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Post 2018 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday February 28, 2018

Mississippi State is second no longer. The Bulldogs reached new program heights a year ago by reaching the Final Four, shocking UConn in a thriller, and playing for the national championship. They led the SEC until the final week of the season. But when it came title time, Vic Schaefer’s squad came up just short as South Carolina swept the regular season SEC title, the SEC Tournament title, and of course the national title.

South Carolina’s reign at the top was brief. Schaefer’s team left no doubt this year – the Bulldogs rolled through the conference with a perfect 16-0 mark and an overall undefeated record. Mississippi State are the SEC champs for the first time and won the league by a four-game margin. They roll into this week’s tournament in Nashville as the #2 team in the nation and the odds-on favorite to add a tournament championship to the trophy case.

Though the Bulldogs were dominant and in a class by themselves, it was a particularly interesting and competitive season among the top half of the conference. Teams 2 through 7 are all within a game of each other. The standings are unusually stratified: half the conference is 11-5 or better, and the other half all have losing records. There were only a handful of games in which the lower half beat a team from the top half. Alabama continued its bizarre success over Tennessee. LSU dropped a pair to Auburn and Alabama. But that’s pretty much it. The top teams feasted on the bottom half with an occasional loss to another top team. The bottom teams found no success against the top half and got their few wins against each other.

The strength of the top half of the conference is evident in the rankings. All seven were ranked in the latest AP poll. ESPN’s bracketology has SEC members hosting five of the sixteen NCAA subregionals meaning they would be at least 4-seeds or better.

What this all should mean for the 2018 SEC Women’s Tournament is fairly predictable early rounds setting up some collosal matchups from the quarterfinals on. Ordinarily we’d expect at least one or two upsets with lower-seeded teams advancing to Friday. This year, though, the top seven should be strong favorites to reach the quarterfinals, and fans should be treated to some fantastic competitive matchups.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: Bye
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs TBD (likely Missouri): ~9:30 pm ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:30 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 4:30 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

1) Mississippi State (16-0, 30-0) (LY-2, PS-2): It’s hard to be better than perfect. MSU built on their breakthrough season of 2017 to win the elusive conference title, and they did so without a blemish. If there’s a knock against this team, it’s that the nonconference schedule wasn’t especially challenging with a win over Oregon standing out. They’ve had a couple of close calls: Oklahoma State and Missouri took MSU to the final minute. But that’s reaching – the Bulldogs didn’t slip up and beat every team that tooko the court. If anything, they’ve finished the season even stronger. Since surviving a scare at Missouri, they’ve won games by an average of 29 points with no win closer than 14 points.

Senior forward Victoria Vivians has long been a star in the SEC, and she’s even improved her range and consistency this year, hitting nearly 40% from outside and 50% overall from the floor. She made her team competitive right away as a freshman, but MSU took off because of the supporting cast built around Vivians. Junior center Teaira McCowan has developed from a raw freshman into a dominant presence inside capable of holding her own against any post player. McCowan is putting up 18.7 PPG and has pulled down an astounding 405 rebounds this year, good for 13.5 per game. Roshunda Johnson and Blair Schaefer are each shooting over 40% from outside and have combined for 143 three-pointers. Morgan William returns as the hero of the UConn win, and she’s been an effective point guard with an assist/turnover ratio better than 4.

Schaefer has tightened his rotation a bit. In 2017 the Bulldogs had ten players seeing at least 12 minutes per game. That’s down to seven this year, and the team might play about eight or occasionally nine on a given night. No one outside the starting five is averaging over 5 PPG, and they lean on Vivians and McCowan for about half of their points. That formula hasn’t let them down yet. It’s a devastating inside-outside combo that few teams can match when combined with Schaefer’s typically tough defense.

2) South Carolina (12-4, 23-6) (LY-1, PS-1): When you win the national title, you get everyone’s best shot. South Carolina hasn’t fallen far during their title defense, but enough cracks showed to knock them off the top line. They’ve struggled at times to replace a pair of guards now playing professionally, and a season-ending injury to Bianca Cuevas-Moore left the team thin at that key position. Another season-ending injury to grad transfer Lindsey Spann left the team without its best outside option. There’s still more than enough talent to get past most teams, but this isn’t the invincible squad from a year ago that cut down the nets.

The college career of A’ja Wilson is winding down, and it’s not to soon to consider her one of the conference’s all-time greats. It’s not hyperbole to say that her signing four years ago altered the course of the South Carolina program and changed the SEC. Now the Gamecocks, along with Mississippi State, are the standard-bearers of the SEC and the conference’s best hopes to advance deep in the NCAA tournament. With a less-potent lineup at guard this year, Wilson’s been asked to carry more of the load. Often she’s up to the job, but she’s showed signs of wear this year with a couple of missed games. Wilson’s absence was key in three of the team’s four SEC losses: she missed both losses to Tennessee for medical reasons, and foul trouble limited her minutes and production in an upset loss at Missouri. For South Carolina to have much success in this tournament and beyond, they need Wilson in top form.

Wilson is averaging nearly 23 PPG – almost a third of the team’s production. No other player is averaging over 12 PPG. Wilson and fellow post player Alexis Jennings are the focal point of the offense with Mikiah Herbert-Harrigan providing depth off the bench. Backcourt production without Cuevas-Moore and Spann comes from sophomore Tyasha Harris, Doniyah Cliney, and Bianca Jackson, but there’s not a ton of depth. Wilson is dominant on both ends. She leads the league in scoring but also leads in blocks and is third in rebounds.

South Carolina is still a strong favorite to reach the finals, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they took the tournament. The Gamecocks lost to Mississippi State after a late collapse in front of a record-setting frenzied crowd in Starkville, but both programs should have strong support in Nashville. South Carolina should have Wilson back for a likely quarterfinal rematch against Tennessee, and hopefully we’ll finally get to see a Wilson vs. Mercedes Russell battle.

3) Georgia (12-4, 24-5) (LY-8, PS-8): Joni Taylor’s first two teams exceeded expectations, and her third squad continued that trend in a big way. The Lady Dogs were projected to equal their eighth-place finish of last season. They ended the season tied for second, and it’s the best finish for the program since 2007. The team posted its best overall and SEC records since the Elite Eight season of 2013. Explaining how it happened would be incomplete without mentioning the schedule. Georgia faced only one ranked team, Texas, in nonconference play and lost badly. They also had a bit of luck in conference: the three SEC teams Georgia faced twice all finished at the bottom of the league. Georgia earned their finish and postseason possibilities by avoiding bad losses. Their “worst” loss of the season was at LSU. Each of the five teams that beat Georgia are now ranked, and four of them are in the top 12.

Even with a favorable schedule, you can’t finish 24-5 without racking up some quality wins along the way. Georgia was an impressive 10-2 away from home. They have some respectable nonconference wins over BYU, Mercer, Virginia, and Georgia Tech. Georgia started conference play strong with an undefeated January that featured an overtime win at Texas A&M and a home win over Missouri. The Lady Dogs moved into second place, but they dropped three of their next five. Georgia closed the season with three straight wins that separated themselves from the four-team tie just below them. The Lady Dogs ended up tied only with South Carolina, and that’s not bad company to keep.

Georgia replaced much of their backcourt production from a year ago, but they knew they’d be strong in the frontcourt. Junior Caliya Robinson and senior Mackenzie Engram stepped up to lead the team in scoring, and both earned all-SEC honors. Though senior guard Haley Clark returned, much of the backcourt minutes would have to be logged by newcomers. Georgia welcomed Louisville transfer Taja Cole and a top ten recruiting class, but there’s always some uncertainty plugging so many newcomers into an established system. Fortunately for the Lady Dogs, the additions were up to the job. Cole stepped in as point guard. Que Morrison earned a starting role out of the gate and was named to the SEC all-freshmen team. Gabby Connally and Maya Caldwell were called on for significant minutes off the bench, and that depth paid off several times. Clark was able to be more of a role player as a senior, and she often drew Georgia’s toughest defensive assignment.

Though the Lady Dogs have more firepower than they have in recent years, they still have periods in which they struggle to score. They thrive on sound defense that often creates turnovers and transition chances, but even those fastbreaks have been adventures at times. Often the things holding Georgia back are self-inflicted: turnovers, free-throw shooting, and unnecessary foul trouble have all been issues at times. But when Robinson and Engram are firing inside and Georgia can get some production on the perimeter, the consistent Georgia defense makes this a tough team to beat. They’ll return to the NCAA tournament and should be a host for the first and second rounds. Their stock could rise higher with a semifinal appearance, and they’d be playing with house money at that point.

4) LSU (11-5, 19-8) (LY-7, PS-7): LSU kind of came under the radar this year to wind up with the #4 seed. They began the season with few notable nonconference wins and were 12-6 overall and 4-3 in the SEC after a loss at Texas A&M. At this point of the season, just over a month ago, they were considered a bubble team. They closed the season winning 7 of 9 including wins over Tennessee, Georgia, and a rematch with A&M. They had some shaky games down the stretch but survived well enough to enter the four-team tie for fourth. With a 3-1 record against the other tied teams, they came out on top of the logjam.

The trick to LSU’s success has been an 11-1 home record. The Tigers are just 7-6 on the road. Their biggest wins – Tennessee, Georgia, A&M – came in Baton Rouge. They did manage to knock off Missouri on the road, but Mizzou was without Sophie Cunningham. LSU and A&M split home and home during the season, and they’ll likely face each other in the quarterfinals. The Tigers are a tournament lock now, but another win over the Aggies could be a big boost to their seed.

They win with a suffocating matchup zone defense that has its origins in Nikki Fargas’ Tennessee roots. LSU has been one of the league’s lowest-scoring teams over the past couple of seasons, and that continues this year. They’ve won more this year because they’ve been more effective on offense and have scored at least 70 points in six of their last nine games, but they’re still at the bottom of the SEC’s scoring stats. They won’t shoot many three-pointers and will hit under 30% of them. They’ll rely on defense and offensive rebounding to create much of their scoring.

5) Texas A&M (11-5, 22-8) (LY-6, PS-4): The Aggies have perfected putting together above-average seasons and putting a product on the court that can compete with almost anyone. You know that Gary Blair’s teams will play sound defense, won’t attempt many outside shots, and won’t help you out with many mistakes. This year’s A&M team handled most unranked opponents inside and outside of the conference, but they struggled with ranked teams. They have two wins in eight attempts against ranked teams – an overtime home win over Tennessee, and a dismantling of Missouri in the season finale. They were a solid 15-3 at home but an ordinary 7-5 away from College Station.

The Aggies feature the SEC’s freshman of the year, Chennedy Carter. Carter has emerged as a dynamic scorer putting up 21.6 PPG, second only to A’ja Wilson. Carter is supported by some experienced veterans: center Khaalia Hillsman is a tough matchup inside. Danni Williams is a streaky shooter who can put up big numbers. Anriel Howard is a capable scorer inside the arc who can draw contact and get to the line. This isn’t a deep team – only seven players see more than seven minutes per game. That lack of depth could prove to be an issue in a tournament setting.

6) Missouri (11-5, 23-6) (LY-3, PS-3): Sophie Cunningham needs no introduction, but the past two seasons have seen Missouri develop into much more than a one-woman team. The Tigers have defeated South Carolina in consecutive seasons, and they came closer than anyone to knocking off Mississippi State. They were strong at home, losing only to LSU (with Cunningham out injured) and MSU. They hit a rough patch with losses to Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi State, but they closed the regular season 6-1.

Missouri used to shoot more three-pointers than anyone in the league by a wide margin, but they’re a more reasonable third now. They still hit outside shots at a 38.4% clip, good for second behind only MSU. The Tigers are more effective inside the arc for two reasons: Cunningham is just as comfortable going to the basket as shooting jumpers, and Jordan Frericks and Cierra Porter have emerged as the team’s second and third-leading scorers. Frericks and Porter make teams pay for overplaying perimeter shooters. Make no mistake – Missouri will still launch bombs from outside. Four players have attempted more than 100 three-pointers, and nine players shoot better than 30% from outside. Their halfcourt offense is deliberate and moves the ball well. They average over 16 assists per game. It makes sense that they don’t get to the line often, but they hit free throws when they get them.

7) Tennessee (11-5, 23-6) (LY-5, PS-5): Lady Vol fans have been frustrated with the inconsistency of their team over the past couple of seasons, and that continued this year. They swept South Carolina and beat Texas but were only 1-3 against the four teams tied for fourth in the SEC. They led Notre Dame by 20 but collapsed late and lost. The Lady Vols came out on the wrong end of the tiebreakers, and so they’ll finish tied for fourth but seeded seventh. That upset home loss against Alabama kept them from a second place finish.

Like Georgia, Tennessee has paired an experienced core with an outstanding freshman class – rated the best incoming class in the nation. Their top two seniors need little introduction to SEC fans. Center Mercedes Russell chose to come back for her senior season and has improved her game. She’s now capable of dominant post play and has avoided the mistakes that took her out of games earlier in her career. Jaime Nared, already established as a valuable do-everything player, has taken over the mantle of leading scorer. You don’t have to go far down the stat sheet to see the impact of the freshmen. Wing Rennia Davis is averaging over 11 PPG and 7.6 rebounds. The next two leading scorers are also freshmen, and Evina Westbrook has been impressive handling point guard duties as a true freshman.

The Lady Vols have two weaknesses: depth and turnovers. Only about eight players see more than 10 minutes per game, and they rely quite a bit on Nared and Russell. Tennessee is second only to Vanderbilt in turnovers allowed, and the Commodores and Lady Vols have something in common: inexperienced players handling the ball. That issue came up against their first round opponent, Auburn. Tennessee eventually pulled away, but 28 turnovers kept Auburn in that game. Should the Lady Vols advance, they expect to see South Carolina. Tennessee won both meetings with the Gamecocks but have yet to face a South Carolina team at full strength. It has to be one of the more anticipated potential quarterfinal matchups.

8) Alabama (7-9, 17-12) (LY-12, PS-9): Alabama earned their best result in some time with an experienced team heavy on upperclassmen. The roster features six seniors, nine upperclassmen, and just one freshman. They started conference play 4-7, but a three-game winning streak had them in position for the program’s first winning SEC season since 1998 and revived talk of the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 1999. The Crimson Tide dropped a pair of overtime heartbreakers in the final week of the season to settle at 7-9, and the WNIT is their likely postseason destination. Impressive wins over Tennessee (in Knoxville!) and LSU elevated the Tide over the rest of the bottom half. Guard Hannah Cook and forward Ashley Williams are the only scorers in double-figures, and it’s not an especially high-scoring team. Alabama plays solid defense, and it’s noteworthy that they have six players across all positions with over 100 rebounds this season. Alabama took a bad loss at Kentucky earlier in the season as they had few answers for the Wildcat backcourt. They should be more competitive in the rematch, but their NCAA hopes won’t survive beyond the quarterfinals.

9) Kentucky (6-10, 14-16) (LY-4, PS-6): It’s been a while since we’ve seen the Cats this low in the standings. Kentucky has finished lower than fourth only once under Matthew Mitchell – a ninth place finish in 2009. The team has struggled to replace the production of Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator, and it’s a bit of a rebuilding year with only three seniors on the team. Only two players, guards Maci Morris and Taylor Murray, average over 7 PPG. They’ve had to lean on a trio of freshmen at forward to join senior Alyssa Rice, and that frontcourt inexperience has cost them at times. The backcourt, especially Morris, can shoot them past lesser teams, but they don’t look to advance deep into the tournament.

10) Auburn (5-11, 14-14) (LY-9, PS-11): Auburn took a step backward after sneaking into the NCAA tournament last season. There’s not a lot they do well statistically. A lack of rebounds and blocks hit at frontcourt issues. They are at the bottom of the SEC in three-pointers. There is one stat at which Auburn excels. They lead the conference in steals, and that speaks to Auburn’s suffocating trap and matchup zone defense. The Tigers feast on turnovers and transition points. They’ve forced 641 turnovers this season, nearly 23 per game, and they have 369 steals. Everyone is active on defense – eight Auburn players have at least 29 steals. They’ll struggle if forced into a halfcourt game, and opponents can find easy scoring opportunities if they can beat the press. Guards Janiah McKay and Daisa Alexander provide much of the scoring, and freshman forward Unique Thompson has been a good addition. No other player scores over 6 PPG. Auburn forced 28 Tennessee turnovers and were tied with the Lady Vols after three quarters in a loss in Knoxville. They’ll have to have a similar defensive effort and finish better to have a chance at an early upset.

11) Florida (3-13, 11-18) (LY-11, PS-13): New coach Cameron Newbauer took his lumps in his debut season, but there were occasionally glimpses of progress. There was an early-season win over Oklahoma and consecutive wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss in January, but the Gators have been unable to sustain much success. There were several close calls. They’ve lost by 3 to Ole Miss, 3 to Kentucky, 7 to LSU and South Carolina, 5 to A&M, and 2 to Missouri. They led Georgia for the better part of a game in Gainesville before the Lady Dogs took over in the fourth quarter. You’d expect some of those games to turn into wins next season, but three of Florida’s top five scorers are seniors. Haley Lorenzen and Paulina Hersler are senior stretch forwards capable of scoring inside or out. Transfer Funda Nakkasoglu had immediate impact as the team’s leading scorer and three-point shooter. No team attempted more three-pointers this season, and even Hersler, a 6’3″ forward, attempted 127. The team shoots over 30% from outside, and that perimeter firepower has kept them in some of those closer games. If they can get past Ole Miss, Florida will face Missouri – just a two-point road loss in early February for the Gators. That could end up as an unexpectedly competitive second-round game on Thursday if Florida has anything left in the tank.

12) Vanderbilt (3-13, 7-23) (LY-13, PS-10): Stephanie White’s team didn’t make much progress in her second season. A young but promising 2016 recruiting class is still coming into its own, and the Commodores must rely on several young players for significant minutes. Seniors Christa Reed and Rachel Bell provide the experienced leadership, but the team’s leading scorer is freshman Chelsie Hall. Vandy’s inexperience really shows in the frontcourt where nearly every regular player is an underclassman. White continues to recruit well, but you’d expect her team to begin to show results soon. Vanderbilt narrowly defeated first-round opponent Arkansas in Nashville last week, and the rematch should be another close game. The difference in that Vanderbilt win was the Commodores’ advantage in the frontcourt. Sophomore Kayla Overbeck was dominant and will have to come up big again.

13) Arkansas (3-13, 12-17) (LY-14, PS-14): Arkansas has big hopes for first-year coach Mike Neighbors, but it won’t happen overnight. Neighbors took Washington to the Final Four in 2016 and coached 2017 national player of the year Kelsey Plum. Arkansas hasn’t had that kind of success since their own Final Four trip in 1998. Neighbors imposed his preferred up-tempo, gunning identity this year with a roster not quite built for that style. The Razorbacks attempted 760 three-pointers this season – more than Missouri and second only to Florida – but only hit 29% of them. We have a pretty good idea what future Arkansas teams will look like. Three guards – Malica Monk, Devin Cosper, and Jailyn Mason – lead the attack and are the only players averaging over 10 PPG. Monk and Mason will return and be a capable backcourt next season, but they’ll need some help in the frontcourt. It’s been a tall order to replace Jessica Jackson.

14) Ole Miss (1-15, 11-18) (LY-10, PS-12): Mississippi’s slide this year can more or less be explained by an early-season injury to standout senior guard Shandricka Sessom. Sessom was averaging around 17 PPG at the time of her injury, and that’s an impossible loss to absorb for a team without much depth. Whether Sessom’s presence would have raised the team out of the bottom four is speculation, but it surely would have made the team more competitive and likely led to a couple of more wins. As it is, Madinah Muhammad and Alissa Alston have stepped up at guard to help shoulder some of the burden. Forward Shelby Gibson can be a handful against undersized opponents, and freshman Promise Taylor has been an effective addition to the frontcourt. With Sessom set to return to an experienced team next year, there should be brighter days ahead for the Rebels.

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