Vanderbilt’s blazing second half of the season has turned the Commodores into one of the favorites to win the Southeastern Conference tournament this week in Hoover, Alabama.
The Commodores (45-10, 23-7 SEC) won their first regular-season league title since 2013 by winning 14 of their final 15 league games, dominating foes with a powerful offense that paired well with solid pitching and defense. Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi State are the top four seeds in the tournament.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said that while his team earned the top seed with consistent play over the past six weeks, it would be foolish to consider the Commodores an overwhelming favorite.
“I don’t mean to be vague, but the best team in the SEC is the one you’re playing that weekend, it’s as simple as that,” Corbin said. “All these teams are very, very good.”
Corbin’s assessment isn’t just a cliche. Looking at the field, he has a point.
Vanderbilt, No. 2 Arkansas (40-15, 20-10), No. 3 Georgia (42-14, 21-9) and No. 4 Mississippi State (45-11, 20-10) are all in good position to earn one of the NCAA Tournament’s top eight national seeds when the bracket is announced next week, which means they would host games until the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
There are 11 SEC teams that could earn at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament, though it’s likely that at least one will fall by the wayside with a poor performance in Hoover.
For teams like Vanderbilt, a spot in the NCAA Tournament already is assured. But Corbin said the SEC Tournament is a special event that provides a rigorous test that his team will take seriously.
“Any time they sell tickets and turn on the scoreboard, it’s another opportunity to learn how to compete,” Corbin said.
Here are a few more things to watch in Hoover when the games begin Tuesday:
Some of the most intriguing baseball of the SEC Tournament is always on Tuesday, when the 5-12 seeds play in a single-elimination knockout round before the bracket switches to a double-elimination format on Wednesday.
The games are particularly important for teams on the NCAA Tournament bubble. This year, the programs that fit that description are Florida (33-23, 13-17) and Missouri (34-21, 13-16). Other teams that wouldn’t mind a few more wins to enhance their resume include Auburn and Ole Miss.
The Commodores are hitting .318 as a team and are tied for the league lead with 77 homers. The lineup is especially impressive. Sophomore Austin Martin is among the nation’s leaders with a .432 batting average. JJ Bleday has 25 homers in his junior season after hitting just six during his first two years combined.
Corbin said both have worked to become elite players.
“It’s one thing to invest a lot of time, it’s another thing to be very focused inside of that time,” Corbin said. “I think that’s where they both excelled.”
COACHES CHANGE, MISSISSIPPI STATE WINS
Mississippi State has had a fantastic season under first-year coach Chris Lemonis. The Bulldogs tied for the SEC Western Division title and won 45 games in the regular season, which is the second most in program history.
Mississippi State has been one of the league’s best programs the past four years despite having four different head coaches.
TENNESSEE, MISSOURI BACK ON TRACK
Tennessee and Missouri are seeded in the middle of the pack this week but have emerged as two of the SEC’s biggest surprises.
Tennessee (38-18, 14-16) has been absent from the NCAA Tournament longer than any other SEC school but appears likely to earn its first bid since a 2005 College World Series appearance. The ninth-seeded Volunteers will seek their first SEC Tournament victory since 2010 when they face No. 8 seed Auburn (32-23, 14-16) on Tuesday.
Missouri (34-21, 13-16) finished the regular season fourth out of seven teams in the SEC East after being picked to end last in the division. The 10th-seeded Tigers face No. 7 seed Ole Miss (33-23, 16-14) on Tuesday.
AP Sports Writers Steve Megargee and Teresa Walker contributed to this report.
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