Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Ready for the Meat Grinder
The fun games are over.
By this time next week, the toughest conference in America, the Southeastern, will kick off on the first day of 2017.
Thus the run to April in Dallas at the Final Four is in focus. We have reserved seats there.
The battle to win 20 and gain an NCAA entry ticket – no Southeastern Conference team has ever won 20 and not been in, though Tennessee got a gift entry with 19 last season – is now hampered by the league season.
As mythology has it, if you can win 20 while playing in the SEC . . .
A record nine of the 14 sorority sisters made it last year. Only the Lady Vols made it to the Elite 8 by the simple formula of getting hot at the right time.
They were not seeded high enough to gain the Sweet 16 almost automatic qualifier.
In the women’s game, it will be ever thus in order to allow home openers for the sake of drawing fans.
South Carolina, for instance, will have the conference tournament in state followed by two home games to start the elimination season.
Never happen by rule in the men’s game.
Then again, mighty UConn will not have to leave the state until the Final 4, which is why we first wrote --immediately after the previous NCAA title -- they are as good as anyone else and likely to once again be in the finals.
There will never be parity in the women’s game.
The crowds will never respond as they do for the men. The money trap keeps them locked into non-objectivity.
Those of us lucky enough to have covered the game since the first NCAA for women know it and appreciate it.
Back to now
The SEC game of the year is Mississippi State at South Carolina, later this month.
Whoever wins all its home league game wins the league. The conference title chase ends that quickly.
But here is the opposite perspective: Tennessee can go zero-for-January.
Their start and the conference is that tough.
Plus they play the usual inconsequential game against Notre Dame.
That isn’t even impressive to Notre Dame anymore.
They will struggle to win 20. Can they find 13 SEC wins in 16 tries?
There would have to be upsets and every game against one of the unranked masses is now a must win.
On the horizon is a new athletic director, the one that upgraded Holly Warlick from assistant but never a head coach anywhere else as a tribute to the late Pat Head Summitt, is going away.
Better believe the fans comment boards have had calls for her ejection for more than 20 months now.
Attendance has hit a trackable drop.
Warlick has the nation’s best recruiting group lined up. She has an All-American quality player as a junior.
Whatever happens this season will result in double-secret probation at worst.
Mississippi State was the first ranked SEC team to 10 wins and is undefeated.
South Carolina has one mysterious loss to a then-unranked team but is more likely a top three national team and a No. 1 NCAA seed than anyone in conference.
The SEC’s best take on all comers, unlike, say, those ranked in the ACC
The top two has enough talent to sky away from everyone else. Very early in this SEC season, the separation will start.
In past seasons, there would be at least six ranked teams with the current records.
The league has all but three respected coaches.
The Associated Press voters has noted the souring of Tennessee.
Just as the mythical Lady Vols used to raise everybody else, so does their particular slide lower everybody else.
They now depend on the RPI of opponents as opposed to helping the league.
So look at the ranking now and again in March.
There could be six ranked teams. All have at least 10 wins now.
But it says here if nine get into the NCAA again, it is only because the rest of America does not offer a compelling alternative.
Of last year’s NCAA qualifiers, Georgia, Missouri and Florida are on the bubble.
Vanderbilt and Auburn have risen.
The guideline in women’s hoops always has been a clear favorite, a couple of others and then marbles in a bag, pick ’em odds.
The Sweet 16 is pretty much set and will be underlined by the fumbling NCAA Selection Committee.
Syracuse and Washington got hot last season and cannot surprise anyone twice to repeat to the Final Four.
It cracks the door for an SEC team.
Kentucky, could once again be gifted with the third Sweet 16 seed and could earn a trip across town for the NCAA qualifiers.
That same route was available last season as the NCAA rewards home team cities that agree to the financial burden of hosting the second round.
The Kats lost by a dozen to upstart Washington in the Sweet 16.
The league being what it is, UK starts with three straight NCAA teams from the previous tournament, including the intriguing opener at Tennessee.
Never before has a Lady Vol team at home needed an SEC opening win so badly.
Some of these teams will not win 20.
With a week to go in the pre-conference season, Alabama has 11 wins and Ole Miss 10.
There are 16 SEC games.
Alabama won four last season and Ole Miss two.
These are good coaches at programs without much traction.
Previously ranked this season are Tennessee, Auburn and Florida. It says here the Gators are done after petulantly driving off their best player.
They have seven wins. Tennessee has won three straight. Auburn and Tennesse each won eight in the league last season, which leaves both short of 20.
A Tennessee comparison: It lost by five at Texas, but those Longhorns are mysteriously ranked No. 16 at 6-4, having already lost to Mississippi State and South Carolina. Go figure.
Actually with a shot at 20 are Texas A&M, with 11 in the past conference season and the fun team of the season, Vanderbilt, with only five league wins last season but with a significant coaching upgrade.
Here’s what the three league teams in the Associated Press Top 20 did:
No. 5 Mississippi State
An early self-delivered Christmas gift was the arrival of Alabama State for a 90-47 pasting.
As it is only the second home game at The Hump, it drew 5,786
Spectacular scorer Victoria Vivians had four 3s – including three on successive possessions to lift the crowd -- a season-high 28 points and five rebounds.
Ameshya Williams had a career-best dozen points. Williams and Teaira McCowan each had six rebounds. The ’Dogs of rebounding won that, 40-30.
“I can’t remember the last time we won by 43 points, scored 90 points and I didn’t think we played very well,” coach Vic Schaefer said. “We were lethargic to start the game.
“The benched played well. We got a really good lift from Jazzmun (Holmes) and Ameshya.
“Ameshya has been working hard. She had a 3.3 GPA in her first semester as a student here. She has a great work ethic. It’s good to see a player that works that hard have some success.”
“It was great to back at the Hump,” Vivians said “We had a great crowd and they got into the game. We hadn’t played here in a while, so it felt really good to be able to go out and play before our fans and not have a road game.”
State made 28-of-40 shots from line.
They top the SEC (17th in the country) in field goal percentage. They caused 29 turnovers. A season-high 40 points came off those.
It is State’s 41st non-conference win in 42 tries, 21 straight. The 11 road wins are a national best.
As part of the holiday celebration:
Teddy Bear Toss presented by BancorpSouth; if you brought a plush teddy bear, there was a competition toss onto the court at halftime.
Admission was a dollar, with anyone under age 18 free and dollar concession hot dogs.
Pictures with Santa and a halftime story on the court with Santa.
No. 6 South Carolina
A 40-point road win is mighty impressive, even if it just was Savannah State, 70-30.
Defense showed in the 50-25 rebounding edge, 32 defensive. Alaina Coates, already a three-time conference player of the week, had seven defensive.
They also held the Tigers to 21 percent from the field. SC also limited them to three single-digit quarters. SC scored 19 points off of 21 Tiger turnovers.
Depth showed in that everyone played and everyone scored.
In these games, of course, the stars get fewer minutes which is why individual stats are a little sideways at this point in the season.
Representing the best junior class in a league full of heavyweight juniors, A’ja Wilson (18) and Alisha Gray combined for 30 in 23 and 21 minutes.
Gray had a team-best five steals, also a career best.
SC made few errors so the home team only got to the line five times, even if they hit them all.
So how will they celebrate the season?
By not playing again until New Year’s Day.
No. 18 Kentucky
The only one of the big three with room to move up advanced one position.
They needed their stars – Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator – to survive an unexpected challenge from visiting Washington State, 69-67.
The Cougars illustrate the improvement of the Pac 12 as so much more than Stanford, Washington, Oregon State and this year, UCLA.
UK blew an 18-point lead, closing the first half 26-8. That made the lead just two and put the outcome in doubt the rest of the way.
“The energy dropped, the hustle dropped, some of the effort dropped,” Epps said. “It’s kind of hard. We’re human. We’re kids. It happens.”
The second game without point guard Taylor Murray, rehabbing a broken finger on her non-shooting hand, showed the challenge of leadership as well as depth after all the defections in the past year.
Guard Maci Morris missed a couple of minutes when her punky finger was dislocated.
Her trainers popped it back into place and she played on.
Epps scored 20 and Akhator came up with her first double/double in awhile, 19 points and 13 rebounds.
Akhator was 9-of-12 from the line.
“Oh, we needed that,” she said. “We have really been working on that.”
UK hit 73 percent from the line, 17-of-23. State was just 5-of-11.
There was a six-point edge top open the final quarter. It grew to nine with 7:30 to go, on an Epps 3.
No one scored for a minute, with several possession changes, each side missing layups and giving up defensive rebounds.
With 4:55 left, the difference was cut to a basket, then one point.
Akhator hit two free throws and it was a three-point edge. But State hit a 3 of its own, with 72 seconds left.
It was tied and the crowd of 4,875 was alive.
Akhator hit two more free throws with 42 seconds left.
State was stuttering, missing two baskets and two free throws.
Epps grabbed a defensive rebound. Morris missed two free throws.
State had the last possession, 11 seconds left.
UK and Akhator’s presence forced them to stay away and a 3 bonked away. The Kats survived.
“It was a dogfight until the end,” Epps said. “We knew we were going to have to gut it out and just make a couple more plays, make another basket, get another stop.”
“It was a really up-and-down day for us, but in the end, we won by one more point than necessary,” coach Matthew Mitchell said.
“It was just a real gutty performance,” Epps said. “We had to gut it out. They scored 28 in the second quarter. Without Taylor, we all had to step up big. We won the game, so a win’s a win.”
The league celebrates the new year with a full New Year’s Day schedule:
LSU (10-2) at Mississippi State (13-0), Alabama (11-1) at South Carolina (10-1), Kentucky (9-3) at Tennessee (7-4), Arkansas (10-1) at Ole Miss (10-2), Auburn (8-2) at Florida (8-4), Georgia (7-5) at Missouri (10-4).
On Jan. 2: Vanderbilt (10-2) at Texas A&M (9-3), an important pace-setter for both.