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Post 2024 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament Preview

Wednesday March 6, 2024

With the last two national champions earning the top seeds in this week’s SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament, it’s tempting to look ahead to a possible South Carolina-LSU meeting in Sunday’s final. The two teams met in a classic slugfest in front of a frenzied sold-out crowd in Baton Rouge. The Gamecocks played from behind for most of the game but made the big plays down the stretch to emerge with the win and reassert their status as the SEC’s team to beat. LSU shook off a midseason slump and head into the tournament playing well with eight straight double-digit wins. Tennessee’s upset of LSU in last year’s semifinal reminds us that real life doesn’t follow a script, and there’s a ton of basketball to play before the finals. The top two seeds haven’t met on Sunday since 2020.

While the anticipation of a South Carolina-LSU rematch will consume most of the oxygen in Greenville, there’s another storyline that will play out in the earlier rounds. According to ESPN’s bracketology, as many as five SEC teams are perched precariously on the edge of the NCAA bubble. Auburn, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, and Arkansas head to Greenville knowing that their performances on Thursday and Friday might make the difference in their postseason fates. Their levels of desperation vary, but none of them will sleep easy with a loss on Thursday. Arkansas and A&M might need two wins to play themselves back on to the favorable side of the bubble.

The tournament remains a microcosm of the larger college sports world. Several teams are led by experienced veterans extending their careers via COVID-era policies. (“She’s still there?!?!”) The effects of the transfer portal and NIL will be on full display; nearly every team had their roster reshaped dramatically since last season. Several teams have flourished with transfers and fifth-year seniors, but others have had less success keeping up and have dropped in the standings. Perhaps because of this roster turnover we’ve seen more mobility up and down the standings than in previous seasons. Alabama, Vanderbilt, and Auburn enjoyed their best seasons in years at the expense of teams like Georgia, Kentucky, and Missouri who are used to greater success.

Georgia’s Path Through the Tournament:
Wednesday: vs. Kentucky 11:00 am ET SEC Network
Thursday / Second Round: vs. Tennessee ~2:30 pm ET SEC Network
Friday / Quarterfinals: vs. Alabama ~2:30 pm ET SEC Network
Saturday / Semifinals: 4:30 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-2): Dawn Staley had a problem. The 2023 Gamecocks rolled through the season and SEC Tournament without a blemish, but the tiniest weakness was apparent. The Gamecocks shot just 31% from outside, and that number had dipped well below 30% in several close calls. That weakness finally bit them in the national semifinal when they shot 20% on 20 three-point attempts in a shocking loss to Iowa and their sharpshooter Caitlin Clark.

Staley already had the nation’s #2 signing class lined up to replace the departing legends Boston, Cooke, and Beal. But to address her biggest need she dipped into the transfer portal. Te-Hina Paopao had already made a name for herself at Oregon with multiple All-Pac 12 honors in three seasons. At South Carolina she’s become exactly when Staley needed: the nation’s most accurate three-point shooter. Paopao doesn’t put up Clark-like numbers. South Carolina has more than enough talent to distribute the scoring load; the Gamecocks have seven players averaging between 8.5 and 14 PPG. Paopao’s consistency and the improvement of Bree Hall gives the Gamecocks a more well-rounded offense in 2024 and creates difficult decisions for defenses: how much attention can you pay the 6’7″ Kamilla Cardoso inside if the team is now shooting over 40% from outside?

South Carolina’s distributed attack has allowed them to mix veterans like Cardoso and Paopao with younger players stepping into larger roles. Chloe Kitts joined the team midseason last year and contributed off the bench, and she’s grown into a starting role bringing length and range to the frontcourt. Ashlyn Watkins has also doubled her minutes and points in her second season while adding a physical presence inside with the athleticism to get to the rim. Cardoso of course is the team’s leading rebounder and shot blocker, but Watkins isn’t far behind. RSo. Raven Johnson is the steady point guard Staley needs with nearly 5 assists and 2 steals per game and a 2.8 assists/turnover ratio. Freshman guard MiLaysia Fulwiley has been a firecracker off the bench: she can hit from outside or attack the basket and get to the line.

So with improved perimeter offense, is there a weakness? Staley has done a magnificent job of continuity with a new starting lineup and integrating new players in key roles. You’d have expected that inexperience to bite them at some point, but now they’ve played together for an entire season. The only thing you can point to is a handful of slow starts and single-digit wins in which they’ve had to overcome deficits, but they’ve found a way each time and have earned experience and confidence with each challenge.

2) LSU (13-3, 26-4) (LY-2, PS-1): All hail the national champs! LSU discovered last season that winning the SEC is as challenging as winning the national title. Kim Mulkey didn’t need last season’s run to the crown to establish her national standing, but getting the Tigers turned around and on top in two seasons would have been a remarkable job by anyone. The title also made players like Angel Reese and Flau’jae Johnson household names, and the program’s high profile made it an attractive transfer destination. That mattered as Mulkey had to replace significant production from her championship team. She was able to attract sharpshooter Hailey Van Lith from Louisville and rebounding machine Aneesah Morrow from DePaul to build a formidable and deep lineup capable of challenging for a repeat.

Of course the repeat attempt couldn’t come without drama. The Tigers lost their season opener against a good Colorado team. Reese was suspended for a stretch, and Kateri Poole left the team. They’ve had enough depth and talent to overcome those distractions as well as the loss of forward Sa’Myah Smith to a season-ending injury. The Tigers lead the SEC in scoring offense and can put teams away with quick scoring runs. They defend and rebound well at every position and look to get out in transition for easy baskets. All five starters average in double-figures, and Aalyah Del Rosario and Last-Tear Poa provide key minutes off the bench. They are near the top of the SEC in rebounding margin, offensive rebounds, free throw attempts, and turnovers created. Those all lead to a lopsided advantage in possession that fuels their offense.

It’s true that South Carolina seems to be the one remaining obstacle for Mulkey, but last season’s loss to Tennessee is a cautionary reminder to take care of business en route to a championship showdown. The Tigers have been dominant at home with only a close loss to the Gamecocks tarnishing an otherwise perfect record in Baton Rouge. But the Tigers have slipped up a couple of times away from home. Auburn and Mississippi State were able to score with the Tigers and do just enough on defense to keep LSU in the 60s and 70s. Foul trouble, especially for Reese, can be an issue. LSU typically only plays 7 or 8, and an extended period of time on the bench for a starter can be disruptive. Those issues have been few and far between lately, and the Tigers head into the tournament on a roll.

3) Ole Miss (12-4, 22-7) (LY-4, PS-4): Progress! After two straight fourth-place finishes, Ole Miss inches up to the 3-seed. With three straight years in the top four, there’s no denying what Yolett McPhee-McCuin has built in Oxford. The Rebels gained national attention last season with an upset of Stanford in the NCAA tournament. This is a confident team that certainly continues to reflect its coach’s toughness and energy, but there’s more to it than that. Coach Yo has developed veterans Madison Scott and Snudda Collins and augmented the roster with seven current or former transfers. The result is a well-rounded squad that can attack multiple ways against a variety of styles. This is still a team that does its best work inside the arc. They’re dead last in the SEC making three-pointers at a 26% clip. Smartly and self-aware, they also attempt fewer three-pointers than anyone else. This is a dribble-drive team that can hit mid-range jumpshots and crash the boards. Only LSU and South Carolina rebound better. Marquesha Davis (Arkansas) was an impact transfer a year ago, and Kennedy Todd-Williams (UNC) has joined the backcourt this year to become a dynamic scoring duo. Collins provides the best outside threat of a group that collectively shoots under 30% but can occasionally have a big night. Scott’s length and presence inside is helped by center Rita Igbokwe and forward Tyia Singleton.

Ole Miss lost two straight early in February and survived back-to-back overtime games to get back on a roll. They enter the tournament red hot winning their last four games by an average 29-point margin, and each of those four opponents was held to no more than 51 points. That Stanford win a year ago earned Coach Yo and her program some national notice, but the task now is to break through against the SEC’s two dominant programs. They were unable to stay close to LSU or South Carolina during the regular season. Their next opportunity might be a semifinal clash with the Tigers on Saturday.

4) Alabama (10-6, 23-8) (LY-6, PS-8): The Tide are the first of our overachievers in the field. Picked to slide a little after a sixth-place finish in 2023, Alabama instead moved up in the standings to their first top four finish since the 1990s. There are a couple of reasons for this pleasant surprise, but the emergence of Sarah Ashlee Barker has to be at the top of the list. Barker made the transition from role player to leading lady as a senior, and she’s now one of the few SEC players who can reliably take control of a game and carry her team. In roughly the same number of minutes she’s nearly doubled her shot attempts, three-point attempts, and free throw attempts while improving her percentages on all three. Her production has helped the team thrive despite losing the output of Brittany Davis. Aaliyah Nye was already known as a top outside scorer in the league, and she’s also increased her production this season while shooting better than 40% from beyond the arc. Jessica Timmons and Loyal McQueen have allowed Kristy Curry to stick with the four-guard approach that’s been successful for her in recent seasons. Freshman post Essence Cody has been one of the top newcomers and gives the Tide the scoring, rebounding, and defensive presence they need in the paint. Alabama hasn’t managed to break through against the top three teams in the league, but a decisive win over Tennessee is a feather in their cap. Alabama notched wins against Vanderbilt, Auburn, and Mississippi State to create some separation from a crowded pack.

5) Tennessee (10-6, 17-11) (LY-3, PS-3): Last season the Lady Vols had their best SEC finish in eight seasons and reached the tournament finals with a semifinal upset of LSU. It’s been a tough task building on that success. Rickea Jackson returns as an elite scorer and matchup nightmare for opponents. The Lady Vols welcomed back Tamari Key from a scary season-long absence battling blood clots in her lungs. Key is the program’s all-time leading shotblocker and a capable scorer inside, but her minutes have been limited. Tennessee still has good size at most positions, and they continue to rebound well. The difference might be the absence of elite guards on both ends of the court. They miss Jordan Horston. Wake Forest transfer Jewel Spear (12.8 PPG) leads the guards and is the team’s top outside shooter at 35%. There are a handful of players averaging between four and nine points per game, and the results add up to a scoring offense that’s in the top half of the SEC but well off the pace of South Carolina and LSU. The Lady Vols struggled through a typically challenging nonconference slate, but they raced out to a 7-2 start in SEC play. They’ve dropped four of their last seven games including three losses to South Carolina and LSU, and a loss to Alabama was the tiebreaker that dropped Tennessee out of the top four. They’ll likely get a chance to avenge that loss in the quarterfinals, and they’ll need much better guard play in that rematch to have another shot at a consecutive semifinal shocker.

6) Vanderbilt (9-7, 22-8) (LY-12, PS-13): It’s been a long time coming. Shea Ralph’s third season proved to be breakthrough that elevated the Commodores out of the bottom four, and they vaulted all the way to a sixth place finish. With 22 wins overall and a winning record in the conference, the Commodores have the profile of an NCAA Tournament team for the first time in a decade. They won’t feel comfortable about their position though unless they can get past the Florida/Missouri winner on Thursday. Vanderbilt is led by a pair of guards who missed last season due to injury. Iyana Moore is gaining confidence as a playmaker and scorer. Jordyn Cambridge can score but is also the team’s assists leader and one of the best defenders in the SEC. Sacha Washington is undersized but tough inside, and freshman forward Khamil Pierre has added another piece in the paint. Tennessee transfer Justine Pissott has emerged as an outside threat, and Jordyn Oliver can bring some pop off the bench. Size has been an issue against the teams above them in the standings, but they have the firepower to handle lower seeds. Vanderbilt started the season on fire with a 17-2 record, but a five-game losing streak in SEC play brought them back down to earth. They’ve recovered to win five of their last six to salvage their postseason hopes.

7) Auburn (8-8, 19-10) (LY-10, PS-12): Steady progress continues under Johnnie Harris. Losing leading scorer Aicha Coulibaly to Texas A&M was a blow, but Auburn has responded impressively with a team effort. Honesty Scott-Grayson returns as one of the league’s top scorers, and she’s helped by Alabama transfer JaMya Mingo-Young. Many teams preach defense, but few create the consistent havoc Auburn does. The Tigers lead the SEC in turnover margin, causing nearly 21 per game. The guards do a good job with perimeter defense – opponents only shoot 27% from outside. Harris has gradually built a decent supporting cast. Scott-Grayson gets over 18 PPG, but six players contribute between 5 and 9 PPG. Forward Taylen Collins has been an important addition from Oklahoma State to help absorb some of the rebounding load Coulibaly provided, and freshman center Savannah Scott is holding her own. The Tigers got off to an 0-3 start in SEC play but shocked the conference with a home upset of LSU. They finished the season winning five of seven with a pair of respectable losses at Alabama and LSU. If the Tigers get to the quarterfinals, a rubber game against LSU will be one of the day’s most-anticipated matchups. Harris and her team won’t be scared.

8) Mississippi State (8-8, 21-10) (LY-3, PS-3): It looked in early February as if the Bulldogs were ready to challenge for a top four seed, but a late season slump dropped them into the middle of the pack. Momentum was high for Sam Purcell’s team after making a surprising run into the NCAA round of 32 last year before coming up just short against Notre Dame. The return of standout center Jessika Carter and scorer JerKaila Jordan was bolstered by transfers Erynn Barnum from Arkansas and Lauren Park-Lane from Seton Hall. Sophomore Debresha Powe has built on her SEC All-Freshman debut and remains a steady scorer. The Bulldogs are near average in most defensive stats, and they don’t rely on transition to create offense; they’re just a solid halfcourt team. That reliance on the halfcourt offense has led to some inconsistency, but when it’s on it’s on. The Bulldogs got 24 points from Jordan and a combined 31 off the bench from Mjracle Sheppard and Darrione Rogers in a home win over LSU. They’ll need that kind of guard play to complement Carter in order to advance in Greenville. A win over Missouri in the regular season finale snapped a five-game skid, but that losing streak likely makes their opening game against Texas A&M a play-in game for the NCAA tournament.

9) Texas A&M (6-10, 18-11) (LY-13, PS-6): The Aggies showed brief signs of life at the end of the 2023 season with a over Kentucky at the end of the regular season and then two upset wins in Greenville to reach the quarterfinals. That momentum continued into this season as A&M jumped out to a 12-1 record in nonconference play. They’ve struggled to maintain consistency in league play. An upset loss at Georgia to open the SEC season got them off on the wrong foot, and they haven’t been able to string together more than two consecutive conference wins. Wins over Tennessee and Ole Miss show what the Aggies are capable of, but losses to Georgia and Florida are head-scratchers. Losing five of their last six regular season games leaves the Aggies needing some more magic in Greenville to salvage an NCAA bid. The Aggies’ downturn has a lot to do with the loss of leading scorer Endyia Rogers. The Oregon transfer injured her knee against Kentucky and has been sidelined since. Her status for the tournament is uncertain, and the Aggies are scoring just 59 PPG without her. Auburn transfer Aicha Coulibaly and sophomore standout Janiah Barker shoulder most of the load with Lauren Ware providing scoring and rebounding inside.

10) Arkansas (6-10, 18-13) (LY-8, PS-7): The Razorbacks can’t seem to get over the hump. Since a sixth-place finish in 2021, the Razorbacks have finished no higher than eighth. Two factors help explain their issues. The first is a repeat of what we wrote last year: the identity of the Mike Neighbors offense hasn’t changed – Arkansas attempts (and makes) more three-pointers than anyone in the conference. A decline in efficiency remains the problem. Arkansas is shooting just over 30% from outside. Familiar names Samara Spencer and Makayla Daniels lead the attack at guard. Freshman Taliah Scott has been magnificent and leads the team in scoring with 22 PPG but has missed a handful of games and hasn’t played since mid-February. The other issue is frontcourt depth. Jersey Wolfenbarger and Erynn Barnum left the program. Maryam Dauda averages nearly 10 points and 7 rebounds, but that’s not enough to keep up with the better frontcourts in the SEC. Wing Saylor Poffenbarger actually leads the team in rebounds. The result is a rebounding margin that’s last in the SEC.

11) Florida (5-11, 14-14) (LY-11, PS-10): A second-straight 11th-place finish has taken some of the steam out of Kelly Rae Finley’s impressive debut as an interim coach two seasons ago. The Gators have plenty of firepower; only LSU and South Carolina score more. But the Gators are near the bottom of the league in scoring defense and rebounding. Florida pushes the tempo, and they thrive on running out in transition. Their frenetic pace causes opponents to turn the ball over nearly 18 times per game, but Florida can also get out ahead of themselves and contribute their own turnovers. They’ve been able to play spoiler against Mississippi State and Texas A&M but weren’t able to string together enough wins to escape the bottom four. Potent scorers Aliyah Matharu and Leilani Correa key the guard-driven attack. Faith Dut is an experienced post player, but an injury to Ra Shaya Kyle left Florida thin inside. Florida’s pace might be a bit much for Missouri on Wednesday, and they played Vanderbilt closely earlier in the year.

12) Kentucky (4-12, 11-19) (LY-14, PS-14): It’s a small consolation that Kentucky improved on 2023’s last-place finish. There hasn’t been much else to cheer about. Ajae Petty provided frontcourt depth last season after transferring from LSU, and she’s elevated her play this year to average over 14 points and 10 rebounds a game. The Wildcats are largely guard-driven: five guards combine for around 46 PPG with Maddie Scherr leading the group. Overall though scoring has been tough to come by, and they are last in the SEC in points allowed and close to the bottom in rebounding. Any of the guards can get hot on a given night: Eniya Russell went for 24 in a win over Florida, Saniah Tyler scored 22 in an upset of Mississippi State, and Scherr has had multiple 20-point games. They’ll need one of those performances plus the usual output from Petty to avoid a short stay.

13) Georgia (3-13, 12-17) (LY-7, PS-9): Let’s get it out of the way: this is unfamiliar territory for Georgia. The Lady Dogs have never played in a Wednesday play-in game, and this will be the first team in program history to finish with a losing record unless they make an improbable run through the SEC and NCAA tournaments. Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson pieced together a roster last season with a handful of players that remained at Georgia through the coaching transition and an impactful group of transfers that included some of her key contributors at UCF. That group found its stride and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament, nearly knocking off Iowa on their own court. Abe’s second season has been much more challenging as she rebuilds a roster that was depleted after the coaching transition. Three experienced seniors remained from the original transition (a fourth was lost early this season with a knee injury), and Abe again had to turn to transfers with much less experience in her system.

The biggest difference has been the effectiveness of the defense. Georgia went from a +3.4 turnover margin in 2023 (among the best in the league) to a -1.4 disadvantage in 2024. The offense is turning the ball over at a similar rate, but the defense is creating five fewer turnovers per game this year (19.9 vs. 14.8.) The 2023 defense averaged 10.5 steals per game, and that’s down to 7.8 this season. That decline has implications on both ends of the court: the opponent’s possession is more likely to end with a shot attempt rather than a turnover, and Georgia’s struggling offense has fewer transition opportunities to run out for easier baskets. Personnel matters. Diamond Battles and Alisha Lewis were experienced guards in this system and were among the SEC’s steals leaders, and Zoesha Smith’s length caused problems at the top of the zone. Georgia hasn’t been able to replace that defensive productivity.

Javyn Nicholson built on a strong 2023 season and has become one of the top frontcourt players in the SEC with 16.6 PPG and 8.9 RPG. She’s scored in double figures in all but one game this season and has 15 double-doubles on the year. It’s no coincidence that Nicholson has played a large role in Georgia’s SEC wins: she’s averaged 23 points and 11.7 rebounds in those three games. Opponents of course understand Nicholson’s importance, and so she’s often the focus of double-teams and compact zones that compress the space available in the paint. Georgia often hasn’t been able to find consistent complements that counter the defensive focus on Nicholson. The Lady Dogs are in the bottom three in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and free throw attempts. De’Mauri Flournoy has taken a step forward in her second season and has become the team’s most prolific outside threat. Flournoy can set up for a three-point shot or create off the dribble for a mid-range jumper. San Diego State transfer Asia Avinger has had the difficult task of replacing Battles as the point guard and is the relentless presence on the court Abe wants at that position.

Georgia didn’t go on the late-season run of a year ago, but it wasn’t hard to see improvement – particularly on the offensive end. But this is still a team that needs to keep the score down in the 50s or 60s to have a chance. Unproductive single-digit quarters and slow starts have been the undoing of the Lady Dogs in many games, forcing Georgia to play from behind. To advance into the second round and have a shot at an upset, they’ll need another big performance from Nicholson, some timely guard play, and a locked-in defensive effort.

14) Missouri (2-14, 11-18) (LY-9, PS-11): The Hayley Frank farewell tour hasn’t gone as expected. They were 2-3 in the league after a pair of wins over Vanderbilt and Georgia, but they’ve dropped 11 straight to end the season. Frank, in her fifth season, has been as reliable as ever getting 16.7 PPG and 6.3 RPG. The team shoots often and well from outside – no surprise for Missouri. Frenetic guard Mama Dembele is an x-factor who can frustrate opponents on both ends of the court with her speed. They lack depth and presence inside. Frank, as a stretch forward, and guard Ashton Judd lead the team in rebounds, but the diminutive Dembele is third. Rebounding, as well as offense in the paint, is a committee effort. They utilize frequent cuts and motion to create lanes to the basket and open shots for their guards. It works well enough to be a middle-of-the-pack offense, but they struggle turning the ball over and creating turnovers on defense.