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.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Conference Tourney Mishmash Restarts the Season

By Mike Siroky

So hail to the victors, first-time regular-season champs of the Southeastern Conference women’s basketball season, No. 5 South Carolina.

The build that coach Dawn Staley has done is admirable.

The Gamecocks won their league games by an average of 18 points. And that includes the closest call in a win,Jan. 26 when they outlasted Vanderbilt on the road, 61-57.

The Hall-of-Famer as a player has turned into quite the coach. She came to SC in time for the 2008-2009 season. The first two seasons, were 10-18 and 14-15, not winning but already building a tradition of increasing the wins each year.

After that, her Gamecocks were 18-15 overall and 8-8 in the SEC in 2011, reaching the WNIT’s second round.

In 2012, they had the first of their consecutive 25-win seasons advancing to the Sweet 16 of NCAA by sweeping past homestanding Purdue in the sub-Regional.

Then came a 25-10 regular season with a 10-6 league mark.

Last year, South Carolina was 25-8 and 11-5, making it to the NCAA’s second round.

There, they lost to Kansas, by six, despite four players having double-doubles, two of whom were underclassmen.

Now, as they get ready to prove themselves again in the SEC conference tournament free-for-all, they likely are the only league team playing for a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, at either Lincoln, Neb., or Stanford.

If the latter, the Cardinal would then be a No, 2 and the best of that ranking. As a No. 2, the Gamecocks could go anywhere except where UConn lands (that is likely Louisville).

Their first-round could again be West Lafayette (unlikely, as it feeds into the Notre Dame Regional and the Irish will be No. 1 there) or Seattle, which feeds to the Stanford site or Ames, Iowa, which feeds into Lincoln.

In any event, they will be seeded as a projected Elite Eight team.

Any other team that wins the SEC league tournament will be a No 2 seed at best. No. 6 Tennessee or No. 15 Texas A&M, with sub-Regionals at home, could earn No. 2 seeds even by losing in the SEC title game.

Staley has said she did not see this coming.

“I didn’t, honestly,” she said. “ What happened (was) all of our players sacrificed and committed to staying in the summer. We were able to work with them all summer long.

“Not only on the basketball court. The team chemistry was formed during that time. It had to be formed during that time because we lost three starters -- three seniors that played significant minutes for us last year. We didn’t know how people’s roles would change and how they would acclimate to those roles.

“They’re a pretty strong team. They’re a pretty impressive team. Our coaching staff is thrilled every day to go into practice and be able to make adjustments and (know) they are able to handle those adjustments. It’s been a pretty special season. Hopefully we can continue it.”

Louisville does not seem to be a destination as that is where No. 1 of all No. 1s UConn seems headed, with Louisville the No. 2 seed at home.

The Knoxville sub-Regional feeds to Stanford, as does the LSU sub-Regional; it is unlikely the NCAA would put another quality NCAA team there.

The A&M sub-Regional feeds to Lincoln, which makes an interesting SEC rematch possible. If Texas A&M wins these first two and then the Sweet 16 semifinal (likely to be Baylor, also at home), SC and A&M could meet in the elite Eight.

Other SEC teams likely to be placed in the NCAAs include No. 12 Kentucky (its sub-Regional feeds into Notre Dame) and any other 20-win teams.

Another national website has had Georgia in all along. If that is true, then Andy Landers will become the SEC coach with the most NCAA appearances, breaking his tie with Pat Summitt.

For the immediate games, here is the SEC tournament lineup, to be played in an Atlanta suburb. Overall records, National Rankings and (seed):

Wednesday: (12) Mississippi State (18-12) vs. (13) Missouri (17-12) and (14) Ole Miss (11-19) vs. (11) Arkansas (19-10)

Thursday: (9) Georgia (19-10) vs. (8) Vanderbilt (18-11), Winner of Game 1 vs. (5) Florida (18-11); (10) LSU (18-11) vs. (7) Alabama (14-15); and Winner of Game 2 vs. (5) Auburn 16-13).

Quarterfinals Friday: No. 5 (1) South Carolina (26-3) vs. Winner of Game 3; No. 12 (4) Kentucky (22-7) vs. Winner of Game 4; No. 6 (2) Tennessee (24-5) vs. Winner of Game 5; No. 15 (3) Texas A&M (23-7) vs. Winner of Game 6.

Semifinals on Saturday; Championship on Sunday.

The biggest accomplishment may be Alabama, with first-year coach Kristy Curry jumping from anonymity in recent seasons to a No. 7 seed, despite an overall losing record. That shows good things in seasons to come as she recruits better and better players. The Tide had beaten LSU, 78-60, on Sunday at home.

It also shows no SEC coach is likely to lose a job by choice this year, as Alabama let its former coach go two seasons past the evident expiration date.

As the coaches gathered for the predictable press conference before play began again, Curry said she retains high expectations.

“We’re excited to head into the tournament with a little bit of momentum,” she said. “We divide our season into three parts and the third part is now, the post-season.

“We’re better than we were a week ago and two weeks ago and a month ago.

“We wanted to establish a culture in the classroom and the court to do what you
are supposed to do when you are supposed to do it. Energy Never Fails is something we talk about on a daily basis, in life, on the court and when they leave.”

She said her first trip through the conference exceeded expectations.

“The athleticism and size is unbelievable. Across the board, the depth of the league is there is never a chance to take a deep breath. I have been so impressed.”

At one point in the season, as we reported, Texas A&M coach Gary Blair assessed Tennessee as the team with the most talent and the ability to bring their “A” Game with the understanding they’d beat anybody if they did that.

Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said any team that could win as many as five games in five days in this conference would show something in such a tough league.

Staley agreed and she is as proud as she is because her team won in a tough conference.

Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer – though he didn’t publicly address it – knows his 18-win team is on the verge of doing something big for the program. He said the Bulldogs are excited to see where they can take themselves.

Holly Warlick of Tennessee joined the chorus agreeing this is likely the best group of coaches ever.

Even if legends like Van Chancellor (Mississippi and LSU); Sue Gunter (LSU), Joe Ciampi (Auburn) and even Jim Foster (Vanderbilt) won the conference and some of them made the Final Four, never has there been such a group all at once.

“I really want us to finish with the SEC championship,” Tennessee senior Meighan Simmons said.

“As a senior, it’s something you always want to end your legacy on. I really think winning the SEC would help in possibly going on to the NCAAs and finishing in the Final Four would be great.”

A little while ago, no four-year UT player had graduated without at least one Final Four experience. It has been dry for the past two senior classes.

In 2012, the Lady Vols took home the SEC Tournament title. Last season, Tennessee battled injuries and was knocked off by Texas A&M in the semifinals after winning the regular season.

“Freshman year, it was all-round a great experience,” Harrison said. “We were a great team. Last year we had a lot of injuries. Andraya (Carter) and me were out. People were coming back from injuries. This year we have a complete team. All the teams I’ve been on are different but I have a lot of confidence in this team.

“We are a year older for the most part and hopefully a lot smarter basketball wise. I know that they are mindful of what is expected of them and I think we are pretty focused right now.”

Health can make or break games.

“It’s huge,” Wrlick said. “When you stay healthy, you have a chance, and I thought last year we stayed injured the majority of the time.

“Outside of Ariel (Massengale) we’ve been pretty good, and then we have had to have people step up, you know when Ariel went out. My hat’s off to both Andraya and Jordan (Reynolds), they’ve stepped up and carried this team, and that’s a hard position to take over. I think they’ve done a great job.”

ALL-CONFERENCE

As expected, South Carolina was rewarded for its first regular-season conference title.

The easy choice was Dawn Staley as Coach of the Year as voted by her fellow-coaches.

The interesting choices were Tiffany Mitchell as Player of the Year and Alaina Coates as Freshman of the Year. Tennessee senior Meighan Simmons was a returning Player of the Year, but the one-game better Gamecocks pushed Mitchell to the win this time.

That Mitchell is a sophomore, with Coates and a top recruiting class, this is no fluke team.

As we projected, the coaches weighted most of their choices with statistics.

The conference picks more than five players for each classification it awards. They are listed alphabetically.

Here we go:

Player of the Year

Tiffany Mitchell (sophomore) South Carolina

Freshman of the Year

Alaina Coates South Carolina

Defensive Players of the Year

Martha Alwal (junior) Mississippi State and Jordan Jones (freshman) Texas A&M

Sixth Man of the Year:

Jennifer O’Neill (junior) Kentucky and Coates

Scholar/ Athlete of the Year

Lianna Doty (sophomore) Missouri

All-Conference First Team

Alwal; Jaterra Bonds (senior) Florida; Bri Kulas (senior) Missouri; Mitchell; Theresa Plaisance (senior) LSU; Meighan Simmons (senior) Tennessee; Isabelle Harrison (junior) Tennessee; Tyrese Tanner (freshman) Auburn; Courtney Walker (sophomore) Texas A&M; and Aleighsa Welch, South Carolina.

All-Conference Second Team

Shacobia Barbee (sophomore) Georgia; Coates, South Carolina; Tia Faleru (freshman) Ole Miss; Christina Foggie (senior) Vanderbilt; Jessica Jackson (freshman) Arkansas; Jasmine Lister (senior) Vanderbilt; Valencia McFarland (senior) Ole Miss; O’Neill; DeNesha Stallworth (senior) Kentucky; and Courtney Williams (sophomore) Texas A&M.

All-Conference Freshmen

Andraya Carter, Tennessee; Coates; Linnae Harper, Kentucky; Jackson; Raigyne Moncrief, LSU; Brandy Montgomery, Auburn; Breanna Richardson, Mississippi State; Ashley Williams, Alabama; Ronni Williams, Florida; Barbee; Elem Ibiam, South Carolina; Jones; Mitchell; Hasina Muhammad, Auburn; and Tyrese Tanner, Auburn.


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