March 3, 2010 2:02:00 PM
Van Chancellor was only half right.
The LSU women''s basketball coach was asked in October at Southeastern Conference Media Day his thoughts about how the SEC race would shape up.
Like many coaches, he thought the league''s decision to move to a 16-game schedule for the first time would affect things. He also believed there would be four teams that "legitimately should be contenders for the title."
Injuries and inconsistency helped reduce the league title race to a two-team affair, as Tennessee (27-2, 15-1 SEC) rolled to its 15th regular-season title, its first since 2007.
But Chancellor aced the first part.
"Usually there has been a team or two dominating," Chancellor said in October. "I think a lot of teams can finish five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12. That could go anyway. I don''t see, and I might be wrong, I don''t see a bad team in it."
The final weekend of the SEC regular season capped a whirlwind finish in which a league record seven teams finished within two games of one another. The jumble came after Tennessee and Kentucky (23-6, 11-5) locked down the top two spots. Mississippi State, LSU, Vanderbilt, and Georgia (at 9-7) and Florida, South Carolina, and the University of Mississippi (7-9) needed tiebreakers to determine third through ninth place.
South Carolina''s upset of Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn., LSU''s dismantling of MSU in Baton Rouge, La., and Alabama''s win at Florida were just three of the surprises Sunday. Add in Auburn''s home victory against Kentucky and the first 16-game schedule proved to be entertaining. It also should have the teams battle tested for the SEC Tournament, which begins Thursday in Duluth, Ga.
Despite the parity, the SEC likely will only get six teams into the SEC Tournament. MSU (18-11) has the fewest victories of the top six teams, but the Lady Bulldogs won the four-team tiebreaker thanks to two victories against Vanderbilt and a win against Georgia in Starkville.
Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said a number of factors played into her team''s inconsistent finish. The Commodores'' loss to South Carolina on Senior Day cost them a chance at earning a first-round bye. Now Vanderbilt will have to play Arkansas at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, and will have to win four games in four days if it wants to defend its SEC Tournament title.
Balcomb also cited her team''s schedule -- two games against Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi State -- and injuries to its front line as things that made it play inconsistent "like everybody in the conference."
Balcomb said the two additional SEC regular-season games took away extra time teams had to prepare for the rigors of SEC play. As a result, she feels her team lost some games due to mental fatigue as well as physical fatigue.
Arkansas coach Tom Collen''s team finished last in the league (tied with Alabama) at 4-12. The Razorbacks won three SEC road games on the road and feels his team has a good chance against Vanderbilt. He said there are a number of teams that "really believe in themselves," which he feels will lead to an interesting tournament after what was an extremely competitive regular season.
Collen said the league coaches voted overwhelmingly not to go to a 16-game schedule. He said a lot of teams took more than their share of lumps in the regular season, but the sticking point for Collen is that not every team played the same schedule, which makes a difference when four teams finish at 9-7 and three more go 7-9.
"We''ll probably go down to spring meetings and decide to go back to a round-robin, 11-game schedule because of the way all of us have been beat up this year," Collen said with a laugh. "I promise you all of the coaches in this conference are going to adjust their non-conference schedules as a result of it."
Collen said at SEC Media Day and reiterated Monday he would like to see the women go to a two-division format like the men. He said that would give all of the teams motivation to play for a division title.
Chancellor, who is from Louisville, graduated from MSU in 1965, and coached at the Ole Miss for 19 years, said this season reminds him of one of the most competitive races in history.
"Some years we have been really good one through eight," Chancellor said. "I can remember one year we were seventh in this league and we were 17th in the country, and I thought both spots were legitimate."
Ole Miss advanced to the Elite Eight in 1988-89 after a 4-5 finish in the SEC (sixth place), and all six teams that figure to have secured NCAA tournament bids have the potential to do the same thing. Many would argue Florida, South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Auburn have the capability to make that run, too, especially considering some of their victories in the SEC.
Ole Miss coach Renee Ladner, whose team played Tennessee tough in two meetings, didn''t think the 16-game schedule was such a big deal. She said her team, which played Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas twice, will face the same challenge next season before opponents are changed for the next two-year cycle.
Teams will play regional rivals and selected other opponents twice to round out the 16-game schedules.
"I think the 16-game schedule is very good because we got a lot of TV coverage and a lot of people are following (SEC women''s basketball)," Ladner said.
Ladner said she always has liked having an East and a West Division like the SEC men, but she said an agreement can''t seem to be made, so it looks like the women will stick with the 16-game schedule for the near future.
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt admits she wasn''t necessarily in favor of a 16-game schedule, but that she decided to be a "team player" because the majority of the league''s coaches wanted it. She said the move from a 14- to a 16-game schedule has been good.
"It is tough when you play a team twice in the regular season and you have to meet them right away when the SEC Tournament rolls around," said Summitt, whose team will play the winner of the South Carolina-Ole Miss game at 11 a.m. Friday (Fox Sports South). "We are all familiar with the teams, and it still is very, very competitive because the coaching in our league is maybe the best it has ever been."
Florida coach Amanda Butler said the move to a 16-game schedule has made a challenging SEC even tougher.
"One thing it has done is show us how good the league is from top to bottom," Butler said. "Tennessee was real strong at the top, but they had some tough matchups all the way down. There is so much parity in a 16-game schedule that it puts us in a situation where we are beating one another more often."
Butler said there are positives and negatives for and against a 16-game schedule. She said teams have more opportunities to beat highly ranked opponents, which helps when it comes to Ratings Percentage Inxed (RPI) and Strength of Schedule (SOS), two factors the NCAA selection committee uses when picking the at-large teams for the NCAA tournament.
At 14-15, Florida, which defeated MSU twice, has a RPI of 77 and a SOS of 33, according to CollegeRPI.com. Those are just two factors the NCAA selection committee uses when picking the at-large teams for the NCAA tournament.
Overall, CollegeRPI.com rates the SEC as the fourth toughest conference behind the Big 12, the Big East and the ACC.
The SEC isn''t the only Bowl Championship Series conference to have plenty of parity. With eight teams at .500 or better, the SEC is tied for fourth with the Big Ten. The 16-team Big East has 12 teams at .500 or better, while the Atlantic Coast Conference has 11 and the Big 12 has nine. The Pacific 10 Conference has six.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
1. Schaefer, MSU are 'heartbroken' no longer LOCAL COLUMNS
2. Starkville High's Perry shows his versatility HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS
3. Noxubee County will miss Patterson LOCAL COLUMNS