Some questions, few answers, and a story to tell from my trip to Baton Rouge.
1. Does the SEC tournament really matter?
LSU loses the first game they play and still pull the #5 national seed. Florida loses in the semi-finals and is still the #1 overall national seed. With a regular-season schedule that sees any given team in the SEC facing a minimum of four-six ranked opponents not even considering out-of-conference foes, a one-game loss in the tournament obviously holds very little consideration for the powers that be in selecting the 64-team NCAA field. Likewise, winning in the tournament doesn't give a team much help. Auburn held tight and didn't move up nationally, despite taking home the championship trophy. Tennessee enjoyed a nail-biting run to the championship game, which may have solidified their spot, but did little more. It's a query that has gained steam as wins and losses in the tournament have had less and less bearing on NCAA seeding year after year, and it's one that bears serious consideration now. Is the conference tournament obsolete?
2. Did Tennessee peak too early or at just the right time?
The Lady Vols came into Baton Rouge having won 10 of their last 12 in the regular season, including series sweeps of Mississippi State and Kentucky and a single victory to save themselves from being swept versus then-#1 LSU. In the first game of the tournament, a walk-off brought in two runs to give the Big Orange the "w", while another rallying victory led them over host LSU. A stellar pitching performance held off Florida in the semi-finals, and while Auburn used a rally to take home the tournament championship, the Lady Vols put together a convincing performance that solidified them as a top-eight seed with the opportunity to host a Super regional if they make it through this weekend. But with such success coming before the NCAA tournament even begins, one wonders if the Lady Vols are peaking a bit too early or at just the right time. Meghan Gregg is hitting well (more on that below); Erin Gabriel is lights-out in the pitching circle; and the offense sure seems to be clicking on all cylinders under pressure. History has shown, however, that a team's fortunes can rise and fall like the tide in the postseason, and with questionably-effective pitching depth behind Gabriel, it will be an interesting storyline to watch this weekend and, potentially, beyond.
3. Can Kentucky rely on more than Kelsey Nunley in the circle?
In 2014, Rachel Lawson's club relied almost completely on then-sophomore hurler Nunley. The strategy got the Cats through the regional & super regional rounds, but came to a head when Nunley finally wore out in the World Series against Baylor. This season, the Cats have three solid pitchers in Nunley and dueling southpaws sophomore Meagan Prince and freshman Erin Rethlake. In her club's one and only game in the conference tournament last week, Lawson showed no hesitation to replace her ace when the going got rough against the Lady Vols. Rethlake entered and threw an inning and a third with two strikeouts before getting into a jam of her own. She looked effective when she was "on" though, something that her 2.44 ERA in twenty-one regular-season appearances proves isn't a fluke. Prince didn't enter the game, but was fairly reliable during the regular season, as well. Lawson has effective options behind Nunley this year, should she choose to use them.