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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 31, 2015

Mike Siroky's SEC Note Book: Ranked SEC Teams Are 68-7 Against the Nation.

By Mike Siroky

So it’s time for the real games. 

The conference’s Select Six, those ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 are ready to rumble with each other, along with four unranked league teams with at least 10 wins.

The Select Six, with three undefeateds, are 68-7 against America; the next four in conference, all unranked, are 45-6.

Throw out the six combined losses by the two of the lowest-ranked teams and it is even more impressive. 

At least a quarter of the teams with first-round NCAA hosting assignments, meaning automatic Sweet 16 berths, will come from the league. There are likely two more at that level of achievement. The SEC could get 10 in the national tournament again.

The final game of the preseason ended in a conference controversy that elicited some anger from a top coach. Read on.

We will start posting SEC updates to include the games that start the week on Sundays through to the Final Four in Indy.

*Undefeated No. 7 Kentucky won its 12th to open the season, eight at home, against Tennessee State 81-39. 

It is the best start in program history. 

State had also lost, 83-54 against Mississippi State. 

A 27-9 opening quarter settled it early as 5,586 in attendance approved. 

Reserve guard Taylor Murray and starting guard Maci Morris dominated the direction of the game.

 State had three single-digit quarters. Murray and Morris were backed inside by center Evelyn Akhator. 
She had six points and nine rebounds (five defensive) in the 38-17 half. It stayed the same after the break. 

The lead kept growing without impediment and reached 30 when Morris hit a 3 by the end and Murray did the same with two minutes left in the quarter. 

The lead was 37 entering the final quarter.

The Kats kept their momentum. All five starters plus Murray hit double figures, Akhator scored 14 with 13 rebounds, her fourth double-double.

Coach Matt Mitchell said all the right things, offering a fantasy view that the opponent – now 0-11 against the program -- really was a challenge, despite the final score.

He said: “We wanted to limit their scoring and have our team focused and take pride in limiting them to the fewest possible points that we could. We were battling there at the end. We were really battling at the end to get stops because we wanted to play as good of a game as we could.”

Morris said all the players are contributors.

“We just play our game and do whatever we can do. Helping the team is what we do. 

“We know what we have to do and we know we have to contribute to the team when we’re low in numbers. But, I think we’re great in numbers actually because we get to play more and it keeps everyone in a rhythm throughout the game.”

She and Taylor Murray talked about defense.

“Especially in the beginning, we would talk about defense and who we were guarding off the court, yeah because Taylor is such a great defender and I was struggling in the beginning. She would always give me pointers and help me out with how to guard people using my strengths instead of maybe what her strengths are.”

The Kats start the conference year with three winnable games before No. 2 South Carolina visits on Jan. 14.

No surprise Makayla Epps leads scoring at 17 per. The league now gets a look at Akhator, the fast-growing legend of the latest junior College Player of the Year, now the UK center. 

She averages a double-double: 11 points and 10 rebounds. How she is dealt with will determine UK’s league fate. 

It is never all about stopping as much as offering speed bumps against a team’s best player.

*No. 8 Mississippi State stayed unbested at home. 

The eighth victim was  Southeastern Louisiana, 81-41 The Bulldogs then went to South Florida and won by 10. State was the only of the SEC elite teams to play twice in the week before conference competition.

Against one-win SE La., a  balanced 20-9 run established dominance. It was 27-12 at the first stop. 

Guard Morgan Williams was 4-of-4 from the field (including a 3) and 5-of-5 from the line to lead them.

The lead grew to 20 in the second quarter. Coach Vic Schaefer emptied his bench and used six reserves before halftime, to the delight of the 3,409 in attendance.

 It was a 15-point advantage. 

The defense threw up one-digit third and fourth quarters, holding them to 25 percent from the field. 

Victoria Vivians (a shooter must shoot) took 12 shots in 17 minutes to get 13 points, 5-of-7 3s. Chimwe Okorie also scored 13, and took 14 shots. 

So there is work to be done on efficiency. Okorie had nine rebounds (five defensive) and reserve Breanna Richardson had eight as the ‘Dogs dominated the backboards, 60-37.

“We looked flat,” Schaefer said. “It’s hard to look flat coming off Christmas break. Right now, we don’t have those one or two people who grab everyone else and tell them that we need to get it together.

“We did a better job of executing on offense in the fourth quarter,” he said. “If you have 30 offensive rebounds, you have to score more points than we did.”

Morgan William and Blair Schaefer each had 12 points. 

“We have to find a way to play better,” William said. “We need to have better intensity. It needs to start right now because we have to all pick our game up.”

 The second game was against a Top 20 team, South Florida, whose women carry the improbable nickname The Bulls.

Schaefer said this was the kind of balanced performance he wanted just before conference play starts.

Vivians had 13 at the break, double figures for the 13th straight game.  They established a smooth nine-point margin at the end of the first quarter that allowed them to play their game throughout.

A 16-6 endgame cut the lead to 10. But there was less than a minute left and, naturally, State looked to Vivians for the basket that kept it at double figures. 

It gave her 23 points.

 Williams scored 15 7-of-8 from the line as the Bulls fouled in an attempt to make it competitive. State crucially has 13 wins, undeniably already going to the NCAAs if they just maintain.

Their new center in a league suddenly blessed with centers is Texas import 6-7 Teaira McCowan.

She is second to Vivians in scoring, leading the team and already near 100 rebounds.

"It's a good way to finish off our non-conference season because the gauntlet is here, starting Sunday," Schaefer said, referring to Southeastern Conference play. "The nightmare starts.

"I think better teams, obviously, pique the interest of our players," Schaefer said. "That's a part of growing up a little bit. I want everybody to pique their interest."

Of Vivians, he said: "She hit some big buckets there in the fourth period, when we kind of dying on the vine."

This was part of something called the SEC/American Athletic Conference Challenge, which had 12-1 Florida playing Central Florida in the second game.

Ah, controversy.

Gator coaches were courtside scouting Mississippi State during the game, something that didn't sit well with Schaefer. They open SEC play against each other Sunday in Gainesville.

"There's an NCAA rule in place that prohibits scouting unless you're in a tournament setting," Schaefer said. "This is not a tournament. But they were given the approval to scout today by our conference office, so I'll leave it at that.

"I didn't play this game so I could scout Florida against Central Florida. To me, we're dancing around a rule that was put in place to not allow in-person scouting."

For the season, State has an average +31.3 scoring edge. Vivians is averaging 18.3, despite several games well under that right before the year ended. State starts with six winnable conference games until they meet the challenge of South Carolina in a national game on Jan. 24. 

*No. 13 Tennessee hit nine wins, playing Stetson at home. 

With three losses, they tie A&M with the most defeats of the conference leaders. Stetson had already lost by 11 to Georgia.

But they closed with only the first back-to-back wins all month.

Diamond DeShields said hello to the conference anticipators with 30 points in 23 minutes. She was given most of the fourth quarter off. Holly Warlick had her back as a starter. 

"It's definitely a huge confidence booster for me,” DesShields said. “Personally, I've been pretty up and down this season, I'll have a great game and then a not so great game. 

"So I think I'm really feeling out the game, and feeling out what I can do with the players that are out on the floor, and the spacing that I'm getting from them.

"So yeah it was just a huge confidence booster, hopefully I can carry it on to the rest of the season, not just next game. My teammates will continue to get me the ball and trust me to knock down the shots.
"I feel a lot better, I do,” DeShields said. 

“ I was definitely elevated a lot better than I have been all season. I give a lot of credit to our trainer and strength coach for helping me get through my injuries. So yeah, I feel better, but I'm still trying to work out some kinks. But I do feel a lot better.

"Like Holly said, we did a lot of great things, but we also have a lot of things to work on, our one on one defense being one of them. 

"We had a hard time keeping our man in front of us. So we're definitely not satisfied, but very pleased with the win. You can't really discredit what we did out there tonight. We played team basketball. But we know we still have a lot to work on. So we're just going to come in and practice and get ready for Missouri."

Warlick also had 10 healthy players for the first time since the start of the season.

That was because guard Alexa Middleton was back from an ankle twist.

Butt the Lady Vols also made it 8-0 when allowing 70 points or less. That’s another advantage of having fresh players with a real bench. It is this kind of variable which make makes them hard to scout. 

This is likely the best lineup. 

"Well I think I found one,” Warlick said.

“I think Mercedes and Bashaara [Graves] are solid. I think Andraya Carter has been solid. Kortney Dunbar has just been reliable in practice. I preach a lot of `If you practice hard, you're going to get the opportunity.' She's started for us. She's gotten herself to a good start. I just thought she deserved to start. 

“Last year, she was learning to play defense, and this year she has not been a liability for us. She's rebounding, and we know what she can do on the 3.

“Our defense is solid,” Warlick said.

“Our goal was to disrupt. Disrupt, make them uncomfortable, take them out of their offense, I think for the most part we did. They scored a lot by just putting their head down and going to the basket. We've got to get a lot better of defending one-on-one when people just go hard to the basket. 

"I thought we challenged the ball. We got up and denied the passing lanes. Mercedes Russell was huge inside. I've asked her so many times to just be a presence inside, and I thought she was tonight.

"I thought we played hard. I was pleased with our effort. That was one of our better games here. We're getting there. We are making great strides. I'm just proud of our effort."

Rising rookie guard Te'a Cooper got some starts in the flux. She scored 13, with seven rebounds. 

"We're all getting used to playing with each other with all the injuries we've had, but I think we've done a better job of playing with each other," Cooper said.

"Holly just said we had to separate ourselves and dominate, so that's what we went out there and did."

Jaime Nared had 12 and Mercedes Russell 11, with eight rebounds.

 Tennessee shot 53 percent from the floor in their highest point total since a season-opening blowout of Central Arkansas. The Lady Vols are trying to develop a 3-point presence but went 5-of-21. They made two-thirds of their shots from inside the arc.

"Well, I think Stetson started off in a man-to-man and we got great looks, and then they went to zone,” Warlick said. “We've really worked hard on our zone and moving the ball and getting inside. 

"We get a little happy with the 3. I think we made five of them, so that kind of sucks us in a little bit. We attacked the basket. We moved the ball. I thought our passing today was really, really good. When you move the ball and cut, you get open looks, and I think that’s what we did. We've really committed a lot of time to our offensive play.”

Tennessee maintained control.

DeShields had 18 points in the first 13:40. UT started the second half just as strongly. 

The Lady Vols broke it with an 11-2 rush to start the third quarter. The 10,705 loyalists reward the team most every game.

This is a team with only two seniors, but all are post-Pat Head Summitt era recruits.

 The key for Warlick has been injuries, including recurring shin splints for DeShields.

 She now gets to prove her impact on her new league after dominating her previous one, the ACC. She is averaging 18 points per game, a starter in five. Then, it was a few minutes each game. She has grown into 22.6 per minutes now.

Surprising for a team led by a former All-American point guard, that position’s play has haunted Warlick. More specifically, it is the loss of Jasmine Jones, out once again with concussion symptoms after bonking heads with a teammate.

She played but six games last season before a concussion. She had proven her worth as a steadying influence in points steals, assists and blocks but may as well be written off as undependable. 

Cooper needs to continue to mature quickly even as Warlick, a guards’ coach on the international level, makes her assignments basic.

"I've watched Diamond,” said Warlick. “I've said earlier that she was thrown in early without a lot of practice. Everybody's expectations of Diamond was for her to take up where she left off.

" She was out a year, and she's had problems with her shins. I've been really encouraged. She's practicing hard, but she's getting to stay in practice. She doesn't have to sit out of practice now. I think you're seeing the results of her getting a chance to play with the team, getting up shots, and just practicing a full practice.

"You know, I feel great about us. I really do. I keep saying I think the Oregon State game was a great turnaround game for us. We identified what we thought our weaknesses were. We've really worked on them. The players have bought into what we want, what we need. When your players buy into a system or game plan, it's powerful.

"I feel good going into the SEC now. Missouri is a tough opponent. Missouri isn't your typical SEC team. They spread the floor. They have three-point shooters. They penetrate. They're hard to guard. 

"They've got a freshman right now who's been phenomenal. We've got our hands full. I like our chances because of how we're playing and how together we're playing."

The Lady Vols can start the SEC correctly with six league wins before closing the month at Kentucky. 

There is also the incomprehensible scheduling of at Notre Dame on Jan. 18, a hangover from the Summit scheduling theories. 

It is a series likely to not be renewed but likely to be replaced by renewal of the UConn happy fun times.

*No. 16 Texas A&M joined the 10-win club against Prairie View A&M.

A four-point quarter. That’s the national defensive marker of the season and A&M slung it on Prairie View to start the 88-30 devastation.

Sophomore center Khaalia Hillsman hit 10 of 13 shots for a career-high 22. Freshman reserve Anriel Howard came off the bench to score a career-high 14,  5-of-6 from the field. The second quarter points allowed was six.

The Aggies scored 37 points off 26 Prairie View turnovers, had a 40-31 rebounding advantage and had 22 assists on 34 baskets. They have these afternoon games where the top admission price is $4; that explains the 4,124 in attendance.

It was a nice way to end the year after a week off. The Aggies had just played seven games of 10 against  teams in the 2015 NCAA tournament.

“We knew we were going to take some bumps,” A&M coach Gary Blair said. “But they were three losses against pretty darn good teams.

”Our schedule has paid off. Before the season started, I was hoping to be 10-3 but as the season went on I thought we could have been 12-1 which we should’ve been and could’ve been but we didn’t get it done.”

This game was the kind of game in which the starters fed the non-starters in celebration of team play.

Blair said his best player emphasized that.

“I thought it was a very unselfish game, particularly for Courtney Williams,” he said. “She was distributing the ball, she wasn’t worried about how many points she scored but when she turned it on.

"… She only had two at half, came on and hit a couple 3-pointers, and played well.

”We’re going to take the game, I’m sure Prairie View has played a lot better games besides tonight but our defense was pretty good.”

Howard is happy to be in the performance mix.

“It’s certain things we know we have to do, even though we know we come in knowing we’re supposed to beat the team, there’s certain things we know we have to execute as well,” she said. “We have goals and I believe we met those goals, exceeded those goals, both on defense and offense.”

Hillsman agrees it is all about the team.

“It was the passes to be perfectly honest. I wasn’t doing anything by myself. I wasn’t catching any terrible passes and making a great move. 

"It was just great passes from people willing to share the ball and I think Courtney and everybody who came passing the ball, they threw some really good passes so I give it up to them because anybody could make the shots that I made.”

Now she focuses on all those centers to come in conference.

“I’m excited,” she said of the immediate challenge.

“ There’s no more winning by 50, there’s no more of that because everybody in our league is good. You have to prepare for everybody. Even teams from last year, the ones that we blew out, they’re better this year. It’s exciting to know you’re in the best conference in the nation and every game is going to be a big one.”

If A&M gets past 12-1 Georgia to open the SEC season, it can start 4-0 before meeting the challenge of South Carolina’s 44-game home win streak on Jan. 17. They will rematch two weeks later at College Station.

The magic of A&M has been the two Courtneys, Williams and Walker, now senior leaders, both at 16 point per game. Yet it was the injury loss of classmate Jordan Jones, the feeder, that sank the previous season. Jones has 66 assists so far.

A&M has been exciting, with the lowest points differential, +11, of any of the conference ranked teams.

*No. 23 Missouri enjoyed its longest streak of ranked days moved up two spots and hit 13-0 by edging visiting Charlotte, 88-71.

Just as the fan following is arriving – the 6,154 is the sixth-best in program history – so does the best shot from everyone come with the rakings. Missouri hasn’t been this validated since more than a decade before these players were born:1984. 

Junior Jordan Frericks had her 20th career double-double with 16 points and a career-high 15 rebounds, nine defensive. Mizzou won the backboards, 42-31. 

Mizzou hit 51 percent from the field. Adding significant points was freshman Cierra Porter with a career-high nine rebounds.

Missouri lost the first quarter by one then glided through the second by 15 to seie control.
Porter said the team played through that opening quarter.

"I don't think it was rust,” she said.

“Sometimes you come out hot and sometimes you come out cold. We have to get our energy from our defense if our shots aren't falling. I think we all did a good job of picking that up."

The rebounds helped.

"Coach Pingeton talked to us before the game on how we should always be relentless on the offensive boards,” Porter said. “It’s something we've tried to focus on this year. Jordan has taught me a little something about offensive rebounding and I think we did a good job with that tonight.

"We're really excited to have not lost in nonconference play. At the same time though we know those games are all done now. We want to focus on the next game. While we love the strong start we know that can't be our focus."

Frericks said she tries to come out angry every game.

"I try to every game. I think our whole team tries to play that way as well and we want to show what we have."

Leading scorer, freshman Sophie Cunningham, was in foul trouble, so . . .

“I think Juanita (Robinson) did a great job stepping up. I think she had a great game. She knocked down some really important shots.”

She was 5-of-8 from the field, 2-of-3 from the line, 12 points in 19 minutes.

“That's what our team is all about,” Frericks said. “If Sophie's in foul trouble then we have another player right behind her to step up. Juanita did a great job with that tonight.

"As a team we talked at halftime about winning the third quarter. We wanted to throw the first punch and get back in the game. We wanted to go out there and be the aggressor on the court."

"I think there's so many areas where we have improved. They might be small areas and they might be big areas. Our confidence has been growing drastically. 

"Each player has gotten more experience on the court. Collectively, we have worked together and improved a lot. People have been working on their shots, their defense and other things.

"We're pumped. We're so excited. How our nonconference schedule went, we know what we're capable of. We're excited to have our next opponent in Tennessee next week."

"I'm appreciative of all the fans that showed up tonight. It was an incredible atmosphere," coach Robin Pingeton said. "I'm really happy for our players to finish the non-conference schedule 13-0. It's really exciting for us. I can assure you that we're nowhere near satisfied with the big picture this season.

“We're pleased with the growth we've seen. I thought at times we looked sharp and other times we didn't look quite as good. 

"Overall, I was really proud with how we came back after Christmas break. We're really looking forward to conference play beginning next week."

She said Frericks' performance is indicative of the team’s play.

"I think we have such an unselfish team. Our scoring is so much more balanced then it has ever been in the past. I think we also have more depth.

" When I think about Jordan, she's just so much more explosive than she was a year ago. She's finishing so well at the rim. She's relentless going to the boards.

“She's doing a lot of things really well for us. You expect that out of an upperclassman. She got a lot of minutes and experience last year under her belt. What she particularly does well is not forcing the issue. She takes what's available. She has such a well-rounded game right now and she's a heck of an athlete."

She wants her team to maintain energy in every game.

“We take a lot of pride in that,” Pingeton said. “That's something we talk about before every game. 

"We've been dominating and creating those 50-50 plays. It's all about that extra effort. I know it's important for all of us on how we play for the full 40 minutes. What we can control is how hard we play.

" We owe that to our fans who have been so great with coming out and supporting our team."

So now there is anticipation in the Columbia community, It’s fun to witness a first growth spurt.

South Carolina did it a few seasons ago and now is a national contender. Mississippi State did it the past season and is a solid Top 10.

Is it now Missouri’s time? They had 19 wins last season and a late-season upset of then-ranked Texas A&M. They had a four-game win streak headed into the conference tournament.

They had seven league wins, a program best in any conference since, yep, 1984-85.

If they just match that, they get to 20 and an NCAA berth. If they get eight, Pingeton gets her hundredth win at Mizzou in a magical season.

"I think it definitely has a different feel out there,” said Pingeton, who as head coach of Illinois State led the squad to a one-time ranking during her run at the school.

“There's a buzz and I think a part of it is because of having so many local kids on the team that are really talented. We've got a pretty darn good group of girls that suit up and put that Mizzou jersey on. 

"I think we play a fun and exciting style. Our fans have been great about coming out and supporting us. I can't tell you what a difference that makes."

Of course now it is the challenge of the conference opener against the league’s icon, Tennessee.

"I don't think I have to do much at all,” said Pingeton.  “That's just the kind of group we have this year. 

"We understand what's in front of us with Tennessee and SEC play beginning next week. Our first handful of games in the SEC are against pretty much all the ranked teams in the conference.

" From a mentality standpoint they know what's in front of them and they're excited about the next step."

So she will rely as good teams do, on the point guard. In this case, redshirt junior  Lindsey Cunningham.

"I think she has really evolved into one heck of a point guard. She's so steady for us, said Pingeton.

“She's got a great calming effect on her teammates. She does a great job of pushing the ball in transition. She's gotten so much better with her ball-handling and decision-making. 

"She's also done a great job from a leadership standpoint. It has been fun to watch the growth and progression for her at the point guard position."

The Tigers are no fluke, with four players in double figures. Then again, they have yet to play another ranked team and will have plenty of chances in league play.

Cunningham is the rookie of the year in the league so far at 16 points per game averaging 27 minutes and hitting 60 percent from the field.

Now the fun begins. Conference challenges open with a statement game for each participant  when Tennessee comes in first. Then the Tigers are at 12-1 Georgia, at  South Carolina, has Mississippi State visit and also goes to A&M in the opening month. Woo.

*No. 2 South Carolina took a deserved week off, allowing us to focus on the other ranked teams. 

They’ll get plenty of space from now on. They have become the Big Game for every conference opponent. No one else carries that karma.


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