NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Welcome to the wide-open 2012 Southeastern Conference women’s basketball tournament.
Sure, No. 10 Kentucky won its first SEC title since 1982, and 13th-ranked Tennessee treats winning this tournament like an annual rite of March — adding its 15th championship a year ago.
But SEC teams see plenty of opportunity in the tournament starting Thursday in a season where Kentucky lost three times away from home in league play, and the Lady Vols are playing through a season like no other.
Vanderbilt junior forward Tiffany Clarke says it will be a challenge and points out the Commodores have won a SEC tournament title by playing four games in four days.
“It’s definitely doable, especially how every SEC team is this year,” Clarke said. “It’s literally anybody’s title this year.”
This tournament has no lack of drama.
Kentucky’s lone SEC title came 30 years ago in 1982 when the tournament winner was named the league champ, and the Wildcats (24-5) have lost in the finals the past two years to Tennessee. Nell Fortner is leaving Auburn and Sharon Fanning-Otis is retiring from Mississippi State at season’s end.
Pat Summitt announced in August that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia which led to questions whether this will be her last season coaching Tennessee. Now her Lady Vols (21-8) will try to focus on gearing up for a possible run at a ninth national championship.
With everything going on off the court, Fanning-Otis said it’s been a bit of a distraction the past week.
“But we’re pulling together and give it our best, best effort that we possibly can,” she said. “Thirty-seven years of coaching, 36 as a head coach and the other one really at Tennessee with Pat. I’ve been involved with these coaches in the SEC for a long, long time. It’s special, but I have to stay focused on the task at hand and always try to do that. It’s part of the process.”
The tournament opens Thursday with Florida playing Auburn, and the winner gets Kentucky on Friday. Fanning-Otis and Mississippi State play Vanderbilt followed by Arkansas against Mississippi with No. 25 South Carolina wrapping up the first day against Alabama.
Kentucky, Tennessee, No. 16 Georgia and LSU have byes and begin play on Friday.
Parity is strong in the SEC with eight of 12 teams at least .500 in league play and winning records overall. Eight SEC teams have an RPI of 37 or higher, including six in the top 30. It hasn’t translated fully to the rankings where only four are in the Top 25, though Arkansas and Vanderbilt are receiving votes.
Summitt calls parity the biggest change in the SEC over the past five years.
“Every time you go out, you better be ready to play,” Summitt said. “If you’re not, you’ve got to go home. That’s exactly why we’re wanting to be able to go and give our best shot and stay in this tournament.”
Arkansas has won 11 of 12 coming into Nashville trying to win its opening tournament game for the first time in seven years, but the Razorbacks come to Nashville having posted their first win in Knoxville over Tennessee a week ago.
“We’ve had a great year,” Arkansas coach Tom Collen said. “We’ve earned a very respectable seed, tied for fourth in the league. We’ve won (11) of our last 12 games. I feel like we’ve got some momentum.”
Vanderbilt (21-8) has been ranked this season, and the Commodores are 7-1 playing a couple miles away at Memorial Gym. That includes a 93-79 rout of Tennessee on Feb. 9. Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb sees a league with the most parity she’s seen in a decade.
“I think this year you can kind of throw out the seeds and throw out the records,” she said. “When you have an Alabama team that was on the bottom beating a Kentucky team that was on the top in February, that means anybody can beat anybody on any given day and there’s been no rhyme or reason to a lot of the things that you’ve seen.”
Kentucky brings in the SEC’s top scoring offense and has won three straight. Those wins followed a 91-54 loss at Tennessee and 77-75 loss at Alabama. Now coach Matthew Mitchell has to see how his Wildcats handle being the top seed for the first time.
“Our team has been able to stay focused and do some great things this season, and they’ve had a lot of great success, so while I’m concerned about it and will try to do everything from a coaching standpoint to make sure we’re moving in the right direction going into the tournament, I’m not overly concerned,” Mitchell said.
Mississippi coach Renee Ladner looks at Tennessee’s size, length and talent and expects the Lady Vols to be playing their heart out for Summitt, who announced last August she has early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.
“I kind of tend to favor them,” Ladner said. “All in all, across the board probably top to bottom somebody gets hot ... it could naturally come down to whoever’s got the last possession or the last run.”
AP Sports Writer Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.