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.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Sweet Challenges for Foursome

By Mike Siroky

There are an unprecedented number of non 1-4 seeds in this year’s NCAA Sweet 16 in the new era of home qualifying seedings. 

As we traced after the qualifying rounds, it is UConn plus major conference members. In this reality show, then, no surprises.

It is not the major amount of upsets. It is the worst ever job by a Seeding Committee. Setting up false expectations does not validate real results.

Based on the season, perhaps Tennessee is the only real surprise.

 The other SEC teams still alive – South Carolina, Kentucky and Mississippi State are legitimate Top 16 teams.

Bridgeport has 1-2-3-5, with Mississippi State winning at home as a push two-point win over No. 4 Michigan State.

Dallas has 1-2-5-6. Lexington has 1-3-4-7. Sioux Falls has 1-3-6-9.

 In two of those Regionals, two home seeds lost.

 One lost at the other.

 If your bracket advanced the lower seeds in each matchup so far, you have hit 82 percent and can still recover with two 1-2 Regional finals and all the No. 1s winning.

The history of women’s college hoops shows it has most always been an overwhelming favorite, a drop to the next one or two challengers, then a bag of marbles and pick ’em for all the rest.

Despite what the sycophants at the cable network that owns this tournament have written and broadcast, the seedings were not nearly perfect. 

Then again, UConn is predestined to win this thing, so it really doesn’t matter until the Final Four and that should be UConn/Baylor and South Carolina/Notre Dame.

The Final AP rankings have 14 of the Sweet 16 teams in their Top 20, nine of the Top 10.

 Again, Tennessee is the historically surprise omission. 

Newcomer Washington is the other.

Here’s what the SEC expects next. Numbers associated with the teams reflect the seedings.
 
*Sioux Falls Regional
*No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 4 Syracuse

On Friday, another SEC vs. ACC matchup in prime time.  

Syracuse is the mystery meat of the tournament, ranked No. 14 nationally and winners of their home qualifying games, but overshadowed magnificently by No.1 seed and No.2/ nationally Notre Dame and now-gone No. 8 nationally Louisville in the season.

Maybe the No. 4 seed was verified by the competition. 

Still, this is how a bracket projects to this point.

Quentin Hillsman has spent  decade building his program. He was the 2008 Big East Coach-of-the-Year, overshadowing ND’s Muffett McGraw that year. 

Naturally, his school joined that conference exodus. If that hadn’t happened, the conference would have had three teams in the Sweet 16, two No. 1s.

Irregardless of history, the here and now team is led by junior guard Alexis Peterson – who escaped Columbus, Ohio, before the current college coach arrived – at 15.8 points per game. 

Senior guard Brianna Butler averages 13.3 and 6-4 center Bria Day 10.2 but only 7.7 rebounds.

This should play out as another SC impact game, with superior coaching and talent and the next game the first real challenge.

*No. 7 Tennessee vs. No. 2 Ohio State

In the late night game, the SEC takes on the fastest rising power in the Big Ten, which adds magnificently experienced transfers next season.

 The have been practice players all along.

Stephanie Mavunga is a 6-3 center who was all-ACC at North Carolina. She has two seasons left and was a teammate of UT’s Diamond DeShields at NC.

 Playmaking guard Sierra Calhoun fled Duke after one season.

 Linnae Harper was a USA basketball player after her sophomore season. She is one of five Kentucky players to leave the program. She also landed at OSU. She has a season and a half left due to her late transfer/enrollment.

Those alone are the nucleus of a great team.

 It is not heresy to compare it to the wealth of UConn.

 The point is not they are warming up, but that they are warming up the current team with real practice competitions, just as DeShields and center Mercedes Russell prepared this year’s Vols as they sat out their transfer-in seasons.

This should be next year’s No. 1, wire-to-wire.

The coach is Kevin McGuff who made his bones recruiting the National Championship team at Notre Dame, then improving Xavier and Washington before getting this opportunity at a top-flight athletic department that has waited a long time since original Tennessee assistant Nancy Darsch took the Buckeyes to a two-point loss in the 1993 National Championship game. 

And let’s not forget Tara Vanderveer was their first real coach. And Jim Foster was in the mix.

The backing has always been here. 

The school has won the Final Four site in 2018. That shows support and confidence.

 As much as McGuff has coached up this team and, with the transfers he has coming in, he is still even better at developing talent.

Four in double-figures leads this year’s team. Any one of them can beat you. 

Sophomore Kelsey Mitchell averages 26.3 points and hits 40 percent of her 3s. Senior Ameryst Alston averages 18.2 and hits 36 percent on 3s; each hits 45 percent overall from the field.

 Junior Shayla Cooper hits 13.5, 54 percent from the field and 48 percent of her 3s. She averages 8.1 rebounds, 75 percent defensive. 

Sophomore Alexa Hart scores 11.1, hits 62 percent from the field and, as the 6-3 center, has no 3 statistic, but averages 7.8 rebounds, 63 percent defensive. 

All have played in at least 30 games.

Mitchell was Ohio’s high school Player-of-the-Year and started all 35 her rookie season. Her twin, Chelsea, is on the team but blew out an ACL and so sat out the first year. 

Their dad, Mark, is the first assistant McGuff hired, a few months in. The girls signed that summer, as did Hart.

McGuff was not afraid to travel, losing early on the road at South Carolina and Notre Dame, at home to UConn, three of the four top seeds. 

They bested Texas A&M by 15 in a holiday tournament.

 In conference, the beat champ Maryland twice, defeated Michigan State before losing the season in the conference game of the year, three overtimes at Michigan State. The Spartans eliminated them in the conference tournament semifinal.

As the No. 9 team in the final AP poll, they owned their own Sweet 16 qualifyings.

This is the team in the tourney with the talent that could compete with UConn but will have to beat South Carolina to do so. 

So that is Tennessee’s challenge. Yes, the Lady Vols defeated the second-best team in the Pac 12 to get here. This is not that. UT needs to celebrate rescuing the formidable reputation with  a top showing and will, after the rollercoaster stops, be in the final Top 25. 
 
*Lexington Regional
*No. 7 Washington vs. No. 3 Kentucky.

On Friday, the Kats open in prime time, SEC vs. Pac 12. 

UK coach Mathew Mitchell purchased  block of lower-level sets and distributed them for free throughout the town in the runup to this.

Washington’s two seniors were McGuff recruits and coach Mike Neighbors was a McGuff assistant at Xavier and Washington.

They flew cross-country to win at No. 2 Maryland. 

In that game, one of those single-digit defensive efforts in a quarter made the difference.

 The Huskies ignored the lack of depth and the fact the Maryland seniors had twice been to the final Four recently by beating Tennessee. They ain’t afraid of no ghosts of past tournaments.

They are in their 18th tournament and second straight. They were just outside the final AP Top 25. Way back in 1990 and 2001, the program reached Regional finals in smaller draws. 

 Five Pac 12 teams made it this year, an unprecedented accolade.

Junior Kelsey Plum brings a sparkling 26 points per game to this tussle. Senior Talia Walton is at 15.8.

 Junior Chantal Osahor averages a double/double, 10 points and rebounds. The top three hit more than a third of their 3s. 

Like UK, they do not go deep with quality. 

This is the Anything Can Happen Game for the SEC.

Already overaccomplished, it will be no surprise either way as the seeds should be closer.
 
*Bridgeport Regional
*No. 5 Mississippi State vs. No. 1 UConn

The Bulldogs vs. The Huskies should not be much of a dogfight. MSU gets an extra day to plan its demise. 

Maybe . . .  but not much maybe. 

UConn always brings a crowd, and this is in state, so expect the best turnout. Someone has to win four more. 

UConn is just not someone.

At the very least, State coach Vic Schaefer will have some good lines after his team sees where it wants to be. 

If it can be built in Storrs, it can be built in StarkVegas, but there is that conference competition thing.

Schaefer is already the best coach ever has been there, as Geno Auriemma is already the best coach that has ever been everywhere, with 10 National Championships, the next Olympic Gold coach with the undisputed best player and another legitimate All-American.

State has good intentions and a warm attitude. 

It is hard to overestimate UConn. 

No one doubts Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson are two of the best five players in the land.

 On any other team, Jefferson would be The Big Deal. But Stewart is The Biggest Deal. 

For instance, she is the only non-pro in the final pool of Olympic candidates. Still, watching Jefferson work is an absolute delight.

We have said all season the title is theirs to lose and nothing has shattered that concept.

The individual statistics are a bit dumbed down because the starters need not play entire games which then leads to the obvious advantage of lots of experience for a well-regarded and nationally recruited bench.

State will give its best effort, for sure, and Schaefer will have entertaining post-game comments. He may be writing them now.

They have to approach this as yet taking another step into the national identity and, with every contributing player back, more of a celebration of just being there than anything else. Like extra time at the end of a soccer game.

Here’s a goal: South Carolina lost by 11 (though at home) to the steamroller. Can State stay as close?