway said, per Phillip Marshall of 247Sports. “Remember we are trying to rebuild a program. We don’t have a history of being in tournament play, only one time in the last 10 years as far as the NCAA. It’s been a long journey and tough battle.”
Golloway's team may be facing an uphill battle without ace Keegan Thompson. The sophomore made his first appearance since injuring his elbow last month over the weekend but did not look like his normal self. Golloway would not commit one way or the other to his availability.
"I know that sounds crazy, but we're going to put him on the 27-man roster," Golloway said, per Wesley Sinor of AL.com. "I think the bottom line ultimately is we're in a situation where he's going to have to get with Dr. (James) Andrews. What Keegan wants to do is try to help us."
|#6 Ole Miss vs. #11 Alabama||4-3, Ole Miss|
|#7 Missouri vs. #10 South Carolina||6-4, South Carolina|
|#8 Kentucky vs. #9 Auburn||9-8, Auburn|
|#5 Arkansas vs. #12 Tennessee||8-2, Arkansas|
Kentucky's tournament hopes are well beyond reproach, but the club has been just fine in conference play. There's a no-frills outlook for the roster and it just seems to find a way to win games it should. With Auburn limping around, the Wildcats might wind up being the ones to advance and face LSU after all.
The result that feels most certain is the nightcap between Arkansas and Tennessee. It would be a major disappointment for the Razorbacks to spend most of their season ranked only to fall out of favor against a below-average Tennessee team. The Volunteers barely snuck into the conference tournament with an 11-18 record. Their highlight of the 2015 season is creating an amazing rally cap.
Arkansas will be need to keep it that way with a win Tuesday. Otherwise, the selection committee may start looking at its shaky RPI more closely.