Siroky's SEC Report: Trends Not Changing in the SEC -- Even With New Coaches and Two Additional Teams
With this preview of the SEC, which is about the start play, the Guru welcomes his old colleague, who will kept track of the conference here on the national channel and may also appear from time to time on the Guru's local PhilahoopsW channel http//philahoopsw.com where you can also find on this New Year's Eve a roundup of four locals who played Sunday. -- Mel
By Mike Siroky
As the new era dawns in Southeastern Conference women’s basketball, what we know so far this season is the top tier of teams are nationally competitive and the returning regular-season champ leads them all.
Scrambling the lineup for 2012-13 is the absence of the retired Tennessee icon, Pat Summitt, and the addition of two more teams.
It has been since 1994 that a traditional member of the conference won an NCAA title, which is a very big deal in this league. Newcomer Texas A&M and revered coach Gary Blair won the championship with another conference two seasons ago. No league team has been in the national championship game since 2004. Those are long droughts for the SEC.
The Big East may have a stronger 1-2 punch in UConn and Notre Dame and Stanford has made four straight Final Fours but no conference can match the group of top tier teams in the SEC.
Blair’s addition is just more spice for the mix.
Andy Landers of Georgia has already eclipsed one of Summitt’s longevity records because he also was one of the coaches with the conference when the NCAA admitted this southern group to the union. With the first game of the conference season, he becomes the all-time leader in 31 seasons served.
Auburn and Mississippi State have new coaches. Ole Miss coach Adrian Wiggins had three weeks’ of practice before being put on indefinite leave while an investigation into impermissible recruiting contacts and academic misconduct is under way.
Landers is another reason the SEC is viewed as one of the prestigious conferences, mainly because the national honors have been shared by so many one-timers lately. His teams are regular Sweet 16 attendees. He has not been to a Final Four since 1996.
His Bulldogs are well on their way to another 20-win season, at 12-1, even before league play starts. But the one loss is to unranked Illinois, a usually non-competitive team, and therein lies one of the flaws in his resume. You should beat the teams you should beat.
Kentucky The Team to Beat
Kentucky, that defending titlist in the league, seems to have the most hops to get to a Final Four this season. Their only loss in 12 tries was at then-No. 1 Baylor in the second game. They haven’t lost since. Entering the new year, there have been eight weeks of non-conference play. The top seven teams in the SEC are a combined 81-11 against the country. Two teams need only eight SEC wins to hit the valued 20-win mark and four others are already just nine short.
Everything this season will once again go through Lexington and the Kentucky Wildcats. The returning coach of the year, Matthew Mitchell, has embedded defense into the team DNA.
They celebrate a string of causing at least 20 turnovers. They have held a team to 24 total points this season, a school record.
And they are picked to win the conference. Mitchell is unafraid to talk about loftier goals.
“They're a potential Final Four team, that's easier for us to say than it is to happen,” he observes.
“But if you look at our roster and if everybody were to come together and play really hard and you get some breaks, I think they are -- they have that potential.
“Four years ago we were picked 11th (in conference) so it at least gives you some idea that progress is being made for the program.”
He is forever proud of his team’s elevation.
“I think right now Kentucky is the most exciting place in the country to play college basketball,” he said. “We have just great, great people involved, and for us, it starts with our players.
“We have some players who are now and have been working extremely hard in preparation for this season. They are working on building their character each and every day. They're working on becoming the most well-conditioned athlete they can be, and right now we're working hard just to form our team. I'm excited to be coaching this team.”
The SEC's best player, A'dia Mathies, will be that again. She is on every major All-American watch list.
And the return after a season of rehabilitation of sophomore guard Jennifer O’Neill gives them a veteran they didn’t have in 2012’s superlative run. Backup point guard Maegan Conwright has been lost to the season with a torn ACL.
The twin towers at post, Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth, makes the inside hard to contain. Stallworth sat out a transfer year last season. She is another veteran addition.
The Top Challengers
Any of three of the next-best offer the best challenge to UK.
Georgia, with Landers, are likely to be No. 2 in the league. Three seniors -- Jasmine Hassell, Anne Marie Armstrong and Jasmine James have been building for this. James had some injury time off last season and that as much as anything knocked Georgia out of the conference title contention.
Tennessee has Holly Warlick as coach, with more than 28 seasons served as an assistant and a season of running the team last year when Summitt was present but not actively coaching,
They graduated four starters. Meighan Simmons has to become consistent and merely brilliant each game for them to honor the dedication to Summitt’s memory. The two seniors have no real impact and Simmons is the only junior and only player consistently in this young season’s starting lineup.
Warlick said she anticipates competitiveness. “I love this team and I love how they play so I recruited them. If I came in and hadn't recruited these young ladies, maybe it would have been more of a concern. I knew what I was going into and I knew what I was getting as far as the freshmen class. It hasn't complicated matters really.
“I don't feel like this is ‘Holly's World’ and I'm out there by myself."
They open the SEC at South Carolina but match up with Georgia on Jan. 6.
That’s the early test the conference is waiting for.
Carolina was the team taking part of the spotlight last season, more competitive than expected in the league and winners of an NCAA sub-regional by ousting Purdue at Purdue. They return a legitimate all-conference player in senior Ieasia Walker. Coach Dawn Staley has graduated her first group of recruits and now must coach up a promising recruiting class.
At A&M, Blair has the country's second-ranked recruiting class ready for his 10th season at A&M, 28th overall. So surprises for other league coaches will continue as the season unfolds.
He has been here before.
"It's good to be back,” he said. “Hopefully we're coming in with a little more ammunition then when I did with Arkansas in ’93. There's 14 schools and we have to learn 12 schools; they only have to learn two, and that means a lot in any sport when all of sudden you have to start preparing for 12 games."
He brings his usual understated attitude to the challenge.
"I'm looking forward to going to the schools, it's going to be fun.” He said.
“I've said to other people, we have the toughest conference schedule than anyone else. It's going to be up to us, I guess this is our welcoming gift from the SEC. We have to accept it, hopefully we will have a better schedule in a few years.”
He immersed his team with games against national favorite UConn and top 10 teams Penn State and Louisville in the first weeks and also played at national finalist Notre Dame. So they have seen what national competition has to offer and the Jan. 10 date at Kentucky will see what the league has to offer.
Junior forward Kelsey Bone – already a league player-of-the-week, is the team leader. She was also cited by two national websites for the same week. Sophomore Guard Alexia Standish has to lead as well.
Vanderbilt is always one of those teams that has statistics and quality wins, but never seem to break into the national conversation. It has always been thus.
With five starters back, including the league’s leading scorer, Christina Foggie, there are 10 overall returnees and a Top 25 recruiting class. That’s good. Center Stephanie Holzer was lost for the season with a dislocated knee in an exhibition game. That’s bad and the way things seem to go for the Commodores.
They can take most of the month to find a rhythm against lesser league teams before Tennessee arrives on Jan. 24.
The Rest of The Pack.
LSU’s Nikki Caldwell lost her point guard last season and the team floundered. She has graduated four of its five top scorers. By Jan. 27 at Kentucky, they will either have established a team identity or will have been prepared for s season-long struggle.
Also among the league footnotes is Arkansas, which finished strong with a school-record 10 league wins. But senior Sarah Watkins is the only real player of note returning.
Florida has longer for a season of success. Like so many other league teams, a 20-win season becomes expected and is usually the only statistic on which to brag.
Eight of the 12 Gators are new and six are freshmen. That means senior and leading scorer Jennifer George matches Watkins as the one-hit wonder on her team.
Auburn and Mississippi State sacked coaches after losing seasons. Not much is expected from either. Alabama which wasn’t even interested enough to drop its coach after a 12-19 run, will have Kentucky, Georgia and Tennessee in three of its first four league games. Yikes.
Missouri may be the mystery team in its first season. But a 13-18 record means a roster with nine freshmen and sophomores can spend the season learning their new road stops and just work on experience.
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