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.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Mike Siroky's SEC Report: If Seedings Were Done Now for the Conference Tourney

By Mike Siroky

Six games into the 14-game Southeastern Conference march, the top two teams are the expected ones, No. 4 and already at 20 wins Mississippi State and No. 5, 16-1 South Carolina.

They meet Monday in Columbia where the Gamecocks are likely to be undefeated at home for the third straight season. SC leads the series 17-16, but 8-3 in the Dawn Staley era.

We’ll report here Monday night.

Regardless of the Collision in Columbia, these will again be the top two seeds in the post-season conference tournament, with both likely undefeated at home and one headed for a No. 1 NCAA seed with the other a No. 2.

The game features the No. 1 vs. No. 2 conference scoring offense (SC 80.8, MSU 79.4), the No. 1 vs. No. 2 scoring defense (MSU 53.5, SC 55.1), the No. 1 vs. No. 2 margin of difference (MSU 25.9, SC 25.6), the No. 1 vs. No. 2 field goal percentage (SC .469, MSU .464).

A good question might be how much they threaten the SC world-best home attendance record.

All they each want to do is not be in UConn’s Regional.

The conference is as strong as ever against everyone else even as they tear up each other within the league.

 That’s why the SEC is likely to get six in.

 With unranked teams, the RPI is not as big. So not eight, like last season.

The SEC is 10-10 against the Atlantic Coast, thanks to Tennessee’s upset of No. 5 Notre Dame. It is 134-29 against the rest of America. UConn will whomp South Carolina next month and that’s it until the NCAAs.

If an “other” rises up and, and unlikely wins the league conference, then an extra without 20 wins gets in.

If the conference tournament started today, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas A&M (3) and Kentucky (4) would all be locks for the NCAA and would all have byes into the quarterfinal round.

Yes, this could change, but a good trend is set.

The openers would be Ole Miss (12) vs. Florida (13) with the winner getting Auburn (5) and Georgia (11) vs. Vanderbilt (14) with the winner getting Missouri (6).
The other games in the next round would be Arkansas (10) vs. Tennessee (7) and LSU (9) vs. Alabama (8). The Tide, with 15 wins, has the fourth-best overall record.

The Top four seeds step in next.

Last season, Georgia (6) Missouri (8) and Arkansas (10) lost their first games and got in.

Texas A&M (2), Florida (4) and Auburn (9) lost their second games and got in. But all of those hit 20 wins. Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Arkansas have already missed that chance this season.

Tennessee (7) won twice, got to 19 wins and pulled three road upsets in the NCAA to advance to the Elite 8, actually the last league team eliminated.

No. 4 Mississippi State

The Bulldogs are the first prominent team to 20 wins and they have done it without a loss.

They edged up to Monday night’s Collision in Columbia with two more wins in the rankings week, 73-62 vs. Ole Miss and at pesky Alabama. They are 6-0 in conference.

When it was 12-4 in StarkVegas, State was shooting 67 percent and Ole Miss 28. Victoria Vivians had her first 3 and five of the dozen points. That was in the midst of an 8-2 run in which Chimwe Okorie had two blocks for the home team.

The quarter ended 22-8, another single-digit defensive effort.

 It was already clear who was going to win.

 It was 36-25 at half.

 Dominque Dillingham had eight, hitting all four free throws.

Coach Vic Schaefer had begun to rotate in the bench, building depth for future considerations.

Vivians scored 10 in the third as the lead grew to 15. She finished with 20. Dillingham had 16.

State went 18-of-21 at the line.

“I’m really proud of my kids and proud of the (8,840) crowd,” Schaefer said. “It was a tough basketball game. Credit to Ole Miss for playing hard for four quarters. We kind of struggled there in the end. Really proud of our kids. In the first half, they answered the bell and played really well.

“We controlled the game,” Schaefer said. “We forced 22 turnovers – 11 in each half. It was such a great atmosphere. That is how Mississippi State does women’s basketball. It’s not like that everywhere. There are 10 or 11 places in the nation like that.”

Alabama is team that can be competitive with any visitor. Mississippi State this season is just not anyone.

The Bulldogs started on an 8-4 spree as Okorie had six in the middle and Morgan William a steal and full-speed layin.

It was 18-13 after one quarter and Vivians had yet to score. Alabama’s 14 wins have come on good defense, but they had just lost two straight at home. It was 32-24 at half, a nice enough start and still not much from Vivians, one basket.

It was like distant rumblings of an approaching storm. Vivians suddenly had six in a 16-2 run and the team was 20 points ahead in her support. Separation again in mid-game. They were winning rebounds and had nine steals while causing two more turnovers.

Teaira McCowan, the backup center, was 5-of-7 from the floor.

It ended a sensible 67-54.

 Vivians had 14, with two steals and two defensive rebounds. Okorie had 15 with eight rebounds. Each side had 11 free throws, but Alabama muffed 14.

“My hat is off to Alabama, they played very hard,”  Schaefer said. “It’s always a knock-down, drag out. Even the score may not indicate that, I thought they really took it to us in the first half. I am really proud of how we responded in the second half.

“The things we aren’t doing correctly are my fault.

“I am awfully proud of our kids. Again, you guys have no idea how hard it is to be where they are today at 20-0,” Schaefer said.

“I am really proud for them. We really didn’t play that well in the first half and came out in the third quarter – Carly Thibault told me we had turnovers in five of our first possessions – after that we got the press going, made some really good decisions and executed offensively.

“I am really proud of our crowd. We had 1,000-1,500 (of 2,605) there, at least. Mississippi State folks drove over in some not-so-good weather and really made it a good atmosphere for our kids on the road.

“Again, that’s a part of building the program. We obviously have a big one on Monday night and are excited about that opportunity, because if you’re a competitor, you love having these opportunities going against one of the best teams in the country, tremendous coach and coaching staff, but a team that has played well all year long.

“They are very similar to us. They have had some of this team together for a while and other pieces of it are new, and they have really added on to that. Some ways we have some similarities there but they are so talented, so well-coached and disciplined.

“This will be a tremendous challenge for us going in there. There will be 15-16,000 people in there hanging from the rafters, and there will be none of them hollering for us.

“Again, as a competitor, these are opportunities that you embrace and why you play the game. I am excited as a coach. I know that our staff and our players are excited to have that opportunity. Hopefully our time on the road this year, as well as years past, that our seniors have prepared us for this opportunity.

“I think now, because of what we have done and the experience that we had, we’re getting more comfortable about where we’re at. I thought we were tight in the first half (at Alabama), but in the third quarter, I thought we turned it loose.

“I think there’s a little bit of growing accustomed; I wouldn’t say that we’re comfortable yet. The bottom line is, if we go in there all tied up Monday night, it’s going to be ugly.

“ We’re going to have to go in there and turn it loose, relax, play and enjoy the opportunity. I know I am.

“As a coach, enjoy the opportunity that’s in front of us, just embrace it, do our very best we can, do what we do, do the best you can, do your job, but know that’s enough. We now been in the hunted role for a while and I think we’re getting a little accustomed to that.

“I think the 20-0 is much different than the No. 4 (national ranking). That always gives your opponent the extra incentive. I think that’s what we’re running into right now. Everybody we play, it’s the 20-0 and we want to be the first to hang a one on there.

“I think for both us and South Carolina, I think we’re both past that, and we’re trying to win a championship. This game is going to go a long way and maybe decide that.

“This is the only time that we will play each other this year in the regular season. I know for us, we’re more about trying to go on the road, beat a Top 5 team in the country and beat the team that’s picked in front of us in the SEC.

“They were picked in front of us, so that’s our challenge. We’ve played in front of some pretty hostile places and responded pretty well, so I am hoping we can draw from that. I know this,

I’ve been in that arena and it gets really loud and we gone have to do a good job at managing that.

“I feel like I know my team pretty well. I don’t know what more there is to learn about them. I think the exciting thing for me is I love watching my kids play. I love watching them compete. I love watching them go into a different environment. I love seeing them respond in tough situations. I’ll be shocked if our kids are not dialed in.

“I think that’s the respect that they have for South Carolina. We respect them tremendously. I also think that our kids have confidence. We played them last year very well here, and in the conference tournament, we feel like they really came after us and caused us some problems.

“We turned the ball over, they had a lot of stuff in transitions, a bunch of layups, and that’s really how the game got away from us. It was their aggression versus our nonaggression, which is typically not how we are. I just love watching our kids in this type of environment because I like to see that competitive spirit You guys know that we got a completive spirit with this group.

“I think winning masks your problems. You could call it fool’s gold, masking or whatever. I know what this team’s potential is. We are 20-0, but I’m thinking big picture. Let’s reach our full potential. I want these kids to reach their full potential. I don’t want them to settle.

“You can’t come out and play like we’re playing sometimes against South Carolina expecting to win. That’s what I want and that’s what we want as parents is for our kids to be successful, what’s best for them, and that’s what we want as coaches.

 “We want what’s best for these kids. We want them to reach and attain their full potential. We know that we still have a long way to go.

“When I say I have to do a better job of getting them dialed in and having them ready to play, there seems to not be enough time in the day. They are doing a great job in the classroom. We want them to be students first, but we want to win a championship.

“It’s very difficult.

“At the end of the day, whatever our shortcomings are, they fall on my shoulders, and that’s what I want them to know and everybody else. I’m in charge and I don’t want shortcomings; I want us to reach our full potential.”

Nine road wins is a program record. The undefeated 6-0 in conference is a program record. The 20-0 start is a program record. The No. 4 national ranking, which they have for another week regardless of the next game, is a program record.”

In the never-ending signee season, Mississippi State added a former SEC starter, Jordan Danberry. Coming on now allows her to start the next SEC season. She is practicing with her new team.

What this says about Arkansas is an interesting subject, She played every game of the 30-game NCAA freshman season at Arkansas. She was the top recruit of Arkansas’ incoming 2015 class.

“Jordan is a great fit for our program,” Schaefer said. “I’m really excited about her joining us at Mississippi State.

“We recruited her hard out of a very good Conway High School program, and once we heard that she was looking to transfer, we were excited about having the opportunity to possibly have her join us at Mississippi State. She’s a young lady who will be very effective in our style of play.

“I love the energy and effort she has already brought to practice. She’s going to be a great addition to our team.

 “Anytime you can add the Gatorade Player of the Year from the State of Arkansas, you are getting a quality player. She will do a great job in the classroom as well as on the court and, as hard as we recruit the state of Arkansas, we are excited to be getting an outstanding player.”

 “I’m extremely excited to be here. I feel like Mississippi State fits my style of play, and coach Schaefer has developed a winning program here,” Danberry said. “My teammates and the coaches have made me feel welcome. It’s a great environment where I can focus on my studies and basketball. Everyone on campus from the bus drivers to the fans have been genuinely nice.”

No. 5 South Carolina

The second wakeup call for Ole Miss was the visit to Columbia and the home team’s 16th win in their only game of the rating week.

A’ja Wilson had the cast cut off her right high ankle and has been running. Obviously, she wants to be ready for Monday’s showdown. So her Thursday play against Alabama, their only game before that, was not surprising.

She scored the first two points of a 65-46 runaway, 58-1 at home in the latest seasons, the one loss to UConn. She got in 15 rehab minutes, then rested for Mississippi State.

Alaina Coates, her frontline mate, scored the next four of another double/double (she had that by the end of the third), which she is averaging for the league season.

Four of five starters scored in the 20-11 first quarter. Of course, Bianca Cuevas-Moore was back among the reserves with the return of Wilson. She scored 73 points in the five SEC games, 60 percent from the floor.

For reasons known only to them, Ole Miss leading scored Medinah Muhammad did not start. Early in the second quarter, wide-body forward Taylor Manuel got unbalanced and walked to the training area, but came back ASAP.

Despite hitting one-third of their shots, SC maintained a lead as Staley got animated on the sideline.

SC was winning rebounds. Defensive pressure allowed the lead to grow to 12, then 14.

Breakaway speed helped on the nine turnover takeaways. Superior athleticism is how these games slip away, how the separation season continues.

It was 37-22 at break.

Coates had a dozen points and eight rebounds. Muhammad had no points and played five total minutes. The superior team was easily ahead.

At the end, Coates had 15 and 15, 12 of the rebounds defensive. Splendid guards Kaela Davis had 14 and Alisha Gray scored 12.

They attracted a world best for women’s college basketball, 12,518.

“We just wanted (Wilson) to get some minutes, get back to her game and then rest,” said Staley. “The shots we got were good shots, all good shots, we just have to get them to fall.”

 Hopefully, they will someday.

“I’m a defensive coach and will say Mississippi State plays defense. They will guard you. They will stay and play. I am just glad the game is here in Columbia.”

With all the jumble of the lineup, Staley said she wouldn’t know how to prepare for her team because, game by game, after Coates, anyone can get off.

“Every day it gets better. I don’t know how you prepare for us. Our defense is coming. It’s not where it used to be. But it gets better every day in practice, and it transfers to the game.”

So who will she assign to Vivians?

“E.V.E.R.Y.B.O.D.Y,” she said.

Significant Losses 

Tennessee followed its national upset of Notre Dame by flopping at Auburn. Hard to explain how a 14-0 start led to a 28-11 second quarter and a 21-6 third which just killed them.

 They only drew 2,290. They are 3-5 on the road. It is why Holly Warlick has more grey hairs every day.

They came back to deflect Vanderbilt at home to get to 13 wins, 4-2 in conference. But Vanderbilt has no SEC wins and has never won in Knoxville. UT is at woeful Florida before challenging South Carolina.

 These 1-1 weeks are not indicative of a solid team.

 Tennessee has not yet adjusted to the idea other teams play hard. The faithful 10,106 turned out, still the second-best home support in America after South Carolina.

Texas A&M fell behind early at Missouri and bumbled the endgame, failing to inbounds with 17 seconds left, having their 84 percent free throw shooter miss one and then allowing Mizzou to drive uncontested to tie it in regulation with a few seconds left. They lost in overtime.

 This should drop them out of the national polls again.

They came back home, defeating LSU at home for a 15th win. They drew 4,639. Ariel Howard’s layup with 3.6 seconds left gave A&M its only lead since 2-0. They were down by as many as 15. They remain third in conference.

Georgia lost at home as Florida won its only SEC game so far. With 10 wins, the Bulldogs are out of the NCAA discussion. There is no path to 20 wins.

Ole Miss lost at home ending its NCAA hopes. Alabama improved to 15 wins.


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