South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley communicates with an official during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against LSU Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Sean Rayford
March 01, 2016

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) The most surprising women's basketball team in the Southeastern Conference might not be perennial powerhouse Tennessee.

No. 25 Florida was picked to finish 12th in the league in the preseason, hardly a huge slight at the time considering the Gators went 13-17 last season and fired two assistant coaches.

But Florida responded with arguably the best season in coach Amanda Butler's nine years. The Gators (22-7, 10-6 SEC) won three of their final four regular-season games and earned the No. 4 seed and a double bye in the SEC Tournament, which begins Wednesday in Jacksonville.

With all the attention on top-seeded and third-ranked South Carolina and the slumping Lady Vols, who are trying to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since its inception in 1982, under-the-radar Florida might just be the league's postseason sleeper.

''We came with the mentality that we knew what we wanted to be,'' said junior forward Ronni Williams, one of eight upperclassmen on Florida's roster. ''Last year we felt what it was like to lose and we didn't want to be in that predicament again. It's been effort and hard work, working together, playing together regardless of what happens. We're playing these games for each other. We stick together and we're a family through it all.''

Florida's family looked like it might be broken up after last season.

Butler's team missed the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in six years and had few, if any, excuses for finishing below .500 for the first time since 2010.

But athletic director Jeremy Foley gave Butler another chance at her alma mater, and the Gators delivered one of their best seasons in nearly two decades. New assistants Shimmy Gray-Miller and Bill Ferrara brought fresh ideas, and key returners Williams, Haley Lorenzen, January Miller, Cassie Peoples and Carlie Needles bought in.

The key may have been a late-developing recruiting class that included Eleanna Christinaki, a member of Greece's senior national team the last three years, and junior college transfer Simone Westbrook.

Christinaki ranks second on the team in scoring (10.5 points a game) and first in assists (101), while Westbrook is fifth in scoring (8.1) and leads the team in steals (65).

Throw in the team's ''power of touch'' philosophy - which doles out points for high-fives, chest-bumps, pats on the back and picking up teammates in games and practices - and the Gators seemingly have something special going on right now.

''You can overcome a lot with culture,'' Lorenzen said. ''You can overcome 26 turnovers with culture. You can overcome a rebounding deficit by playing for one another and hustling for every single ball. Our culture is the biggest thing that defines us from anyone else.''

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Aside from Florida's turnaround, here are some other things to know heading into the tournament:

VOLS WATCH: The Lady Vols (17-12, 8-8) already set a school record for losses in a season and dropped out of the Top 25 for the first time since 1985. They certainly don't want to make more history by becoming the first Tennessee team to miss the NCAA Tournament. The Lady Vols seem like a lock, especially since they played the nation's toughest non-conference schedule, but losing Thursday to 10th-seeded Arkansas (12-17, 7-9) would significantly weaken their NCAA resume.

''I think we've done enough to have an NCAA bid,'' Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. ''I don't think anybody comes close to playing the schedule we play. We'll see. I coach a team that I know we've still got a lot left in us. Our focus is going to be the SEC tournament.''

OPENING DAY: The five-day tournament begins Wednesday with 12th-seeded Alabama against No. 13 seed LSU, followed by No. 11 seed Vanderbilt facing 14th-seeded Mississippi.

USC INVITATIONAL? South Carolina (28-1, 16-0) became just the second team in SEC history to finish 16-0 in league play. The Gamecocks held each of their last three opponents to less than 50 points and less than 30 percent shooting. And with three players - Alaina Coates, Tiffany Mitchell and A'ja Wilson - named First Team All-SEC, the biggest question heading into the SEC tournament is whether anyone can knock them off. The Gamecocks, whose only loss was to top-ranked UConn last month, play the Auburn-Missouri winner Friday.

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