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South Carolina, Tennessee headline deep SEC field

March 4th, 2014 6:32 pm by AP

South Carolina, Tennessee headline deep SEC field

DULUTH, Ga. — South Carolina coach Dawn Staley says the depth of the SEC gives her extra pride in the Gamecocks’ first conference title.

The Gamecocks (26-3, 14-2 SEC) are the team to beat in the Southeastern Conference tournament, which begins on Wednesday night.

The league’s depth shows as five of the top 12 teams in the NCAA’s RPI are from the SEC.

How deep is the league? LSU , only the No. 10 seed in the SEC tournament, is No. 12 in RPI.

Sixth-ranked Tennessee (24-5, 13-3 SEC) beat No. 5 South Carolina on Sunday to clinch the second seed in the SEC tournament.

South Carolina, Tennessee and the tournament’s other top seeds — No. 15 Texas A&M and No. 12 Kentucky — are off until Friday. Missouri plays Mississippi State and Arkansas faces Mississippi in the first round on Wednesday night.

There will be four games on Thursday: Vanderbilt vs. Georgia; Florida vs. Missouri/Mississippi State winner; LSU vs. Alabama and Auburn vs. Arkansas/Ole Miss winner.

There are only four top 25 teams in the SEC, but Staley and other coaches say that’s because some teams like Georgia fell out of the poll once the conference schedule began.

“Probably one of the things I’m most proud of as regular-season champions is because of the competition ... from top to bottom,” Staley said. “There aren’t any gimmes in our league and that’s why we feel like we play in the top conference in America.”

Here are five things to know as Duluth, near Atlanta, hosts its second-straight tournament and fourth overall:

NCAA NO. 1 SEEDS ON THE LINE: South Carolina and possibly Tennessee could be playing for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. The Lady Vols moved up four spots in the final regular-season poll by beating LSU and South Carolina and takes a four-game winning streak into the tournament.

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said beating South Carolina to close the regular season “was a pride thing for us.”

“Obviously we weren’t going to win the championship but it was to prepare us for going into the tournament,” Warlick said.

Tennessee won three straight SEC tournaments before Texas A&M beat Kentucky in last year’s final.

RESUME BUILDING: South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M (23-7, 13-3) and Kentucky (22-7, 10-6) are locks for the NCAA field. Florida (18-11, 8-8) finished fifth in the league. 

Seven other teams with 16 to 19 wins are hoping to make a run in the tournament to boost their NCAA credentials.

One example is Georgia (19-10, 7-9). Georgia coach Andy Landers said the NCAA tournament selection committee “must take the strength of our league seriously.”

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said he hopes at least eight SEC teams make the field.

DON’T FORGET THE AGGIES: South Carolina and Tennessee carry the top billing in the tournament, but Texas A&M is the defending champion and matched its best conference record in school history at 13-3.

The Aggies posted a 7-1 road record in SEC games, best in the league.

Texas A&M won with defense and smart decisions with the ball. Sophomore Jordan Jones shared the SEC lead with 6.8 assists per game.

“I think our shot selection has been good,” Blair said. “We realize who we are and who we’re not.”

TAKE A BOW: South Carolina took top SEC awards on Tuesday, as chosen by the league’s coaches. Staley was named coach of the year, Tiffany Mitchell was voted player of the year and Alaina Coates took freshman of the year.

Mitchell, a sophomore, averaged 15.5 points, 3.5 assists and 2.1 steals. Coates averaged 12.2 points and led the Gamecocks with 7.9 rebounds per game. 

Mississippi State’s Martha Alwal and Texas A&M’s Jones tied for defensive player of the year.

STRONG FINISH: Kentucky was only 5-5 in the league before winning five of its last six games, including wins over Tennessee and Texas A&M. Its only loss in that stretch was to South Carolina.

Kentucky has played in three of the last four SEC tournament championship games, losing each time.

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