SEC poised to send record-tying 9 teams to NCAA Tournament
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Despite third-ranked South Carolina becoming just the fourth team to go undefeated in the Southeastern Conference's regular season and tournament, the league believes it has as much depth and parity as ever.
The NCAA Tournament might prove it.
The SEC is poised to send a record-tying nine teams into the NCAA field, which will be announced Monday night. The SEC has never had nine - it has sent eight teams four times - but is expected to match the mark set by the Big East in 2011.
''The conference has just been nuts this year,'' Florida coach Amanda Butler said. ''We always feel like we're at the top in terms of top to bottom, the quality of teams and coaches and players in this league. This year I think is unprecedented. We have nine NCAA Tournament teams. We have several top-four seeds as well.''
No one in the SEC was able to beat the Gamecocks (31-1), who routed No. 15 Mississippi State on Sunday in nearby Jacksonville to capture its second straight conference tournament title.
South Carolina's only loss was against top-ranked and three-time defending national champion UConn. The Gamecocks have won nine in a row since and locked up a No. 1 seed by winning its three SEC tourney games by a combined 53 points.
Coach Dawn Staley has lobbied for the NCAA selection committee to place her team in the Lexington Regional, which would keep the Gamecocks as close to home as possible until the Final Four in Indianapolis.
''I think we did our part,'' Staley said. ''I think we did more than our part. ... We don't have a defeat on our schedule in the last 10 games. We're playing a lot better, just better looking out there. Hopefully that means we'll get to play closer to home.''
Here's a look at the rest of the league's NCAA Tournament hopefuls:
KENTUCKY: The 12th-ranked Wildcats (23-7) have won eight of their last 10 games, with both losses coming against South Carolina. After a 4-6 start in league play, Kentucky is now projected to be a top-four seed and open the tournament at home. ''It would be great,'' coach Matthew Mitchell said. ''I don't know how we wouldn't be with the resume that we have.''
TEXAS A&M: The 19th-ranked Aggies (21-9) are coming off consecutive losses to Kentucky and Tennessee and haven't hit a 3-pointer in three games (0-for-16). But a tough non-conference schedule and a few quality wins should have Texas A&M a top-four seed and opening the tournament at home.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: The 15th-ranked Bulldogs (26-7) advanced to the SEC championship game for the first time since 2000, thanks mostly to guard Victoria Vivians. But Mississippi State's relatively weak non-conference schedule likely will keep it out of the top four. ''I don't care where they send us. I don't care what seed they give us,'' coach Vic Schaefer said. ''I'll put them against anybody in the country, at home or on the road, and we'll go play. I've got a lot of confidence in this group.''
FLORIDA: The Gators (22-8) have been up and down lately, losing four of their last seven games and getting blown out by Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. Still, Florida enjoyed a huge turnaround after going 13-17 last season.
TENNESSEE: The Lady Vols (19-13) won two games in the SEC Tournament, essentially locking up a 35th consecutive spot in the NCAA field. Tennessee played the nation's top non-conference schedule, and after a topsy-turvy regular season, did enough down the stretch to extend their NCAA streak. ''I think we ended with a bang,'' coach Holly Warlick said. ''It's a difficult league. I think sometimes it wears you down.''
GEORGIA: The Bulldogs (21-9) will limp into the NCAA Tournament having lost three of their last five games. They surely would be on the bubble if not for sweeping Florida and upsetting Mississippi State in January.
MISSOURI: The Tigers (21-9) failed to reach 60 points in their last three games and lost all three. But they will get in thanks to an RPI ranking of 45 and wins against Florida and Mississippi State.
AUBURN: The only real bubble team in the league, Auburn (19-12) feels like it solidified a spot in the NCAA field by beating Missouri and then playing South Carolina tough in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. ''Our resume, for what type of team we are, is good going into the NCAA Tournament,'' coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. ''Hopefully somebody else will see that and give us that chance.''