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Post 2023 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Tuesday February 28, 2023

Greenville, SC and its Bon Secours Wellness Arena will be a focal point of women’s college basketball for the next month. After a year in Nashville the SEC Tournament returns to Greenville for the first of a three-year stint. Later in March Greenville will be just one of two regional sites for the NCAA Tournament (the other is Seattle.) Fans of eight teams will descend on Greenville to determine two Final Four participants. It’s very possible that at least one, if not both, of those Final Four teams will be on the court in Greenville this week.

SEC women’s basketball, like any other college sport, has had to adapt to rapid and widespread changes across the college athletics landscape. Any fan of college sports has had to get comfortable with change. NIL deals finally allow student-athletes to share in some of the value they create for their schools and sports. Updated transfer rules allow rosters to be remade overnight. Thanks to Covid-era allowances for additional years of eligibility there are players on rosters you’d swear you remember from the 2000s.

The effects of these changes will be on display in Greenville. Over half of the programs have welcomed new head coaches in the past three seasons. The transfer portal giveth and taketh: nearly every team has key contributors plucked from the transfer portal. Other programs have found it difficult to replace departed players and have fallen down the standings. Rejuvenated programs at schools like Ole Miss and LSU have brought in record crowds and could alter the usual patchwork of fans in the stands for the conference tournament. Thanks to new NIL deals and increased media exposure star players are making an impact outside of the SEC and even outside of basketball.

One thing that hasn’t changed is South Carolina’s dominance of the SEC. The defending SEC and NCAA champions are still on top, and they might be even better than they were a year ago. South Carolina’s last loss? That loss came in this tournament a year ago as 7-seed Kentucky caught fire and cut down the nets. An SEC Tournament title was the only jewel missing from South Carolina’s 2022 crown. Claiming that missing title is surely motivation in Dawn Staley’s locker room, but Kentucky’s run was a reminder that there are no sure things in the postseason.

We’ve had a surprise finalist in each of the past two seasons: Georgia in 2021 and Kentucky in 2022. Is there a Kentucky lurking in the field this year? That Wildcat team had two-time SEC Player of the Year Rhyne Howard and got healthy in time for the end of the season. LSU has emerged this season as a top 5 program and national contender, but they were humbled by the Gamecocks in Columbia. The setting probably won’t be much less hostile just 90 minutes from the South Carolina campus, but LSU has a rematch on their mind. Can a team like Tennessee or Ole Miss spoil the rematch and make their own statement about the future of their program?

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:
Wednesday: Bye
Thursday / Second Round: vs. Auburn 6:00 PM ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. LSU 6:00 PM ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: ~7:00 pm ET ESPNU
Sunday / Finals: 3:00 pm ET ESPN
Complete Bracket Here

The Field
(LY: last year’s finish, PS: coaches preseason projection)

1) South Carolina (16-0, 29-0) (LY-1, PS-1): Good news – they’re finally seniors! The class including Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, and Brea Beal arrived in 2019-2020 as the nation’s top group of signees, and they have lived up to the hype. They were among the favorites to win a national title in the Covid-shortened 2020 season. They won the title last season as juniors. If they do pull off the repeat in a few weeks, they’ll be up there with the dynasties at UConn and Tennessee in the 2000s.

Dawn Staley’s top-ranked team isn’t just built around those three decorated seniors. Eleven Gamecock players average at least 10 minutes per game. Only three average over 20 minutes per game. That’s right – starters for the best team in the nation might not play half the game. It’s not just a question of building a big lead and emptying the bench. South Carolina turns to its reserves early in games, and there are important roles up and down the lineup. Most any team could start a versatile forward like Laeticia Amihere. 6’7″ Kamilla Cardoso has come out of the shadows this season and was the key factor in South Carolina’s win over LSU. Raven Johnson leads the team in assists off the bench, an indication of last season’s top-rated signing class beginning to assert itself.

Few teams can come close to matching the interior presence of Boston, Cardoso, Amihere, and emerging freshman Ashlyn Watkins. The results of that size are plain: South Carolina’s 250 blocks lead the SEC by a margin of nearly 80%. They lead the SEC in defensive and offensive rebounding. South Carolina’s success is a numbers game. They turn the ball over fewer times than anyone in the SEC. They rebound and block better than anyone. Put it all together and opponents might get one shot per possession in their halfcourt offense, and that shot might well be blocked. That advantage means an opponent must be extremely efficient in their own offense or hope South Carolina is wildly inefficient on a given night.

It speaks to the quality of the game around the nation and in the SEC that a team this loaded has had a couple of close calls. Two teams have taken the Gamecocks to overtime. A handful of other teams have kept the final score within single digits and had credible chances to win. Those results might provide hope for postseason opponents, but they’ve also been valuable and humbling experiences that will prepare South Carolina for the competition they’re likely to face in March.

Is there a weakness? As a team the Gamecocks only shoot around 31% from outside. Cooke is the team’s top perimeter threat, and she and Beal have taken over half the team’s three-point attempts. The duo connects at roughly 40%, but they can be streaky. South Carolina shot 29% from the perimeter vs. Stanford (an overtime win), 22% vs. Mississippi St. (a 7-point win), 20% vs. UConn (a 4-point win), and 27% vs. Ole Miss (an overtime win). That’s only part of the story though; they’ve shot just as poorly from outside in several blowout wins. They have so many other ways to score. Even a missed three-point attempt isn’t the end of the world when you rebound as well as the Gamecocks do. If a team is going to keep it close and have a chance for the upset, they need South Carolina to be cold from outside, limit South Carolina’s size advantage on the offensive glass, keep turnovers to a minimum to make the most of their own possessions, and hope the rest of the Gamecock team has an average night. Easy, right?

2) LSU (15-1, 27-1) (LY-2, PS-3): It was a small surprise to see LSU ascend to second place last season. There’s no underestimating Kim Mulkey, but it was a big job to get the most out of a senior class that was used to mid-table finishes. Mulkey’s challenge in her second season was nearly as difficult: replacing that experienced core and getting several new pieces to mesh. The biggest piece was the transfer of forward Angel Reese from Maryland. Reese was already a decorated star and Third Team All-American at Maryland, but she’s taken her game and confidence to another level under Mulkey. There can be a debate about the league’s most outstanding player, but Reese is the reason why LSU took a step forward after losing so much from last season.

Reese’s supporting cast is a mix of newcomers and well-traveled veterans. LaDazhia Williams, another threat to score inside, is a graduate transfer from Missouri who began at South Carolina. Sharpshooting Jasmine Carson is another graduate transfer by way of West Virginia and Georgia Tech. High-scoring guard Alexis Morris transferred to LSU, her fourth program, last season and has had a big final season. Flau’jae Johnson has been an impact freshman with a McDonald’s All-American pedigree and is the team’s second-leading rebounder as a freshman wing. Freshman Sa’Myah Smith has come on during the season for frontcourt depth.

LSU rolled through their nonconference schedule without a loss, but they received criticism for the soft level of competition. That skepticism kept them from rising far in the rankings or early NCAA Tournament projections even with an unblemished record. But as conference wins began to pile up, LSU’s quality was harder and harder to ignore. They rose to as high as #3 before falling at South Carolina. Their strength of schedule might cost them a seed or two in the national tournament, but they’ll be expected to reach the finals in Greenville for a rematch with the Gamecocks.

The near-perfect record didn’t come without some shaky moments. LSU was challenged at home by Georgia and Arkansas and struggled at last-place Texas A&M. There seemed to be a pretty clear separation in class when they met South Carolina. LSU fans packing the arena to support this deserving team was one of the highlights of the season, but the Tigers will have to stand on their own now in a “neutral” arena likely to be full of Gamecock and Volunteer fans. They have the confidence and toughness to get it done, and Reese can match any team’s best player. It’s the rest of the lineup that will determine LSU’s postseason ceiling.

3) Tennessee (13-3, 21-10) (LY-3, PS-2): With the exception of LSU and Angel Reese the conference’s top winner in the transfer portal might be the Lady Vols. Rickea Jackson had been a star player at Mississippi State since she stepped on campus. Jillian Hollingshead showed tremendous potential at Georgia while battling knee issues. That incoming star talent added alongside a leader like Jordan Horston meant high expectations for Kellie Harper’s team. The Lady Vols had returned to respectability with consecutive third-place finishes, and there was hope that this would be the year for the program to take the next step. The Lady Vols were picked second behind South Carolina, and they had three players on the preseason all-SEC first team – more than the Gamecocks!

Those expectations took a hit when a central player was lost to injury for the second straight season. Last season it was Horston missing the stretch run. This season took a turn when imposing post Tamari Key was sidelined for the season with blood clots in her lungs. Fortunately Key’s prognosis is favorable, but her absence put extra pressure on Tennessee’s wings and guards. Even with Key Tennessee struggled with a difficult nonconference schedule. Tennessee entered SEC play at 8-6 with losses to some of the best teams in the nation. Things changed once conference play began: the Lady Vols started 8-0 in the SEC until LSU cooled them off. But Tennessee has had the same problem against both conference and nonconference opponents. None of their losses are bad; lots of good teams lose to UConn, Stanford, Indiana, and LSU. Good wins however have been hard to come by. Yes, beating Alabama and Ole Miss separated Tennessee from the pack. They improved on their 2022 11-5 conference record, had their best record in the SEC in eight seasons, yet here they are in third place for the third straight season. The Lady Vols are again one of the better programs in the SEC, and that’s progress from a couple of seasons ago when they risked missing the NCAA Tournament. They’ve yet to take that next step back onto the national stage. That could begin to change with a deep run to the SEC finals.

Rickea Jackson has been the impact transfer Tennessee needed. She leads the Lady Vols with nearly 19 points per game. Horston remains a steady leader and adds 15 points per game. It says a lot though that these two 6’2″ wings are also Tennessee’s leading rebounders. First, they play with tremendous effort. But without Key there’s really not a dominant post presence, and they’ve been uncharacteristically weak against teams with elite rebounders like LSU and South Carolina. Tennessee can also struggle to find consistent scoring from night to night apart from its two stars. Only three players – Jackson, Horson, and Tess Darby – score over 6 points per game, but seven players get between 4-6 points per game. Cobbling together those points and finding someone with a hot hand – maybe Darby or Sara Puckett or Jordan Walker on a given night – has been enough to propel Tennessee to over 77 points per game, and the typically stingy Tennessee defense has done the rest. To beat the top teams in the league though and advance to the finals Tennessee will need to find a third star to shine next to Jackson and Horston.

4) Ole Miss (11-5, 22-7) (LY-4, PS-5): The Rebels finishing fourth in 2022 after going winless as recently as 2020 was one of the biggest stories of last year. This season the story told by another fourth place finish is that Yolett McPhee-McCuin’s program has staying power. The loss of Shakira Austin to the WNBA has led to a more diversified team with multiple ways to attack. Angel Baker has stepped up as the team’s go-to scorer. Madison Scott took an other step forward in her junior season with a scoring average in double figures and over 8 rebounds per game. A pair of transfers – Marquesha Davis from Arkansas and Myah Taylor from Mississippi State – have been important additions at guard. Like Tennessee the Rebels lack the imposing post presence that Austin provided. They’ve had to have much more balanced scoring, defending, and rebounding especially around the basket. Ole Miss doesn’t shoot particularly well from outside, though Baker and Snudda Collins can and will take the shot. They do have a number of players who can hit the midrange shot, crash the offensive glass, and run in transition.

Toughness and intensity have been consistent calling cards of Coach Yo’s teams from year to year. They’re undersized but outrebound opponents by nearly 9 per game. Their tight man defense limits opponents to under 35% shooting and only 26% from outside. They’re middling in creating turnovers but are happy to force a bad shot, rebound it, and get off running to the other end.

The Rebels have also improved their results away from home. January wins at Georgia and Mississippi State got them off to a 5-0 start in SEC play, and a tight comeback win at Alabama on the final day of the season gave them the edge over the Tide for fourth place. Despite finishing in the top four for two straight seasons, national respect has been tough to come by for the Rebels. They remain unranked in the polls with a NET rating in the top 25. They came close to a signature win against South Carolina, but that statement against an elite team has eluded them. They lost to the two ranked teams they faced in nonconference play. A January win over then-#24 Arkansas looks less impressive by the day. Ole Miss has simply had to settle for being a damn good team that has just enough talent and effort to rise above the majority of the conference. That’s quite a reputation Coach Yo’s program has built in a few short years. What’s next?

5) Mississippi State (9-7, 20-9) (LY-10, PS-8): Things were bleak for the Bulldogs at the end of January. A pair of ugly losses to Ole Miss and Georgia dropped MSU to 4-5 in the league, and they were in need of a reset. The Bulldogs made the most of a bye week and emerged from the break to upset Tennessee. Mississippi State finished the season winning five of seven games, and that win over Tennessee was the tiebreaker that earned first-year coach Sam Purcell the #5 seed over two other 9-7 teams. Purcell’s energy has given new life to a program that fell on hard times after amazing runs to the Final Four. A recent loss at Missouri showed that the Bulldogs still haven’t quite shaken the problems of the first half of the season, but wins over Alabama and Arkansas were enough to force a tie with Alabama and Georgia. MSU’s February success has a lot to do with the improved play of guard JerKaila Jordan. Jordan is averaging around 17 points in February and, along with Ahlana Smith, gives the Bulldogs a pop from outside. The Bulldogs have also gotten a shot in the arm from the return of leading scorer and rebounder Jessika Carter after a year’s absence. MSU’s strong finish has solidified their place in the NCAA Tournament. If they make it to Friday’s quarterfinals, they’ll see if their improved play can be the charm in a third try against their in-state rival. Purcell, known as a skilled recruiter while at Louisville, would love to have the last word against Ole Miss after coming up short twice earlier in the season.

6) Alabama (9-7, 20-9) (LY-11, PS-10): The Tide made some noise in last season’s postseason with a convincing upset of Georgia and a run to the WNIT quarterfinals. They’ve exceeded expectations in 2023 and will make the NCAA Tournament after piling up wins over the bottom half of the conference. A January win at Ole Miss is their lone win over a team seeded 5th or higher, but you can’t fault them for taking care of business against most everyone else. Alabama had a chance to finish in the top four up until the last day of the regular season, but they enter the postseason with three straight losses. Pulling out of that slide might take a win over Florida, a team that beat the Tide just a week ago. The Tide have found success this year as the conference’s leading three-point shooting team with nearly 9 made three-pointers per game. They largely play four-out, one-in with Jada Rice making plays in the paint and a quartet of guards and wings able to shoot from outside or drive past defenders. Brittany Davis scores nearly 18 points per game, and there’s no question she’s the team’s offensive engine. Davis attempts nearly a quarter of the team’s field goals and three point attempts but also attacks the basket and heads to the foul line more than any other teammate. The attention that must be paid to Davis leaves Alabama’s other guards with good shots, and you almost have to do a second take at their percentages. Aaliyah Nye shoots 45% from outside. Point guard Hannah Barber shoots 48%. Megan Abrams and Loyal McQueen merely shoot in the 30s. The outside shooting has been less reliable down the stretch; Alabama shot 30% or lower in three of their final five games.

7) Georgia (9-7, 20-10) (LY-6, PS-9): As a coach you like to see a team play its best towards the end of the season. That’s just what new Georgia coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson is seeing from her Bulldogs. Coach Abe, like many first-year coaches these days, was both a victim of and a beneficiary of the transfer portal. Several key players and an entire top 10 recruiting class decided to leave Georgia during the transition. Abe responded by convincing her entire UCF signing class as well as three experienced members of the UCF team to follow her to Athens. She added three transfers from other schools and re-recruited four remaining Georgia players to stay with the program. Establishing her culture among players with such varied backgrounds has been a difficult and painstaking process. Georgia showed early signs of toughness with a win at Georgia Tech and comeback wins over Wisconsin and VCU. But there were also some disappointing losses in December, and the start of conference play was an eye-opener. Georgia struggled to a 2-5 start in the league. They had to come from behind to beat Florida and Kentucky, and a bad loss at Texas A&M all but sunk the season.

The season turned after the loss at A&M, and it turned on defense. Georgia’s 3-2 matchup zone and occasional press had its moments earlier in the season, but over the last half of the season things began to click much more consistently. Georgia finished the season winning seven of nine games including a five-game winning streak in February. In those seven wins Georgia allowed an average of 50 points per game with no one opponent scoring more than 61. Even in a pair of road losses to top 5 teams Georgia looked locked in. They took undefeated LSU to overtime in Baton Rouge and finished the season playing South Carolina closer than anyone had on the Gamecocks’ home court. Georgia’s defense has created 612 turnovers during the season (20.4 per game), and they lead the SEC in steals and turnover margin.

Offense improved along with the defense. UCF transfer Diamond Battles, Georgia’s leading scorer, took a few games to adjust to the physicality of the SEC. She is averaging 16 points per game over Georgia’s nine-game run and has broken 20 in each of the final two games. Battles isn’t the only player who improved down the stretch. Coach Abe likes to talk about players understanding and settling into their roles, and two of Georgia’s biggest role players come off the bench. Javyn Nicholson has been a physical reserve post player for several seasons but has developed a smooth midrange game to go along with impressive post moves. Nicholson averages 9.5 points per game on the season but has been in double figures in every game but one over Georgia’s final eight games. She’s also contributed on the glass with five double-doubles this year. Alisha Lewis leads Georgia in assists and three-pointers despite starting only four games. Lewis is often among the personnel on the court to close out games and hit the game-winner in Georgia’s home win over Kentucky. Audrey Warren, a Texas transfer, has had to expand her role at Georgia. She’s been a tough-nosed defender and rebounder for years but has been asked to do more on offense. Warren responded with 8 points per game and is Georgia’s second-leading three-point shooter.

Georgia’s biggest strength is also a weakness. They generate lots of turnovers but turn it over at a high rate themselves. Even that’s been improving. Georgia has turned it over 14.6 times per game over their final five games – nearly a two-turnover improvement over their season average. Foul trouble can also be a problem for Georgia. Georgia is blessed with depth at the post position, but potent scorers Brittany Smith and Malury Bates can take themselves out of games with fouls. The Lady Dogs especially need Smith available in the postseason. Earlier in the season Georgia was often plagued by long scoring droughts. Those have become fewer in frequency as Coach Abe better understood the combinations she needed on the court, but scoreless stretches can still be a problem. Georgia’s outside shooting relies primarily on three players – Battles, Lewis, and Warren – and the team is shooting under 30% from outside. The most effective offense has been to create transition off of turnovers or to attack the basket with guards and a deep rotation of posts and draw fouls.

Not many teams are playing as well as Georgia right now. They might not have the star power to pull off the deep run that Rhyne Howard and company did a year ago from the 7-seed, but Georgia won’t be an enjoyable opponent for anyone in this tournament. Georgia’s held their own in the league’s two toughest gyms, they have a coach used to having to win the conference tournament to keep a season going, and they have a deep and experienced roster finally playing well as a unit.

8) Arkansas (7-9, 20-11) (LY-8, PS-4): A second-straight eighth-place finish wasn’t what Arkansas expected at the start of the season or even in mid-January. The Razorbacks started the season 13-0 en route to a #17 ranking and began 4-1 in the SEC. A tough stretch at the end of January led to four straight losses including a trio of three-point losses. Another three-game losing streak in February was much more lopsided and suggested a team that had started hot but faded. A decisive win against Texas A&M to close the season at least stopped the losing streak and give the Razorbacks some confidence heading into the tournament. Arkansas still plays classic Mike Neighbors basketball and attempts more three-pointers than any other SEC team. Connecting with those deep shots has been the problem this year. Arkansas shoots less than 30% from outside. They might try to make up for it with volume, but the explosive scorers of their recent past aren’t on this team anymore. There’s a foursome of guards and wings who each attempted at least 124 three-pointers, but no player is shooting over 33.6%. Chrissy Carr has emerged as the top outside threat with Samara Spencer posting similar numbers. Makayla Daniels inherits the playmaker role and can connect from outside or drive to the basket and draw fouls. Forward Erynn Barnum is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder. Freshman Saylor Poffenbarger has been an important addition to Arkansas’ game inside the paint while also showing an outside threat. The relative lack of firepower has kept Arkansas from notching a win over the top half of the conference, but they do have a pair of wins over their opening tournament opponent Missouri. A top-20 recruiting class should help revitalize the Arkansas offense next season.

9) Missouri (6-10, 17-12) (LY-9, PS-12): Missouri also might seem a bit stagnant ending up where they finished in 2022, but they were better than expected after forwards Aijha Blackwell and LaDazhia Williams transferred. Missouri’s style hasn’t changed: they’re still among the league’s top three-point shooting teams and can slice apart defenses that overextend to the perimeter. Missouri started conference play 3-0, and wins over Alabama and Mississippi State have had them on the NCAA bubble for most of the season. Two losses to close the regular season might have dampened postseason hopes. While Missouri’s style hasn’t changed, their problem, like Arkansas, has been consistency. They lean heavily on forward Hayley Frank who is the team’s leading scorer and shotblocker. Frank also leads the team in three-pointers made and is second on the team in rebounding. That’s a lot to put on one player, and it’s gone badly a few times this year. Lauren Hansen can also get hot from outside but can be streaky – Hansen has gone over 20 points in four SEC games but has been held to 5 points or fewer five times. Mama Dembele has dealt with injuries but still leads the team in assists and can increase the pace of play when she’s in the game. Missouri has had to play a committee of players down low, and it hasn’t been as effective as the Blackwell-Williams combination.

10) Auburn (5-11, 15-13) (LY-14, PS-13): It’s not quite an Ole Miss type of rise yet, but Auburn made definite progress in year 2 under Johnnie Harris. The Tigers more than doubled their SEC win total in 2023, and they emerged from the bottom four with a season-ending win over Vanderbilt. Things started rough with six straight SEC losses, but Auburn broke into the win column with an overtime upset of Ole Miss. That win started Auburn’s first three-game winning streak in six years, but they finished the year losing five of seven games. With the exception of the Ole Miss win, all of Auburn’s wins came over the bottom 4. Auburn was also 1-7 in road games with the lone victory coming at last-place Kentucky. There’s no question that Auburn is improving, and learning to win away from home will be key to taking that next step. Forward Aicha Coulibaly and guard Honesty Scott-Grayson lead the Auburn attack averaging in double-figures and are complemented by 9 other players averaging over 10 minutes per game. Auburn plays an aggressive defense and is second in the league in steals. That aggression can lead to foul trouble, and Harris has to rotate post players to manage fouls. Both Coulibaly and Scott-Grayson are capable of huge nights scoring over twice their averages, but to hang with better teams they need help from players like Kharyssa Richardson or Sania Wells and impactful contributions from their post rotation.

11) Florida (5-11, 16-13) (LY-5, PS-6): Last season Florida finished fifth and reached the NCAA Tournament despite a coaching change just before the season and the departure of the team’s leading scorer. Kelly Rae Finley’s job as interim coach earned her the permanent gig. They haven’t been able to recapture that magic in 2023 and have slid back to the Wednesday play-in game. Injuries, most notably to Zippy Broughton, have tested the roster, and depth has been their undoing in several games in which Florida led or kept close early. Even as injured players returned to the roster wins have been tough to come by. Guard play is decent with KK Deans and Alberte Rimdal shooting nearly 40% from outside and Nina Rickards attacking the basket, but spotty post play has cost them. Jordyn Merritt, a key member of last season’s overachievers, was among the injured and has found it tough to get going. Florida did notch two quality wins at the end of the year over Arkansas and Missouri and might have knocked both programs off the NCAA Tournament bubble.

12) Vanderbilt (3-13, 12-18) (LY-13, PS-14): Shea Ralph had a decent debut last season leading the Commodores to four conference wins for the first time since 2018. Ralph wasn’t able to build on that modest success this year, and personnel is a big reason why. The Commodores carried just a nine-player roster this season after defensive specialist Jordyn Cambridge was lost for the season. Guard Caija Harbison has been the standout; she’s among the SEC leaders in points, assists, and steals. Harbison and Marnelle Garraud give the Commodores some scoring punch from the guard position, and Sacha Washington is the top post threat. Ralph’s team can put points on the board, but depth issues have shown up in rebounding and on defense. Opponents are scoring 71 points per game, shooting 45%, and outrebounding the Commodores by over 6 per game. Vanderbilt’s split series with Arkansas gave us two of the more entertaining lower-profile games in the SEC this year.

13) Texas A&M (2-14, 10-17) (LY-12, PS-11): For a while it looked as if Joni Taylor’s only SEC win of the year would come against her former team. A late-season win over Kentucky moved A&M out of the basement, and that accomplishment might be the highlight of their season. It’s been a long way down for A&M since winning the SEC regular season title just two years ago. The Aggies’ new coach has had a rough transition as she’s faced an overhauled roster, inexperience, and injuries. Taylor brought Georgia’s #7-rated signing class with her, and they’ve all had to contribute as freshmen. The top prospect from that group, Janiah Barker, missed a good chunk of the season with a wrist injury but returned just in time to lead A&M to an upset of Georgia. 5th-year forward Aaliyah Patty has been a constant through the injuries. The Aggies play the usual tough Joni Taylor defense, but scoring has been a big problem. A&M is a full ten points behind the next-worst team in points per game. They had a brief outburst against Georgia as Barker returned to beat the team she originally signed with, but teams have enough film on Barker now as the surrounding cast struggles. Another top-20 class is on the way in to provide reinforcements.

14) Kentucky (2-14, 10-18) (LY-7, PS-7): What a rollercoaster – or house of horrors – for the Cats over the past two seasons. They started the 2022 SEC season 2-8 before ripping off six straight wins. That momentum continued into the tournament, and the seventh-seeded Wildcats pulled the upset of the year with a win over South Carolina to claim the SEC Tournament title. This season’s Kentucky teams also started 2-8 in the SEC, but there was no Rhyne Howard and Dre’una Edwards to rescue them this time. They enter this tournament with a much different momentum: seven straight losses. Though there have been injuries to overcome largely this is a team that just hasn’t matched up talent-wise with the rest of the SEC. Replacing Rhyne Howard is a monumental task, and Kentucky lost a lot more from last season’s championship squad than Howard. The guard trio of Robyn Benton, Jada Walker, and Maddie Scherr give the Cats some firepower, but they struggle with production in the paint. Kentucky is near the bottom of the league in rebounds and turnovers, and coming up short in the possessions game is never a good combination. One of their wins was against first-round opponent Florida, so there’s hope for one last rally before the season ends.

Post Bobo – Take 2

Wednesday February 15, 2023

After three seasons heading up the Georgia offense, Todd Monken will head back to the NFL. It’s not a huge surprise given 1) Monken’s self-described journeyman status and 2) the interest with which he pursued NFL interviews over the past month. “I’m a vagabond,” Monken admitted in a pre-Peach Bowl interview that sounded almost like a farewell. He was also blunt about the nature of the job. “This is a business,” Monken said. That wasn’t said with a tone of dissatisfaction; it’s the reality for the majority of college coaches who come into their jobs without particularly strong ties to the school. Athens can get its hooks into you especially if it’s your last stop on the coaching carousel – just ask Georgia’s former head coaches. But even the appeal of Athens and the success of the Georgia program wasn’t enough to tie down a professional vagabond used to moving on to new opportunities.

Monken came to Athens in 2020 with a clear mandate to bring Georgia’s offense up to par with those of other national contenders. Disappointing postseason losses in 2018 and especially 2019 showed how far Georgia had to go relative to the teams it considered its peers. Record-setting offenses churning out top draft picks at LSU and Alabama suggested a new approach was necessary if Georgia hoped to break through. Monken began his renovation in the most difficult of circumstances. His first two options at quarterback washed out. The transfer hoped to be Georgia’s answer to the Heisman winners at LSU and Alabama couldn’t shake injury. The leading rusher was coming off two knee surgeries, and the receiving corps wasn’t especially deep. Oh – the installation of this new offense had to take place during a pandemic with no spring practice.

Georgia didn’t break through in 2020, but Monken showed flexibility and creativity by designing successful offenses around two very different quarterbacks. He could win with a run-heavy approach as at South Carolina or air it out against Mississippi State. Despite the uncertainty at quarterback that lasted the entire season (and then some), Georgia was able to find some building blocks around which Monken could construct a devastating attack over the next two seasons.

Three years is a fairly standard tenure for a successful high-profile coordinator. Dan Lanning was Georgia’s defensive coordinator for three seasons. It would have been disappointing but not shocking had Monken followed Lanning out of town after the 2021 national title. We know how this works: teams want to hire the coaches of champions, and we want a program that develops its coaching talent as much as it does its players. It was a pleasant development that Monken returned for an encore in 2022. He was not going to be a Georgia lifer.

Kirby Smart understood that reality and wasn’t caught off guard by Monken’s departure. Georgia immediately announced Mike Bobo as Monken’s replacement. Bobo of course served previously as Georgia’s offensive coordinator from 2007–2014 before leaving to become the head coach at Colorado State. He reemerged in unremarkable one-year coordinator stints at failing Auburn and South Carolina programs before joining Smart’s staff as an offensive analyst.

Bobo left Athens in 2014 at the height of his game. Georgia ripped off a three-year stretch from 2012-2014 averaging 40 points per game and easily finishing in the top 10 of offensive SP+. Bobo was a Broyles Award finalist in 2012 as Georgia became a national title contender. Aaron Murray became the SEC’s career passing leader. Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, and Sony Michel ushered in a new golden age of Georgia tailback play. As Blutarsky put it at the time, “Bobo’s departure doesn’t come as a relief.” With Jeremy Pruitt’s abrasive style clashing with the rest of the staff and the program falling behind in resources and facilities relative to the SEC, Bobo’s offense was one of the more stable elements of the program.

It’s impossible to discuss Bobo without unpacking a lot of emotional baggage. But for a few years here and there Bobo has been associated with Georgia either as a player or coach since the mid-1990s. That time period covers a lot of ups and downs, and much of it fell squarely in the middle of Georgia’s 40-year title drought. Any player or coach from that era will bear the burden of missed opportunities, what-ifs, and even outright failures. Many Georgia fans will struggle with disentangling themselves not only from their opinion of Bobo from the early 2010s but also from their frustration with the Georgia program of the same time. That was plenty of time to develop a rich lode of playcalls or outcomes we blamed for Georgia coming up short – again.

Bobo might have left Athens as a hot commodity, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing since. His first three Colorado State teams finished 7-6. The scary emergence of an autoimmune disease disrupted his final two seasons at CSU and threatened his coaching career. The stress of coaching and the draining recovery process took a visible toll on the vibrant playcaller we remember. His experiences at Auburn and South Carolina with programs in turmoil couldn’t have been pleasant. Returning to Athens as an analyst was an opportunity to reset, collaborate with another coordinator at the top of *his* game, and consider his plans for the future.

Eight years is a long time. Georgia football has changed. Football itself has changed. Thanks to Monken’s success Kirby Smart has absorbed those changes as well as anyone. With Monken Smart showed urgency by looking outside the program to find someone with fresh ideas and a fluency in everything from the Air Raid to pro schemes. Georgia’s offense might not need that kind of revolutionary change again, but it does need to carry on in the same spirit. Smart would have been in the ideal position over the past year to evaluate how well Bobo has incorporated those same lessons in his scheme and playcalling. On a touchier note Smart would also have had to evaluate whether Bobo after eight difficult years still has the drive and relentless recruiting chops that took him to the top of his profession during his first stint at Georgia.

Ultimately any offense operates with Smart’s blessing and preferences, and Smart understands how dangerous a backslide to 2019 (or, heaven forbid, 2015) would be. I doubt we’ll see the return of the fullback as a glamour position in Georgia’s offense, but, hey – who knows? Fans aren’t known for subtlety, and any strongly-held beliefs about Mike Bobo from 2014 are about to be relitigated. We give it a quarter before the first non-ironic cries of “run the damn ball Booboo.”

Before he calls one play Bobo will be involved in one of the most anticipated decisions of the offseason. Georgia’s quarterback position is wide-open for the first time since 2020. The Bulldogs have three top candidates they’ll be evaluating during the spring and summer. We might have assumptions about the pecking order, but a coaching change can be a fresh start. Choosing a starting quarterback is sometimes not a straightforward or permanent decision. Monken looked for every reason to play someone other than Stetson Bennett, and the position seemed unsettled for two of Monken’s three seasons in Athens. Smart admitted that it took a while to realize the value of Bennett’s mobility. “He overcame us,” said Smart.

Bobo was involved with Georgia’s quarterbacks from 2001-2014 and coached several of Georgia’s titans at the position: Greene, Shockley, Stafford, and Murray. That means he was also involved in the Greene/Shockley platoon in the early 2000s and the in-season tryout that took the first half of the 2006 season and had Joe Tereshinski starting. The coaches decided to redshirt Murray in 2009. Bobo’s final offense in 2014 was productive, but the quarterback room was left in bad shape upon his departure. We look back on those decisions – from Greene and Shockley all the way to Bennett – with clear hindsight. The point is that even the most accomplished coaches can struggle with those decisions. Is that a preview of how the 2023 decision will pan out? Of course not, but it won’t be surprising to see the decision linger beyond spring into August and even into the season. If that happens, it’s likely that the quarterback position will quickly overshadow any talk about playcalling or scheme.