Wednesday, March 05, 2008

LSU, Tennessee, Vanderbilt favorites heading into SEC tournament

NASHVILLE, Tenn. | A year ago, Van Chancellor interviewed Sylvia Fowles as he helped cover the Southeastern Conference women's tournament for television. Working television, as opposed to coaching, is so easy Chancellor says it's like stealing money, and there's none of the pressure to win.

Now Chancellor will be coaching Fowles, trying to lead No. 7 LSU to its first tournament title since 2003 and his first ever in his Hall of Fame career.

No pressure here.

"I'm looking forward to the competition, especially with the team that we have," Chancellor said.

The SEC tournament opens Thursday in Music City, and most coaches agree that LSU, No. 3 Tennessee and defending tournament champ Vanderbilt are the favorites to wind up with the title after Sunday night's championship. No. 4 seed Kentucky, which won its lone tourney title way back in 1982, is the other team not playing until Friday.

No. 21 Vanderbilt might have the biggest edge, having won this tournament in 2002 and 2004 on this very court at the Sommet Center, a fact that coach Melanie Balcomb and her staff have mentioned frequently this week to a very young team.

"That energy is always going to help that you have a lot of your hometown fans there, and I think we're more aware of not where we're playing, in what gym, but that we won last year and we're defending champs," Balcomb said. "And we want to defend our championship very strongly."

The biggest pressure might be on LSU (25-4, 14-0) after winning the regular season title with an undefeated run through league play that included a 78-62 win in Knoxville over then-No. 1 Tennessee. The Lady Tigers have been to the Final Four in each of the past four seasons and have won three of the last four regular season titles.

But LSU has not won this tournament since 2003.

"I'm really proud of our team for going undefeated in what I think, outside of winning the national championship, ... I think it's the second-hardest tournament to win in the country," Chancellor said. "I'm really pleased with our kids. I've just been a fortunate coach."

LSU knocked off Tennessee in the tournament last year, reaching the finals only to fall to Vanderbilt 51-45.

That was the last quiet game the Lady Tigers had last postseason. Pokey Chatman resigned under pressure and did not coach LSU to yet another Final Four. LSU quickly replaced her by luring Chancellor back to the SEC where he coached Mississippi for 19 years before heading to the WNBA.

Fowles said Chancellor brought them lots of energy and built their confidence by teaching, not yelling when they mess up.

"The good thing that I respect about Van is he came in and didn't try to change the whole system. He told us what he likes and what he doesn't like, but mostly he let's us play," Fowles said.

Chancellor, who last coached in the tournament title game in 1983, isn't interested in rehashing the past.

"Right now we're just playing ball and having a good time," Chancellor said.

No team has won more SEC tournament titles - or even played in the championship game more times - than the Tennessee Lady Vols. Tennessee comes in as the No. 2 seed, trying to hold on to the No. 1 seed the defending champs think they deserve.

Coach Pat Summitt isn't sure how much these Lady Vols, in what will be Candace Parker's last SEC tournament, want to add another tournament title to their resume. Tennessee won the tournament in 2005 and 2006, beating LSU in each of those games.

"I'll be interested to see just how important it is. Obviously the loss to LSU, I would think there would be some motivation to try and win two games to get to the championship game. But right now it's kind of wait and see," Summitt said.

"Hopefully, they're motivated. If they are, then hopefully we can be in that championship game. It's not going to be easy. This tournament is always a real challenge, and teams step up because they know this is their one opportunity for most teams to be able to get into the tournament, to the NCAA tournament."

That's exactly the goal set by Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell. Win three games and erase any uncertainty about whether his Wildcats have done enough to get to the NCAA tournament by winning the automatic berth.

"I really believe if we can go down there with the proper frame of mind and have the mentality we're going to survive and advance every day, we can do that," he said.

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