HOOVER, Ala. — The Southeastern Conference is a national powerhouse in college baseball, but the league never has sent more than 10 teams to the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee's hopes of securing its first bid since 2005 might hinge on whether the tournament selection committee is willing to invite No. 11.
The Volunteers (31-22, 12-18) open SEC tournament play against Vanderbilt (40-16, 17-13) this morning at 10:30 EDT at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. It will be televised by SportSouth in the Chattanooga area.
All four of today's games are single-elimination, meaning either the Vols or Commodores will be the first team sent home from Hoover. Such a brief stay in the Vols' first trip to the SEC tournament in seven years would not be the kind of final impression to leave on NCAA selection committee members.
"We're not here just to stay the night in Hoover," said Vols coach Dave Serrano. "We want to stay a while."
Tennessee freshman pitcher Hunter Martin (4-3, 3.12 ERA) will start on four days' rest against Vandy sophomore Walker Buehler (9-2, 2.31). Serrano said Martin would be on a strict pitch count.
"He gave me the thumbs-up," Serrano said. "We'll split up the rest [of the innings] with other members of the bullpen."
Virtually everyone will be available with the likely exception of senior Nick Williams and sophomore Andy Cox, who started on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
If the Vols win today, they will advance to the double-elimination portion of the tournament, guaranteeing at least two more games against top-notch opponents that could bolster the team's Ratings Percentage Index.
As of Monday, Tennessee's RPI was ranked 44th in the country, according to WarrenNolan.com.
But the rankings can be deceiving, because they don't illustrate just how closely teams are packed and how much just one win or loss can influence the rankings, even late in the season.
For example, Mississippi State's No. 30 RPI is barely one-hundredth of a point better than 50th-ranked San Diego State, a "bubble" team that could be competing against the Vols for one of the final spots in the field.
College baseball bracketology, while not enjoying the celebrity following of college basketball, does have some ace prognosticators. Here's what they say:
• ChasingOmaha.com has the Vols as a No. 3 seed in the Seattle Regional and expects 11 SEC teams to make the field.
• Baseball America's most recent projection had the Vols being left out, with 10 SEC teams in the tournament.
• PerfectGame.com has Tennessee as one of the final four teams left out of the tournament (along with Illinois, San Diego and UAB). Ten SEC teams have secured bids, the site said.
The dilemma for the SEC tournament is that the teams with the most to play for aren't here. Auburn and Missouri, two teams that would require a tournament championship to make the NCAA field, were 13th and 14th, respectively, and didn't make the 12-team cut.
No. 12 seed Georgia, with an overall record under .500, almost certainly needs to win the SEC tournament to advance to the NCAA.
Top-seeded Florida, No. 2 Ole Miss, No. 3 LSU and No. 4 South Carolina received first-round byes and will start the double-elimination round Wednesday. The winner of Tennessee-Vandy will face LSU at 10:30 a.m.Wednesday.
Those four teams are safely in the NCAA tournament field, and at least three will host regionals. Fifth through 10th seeds Mississippi State, Vandy, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky and Texas A&M should also be in without suspense. That leaves only the Vols and Georgia "playing for their lives," as Serrano put it.
The Vols won two out of three from Vanderbilt earlier this year in Knoxville and have a 6-3 record against the Commodores in the SEC tournament.
The last time Tennessee won a postseason game? That was the opening game of the 2007 SEC tournament, when the Vols topped Vanderbilt 6-3 led by future major leaguers J.P. Arencibia and Yan Gomes.