Vanderbilt and LSU are the favorites to win this week's Southeastern Conference tournament after mowing through regular-season play with uncommon ease.
The real intrigue, however, is the new single-elimination format in the opening round of the tournament.
No. 12 seed Missouri (18-31)
vs. No. 5 seed Mississippi State (40-16)
WHEN: about 8 p.m., following 4:30 p.m. game between Florida and Texas A&M
WHERE: Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, Hoover, Ala.
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM
Instead of the usual double-elimination format, the league's coaches say the sudden-death round was added because of scheduling and the expansion of the tournament field from 10 to 12 teams. The top four seeds receive a bye to the second round, where double-elimination play begins.
Several teams with borderline NCAA tournament hopes will play crucial games during the opening knockout round, including No. 9 seed Texas A&M and No. 10 Auburn. Play begins Tuesday morning at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala.
"It certainly adds a lot of excitement to that first day of the tournament," LSU coach Paul Mainieri said.
Texas A&M and Auburn need wins to strengthen their postseason credentials while others such as No. 5 Mississippi State and No. 6 Ole Miss are safely in the NCAA tournament but still trying to grab one of the top 16 spots that would allow them to host a regional.
For Missouri, which earned the final berth in the tournament on Friday, its about rekindling the postseason magic that earned them the Big 12 Conference tournament title last season in its last year in the league. The Tigers (18-31) have struggled this season, though, and will need a lot to go right against Mississippi State (40-16) in the fourth and final tournament-opening game set for about 8 p.m. Tuesday.
"Win the first game, and you never know what can happen," Missouri coach Tim Jamieson told reporters Monday in Hoover. "That's the intriguing thing about this tournament with the first day being the way that it is, you obviously have to win the first day, especially for us because we have to keep winning to keep playing."
The Bulldogs and Tigers have not played this season, so there is some unfamiliarity, but not too much. Mississippi State coach John Cohen was a former assistant at Missouri under Jamieson and former head coach Gene McArtor.
"It was something that was going to happen eventually, and I'm looking forward to it," said Jamieson about facing Cohne and the Bulldogs. "I'm anxious to see John's reaction more than anything."
Cohen said the SEC is a difficult league because of the quality that exists from top to bottom. Ten of the league's 14 teams have a winning record and are also in the top 50 in the NCAA's latest RPI rankings.
The expanded league tournament might be unconventional, but Cohen says it's a good step toward giving more SEC teams a postseason shot.
"Our league has a really difficult challenge, and I think it's the best solution for our league because of all the issues that exist," Cohen said.
While the No. 5 through No. 12 seeds will beat each other up on Tuesday, the top four seeds (Vanderbilt, LSU, Arkansas and South Carolina) get to rest and prepare for Wednesday's second round.
Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said the extra day of rest is most helpful because it allows his pitching staff another day to recover from the regular season.
No. 1 seed Vanderbilt (48-7) cruised through league play with a 26-3 record, finishing with the most league wins since the conference expanded to a 30-game schedule in 1992. The Commodores have two dominant starting pitchers — Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Beede — and an experienced lineup led by Tony Kemp (.408, 27 stolen bases) and Connor Harrell (.309, 11 homers).
Vanderbilt's 26 SEC wins topped South Carolina's previous record of 25 set in 2000.
"It just speaks to creating a very consistent attitude day after day after day," Corbin said. "It's a team that enjoys competition and enjoys each other."
No. 2 seed LSU (48-8) finished with a 23-7 league record that would have been good enough to top the SEC in just about any other season. The Tigers are led by senior Mason Katz, who is hitting .388 with 14 homers and 64 RBIs. Ace pitcher Aaron Nola has a 10-0 record with a 1.99 ERA.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri said the SEC tournament's difficulty is a great tuneup for the NCAA tournament and is exceeded in difficulty only by the College World Series.
"You've got a bunch of great teams, and everyone knows each other," Mainieri said.
No. 3 Arkansas (35-19, 18-11 SEC) is led by a pitching staff that has a 1.90 ERA, which is the best mark in the country. Right-hander Ryne Stanek is considered an elite MLB prospect for June's amateur draft and leads the Razorbacks with an 8-2 record and 1.54 ERA.
No. 4 South Carolina (39-16, 17-12) has had a solid season in its first year under coach Chad Holbrook. LB Dantzler ranks second in the SEC with 14 homers and is also hitting .333 with 47 RBIs.