Mississippi State won the Southeastern Conference regular-season title one year after finishing in the league basement.
Now the Bulldogs want to carry the momentum of that dramatic rise into the postseason.
Mississippi State (40-14-1, 21-9 SEC) enters this week's Southeastern Conference Tournament as the No. 1 seed after winning its first regular-season league title since 1989. The Bulldogs had gone 24-30 overall and 8-22 in conference play in 2015 to finish last in the Western Division and post the SEC's worst overall league record.
Bulldogs coach John Cohen, who played for Mississippi State's last SEC regular-season champions, said there isn't much of a gap separating the top of the conference from the bottom.
"If you're an inch off in the Southeastern Conference, you're going to get punched in the mouth a lot," Cohen said.
SEC Tournament play begins Tuesday in Hoover, Alabama. No. 6 seed Vanderbilt (41-15, 18-12) faces No. 11 seed Missouri (26-29, 9-21), No. 7 seed Mississippi (40-16, 18-12) meets No. 10 seed Georgia (27-29, 11-19), No. 8 seed Kentucky (32-24, 15-15) battles No. 9 seed Alabama (31-24, 15-15) and No. 5 seed LSU (39-17, 19-11) tackles No. 12 seed Tennessee (29-27, 9-21) in single-elimination games.
Tuesday's winners advance to double-elimination play beginning Wednesday along with Mississippi State, No. 2 seed South Carolina (42-13, 20-9), No. 3 seed Texas A&M (41-13, 20-10) and No. 4 seed Florida (44-11, 19-10). The tournament returns to a single-elimination format Saturday and has a championship game Sunday.
Mississippi State made its dramatic rise up the standings by getting improvement from its new players and receiving a huge impact from its newcomers. Mississippi State's three top batting averages are owned by freshman Jake Mangum (.427) and junior-college transfers Nathaniel Lowe (.359) and Jack Kruger (.358). Kruger has a team-high .570 slugging percentage, Mangum leads the Bulldogs in on-base percentage (.479) and Lowe has a team-leading 47 RBIs.
"Those are all three new guys who have just had great first years," Cohen said. "That's not common in the Southeastern Conference."
Cohen also led Kentucky to a regular-season title in 2006 and is the second coach to win an SEC regular-season championship at two different schools. Ron Polk led Mississippi State to four SEC regular-season championships before winning one at Georgia in 2001.
Here are some things to watch in the SEC tournament.
FIGHTING FOR POSITION: The top SEC teams already are assured of NCAA Tournament invitations but are trying to improve their positioning. Florida, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Ole Miss, LSU and Vanderbilt all would like to be considered as regional hosts and/or national seeds.
BUBBLE BATTLE: Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard and Kentucky's Gary Henderson acknowledge their teams are on the NCAA Tournament bubble after going .500 in conference play during the regular season. The two teams face each other Tuesday. "You've got to win this game, you've got to get to the double-elimination part, you've probably got to beat (Mississippi State) on Wednesday and build those RPI points," Henderson said. Gaspard said that "the winner of that game is going to have a whole lot more comfort after it and the loser is going to be sitting home on pins and needles for a week."
DOMINANT GATORS/TIGERS: LSU has won five of the last eight SEC tournaments. Florida won last year's SEC Tournament and also earned the title in 2011.
WHO'S SURGING: Mississippi State is on an 11-game winning streak. LSU had won 11 in a row — including two straight victories over Florida — before losing its regular-season finale to the Gators.
WHO'S MISSING: Auburn (23-33, 8-22) and Arkansas (26-29, 7-23) had the SEC's two worst conference records and consequently didn't make the 12-team tournament field. With its losing record, Arkansas also is expected to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001.
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Posted on Mon, May 23, 2016
by STEVE MEGARGEE, AP Sports Writer