CBB Column: SEC Tournament Preview (Bracket 2)

The 2010 SEC Tournament will once again be played at Regions Park in Hoover, AL, Barring a 0-2 and barbecue from LSU, all the teams that made the SEC Tournament are likely to make the field of 64 in Omaha. Tennessee lost 5 of their last 6 conference games to fall out of contention, while Kentucky would need no upsets in other conference tournaments to have a shot. Mississippi State was expected to struggle to make the postseason as their season is over, and Georgia was supposed to have a down year compared to past years, but no one expected them to finish with only 16 wins overall this season.

One thing of note to look for in this tourney is the 20 second pitch count between pitches. If a pitcher takes longer than 20 seconds to deliver a pitch, he will be penalized with a "ball" call. None of the coaches that spoke to the media on Monday thought that this would be a problem, but it will be interesting to see if it comes into play at all. You can check out our Bracket 1 preview by clicking here.

#1 Florida

Florida comes into the SEC Tournament winning 8 of their last 10 games overall, only dropping one series all season to Ole Miss back in late March. Florida is led byBrianJohnsonFlorida a trio of hitters in Freshman sensation 3B Austin Maddox (.346 AVG, 17 HR, 64 RBI), Matt Den Dekker (.361, 11 HR, 40 RBI) and Preston Tucker (.343, 9 HR, 40 RBI). This trio has been the backbone of the Gator offense all season, yet they haven’t gotten a lot of production out of the rest of their lineup. The Gators scored 370 runs compared to the 240 runs of their opponents, and that run differential was even closer in SEC Play at only a +45 differential even though they held a 22-8 record. The Gators are going to have to get better production out of leadoff hitter Freshman SS Nolan Fontana if they want to win this tournament, as he hit a paltry .253, even though he did draw 27 walks in 30 conference games. Coach O’Sullivan expressed today that he needs his outfielders to be more consistent at the plate and expressed that the team has to improve in certain areas.

The Gators will go with Brian Johnson (5-3, 3.62 ERA) against LSU. Johnson is the Gators typical Sunday starter, as the Gators could be saving their pitching for the Postseason. Coach O’Sullivan said today that they will most likely throw Panteliodis in Game 2, which means he’ll probably only be used once in the SEC Tournament no matter what. As Pat Dooley noted in his article in the Gainesville Sun yesterday, the ’96 Florida Gators threw inexperienced pitchers in the final games to save them for Omaha.

#8 LSU

RanaudoLSU LSU needed a series win plus some help from series losses from Kentucky and Tennessee to make the SEC Tournament, and was a huge relief to all of the Tiger faithful. Missing out on the SEC Tournament and possibly Omaha would be a gigantic embarrassment to LSU, and if it weren’t for the fact that they’re reigning National Champions, they might not be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the field of 64. LSU took the series against Mississippi State this past weekend, and coach Mainieri stated that he was "more nervous for the Mississippi State series this weekend than I was for playing Texas in the title game." LSU still has a couple games to win in Hoover to solidify their future hopes, but this weekend was a good start on the road back.

After winning it all last season, the Tigers started off the season great only to lose 14 of their last 18 games and are struggling to make a regional. They will go with #1 starter Anthony Ranaudo (3-2, 8.49), even though he has been setback by elbow soreness which has left his numbers dreadful this season compared to last year’s overall performance, which had him regarded in the preseason as the top pitcher in college baseball.

Not all of LSU’s troubles can be attributed to Ranaudo’s inconsistency though. LSU struggled to find a consistent Saturday starter all season, and they are going to use the SEC Tournament to figure out their pitching staff.

LSU’s offense was second best in the conference behind only Auburn with a .317 average. They are led by All-American candidate Micah Gibbs who had a breakout season at the plate as he led the team with a .408 average while hitting eight homers and driving in 53 runs. Blake Dean had a down year for him as he only hit .332 with ten homers and 32 RBI. Leon Landry has had a solid season at the plate after playing well last summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League. He is hitting .338 with six homers and 43 RBI while stealing 15 bases in 19 attempts.

#4 Arkansas

Arkansas is hobbling into the SEC Tournament. According to Coach Dave Van Horn, injuries to SEC Batting Champ Zack Cox (back) and Brett Eibner (hand) will likely keep both out of Game 1 against Vanderbilt’s Sonny Gray. Also, Arkansas lost 5 games in a row, including being swept by South Carolina at home while losing on the road at Oklahoma and the first game of the road set at Vanderbilt against Sonny Gray who they will be facing Wednesday. Eibner was 0-4 with 3 K’s in that performance and only totaled 2 hits on the weekend, while giving up 2 ER in the 9th while getting the save in Friday’s 4-3 victory, so it’s not totally surprising that Coach Van Horn would sit him in this situation. Van Horn said in Monday’s conference call that "Eibner’s injury is getting worse," so it’s likely that his big bat won’tDrewSmylyArkansas see any action until regionals. The key at the plate may come from 1B Monk Kreder, who’s bat was key in taking the series from Vanderbilt.

Also alarming is the fact that #1 Starter Drew Smyly (blister on throwing hand) will also most likely sit out for the SEC Tournament. As of yesterday, Dave Van Horn said he didn’t know who would be starting for the Razorbacks in Wednesday’s opener, but DJ Baxendale (3.78 ERA, 0-2, 26 APP) would likely be the guy. Arkansas seems like a team that is looking to rest its reliable players in favor of guys that need more big game experience in preparation for regionals. Even if Arkansas loses to Vanderbilt and the LSU/Florida loser, they will still most likely host a regional due to their six conference victories during SEC regular season play. That’s not saying Van Horn is ruling out a few victories in Hoover. “We’d love to win the tournament and stay around until Sunday,” Van Horn said. “And we might do it. But we’re going to have to have some guys step it up.”

#5 Vanderbilt

Aside from Vandy’s two losses to end the season against Arkansas, they’re riding rather high to end the season. A series win might have made them closer to hosting a regional, but this team seems built for postseason play. This was highlighted in their epic 17-inning midweek win against at home against Louisville back on May 11th, in which they came back from 2 run deficits in the Bottom of the 9th and 14th innings and sealed it with a Jason Esposito walkoff blast that has yet to land. This was coming off a near sweep of LSU, and was followed up by a sweep at Mississippi State, all of which was a good distraction from the floods going on in Nashville.

Coach Tim Corbin confirmed on Monday that Sonny Gray (8-4, 3.44 ERA) will be getting the ball on Wednesday against the Razorbacks. Gray struck out 9 while giving up 3 earned runs last Thursday against Arkansas in Nashville, and and he hopes to get some run support from his fellow Commodores. In 3 of Gray’s 4 losses, the Dores scored 2 runs in each of those games, while he blamed a headache on the 7 ER he gave up to LSU on May 7th. The Commodores are confident that the future first round pick will take are of business on Wednesday. That being said, Vanderbilt and Arkansas are always prone to playing interesting games. "We love playing Arkansas. They get after you, we like their style," Coach Corbin said Monday. "You never know what they’re going to do, they’re aggressive. They tried to steal home against us several times. They’re just an aggressive team."

This team is used to winning at Regions Park as they were able to advance all the way to the title game against LSU as the #8 seed last year, and could possibly face the Tigers again Thursday, considering the #8 seed has a strong history of winning the opening game in the SEC Tournament. It will be interesting to see who Corbin goes with in the second game of the tournament, since normal Saturday starter Taylor Hill(5-4, 3.68 ERA) had a rough outing against Florida earlier in the season, while Jack Armstrong(9-2, 3.93 ERA) beat both Florida and LSU during the season.

At the plate, Vanderbilt has been led by the aforementioned 3B Jason Esposito (.359, 9 HR, 54 RBI) as well as his partner in crime 1B Aaron Westlake (.298, 11 HR, 49 RBI), while being helped out by a top of the lineup combo that has a penchant for getting on base. While not hitting for the greatest average, Brian Harris has an amazing knack for getting on base as his 33 HBP are 2 short of the NCAA record 35 for a season held by Creighton’s Robbie Knight back in 2007. Harris was a First Team All-SEC selection at SS last season and his ability to get on base (.511 OBP) is a major factor to Vanderbilt’s success, as his 48 total BB allow team batting average leader Anthony Gomez (.398 BA) to set up the core of Esposito and Westlake to do damage to opposing pitchers. Vanderbilt seems to have a system for success, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they sweep their way into the conference title game as they did in 2009.