The SEC women break the Nashville/Duluth cycle this year and head west to Arkansas this week for their 2015 tournament. North Little Rock has hosted the tournament three times already, most recently in 2009. While there is a clear favorite this season, the battle to make it to Saturday and beyond is a toss-up.
At the top of the standings, it’s been pretty much as expected. South Carolina and Tennessee finished with a single conference loss each, and no one would be surprised to see them square off for the championship. There have been some interesting developments in the next tier of teams. Mississippi State has been a great story. LSU could be considered a bit of a surprise as well after disappointing nonconference results. Texas A&M and Kentucky are used to finishing a little higher than they did, and each has been vulnerable. With so much SEC Tournament experience between those two teams, you almost expect one of them to make a little noise from the 5 and 6 seeds.
The bottom of the field has also seen some shifting. A slew of midseason injuries left Georgia, once comfortably among the top third of the league, fighting just to avoid the ignominy of playing on Wednesday. Missouri put together a run and a couple of upsets at the end of the season to merit the 7 seed. Vanderbilt has had a season below their standards while Ole Miss took a nice step forward. Alabama and Auburn rose to the middle of the pack last season but have returned to the bottom.
Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:
Thursday / Second Round: #10 Georgia vs. #7 Missouri: 7 pm ET. SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #2 Tennessee: 7 pm ET. SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 7:30 pm ET. ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 3:30 p.m. ET. ESPN
Complete Bracket Here
1) South Carolina (15-1): If last season’s SEC regular season championship announced the arrival of Dawn Staley’s program, this year’s campaign showed the conference that the Gamecocks liked it at the top. The next step for Staley? An SEC Tournament title. Despite the regular season crown in 2014, South Carolina fell in the semifinals and didn’t play for the tournament title. They’ve been the league’s most dominant team all season, though recent challenges from Tennessee and Kentucky shows that the champs have plenty of work to do before they’re crowned in Little Rock. They won’t have to face either of those teams until the championship game on Sunday.
As with any champion, the Gamecocks are talented, well-coached, and confident. There’s a slew of experienced players returning starting with All-American guard Tiffany Mitchell. Senior forward Aleighsa Welch is the team’s leader and sets the tone with an incredible work rate around the basket. A stellar freshman class including forward A’ja Wilson and lightning-quick point guard Bianca Cuevas has elevated the team to contend for the national title.
2) Tennessee (15-1, 23-4): While South Carolina deservedly enters the tournament as the favorite, how can you overlook the team that’s won four of the last five tournaments? Tennessee has dropped three games outside of the league to very good opponents, but they’ve only fallen once in conference play: a very competitive loss at South Carolina that went down to the final possession. Tennessee still thrives on relentless defense and aggressive rebounding, and that will do against most teams.
The Lady Vols took a big hit recently when center Isabelle Harrison was lost for the season, but the team showed at South Carolina that they can still be dangerous without her. There’s still a tremendous amount of talent, and forwards Cierra Burdick and Bashaara Graves can step up in place of Harrison. Ariel Massengale and Andraya Carter lead a veteran backcourt. Tennessee doesn’t go that deep, so they’ll need big production across the starting five to repeat as tournament champions.
3) Mississippi St (11-5, 26-5): No team has made a bigger jump this season. MSU has improved from 13th a year ago to third under third-year coach Vic Schaefer. They raced out to an 18-0 start against a typically weak schedule, but they’ve held it together in conference play. Their 11 SEC wins and 26 overall wins are both program records. If a loss at Vanderbilt can ever be considered a bad loss, that’s their only blemish. MSU has knocked off three teams ranked at the time – Georgia, West Virginia, and Texas A&M. They’ve yet to claim a top 10 scalp, though they went to two overtimes against Kentucky. With the Wildcats their likely Friday opponent, that rematch could be one of the more entertaining quarterfinal games.
The Bulldogs can shoot, hitting more three-pointers than anyone but Missouri. But they succeed by doing the little things well: they’re near the top of the league in rebounding, free throw percentage, and blocks. Martha Alwal remains one of the league’s most well-rounded post players, but she’s had some help this year from freshman wing Victoria Vivians. There’s a deep and experienced pool of guards that make it difficult to key on the posts or on any one shooter.
4) LSU (10-6, 16-12): Heading into conference play, the Tigers were a flat 6-6 with some head-scratching losses. An early-season suspension for leading scorer Danielle Ballard turned LSU into a very ordinary team. Ballard returned soon after the SEC schedule started, and the Tigers have rebounded to become a contender for an NCAA bid despite their overall record. They have impressive wins against Kentucky and Mississippi State, but some inconsistency down the stretch is troubling. They beat a short-handed Texas A&M team to close the season, but that win snapped a streak of three losses in four games including an ugly loss at Arkansas. The Tigers are guard-focused with Ballard and Raigyne Moncrief carrying most of the load. If they can get addtional outside production from DaShawn Harden or any inside production, it’s a bonus. The win against A&M earned them the double-bye, and they’ll likely have to face the Aggies again to make the semifinals.
5) Texas A&M (10-6, 22-8): It’s a familiar place for A&M: they’re not at the top of the standings, but they’re comfortably among the next group. The Aggies weren’t competitive with Tennessee or South Carolina but have an additional three losses by a combined 6 points. They lost point guard Jordan Jones for the season last week against Missouri, and they’ve dropped two straight games without her. A&M is the anti-Missouri, attempting few outside shots, and they depend on that point guard position for penetration and passing inside the arc. Jones is also one of the league’s top defenders. The absence of Jones likely won’t cost them in their first game, but Friday’s game would be a rematch against LSU – a team that just beat the Aggies by 17 on Sunday.
6) Kentucky (10-6, 21-8): The Cats have been highly-ranked all season, but they’ve found it tough to stay near the top of the SEC. They missed a chance to upset Tennessee in Lexington, and there’s no shame in any of their losses. They also have an impressive set of wins over ranked teams, and they captured the biggest win of the season with a Senior Day upset of South Carolina. Their frenetic defense and pace is enough to give them a chance against any opponent. They took a graduation hit in the frontcourt, but a strong senior class led by guard Jennifer O’Neill has plenty of postseason experience. Kentucky was able to knock off top-seeded South Carolina in the tournament last season, and Sunday’s upset of the Gamecocks was a reminder that even the 6-seed could make a deep run in this tournament.
7) Missouri (7-9, 17-12): Three! No SEC team is more dependent on the three-pointer. They don’t shoot the league’s best percentage, but no other team attempts or makes more than the Tigers. When they’re falling, they’re able to beat Texas A&M in College Station. They’ve had some success against the bottom of the conference (not to mention the upset of A&M), but the more talented teams of the league have been able to match up against their guards. Mizzou has been hot down the stretch, winning five of their last six games, so an appearance in the quarterfinals isn’t out of the question.
8) Ole Miss (7-9, 17-12): Their in-state rivals might be the SEC’s most improved team, but the Rebels aren’t far behind. In three seasons, Ole Miss has gone from the disgrace of postseason ineligibility to a last-place finish a year ago to a very respectable middle-of-the-pack result in 2015. It hasn’t been smooth sailing: they started SEC play 4-1 but lost seven straight before righting the ship. They’ve knocked off Georgia, Arkansas, LSU, and Kentucky in Oxford but haven’t done much of note away from home – always a concern for the postseason. Forward Tia Faleru is the league’s best rebounder.
9) Arkansas (6-10, 16-12): When you’re (re)building a program, you want to see a team that’s improved over the course of the season. That’s what you’ve got with Arkansas. The Hogs started out 1-6 in the SEC under first-year coach Jimmy Dykes, but they won five of seven games to get back into the discussion for an NCAA bid. A rout of red-hot LSU shows that this is a team to avoid in your bracket.
10) Georgia (6-10, 18-11): On January 22nd, the Lady Dogs pulled off a mild upset of #10 Texas A&M. It was a low-scoring, defensive battle – the formula that had worked to propel them to a 5-2 SEC record, 17-3 overall. Georgia then dropped a competitive game at Tennessee, but it was the loss of the team’s best scorer and defender, Shacobia Barbee, that changed the season. The tight games that had gone Georgia’s way became close losses, and a litany of injuries piled up as Georgia dropped eight straight and went winless in February. Georgia’s young players have made progress since the injuries afforded more playing time, and they were able to break the losing streak in the season finale at Florida. Georgia’s 20-year NCAA Tournament streak seems to be over, and they’ll have to make do in a spoiler role here.
Georgia’s been led by the backcourt in the past few seasons, but that’s changed a little this year especially without Barbee in the lineup. Merritt Hempe has continued to improve at center, and her return will help the team. Senior forward Krista Donald continues to be a warrior, and All-SEC freshman Mackenzie Engram has been a nice addition. Halle Washington has stepped up in Hempe’s absence.
Guards have struggled with consistency, and it starts with the point guard spot. Freshman Haley Clark has earned more and more playing time and a couple of starts down the stretch, but it’s been tough when so much of the offense runs through the point. Tiaria Griffin, Erika Ford, and transfer Pachis Roberts are all capable of big nights but are just as likely to be ice-cold. Fortunately their defense has been more consistent, but that defense has had little margin for error as the team has struggled to score.
11) Vanderbilt (5-11, 14-15): It’s the dreaded rebuilding year for Vandy. They’ve retooled with a taller but very inexperienced lineup that’s taking its lumps. That doesn’t mean they’re toothless: Vandy has knocked off Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Arkansas and could be a dangerous first or second round opponent. But as an inexperienced team, they’re just as likely to bow out on the first night.
12) Florida (5-11, 13-16): A year after squeaking into the NCAA Tournament, Florida has taken a step back. Florida was unspectacular in nonconference play, and their best conference win was a comeback in Athens during the Georgia collapse. The Gators feature their guards, but consistency, depth, and frontcourt production have been problems.
13) Auburn (3-13, 12-17): A dismal season got even worse after a midseason brawl with rival Alabama. The fallout from the brawl led to the dismissal of leading scorer Hasina Muhammad, and the Tigers seemed headed to a winless SEC season. They turned some heads with a comeback and near-upset against Ole Miss, and they finally broke through into the win column with a win at Georgia and closed the regular season with three straight wins. Guard Brandy Montgomery has stepped up, and the team’s pressure defense can be maddening. They’re not a sure one-and-done team at this tournament.
14) Alabama (2-14, 13-18): The Tide have lost quite a bit of ground from their surprising 7-9 campaign a year ago. Narrow wins over Auburn and Missouri are all that separate Alabama from a winless season, and the upsets that got them to seven wins in 2014 didn’t happen this year.