After an improbable final weekend of the regular season, the LSU Tigers enter this week’s SEC Tournament in Hoover, Alabama as the #1 seed having won their 15th conference championship, the most of anyone in the league. The Tigers roll into Hoover ranked in the top five in national polls, looking to further solidify their positioning as a top eight seed in NCAA tournament.
This year’s tournament looks a little different than previous installments. The field has been expanded to 10 teams in preparation for next year’s conference expansion. The Tigers and South Carolina Gamecocks both earned byes on the first day of the tournament by virtue of winning their respective divisions, and await the conclusion of Tuesday’s action before learning who they will face in opening games.
Here’s a breakdown of the first day’s action with scouting reports for each of the 1o participants.
Game 1 Kentucky vs. Ole Miss (Tuesday, May 22, 9:30 a.m.)
Kentucky entered last weekend as the conference leader, and summarily laid an egg as they were swept by Mississippi State. After losing two close games by 2- and 1-run margins, the Wildcats were drummed in the finale, falling 11-2. Kentucky has lived and died this year on the strength of their offense, and the Cats just could not score runs against the Bulldog pitching staff. With the sweep, Kentucky has now dropped three of its last four weekend series and will need to rediscover its earlier form to make any kind of run in the tournament.
Ole Miss enters the tournament hot off suffering a sweep of their own against suddenly-hot Vanderbilt. Like Kentucky, the Rebels are among the most prolific offenses in the SEC, but were unable to use that offense to score runs against the Commodores. The Ole Miss pitching staff is better than Kentucky’s, and their ace, Bobby Wahl, will take the mound against the Wildcats. Ole Miss will be using the tournament to secure a place in the NCAA Tournament, while the Wildcats may be looking for a strong showing to put themselves back in the hunt for a national seed. Early fireworks may ensue in the opening game of the 2012 tournament.
Game 2 Arkansas vs. Mississippi State (Tuesday, May 22, TBD)
Arkansas has suffered through something of a rollercoaster of a season, entering the campaign with expectations of a divisional crown and finishing in a dogfight for second place. In the end, the Razorbacks finished tied with their opening round opponents for second place in the West after pummeling tournament outsider Tennessee over the weekend. With series wins against Florida and Mississippi State on the resume, Arkansas is a team capable of beating anybody in the league, but looked shaky at times against weaker opponents.
Mississippi State got off to a surprisingly slow start, losing the first three conference series. Over the first 12 games of the conference schedule, the Bulldogs gave up over five runs per game. The pitching staff found its form, though, and the Bulldogs went on a tear through the remainder of their schedule. They have dropped only two of their final six series and made a statement heading into Hoover with a sweep of Kentucky. The pitching staff has given up an average of 2.4 runs over their last 15 games. Chris Stratton, the ace of the staff, leads the league in strikeouts and is expected to get the start Tuesday. The Bulldogs will look to even their season series against the Razorbacks.
Game 3 Florida vs. Auburn (Tuesday, May 22, TBD)
Florida is the highest seed that will see action on the opening day of the tournament. With a chance to win the league on the final day, the Gators were disappointed by Auburn as Florida wound up on the wrong end of a 5-4 game. The Gators will get a chance to avenge their defeat at the hands of the Tigers in their first game, though, and are looking to prove they deserve consideration for a national seed with a strong showing in the tournament.
Auburn enters as the lowest seed in the tournament, and will need to find a way to make a run if they hope to hear their name called Sunday evening when Regional participants are announced. Auburn has a strong offense, but their pitching and defense are lacking. The Gators, for their part, are always a threat offensively, but are prone to giving up runs as well. This game has the potential to turn into another offensive power show.
Game 4 Vanderbilt vs. Georgia (Tuesday, May 22, TBD)
In another intra-division match up, Vanderbilt meets up with Georgia. The Bulldogs will be looking to atone for dropping a close series in Nashville earlier this year. Georgia enters the week after having suffered a series loss to Alabama – the only team from the Western Division to miss the tournament. The Bulldogs are looking to prove themselves worthy of a berth in a Regional and could make a strong statement with an opening round win against the Commodores.
Vanderbilt has posted four straight series victories entering the tournament, including wins against LSU and Kentucky. The Commodores may be getting hot at the right time, and their success is built on keeping opponents off the scoreboard. After last weekend’s sweep of Ole Miss, the pitching staff reduced its ERA from 4.30 to 4.06 heading into Hoover. If the ‘Dores can continue pitching well, they could prove themselves a team to reckon with over the next week.
LSU and South Carolina
By virtue of winning their respective divisions, LSU and South Carolina will have to wait for the first day of action to be finished before they know who they will face first.
The Tigers await the conclusion of Games 1 and 2. The lowest seed to win either of those games will face LSU in Game 8 on Wednesday, May 23. The Tigers missed last season’s SEC Tournament, but have won the last three in which they have been participants. LSU also has the most tournament titles of any team with nine. The Tigers look to cap off a regular season triumph by adding some hardware in Hoover, but the tournament may have little impact on the postseason destiny as the Tigers are lock to host a regional and should be a lock to host a super regional.
Likewise, the Gamecocks will face the lowest seeded winner of Games 3 and 4. The Gamecocks backed in to the #2 seed after losing to the Tigers on the final day of the regular season and will be looking to have their luck continue through the postseason.
All games will be televised on Sports South and CSS with the exception of the championship game which will be on ESPN2 at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 27.
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