Florida didn't look like one of the nation's best baseball teams in March. But the Gators bounced back from a mediocre start to earn the No. 1 seed in this week's Southeastern Conference Tournament in Hoover, Ala.
Florida (37-19, 21-9 SEC) thrived during league play despite a young roster and constantly changing roles for the pitching staff. The Gators are one of a handful of SEC teams — along with Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Ole Miss — still hoping to earn one of the eight national seeds for the NCAA Tournament.
Play begins on Tuesday with the No. 5 through No. 12 seeds facing off in a single-elimination knockout round. One of those teams is No. 9 seed Kentucky, which opens against No. 8 seed Alabama at 5:30 p.m.
The top four seeds receive a bye to Wednesday's second round, which is the beginning of a double-elimination format.
Florida is a slight surprise as the league's top seed. The Gators were picked to finish third in the Eastern Division by the league's coaches during the preseason but leapfrogged favored South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
"We've been pretty consistent after a shaky start," Florida Coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "I just want to continue to build momentum."
Ole Miss won the Western Division and is the No. 2 seed. The Rebels are hitting .304 as a team, which is tied with Kentucky for the best mark in the league.
"I'm really proud of the way we've played and they year we've had," Bianco said. "We've played well for 14 weeks and we've hung in there. It's tough to do because there are so many good teams."
LSU and South Carolina are the other two teams that earned a first-round bye into Wednesday's second round.
Much of the drama resides at the bottom of the bracket, where teams such as Tennessee and Texas A&M will try to prove they're worthy of an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
The NCAA's latest RPI rankings had 11 SEC teams in the top 45, but the league has never received that many bids.
There's little doubt that Kentucky's A.J. Reed has been the league's most valuable player this season. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior is the SEC's most prolific power hitter, batting .359 with a league-leading 23 homers and 70 RBI.
He's also the Wildcats' No. 1 pitcher, with a 10-2 record and 2.20 ERA. If he gets some help, Kentucky could go far in Hoover.
"You have to look at his numbers and you're astonished by them," Vanderbilt Coach Tim Corbin said.
It's always been tough to hit homers at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, which features deep power alleys and a center field wall that is 405 feet away. That could hurt some of the league's better offenses, such as Ole Miss and Kentucky, which have relied on the long ball to put up big numbers.