Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Mike Siroky's SEC Preview: The Toughest League Has a Select Seven

By Mike Siroky

The best conference top to bottom will not disappoint this season.

Kentucky will win the Southeastern Conference women’s regular-season title, with usual suspects Tennessee, Texas A&M and Georgia all in the hunt until the final weeks.

The SEC remains such a tough league mainly because of traditions, within and without the conference.

The SEC has stayed strong with no defectors. The Big East has basically imploded, with UConn and Notre Dame gone. The Big Ten – seldom with a serious national contender – is still a season away from its latest expansion, awaiting Maryland and Rutgers next year. The ACC has added Notre Dame but will lose tradition when Maryland exits for the Big Ten next season.

West of the Mississippi, the only non-SEC team ever worth mentioning is Stanford, though maybe the Cardinal's Pac-12 rival California may change that staple.

The SEC had every team with 20 wins invited to the NCAA last season and it won’t change this year.

Playing the game off the court, four league teams will host first round sub-Regionals. That has never failed to put an SEC team into the Sweet 16. With so many ranked teams, the SEC annually has the delicious problem of having league teams in the same Sweet 16 sites. Any of the top seven would win or be highly competitive in any other conference.

Moreover, Nashville will be the Final Four city this time around, adding the SEC flavor for the championships.

But let’s take it from the top:

THE SELECT SEVEN

Kentucky graduated a once-in-a-lifetime players but replaced her with two better ones.

Yes, the incoming rookies are that good and represent the continuing evolution of the women’s game, in which each recruiting class should be better than any before.

Matt Mitchell is no fool as a coach and is the most-feared opponent in the SEC. Even foes have got to love a team which starts with defense and lets the rest of the game take car of itself.

If ever there was a program which has built and built and built, this is it.

In any other league not featuring a coach named Geno, he’d be the runaway coach and the program would be the automatic No. 1 selection in the league.
They are No. 7 in the pre-season AP poll, No. 8 in the coaches’ poll.

DeNesha Stallworth gets the early hype as the team leader and she may well be that. She is on all the major preseason watch lists, but those are hardly exclusive.

UK has an abundance of riches in upperclassmen this time with four starters returning of 10 upper classsmen. Jennifer O’Neill, Bria Goss and Samarie Walker join Stallworth as lineup regulars.

Do not be surprised if Linnae Walker works her way in as the fifth starter in her rookie season. She had a superb summer on the USA Basketball Under 19 Gold Medal team, having won Gold on the Under 16 and Under 17 team in previous summers.

Among the schools she chose not to attend was Tennessee, which helps the rivalry.

And, as if UK needed it, like the TV commercials say: Wait, there’s more. As in the other healthy rookie, Makayla Epps. She is a legacy player; her dad, Anthony, played for the men’s team.

Unafraid of a challenge and not necessarily focusing on an undefeated season Mitchell has scheduled Louisville, Baylor, DePaul and Duke in a handful of December games.

Once the year rolls and the SEC battles start, the key dates are at Georgia to end January and at Tennessee in the middle of February. UK hosts a sub-Regional and there is a Regional at Louisville, which means a comfortable draw allows them a path to the Final Four without leaving the state.

As Mitchell said: I can’t wait for the season to start.”

If he can get seeded into any NCAA bracket that does not include UConn, they’ll make the Final Four.

Tennessee had coach Holly Warlick answer the question how do you follow a legend by being a Big Orange one her ownself. She should have been national coach of the year last season after dealing with the Pat Summitt tragedy.

She never wavered and was a game away from getting UT back to a Final Four for the first time in five seasons.

Before that, they had made sure each four-year class attended at least one National Finals. The last loss was a sour upset one to Louisville.

So, this season, they start the playoffs at home as a sub-regional host and those finals are also in state, which means they can play six of the required playoff games while carpooling with their fans if they so choose.

That is months away, of course.

Last season, Warlick told anyone who would listen that Bashaara Graves was the most important player to her first team and that proved true. Graves also won a Gold with Harper from UK, so they have a mutual appreciation society between them.

Yet it is prolific scorer Meighan Simmons, co-player of the year in conference last season, who can carry the team in her senior season.

It has always been Tennessee’s way to feature seniors and Simmons is the only one.

She had 25 games in double figures, 17 with 20 or more. In that way, she is a reliable balance to the tough defense UT has always featured.

A rookie, 6-6 Mercedes Russell, is the only Lady Vol taller than 6-3. If she can survive the WWE banging style inside, she will be a difference maker and a new tool for Warlick to use.

Warlick recruited all these players and, in that sense, they all committed to her well before she was the official coach. She said she has been watching the conditioning results in the early going and likes what she sees.

At No. 4 in both polls, they are the highest ranked of the seven SEC teams honored in pre-season.

They used to play the world’s toughest non-conference schedule but it has softened somewhat, with only at Stanford appearing to be a pre-conference challenge.

Once the SEC starts, they play LSU, Georgia and Vanderbilt within the first 12 days of January. They also take a silly break from the conference to play a publicity game vs. Notre Dame that month.

These breaks do not help maintain a conference focus and really accomplish nothing, win or lose.

Oh well.

Texas A&M took the post-season conference tournament and snatched the automatic bid last season.

It was sweet swan song for Kelsey Bone, one of the better players in America. She had one season of eligibility left but jumped to the WNBA and European leagues.

The Aggies are led by Gary Blair, one of the best coaches anywhere. He is the only SEC coach with an NCAA title (won before they joined the SEC). They are 16th in AP pre-season (13th in the coaches poll). They host first-round games as well.

Courtney Walker will have the spotlight to herself as a pre-season All-SEC selection. She is the top returning scorer.

Georgia had a team made for the NCAAs last season, with four superlative seniors. An overtime loss cost them another Final Four appearance.

But it retains the most-important member of the team, coach Andy Landers. He has coached more SEC seasons than anyone, as the ’Dawgs were present when the NCAA took in the women’s game in 1981 and Landers was already there.

This season, another cumulative accomplishment comes when he coaches in the most NCAA tournaments of anyone.

His teams have been ranked 500 weeks of NCAA play. They start this year at No. 24 (22 in the coaches’ poll).

“500 is a big number,” he observed. “I think I am most proud of the consistency and high level of play.”

The intensity on the sideline and on the court will continue. Landers needs immediate impact from the four freshmen he has brought in. The leadership of his lone senior, Khaalidah Miller, will determine the destiny.

LSU is among those league teams which made a late run to an NCAA at-large bid last season. But they are also a team that appears to have plateaued in terms of league positioning. A winning season will allow this first-round host to also be invited.

Theresa Plaisance is the player to watch as the returning league leading scorer at 17 points per game. She and senior classmates Shanece McKinney and Jeanne Kenny add leadership depth, They draw wild crowds for the Bayou Bengals which makes it a fun place to play.

They are 15th in the AP poll and 17th – their best-ever – in the coaches’ poll.

“I like the fact that we can look at different combinations, and we can go with the first five and then the second five,” said coach Nikki Caldwell. “They all understand that they contribute to the team with equal value. They start the game and end the game knowing everyone is going to do their part, and that’s the beauty of this team.”

Vanderbilt is another SEC team slowly regaining a national reputation but held back by the logjam above them in the league.

The Commodores have the dream of playing for a national title at home. It has never happened and will not happen this season.

Two wonderful seniors, Christina Foggie and Jasmine Lister, lead them.
Lister has been the most durable, playing all 40 minutes in several games last season.

“I definitely think it's a stat that I take pride in because it kind of tells me how much endurance I have,” she said. “I can endure all 40 minutes of a game ... (and still have) intensity and be a leader on the court. It’s a lot to manage, and it shows me whether or not I've grown and if I’ve gotten better at being able to endure certain situations in a game.”

Coach Melanie Balcomb starts her second decade there. That means she joins Landers in a group of five coaches to lead the same team to the NCAAs in 11 consecutive seasons.

South Carolina had an ascendant season the year before last and established itself and its home court as a place where big reputations come to die. They have sold more than 3,300 season tickets as the madness grows.

Junior forward Aleighsa Welch picks up the leadership after coach Dawn Staley sent her first four-year class – and a lot of points -- off through graduation. To help her, Staley has been programming a pair of centers.

“We've been working extremely hard on getting the ball inside,” Staley said. “Elem (Ibiam) has been doing great in practice in creating space to get high-percentage shots, and Alaina (Coates) has been doing the same. We want to make sure we made a conscious effort to get the ball inside to them.”

Coates, an in-state legend, will make the all-conference freshman team and earn regional recognition. Ibiam is a junior.

The Gamecocks are No. 21 in both polls.

THE REST

•Arkansas
had some fun moments last season. Then the reality of where they were slammed into them and the highs became lessons for the future.

If the future is now for the Razorbacks (and what females player wouldn’t want to be called an official hog?) coach Tom Collen has them well-prepared.

They took one of those summer trips to Italy to bond and set the team in order. He said, if you think about it, they have been practicing since July. The three newcomers have worked into the rotation.

An undersized forward at 5-9, Keira Peak, is the lone senior. She doubled her scoring average to near 10 points per game last season and will need to add 50 percent more if they are to do anything this time.

Mississippi or One Mississippi if you are playing hide-and-seek from the league’s elite, has not been relevant since coach Van Chancellor left there decades ago. Let’s give rookie coach Matt Insell a chance to change that.

He comes from UK’s staff, so he knows the league and has the bloodlines of a winner.

Senior Valencia McFarland is a great centerpiece to any team. The point guard is second among active SEC players in career assists (420) and fifth among active players in scoring with 1,107. A nice little stat: She has never failed to score in any of the games in which she played.

Mississippi State or Two Mississippi , will try to change its luck by opening as road warriors for the first time in a decade (at Houston).
Second-year coach Vic Schaefer is determined to make his team noticed in the league.

His best hope is junior Martha Alwal, capable of double-doubles any night. Another junior, Kendra Grant, takes off some of the pressure.

Alabama finally pulled the trigger on a favorite-son coach and got a tad more serious about the women’s game by hiring the well-traveled Kristy Curry as coach.

She did a wonderful job at Purdue more than a decade ago (including 34 straight wins) then not so much in the interim at Texas Tech.

She is the best to ever have landed at ‘Bama women’s basketball. In a great under-the-radar possibility at a football school, give her this and next season and then expect real results.

She inherits guard Shafontaye Meyers, an in-state legend, as the lone senior and she can hit the 3s as well. She was second in the league last season from beyond the arc.

Auburn is another program once was feared nationally when coached by Joe Ciampi decades ago and not since.

Terri Williams-Flournoy used her rookie season as coach to get to 19 wins and some post-season play in the women’s NIT. No doubt the Tigers want the invitation to the main stage. She had revived a moribund Georgetown team when the Big East was relevant before this.

He first recruits here are now sophomores, of course, and has expanded the recruitment base to a national scope, with five incoming. This is quickly becoming her team.

The neatest link here are the Tanner sisters, children of basketball-playing coaches and players. Tyrese is a senior forward and Tra’Cee is one of those two in the first recruiting class.

Florida is on of those teams from which you just don’t know what to expect.

They won a big game, they lose others and they end up in the NIT tournament and seem just happy to be there.

In her ninth season as the Gator coach, UF grad Amanda Butler is looking for a consistent run and a solid team identity. For instance, they beat LSU last season but lost at Missouri.

They qualified for the women’s NIT and won a few but did not win the tournament, so ended on a loss.

A wild card may be sophomore transfer Antoinette Bannister, in from North Carolina after being that school’s freshman of the year. Her senior teammates are Jaterra Bonds with almost 300 career assists and more than 1,000 points and Lily Svete, in her second season after and ACL repair.

She hit 40 percent of her 3s (a school record) last season and doubled her averages in every statistical category from her sophomore year.

Missouri: What to do with Mizzou? They had flashes of brilliances last season

They upset both Tennessee and South Carolina, hit 17 wins and went in the women’s NIT.

Bria Kullas, one of two seniors, will have to up her game if Missouri is going to be noticed even in the second tier of the league.

Robin Pingeton, in her second go-round in the SEC but just her fourth season overtall, now knows that to expect.

Their fun note so far are the twin sophomore guards, 6-somethings Morgan and Maddie. Stock. Twins have never really worked out in the women’s game ever since twin towers Pam and Paula McGee led Southern Cal to a national title and Heidi and Heather Burge (also forwards) got Virginia a No. 1 ranking.

While it is entertaining to see the Stock twins on the court together, it does not mean it will always happen.

“You know it’ll be interesting to see how it all works itself out,” Pingeton said.
“I like the fact we've got some added depth. I like the fact we've got a team that I think we can try and extend our defense maybe a little bit more than we’ve done in the past, which will allow us to go deeper into our bench.

“So it’ll be interesting to see how it all works itself out; you know we’re still trying to figure out lineups, rotations, and I think that’s typically what you do in the preseason, non-conference, then once you get into conference you settle in a little bit. But there's still the question mark of how deep will we go into our bench once we start.

“I think that’s yet to be determined.”


- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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