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Post 6th Annual SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday February 29, 2012

The SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament returns to Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on Thursday, and it’s a tradition around here to do a preview of one of our favorite non-football SEC events.

There’s one dominant theme this year: farewell. Two of the league’s more veteran coaches have already announced that they won’t be returning. Hanging over the event will be the possibility that it could also be the last SEC Tournament for the conference’s and sport’s greatest coach. There will be a little added energy around the crowd given the potential magnitude of the event.

There’s a lot to watch for on the court. The SEC continues to be outside the national title discussion, but there are several strong teams each with a fighting chance to cut down the nets on Sunday. That there’s no clear-cut favorite this year should make for some interesting games. Even the bottom teams in the conference have made some noise this season. For Georgia, it’s an opportunity to return to the top of the conference for the first time in a decade. They’re as healthy as they’ve been in months, and roles and identity are well understood now. The Lady Dogs wrapped up a bye and the third seed with Sunday’s win over LSU, but all that earns them is an extra day of rest. They’ll dive right in on Friday with a likely rematch against a very good South Carolina team that took them to the buzzer just a few weeks ago.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

  • Thursday / First Round: Bye
  • Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. South Carolina-Alabama winner, ~10:00 p.m. ET. FSN
  • Saturday / Semifinals: ~6:00 p.m. ET. ESPNU
  • Sunday / Finals: 6:00 p.m. ET. ESPN2

Complete Bracket Here

The favorites

1. Kentucky (24-5, 13-3): The Wildcats are your regular season champion, and they’ve been the frontrunner since a January 12th win over Tennessee. The ‘Cats started SEC play a perfect 10-0, but they stumbled in early February. A three-game losing streak featured a blowout loss against an inspired Tennessee team, and it also included a bad showing against 11th-place Alabama. UK has since recovered to win their final three games, and that was enough to secure the regular season crown.

Kentucky starts with relentless pressure defense. They’ll press full-court, and they lead the league in steals and turnover margin. Of course that creates a lot of transition buckets, but what makes Kentucky a champion is that they can score in the halfcourt too. They lead the SEC in three-point shooting, and they’re the best at getting offensive rebounds. Put together, it’s no surprise that they also lead the conference in scoring.

Kentucky is led by their guards, notably junior A’dia Mathies. It should say plenty about Mathies that not only does she lead the team in scoring and assists – this 5’9″ guard also has the most rebounds on the team. 77 of those rebounds were on the offensive glass. While Mathies is the player that gets things going for the ‘Cats, they get consistent shooting from Bria Goss and Keyla Snowden. Though those three guards lead UK in scoring, I think a big difference in this Kentucky team is the midseason addition of UConn transfer Samarie Walker. Walker gives UK a legitimate presence inside, and that creates tremendous opportunities for the capable guards.

Can Kentucky take the tournament title to go along with its regular season championship? They were a perfect 18-0 in Lexington this year, but they – like most any team – are more vulnerable away from home. The ‘Cats had dropped three straight road games before righting the ship with their final two home games. Kentucky thrives on its defense, and teams that can solve the press and make it a halfcourt game can give the Wildcats trouble.

2. Tennessee (21-8, 12-4): Any discussion of SEC women’s basketball comes down to Tennessee, and this is no exception. There are so many possible storylines with this team, and of course they all start with the future of Pat Summitt. Summitt has been increasingly hands-off with this team, at least on the court, and there is speculation that this might be her last SEC Tournament at the helm of the program she built. While any formal announcment on her behalf would understandably overshadow anything else that happens in Nashville, just the possibility of the end will dominate the conversation.

That brings us to the team. Tennessee’s season has been rocky, especially by their standards. They’ve lost eight games against a typically tough schedule, but it’s the home losses to good-but-not-great teams like South Carolina and Arkansas that get your attention. This is a vulnerable Tennessee team, and it doesn’t all have to do with talent. When Tennessee is at their best, as they were against Kentucky just a few weeks ago, no one in the conference compares. But that intensity has let them down several times this year.

Tennessee fans remember the 1997 team that lost 10 games but still got it together for the second of three straight national titles. But that team had what this one lacks: a consistent superstar. There is no Chamique Holdsclaw on this Tennessee team. There are great pieces. Johnson might be the best post player in the conference. Stricklen is a threat to score on anyone. Massengale has made a huge impact. I could continue down the roster, but the rest of the SEC knows it well. There is talent, but there isn’t that consistent star to set the standard.

We wouldn’t be surprised to see them win the tournament, especially given the emotions involved. The team will be laser-focused, and Tennessee fans will likely be even more of a presence than usual in order to be a part of what could be Summitt’s swan song. On the other hand, a possible quarterfinal matchup against Vanderbilt could be veeeerrrrry interesting.


3. Georgia (22-7, 11-5): Georgia is a bit of a buffer between the top of the league and the large pack of teams in the middle. Georgia’s done enough to separate themselves from the pack, but an 0-3 record against the top two teams doesn’t merit inclusion with the favorites. It’s been tough to get a read on Georgia. They have a win over a good Georgia Tech team, but they dropped winnable games against ranked opponents Georgetown and Gonzaga. The story was similar in conference. They generally played well, but losses at Vanderbilt and Florida kept the Lady Dogs from the top of the SEC. Both in and out of conference the Lady Dogs have been just-barely-almost there on the outside of doing some really big things.

Injuries have held Georgia back at times, and those midseason knocks were especially dire for a team that doesn’t go more than 8 or 9 deep to begin with. Inconsistent offense has also plagued Georgia. They aren’t incredibly big inside, rebounds can be hard to come by, and they can get stuck passing the ball around the perimeter if the entry pass isn’t available. The Lady Dogs lean on good defense, usually with favorable results. Four players have posted at least 50 steals. When the defense isn’t just tough but truly disruptive, this is a dangerous team.

It’s a nice lineup. Armstrong has emerged as one of the league’s most well-rounded players. Hassell uses position and agility to overcome size disadvantages inside. Miller can turn a game from outside. James can create offense. Mitchell can be a shut-down defender who does the little things on offense. The bench goes 3 to 4 deep, and the top reserves have all contributed at key moments.

The Pack

4. LSU (20-9, 10-6): Things looked shaky for LSU midway through the SEC schedule. They were mired in the lower half of the division with a 4-5 SEC record. An upset of Kentucky that handed the SEC champs their first conference loss of the season turned things around for first-year head coach Nikki Caldwell, and the Tigers ran off six straight wins. They entered the last game of the season with a chance to finish as high as third. Still, fourth place isn’t bad for where LSU found themselves several weeks ago.

LSU’s physical style lends itself to games in the 40s and 50s, and they like it that way. Their defense could keep them in a game against anyone in the league, and they’ve already beaten their likely quarterfinal and semifinal opponents. At the same time, their relative lack of firepower on offense makes it unlikely that they’ll keep up in a higher-scoring contest.

5. Arkansas (21-7, 10-6): If there’s a surprise in the SEC this year, it’s been Arkansas. They’ve done a good job of flying under the radar and managed to spend the season just on the outside of the rankings despite entering the final day of the regular season tied for third place. They were all but written off when they started conference play with four straight losses, but coach Tom Cullen turned things around. The Hogs went on a streak of 10 wins in 11 games, highlighted by wins over Tennessee, Vanderbilt, LSU, and South Carolina. A loss at South Carolina on the last day of the season knocked them out of a first-round bye, but Arkansas has developed into a dangerous team and will play in the NCAA Tournament.

The Hogs feature a true inside-outside combination. Sarah Watkins is one of the more underrated post players in the SEC. Guard C’eira Ricketts isn’t much of an outside threat, but she’s a slasher that can get to the basket. The Arkansas perimeter offense comes from sharpshooter Lyndsay Harris. Harris can be streaky and isn’t shy about putting it up, but when she’s on she can hit from anywhere.

6. South Carolina (21-8, 10-6): Dawn Staley finally broke through. The Gamecocks have risen from the bottom of the conference to a .500 finish and now to double-digit conference wins. They served notice with an historic win in Knoxville that snapped Tennessee’s run of homecourt SEC success and ended years of Gamecock futility against the Lady Vols. They’re less than 10 points away from a 13-3 SEC record, and they’ve only lost one conference game by more than 10 points.

The Gamecocks are another strong defensive team and play with an intensity that befits their coach. They lead the league in scoring defense, giving up under 50 points per game. Like LSU, South Carolina would prefer a low-scoring grind of a game, and they usually get it. On offense SC leans heavily on guard play. Markeshia Grant and La’Keisha Sutton are threats to go off at any time. If they have a weakness, it’s on the interior.

7. Vanderbilt (21-8, 9-7): It says a lot that a team that has impressive wins over Tennessee and Georgia and spent most of the season in the Top 25 winds up with the #7 seed. Vandy was just on the outside of a group of five teams that finished with between 5 and 7 SEC losses, and they weren’t far from coming out on top of that group. Just a single three-point loss at LSU last week could have meant the difference between a top four finish and their #7 seed.

Unfortunately that fate sets them up with a difficult bracket. Vandy will enjoy the hometown crowd and should handle Mississippi State. Tennessee awaits in the quarterfinals, and we’ve already been over their motivation. I don’t know that the tournament has ever had a more anticipated #2 vs. #7 matchup. Vandy won’t be scared; they’ve already knocked off Tennessee, and that was no fluke.

Vanderbilt has the makings of a very potent offense. Their halfcourt execution is solid – they lead the league in shooting percentage and assists. They feature the SEC’s leading scorer, sophomore guard Christina Foggie. They can score outside or work inside to forward Tiffany Clarke. Clarke and frontcourt teammate Stephanie Holzer are two of the top seven rebounders in the SEC.

Vandy isn’t terribly deep this year; only eight players have seen most of the action. That depth might’ve caught up with them down the stretch. They’ve lost three of their last five games, and only a circus shot at the buzzer prevented a fourth. They have the firepower to play with and beat anyone in the league, but defense can be spotty – a big problem when the scorers are having an off night.

8. Florida (18-11, 8-8): If there’s a team in the tournament playing for its postseason life, it’s Florida. A much-needed win over Georgia put them in a position to finish with a .500 conference mark, but they’ll likely have to advance to Saturday and upset Kentucky in order to feel comfortable about making the NCAA Tournament. Florida has played in a lot of close games and lost more than their share. They came within 5 of Kentucky, and they took both Arkansas and Vanderbilt to overtime on the road. They probably won’t be an easy out.

On paper Florida has a fairly complete team. They have Jennifer George as a dynamic forward. Azania Stewart gives additional size, rebounds, and defense but doesn’t score a ton. Jordan Jones shoots better than 35% from outside, and freshman Andrea Vilaró Aragonés has come along as another sharpshooter. As you’d expect with a bubble team, Florida does a lot of things well but few things great. They’re around the middle of the pack in most statistical categories with slightly above average rebounding, slightly below average defense.

Auf Wiedersehen

9. Auburn (13-16, 5-11): Auburn is one of at least two programs for which this SEC Tournament will be the last for their coach. Nell Fortner is stepping down after eight up and down seasons with the Tigers. She came to Auburn with impressive crednetials: she had coached in the WNBA, coached the 2000 U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal, and was a respected broadcaster. That background created some big expectations, and Fortner wasn’t quite able to live up to those expectations. Her Auburn program had a high-water mark in 2008-2009 wehn DeWanna Bonner led them to a 30-4 record and the SEC regular season title, but the rest of the story has been somewhat disappointing. Fortner’s overall SEC mark is more than 10 games below .500, and she wasn’t able to build on that great 2009 team.

This year’s Auburn team hasn’t made much noise. They swept four games against the bottom two teams in the league, and an upset of South Carolina was enough to separate them from the bottom of the conference. They could put together an inspired effort for Fortner and spoil Florida’s season, but there’s a definite gulf in class even between the #8 and #9 seeds.

10. Mississippi State (14-15, 4-12): The Bulldogs will also say farewell to their coach after this tournament. Sharon Fanning-Otis is one of the veterans of SEC coaching with more experience than anyone outside of Summitt and Landers. She’s built a moderately successful program in Starkville whose fortunes have waxed and waned as several high-profile players like LaToya Thomas and Tan White worked their way through. As recently as 2010, MSU finished third in the league and advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16, but the past two seasons have been much less successful. They can get scoring from Diamber Johnson, but she doesn’t have much help.

The Longshots

11. Alabama (12-18, 2-14): The Tide have been near the bottom of the conference for several seasons, but they showed life towards the end of the season. They knocked off conference champ Kentucky thanks to a 50-point explosion in the first half, and they led LSU until the last minute. It’s been a tough year with injuries, high(low?)lighted by the loss of senior guard Ericka Russell. Jasmine Robinson has emerged as the top scorer and led the Tide over Kentucky. They’ll find it tough to score against South Carolina’s defense but could find themselves within a few baskets in a low-scoring opening game.

12. Ole Miss (12-17, 2-14): The Rebels enter the tournament on a long slide. They upset Arkansas and beat Alabama in mid-January to improve to 2-3 in SEC play, but they haven’t won since. 11 straight losses can kill a team’s heart, but that hasn’t happened to Ole Miss. To their credit, they continue to challenge teams. In their last four games they took rival Mississippi State to overtime, only lost by 10 to Tennessee, trailed Georgia by just two at halftime, and played Auburn to within three points. 5’4″ guard Valencia McFarland is one of the conference’s most entertaining scorers. They’ve already posted a win over first-round opponent Arkansas this year and could do it again if the Hogs aren’t wide awake.

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