COLUMBIA – The regular season is over, and the Missouri women's basketball team looks to start fresh in the 2014 Southeastern Conference tournament.
Missouri coach Robin Pingeton said the Tigers see each game in the tournament as a "one-game season," and the first one-game season will be Wednesday in Duluth, Ga., against Mississippi State. Missouri (17-12, 6-10) is the 12th seed out of 14, and must win five games to capture an unlikely SEC championship. The top 10 seeds have byes through the opening round, the top four have double-byes.
Pingeton hopes her team can find some consistency, and find it quickly, in order to get Missouri's first-ever victory in an SEC tournament game.
Last year, their first in the SEC, the Tigers lost to Vanderbilt in the second round.
This time, they'll face the 13th-seeded Bulldogs (18-12, 5-11) at 5 p.m. at the 12,750-seat Arena at Gwinnett Center.
What to expect
Although Missouri is fighting for its life on the opening day of the tourney, the favorites won't be in action until Friday.
South Carolina enters this season's tournament as the No. 1 seed and overall favorite after finishing the regular season 26-3 and 14-2 in SEC play. The Gamecocks have never won the SEC tournament in 22 appearances, and lost to eventual-champion Texas A&M last year in the third round.
South Carolina gets the job done on both sides of the court. The Gamecocks lead the SEC in offense, outscoring their opponents by 19 points per game. They also lead the conference with a 48.1 field goal percentage and holds opponents to a league-low .345 field goal percentage.
The Gamecocks might have the target on their back, but coach Dawn Staley hopes her team can "be creatures of habit" and "stay true to their form." She has been telling her players to concentrate on the task at hand and not look too far ahead. The Gamecocks play their first game Friday at noon.
Second-seeded Tennessee, which defeated South Carolina 73-61 on Sunday, will likely be the Gamecocks' main challenger.
Tennessee once had a monopoly on the conference, but the majority of the SEC coaches spoke Monday about the overall competitiveness that reached a new level this season. Georgia's Andy Landers expects the tournament games to reflect the parity of the regular season.
Amanda Butler played for Florida from 1990-1994 and is in her seventh season as Florida's coach. She said that in both her playing and coaching years, she's never seen the league as strong as it is this season.
One of the most intriguing matchups in the first six games of the tournament comes Thursday evening when No. 7 seed Alabama plays No. 10 seed LSU. The Tigers from the Bayou lost their sixth consecutive game to Alabama on Sunday. LSU coach Nikki Caldwell was disappointed by the loss but admitted the rematch makes it easier to scout since the teams are so familiar with each other.
LSU was picked to finish third in the league at the beginning of the season and started the first month of SEC play strong. February was a different story, with its only win coming against Missouri on Feb. 6.
Three of the four teams that made it to the final four of last year's tournament are seeded in the top four this year. Tennessee, Texas A&M, and Kentucky play their first games Friday. Texas A&M and Tennessee could end up in a rematch of last year's semifinals if the two teams win their previous games.
Players to watch
- Tia Faleru, Ole Miss: The junior leads the SEC with 15 double-doubles this season, but missed the regular season finale after suffering a concussion near the end of the Rebels' game against Missouri on Thursday. Ole Miss coach Matt Insell said the junior would be evaluated late Monday to see if she would be good to go in Wednesday's game against Arkansas. If Faleru plays, look for her to be a difference-maker on the boards as she leads the SEC with 9.9 rebounds per game.
- Christina Foggie, Vanderbilt: The senior leads the league in scoring, averaging 19.1 points per game. Vanderbilt (18-11, 7-9 SEC) rides a three-game losing streak into the tournament despite double-digit efforts from Foggie in each game. Expect Foggie to lead the Commodores when they play the Georgia Bulldogs on Thursday at noon.
- Bri Kulas, Missouri: If Missouri's leading scorer can continue her offensive production from the regular season, the Tigers could find their way into the later rounds of the tournament. Kulas is second in the SEC, behind Foggie, scoring 18.6 points per game. Although it is only her second season on the Tigers, Kulas, a junior college transfer, has grown into something of an off-court leader as well.
- Tiffany Mitchell, South Carolina: In just her second season, Mitchell leads the Gamecocks, averaging 15.5 points per game. She also leads South Carolina with 102 assists and 60 steals. The Commodores will need the sophomore guard's offensive production when they face the winner of the Vanderbilt-Georgia game.
- Aleighsa Welch, South Carolina: The Gamecocks junior is shooting an SEC-best 57 percent from the field, contributing to her team's league-high field goal percentage. The forward averages 13.9 points per game, making it hard for teams to choose who to defend between her and Mitchell.