Florida is top seed heading into SEC tournament

Associated PressMay 19, 2014 

Florida didn’t look like one of the nation’s best baseball teams in March.

But the Gators bounced back from a mediocre start to earn the No. 1 seed in this week’s Southeastern Conference tournament in Hoover, Alabama.

Florida (37-19, 21-9 SEC) thrived during league play despite a young roster and constantly changing roles for the pitching staff. The Gators are one of a handful of SEC teams – along with Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Ole Miss – still hoping to earn one of the eight national seeds for the NCAA tournament.

Play begins on Tuesday with the No. 5 through No. 12 seeds facing off in a single-elimination knockout round. The top four seeds receive a bye to Wednesday’s second round, which is the beginning of a double-elimination format.

Florida is a slight surprise as the league’s top seed. The Gators were picked to finish third in the Eastern Division by the league’s coaches during the preseason but leapfrogged favored South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

“We’ve been pretty consistent after a shaky start,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I just want to continue to build momentum.”

Ole Miss won the Western Division and is the No. 2 seed. The Rebels are hitting .304 as a team, which is tied with Kentucky for the best mark in the league.

“I’m really proud of the way we’ve played and they year we’ve had,” Bianco said. “We’ve played well for 14 weeks and we’ve hung in there. It’s tough to do because there are so many good teams.”

LSU and South Carolina are the other two teams that earned a first-round bye into Wednesday’s second round.

Much of the drama resides at the bottom of the bracket, where teams like Tennessee and Texas A&M will try to prove they’re worthy of an invitation to the NCAA tournament.

The NCAA’s latest RPI rankings had 11 SEC teams in the top 45, but the league has never received that many bids.

“If there was ever a year you could get 11 (in the NCAA tournament), this would be the year,” Bianco said.

Here are 5 Things to watch at this week’s SEC tournament in Hoover, Alabama:

Knockout Tuesday: The most entertaining day of the SEC tournament might be its first. The format calls for a single-elimination game on Tuesday before a double-elimination format the rest of the week. That makes the first game critical for several teams on the NCAA tournament bubble like Tennessee and Texas A&M.

Aces galore: There should be plenty of quality pitching in Hoover this week. LSU’s Aaron Nola has arguably been the league’s best – he has struck out 120 batters in 101 2/3 innings while opponents are hitting just .172 off of him. But Ole Miss’ Chris Ellis (9-0, 2.12 ERA), Florida’s Logan Shore (7-2, 1.69) and Mississippi State’s Ross Mitchell (8-4, 1.85) have also been dominant.

Reed’s domination: There’s little doubt that Kentucky’s A.J. Reed has been the league’s most valuable player this season. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior is the SEC’s most prolific power hitter, batting .359 with a league-leading 23 homers and 70 RBIs. He’s also the Wildcats’ No. 1 pitcher, with a 10-2 record and 2.20 ERA. If he gets some help, Kentucky could go far in Hoover. “You have to look at his numbers and you’re astonished by them,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said.

Big yard: It’s always been tough to hit homers at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, which features deep power alleys and a center field wall that is 405 feet away. That could hurt some of the league’s better offenses, like Ole Miss and Kentucky, which have relied on the long ball to put up big numbers.

Upset special: Outside of the league’s top four seeds, the best bets to go far this week might be Mississippi State and Arkansas. Both teams specialize in pitching and defense, which is helpful at the spacious Hoover Met. Mississippi State has won 13 of its last 18 games while Arkansas has won six of seven, including last week’s sweep of Missouri.

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