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Post 2019 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 6, 2019

After two seasons that saw South Carolina win a national title and Mississippi State reach consecutive national championship games, the SEC took a step back this year. According to some metrics, the SEC is arguably only the fifth-best conference in the nation, and no SEC team has done much to build a case against that claim. Mississippi State and South Carolina are still the class of the league, but even they have lacked for impact wins outside of conference play.

When you look at the few accomplishments of SEC teams out of conference, they’re best summed up as good-but-not-great. Mississippi State and Tennessee notched wins over Texas. Auburn beat North Carolina. LSU knocked off FSU. Kentucky beat South Florida. The best SEC nonconference win of the year might be Texas A&M’s defeat of Oregon State. But when matched against some of the top teams in the nation this year – UConn, Oregon, Baylor, and Louisville – SEC teams have come up short. Four SEC teams have been ranked for most of the season (MSU, SC, A&M, and Kentucky) with Missouri drifting in and out. A season ago seven SEC teams were ranked at the end of the regular season with five set to host NCAA subregionals. That won’t happen this year.

As the SEC women’s basketball tournament returns to Greenville, SC, its home for the next three seasons, the state of the conference leaves many teams with work to do in order to impress the NCAA selection committee. Mississippi State and South Carolina will hope that a tournament championship gives them a national seed and regional location favorable for a deep March run. A&M, Kentucky, and Missouri hope that a good showing in Greenville will earn them the right to host the first two rounds. Another tier of teams, including even mighty Tennessee, are just hoping to do enough to make the field of 64, and an early loss for any of those teams could mean disappointment. There will be plenty at stake from the beginning of the Thursday’s second round on through to Sunday’s championship, and that should make for some competitive and entertaining games.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: vs. #10 Arkansas: 6:00 pm ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #2 South Carolina: 6:00 pm ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:30 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 2:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

(LY – last year’s finish, PS – preseason projection)

1) Mississippi State (15-1, 27-2) (LY-1st, PS-1st): When you have an undefeated regular season, there’s no place to go but down. MSU rode the best class in program history to two straight national title games, and there was some question as to how they’d fare after losing so much from those legendary teams. Who MSU returned though was significant: center Teaira McCowan has taken on the transition from being just one of many weapons on last year’s team to being the focal point of every opponent’s game plan. McCowan hasn’t disappointed: she averages a double-double (17.3 PPG / 13.4 RPG), hits over 65% of her shots, doesn’t foul out, and has blocked 71 shots. She’s among the SEC’s top 5 in scoring and leads the league in rebounding and shotblocking.

The Bulldogs received a big shot in the arm when Texas A&M forward Anriel Howard joined MSU as a graduate transfer. Howard was primarily a rebounding machine at A&M, but she’s worked on her offense this year and is scoring nearly 16 PPG. Howard’s rebounding hasn’t suffered, and she and McCowan pull down half of the team’s boards. Jordan Danberry is another returning player who took on a larger role this year. Danberry isn’t a threat from outside but can be devastating off the dribble attacking the basket. The Bulldogs have had to adjust to a season-ending injury to sharp-shooting Chloe Bibby, and Andra Espinoza-Hunter has responded by averaging around 13 PPG over the past ten games since her minutes increased. Senior PG Jazzmun Holmes has been terrific a with an assist/turnover ratio over 4.

That’s a nice surrounding cast for McCowan, and it’s why MSU has remained a top ten program and SEC champion despite so much attention being paid to its dominant post player. Very few teams have been able to frustrate McCowan, but that’s what it’s taken to beat MSU. Missouri held McCowan to a below-average 4-for-11 shooting performance. Oregon suffocated her and limited McCowan to just five shot attempts and five points. South Carolina came close to a win in the season finale by holding McCowan to just eight attempts, but she hit seven of them and finished with 18 points. That’s the challenge for any team going up against the Bulldogs: can you limit opportunities for McCowan without someone else doing damage? Against better teams with the personnel to defend McCowan, the supporting cast has to be consistent and productive enough to compensate. They haven’t always been.

It’s been a long and successful run in the Victoria Vivians / Teaira McCowan era, but an SEC tournament title has eluded the program. Mississippi State might be as strong of a favorite to finally cut down the nets as they’ll be for a while. Is this the year?

2) South Carolina (13-3, 21-8) (LY-2nd, PS-2nd): Dawn Staley’s program seeks its fifth-straight tournament title, but they’ve fallen back towards the field this year and could face some serious challenges en route to another title defense. Life without A’ja Wilson has had its rough moments, but the result in SEC play is the same as it was a year ago: a second-place finish behind Mississippi State. The difference this year has been South Carolina’s inability to break through against the best teams in the nation. Six of the Gamecocks’ eight losses came to teams ranked in the top 10. Many of those games were competitive, but the results, especially out of conference, leave South Carolina without any national wins of note. They’ve been dominant as ever inside the SEC, losing only to Mississippi State (twice) and Kentucky.

It’s been a transition year for sure, and if you didn’t beat South Carolina this year it might be a while. A loaded signing class rated #1 in the nation will arrive next year. Meanwhile A’ja Wilson’s supporting cast has done well to maintain continuity even if the Gamecocks have been knocked down a peg from the national elite. Staley’s frustration has boiled over at times, and she pulled her entire starting lineup minutes into the Georgia game. The team has gone through scoring droughts and even their wins have been a little closer than they’ve been used to. Still, they’ve had flashes of brilliance, and a tight game against MSU in the regular season finale showed that South Carolina could once again deny Mississippi State the SEC tournament title.

Scoring has been distributed well with no player getting more than 13 PPG. Te’a Cooper is the leading scorer by a small margin, but she’s battled an injury down the stretch. Tyasha Harris has done well as the point guard. The Gamecocks boast a physical frontcourt with Mikiah Herbert Harrigan and Alexis Jennings even if they do miss the inside scoring punch of Wilson. Depth is a strength: nine players score at least 4 PPG, and not many teams can bring the likes of upperclassmen Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Doniyah Cliney off the bench.

3) Texas A&M (12-4, 23-6) (LY-5th, PS-6th): Chennedy Carter took the league by storm a season ago, and she hasn’t let up in her sophomore season. Carter averages over 20 PPG for her career, and no team – not even Missouri – asks more of a player. A&M lost three key players from last year’s team and was projected to finish sixth this season, but Carter has led them to a higher SEC finish in 2019 and the team’s best regular season since 2011. She handles the ball, leads the team in steals, can hit from outside, and can drive to the basket. How valuable is Carter? A&M wasn’t able to beat Lamar without her. That’s not good news – Carter will miss the tournament with a finger injury suffered last Sunday.

A&M will have to rely on a group of players who stepped into new and bigger roles this season. N’dea Jones and Ciera Johnson are a formidable duo on the glass, and the Aggies outrebound opponents by around 7 per game. Kayla Wells moved from the bench to the starting lineup and has become a threat that keeps defenses from keying too much on Carter.

This isn’t a very deep team. Guard Aaliyah Wilson was lost to a knee injury. Only five players average over 2 PPG. But in typical Gary Blair fashion, everyone contributes to defense and rebounding. Carter and Wells can handle the scoring, and Jones and Johnson are able to clean up inside. Missouri, LSU, South Carolina, and Mississippi State were able to match them on the glass, and that kept A&M from competing for a conference title. The Aggies are competing for a national top 16 seed that would make them a host for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. Accomplishing that goal might require a run to the SEC tournament final, but that will be extremely difficult without Carter.

4) Kentucky (11-5, 24-6) (LY-9th, PS-7th): The Wildcats bounced back well this year from a losing record in 2018 – only the second time Kentucky finished out of the top four under Matthew Mitchell. Like A&M, Kentucky exceeded preseason expectations, and a big reason why was the arrival of likely SEC freshman of the year Rhyne Howard. Howard, a 6’2″ wing, is a nightmare matchup problem who became the team’s leading scorer and rebounder as a freshman.

Last season UK had to lean heavily on the scoring of Maci Morris. With Howard, Morris has been able to contribute to a much more well-rounded attack orchestrated by senior point guard Taylor Murray. Kentucky has the backcourt depth they’ve lacked for a couple of years, and it’s allowed Mitchell to play more of the frenzied style of defense he prefers. Forward Tatyana Wyatt can be Kentucky’s scoring presence inside. KeKe McKinney, Kentucky’s best interior defender, missed the season finale due to injury, and her availability will be key if Kentucky advances to meet Mississippi State.

Kentucky enters the tournament on a bit of a run as winners of seven of their last eight games. That stretch included a win over South Carolina, and the only loss was a home setback to A&M. Missouri is their likely quarterfinal opponent, and UK held the potent Missouri attack to just 41 points in Lexington earlier this year.

5) Missouri (21-9, 10-6) (LY-6th, PS-5th): Sophie Cunningham’s swan song has been a muted success. Missouri has been on the outside of the rankings for much of the season, but they did claim the season’s most impressive win with a road victory at Mississippi State. As one of the few teams that fell in line with preseason expectations, the Tigers are where most thought they’d be. How they got there is more interesting: Mizzou has the win over MSU, but they also have one of the more inexplicable losses of the year against Florida.

Cunningham made an immediate impact as a freshman, and she’s remained one of the SEC’s most consistent performers for all four seasons. At 6’1″, Cunningham can play outside or inside posting up smaller guards. SEC fans know she’s not afraid to do the dirty work, and she’s second on the team in rebounding. The team got a boost midseason when senior forward Cierra Porter rejoined the team after stepping away due to chronic knee problems. A key player this season has been wing Amber Smith. Smith averages over 12 PPG, leads the team in rebounding, and seems poised to inherit the leadership role when Cunningham and Porter move on next season.

Missouri no longer leads the SEC in three-point attempts – Arkansas and Florida have attempted more. But Missouri again leads the conference in three-pointers made. Six players have made at least 20 three-pointers. One thing to watch out for with Missouri in turnovers. They were already near the bottom of the league in turnovers and then freshman guard Akira Levy, a key ballhandler off the bench, was lost for the season at Auburn.

6) Auburn (9-7, 21-8) (LY-10th, PS-8th): Stingy defense and a smothering press have been the hallmarks of nearly every Terri Williams-Flournoy Auburn team. The offense hasn’t always come along, and that’s held the program back. That’s changed this year: the Auburn offense has improved enough to turn those defensive stops into scoring opportunities, and wins have followed. The Tigers reached 20 wins for the first time under Williams-Flournoy in a season that might’ve been pivotal in her future at Auburn. Auburn looked like an iffy NCAA tournament team for most of the season, but late wins over Missouri and LSU have made them a likely invitee.

Senior Janiah McKay is the closest thing the Tigers have to a standout player, but their top five scorers are all between 13.8 and 9.8 PPG. Four of those top scorers also have at least 50 steals, showing how much the lines are blurred between defense and offense on this team. Auburn won’t attempt a ton of outside shots, though Daisa Alexander is always a threat to hit a three-pointer. They’re most at home scoring in transition created by their pressure defense. Auburn played Texas A&M to within two points earlier in the season, and Auburn won’t be afraid of a potential rematch in the quarterfinals especially without Chennedy Carter on the court.

7) Georgia (9-7, 18-11) (LY-3rd, PS-4th): Joni Taylor made a name for herself in her first three seasons as Georgia’s coach by exceeding expectations. Last year the Lady Dogs tied for second place in the SEC and earned a national top 16 seed. With a leading scorer returning and an impact freshman class maturing, the expectation for this year was only a slight step back. Georgia began the year ranked in the top 20.

Though Georgia kept alive slim hopes for a fourth-place finish until the final day of the regular season, it hasn’t been the season many expected of Georgia. Injuries played a role, but even key starters have struggled with turnovers and foul trouble all season. Georgia’s conference record is partially a factor of schedule: the Lady Dogs’ three home-and-home opponents are all seeded 10th or lower, and five of Georgia’s nine conference wins came against that group. So Georgia’s 7-seed is just about right. They haven’t defeated anyone seeded higher, and they’ve only lost one game (minus point guard Taja Cole) to teams seeded below them.

Even with a winning record in conference, Georgia will likely have to win the SEC tournament to return to the NCAA tournament. The Lady Dogs head to Greenville with an RPI below 100. That’s a result of a weak schedule and no wins against the few quality teams on that schedule. Winning the tournament is a big job, but there is at least a couple of reasons for hope. Georgia might not have beaten the best opponents on its schedule, but the Lady Dogs have been competitive. They took Maryland to the final minute, led in the fourth quarter on the road at both Mississippi State and South Carolina, and had opportunities to beat A&M and Kentucky in Athens. To advance in this tournament Georgia must find something that’s been missing nearly all season – the players able and willing to take over these competitive close games. Another reason for optimism is that Georgia played their best basketball at the end of the season. They won five of their last seven with narrow losses to quality South Carolina and Kentucky teams. Georgia should at least be confident each time they take the court in Greenville.

Georgia has just one senior, forward Caliya Robinson, and they lean on her at both ends of the court. Robinson is the team’s leading scorer, rebounder, shotblocker, and is even third on the team in assists and steals. PG Taja Cole leads the SEC in assists and, after only two years, is already among the top five in career assists at Georgia. Cole can also get to the basket, hit a big outside shot, and often draws the team’s most difficult defensive assignment. Given their importance to the team, it’s unfortunate that Robinson and Cole also commit the most fouls. Cole is an aggressive on-ball defender who leads Georgia in steals but sometimes finds herself taken out of a game early due to foul trouble. Robinson, as is the case with so many outstanding shotblockers, sometimes takes herself out of good defensive position in order to set up for a block, and crafty shooters can use that to draw fouls. Turnovers have also been a problem for Georgia. The team is in the bottom third of the league in turnovers, and they’ve struggled against pressure. The Lady Dogs are actually third in the SEC in shooting percentage, but too often they’ve turned the ball over before getting a shot off. For Georgia to advance, they’ll need to keep the turnovers down and to have both Robinson and Cole valuing their foul count and available as much as possible.

8) Tennessee (7-9, 18-11) (LY-7th, PS-3rd): Wow. Apart from identifying the final potential NCAA tournament #1 seed, the dominant national story in February was whether the Lady Vols would miss the Big Dance for the first time in tournament history. The Lady Vols are the only program to have participated in every tournament, and that distinction is on thin ice. They seemed to have saved themselves with a sweep of Auburn and a win at Missouri, but an inexplicable home loss to Vanderbilt in the final week might have the Lady Vols disappointed on Selection Monday.

Tennessee’s issue is a common one for SEC teams this season: a lack of quality wins. The Lady Vols are just 1-6 against ranked opponents, and a win over Texas is the lone feather in their cap. Their nonconference schedule wasn’t bad, but they fell to Stanford and Notre Dame in the rare opportunities they had to make a national statement. I don’t think anyone was prepared for the six-game losing streak in January that shocked the nation and left Tennessee at 1-5 in conference. They’ve fought back to salvage their NCAA tournament chances, but February losses to Mississippi State and Texas A&M show that their resurgence was more a factor of opponent quality rather than a program turning a corner.

As usual, Tennessee is at the top of the conference in rebounding, and their attacking defensive style hasn’t changed. If you had to put a finger on the reason for their struggles this year, it’s a lack of veteran leadership. Even last season’s team had Jamie Nared to turn to. Senior Meme Jackson has fallen off in conference play and has only reached double figures twice since the conference opener. Tennessee’s three leading scorers are underclassmen, and that’s led to some prolonged scoring droughts. Sophomore point guard Evina Westbrook leads the team in scoring and assists. Rennia Davis averaged over 11 PPG as a freshman, but she has only made small improvement as a sophomore. Tennessee also hasn’t replaced the impact of Mercedes Russell inside. Senior forward Cheridene Green averages under 10 PPG, and Rennia Davis, a wing, is right up there as the team’s leading rebounder.

Tennessee is talented, but their finish in the standings means they’ll be facing Mississippi State if they can advance beyond Thursday. Their season and a piece of women’s college basketball history could be on the line in that game.

9) LSU (7-9, 16-12) (LY-4th, PS-9th): LSU is also right about where we expected they would be. Their style is typical of most Nikki Fargas teams – tough matchup zone defense, physical interior play, and almost all of the offense coming inside the paint. LSU’s problem is one they’ve faced quite a bit recently: scoring. Only Florida and Ole Miss score less, and even the best defenses need to put points on the board. When the system works, the Tigers are capable of wins over teams like FSU and Texas A&M. It’s equally capable of some ugly low point totals including a 46-point showing in the season finale at home against Auburn.

The Tigers dropped their final three games of the season and find themselves in a virtual play-in game against Tennessee for a spot in the NCAA tournament.

10) Arkansas (6-10, 17-13) (LY-13th, PS-11th): A 5-2 start in conference play highlighted by a win at Tennessee had everyone talking about Arkansas as a surprise team perhaps a bit ahead of schedule in Mike Neighbors’ second season. Neighbors imported his entertaining up-tempo brand of offense from Washington, and the roster is beginning to resemble what he needs to run that kind of system. That early momentum crashed to a halt during a six-game losing streak bookended by losses to Georgia. Arkansas was able to get a win over Ole Miss but finished the season losing eight of their last nine. This is still a dangerous team because of the way they can score. The offense is capable of putting pressure on opponents to keep up. Chelsea Dungee transferred in from Oklahoma to become the team’s leading scorer and is second in the league behind only Chennedy Carter. Dungee and Malica Monk form a capable backcourt, but Arkansas has six players who have attempted at least 70 three-pointers. Almost anyone is capable of stepping out and knocking one down, and that’s what makes the team fun to watch and dangerous to defend. The consistency (and defense) isn’t quite there yet, and that’s turned a promising start into another step in the rebuilding process.

11) Alabama (5-11, 13-16) (LY-8th, PS-10th): On a team that lost so much production due to graduation, one of the SEC’s most exciting newcomers is in Tuscaloosa. Cierra Johnson, last season’s JUCO player of the year, made an immediate impact and became Bama’s leading scorer. Johnson is Alabama’s Chennedy Carter: she can take over a game and score from outside or attacking the basket. Forward Jasmine Walker has had some big moments as a frontcourt complement to Johnson, but Walker’s production has been less consistent against better opponents. PG Jordan Lewis was lost to injury earlier in the season, and it’s been the team’s downfall. Alabama leads the SEC in turnovers, and Johnson has often been a victim of the turnover bug as so much of the offense is forced to flow through her. Though the program didn’t completely recover from losing so many seniors from the 2018 team, the Tide’s quality has shown up in several decent wins against Clemson, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia as well as a 3-point loss at South Carolina.

12) Ole Miss (3-13, 9-21) (LY-14th, PS-14th): Ole Miss moved out of the basement with a nice stretch in January that saw consecutive wins over Kentucky (in Lexington!) and Florida. They were only able to win one game the rest of the way, against last-place Vanderbilt, and they head to Greenville on a five-game losing streak. Crystal Allen is one of the SEC’s top scorers with over 18 PPG, and Shandricka Sessom returned from an injury to close out her career.

13) Florida (3-13, 7-22) (LY-11th, PS-12th): It’s been a tough year in Gainesville with only seven total wins. Senior Funda Nakkasoglu is a dangerous scorer, but the rest of the roster lacks firepower. Only Arkansas attempts more three-pointers, but Florida only shoots 30.2% from outside. The result is one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league and a single-digit win total. Delicia Washington has a knack for hitting big shots, and Danielle Rainey can be feast or famine.

14) Vanderbilt (7-22, 2-14) (LY-12th, PS-13th): Stephanie White’s third season didn’t fare much better than the first two. The team’s most competitive stretch came in late January with a two-point loss to Auburn and a win over Ole Miss. A shocking win at Tennessee – the program’s first win ever in Knoxville – was a noteworthy accomplishment in an otherwise disappointing season. Boston College transfer Mariella Fasoula has stepped in to become the team’s leading scorer. That’s a credit to her, but it doesn’t speak well of the production from a couple of decent recruiting classes. Scoring defense is a big reason why Vandy is at the bottom of the conference; the Commodores yield nearly 70 PPG.

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