There are two firsts of note as the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament gets underway on Wednesday: it’s the first time the event will be held in Jacksonville, and it’s the first time a team other than Tennessee has navigated SEC play without a loss. South Carolina repeats as the regular season champion, and they improved on a 15-1 record in 2015 the only way you can: a perfect 16-0 mark. That record might hint that everyone else is playing for second, but several teams came close to knocking off the Gamecocks, and anything can happen in the tournament. The #2 and #3 seeds lost to South Carolina by 1, 6, and 7 points during the regular season.
It could be a fun first few rounds. Each of the four bottom seeds has knocked off at least one of Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee, and Missouri. Tennessee will be looking to make some noise from the #7 seed. Even Auburn or Missouri coming from the 8-9 game won’t be an automatic win for the top seed. While South Carolina’s dominance has been the story, all other teams have at least five conference losses. Almost every team has been vulnerable in some way, and each team has a quality win under its belt.
There’s been quite a bit of mobility in the standings from one year to the next. Florida, Auburn, and Georgia all took a step up this season. Tennessee, Ole Miss, and LSU took a tumble. That’s made for some unexpected scores during the season, and it could lead to some new faces in the semifinals. Nine teams are currently projected to make the NCAA Tournament, so fans should expect competitive and quality games with a few surprises.
Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:
Thursday / Second Round: #6 Georgia vs. #11 Vanderbilt or #14 Ole Miss: ~8:30 pm ET. SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #3 Mississippi State: ~8:30 pm ET. SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:30 pm ET. ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 2:30 p.m. ET. ESPN
Complete Bracket Here
1) South Carolina (16-0, 28-1): Three straight regular season titles have established Dawn Staley’s program as the newest SEC dynasty. They followed a regular season title in 2014 with the tournament title in 2015 and carved out a little more history for themselves this year with the perfect conference record. It hasn’t been a cakewalk – 7 of their 16 conference games were decided by fewer than 10 points. It’s to their credit that they’ve learned how to grind out those close wins, and only a handful were really in question at the end. That experience should serve them well during the tighter competition in the postseason.
The Gamecocks feature arguably the nation’s best frontcourt, and it’s no surprise they lead the league in rebounding and blocked shots. That interior defense and the ability to hold opponents to one shot is a big part of what they do. Wilson and Coates would be enough for any team, but the depth provided by Imovbioh and others puts South Carolina over the top. Tiffany Mitchell is a versatile scorer from the wing and is the leader of the team. I could go on – Sessions, Roy – there are contributors up and down the roster which is what you’d expect from a national contender.
2) Texas A&M (11-5, 21-8): Team Courtney is once again back near the top of the standings. Seniors Courtney Williams and Courtney Walker are the only Aggies scoring in double-figures, and they’ve been enough to lead A&M to a second place finish. The Aggie formula hasn’t changed in a few seasons: they don’t shoot much from outside but rely on defense, transition, and a ton of mid-range jumpers (which happens to be the Walker’s specialty.) Two of A&M’s four conference losses have come to South Carolina, and no SEC team has come closer to knocking off the champs. A pair of close road losses to Arkansas and Florida were their other setbacks, but on a neutral court A&M could be considered a slight favorite in Jacksonville to earn a third shot at the Gamecocks.
3) Mississippi State (11-5, 24-6): Vic Schaefer’s rebuilding project has reached maturity. Despite the departure of a talented senior class, MSU has posted consecutive 11-5 seasons and third place finishes, and their best player is only a sophomore. Victoria Vivians has taken over leadership of the team and at 6’1″ can score from anywhere in the offense. Chinwe Okorie has established herself inside, but the Bulldogs also have a dangerous outside game with six players hitting at least 10 three-pointers. Morgan William, another sophomore, has become an effective point guard with a knack for getting to the foul line. They’ve lost six games all season, and all six have been to likely NCAA Tournament teams with only one bad blowout loss to Kentucky.
4) Florida (10-6, 22-7): The Gators have been a surprise this year bouncing back from a losing record a year ago. This is a young and athletic team that likes to run, but their pressure defense can be feast or famine. They lead the conference in steals thanks to that pressure, and their transition offense puts them at the top of the league in scoring with 79 points per game. If teams can handle that pressure, they can find some easy scoring opportunities, and that’s been an issue in Florida’s losses. Ronni Williams is an impressive wing made to play in this up-tempo system. Freshman guard Eleanna Christinaki made an immediate impact, and the team benefits from the experience of senior guards Carlie Needles and Cassie Peoples.
5) Kentucky (10-6, 21-6): It’s been an odd season in Lexington. Kentucky spent most of the season in the top 15 nationally, but it took a late push to finish this high in the SEC standings. An early February loss to South Carolina left the Wildcats at 4-6 in the league after an undefeated nonconference run. They’ve won six straight to enter the tournament as one of the hotter teams in the SEC, but even that momentum wasn’t enough to carry them to a top four seed after the slow start. Junior Makayla Epps helped the Wildcats overcome the loss of a deep senior class, and JUCO Evelyn Akhator has been an impact newcomer inside. But what makes Kentucky dangerous is the ability of almost any player, including Maci Morris, Alexis Jennings, and Janee Thompson, to stand out. That, combined with Kentucky’s trademark frenzied defense, makes them a team that can advance in the postseason. Their path to the SEC finals though likely goes through two teams, Florida and South Carolina, that handed Kentucky 3 of their 6 conference losses.
6) Georgia (9-7, 21-8): It’s largely been the same cast of characters for a couple of seasons, so what Georgia tries to do shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s still a team that leans heavily on defense and doesn’t shoot especially well in the halfcourt offense. First-year coach Joni Taylor has made sure that the Lady Dogs are self-aware when it comes to their strengths and weaknesses, and the need to create offense from that defense has been an emphasis all season. The result has been a defense that’s top 20 nationally and a record that surpassed the preseason consensus.
For the second straight season, the Lady Dogs will enter the postseason without their leader Shacobia Barbee. Her injury just a week before the end of the regular season leaves Georgia without one of the nation’s best rebounders and defenders, and that’s a big concern when Georgia relies on rebounding and defense to generate offense. Georgia is actually without two starters – forward Mackenzie Engram, a 2015 SEC All-Freshman team member, hasn’t played since early January. Engram’s absence has tested Georgia’s frontcourt depth, but one of the positive developments has been the emergence of freshman post Caliya Robinson. Robinson has won SEC Freshman of the Week honors multiple times and is beginning to show confidence in her range and defense.
Georgia, even without Barbee, starts a trio of seniors who have been in their roles for multiple seasons. Hempe, Griffin, and Butler all need a good tournament for Georgia to advance. Griffin has been shooting well but was bottled up by Tennessee. Hempe and Washington must watch their fouls as they work inside. Butler must handle defensive pressure and look to attack. The injuries have left Georgia thin on the bench, but minutes from Robinson and reserve guards Clark and Armbrister will have to be productive.
7) Tennessee (8-8, 16-12): The Lady Vols get credit for playing the nation’s toughest schedule, but eventually you have to win some of them. Though they took a big hit during conference play, Tennessee likely won enough during the early part of the season to secure an NCAA bid. Losses to bottom four teams Alabama and LSU had the Lady Vols in some peril before they found some answers against Georgia (of course.) There’s plenty of talent – former #1 prospect Mercedes Russell, phenom Diamond DeShields, experienced seniors Bashaara Graves and Nia Moore, and steady role players like Andraya Carter. For whatever reason, that talent has had trouble meshing this season, and scoring can be tough to come by. Still, Tennessee’s eight conference losses have been by an average of 4.5 points. This is a team inconsistent enough to lose their opening game to Arkansas, as they did in Fayetteville in January, or compete with 2-seed Texas A&M in the quarterfinals, a team they played to within five points on the Aggies’ home court. As usual, we should expect a partisan Tennessee crowd to give their team a little edge.
8) Missouri (8-8, 21-8): The Tigers made a splash this year thanks to the arrival of SEC Freshman of the Year Sophie Cunningham. They quickly earned a spot in the national rankings and stayed there for much of the season. Cunningham’s biggest impact has been to transform Missouri from a team that relied almost exclusively on the outside shot. They’re still second only to Ole Miss in three-pointers attempted, but opponents have had to respect other elements of the Missouri offense like junior forward Jordan Frericks. Missouri has become more well-rounded and, as a result, more consistent and dangerous.
9) Auburn (8-8, 18-11): Auburn was 3-13 a year ago but was one of the surprise teams of 2016. They posted impressive wins over Kentucky and Florida en route to an 8-5 SEC start. Junior Katie Frerking has emerged as a dangerous scorer to go along with Brandy Montgomery. Their press and matchup zone has them among the best in the nation at generating steals, and the transition points can come in waves. Those two upsets were enough to separate Auburn from the lower half of the conference and keep them in contention for a top-four finish until the final week of the season. The Tigers have hit a bit of a wall though and have dropped their last three games. Their game against Missouri could be very important for Auburn’s postseason fate.
10) Arkansas (7-9, 12-17): The Hogs were also a surprise team after a poor nonconference showing. They pulled off an unexpected surge in January with four wins in five games that included some impressive scalps: Texas A&M, Missouri, and Tennessee. That momentum cooled down a bit in February, and Arkansas, like most teams, proved to be a little less potent on the road. Junior wing Jessica Jackson continues to be an impressive and dominant player able to score inside or step outside. Senior forward Melissa Wolff is another frontcourt player who can stretch defenses outside, and quick guards like Devin Cosper and Jordan Danberry can create off the dribble. This is a young team with only one senior that should be improved next season.
11) Vanderbilt (5-11, 16-13): As the program awaits the arrival of a heralded recruiting class, they’ve suffered through a second-straight difficult season. There have been some noteworthy successes including road upsets of ranked Kentucky and Missouri teams, and they’ve been frustratingly close in several losses to quality opponents. Consistency has been an issue, and only one player, Christa Reed, averages in double-figures. Guards are the team’s top three scorers, and Reed and Rebekah Dahlman are two of the SEC’s top seven in three-point percentage. Post Marqu’es Webb can cause problems if teams pay too much attention to the perimeter game. Vandy lost eight straight down the stretch until ending the season with a nice road win at Missouri. Was that enough to reverse their momentum heading into Jacksonville?
12) Alabama (4-12, 15-14): Alabama doubled their SEC win total – a good sign. They were 4-4 at home, including wins over Georgia and Tennessee, and a controversial call at the end of the Texas A&M game cost them another home win. The bad news of course is that Alabama has been winless on the road, and they’ll have to leave home to play in the tournament. Hannah Cook leads the team in scoring and steals, and she’s second only to center Nikki Hegstetter in rebounds. Alabama can be effective with their tough interior defense but struggles when opponents are knocking down outside shots.
13) LSU (3-13, 9-20): The Tigers plummeted from a fourth-place finish in 2015 to match the program’s record for most losses in a season. The team can point to injuries, starting with All-SEC guard Raigyne Moncrief. Another All-SEC guard, Danielle Ballard, was dismissed from the team. The depleted roster is led by forwards Alexis Hyder and Akilah Bethel, and much of the offense flows through guard Rina Hill who has played an astounding 1,000 minutes this season (nearly 35 min/game). Wins over Tennessee and Georgia show they can be a threat in the early rounds.
14) Ole Miss (2-14, 10-19): The Rebels fell quite a bit from their 17-12 WNIT campaign a year ago. They haven’t been able to replace some good talent from that team, especially forward Tia Faleru. The highlight of their season was an upset of then-#9 Kentucky in January, so even the last-place team has some punch. The Rebels depend on the outside shot – no team, not even Missouri, has attempted more three-pointers. The bad news is that they’re only tenth in three-point percentage. If the outside shots are falling, they have the ability to steal a win.