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 18, 2015

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Preparing for NCAAs With Select Seven

By Mike Siroky

An embarrassment of riches.

In a year when the NCAA sought quality teams to fill out its 64-team bracket, the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball was awarded seven selections, based more on tradition than anything else.

This is the 10th time the best conference has won the seven positions, which last happened in 2013. The ACC (eight bids) and the Big Ten (also seven) helped gobble up most of the at-large bids.

No surprise, given the SEC’s history and leadership in keeping women’s Division 1 hoops relevant until the rest of the country caught up.

The head of the women’s NCAA Selection committee, Dru Hancock, said her time with the group has shown us every member brings a little different view to the process.

For instance, she said, some concentrate on RPI, some on history and some only on direct results this season.

The fact they deviated from the final national rankings in awarding home games for the openers shows that.

It all makes for the fascinating case study of what happens when humans are in charge as opposed to computers making decisions. They use the computers for specific data collection.

The addled debate about being a No. 1 or No, 2 seed is so irrelevant.

Once more, you must defeat either the No. 1 or the No. 2 to get to the Final Four.

You have relatively the same speed bumps before that. So stop whining and just play on.

The top three SEC teams earned advancement to the Sweet 16 by being awarded home games in the opening round.

Those are 1-2-2 seeds, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.

There was no way the top four regular-season finishers would get a home bid, because that would have meant LSU, at 17-13.

They are an 11.

Texas A&M, a deserved six for their finish, is at Tempe, in the same bracket as South Carolina.

Mississippi State, one spot short of a home bid, is a No. 5 and at Durham, but in the same bracket as Tennessee.

Arkansas, a 10, is at Waco in the bracket headed by Notre Dame.

•By far, the most interesting bid is the No. 2 for Kentucky, which made the conference tournament semifinals for the second straight season, the third time in four seasons as a No. 2, leapfrogging it past LSU as far as seedings vs. finish go.

They are the first team with nine losses to earn a No. 2 since Tennessee in 2012.

If the national No. 11 Kats win, they get either Dayton (a 7 seed) or Iowa State (a 10).

But the opener is Tennessee State.

Dismissing the usual idea of not making rematches, as this is one from Dec. 26, which UK won, 87-75.

"I am just so proud of our team for making the NCAA Tournament," UK coach Matthew Mitchell said.

"Before the season started there were a lot of question marks for us. We lost some firepower and some veterans that meant a lot to us and we are relying on some young players.

"And through all of the adversity -- if you think about 130 practices, summer workouts -- they had to earn their way to this spot.

"So once again we find ourselves among the nation's best and going into the tournament with a really good chance to compete for a national championship."

Tennessee State (18-12) is from Nashville. It is coached by Larry Joe Inman.

It is the in by way of winning the Ohio Valley Tournament Championship, 64-60 in overtime against UT-Martin.

It is the Lady Tigers' third OVC tournament title.

This is TSU's third trip to the NCAA Tournament in school history, but first in 20 years.

Tennessee State brings a 10-game win streak to Memorial Coliseum.

Inman is an interesting coach, the first Caucasian at the historically black college. He took a sabbatical from coaching in 2008 after 20 seasons at OVC rival Eastern Kentucky.

He also coached at Middle Tennessee State from 1978-86.

Perhaps indicative the strength of the league, UT-Martin did not make the tournament.

He came to State in 2012.

"What coach Inman has done by having us play better teams is make us believe that we can compete with anybody," said senior Chelsea Hudson, a two-year starter who leads TSU in scoring (14.4 points per game) and rebounds (7.7).

"I really don't know who has the edge in this game, but I'm pretty sure that they might be just as nervous as we are because we played them before and we were competitive."

•The other No. 2 seed, Tennessee, is on a familiar path, with its two home games before heading to Spokane and a Regional headed by equally-successful Maryland, the Big Ten champs. Maryland, then in the ACC, eliminated UT in the Regionals last season.

Like Kentucky, they were also at home last season to open the tournament run. This is the third time in four seasons (seventh overall) that the No. 6 nationally Lady Vols are a No. 2 seed.

They start with 22-10 Boise State. Awaiting the winner will be 29-game winner UT-Chattanooga, the likely winner over Pittsburgh. UTC defeated the home school earlier this season, at Chattanooga, by four points.

Boise State is in its first tournament in eight seasons.

"That's about as legendary a program as there is," Boise State coach Gordy Presnell said. "They (have the) greatest fan base there is in basketball, basically.

"You go to the NCAA Tournament, you're not necessarily playing Acme School of Business. You want to see where you're at and test your mettle. We might as well do it at Tennessee."

The pairing was the last one mentioned on the cable bracket reveal show. The Broncos an automatic berth Friday by winning the Mountain West Tournament as the fourth seed and are the conference’s only entrant.

“We will need a lot of focus," sophomore Brooke Pahukoa said.

"We just need to be together as a team and have fun and enjoy the journey and the ride that we are blessed with," she said.

The redemptive chance after being blown away in the SEC tournament final is all the motivation national No. 6 UT needs.

Their mantra has always been: Offense sells tickets, defense wins games, rebounding wins championships.

"We've had success with it all the time and we've talked about how defense and rebounding wins games,” coach Holly Warlick said. "We wanted to stand by that motto because that's what we preach and that's how you get to championships."

"That's something that Coach Pat Head Summitt instilled in us from day one," said senior guard Massengale. She and Cierra Burdick are the only active players from Summitt’s era. Izzy Harrison is with the team, but her career ended with an ACL tear.

"We're trying to get back to that and understanding that is what it takes to win and that's what we have to do to hang another banner in our arena."

"People remember your senior year and how you leave your mark," Burdick said. "Our goal is to get to Tampa. We win four games and we're there. So these are going to be the toughest four games we've ever played, but they're going to be the most fun. It's a great opportunity.

"We owe it to Pat, she gave us the opportunity to put on the Lady Vol uniform and she trusted us to get the job done."

The Lady Vol reference is the school’s move to remove that label from its sports and to refer to all teams as simply Volunteers.

"You have to win to play again," Massengale said. "We have to take care of business."

• South Carolina, No. 3 nationally, is at home as well, for the second straight season as a No. 1 seed.

Last season, it did not work out so swell. So all the effort to get back to that this season was rewarded with the top seed and the home games pointed to the nearby Greensboro Regional.

They open, as top seeds do, against a 16 seed, Savannah State. Eight-seed Syracuse and nine-seed Nebraska are the other visitors.

Coach Dawn Staley said keeping the ultimate goal in mind, but not letting it consume them, is the plan.

“You can’t get there without going through the first round,” she said.

She likes the idea a Regional is close by. “We focus on just the task at hand. You can’t be too big,” she said.

“If we take care of what we need to take care of in the first and second rounds, I know we’ll take care of the Regional.”

She also said it was a reward for the fan base which has grown each year and which led the conference this season.

The Gamecocks have won 32 straight at Colonial Life Arena and have a regional for the first time.

The last time SC hosted (2002), it was in Carolina Coliseum and the Gamecocks advanced to the Elite Eight, their deepest tournament run.

“It’s a surreal feeling,” senior Aleighsa Welch said of the fans. “You guys really do make it all worth it. Just know that you are appreciated.”

This is another rematch of the regular season, against a traditional regional opponent.

The Gamecocks beat Savannah State (21-10) 111-49. Also at home. For that matter, they defeated unranked Syracuse 67-63, in the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas.

“You’re not going in blind,” Staley said of the opponents’ familiarity. “You’re not starting from scratch from a scouting standpoint.”

Staley admitted that potential opponents are always in the back of her mind, but, “It’s one game at a time this time of year."

“We have to keep our focus,” the SEC player of the year, senior guard Tiffany Mitchell said. “It’s win or go home.”

•The fun at No. 12 nationally Mississippi State continues with familiar opponent Tulane.

The positioning as a No. 5 shows the Selection Committee did not slavishly follow the national polls in seeding, though State was on the bubble for a No. 4 and home games.
In their bracket, that spot went to Duke, who is the home team for the sub-Regionals.

Both Tulane and State were in the NIT last season and State won, 77-68.

“This is a great night for our program and Mississippi State University. My staff and I thought we had a special team all along, and this kind of confirms those early beliefs,” coach Vic Schaefer said. “That trip to Europe back in the summer was such an important piece to this puzzle.

“I’m really happy for our three seniors (Martha Alwal, Kendra Grant and Jerica James) that have been with us all three years, and for Savannah Carter our other senior. You have to give credit to our entire team for continuing to work and get better.

“Our freshmen have come in and injected a skill set and added some pop that we desperately needed. I’m really proud for my staff, our players and Mississippi State University. I really believe the best is yet to come.”

A Hail State Hoops Luncheon on Tuesday celebrated the season in Starkville. This is the first NCAA appearance since 2010, same as Tulane. The 26-6 Bulldogs have program records for total and league wins.

State also tied for the best SEC finish in program history, ending third.

Tulane coach Lisa Stockton said her feeling is "Just elation. Everyone jumped up and screamed and started hugging each other. This is such a great moment because this team has worked so hard and I'm so proud of what they've done. To see them with so much joy was the best feeling ever."

Tulane has a 52 RPI and is ranked 57th on national strength of schedule.

Should State survive Durham, they would likely give the conference a quarter of the Sweet 16.

•Texas A&M, by losing three of their recent four games, two to LSU, played their way down to a No. 6 seed, unheard of in Aggieland and with Gary Blair as coach.

So here is yet another redemption chance, against Arkansas Little Rock, on Arizona State’s campus.

The winners there advance to Greensboro, headed by South Carolina, though in the opposite bracket of that Regional.

It is national No. 21 A&M’s 10th straight NCAA Tournament selection.

The only other SEC team to qualify for 10 straight is Tennessee. UALR is 28-4, winners of the Sun Belt.

This will be the Trojans’ fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament.

UALR’s only NCAA Tournament victory came in 2010 when it was an at-large bid to the tournament.

As a No. 11 seed that season, the Trojans defeated No. 6 seed Georgia Tech in the first round before losing to No. 3 seed Oklahoma in the second round on the Sooners’ home court.

More recently, the Trojans were a No. 14 seed in 2012, losing a first-round game to No. 3 seed Delaware at the Jack Stephens Center.

The team was a No. 12 seed in 2011 when it lost to Green Bay in the first round.

In winning the Sun Belt, the Trojans became the league’s lone representative by edging Arkansas State 78-72.

Taylor Gault was the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player while Alexius Dawn, Ka’Nesheia Cobbins and Gault all earned a place on the All-Tournament Team.

As a whole, UALR broke multiple program records for success this season including wins in a season (28), wins in the regular season (25) and wins in conference play (18).

Those 18 victories in league play also tied the all-time Sun Belt record. Coach Joe Foley is in his 12th year with the team, and he has 699 career wins.

The Trojans are fifth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 51 points per game. The team is 10th in the country with a 3-point shooting percentage of 37.5 percent. The team also won the Sun Belt Tournament regular-season championship outright for the first time in program history.

•The real mystery meat of the NCAA buffet is No. 10 seed Arkansas. First-year coach Jimmy Dykes has a statement game with the NCAA bid.

On his home campus, both the men’s team in the NCAAs and the spring football practice sessions have knocked interest in the women’s game back to No. 3, but he’ll take it.

They were eliminated – as was everyone else – by South Carolina in the post-season league tournament.

They did enough to earn a shot against Northwestern of the Big 10.

The Razorbacks last were in the women’s NCAA in 2012, where they won one.

The winner probably gets Baylor, the No. 2 seed and the home team now, in the Oklahoma City Regional led by Notre Dame.

“I’m so excited for our players, staff and fans,” Dykes said. "The NCAA Tournament is the goal of every program and for us to achieve that in our first season together is very rewarding. The opportunity to play more games together and continue to learn and grow as a team is critical as we build the foundation of what we expect will be a nationally competitive program for years to come.”

As a program, Arkansas has won eight straight openers in the NCAA.

Northwestern was waxed -- as was everyone else – by league champ Maryland, which earned the top West seed. In a 9-2 final run, the two losses were to the Terrapins.

The Wildcats have not been in since 1997, but then the men’s team has never qualified.

Interestingly enough, that 1997 team was beaten by veteran coach Joe McKeown, now Northwestern’s coach.

He came on seven seasons ago, after 19 at George Washington and has been building a real program.

He said just putting the women on the national map is a big first step. Their surge was an undefeated February, 8-0. That earned them fourth in conference.

Their best is sophomore forward Nia Coffey (last season she was the first Northwestern freshman All-American). She averages 15.9 points and 8.7 rebounds.

•Then there’s always-unranked LSU which scrambled the middle of the SEC and, in so doing, got the attention of the NCAA Selection Committee.

They have an 11th seed in the Albany Regional., which is headline by UConn.

The Lady Tigers drew No. 6 seed South Florida, at South Florida. No. 3 seed Louisville is also there, their home arena unavailable due to the men’s tournament.

LSU, with some Bayou magic, has its fourth straight NCAA Tournament selection under coach Nikki Caldwell. It is the program’s 16th appearance over the past 17 seasons.

Overall, the Lady Tigers collected their 24th NCAA Tournament bid which is tied for sixth most among the 2015 NCAA Field of 64.

“I’m excited to be playing a very good team in USF,” Caldwell, the former Tennessee All-American, said. “They have tremendous play in the post and on the perimeter.

This time of year, it is anybody’s game. I want us to make sure that we are sticking to our game plan, and we are going in there with great intensity and a lot of effort.”

Should LSU win two, they’d play the winner of the Kentucky sub-Regional.

But, for now, “I have been able to watch some of their play action against Connecticut,” Caldwell said.

“They are a well-coached team. But again, this time of year you’re going to play teams that have great guard play. We do as well. That’s going to be a key matchup for us, taking away the leadership and the guard action that they present. We are going to focus on our ability to defend and disrupt people.”

Had they played better and won a Top 16 seed, they would have been home for the third straight NCAAs.

“I just hate that we are not able to host because we have the best fans in the country,” Caldwell said.

“(Our fans) do a great job of coming out and supporting us. We have a group that came out to the SEC Tournament. I know that they are going to be excited to be going to Tampa.

"This whole season, obviously, there have been some tough games, but our fans have really come through at the sixth man and got us through those wins.”

•We will back overnight Friday for Kentucky, State and Arkansas.

UPDATE

In a followup to the Andy Landers retirement story, his departure after 36 seasons leaves Melanie Balcombe at Vanderbilt the longest-serving SEC coach, with 13 seasons.

Blair is in his 12th at A&M, but they only recently joined the SEC.

Mitchell is in his eighth season at UK, Staley in her seventh and Amanda Butler at Florida her eighth.



- Posted using BlogPress from the Guru's iPad

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