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May 20, 2008

SCS.comAfter ten weeks of conference play, the SEC Tournament is finally here. Starting on Wednesday in Hoover, Alabama, eight teams - Georgia, LSU, Florida, Kentucky, Alabama, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and Mississippi - will all play in the five day double-elimination tournament to try to win an SEC Championship. Opening round matchups will see Georgia take on Mississippi, LSU battle South Carolina, Florida face Vanderbilt, and Kentucky play Alabama. Some SEC clubs come in hot, specifically LSU who has won 16 games in a row, while others like Vanderbilt, who has dropped five straight, travel to Hoover needing to play well in order to improve their NCAA Tournament resume. We preview the eight teams going into the SEC Tournament and the top teams in Hoover at the plate, on the mound, and in the field. Also, as the SEC regular season has now come to an end, our All-SEC team is listed.

1. Georgia

The Bulldogs dropped a home series to Alabama after wrapping up the SEC regular season title a week before against Vandy. One of their best starters, Trevor Holder (7-4, 4.48 ERA), left the Thursday game in the second inning due to injury and will more than likely not be able to pitch in Hoover. That leaves Nick Montgomery (2-1, 4.66 ERA) to start the opening game of the SEC Tournament for the Bulldogs against Ole Miss. Georgia has one of the better offenses in the tournament field with Gordon Beckham (.401, 23 HR, 57 RBI), Rich Poythress ( .365, 12 HR, 53 RBI), and the hot hitting Bryce Massanari (.326, 9 HR, 51 RBI). The Bulldogs have the offense and pitching to win the SEC Tournament. This question is whether or not the injury to Holder will have an impact.

2. LSU

Riding a 16 game winning streak, the Tigers are officially the hottest team in the nation. Sweeping an SEC series is extremely difficult but what LSU has done in sweeping four consecutive SEC series is something that is unprecedented in today’s game. The Tigers have climbed to as high as #8 in the national polls and are obviously playing at an elite level. Paul Mainieri’s squad has looked similar to the “gorilla ball” style LSU teams of the 1990s, with Blake Dean (.340, 13 HR, 48 RBI), Matt Clark (.333, 19 HR, 47 RBI), and Ryan Schimpf (.300, 10 HR, 39 RBI) mashing the baseball lately. LSU will more than likely throw Ryan Verdugo (8-2, 3.54 ERA) in their opening game against South Carolina. The Tigers are the hottest team in the tournament field but the question will be whether or not they will be able to keep it up. Going into Hoover as the 2 seed, LSU is actually the favorite.

3. Florida

Before the season began, many predicted the Gators to finish in either fifth or last place in the SEC East. If it weren’t for what Paul Mainieri has done at LSU this year, Kevin O’Sullivan would be the easy choice for Coach of the Year in the SEC. The Gators are coming off a very impressive sweep at home against Vanderbilt, a sweep that propelled them to the 3 seed in the SEC Tournament. Florida is finally getting the clutch hits in late situations of ballgames, something they weren’t able to do earlier in the season. Patrick Keating (8-0, 3.15 ERA) will take the mound for the Gators in their opening contest against Vandy. No one expected this Florida club to be any good, but they have really played well this year, specifically in the SEC, where they finished 17-13. Watch out for this young Gators squad in Hoover.

4. Kentucky

Winners of five of their past six SEC games, John Cohen’s squad comes to Hoover as one of the hottest clubs. Kentucky has the best overall record in the SEC at 41-15 and has a knack for simply winning ballgames. The Wildcats have one of the best offenses in the tournament field with the duo of Sawyer Carroll (.416, 16 HR, 77 RBI) and Collin Cowgill (.364, 18 HR, 56 RBI), which also happens to be one of the better duos in the nation. Some think that Kentucky doesn’t have the pitching, but with Chris Rusin (6-2, 2.84 ERA), Greg Dombrowski (5-0, 3.67 ERA), and James Paxton (4-2, 2.57 ERA) starting games for the Wildcats, they are a tough team to beat. The Wildcats have one of the best combinations of hitting and pitching in the tournament field and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them win the SEC Tournament.

5. Alabama

The Crimson Tide have won their last five SEC series and are traveling to Hoover with a lot of confidence. Jim Wells has done a great coaching job this year with a young Alabama team that many thought would finish near the bottom of the SEC West. What has made this Alabama squad overachieve is the offense, seen in the .310 team batting average. Josh Rutledge (.379), Brandon May (.365, 9 HR, 45 RBI), and Alex Avila (.336, 16 HR, 57 RBI) lead a Crimson Tide offense that may be one of the hottest currently in the SEC. The question with this Bama team going into the SEC Tournament is the pitching, which currently owns a 5.06 ERA as a team. Jim Wells will more than likely throw Miers Quigley (5-4, 5.35 ERA) in their Wednesday affair with Kentucky. Pitching depth could obviously be a problem for the Crimson Tide in Hoover but what Alabama has that other SEC clubs do not is the home field advantage factor.

6. Vanderbilt

Has there been a more disappointing team in the SEC than Vandy, who started the year as a top 5 team in many national polls? The Commodores have lost five in a row after getting swept over the past weekend in Gainesville against Florida and will need to win a few games in Hoover to get only a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A lineup that returned almost every starter from last year’s SEC Championship squad has been inconsistent at times this year but what has hurt Vandy the most recently is their pitching. Mike Minor (5-3, 4.20 ERA) has had a sophomore slump this season and the bullpen has given up many leads this year, specifically lately, where it completely blew two games against Florida. Tim Corbin’s club boasts an offense with Ryan Flaherty (.318, 13 HR, 56 RBI), Pedro Alvarez (.338, 7 HR, 25 RBI), and Dominic de la Osa (.309, 10 HR, 45 RBI) that can look like one of the better in the nation at times. The Commodores will need to pitch better in Hoover than they have recently if they want to defend their championship from last year. This is a team, like Kentucky, that I wouldn’t be surprised to see win the SEC Tournament.

7. South Carolina

With a tie game against Tennessee in the bottom of the ninth inning, the Gamecocks needed to win to make it to Hoover as Arkansas beat Mississippi State later in the day. With a man on first base, Reese Havens hit a walk-off home run that essentially wrapped up South Carolina’s spot in the SEC Tournament field. After losing badly to the Vols 13-2 in the first game of their series, the Gamecocks responded with two victories that has now given the South Carolina club a lot of confidence going into Hoover. Ray Tanner’s team has the post powerful offense in the tournament field with four players having more than 15 homeruns on the season- Justin Smoak with 20, James Darnell with 18, and both Reese Havens and Phil Disher at 16. The Gamecocks’ weakness is pitching depth, something that can haunt teams in the SEC Tournament as you have win at least four games to win the tournament. Ray Tanner will more than likely send Nick Godwin (6-3, 2.95 ERA) to the mound in Wednesday’s game against LSU. If the Gamecocks can hit the long ball as they have all year long, they could be a very dangerous 7 seed in Hoover.

8. Mississippi

Like Vanderbilt, the Rebels are one of the bigger disappointments this season in the SEC. Coming into the season, Mike Bianco’s club was ranked in the top 10 in a few national polls. Now, they see themselves on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. But what makes the Rebels have a chance to do some damage in Hoover this week is their pitching, which is strong with the starting pitching as well as in the bullpen. Lance Lynn (6-3, 4.46 ERA) can be dominant at times while Scott Bittle (6-1, 1.45 ERA) is one of the better relievers in the nation. Cody Overbeck (.362, 14 HR, 48 RBI) is the leader at the plate for Mississippi. The Rebels always seem to play well in Hoover, so it will be interesting to see how they do this year. If the pitching can perform up to its potential, watch out for this 8 seed in the SEC Tournament.

Best Offense, Pitching, and Defense in Hoover

1. Kentucky
2. South Carolina
3. Georgia
4. Alabama
5. LSU
1. Mississippi
2. LSU
3. Florida
4. Kentucky
5. Vanderbilt
1. Georgia
2. LSU
3. Mississippi
4. Kentucky
5. Florida
1. South Carolina
2. Kentucky
3. Vanderbilt
4. Georgia
5. LSU

All-SEC Team

C - Phil Disher, South Carolina (.310, 16 HR, 51 RBI)
1B - Justin Smoak, South Carolina (.389, 20 HR, 61 RBI)
2B - Ryan Wilkes, Kentucky (.378, 9 HR, 36 BRI)
3B - James Darnell, South Carolina (.315, 18 HR, 77 RBI)
SS - Gordon Beckham, Georgia (.401, 23 HR, 57 RBI)
OF - Sawyer Carroll, Kentucky (.416, 16 HR, 77 RBI)
OF - Collin Cowgill, Kentucky (.364, 18 HR, 56 RBI)
OF - Blake Dean, LSU (.340, 13 HR, 48 RBI)
DH - Rich Poythress, Georgia (.365, 12 HR, 53 RBI)

SP - Patrick Keating, Florida (8-0, 3.15 ERA)
SP - Chris Rusin, Kentucky (6-2, 2.84 ERA)
SP - Ryan Verdugo, LSU (8-2, 3.54 ERA)
SP - Stephen Dodson, Georgia (5-2, 3.69 ERA)
RP - Joshua Fields, Georgia (1.52 ERA, 16 SV)
RP - Scott Bittle, Mississippi (6-1, 1.45 ERA, 7 SV)

SEC Player of the Year - Gordon Beckham, Georgia (.401, 23 HR, 57 RBI)
SEC Pitcher of the Year - Joshua Fields, Georgia (1.52 ERA, 16 SV)
SEC Freshman of the Year - Kentrail Davis, Tennessee (.330, 13 HR, 44 RBI)
SEC Coach of the Year - Paul Mainieri, LSU (39-16-1, 18-11-1 SEC)

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