The SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament is back at the Gwinnett Arena in Duluth this week after a couple of years in Nashville. We’ll be there all week, and each year we like to look around the conference before things tip off. You can follow us @dawgsonline for updates from the arena.
It’s a new era for the conference and the tournament. Three programs have first-year coaches. The conference has welcomed two new teams, and that means an extra day is added to the format. The bottom two seeds, Mississippi State and Alabama, have the ignominy of playing in the SEC’s first play-in game (obligatory “Les Robinson Invitational” shout-out). The winner will advance to Thursday to face #5 seed South Carolina.
There hasn’t been a dominant team this year, and that should make for a fun and competitive tournament. I could see anyone seeded 1-6 winning the tournament – #6 seed LSU is the hottest team in the league right now. Mississippi State has beaten Georgia, Missouri has beaten Tennessee, and a good South Carolina team isn’t even among the top four.
Georgia enters the tournament looking to send an accomplished senior class out with a title. The 2012 season ended with disappointment – Georgia was the #3 seed last year also, but they lost their first game in both the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. There was optimism that the loaded senior class would carry the Lady Dogs to a conference title, and they have some impressive wins over teams like South Carolina and Kentucky. Some flat performances on the road at LSU and Mississippi State cost them a share of the championship. They’ve played well enough to make a run in this tournament, but they’ve also been inconsistent enough to make any game a toss-up.
Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:
- Wednesday and Thursday / First Round: Bye
- Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. LSU-Auburn winner, ~8:30 p.m. ET. SportsSouth
- Saturday / Semifinals: ~6:00 p.m. ET. ESPNU
- Sunday / Finals: 6:00 p.m. ET. ESPN2
1. Tennessee (12-2, 23-6): It’s rarely a surprise to see Tennessee as the top seed, but it kind of is this year. The Lady Vols lost five starters, returned only three upperclassmen, and – of course – started their first season since 1974 without Pat Summitt on the bench. They were actually picked to finish fifth by preseason polling. So while it’s easy to overlook the job that first year head coach Holly Warlick has done as just Tennessee being Tennessee, it’s a significant accomplishment to have her young team play to the standard set by the program.
It hasn’t been a smooth ride. A season-opening loss to Chattanooga raised a lot of eyebrows. The Lady Vols have played their usual challenging schedule and have come up short against the nation’s elite teams. They’ve survived scares against Florida, LSU, and Arkansas and still have the capability of putting up a head-scratching loss as they did at Missouri. They’re not going to challege for the national title, but they’ve still done enough to emerge as the team to beat heading into Duluth.
The Lady Vols start with junior guard Meighan Simmons. She’s the SEC’s leading scorer and the team’s emotional leader. Freshman Bashaara Graves has stepped up as the post presence the team had to have. Massengale and Spani are important role players at guard, and Kamiko Williams and Cierra Burdick have come on strong at the end of the season.
2. Kentucky (13-3, 25-4): The Wildcats were the preseason pick to win the conference, and they came close. They started the season 18-1 with the sole loss coming to #1 Baylor. They’ve only lost three times in conference – all to respectable teams (Georgia, South Carolina, and LSU) and all by five points or less. That thin margin was enough to bump UK to the second seed, and only Georgia’s improbable loss at Mississippi State kept UK from falling to the #3 seed. Though Kentucky lost to LSU recently, they still finished strong with wins over ranked South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Tennessee teams. The Wildcats pulled away from Tennessee in the regular season finale and served notice that the top seed might not be the favorite to win the tournament.
Kentucky is loaded with talent. Senior guard A’Dia Mathies has been the constant during the rapid rise of the Kentucky program. She’s aided on the perimeter by Jennifer O’Neill. The guards have plenty of help inside – Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth have to be accounted for. Kentucky’s style is characterized by relentless pressure that has them tops in both steals and turnover margin. If teams can break the pressure, there’s opportunity for favorable numbers, but that’s easier said than done.
3. Georgia (12-4, 24-5): Georgia is another team that thrives on its defense. The Lady Dogs are second only to Kentucky in steals and turnover margin, and they thrive on creating points from those turnovers. They’re among the top three in scoring defense and opponent shooting percentage.
The senior trio of Hassell, Armstrong, and James often sets the tone on defense, but they’re not always among the team’s leading scorers. Hassell has been great down the stretch both in scoring and rebounding. The production of James and Armstrong can vary wildly. Georgia’s depth has been bolstered by a strong freshman class. Shacobia Barbee, Merritt Hempe, and Tiaria Griffin will see lots of time. Thanks to the contributions of the freshmen, Georgia should be fresher entering the postseason than they’ve been in years.
Georgia’s weakness is a big one: they don’t shoot the ball all that well. They’re 9th in overall shooting percentage (40.5%), 11th in three-point percentage (27.9%), and 10th in free throw percentage (66.8%). Considering that those numbers are inflated by the volume of transition chances created by the defense, halfcourt offense can be an adventure for Georgia. The defense has been good enough to cover for several sluggish nights shooting the ball, but it has cost them in some puzzling upset losses (Illinois and Mississippi State).
4. Texas A&M (11-5, 21-9): Which SEC school has the most recent national title in women’s hoops? Not so fast, Tennessee. The addition of A&M to the SEC made big waves in football of course, but the Aggies have also been a recent powerhouse in this sport. A&M imported coach Gary Blair from Arkansas, and he built a program that broke through for a national championship two years ago. Conference re-alignment brought Blair right back into the SEC, and his team roared out to a 10-1 start in the conference. The Aggies have stumbled recently, losing four of their last five. They’ve been competitive in nearly every loss, but the sheer number of losses and the late slide took them from the brink of a title to the fourth seed. A win over South Carolina could set up a semifinal showdown with Tennessee and a chance to recapture some of the momentum and stature they enjoyed a few weeks ago.
This is still a very dangerous team. South Carolina transfer Kelsey Bone is perhaps the SEC’s most dominant frontcourt player on offense. She’s third in scoring, second in rebounding, and tops in field goal percentage. Few teams can match up well with her, and the Aggies have guards, especially Courtney Walker, that can make teams pay for showing too much attention to Bone. The Aggies don’t have to attempt a lot of outside shots – no team has attempted fewer three-pointers – but they’re tops in the league (36.3%) at hitting them. But if the backcourt is misfiring, as they did in the season-ender against LSU (0-of-8 from outside), not even Bone can carry the Aggies past better teams.
5. South Carolina (11-5, 23-6): Dawn Staley’s team took a big step forward last year with a Sweet 16 run. Their style is consistent: low-scoring, grinding defensive battles. They’re tops in the SEC in scoring defense and next-to-last in scoring offense. It won’t be aesthetically pleasing, but the formula has worked to lift the Gamecocks from the basement to a team that’s often right around the 4 or 5 seed and a lock for the NCAA Tournament.
South Carolina is built on attacking the basket – they drive and crash the boards. They don’t shoot well, but they’re tops in the SEC in rebounding margin. Forwards Aleighsa Welch and Ashley Bruner are the top scorers and rebounders, and Ieasia Walker is the top threat from outside. If South Carolina survives their Thursday game, and they will, Friday’s quarterfinal with A&M will be a war. Only two points separated the teams in an earlier meeting won by A&M. The Bone storyline will be a big one, and both teams take pride in defense.
6. LSU (10-6, 19-10): If it’s the end of the season, LSU must be on a winning streak. A year ago they won six of their final seven regular season games and rolled on into the SEC championship game. This year they enter the tournament as the conference’s hottest team and winners of their last six games. A heartbreaking home loss to Tennessee on February 7th dropped LSU to 4-6 in league play and 13-10 overall. They’ve turned it around and are on a six-game tear that includes wins over Georgia, Kentucky, and Texas A&M.
Forward Theresa Plaisance has taken a big step forward in her junior year. The former McDonald’s All-American struggled as a freshman and only tallied just over 2 points per game. She came off the bench as a sophomore and improved slightly to 4.5 PPG. She’s now right at the top of the SEC scoring chart at 17.6 points per game. She’s also among the top ten in rebounding and leads the SEC in blocked shots. Teams can’t afford to pay too much attention to Plaisance because Adrienne Webb is a credible perimeter threat. Danielle Ballard is the likely SEC Freshman of the Year and posted consecutive double-doubles to end the season. Ballard stands out as a freshman for making the hustle plays – she’s an effective rebounder from the guard position and leads the SEC in steals.
7. Vanderbilt (9-7, 19-10): It’s an exaggeration to say that Vandy has had a disappointing season, but they’ve struggled to gain much momentum this year. They have a big non-conference win over Oklahoma, and a recent upset of A&M might’ve been the win that clinches their spot in the NCAA Tournament. But Vanderbilt went from early January to the last week of the season without consecutive conference wins. The Vanderbilt offense flows through senior forward Tiffany Clarke, and Jasmine Lister is a veteran point guard. Another experienced guard, Christina Foggie, is working back from an injury.
Vanderbilt’s opening opponent, Missouri, will be a concern only if the Tigers can get hot from outside. That plays into Vanderbilt’s strength – they’re the SEC’s top defense against the three-pointer. Vandy did a great job taking away this element of Missouri’s game when the teams met in Nashville. Mizzou was a horrid 4-of-27 from outside, and Vanderbilt came away with an uneventful win. We expect a similar result on Thursday as a loss to Missouri would do serious damage to Vanderbilt’s postseason hopes.
8. Arkansas (6-10, 18-11): Arkansas followed a familiar pattern of starting the season strong and then struggling to sustain success in SEC play. They started 12-1 and notched a win over then-#17 Kansas. Fayetteville proved to be a tough place to play, as usual, but Arkansas couldn’t close out home upset opportunities against Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Six of their ten SEC losses have been by six points or less, but those losses might be enough to keep them from a consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.
The Hogs are led by a pair of versatile forwards who can score inside or outside. Sarah Watkins is Arkansas’ leading scorer, and Quistelle Williams has continued the form she showed in last year’s NCAA Tournament. She’s prone to foul trouble, though. The Razorbacks succeed with defense – only South Carolina does a better job limiting opponent field goal percentage.
9. Florida (6-10, 17-13): It’s been a frustrating year for Amanda Butler’s squad. There’s some good talent – Jennifer George is an experienced forward, Jaterra Bonds is a capable guard, and Sydney Moss has emerged as one of the conference’s top freshmen. It just hasn’t been enough – there’s a nice early win over LSU before the Tigers caught fire, but the rest of Florida’s SEC wins have come against the bottom of the league. It’s not that they haven’t been competitive – seven of their ten conference losses have been within ten points. The biggest problem has been on defense where they rank 12th in scoring defense.
There’s reason for optimism – at least on Thursday. Florida had a relatively easy time with Arkansas in Gainesville a week ago, and they held the Razorbacks to just 31% from the floor. If Florida can defend that well on a neutral floor, they have a good chance to advance to a rematch with Tennessee – a team Florida took to overtime earlier in the season.
10. Missouri (6-10, 17-13): As with football, Missouri didn’t have quite the impact on the SEC that Texas A&M had. Still, Columbia proved to be a dangerous place for some of the conference’s best teams. Tennessee and South Carolina both lost on Missouri’s home court. The key for Missouri is simple: outside shooting. Mizzou hit a school-record 253 three-pointers this year – no other SEC school made more than 200. In their February 3rd upset of Tennessee, Missouri drilled 11 three-pointers. They concluded the regular season hitting 13-of-28 three-pointers against Bama.
The good news for Vanderbilt, Missouri’s first-round opponent, is that Missouri’s excellent shooting has been hard to come by away from home. They have a pair of road wins against poor Alabama and Ole Miss teams, but five of their six road losses were by 15 points or more. Morgan Eye is the SEC’s top three-point shooter at nearly 42%, and she and forward Bri Kulas will have to be on fire for Missouri to have a chance of advancing.
11. Auburn (5-11, 16-13): Former Georgia assistant Terri Williams-Flournoy was hired from Georgetown to take over head coaching duties at Auburn. It’s been a rough debut for a coach who built Georgetown into a respectable program. To be fair, Williams-Flournoy hasn’t had a lot with which to work. The Tigers won the regular season finale against Mississippi State and avoided Wednesday’s play-in game.
Auburn has good size – 6’1″ guard Hasina Muhammad leads the team in scoring but prefers to work inside the arc. Wing Blanche Alverson is a capable threat from outside. Sisters Tyrese and Tra’Cee Tanner contribute in the frontcourt.
12. Mississippi State (5-11, 13-16): The Bulldogs also welcomed a new coach. Vic Schaefer was the respected “defensive coordinator” for Gary Blair’s Arkansas and Texas A&M programs, and he’s been working towards this opportunity for a long time.
The Bulldogs dropped their first six SEC games, but they’ve gone .500 since. They won four of their last five home games, including wins over Arkansas and Georgia. Schaefer hasn’t had the raw material to craft a defense comparable to what he had at A&M, but there has been some progress by one player in particular. Center Martha Alwal leads the league in rebounding and is second in blocks.
13. Alabama (2-14, 12-17): It’s been another year at the bottom of the conference for Alabama. They won a couple of early SEC games against Ole Miss and Auburn, but they’ve lost their last ten. The Tide are at or near the bottom in shooting percentage offense and defense, and that’s about all you need to know. Mississippi State hasn’t had a great year, but it would be a mild upset for Alabama to win on Wednesday.
Hey, wait, aren’t there 14 SEC teams?
Yep. One team, Ole Miss, won’t even make the trip. An investigation into “recruiting and academic misconduct” led to the dismissal of the head coach and several staffers entering this season. The school also self-imposed sanctions including a one-year postseason ban. That self-imposed ban will leave us one team short in Duluth.