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.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: The Conference Cage Fight Ready To Start Anew

By Mike Siroky

Last season, only one team won all of its home Southeastern Conference games.
That was South Carolina in the ultimate ascendant season. They earned a top seed in an NCAA Regional.


They did not make the Final Four.

Then again, neither did any one else in the SEC sorority. That streak of misses since 2008 is now a record.

Coach Dawn Staley spent the summer coaching one junior Basketball USA team to a world championship and assisting Geno Auriemma of UConn to winning another.


None of her players made the big team.

So it is easy to pick her and the Gamecocks to win another SEC title.


That is neither easy nor guaranteed for even the traditional SEC powers. Past performance has never been a guarantee of future earnings.

So it says here Tennessee will follow its game plan -- second in the league last season, winners of the SEC tournament and also a No. 1 seed -- to another SEC regular season title in the Holly Warlick era.

SC will be a close second, maybe a one-game-back second. In the playoffs, even the league tournament, all bets are off.

The rest of the league is littered with those teams who usually make the NCAAs and usually make the Sweet 16 which is the bedrock of the league reputation of having six or more 20-win teams and as many ranked in the AP Top 25 all season long.

Writers new to covering women's hoops like to compare the ACC as the toughest conference in America.

We all know statistics can be manipulated to say whatever it is the writer wants them to say. Results are hard statistics.

In the Associated Press poll, the one we follow, there are three SEC teams in the Top 10 of the pre-season rankings. No other conference has three, So the SEC starts out ahead once more. The depth of the conference has always been its legacy.

That's why SC won the conference, because it took out all comers who came to their house. But they could not beat North Carolina even once, so that was a pretty tough overall neighborhood.

Back to business.

Here's our team-by-team rundown:

•No. 1 Tennessee: As a top NCAA seed, it won two at home (would be home again in the new scenario) then lost in Sweet 16 to eventual Final Four qualifier Maryland.

As the monster in the middle goes, so goes UT. That is Izzy Harrison, league tournament MVP. She is no pushover at 6-3, and hit for 13.6 ppg., 9.3 rpg. last season.

"Izzy has been a great leader for us," Warlick said. "She's worked very hard to get where she is. Her talent level from where she came in to where she is right now is night and day. I think she has a good feel for our team."

Harrison is flanked by a pair of 6-2 forwards, Bashaara Graves (9.3 ppg., 6.8 rpg.) and Cierra Burdick (8.7 ppg., 7.3 rpg).

Warlick has what she likes best in a senior point guard, Ariel Massengale, 12.5 ppg., 5.8 apg. in 19 games before a head injury curtailed her season.

Eight of 10 letterwinners and four starters return, for a cumulative 70.7 percent of UT's points, 83.2 percent of its rebounds, 81.7percent of its assists, 79.5 percent of its steals and 68.9 percent of its blocks from a year ago.

Warlick is getting this coaching thing down more and more each season. A surprise often overlooked is the guard who red-shirted – so she still has four seasons – Jannah Tucker.

The Lady Vols did redshirt center Mercedes Russell, following spring surgery.

"Mercedes has a history of orthopedic problems with her feet that our sports medicine staff is working to correct," Warlick said. "Redshirting this season will allow her the opportunity to return to full health and still have three full years of eligibility with our program. We look forward to seeing Mercedes back in action next season."

UT once had the enviable record (now replicated by UConn), that every player who completed four years in the program made at least one Final Four.

They have not been there since 2008. The record is dust in the wind.

But Massengale said, "Everything the coaches have been talking to us and preaching to us since we've had this new coaching staff, we're finally taking heed to it. We're finally putting it into action. They're very happy about that, and we're very happy about that. (We're) understanding now that what they say to do, we have to do it.

"We can no longer go on our own agenda because, as it's shown the past two years, it hasn't gotten us to where we want to get to."

Warlick, of course, took over the program in 2012 after spending 27 seasons as an assistant to Pat Head Summitt, who led the Lady Vols to eight national championships before being retired by early onset Alzheimer's.

The seniors "had to see me go from assistant coach to head coach," Warlick said. "It's a different role I have to play, with them as well. That transition, I think, at first was a little challenging, but I think now they're comfortable. They understand what we need to do."

•No. 2 SC: Won two at home in the NCAAs as the other No. 1 seed (and would host again in same seeding as a No. 1) but went al the way to the Left Coast to lose to North Carolina again.

The surprise factor is gone, but not the "it" factor as Staley has all five starters back.

This is Hall-of-Fame (like Warlick, as a player) coach Staley's seventh season.

Returning SEC Player of the Year Tiffany Mitchell spent some summer hours on international teams. Before she came to camp, though, it was all about two-time All-SEC selection Aleighsa Welch, back for a final run.

SEC All-Defensive Team selection Elem Ibiam gives them two centers in the starting five _ with Alaina Coates – and Staley lived up to her hints in the past preseason that they would indeed play together. It is the best front court in America that doesn't play for Geno Auriemma.

No. 1 signee A’ja Wilson turned away from UConn, her early favorite, and felt the pressure to stay in-state. That does not always work out.

One of Staley's more unique accolades this summer came when Fortune Magazine had her on its list of the 50 Greatest Leaders in the World

Not just sports.

Here’s what Fortune said about the group:

There’s no playbook for how to become an elite leader in basketball. Whether it’s John Wooden teaching his UCLA players the proper way to tie their shoes or Zen master (and new Knicks president) Phil Jackson referencing Buddha, the point is to get five players working in harmony — however you do it. Three active coaches with very different styles stand out.

We’re hard-pressed to say which is best: Duke’s Coach K who has developed players for decades with a mixture of toughness and love — in the process becoming the winningest Division I men’s college basketball coach in history and leading the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team to a pair of gold medals?

Or the famously terse Coach Pop, who empowers his players by sometimes stepping back? “What do you want me to do?” he has challenged his stars in a time-out. “Figure it out.”

And they do: Coach Pop has had more consecutive winning seasons (16) than any active NBA coach.

Or Dawn Staley, who has led women’s teams at Temple and South Carolina to storied records?

The former WNBA star initially didn’t want to coach. But as Staley noted at her induction into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, she knew she made the right decision when “I started to care more about my players than to win.” That might be the common trait of the great ones.

•No. 3 Texas A&M: How does Gary Blair do it?

Last season, he gave UConn its toughest game in the big tournament and finished as an Elite Eight Team. (That's three, for you numbskulls from other conferences).

His aw-shucks good ol' boy demeanor hides a wonderfully adept coach, the Best Man not named Geno coming to the NCAA party.

He will be rewarded this season by not being seeding in the UConn bracket. If anyone thinks the NCAA does not configure these things, just look at past year-after seedings.

Here's two highlights of the kinds of quotes you'll get if you are ever fortunate enough to be in a Blair press conference:

“Learning is about more than simply acquiring new knowledge and insights it is also crucial to unlearn old knowledge that has outlived its relevance. Thus, forgetting is probably at least as important as learning.”

And, on growing attendance for the women's game . . .

"“If they're only coming for the hot dogs, let them be there for the hot dogs. But they have to watch us.”

The Aggies return 83 percent of their scoring from a team that made the program’s third trip to the Elite Eight in 2013-14, and are led by a trio of standout junior guards.

Courtney Walker, an AP All-American in 2013-14, may be the best guard in conference. She averaged 21.2 points per game during the SEC and NCAA Tournaments.

Courtney Williams, named to the All-Lincoln Regional Team, returns after averaging 13.9 points per game a season ago.

Jordan Jones will anchor both the Aggies’ offense after finishing fourth nationaly in assists per game, and defense, after being named SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year.

Senior Achiri Ade, who finished second in the SEC in offensive rebounds, is the Aggies’ other returning starter, with five-star recruit Khaalia Hillsman battling with Jada Terry and Rachel Mitchell for the starting center position. It's an ice battle for Blair to officiate.

Their only home loss in conference was to Tennessee, which took away the title as they whacked SC at their place.

So this season, A&M makes a January trip to Knoxville. The Top 5 preseason ranking is the highest A&M has ever had.

•No. 4 Kentucky: This is a dangerous year for Kentucky, which may have plateaued. The Wildcats have much the same level of talent as last season, which is good and bad news. They are perhaps one of those teams that would win any other conference that does not include UConn.

In the toughest conference in America, this does not wash and they are fourth at best.

They won two home games in the NCAA last time out, then lost in the Sweet 16 opener but they would host this year with same record.

They are No. 11 in the preseason, so if we went one spot further, the SEC has four in the Top 11 and no other conference has more than two.

Linnae Harper will either have a breakout sophomore season or, as has been the UK norm, disappear for quite a while. She is likely to have the former.

UK graduated a very special class of performers. So the kids will have to step up.

A 6-6 junior college transfer, Ivana Jakubcova (Bratislava, Slovakia) adds instant height. Jennifer O’Neill was often the team's leadings scorer and was not a starter.

Sophomore forward Kyvin Goodin-Rogers is another mystery player for the league to decipher. She sat out last season with a pulmonary embolism.

"I thank God that I get another chance to coach the Wildcats," said coach Matt Mitchell.
"It's really, really special, and I'm appreciative of the opportunity. We have a lot to be optimistic about, but we have a lot of work ahead. I think that this will be a very good pressure defensive team, and we're working hard at that right now. "

•No. 5 Georgia: A nod to the longest-serving coach ever in the league, with the most-ever NCAA appearances (but no titles). Andy Landers has the most players he has ever had preparing. The Bulldogs lost in first round last year with basically a young team and a lot of growing pains.

Of course, that means four starters return – guards Shacobia Barbee and Erika Ford and forwards Krista Donald and Merritt Hempe – and six additional letterwinners from last season. Ford is especially the trigger that shoots them out of the pack.

Landers has six freshmen, which often translates to six new headaches, though two are transfers.

Georgia used that once-every-few-summers opportunity to play a 10-day, three-game exhibition tour of Italy in August.

Georgia's 20-12 season last year is the 29th 20-win season in Andy Landers’ 35 years at UGA.

The Lady Bulldogs also earned their 31st all-time NCAA Tournament bid, second-most of any program in the nation. Georgia has now appeared in each of the past 20 NCAA Tournaments.

Landers enters 2014-15 within reach of two significant milestones. He has 843 victories at the University of Georgia (seven shy of 850) and 925 wins as a collegiate head coach (25 away from 950), from when he started at Roane State in his native Tennessee.

He is often brutally honest about assessing his team, as in toward the end of the most-recent season: "Given our circumstances and all the things that have happened to us, I think we're the only place we can be. We're playing good basketball. We're reasonably healthy. We've just got to prepare and make sure that we're rested and see if we can survive a 40-minute battle with a very deep team."

•No. 6 LSU: The Tigers won two at home then lost in first NCAA road game and they would not be a host this year with the same record.

The Fifth SEC team to the Sweet 16 last season they are quickly coming to the point where they have to be more than just competitive without winning anything substantial, like UK. They would easily be a competitor for the conference title anywhere but here.

"We want to get back to what LSU was really built on," coach Nikki Caldwell said. "Whenever you came (to their arena) or whenever you played a LSU team, you knew you were going to struggle offensively. We want to get back to that type of defensive pressure not only in the half court but in the full court as well."

Among her unique methods of pushing her team is to have a summer training camp with Marines. Among the tasks there was pushing a military Hunvee 100 yards.

They did it faster than the baseball team did.

"Before we did the challenge, we were told the baseball team's time was 2:20," Caldwell said. "You've got the looks in the kids' eyes and I said, 'We have got to beat them. I know we don't play them but right now they are competition'.'"

LSU returns seven letterwinners and, like most conference teams, recruited well and accepted two transfers, Akilah Bethal and Ann Jones.

Fourth-year coach and Tennessee All-American Caldwell must replace three starters in two-time All-SEC First-Team selection Theresa Plaisance and classmates Jeanne Kenney and Shanece McKinney.

Danielle Ballard and Raigyne Moncrief, were each All-SEC Freshmen, and each averaged in double figures last season. Ballard hit 23.3 points and 14.0 rebounds per game during LSU’s three NCAA Tournament games, while Moncrief was fifth among SEC freshmen with 10.1 points per game last season.

•No. 7 Vanderbilt: The Commodores were first out, losing in the first round of three NCAAs.
They are becoming used to being the leader of the second group in the conference.

Again, another team which has been in 15 consecutive NCAA tournaments (reflecting the depth of the conference) but so what as far as individual school accomplishments.

Christina Foggie was a better statistical player than even the legendary Carolyn Peck, but her teams also never won anything big.

Rebekah Dahlman, who missed most of last season after being diagnosed with a blood clot, is expected to be an impact player this season.

The Commodores look to the newcomers, a five-member freshman class rated among the top-10 in the nation.

The prize pair is twin Canadians Khalèann and Audrey-Ann Caron-Goudreau.

OK, high school is nice, but this is the SEC. How they stand up under the conference weekly pressures will determine Vandy's fate and it is not likely to be impactful during the regular season.

•No. 8 Florida: The Gators were the last conference NCAA qualifier and won one game and then back to the beach. They are usually in the middle of the second tier and will stay there, or worse.

Never a team to dodge tough games (as if they had a choice in conference), they will play 16 games against 13 different teams that competed in the postseason last year.

The Gators got in with a 20-13 record. Amanda Butler has never missed an NCAA invitation in any of her seven seasons.

•No. 9 Ole Miss: This may be the ascendant team of the year, based on the return of Matt Insell, a former UK assistant and one of the best young coaches in America.

So maybe he'll get a higher calling.

No one has even made anyone forget the legendary Van Chancellor (just ask him), but his success came with WNBA titles and an Olympic Gold.

Mississippi defines the "latest greatest" theme that has always been women's college basketball; that is, the newcomers suprass the returnees, but, like others listed above, being good isn't good enough in the SEC grinder. They only won twice in the SEC season.

Insell does have the SEC’s leading rebounder in senior forward Tia Faleru. Buit they graduated their best player Valencia McFarland, and her 17.4 points per game.

Insell went all out in signings, with eight incoming newbies, including one lured back home to Oxford, Erika Sisk, after playing her freshman season at Murray State.

•No. 10 Auburn: The Tigers once made three straight National Championship appearances under Joe Ciampi which means they finished better than their conference foes those seasons but not better than everyone.

That is the past with which second season coach Terri Williams-Flournoy competes.

She used a WNIT bid for four more weeks of coaching with three more wins.

The four starters and eight letterwinners from last season sounds good, but even the three extra wins only moved them to 19-15.

Auburn also has a big rookie class, five newcomers and has home opportunities against Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Florida in the league, 15 games at Auburn Arena, seven of which are against teams that advanced to the postseason

•No. 11 Alabama: Is this the season a wonderfully adept coach, Kristy Curry, in her third major conference, elevates Alabama?

She won big at NCAA showboats UK and Vanderbilt and defeated NCAA-bound LSU down the stretch for marquee marks in her initial SEC season.

Will her second recruiting class – none bigger than 6-3 Diamanté "DeDe" Martinez – help her make the move up?

Sophomore Breanna Hayden will be eligible in January after transferring from another winning program, Baylor. They made it to sixth in the league.

She has said: “There's so many things as a coach that you see. The room for improvement is huge for us, and we'll come back and work on that."

The Tide returns three starters, including sophomore Ashley Williams, who was an All-SEC Freshman.

The higher up the ladder they finish, the easier it will be putting distance from the summer controversy which ended with Alabama relenting and allowing former star Daisha Simmons to play immediately at Seton Hall in the revamped Big East.

• No. 12 Mizzou: Women’s Basketball returns 10 Tigers this season, including star 3-point shooter, Morgan Eye. They have been in the past two WNITs.

Three talented newcomers join the squad, including freshmen Carrie Shephard (Steele, Mo.) and Bri Porter (Columbia, Mo.) and transfer Juanita Robinson (Johnson County).

The Tigers open their season with a challenging non-conference slate, traveling to Honolulu, Hawaii for the Wahine Classic and welcoming former Big 12 foe Colorado to Mizzou Arena in December.

•No. 13 Mississippi State: In the second season of the Vic Schaefer era, a 22-14 record and the quarterfinals of the WNIT is about the top hope again.

The Bulldogs return five players who started 20 or more games a year ago and nearly 90 percent of the scoring from the team that set the school record for points in a season.

Two-time All-SEC selection and 2014 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Martha Alwal is back for her final season following a junior campaign that saw her reach 1,000-career points after averaging a team high 14.9 ppg.

In this case, the 1,000 points also means she had had little scoring help, then or now.

That will change with high school basketball’s No. 2 all-time scorer Victoria Vivians in the recruiting class.

•No. 14 Arkansas: The Razorbacks were undefeated most of last year and fired their coach. Then they replaced him with an untried good ol' boy from within the athletic department who was an ESPN analyst who had never coached a game.

They will be doormats of the league again.

It's the team everyone wants to play as it is little more than a scrimmage every good team can beat and every other team is not surprised to stop.Most of their 19 wins came before the SEC began


For the majority of the god teams, the league is but a prelude to the NCAAs and the Sweet 16, which is where the SEC usually places at least six teams.

The 2015 NCAA Women's Division I Basketball Tournament will, as usual, be in March and April, with the Final Four played April 5-7.

The subregional games will be played at the campus sites of the top 16 seeds, a major change.

It is also the biggest difference with the men's game, where everything is at neutral sites. The women still need to generate income. Parity is at least a generation away.

But this also means the SEC has the best chance of any conference to place teams into the Sweet 16.

The subregionals will be played March 20–23.

The regional locations, after a one-year experiment allowing tournament teams to host, will return to four neutral sites: Oklahoma City, Spokane, Greensboro and Albany.

Greenbsoro, then, will be the goal of the majority of the traditional SEC powers, but Oklahoma City will appeal to Texas A&M and the lesser SEC teams in the West.

It is unlikely anyone wants to go to Albany, which is where UConn will be.

Even Spokane is better than that.

Sacramento was supposed to host the West but could not clear the arena, another commentary on the lack of respect for the women's game.

The Regionals will be played March 27–30.

In the past, the rounds were mainly played Saturdays and Tuesdays, to avoid viewership conflicts with the men.

This time, the opening rounds and regionals (but not the Final Four) will be open on a Friday and end on a Monday.

The Final Four will be in the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa.

This is the second time that Tampa has hosted a Women's Final Four Basketball Tournament, the prior time was in 2008.

- Posted using BlogPress from the Guru's iPad


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