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Post 2020 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 4, 2020

A familiar name is back on top of SEC women’s basketball. South Carolina took a small step backwards in 2019 after a dominant four-year period, but they’ve come roaring back in 2020 with an undefeated conference record. As much as 2017 was the breakthrough season for Dawn Staley and her Gamecocks, this year’s edition might be more well-rounded with few weaknesses. South Carolina enters this year’s SEC tournament in Greenville as the overwhelming favorite. It would be a shock if they didn’t reach the finals. If there’s to be much drama this weekend, it’s likely to come in the early rounds as teams jockey to become South Carolina’s championship game opponent. Four teams tied for third place with 10-6 records, and they could all be involved in head-to-head knockout games in Friday’s quarterfinals.

The SEC might not have many of the nation’s best teams, but some of the nation’s best individual talent will be on display in Greenville. Rhyne Howard and Chennedy Carter are among the nation’s top five in scoring. Rennia Davis has a flair for the dramatic big play. Chelsea Dungee, and really any Arkansas guard, can take over a game. Unfortunately teams have had to deal with injuries to many of those same star players. Howard and Carter missed significant time during conference play, forcing Kentucky and Texas A&M to lean on their supporting casts to remain near the top of the standings. LSU’s Ayana Mitchell was lost for the season, and the Tigers have had mixed results since. The good news is that Carter and Howard are back in form, and SEC fans will get to see Carter in postseason action for the first time in two seasons.

It’s also been a year of youth. It’s not just top teams South Carolina and Mississippi State showcasing impact freshmen (though they certainly did.) Teams from Missouri to Florida to Vanderbilt introduced players who will be handfuls for the next three seasons. Only one of the league’s top ten scorers is a senior, and three of the top 11 are true freshmen. That’s a positive for the future of the league, but it’s also meant that most teams don’t have the seasoned depth to make much noise outside of the conference. The SEC could get as few as six or as many as eight NCAA tournament bids this year, though only South Carolina and Mississippi State look to be first round hosts. Much of the spotlight in NCAA women’s basketball has shifted west this year. UConn isn’t as dominant outside of their conference. Notre Dame will miss the NCAA tournament. The Pac 12 though has been wild with a pair of national title contenders and enough good teams to cause chaos. Baylor is just cooling their heels waiting to defend their 2019 national title. The SEC hasn’t made many waves nationally this year – except for the powerhouse in Columbia.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:

Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: vs. #8 Alabama: Noon ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. #1 South Carolina: Noon ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 5:00 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 2:00 pm ET ESPN2
Complete Bracket Here

The Field

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

1) South Carolina (7-22, 16-0) (LY-2nd, PS-2nd): We warned last year that if you couldn’t beat South Carolina in 2019, it might be a while. The Gamecocks still finished second in the league, but they were upset by Arkansas in the SEC tournament and “only” reached the Sweet 16. They’ve added the nation’s top signing class and quickly find themselves back on top of the SEC and the nation. They recorded the program’s first win over UConn and beat both the Huskies and Baylor by double figures. They’ve had only a couple of stumbles with an early loss to Indiana and a close call at home against Mississippi State, but this is a complete team that’s improved over the season.

Dawn Staley has done a wonderful job of mixing the young infusion of talent with her two senior leaders. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan spent her first two seasons in the shadow of A’ja Wilson, but she’s developed into a well-rounded senior who can score inside or outside, rebound, pass, and defend. The offense flows through point guard Tyasha Harris. Harris can create offense and scores 12 points per game, and she set the program record for assists.

Staley augmented that senior duo with four ESPN top 100 5* freshmen. Three of them have started all 30 games for the Gamecocks. Relying on that many freshmen in key roles might have been the reason why the coaches didn’t project the Gamecocks to win the league, but this group has been up to the job. Guard Zia Cooke might eventually replace the senior Harris as the floor general, but with Harris running the show Cooke has been free to do damage as a combo guard. Cooke leads the team in three point attempts and makes, but she also leads in free throw attempts. Cooke isn’t afraid to drive to the rim and draw contact. Forward Aliyah Boston was both the SEC Freshman of the Year and Defender of the Year. She was an imposing figure inside right out of the gate and has the most blocks in the conference. Boston isn’t just a defender; she’s even with Herbert Harrigan as the team’s leading scorer and shoots an efficient 61% from the floor. Brea Beal is what you want from a wing: someone who can play on the perimeter but is also at home posting up inside to take advantage of her size.

So South Carolina has perimeter offense, interior offense, a rim protector, the league’s best distributor, good wing play, depth, and one of the game’s best coaches. That’s why they enter the tournament perfect in the league and the odds-on favorite to beat the field for their fifth tournament title in six seasons.

2) Mississippi State (25-5, 13-3) (LY-1st, PS-3rd): A step back was inevitable. The final pieces of a core group that played for two straight national titles broke through to win an SEC tournament title last season. The roster has all but completely turned over since that incredible three-year run. It says something about the foundation Vic Schaefer built that the Bulldogs could lose so much talent over two seasons and only fall back to a solid second place finish in the SEC and a borderline top ten national ranking. MSU hasn’t been as dominant as they’ve been in recent years, but they’ve had more than enough on most nights. A narrow loss to Stanford was their only non-conference blemish. They came within two points and a controversial call of beating South Carolina in Columbia. A rematch with the Gamecocks on a neutral court (as much as Greenville, SC can be “neutral” for South Carolina) might be interesting, but the Bulldogs have shown that they’re not a lock to reach the finals.

Jordan Danberry is the link to those historic MSU teams. She was granted a fifth year of eligibility after an NCAA appeal and is a graduate student. Danberry is second in the SEC in steals and chips in 12.5 PPG. She’s the lone senior though, and the team’s top two MSU scorers are underclassmen. Jessika Carter emerged as a worthy heir to Teaira McCowan at center. The sophomore leads the team in rebounding and blocks and scores nearly 14 PPG. MSU also has an impact freshman: forward Rickea Jackson is the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with the Bulldogs. Much like former star Victoria Vivians, Jackson is a long athletic forward who can score anywhere on the court. Also like Vivians, Jackson led the team in scoring as a freshman and will be one of the SEC’s top players years to come.

The Bulldogs lost three conference games including a two-point heartbreaker at South Carolina. Other teams have pushed them, and the Bulldogs can go through droughts in the halfcourt offense. They were 1-8 from outside in an upset loss to Alabama, and the team’s perimeter scoring usually depends on the streaky shooting of Chloe Bibby. As one of the league’s top teams in generating turnovers, they rely on transition for explosive offense. More often than not, they get it. They’re set up for another finals clash against South Carolina, but this Bulldog team has shown just enough vulnerability that you can’t quite pencil in that rematch just yet.

3) Kentucky (21-7, 10-6) (LY-4th, PS-4th): Matthew Mitchell’s team has only finished out of the top four twice since he took over the program. SEC player of the year Rhyne Howard’s midseason fractured finger raised the difficulty level of another top four finish. Thanks to a win over Mississippi State, the Wildcats were able to emerge from a four-team tie with the highest seed. It’s tough to say that Howard’s absence cost Kentucky a shot at a higher finish. Losses to Florida and Arkansas were certainly winnable games, but Kentucky fell to LSU and Vanderbilt with Howard in the lineup.

An upside to losing a star like Howard is that other players have no choice but to step up. Kentucky has six players shooting at least 33% from outside. Only Arkansas shoots better from outside. The team as a whole takes care of the ball, and Kentucky is third nationally in turnover margin. Howard also leads the team in rebounds, but four players have pulled down at least 100 boards. There’s no question that Howard is the star, but this is still very much a team that’s better than the sum of its parts. Forward Keke McKinney has become an emotional leader of the team after battling her own injuries. Sabrina Haines is shooting 40% from outside, and senior point guard Jaida Roper has been the veteran hand guiding the whole operation.

The Cats are fun to watch just to see so many moving parts working together, but occasionally this year the system has ground to a halt. Kentucky will have to avoid those lapses in order to advance through a fairly difficult bracket. Mississippi State would love to get another shot at a Kentucky team that beat them earlier in the season, but a quarterfinal against a very desperate Tennessee team might come first. The Wildcats just edged the Lady Vols thanks to a career-high 37 points from Howard. Does Howard have it in her to carry this team deep into the weekend?

4) Texas A&M (22-7, 10-6) (LY-3rd, PS-1st): The Aggies were preseason favorites due in large part to the return of Player of the Year candidate Chennedy Carter. Carter had an excellent junior season and finished second in the SEC in scoring, but she missed seven games during conference play with an ankle injury. A&M lost the game in which Carter was injured and went only 4-3 during her absence. Carter returned in a big way with 37 points in a win at Tennessee, and it seemed as if the Aggies were back on solid footing. They fell to Alabama and South Carolina in the final week, and that stumble means a much more difficult path to the finals relative to a third place finish. They still earned the double-bye and will advance to Friday, but they’ll be challenged right away in the quarterfinals. Arkansas upset the Aggies in the SEC semifinals a year ago, and the clash of styles between Gary Blair’s deliberate inside-the-paint squad and Arkansas’s bombs-away approach is always interesting.

Fortunately for the Aggies the players behind Carter were experienced and capable enough to prevent complete collapse without their star. N’dea Jones and Ciera Johnson are among the SEC’s top ten in rebounding. Kayla Wells remains another strong scoring option at guard. This is very much a Gary Blair team: they don’t shoot a ton from outside, but they hit a decent percentage. They win with defense, protecting the rim, and owning the glass on both ends of the court. Throw in a typical night from Carter, and it’s a very successful formula. If Carter is out or having a poor night, as she did in the loss to Alabama, A&M will struggle to keep pace with teams in the top half of the league.

5) Arkansas (22-7, 10-6) (LY-10th, PS-5th): The Razorbacks were the surprise story of the 2019 tournament. They began as the #10 seed and pulled three upsets en route to the championship game. The offensive firepower of Arkansas was never in doubt, and they were able to put it all together for a deep run. Mike Neighbors’s team built on last season’s strong finish for a very respectable 2020 season that represents the program’s highest SEC win total. They didn’t vault to the top of the standings, but they have remained a borderline ranked team all season and proved that last year’s tournament run was no fluke. A couple of surprise losses to Georgia and Florida kept them just on the outside of the top four. As devastating as their offense can be, defense has been shaky at times and can have them on the wrong side of an up-tempo game if the offense isn’t in top form.

Chelsea Dungee continues to be one of the more dangerous scorers in the SEC, but she hasn’t had to match the ridiculous productivity she had a year ago. Arkansas spreads the scoring around and has three of the top eight scorers in the league. Any of the “Splash Sisters” (Dungee, Amber Ramirez, and Alexis Tolefree) can lead the team on a given night, and it’s a defensive nightmare to find and cover all three in Arkansas’s fast-paced offense. The Hogs lead even South Carolina with 84.4 PPG, and they lead the SEC in three pointers made and attempted as well as three point percentage. They can score inside off of rebounds or transition, but Arkansas will live or die with the outside shot.

6) Tennessee (20-9, 10-6) (LY-8th, PS-7th): With one former Lady Vol standout ousted after last season, Tennessee turned to another former Pat Summitt point guard to turn the program around. Kellie Harper survived the usual attrition after a coaching change and held on to a good signing class. The Lady Vols started strong with a 17-4 record and a 7-1 mark in the SEC. That record was a bit of a mirage as quality wins were few and far between. Tennessee dropped five straight in February as the conference schedule became more difficult. They righted the ship and closed the regular season with three straight wins, but even those wins featured a couple of too-close-for-comfort games against Vanderbilt and Auburn. The Lady Vols enter the postseason with 20 wins, but they’re still not on solid footing for the NCAA tournament. LSU is the lone quality win in their pocket and their only success against the top half of the league. A Friday matchup with Kentucky presents a great opportunity to enhance their credentials, but a loss on Thursday could be devastating.

Rennia Davis has had a productive junior campaign and leads the team in scoring. The Lady Vols are another team that leans on impact freshmen. Tamari Key’s 78 blocks lead the SEC. All-Freshman guard Jordan Horston is a matchup nightmare at 6’2″. But aside from Davis’s 18.3 PPG, there’s not a lot of punch to this team. There are a lot of good, if not great, pieces, and only three players average over 10 PPG. It’s no surprise that a Summitt pupil would continue Tennessee’s long tradition of relentless rebounding and matchup zone defense. The Lady Vols are the SEC’s tallest team, and they use their length to their advantage to disrupt passing lanes, alter shots, and secure rebounds on both ends. It’s become a broken record though – you’re not sure what you’re going to get with Tennessee, and their annual Bubble Watch is still very much a thing.

7) LSU (19-9, 9-7) (LY-9th, PS-6th): The Tigers lost star forward Ayana Mitchell in an early February game against Texas A&M. They were able to hang on for the upset win, but it’s been tough going since. LSU is 3-4 in games without Mitchell, and they’ve dropped four of their last five heading into the postseason. LSU has had some big wins over Tennessee, Kentucky, and a sweep of Texas A&M, and those wins should be enough to get them into the NCAA tournament. They’ve also fallen to Missouri, Georgia, and Auburn and could be vulnerable to an athletic Florida team in their SEC tournament opener. LSU was a low-scoring team even with Mitchell, and they rely on good defense and slow tempo to grind out wins. Forward Faustine Aifuwa has had to become the primary interior presence. Without Mitchell’s scoring, the backcourt has had to take on a larger role. Awa Trasi came on near the end of the season. Leading scorer Khayla Pointer is a classic penetrating guard. In typical LSU fashion, this isn’t a great team shooting the ball from outside, but they’ll generate offense with defense, score inside of 15 feet, and make an opponent earn everything they get.

8) Alabama (18-11, 8-8) (LY-11th, PS-11th): At the end of January Alabama was near the bottom of the conference at 2-6. They eeked out a one-point win at winless Ole Miss, avoiding a loss that might have sunk their season. That escape at Ole Miss was a turning point. Alabama went 6-2 in the second half of the conference schedule, losing only road games at Kentucky and Georgia by a total of five points. They enter the SEC tournament as one of the league’s hottest teams and are on a four-game winning streak that includes upset wins on the road against Texas A&M and Mississippi State. Even at 2-6 they had some very close losses including a buzzer-beating heartbreaker at Tennessee. This is a much-improved team, and they’ve gained confidence now that they’ve put a few wins together. The month of February took the Tide from a Wednesday play-in game to the precipice of the NCAA tournament. Alabama is one of the mythical “first four out” according to ESPN’s bracketology, and that leaves them with some very clear motivation in Greenville.

The Tide are led by a fleet of athletic wings and guards who can attack the basket or hit from outside. The offense runs through point guard Jordan Lewis who returns after a season-ending injury a year ago. Lewis is the team’s leading scorer but has also dished out 113 assists. Even at 5’7″, Lewis ins’t afraid to go to the rim. She’s the team’s third-leading rebounder and has attempted 150 free throws – almost twice as many as any other Alabama player. Forward Jasmine Walker is a dynamic wing who leads the team in three-point shooting but also rebounding. Cierra Johnson hasn’t been the force she was in 2019, but she’s still a capable scoring guard. The Tide also have a physical inside presence with Ariyah Copeland who can make teams pay for extending their defense.

9) Georgia (16-13, 7-9) (LY-7th, PS-10th): The Lady Dogs are right about where they were expected to be. Whether or not that’s a good thing is a topic for a separate post. For the second straight season, the Lady Dogs will need to win the tournament to continue their season. If that doesn’t happen, it will be the first time in program history that Georgia has missed consecutive NCAA tournaments. Georgia has been capable of high-level wins in games at Arkansas and LSU, but home losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt, along with unremarkable nonconference results, all but ended Georgia’s hopes of an at-large bid.

Joni Taylor’s team is led by its large junior class. A lone senior, Stephanie Paul, contributes but is limited by chronic knee pain. A top 15 freshman class hasn’t really developed as hoped. The team usually needs a good night from three of its juniors to have a shot. Gabby Connally has been the team’s leading scorer, but she’s had to play out of position all season at point guard. All-SEC defender Que Morrison was lost for the season in late February. The story of the season has been the February emergence of center Jenna Stati. The Maryland transfer is scoring 11.5 PPG, but she’s averaged over 20 PPG in the last seven games and scored at least 15 points in 8 of the last 9 games. Her contribution has led the Lady Dogs to a 4-2 record to end the season even with Morrison sidelined.

There are some wildcards who could carry Georgia into the quarterfinals. Shaniya Jones is a streaky shooter who could put up double figures in a matter of minutes. Wing Maya Caldwell often has the opportunity for open jumpers. The team has been playing well enough to cool off a hot Alabama team and will almost always play with great effort defensively, but Georgia must do the little things to advance: hit layups, manage their foul load, and value possession without turnovers. Those haven’t been sure things this season, and that’s why the Lady Dogs are in the position of having to win the tournament.

10) Florida (15-14, 6-10) (LY-13th, PS-14th): Florida made measured progress this year and escaped the bottom four. Wins over Arkansas and Kentucky (minus Rhyne Howard) helped the team surpass meager preseason expectations and avoid a game on Wednesday. Much of the team’s progress has to do with the emergence of freshman wing Lavender Briggs. Briggs leads the team in scoring with nearly 15 PPG and is second on the team in rebounding. Fellow freshman Nina Rickards gives Florida another perimeter weapon. Forward Zada Williams is capable of a big game, but Florida has several quick players with good size who can cause matchup problems. Their issue this year has been putting the ball in the basket as they lag in shooting, free throw, and 3pt percentage. The Gators were 4-4 in February and could present a challenge to a reeling LSU team on Thursday.

11) Missouri (8-21, 5-11) (LY-5th, PS-9th): The Tigers lost a strong senior class that featured Sophie Cunningham and Cierra Porter, and their rebuilding year has been much tougher than expected. A win over LSU in January was the bright spot of the season, and they looked to be turning a corner in early February with a close loss against Arkansas and a win over Georgia. Losses in four of their last six leave them among the four teams playing on Wednesday. They should be able to get past Ole Miss, a team they swept during the regular season, but their season will likely end against Tennessee. Amber Smith was poised to take over as team leader following Cunningham and Porter, and she has had a solid season. But it’s been a pair of freshmen, Aijha Blackwell and Hayley Frank, who lead the team in scoring. That bodes well for the future, but it also helps to explain the slide this year.

12) Vanderbilt (14-15, 4-12) (LY-14th, PS-12th): This is progress, right? Vanderbilt doubled both their conference and overall win totals from a year ago. That still leaves them near the bottom of the standings, but they’re out of last place and will be wearing their home whites in an SEC tournament game. The Commodores raised a few eyebrows with a 10-3 nonconference mark that included a win over Washington and respectable losses to Rutgers and UConn. They started 2-1 in the SEC with convincing wins over Auburn and Georgia, and Stephanie White’s fourth season began to look much different from her first three. Reality set in over the rest of the conference slate: Ole Miss was their only other win for almost two months. Vandy has been playing better of late though. They had close single-digit losses at both Tennessee and LSU, and a fourth quarter outbust powered them to an upset of Kentucky on the final day of the season. Freshman forward Koi Love has been a great find and forms a productive frontcourt with Mariella Fasoula, but the team has struggled outside the arc. Jordyn Cambridge leads the conference in steals.

13) Auburn (10-17, 4-12) (LY-6th, PS-8th): It’s been a disappointing season for Auburn after a trip to the NCAA tournament a year ago. Junior Unique Thompson is a first team All-SEC selection and averages a double-double, but the Tigers have struggled to find her much help. Thompson and lone senior Daisa Alexander are the only upperclassmen on a team with 11 freshmen and sophomores, and Terri Williams-Flournoy’s squad took it on the chin during this rebuilding year. There are signs of improvement: in February the Tigers took Mississippi State to overtime, beat LSU, and lost to Tennessee by a point in the season finale. They won’t be afraid of a quarterfinal game against Arkansas if they can get past Vanderbilt, a team with which they split the season series.

14) Ole Miss (7-22, 0-16) (LY-12th, PS-13th): Coach Yo struggled to find a breakthrough win this season, and it’s unfortunate that the team’s most newsworthy moment came from scoring two points in the first half against South Carolina. To their credit, the team has continued to fight and has come close to several wins. They’ve lost to Georgia by seven, Florida by two, and Alabama by just one point. Ole Miss will welcome a solid recruiting class to Oxford next season and should soon be a much more competitive team.