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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.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Mike Sirkoky's SEC Report: Before the Conference Wars Begin ...

By Mike Siroky

The Southeastern Conference women’s college basketball teams deserve some early Christmas assessments.

Next week, we will preview the best – as in toughest – league season ever. For now, let’s look at those who have has shown the best.

 Rookie: The good news is this is a tough competition, as coaches continue to recruit better and better players. And it not about the numbers as some of the teams have had wipeouts and therefore less playing time for the real starters who will emerge in the first eight weeks of 2014.

 Andy Landers may once again have the best crop of freshmen. Some teams are so deep their rookies have a tough time getting minutes. Linnae Harper at Kentucky will prove out as one of the league’s best in seasons to come, as will Mercedes Russell of Tennessee. But one stands out in this still young season.

LSU’s 5-10 guard Raigyne Moncrief has already cracked the starting lineup of a ranked team. She is one of three rookies on a team with two seniors. She has started all 10 games and is the leading scorer, without even attempting a 3.

 Best Player: Another tough choice as the real SEC stars have accepted limited playing time in deference to bench experience under game conditions on most every team.

 Tennessee’s Holly Warlick told us all about Bashaara Graves last season, marking her early as the most important player what turned out to be a drive to another SEC regular-season title. The league coaches voted her first team all-SEC as well as the conference Newcomer of the Year.

 Graves then won her fourth Gold Medal with USA Basketball in the summer Games, as a starter. So, without time off, she has spun into her sophomore season with no slump.

 On the No. 1 rebounding offense in the league, she is the top rebounder, with 47 offensive. The Lady Vols have a 15.8 average rebounding margin. Imagine how good she’s gonna be when Russelll claims the center position.

 Best Coach: Landers has brought a young Georgia team to an undefeated point in the pre-conference season. No one picked his team to be undefeated now. He has done it with a fine young mix of four freshmen and five sophomores after graduating a top competitive class last season. And we still think UK is the best team in the league.

 Meanwhile, as a group, the rest of the country has become convinced the SEC is back as the best conference, top to bottom, with the potential of three Regional champs.

 We have called the Select Six those ranked Associated Press teams. It became the Fab Five with the demotion of Texas A&M to No. 26 after a loss at then No. 12 Penn State. The Fab Five lost another undefeated team from its ranks when South ""Carolina fell Wednesday night and are now are now 50-2 against the world (and there is another undefeated league team and two more with double-digit wins and one loss each, which makes the top eight 82-6).

 How the Fab Five fared as 2013 is about to close:

 •Kentucky: The Wildcats remain No. 5 in America as the teams above them were equally unbeaten when the poll was configured. East Tennessee State was no competition for UK, 73-56.

Still, ETSU hit one of its goals in holding Kentucky under 80. Seriously, that was an admitted team goal. Not mentioned was that ETSU scored only two baskets its own self in the final 10:30.

 For his part, Kentucky coach Matt Mitchell is still playing as many players as he can in game conditions as they find a balance without the already discussed loss of senior leader DeNesha Stallworth, the leading scorer among the starters.

 She has at least two weeks to go after arthroscopic cleanup knee surgery.

 “I’m glad we were able to play good enough defense to win the game," Mitchell said. "We had to win with our defense and that's something that's been different for us than previous games. I'm just glad we were able to tighten up in the second half and really shut them down for a long period of time. I think that was a big difference in the game."

 Rookies Harper and Makayla Epps scored 10 and eight.

 Epps was involved in an automobile accident on the Bluegrass Parkway while returning home from a funeral Saturday night, the night before the game. "I'm here and that's the best thing," she said. "Nothing terrible happened. I didn't think I was going to get to play today but I was grateful to get out there with my teammates and be able to contribute as always. I'm just real blessed that nothing bad really happened."

 Next comes a matchup, at home, with No. 2 Duke on Sunday.

 The game has been moved to Rupp Arena, not the usual homecourt for the Lady ’Cats, so no real homecourt advantage as far as the playing floor, but the expectations of a larger crowd than Memorial Coliseum would allow might help.

 For what it is worth, UK will honor the press credentials of those assigned to cover the men’s team, hoping for more exposure to another cadre of writers and broadcasters.

 UK will find out how competing with a team ranked above them will be reflected in the polls.

UConn’s blowout message win means the Blue Devils are no longer undefeated after a 10-0 start and likely no longer No. 2.

 A win here and UK moves up.

 But the Duke coach is not likely to underprepare her team with the chance of consecutive losses. Then it is Grambling a week later before a relatively light SEC opening at Alabama and home for Florida.

  •Tennessee: There are games you look at on a schedule and just shake your head, in this day and age of competitive reality.

 No. 3 Tennessee ate a couple of cupcakes to move to 10-0. Former coach Pat Summit, even when she was Pat Head, played the most competitive non-conference season of anyone, challenging and accepting challenges every year to toughen her team.

 Those days are evidently over.

 First, it was Troy visiting. Troy as in toy. As in Oh Boy, how much do we want to win by.

 The answer from Tennessee was by plenty. Troy had never beaten a ranked team in 18 previous tries. It’s 19 and counting.

 Sophomore Izzy Harrison led the 103-64 slaughter, playing about a half and getting 13 points and 12 rebounds. Two other players had double-doubles.

 Tennessee has six (of 10) players taller than 6-2. No one on Troy is that tall. Thus, the rebounding edge, 74-29.

 The Lady Vols shut down the nation’s third-leading scorer, Ashley Beverly-Kelley, all three of her, from 26.6 points per game to 14.

So unbalanced were the visitors that they forgot to turn in their starting lineup, a team technical, which Tennessee converted to start ahead before the game began.

 It took six minutes before coach Holly Warlick started substituting liberally, already ahead 15-2.

 Warlick had made a point of emphasis on not shooting 3s once the team was on its way to hit 2-of-12.

It is part of her basketball DNA to go old-school whenever possible.

 Also, acknowledging the difference in quality of players on each bench, she was disappointed in the number of turnovers.

 "Great win for us. We didn't play exceptionally well. Troy had some things to do with that,” she said. “I think we ourselves had, we created some havoc; that was self-induced. I can't remember the last team that we had that had 28 turnovers and Troy didn't press us, so it's something that we have to focus on.

 “But then you turn around and it's a positive. We had 74 rebounds and that's incredible too. We're at two ends of the spectrum, so we go back to the drawing board, we go back to work and then we appreciate the kids that scored in double figures and the rebounding efforts. Some good things happened and some things that we need to continue to work on.

 “I think we were passing the ball like we were trying to get on Sportscenter instead of passing the ball like we're making a passing tape, a highlight tape. We just threw the ball. We were very casual, very careless with the basketball and they took advantage of it. They had 26 points off of our turnovers. You can't be casual with the basketball.

 “I don’t care who you play, who you’re playing against, zone defense, pressure defense. Those are possessions where you don't even get a shot off. At least get a shot off.

 “This team, at least get a shot off, because we may get a rebound. It's a 50-50 ball for us the way we're rebounding. We’re just very casual with the basketball. We’re not valuing the basketball.

 ”I’ll take the blame for that, because we haven’t really focused on our offense enough. We’ll make sure that we value the basketball the next couple of days in practice.”

 Then the 3s . . .

 “It doesn’t take an intelligent person to see you're 2-for-12, you need to stop shooting the 3. I thought we needed paint points, so I said if you shoot a 3, you're coming out. They valued playing more than shooting the 3.”

 Assistant coach Dean Lockwood mirrored her thoughts, especially about the turnovers.

 “We want to be under 14,” Lockwood said. “We are too high in that area. You know that last game was atrocious in terms of our turnovers. Again, the types of turnovers are the thing you have to look at. Numbers are one thing, and obviously those numbers were too high, but you are going to get over-the-back fouls and charges when you are playing an aggressive team.

“Even playing fast, there will be a few balls that get thrown away. But when you have walking calls and decision calls as far as being sloppy with the ball, not taking care of the ball, or forcing passes, those are the things we have to clup. We have to."

 Prior to the game against Troy, the most turnovers Tennessee had committed in a game this season was 24 against a ranked team, North Carolina on Nov. 11. Lockwood attributes many of the Lady Vols’ latest turnovers to poor decision-making and pass choices

. “One of my old coaches used to say, ‘What is the best pass in basketball?’ Everyone would pause and guess bounce pass, chest pass, one-hand pass. “He would say, ‘No, the pass that gets there.’

 “I think that is the thing we really have to look at, is making simple, sound, safe passes, as opposed to trying to thread needles and make passes that will be spectacular passes. We don't need spectacular passes, we just need passes that move the ball or move people, and if they are simple, the more effective they can be for us. So that's the thing, decision- making and fundamentals."

 It was more of the same, a wipeout win against Tennessee State, another visitor from Nashville, 94-43. State shot .189 from the field. For the game, the plan to hit 3s didn’t work so well; they were 1-of-22 beyond the arc.Graves scored 17 to lead five Tennessee players in double figures. She was 6-of-6 from the floor and 5-of-6 from the line.

 "We knew we were 9-0, and we knew we wanted to take another step to get to the national championship level," Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons said. She scored 13.

 "For the most part, we've played hard," Warlick said. "The opponent shouldn't matter. You're working on yourself and how you get better, and get better as a team."

All nine of Tennessee's healthy players scored at least six points. A facial injury prevented Jasmine Jones from playing against State, though Warlick expects it to be the only game she skips.

 "We definitely wanted to come out and play Lady Vol basketball," Burdick said. "That's something we've been struggling with in past games, playing down to our competition. We can't do that. We've got to come out and play to our potential every single night. That's the sign of a great team."

 At one point, Simmons tossed an inbounds pass off the backside of a Tennessee State player and retrieved the ball for an easy layup

. “I think we were just having fun,” Burdick said. “Lately we've been so uptight, worrying about not doing the wrong things. It takes away from our play and takes away from what we can do as players. We just tried to go out, have fun, enjoy the game. We keep being reminded this is a gift. It's a gift to lace up these sneakers. It's a gift to put on this jersey. We don't take that for granted.”

 A real game looms next, at Stanford on Saturday, only the second ranked team they have played this season. Then they play Lipscomb – a team suddenly on every SEC team’s to-do-list – before opening the SEC with two ranked opponents, vs. LSU and at Georgia.

  •South Carolina: The 10th -ranked Gamecocks played No. 14 North Carolina in the aptly-named “Carolina Challenge” at Myrtle Beach after 10 days off for semester exams. Each side was preparing for tough conference battles by achieving at least half of the needed 20-win line of validation before that.

Carolina had 10 and SC nine coming in and this added a strength-of-schedule element to the resumes. It also was for some more braggin’ rights in the ACC vs. SEC challenges.

Tennessee had taken care of NC earlier. The Tar Heels stomped on the Gamecocks, 74-66. The difference may have been in rebounding where coach Dawn Staley’s improvisation of using two centers has yet to prove out.

 NC won the backboards, 43-33, turning 16 offensive boards into 18 points on second chances. Junior forward Aleighsa Welch scored 23 – 1 1in the first half -- and Elem Ibiam had a dozen in the first half, but only two in the second.

 The Tar Heels stretched a halftime lead to 39-27 then held on, the first time SC has trailed at intermission this season. It was 49-47 game with 11:33 to play.

 But NC held form and SC faltered at the free-throw line down the stretch.

SC will fall in the polls, losing to a lesser-ranked team.

 The Gamecocks have three winnable games left in the year then have a relatively soft SEC opening at still-unbeaten Arkansas and at Vanderbilt.

  •Georgia: The No. 16 Lady ’Dawgs had 10 days between games and, at Belmont, showed no rust in an 81-55 road blowout.

An 18-0 run to start dismissed all chances of an upset. Georgia hit 58 percent from the field for the game. Sophomore guard Tiara Griffin continues to lead Georgia, this time with 20 points off the bench. Khaalidah Miller, a 5-9 senior guard, scored 15 and 6-2 sophomore forward Merritt Hempe hit a career-high 13.

 “I thought we started well,” an understated Georgia coach Andy Landers said. “I thought we had good energy defensively, I thought we were disruptive and put them on their heels a little bit and then we made a lot of shots.

 “Overall, the first half, you'd probably give it an A-minus. You scored it, you defended it well, you shot it well from the floor. It was a very good first half. A lot of people played. A lot of people came in and plugged right in.

 “There was no drop in performance, which underscores that we have a good bench, particularly on the perimeter. The second half, was a little spotty.”

 Still, Georgia finished with that 58 percent from the field and a season high eight 3s. It was another revisit with a former Landers assistant, Belmont coach Cam Newbuaer. Jon Bollier, Georgia's operations coordinator for the past three years, is an assistant coach at Belmont.

 Next up was Who? The Owls of Kennesaw State. That’s also in Georgia, but light years away in terms of talent.

 Georgia kept State reeling (1-8) and Hempe stayed hot with another career night in scoring 18, 14 before intermission.

The final was 91-32. A 25-0 run in the second segment was most impressive.

 Griffin had three 3s in that run. Georgia had its 20th.

 And it moved to 11-0, well on the way to the 20-win season after bashing Lipscomb, 81-46.

 Shacobia Barbee scored 16 points, pulled down eight rebounds and dished four assists to lead a dominating 81-46 win.

 Georgia ended the half on a 16-2 run – Barbee scoring half of the points -- which pretty much ended the game. The lead stretched to 44 in the second half. Hempe scored 15 and Griffin 12 with nine rebounds and four assists.

Georgia outrebounded Lipscomb 54-31.
\
 The defense held the Bisons to 26.3 percent from the field. Georgia has two winnable games to close the year before starting the SEC with the Tennessee two-step, at Vanderbilt and then Tennessee at home

  •LSU: The 12th-ranked Tigers took a week off for semester finals then shook off the rest of the rust, 58-51 at Arkansas-Little Rock.

 All 10 of LSU’s players who saw action scored a point and grabbed a rebound.

 Senior Theresa Plaisance scored 19 in the second half – 15 of the team’s final 18 -- and grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds.

 LSU opened the half on a 16-5 run, led by 10 points from freshman Raigyne Moncrief during that stretch.

 Then they took out Florida Gulf Coast at home, 69-46. Moncrief scored 11 and Jasmine Rhodes 10.

 LSU dominated at the free-throw line, 21-of-25.

The visitors had four throws and missed them all.

 “We talked about in the second half how we didn’t want to give them a full shot clock because they did such a great job having ball patience and movement without the basketball,” said LSU coach Nikki Caldwell. “I’m very proud of our team of taking the challenge and defending 94 feet.

 “We knew that we’d have to help out each other and play off each other.

 “We looked at the lineups, and I thought Danielle Ballard in the second half really 'dialed it up. We’re really trying to throw different looks at our opponents and be better in that area. There were times when we did really well, and we were able to delay and take time off the clock or we got a 10-second violation call in the backcourt. Mixing it up defensively is something that we are going to continue to explore.”

 At 9-1, LSU has won seven in a row after a loss to then-No. 5 Louisville on Nov. 14. They have two more winnable games before the SEC opens for them at Tennessee on Jan. 2.

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