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Post 4th Annual SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Thursday March 4, 2010

  secwomenstourney2010It’s time again for my annual indulgence.  There’s always a great vibe around a conference tournament, and the SEC women’s tournament returns to the Arena at Gwinnett Center on Thursday for the first of three visits over the next five years. Since the tournament is right down the road, I’ll be camped out there throughout the weekend to mix with the fans and students from around the conference.  I might have an update or two here throughout the tournament about Georgia’s experience, but I’ll probably be a lot more active on Twitter.

Georgia got a bit of a disappointment on Sunday when they finished in a four-way tie for third place but came out on the short end of the tiebreaker with the #6 seed.  That outcome might not be a terrible thing.  The seeding lets Georgia avoid possible matchups with Tennessee, Vanderbilt, or LSU until the finals.  Georgia would have to play some tough opponents regardless if they plan on advancing to Saturday or Sunday, but the seeding would help them avoid some of the hotter teams in the conference.  In a season where Georgia has lost to teams as low as the #10 seed, there’s no such thing as a truly “easy” path through this tournament.

The Lady Dogs slipped to the #6 seed after starting the season 16-0 thanks to a midseason slump that included losses in six of eight games.  They’ve righted the ship somewhat and won three of their final four regular season games.  Midseason injuries still linger, but they’re as healthy as they’ve been since the start of conference play. 

Georgia’s all-conference honorees tell the story of the season.  Ashley Houts was every bit the senior leader that she was expected to be and earned a spot on the all-SEC first team. Georgia’s fortunes turned this year on the arrival of six freshmen, and two in particular – Jasmine James and Jasmine Hassell – have played big roles.  The pair was named to the all-freshmen team this week.

Georgia’s path through the tournament

  • Thursday:  9:00 PM vs #11 Alabama (Fox Sports South)
  • Friday:  9:00 PM vs. #3 Mississippi State (Fox Sports South)
  • Saturday: 6:00 PM Semifinal (ESPNU)
  • Sunday: 6:30 PM Final (ESPN2)

Now on to the teams (get the bracket here):

The Favorite

1. Tennessee (15-1): After a relatively disappointing season a year ago, the Lady Vols are again the regular season SEC champs. They have a single blemish on their conference mark: a road loss at Georgia that came down to the final shot. Tennessee isn’t back to where they expect to be on the national scene – not many teams can stand out from underneath UConn’s shadow – but the Lady Vols are at least back to their customary position as SEC Tournament favorites. That’s not to say that they’re a lock to win. They’ve looked vulnerable several times away from home. They lost at Georgia and had very close calls against Ole Miss, Florida, and South Carolina, and they will face one of those teams in the quarterfinals. Tennessee can get past most teams by leaning on good defense, but their scoring can run streaky.

The Surprise

2. Kentucky (11-5): Kentucky rolled through nonconference play with only one loss, and most of us chalked it up to a weak schedule. They started just 1-2, and it looked as if preseason expectations of a difficult season would bear out. UK was picked to finish 11th by the coaches and media before the season, but Matthew Mitchell has done another great job building this team. They rolled off eight straight conference wins and soon established themselves as the league’s second-best team. Their formula has been simple: defend the home court and ride the star. They are a perfect 14-0 at home this year, but they only faced Tennessee in Knoxville. Victoria Dunlap is top 5 in scoring, rebounding, steals, and blocks. The emergence of freshman guard A’dia Mathies makes them that much more of a complete team, and they lead the league in scoring. UK ended up sweeping the coach, player, and freshman of the year awards in the SEC.  If the tournament were at Rupp Arena, you’d like their chances.

The Logjam

Four teams finished tied for third place, and it’s fitting that they went 2-2 as a group on Sunday in order to end up with identical records just a game over .500. All four teams are good enough to earn NCAA Tournament consideration, but they all have weaknesses and inconsistencies that have led to seven conference losses each. It wouldn’t surprise me to see one or more from this group playing for the title on Sunday, but they’re just as likely to be done by Friday.

3. Mississippi State (9-7): Congrats, Bulldogs. You started the day in 4th place, had a 30-point loss hung on you, and moved up to 3rd place as a result. MSU can thank the SEC tiebreaker rules for its tournament seed, but the foundation for that seed was laid with wins over Georgia and Vanderbilt. MSU loves to shoot the outside shot – no other team has attempted more than their 655 three-point attempts. Unfortunately they’re in the bottom half of the league in three-point percentage. Their outside shooting has been enough to land them among the top seeds in the conference, but it hasn’t quite been good enough to keep them in the rankings where they started the season. Alexis Rack is the three-point specialist, and the team’s fortunes often ride on her outside shot. Chanel Mokango is enough of a presence inside to force teams to respect the paint.

4. LSU (9-7): LSU enters the tournament as the hot team you’d rather not play. The Tigers endured a rough start to SEC play that saw them sputter to a 4-6 league record by mid-February. They’ve since won 5 of 6 games with the only loss coming at Tennessee. No shame there. The difference has been a rededication to a smothering style of defense. LSU has given up an average of just 44 PPG in their last five wins and now leads the league in scoring defense. Their offense can be summed up in the name of Allison Hightower, but their midseason turnaround has come as others have started to contribute. A likely LSU-Vanderbilt game on Friday could be one of the most entertaining quarterfinal matchups.

5. Vanderbilt (9-7): Find a team with no key players over 6’1", and that team’s probably in trouble. It’s to Vanderbilt’s credit that they’ve managed to remain a very competitive and successful team with only one real frontcourt player. Hannah Tuomi, at 6’1", is facing taller opponents every night but still finds a way to be effective, tough, and – in the eyes of opponents – pesky while doing the rebounding, screening, and other dirty work that has to be done for a team to win. With Tuomi as the extent of the frontcourt Vandy had better shoot well from outside, and they do – they lead the SEC at just over 38% from behind the arc. Veteran guards Jence Rhoads and Merideth Marsh fit right into the talented, tough, and smart style we’ve come to expect from Melanie Balcomb’s teams. Vanderbilt, the league’s defending tournament champion, is one of those teams that knows how to turn it on for the postseason even if they’re not a top seed.

6. Georgia (9-7): Georgia might be kicking themselves for a last-second loss to Ole Miss that could have earned them a much higher seed, but they’ve been on the happier end of close games far more often this year. Big games from the offense have been the exception, so the expectation is for closely-contested games decided by defense. Injuries and fatigue in the middle of the season kept Georgia from playing the kind of defense that propelled them to a 16-0 start, but the team has showed signs of life down the stretch. They have a trio of nice frontcourt players, but the team will go as guards Ashley Houts and Jasmine Jones go.

Upset Specialists

The four teams leading the bottom half of the division all failed to post winning records in conference, but each has at least one quality win to their credit. All four of these teams were able to beat Georgia. Auburn beat LSU and Kentucky. South Carolina just won at Vanderbilt. Ole Miss swept LSU and beat Mississippi State. With that kind of upset potential from this group, top seeds Tennessee and Kentucky could face a stiff challenge in the quarterfinals on Friday.

7. Florida (7-9): Florida just wasn’t quite able to break through this year. Their only win of note is an upset of Georgia a little over a week ago. Like Vanderbilt, Florida is an undersized team. It doesn’t help that Azania Stewart, one of their few frontcourt players, has been sidelined due to injury. Stewart had 21 points and 11 rebounds in Florida’s overtime win over first-round opponent Auburn back in January, and there isn’t anyone to take up that slack. Guards Steffi Sorensen and Jordan Jones will have to come up big, and the Gators will have to outwork Auburn on the glass to advance.

8. South Carolina (7-9): Coach Dawn Staley’s rebuilding project continued to move forward this year. Just a couple of years removed from the league cellar they were nearly .500 in conference this year. They’ve won in tough road environments at Auburn, Georgia, and Vanderbilt. A late four-game slide will keep them from doing much more this season, but that season-ending win in Nashville shows that they have plenty of fight still. South Carolina has a classic inside-out combo: Freshman Kelsey Bone has made an immediate impact by finishing top 10 in both scoring and rebounding. Valerie Nainima is one of the league’s top outside shooters.

9. Ole Miss (7-9): Ole Miss looked for a while like a team that was headed for a memorable season. They started SEC play 5-1 which included consecutive wins over LSU, Mississippi State, and Georgia. They’ve only won two games since and have slid down the standings and likely out of the NCAA Tournament. Bianca Thomas is the SEC’s leading scorer and could carry her team past the first round. One player to watch is forward Nikki Byrd – she’s a key contributor and was injured in the season finale.

10. Auburn (5-11): Wins over Kentucky, Georgia, and LSU show what Auburn is capable of. They just haven’t been able to play at that level in many other games. They lean on the post play of KeKe Carrier and the streaky outside shooting of Alli Smalley. Carrier could be a devastating force against an undersized Florida team – she scored 24 when they met in January and won’t have Azania Stewart to worry about. If Auburn can advance past Florida, they’ll play Kentucky on Friday, and Auburn beat UK less than a week ago.

 Leaving the Bus Idling

For the first time in several years, the teams at the bottom of the league aren’t automatic outs. Both Alabama and Arkansas have made some noise this year and could make their opening round opponents very nervous.

11. Alabama (4-12): Alabama has had a rough few years in the conference, but they’re beginning to show signs of progress. They won as many SEC games this year (4) as they’ve won in the past three seasons. They’ve even managed to sweep Florida this year, and a win over rival Auburn has to be one of the program’s bright spots lately. They lack any real stars, but forward Tierney Jenkins is nearly averaging a double-double.

12. Arkansas (4-12): Last year Arkansas rolled off a string of wins to rise from the bottom of the league to middle-of-the-pack respectability. It looked as if they might be headed in a similar direction this year when they posted thre straight wins in February including road wins at Auburn and South Carolina. But the Razorbacks have faded down the stretch and have lost three straight entering postseason play. They played first-round opponent Vanderbilt close back in January and have the athleticism at guard to match the Vanderbilt backcourt.

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