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Post 2017 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 1, 2017

This is our eleventh preview of the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament, and it’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the conference over that time. The addition of Texas A&M had an immediate impact, and Missouri has started to make their mark. You don’t have to go back through many of our previews to find South Carolina and Mississippi State among the bottom half (if not bottom quarter) of the conference. That they’ve turned things around and displaced perennial favorites like Tennessee, LSU, and Georgia shows the kind of turnover that can happen in a competitive league as resources begin to equalize, media coverage becomes universal, and a new wave of ambitious coaches tries to take what once belonged to the conference’s old guard.

Vic Schaefer took over Mississippi State in 2012-2013 and is already the program’s 2nd-winningest coach. He took two seasons to rebuild the program, posted consecutive 11-5 conference records in 2015 and 2016, and came up just short of the regular season title in his fifth season. That follows on the heels of Dawn Staley’s own meteoric rise as she built the Gamecocks from an afterthought into the four-time defending regular season champions.

The top of the league has been fairly airtight this year, but some cracks are showing. South Carolina and Mississippi State distinguished themselves early, and the only question was which team would win the regular season title. The Gamecocks won the head-to-head meeting, but Mississippi State had a chance to win at least a share of the title until the final game. The biggest upset of the season might be Missouri over South Carolina, but Mizzou has been ranked (or close to it) all season. Tennessee’s win at South Carolina was also a shock, but is a Tennessee win ever really an upset? South Carolina should be expected to be playing for the title on Sunday, but can Mississippi State snap out of a recent funk to join them? That side of the bracket could get wild if the #2-seed Bulldogs can’t refocus.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: #8 Georgia vs. #9 Auburn: Noon ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #1 South Carolina: Noon ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 5:00 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 3:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field:

1) South Carolina (14-2, 24-4) (LY-1): Their odds of winning the conference seemed long after an upset loss at Missouri, but they bounced back to win their final two games while Mississippi State faded. After the dust cleared Sunday, the Gamecocks won their fourth consecutive regular season conference title. Only Tennessee from 1998-2004 has had a longer run at the top. Now the team looks for a third-straight SEC Tournament title – a feat previously only accomplished by, you guessed it, Tennessee.

Any discussion of South Carolina must start with the frontcourt of Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson. The duo has been dominant even though Coates has battled foul trouble and injuries. Few do the high-low game any better. Consistency at guard has been an issue for the Gamecocks. Transfers Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis are known as prolific scorers, but they’ve disappeared at times or, worse, contributed to inefficient offense with poor shot selection. Bianca Cuevas-Moore is an x-factor who can dart to the basket or pull up for a big outside shot.

South Carolina has cranked out the wins again this season, but they’ve been tougher to come by. One reason is depth. They really need Coates and Wilson on the court at the same time to be at peak production. I don’t know if “leadership” is the right word, but the team has missed the steadying influence of a veteran like Tiffany Mitchell. Wilson is the often the best player on the court, but she has to get the ball. Make no mistake: this is an extremely talented team, and they’re the favorites to repeat as champions for the third time. South Carolina now occupies the territory Tennessee once held. They’re used to taking everyone’s best shot and have the most experience making deep tournament runs. They’re only 100 miles from home and should have plenty of crowd support. I wouldn’t bet against them, but you wonder who’s going to get the ball at the end of a close game.

2) Mississippi State (13-3, 27-3) (LY-3): A week ago Mississippi State had an outright lead for the regular season title and a probable #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They dropped their final two regular season games, lost out on even a share of the conference title, and they’d have to win the conference tournament to have a chance at a top NCAA seed. Did they wilt under the pressure? That’s possible, but they also faced a pair of good teams. The Bulldogs started 20-0, and a controversial close loss at South Carolina was their only blemish until the final week of the season. MSU rolled through much of their schedule, and they have impressive wins against Texas and at Tennessee.

Junior forward Victoria Vivians has been a top performer since she arrived in Starkville. Vic Schaefer has built up the surrounding cast, and defenses can’t focus solely on Vivians. Morgan William is a slashing guard who can get to the rim and draw fouls or hit the occasional outside shot. The frontcourt of Teaira McCowan, Chinwe Okorie, and Breanna Richardson is formidable. This is a deep squad that can spread it around featuring seven players averaging at least 7 PPG and ten players seeing at least 12 minutes per game. At crunch time, though, Vivians wants the ball and more often than not can make good things happen.

A couple weeks ago there was no hotter team in the SEC. It’s been a rough past two weeks though with a pair of close calls against Georgia and Texas A&M and then the losses to Kentucky and Tennessee. The Bulldogs will still earn a high NCAA seed, but they’ll need a strong showing in Greenville to gain back the confidence and momentum they’ll need for a deep NCAA run. They arguably face the easiest path to the championship game of the four top seeds. It will take much better play than they’ve shown lately to get there.

3) Missouri (11-5, 21-9) (LY-8): A five-game winning streak propelled the Tigers to a double-bye and their best finish as an SEC member. They’re arguably the hottest team entering the tournament. As with other recent Mizzou teams, they’re productive from the outside. Robin Pingeton has an experienced team that plays sound basketball. They lead the league in free throw percentage. Once again no SEC team has attempted more three-pointers, and they’re hitting almost 36%. In terms of SEC WBB, Missouri is the new Vanderbilt.

Sophie Cunningham was SEC Freshman of the Year last season and has only improved as she matures into a team leader and an SEC star. She has help: Cierra Porter is an impressive presence inside who will make teams pay for focusing on outside shooters like Sierra Michaelis who has attempted nearly 200 three-pointers. Missouri’s success is even more remarkable considering they lost a pair of veteran forwards to injury prior to the season. Jordan Frericks was the team’s second-leading scorer behind Cunningham, and Porter has done a fantastic job anchoring a depleted frontcourt.

The Tigers have been in and out of the rankings all season, but their current winning streak featuring an upset of South Carolina has them trending up. Missouri’s problem has been finding success away from home. The Tigers are a stellar 15-1 at home but just a pedestrian 6-8 in other arenas. They have won two road games during their current winning streak. Whether they’ve figured out how to play at a high level will be tested right away. They’ll probably face a good Texas A&M team on Friday, and Missouri won that regular season meeting by just two points in Columbia.

4) Kentucky (11-5, 20-9) (LY-5): We’re used to seeing the Wildcats at or near the top of the standings. Matthew Mitchell’s squad is once again among the class of the league, and it’s been a pretty remarkable coaching job to have them among the top four this year. The Wildcats were hit with a slew of transfers during the offseason, forcing Mitchell to adapt his style of play. The Cats aren’t especially deep due to the attrition which hinders the frenetic pace and trapping defense that Mitchell prefers, but this team can still do damage in a halfcourt game. Kentucky hasn’t faltered against the lower two-thirds of the conference, and they’ve notched wins over Missouri and Mississippi State. Seniors Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator are just the kind of dependable and productive players you want your seniors to be, but Taylor Murray, Maci Morris, and Jaida Roper are a trio of underclassman guards providing important contributions to balance the scoring. No one will have a tougher path to the finals with Tennessee and South Carolina in their way.

5) Tennessee (10-6, 19-10) (LY-7): It’s been a maddeningly inconsistent year for the Lady Vols. They’ve managed wins over four top ten teams yet lost to Virginia Tech, Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss, and Auburn. This follows a year in which the Lady Vols made a run to the Elite Eight after coming close to missing the tournament. The wins show that they have the talent to compete with anyone, and the losses show some serious issues with depth beyond a few key contributors. Diamond DeShields has improved each season and is good enough to carry this team deep into the tournament. This is her team. Mercedes Russell is an elite talent at center. Jamie Nared is the kind of scrappy and clutch player you often associate with Tennessee. If the Lady Vols can get production from those three (and occasionally Jordan Reynolds), they can beat most teams. They won at South Carolina with their three key players scoring 64 of the team’s 76 points. If that production isn’t there, they can struggle.

Tennessee will have their usual large tournament crowd behind them, and they know how to play in big games. If they advance to the quarterfinals, they’ve defeated the three teams likely standing between them and the championship. Then again, they’ve lost to their most likely second round opponent (Alabama). It’s been that kind of year. Still, would anyone be surprised to see them playing on Saturday or even Sunday?

6) Texas A&M (9-7, 19-10) (LY-2): A&M has sort of faded from the national scene after challenging for the conference title a few years ago, but they’re still hanging around and capable of advancing to at least Saturday in the tournament. An early win over 2016 national runner-up Syracuse stands out, but that came a day after a loss to Dayton. They’ve notched wins over Tennessee and Kentucky, but they enter the postseason on a four-game slide that knocked them out of a double-bye all the way down to the 6-seed. Gary Blair will have his team ready to play their trademark tough defense, but they’ll have to pull out of their tailspin quickly to advance beyond Thursday. Danni Williams is the team’s leading scorer and gives the Aggies an outside threat. Forward Khaalia Hillsman adds over 16 PPG inside. Curtyce Knox is another scoring threat at guard, and Taylor Cooper is hitting nearly 42% of her three-pointers.

7) LSU (8-8, 19-10) (LY-13): The Tigers have been quietly competent this year after a 13th-place finish last year, though some late losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia pulled them back to the middle of the pack. The offense flows through a pair of talented guards. Raigyne Moncrief and Chloe Jackson can score anywhere inside the arc and aren’t afraid to get to the rim. You won’t see many three-pointers from these Tigers – Auburn and Missouri have attempted about four times as many. This isn’t a tall team, but forward Alexis Hyder is a physical presence inside. LSU will show token pressure, and their lack of size means that they must be aggressive in halfcourt defense. The Tigers lead the conference in steals, but opponents can have success inside if they handle the pressure.

8) Georgia (7-9, 15-14) (LY-6): It’s been an impressive coaching job by Joni Taylor to have her team in this position. The Lady Dogs were picked to finish 12th preseason as they faced the challenge of replacing a strong senior class with a limited roster of only eight scholarship players. A 2-6 start in league play seemed to validate those preseason expectations, but Georgia turned it around by winning five of their final eight games. Georgia has lived on the edge: three of those five wins came in overtime, and the Lady Dogs are 6-1 in close games. Does that mean they’ve won a few that could have gone the other way? Sure, but Georgia made the plays to win those games, and the emergence of some key players led to those wins.

Wing Pachis Roberts took an important step forward as a senior, more than doubling her 7 PPG average a season ago. Roberts had big games before this season, but she’s been much more consistent and now leads the team in scoring. Sophomore Caliya Robinson adds 14 PPG and continues to show flashes of the talent that led to her SEC All-Freshman selection last season. Robinson can be a dominant forward and has taken over several games this season, but she also struggled with some midseason consistency and can take herself out of games with foul trouble. Taylor has settled on bringing Robinson in off the bench and starting Georgia’s lone freshman Stephanie Paul. Mackenzie Engram is back from the ailment that ended her sophomore season, and she can also put up big numbers as a versatile forward that can run the court, post up, or hit the outside jumper. Georgia is at their best when Roberts and Robinson are productive, and it usually takes at least one more player having a good night for Georgia to be successful. Often that’s Engram, but wing Shanea Armbrister can come up big too.

Even with their best players contributing, Georgia leans on their defense. The Lady Dogs are last in the league in scoring at 62.8 PPG, and they need the score to be in the 50s or low 60s in order to have a chance. That defense has been a big part of Georgia’s better-than-expected finish, though the biggest weakness for a team with such a thin bench has been foul trouble. Turnovers can also be a problem for this team as guard play isn’t a strength. That’s a concern in their opening game: they turned it over 22 times in this season’s win at Auburn.

9) Auburn (7-9, 17-13) (LY-9): One of the mysteries of the season has been the disappearance of the Auburn offense. The Tigers averaged nearly 75 PPG in their five SEC wins, but they struggled to reach 60 during a long slump towards the end of the year. They won two in a row at the end of the season after dropping eight of nine. Few teams are as top-heavy as the Tigers. Guards Katie Frerking, Brandy Montgomery, and Janiah McKay combine for 43 of the team’s 63 points per game. No other player averages more than 4.2 PPG. Auburn’s guard-heavy offense shoots more three-pointers than any team but Missouri, but Auburn is shooting less than 30% from outside. The spotty Auburn offense is often helped by their defense – a tough press that falls back into a tight matchup zone that extends beyond the arc. This frenzied defense often leads to turnovers and points: Auburn is second in the nation in turnovers forced (>22 per game) and also second in turnover margin. Auburn is clinging to the NCAA Tournament bubble, and that desperation could be an extra edge.

10) Ole Miss (6-10, 17-12) (LY-14): With wins over Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas A&M, the Rebels clearly can punch above their weight. That said, they’ve also been on the wrong side of several blowouts and can give up a lot of points. They’ve won only two games away from home, but a strong 15-3 home record was just enough to earn a first round bye and avoid playing on Wednesday. There’s no real standout player, but the Rebels will need big games from Madinah Muhammad and Shandricka Sessom. Alissa Alston can do damage off the bench, and Taylor Manuel and Shelby Gibson can push around teams without physical post players of their own. Ole Miss is near the top of the league in steals and forced turnovers, so their opening game against LSU should provide a good contest between teams who depend on their ability to generate turnovers.

11) Florida (5-11, 14-15) (LY-4): The Gators started the season ranked, but the December departure of leading scorer Eleanna Christinaki sent Florida reeling. They lost their first five SEC games and were just 2-8 after ten conference games. They finished 3-3 down the stretch and gave Missouri and Tennessee close games in a losing effort. They managed to sweep two games against Georgia but have no other wins against teams outside of the play-in games. Senior Ronni Williams took the team on her back and gets nearly 20 points per game. They’ve asked a lot of freshman Delicia Washington, and Washington has responded with over 11 PPG. Brooke Copeland can get hot from outside. Forward Haley Lorenzen can rebound and extend defenses with her range. The Gators have struggled with turnovers, leading the league with over 18 turnovers per game.

12) Alabama (5-11, 17-12) (LY-12): Alabama notched wins over Missouri, Tennessee, and a sweep of Ole Miss. Their 17 wins is the high water mark under coach Kristy Curry, but they’ve had difficulty turning those few noteworthy wins into more sustained success. Meoshonti Knight leads the Tide in scoring, but no player averages over 11.3 PPG. Scoring is spread around with seven players averaging over 6 PPG. Hannah Cook is a very good all-around player who can drill nearly 35% of her three-pointers and also pull down over 5 rebounds per game. Guard Jordan Lewis has been one of the top freshman in the SEC, starting every game and taking home SEC Freshman of the Week honors five times. Forward Shaquera Wade was a key recruit two years ago and is capable of a big game. Alabama isn’t a very big team, but everyone contributes on the glass. They’re second only to Tennessee in total rebounds.

13) Vanderbilt (4-12, 14-15) (LY-11): It was a tough initiation into the SEC for new coach Stephanie White. The Commodores lost their first seven league games, but only their loss at Tennessee was a true blowout. They finally posted a win against Alabama. This is a young team that brought in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes along with their new coach. That young group began to figure some things out towards the end of the year and closed with three wins in their final five games. Erin Whalen is one of those freshmen and took home the season’s final SEC Freshman of the Week honor. Scoring has been a team effort: the Commodores have just one player, Rachel Bell, scoring at least 10 PPG, but nine players average at least 5 PPG. Senior forward Marqu’es Webb continues to be a physical presence inside, but this is a team that lives and dies with the three-pointer. Only Missouri has made more, and the Commodores hit an impressive 39.1% of their outside shots. Their inexperience shows up in their ballhandling: only Florida turns the ball over more.

14) Arkansas (2-14, 13-16) (LY-10): Star forward Jessica Jackson can only carry them so far. The Razorbacks made it through nonconference play with an 11-2 record, but those two losses were to Oral Roberts and Missouri State. Reality soon set in during the SEC schedule, and they dropped their first four league games. Arkansas showed signs of life with consecutive wins in mid-January, but they’ve lost ten straight to end the season. There have been a few close calls – six of the losses on their current losing streak were by seven points or fewer – but the breakthrough never came. Jackson’s had yet another impressive campaign in her senior season and scores about 15 PPG. She leads the team in rebounds, three-pointers made and attempted, and foul shots made and attempted. Malica Monk, Keiryn Swenson, and Jailyn Mason provide scoring from the guard position.



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