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, March 13, 2015

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Waiting for Selection Monday Traditions Are Served

By Mike Siroky

Upon further review, the Southeastern conference women’s basketball season played out about as anticipated, with the exception of the marvelous run of Vic Schaefer and Mississippi State.

Traditions start here.

South Carolina, as we have documented, is the team of the moment, with a fine two-year run and nothing in the horizon except Tennessee to challenge the Gamecocks.

When watching the conference tournament, one is reminded many of the other top five conference teams would be runaway champs in any other league not including UConn and very competitive in a conference not including Notre Dame.

The Big Ten has seven teams with more than 20 wins. The ACC has six and two more with 19.

One nationwide ranking system goes as far as seven SEC teams deep into the NCAA tournament, honoring the tradition if not the this-year reality of things.

LSU and Kentucky would be the Nol. 4 and No. 5 teams in, if there are that many into the NCAA show.

History contends there is that many.

Vanderbilt and Florida have hit the wall, as did UK, as we predicted in the pre-season. At least UK qualified for the NCAA.

Ole Miss is also on the rise.

Among the other non-NCAA teams this season, Georgia has fallen but can get up.

The Lady Dawgs are reloading. As long as Andy Landers remains, they have a national footprint.

The teams are all back on campus, working on their own selves, as no one knows who they will play until Monday.

At least three teams, Tennessee South Carolina and Mississippi State, seem assured of cashing in the gold tickets of the new NCAA guidelines, having earned the first two games at home and therefore locked into the Sweet 16 already. Tennessee and SC might even be No. 1 seeds in their Regionals.

A secondary goal of every conference team is representing the league in the Final Four.

It last was there when Tennessee won in 2008. Yes,

Texas A&M won the national title in 2011, but they were not in the SEC then.

This year, No. 11 Kentucky could also be at home, but wherever they play they are dangerous opponents at someone else’s home court and legitimate Sweet 16 contenders.

Texas A&M has lost its way, is shattered for some reason, having lost three of the past four and may only have one win left.

When No. 11 Kentucky fell to arch-rival No. 6 Tennessee in the conference tournament semifinal, Lady Vol coach Holly Warlick noted the difference may have simply been the energy expended by UK to earn the rematch.

"Let's be aware, this was Kentucky's third straight game," she said.

Kentucky had to grind through an opening-round game and a quarterfinal, while Tennessee just rested and waited, thanks to a double-bye as regular season co-champs.

Matthew Mitchell, the Kentucky coach, skipped his usual post-loss autopsy on what killed the Kats this time and instead immediately refocused on the next big thing.

"Our players gave tremendous effort," he said. "I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of our team."

Senior guard Bria Goss, fully recovered from the mid-season injury which sidelined her, said not winning an SEC title in her personal run is just more motivation as the elimination games start.

She remembers the fun if her freshman season, new to the national scene with valued upperclassmen to ease her into the fray.

Now it is her time to lead or go home and she has grown to meet the challenege.

"It just really fuels the fire to get back in the gym," she said. "We still have a lot of basketball to play. ... So we'll try to keep our heads high."

"We will enter the NCAA Tournament with very high hopes, very excited to get back and play in the NCAA Tournament," said Mitchell.

No. 3 South Carolina is depending on senior Aleighsa Welch, as happens when the countdown to the end of a career comes for the soon-to-be-graduates.

She won MVP of the conference tournament championship, The Gamecocks get the only guaranteed bid to the NCAAs.

They will not be alone, as the power conferences gobble up the majority of at-large bids.

“There’s not going to be a game we play where I don’t give all that I have, as far as effort and doing everything I can to will our team to a win,” Welch said.

“I wanted every rebound that came off, offensively or defensively. I made sure I attempted to go for every rebound.”

SEC Freshman of the Year A’ja Wilson, at 6-5, assists in every way possible. Someday, she may even be a starter.

Coach Dawn Staley has allowed the players to say all year they think in terms of national contention, not conference championships, coming off their first regular-season title last season and A No. 1 bid.

The excruciating small step of winning again probably earns them a Sweet 16 site closer to home.

Last season, they were on the left coast. This season, the destination is likely Oklahoma City.

Staley has taken the long look, knowing every game has its potential pitfall and now the next loss is the last one,

“It feels pretty good to be where we are today, because we still feel every bit of seven years ago, when we were just trying to jump-start the program,” she said.

Her teams won 10 games her first year at SC.

“Now it is win or go home,” Welch said. “You can’t afford to have a bad game.”

No. 6 Tennessee is pragmatic as always.

Coach Holly Warlick plays the media like she played as an All-American Lady Vol: Forever on defense.

She knows she is at home and likely seeded into the Sweet 16, but, “You know, it doesn't matter what I think. It hasn't all year. It doesn't matter.

“We can have the No. 1 RPI, the second-toughest schedule in the country, and it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what I think and how hard these kids play.

“We lost Izzy Harrison and the world has ended for us. That's what's out there. The world has ended.

“You know, we're stepping up to the plate. We got something to say.

“So I don't know. I don't know what we're going to get.

"We're going to take whatever they give us. “Seeding and schedule, I'm not convinced that comes into play anywhere. So we're going to take what we get.

“This team is really a great example of being Lady Vols. When your back is against the wall, you don't crumble.

"You have a lot of belief and faith in your coaches, your teammates and the system.

“I'd really be bothered if it didn't affect us and we weren't upset because we're competitors.

We want to win everything we do. We want to win every practice drill. We want to win every shooting drill. It just carries over.

“Yeah, we're hurting right now, but I know this team. I know what Tennessee teams do: We go back to work. We'll be a better team because of it.

No. 12 Mississippi State lost to Kentucky in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament

What it means to the NCAA committee is known only to them.

A Top 4 seed (we say 3) -- and a home game for the first two games -- in some Regional at the least seems an earned advantage at least.

The Bulldogs have drawn more fans than ever before. They have been ranked in the national Top 20 all season, another program first.

The Bulldogs are still headed for the NCAA Tournament in any event.

League Coach of the Year Vic Schafer knows that.

With a program-best 267-6 overall record and 11-5 in the SEC, two crucial losses to teams which finished near the top of the leagues should show competitive results rather than simple losses.

"We're two free throws from being 13-3 (in the SEC)," he observed.

"One against (Kentucky) and one against LSU. I just don't think we have to do anything else. How are you going to pick the third-place team in the SEC and try to find fault with them being a top 16 seed. That's crazy to think that's even possible."

Ranking SEC teams highly in previous seasons, even when they did not bid for the right to host in the first round as was legal then, is not unprecedented.

The Bulldogs have only had one bad loss and that was at Vanderbilt.

The other losses were to LSU, Tennessee, South Carolina and, twice, to Kentucky. All those teams are traditional national powers.

Except for Vandy, they will all be in the national draw and likely suspects for first-round home games.

Schaefer knows his young team will be competitive for seasons to come.

"We've got a solid team with freshmen and sophomores on the floor," Schaefer said. "I think that is a good sign."

No. 21 Texas A&M has quietly gone back to work anticipating not being at home after losing three of its final four games, two to unranked LSU.

Gary Blair is always effervescent.

“I love having the microphones in front of me, the TV cameras rolling and the newspapers printing,” Blair has said.

“That’s what it’s all about. We want to stay at the highest level. It’s not about winning games, it’s about winning championships now.

“I want to compete for it. If we end up not winning the national championship, I want to help decide who wins it.”

Last season, he took UConn on in a Regional final and gave the Huskies their toughest game of that tournament.

If he can turn the switch on again, they are always dangerous. And they are 23-9 overall, with only three losses out of conference.

The top five teams are also top in league scoring offense: South Carolina (75.5), Kentucky (74.4), State (742.), Tennessee (71.8) and A&M (66.9).

No surprise, SC also leads in scoring defense, which translate to points differential; offense may bring the crowd, but defense wins the games.

SC allows 52.6 and Tennessee 55.4. The offense allows the gap caused by the defense. State positioned itself right between SC and UT, with a 16.5 average advantage.

Reaching back to the era of Pat Head Summitt, Tennessee spends quality practice time each day on free throws.

Summitt used to observe teaching how to run properly, hit layups and hit free throws is the fundamental skill set for any player at any position.

Until college, many high school superstars got by and height or speed.

Both are still important and you cannot coach either, but at the major league level, the basics swill separate good teams from bad.

Tennessee hit 75 percent from the line all season, with State second, 71 percent.

While you cannot coach height, it sure helps to have it and SC’s dominating front line shows up in rebounding average, plus 10.5.

Tennessee is second, but the majority of that came with now-finished center Izzy Harrison.

So State, at third, 4.9, shows how quickly the margin diminishes.

Victoria Vivians, the superlative freshman from State, was the highest-scoring rookie nationwide and led the conference in scoring, at 15.1, 13.4 in conference.

She won the statewide award for outstanding rookie, of course. She is the first freshman to win the award.

“It’s a very deserving honor for Victoria, and we are so proud of her,” Schaefer said.

“She might be the leading scorer in the SEC, but she is such a great teammate. She makes everyone around her better.

"Victoria is very unselfish, almost to a fault. She’s learning as a freshman to be that complete basketball player, but for us she has meant a lot to our program from a competitive standpoint as well as being a winner.

"It’s hard to find those competitive kids, especially at a young age, but she has it. She has that ‘It’ factor.”

Yes, statistics can be made to say whatever the observer wants them to say.

But, like clichés, they are nonetheless true and hints at things to come.

- Posted using BlogPress from the Guru's iPad

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