By Charles Odum/The Associated Press
DULUTH, Ga. — The six Southeastern Conference teams ranked in the Top 25 should be wary of upsets in this week’s women’s tournament.
And with good reason — there’s no reason the tournament should be any different than the regular season.
Most of the ranked teams, including No. 9 Tennessee, the SEC’s regular-season champion and top seed in the tournament, lost at least once to an unranked team during the 16-game conference schedule. Unranked Missouri beat the Lady Vols.
No. 12 Georgia, the No. 3 seed, lost at Mississippi State. No. 19 Texas A&M, the fourth seed, lost its last three, including to Vanderbilt and then-unranked LSU.
Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell says that is just life in the SEC.
No. 7 Kentucky earned the No. 2 seed by closing the regular season with a win over Tennessee. Mitchell said winning the SEC tournament “is one of the greatest accomplishments in basketball.”
“I’m so impressed with the quality of depth in the Southeastern Conference,” Mitchell said. “I really think it’s the best league in the country. I believe you could have lower seeds beating higher seeds. I absolutely believe that is possible.”
Mitchell named LSU, the sixth seed which moved into the Top 25 at No. 22 this week, and unranked Vanderbilt as possible surprise teams which could win the tournament.
“I don’t know if there’s a clear-cut favorite,” Mitchell said.
The other ranked team in the tournament is No. 17 South Carolina.
The tournament begins Wednesday night when Alabama, which lost its last 10 regular-season games, plays Mississippi State.
Only 13 of the league’s 14 teams are participating. Ole Miss (9-20, 2-14) announced a self-imposed postseason ban on Nov. 9. Coach Adrian Wiggins and two assistants were fired after a school investigation found academic and recruiting misconduct.
Tennessee beat LSU in last year’s tournament championship game after Kentucky won the regular-season title.
The Lady Vols (23-6, 14-2 SEC) won the regular-season title in their first season with coach Holly Warlick. She spent the last 27 years as an assistant on Pat Summitt’s staffs.
Summitt led the Lady Vols to eight national titles in 38 seasons. She stepped down last April after announcing in 2011 she had early-onset dementia.
The regular-season championship under Warlick was a strong statement of Tennessee’s continued strength in the post-Summitt era.
“I’m never going to compare myself to Pat Summitt,” Warlick said. “There’s only one Pat Summitt.
“I just want this team to get better. I have an unbelievable staff. I think one thing that Pat did teach me is surround yourself with quality people.”
The Lady Vols have injury concerns this week.
Point guard Ariel Massengale and center Isabelle Harrison have knee injuries. Warlick said senior guard Kamiko Williams sprained both ankles in the loss to Kentucky.
“Both of them,” Warlick said when asked about Williams’ injuries. “That’s hard to do but she found a way to do it.”
Warlick said she did not know if Harrison will be able to return for the tournament. She said Massengale is “a little sore” and is confident Williams “will bounce back.”
LSU is the league’s hottest team. The Lady Tigers (19-10, 10-6) closed the regular season with six straight wins, including the 67-52 win at No. 13 Texas A&M.
LSU will play Auburn on Thursday night and will have to play on four straight days to win the tournament. The top four seeds have byes until Friday’s quarterfinals.
“Our chances are about as good as anyone else’s,” said second-year LSU coach Nikki Caldwell, the former Tennessee player and assistant.
“I know everybody in this conference knows how tough it is to win here. We beat up on each other all year long. We’ve been able to get hot at the right time.”
Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said his message to his players after three straight losses is “There’s nothing wrong with us.”
This is Texas A&M’s first year in the conference, but Blair previously coached in the league at Arkansas.
“We’ve got to play harder, play smarter, and sometimes give credit to your opponent,” Blair said. “Usually the team that wins the conference champ doesn’t always win the tournament championship. That’s what we’re going to try to sell here.
“We’ve got to get that feel-good feeling again and convince our kids we don’t need to go into the shop for total repairs. We just need some Band-Aids and attitude adjustment.”
The Alabama-Mississippi State winner will play South Carolina after the Arkansas-Florida game on Thursday. Missouri will play Vanderbilt before the LSU-Auburn game on Thursday night.
The championship game is scheduled for Sunday night.