Mike Siroky's SEC Report: Eight is Great as Tradition is Served
The mighty Southeastern Conference has its top eight finishers in the NCAA tournament, keeping with tradition as the toughest conference in America.
The entrants are 92-30 against America this season, topped by its best two programs.
But, still, all the 20-games winners are in and all the teams with winning SEC records are in, led by four nationally ranked teams.
Three of them earned two home games qualifying for the Sweet 16. In years past, that got you to the Sweet 16. Not always. Texas A&M tripped last season, for example.
The teams that are are in all but two led by feared coaches. They have players who will almost all return next season and the players to be replaced have the next starters already on the teams.
This is what makes the SEC a feared tradition and at once a program note next season when you eliminate them. The best of the league will be even better next season
Right before the SEC tournament started, our analysis included the idea any young coach needed to keep aware of openings in the league. It would not be unheard of for a coach at a school with little backing to move sideways.
We specifically mentioned the terrible idea that was Arkansas' coach and how the Florida coach had let a snit with her top player ruin the season over ego in a public display when her best player simply walked away from her sophomore season.
Several SEC coaches have quietly contacted us to know how we knew both would be gone by the start of the elimination season.
It was just common sense and tracking bad coaching at good schools. The same result happened last season. Vanderbilt had slipped in attendance as well as results.
Florida offers a brand-new arena. Its women’s basketball program is the only one on campus without a conference championship.
It pays its coach right in the middle of the league average. A new athletic director owed no allegiance.
Sadly, the former coach was dismissed on her birthday.
ESPN, the official PR department and sometimes spokesmen (Baylor) of the NCAA women, do keep publicity churning after January with best-guess projections of seeds.
Placement may be entertaining but are irrelevant until the season plays out and positions are earned. For example, you may earn the automatic bid of a conference but that’s just an entry ticket, not a guaranteed position by the NCAA’s crazy selectors who could designate a conference top spot and ignore the automatic bid winner (Baylor).
Then you have to eliminate conference teams possibly meeting until a Regional final.
Of course, with eight potential Sweet 16 teams, the SEC has two in each Regional. If the lesser teams are barely in, they have to accept what they get.
ESPN had the 1s as Baylor, South Carolina, UConn and Notre Dame, with Baylor at-large.
They had as No. 2s Oregon State, Mississippi State, Stanford and Maryland, with Stanford the only earned bid.
They had as No, 3s Florida State, Washington, Duke and Texas, all at-large.
They had as No. 4s UCLA , Kentucky, Ohio State and Louisville. All crucially awarded home games as non-conference winners.
The only misstep was Ohio State, replaced by Miami and a flip of Stanford and Maryland as the Big Ten was obviously degraded by the selectors.
The multiple conference bids are how the at-large bids start to get eaten up.
Not repeating in the Final Four will be Syracuse, scheduled to lose early at UConn.
Three of the Top Four are all coached by women.
Last season, the good ol’ girls of the Selection Committee did the same. All three coached by women were supplanted by teams coached by men but let’s not let facts interrupt an agenda.
No. 3 South Carolina (27-4) No. 1 seed in Stockton Regional
The Regional includes Oregon State (2), Florida State (3) and Miami (4). Missouri is a No. 6, unlikely to survive at the Florida State site. The Gamecocks’ immediate focus is Friday against North Carolina-Asheville, with the winner getting the winner of the state schools from Arizona and Michigan.
South Carolina did use the NCAA wormhole to get awarded two home games again. It may as well be called the South Carolina rule. The NCAA has a clear ban of awarding championships in any state which displays the Confederate Battle Flag.
Two SEC school are the only states in which that still applies. You have to wonder what the black players and coaches think of this.
No one will speak up or turn down the money, of course. Hey, it’s just sports and we are making plenty of money on the backs of unpaid black athletes, so let us not dwell on this.
The wiggle is the NCAA has defined earned games as not being awarded games. They came up with this three seasons ago when South Carolina got good and the NAACP protested home games in Columbia. They got a very stern warning that they will not get Regionals. Boo Hoo.
The schools do not bid.
The SEC ignores the cultural offense and officially sees nothing wrong with it, upset that anyone would even question their methodology of ignorance. But they did quickly escape repeating the conference tournament in Greenville and moved it to Nashville next season.
The Gamecocks are the only league team with a winning streak, at five right now. They only lost to Tennessee and at Missouri in conference and Duke and UConn out, 27-0 against everyone else. Two home Sweet 16 qualifying games and they will be on the verge of 30 before the Sweet 16.
A’ja Wilson may be the only SEC All-American and is a finalist for every major award. She did win player of the year for something called CollegeSportsMadness.com, for instance. Most recently, she was named the Associated Press conference Player of the Year.
She averages 17.7 points. She is four short of 500 this season alone. She averages 7.6 rebounds. Her jersey will eventually hang in the retired group and she will be remembered as the greatest player who got the legacy started.
When available, Alaina Coates was the second-best player, referred to by coach Dawn Staley as her “big girl.” She was second team for the AP league awards.
They were formidable when paired, as they were up to the SEC tournament when Coates, tweaked, retweaked and retweaked again her right ankle and has not practiced since. She is done, a fade out of her senior season.
Coates averaged 12.9 points and more than 10 rebounds her senior season.
Two years ago, Tennessee lost its senior center before the playoffs. SC is deep but no longer as feared now that opponents can focus on one quality frontliner.
Staley has used her abundance of guards to a quickness advantage, but Wilson in foul trouble will end the season. Perhaps that is why the selectors made them the third among No. 1s and subject to assignment anywhere.
More likely is they knew about Coates and that slipped them to third among No. 1s.
Staley is the coach of an era, second only to Geno Auriemma.
We pointed out in the preseason she was destined to be the next Olympics coach. Quietly, she is the third longest-serving SEC coach, nine seasons of 17 overall.
She has been the assistant to Auriemma at the recent Games and at the Pan Ams where they won gold as well.
She is in the women’s Hall of Fame as a player and coach. She is the only SEC coach in the real Hall of Fame.
You don’t want to mess with her.
She has almost reinvented how you manage after graduating a fine set of guards. You have on deck two other former ACC starters, Alisha Davis of North Carolina (12.9, 86 assists) and Kaela Davis (11.8, 60) of Georgia Tech.
They provided the best guard duo in the league.
Bianca Cuevas Moore is the fastest player on the team and another great guard who would start anywhere in America. Freshman Tyesha Harris started 20 games and has 96 assists and there’s the future.
The others down roster all are significant role players. Staley may have only gone six deep when Coates was available, but she can go deeper.
As they start their fourth straight NCAAs as a No. 1 seed, Staley said, “I thought it was our turn (to play closer to home). They have got to figure out a different way.”
She conveniently created a chip on her shoulder by not mentioning Coates in the equation.
The fans will have to fly across two time zones if they make the Sweet 16.
The NCAA offered this year’s excuse that it would “enhance the players’ experience,” whatever that means.
‘I don’t know what else we can do,” Staley said. Even corporate broadcast partner ESPN questioned the placement. It was a national chorus. But that was when Coates' absence was a state secret.
The team had a few days off for spring break then worked on attacking whatever defense will come.
“I don’t know a lot about Asheville, but we’ll know more tomorrow,” Staley said.
“Th electricity we get from our fans will be something we feed on Friday.”
Asheville (19-14) is led by senior guard Chatori Major, 13.9 points per game. The team averages 65 points per game and allowed 61.
Coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick said, “Our girls have a lot of resolve, they are very resilient. I believe confidence is a key descriptor of this team right now.
“They don't seem to be fazed by adversity, especially in games, whether it be having a lead and someone coming back or having to come from behind to take a lead to win in the last five seconds of a game.
“We’re extremely privileged and blessed to be in this situation and I think our confidence will help. I also think our experience last year of having to go to Kentucky, another SEC opponent, will be beneficial.
“The girls know it's going to be tough, but they also know what to expect in terms of an NCAA Tournament experience and that can only help us.”
No. 7 Mississippi State (29-4) No. 2 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional
The Bulldogs are also at home, with Baylor (1), Washington (3) and Louisville (4) in the Regional.
Tennessee is the five seed. Washington made the national semifinals last season.
State’s immediate focus is Troy at 1:30 p.m. Friday, with the winner getting the winner of DePaul-Northern Iowa.
When last seen, the dominating scorer once known as Victoria Vivians was coming off the worst three games of her three-year career.
After being named all-SEC, she did not hit double figures in any SEC tournament game, even being benched for the first quarter of the championship game.
It is not fair, but if she had merely hit her scoring average – still 16.4 -- in that one game, Mississippi State would have a No. 1 seed, 30 wins and its first SEC title, all program records.
They do not have any of that. She lost her 20something scoring average. But she did make the first team of the AP conference awards. Morgan William is second team for the AP.
State did use the NCAA wormhole to get awarded two home games for the first time in school history.
So StarkVegas will likely rock out two games. It will be a fun site and likely draw the most nationwide after South Carolina.
Coach Vic Schaefer, as he has all season, pointed out Vivians obviously draws the best defender of any opponent and revealed she has been dealing with an undisclosed injury, “she’s nicked up,” he said.
“We’re in an awfully good region and it’s going to be tough,” Schaefer said. “This time of year though, everybody is good, so now we can go to work knowing who we’re going to play.
“We’ll go to work excited about the opportunity.” They won 10 straight at home before the season-ender against Tennessee.
“It’s hard to do,” Schaefer said of hosting. “It’s really an indication of just how hard it is and how much work these young ladies and my staff have put into this. I’m excited about playing. I hate that we have to play on a Friday afternoon at 1:30, but last year we had 5,100 (fans for the first game). I’m wanting 7,500 or 8,000. I may have to send out that letter again excusing everybody from the office early, but I’ll be glad to do that.”
Senior Dominique Dillingham appreciates the curtain call at home.
“It’s exciting,” Dillingham said. “It’s the highest seed in school history and, just to see all our hard work pay off and see our name on the board, it’s incredible.”
Troy coach Chandra Rigby has been building her program for five seasons, inheriting a team which had won two games the season before her hiring.
They won 20 last season and are 22-6 now.
The Sunbelt champions are led by senior forward Caitlyn Ramirez, a native of Shawnee, Oklahoma, averaging 13.2 points per game for the Alabama school.
“We’re maybe four, four-and-a-half hours from Troy,” said Ramirez of the trip to Starkville.
“We’ve got a couple of girls from Mississippi – Claresa Banks and Jayla Chills – so we’re gonna have a great crowd with their families coming to watch.”
No. 19 Kentucky (21-10) No. 4 seed in the Lexington Regional
The Kats are also at home, with Notre Dame (1), Stanford (2) and Texas (3) as the other seeds.
Not in the Top 16 nationally, but there for purposes of hosting the opening round shows the regard in which the SEC is held. It is also the traditional award for hosting a Regional.
Their immediate focus is an 11 a.m. matchup with 27-5 Belmont from Nashville, with the winner getting the winner of a very dangerous Ohio State vs. Western Kentucky. Auburn is the other SEC team in this Regional. The nifty thing for UK is the institutional support of their university bidding on back-to-back Regionals at Rupp Arena.
The Kats only play there for special games and these are special. Not the actual home court, but obviously a comfort zone.
A possible fun matchup if they play the Buckeyes is the emergence of former UK all-star and top recruit Linnae Harper, their top reserve.
She is among the six players coach Mathew Mitchell had flee last season. She became eligible in the spring and played in all 21 games since.
But here Mitchell is again. He is one of two coaches with a decade at the SEC school. He is paid to do this.
Coach Cameron Newbauer has had his Bruins in the NCAA eliminations three of four seasons.
They are on a 21-game win streak, 13 on the road second only to UConn’s 14.
The Ohio Valley Conference champs have three all-league players, Darby Maggard, Kylie Smith and Sally McCabe. All are repeat all-conference. McCabe is the two-time defensive player of the year in the OVC. Newbauer is the league Coach of the Year. He is a former Andy Landers assistant at Georgia. One of his assistants is former Vanderbilt star Amy Malo.
Maggard, McCabe and Smith also earned OVC all-tournament honors while the redshirt junior Smith was picked as Tournament MVP after scoring a career-best 30 points in the title game.
Smith leads in scoring (15.7), one of four averaging double figures. Maggard (14.4) also leads in assists (186) and is one of the nation's best 3 threats (49 percent). McCabe (12.4) leads rebounding (7.8) and has 91 blocked shots. All are underclassmen.
Belmont led the OVC in scoring, field goal percentage and assists, leading 12 statistical categories overall.
“We played at Kentucky two years ago,” Newbauer said. “It was a three-point game with 10 minutes to go and we had possession.
“When I was at Georgia, we played them twice every season. I was an assistant at Louisville before we came here and we played them.
“So I know a lot about their program.”
“When we started playing teams at the end of the regular season for the second time it made us become a different team,” McCabe said. “And then when we were challenged in the OVC tournament it made us change again. We just keep growing and finding ways to get better.
That’s why I definitely believe we’re playing better now than we have at any point this season. We are peaking at the right time.”
They had a packed watch party on campus and are absolutely joyful for their fans having a short jaunt to Lexington.
They represent a very tough start. They would be the first of many teams to present a depth charge against the Kats.
The lack of depth showed up at Carolina. Good schools will not allow them to press without paying the same price.
Mitchell knows this.
“ I think the kids are excited about the prospect of being in the Lexington Region,” he said. “We just met after the bracket was announced and the only thing that really matters for us is Friday and that’s the way you’ve got to go into it and look at it.
“We’ve got to get prepared because if you don’t get it done Friday, you certainly won’t get it done in Rupp Arena. You’ve got to take care of Friday and that’s what we’re worried about right now.”
The All-SEC knockout punchers Evelyn Akhator (15.8 points per game and 8.5 rebounds) and Makayla Epps (17.2) cannot afford slumps if they want the senior seasons to continue. Epps was first team and Akhator second for the AP conference honors.
Tennessee (19-11) No. 5 in Oklahoma City Regional
For the second straight season, the Lady Vols start the eliminations unranked.
The Lady Vols open in Louisville vs. 22-9 Dayton. The winner gets the winner of the home team vs. Chattanooga. Tennessee has won 28 of 29 opening round games. Dayton was not in last season, but won the Atlantic 10 regular season title and the conference tournament.
The Lady Vols are a dangerous No. 5.
They are dangerous to opponents because they can beat anyone. They also like to beat themselves. They did string together three games at this point last season, disrupting Arizona State in the first round and then stifling a very good Ohio State team in the Sioux Falls Regional.
As top seed South Carolina had already lost, they advanced to lose another upset team, Syracuse. The real Orange went on to the national title game.
But UT eclipsed 20 wins in the process, won back a national ranking with which to start this season and finished in the Elite 8, or further than any SEC sorority sister.
They keep building.
Among their recruits for next season is Ervina Westbrook, the Morgan Wootten national player of the year.
Westbrook average 27.9 points, 7.9 assists and 7.4 steals. The Wootten is given annually to the McDonald's All American who “best exhibits outstanding character, leadership and the values of a student-athlete in the classroom and the community.”
The previous winner was Crystal Dangerfield, a seamless part of the UConn juggernaut.
Past winners include Katie Lou Samuelson (2015), Breanna Stewart (2012) and Maya Moore (2007).
And she is just one of four McDonald’s All-Americans scheduled for Knoxville.
With the undisputed best incoming group -- there are more -- plus the returns of a 6-3 forward and their point guard after knee reconstruction, these games bring focus back to the tradition of the only team to have played in every NCAA tournament, mostly with the previous coach.
They can go that far again. Or they can get blown away Saturday.
UT has a big three, all underclassmen, in Diamond DeShields, steady center Mercedes Russell and guard Jamie Nared.
They score a combined 49 points per game, 66 percent of the offense. They get a combined 23 rebounds, 56 percent of the team average. DeShields and Russell are both first team All-SEC in the coaches’ vote. DeShields and Russell are second team in the AP conference list.
Both DeShields and Russell fouled out in the SEC first round, one and done. Their most usual MO this season was to go 1-1 most weeks, exhilaration in the upsets followed by coma walk throughs in the next game.
They are the only team in the tournament to have defeated both of the SEC’S top teams on their home courts as well as Kentucky and No. 1 seed Notre Dame and Duke, a No, 2 seed.
They also lost to A&M and at another No. 1 seed, Baylor, and Texas non-tournament teams Alabama (twice), Auburn and Ole Miss.
Yikes. Try scouting that.
DeShields encapsulates the new Lady Vol tradition. One game she can be at All-American levels and she start on every important watch list. Or not.
But they have to win first.
Coach Holly Warlick said they are satisfied with a No. 5 seed, supposing the selection committee liked their strength of schedule.
They defeated two of the No. 1 seeds, for example.
“Everybody is going to say their bracket is the hardest, but we’re just zoning in on Dayton,” she said.
“I think when you look at the bracket, you think, ‘Gosh, there are so many great teams.’ And there are, but you’ve really got to focus in on who you’re playing and ‘one game at a time.’
‘’When you look at the broad picture, (is our region) difficult? Maybe, but I think ‘One game at a time.’ We’re focusing in on Dayton, and that’s not going to be an easy task.”
She said her team is composed.
“They were excited… excited for a five seed,” she said.
“Dayton, they do shoot the 3; they double our 3-point shooting attempts. That’s what I know.
‘’I’ll go home and watch (some of their games) and get a better feel for them. I’ve seen them on TV. They play hard, they’ve got a big kid inside and they shoot the three, so it’s going to be a big challenge for us.’
“(The players) asked a lot of questions about Dayton. I think we’ve moved past that. I think we’ve had a great week and a half of practice. I would be shocked if we went in thinking, ‘Oh, it’s just Dayton.’ Dayton is a very good basketball team, and I think our kids understand it.
“All I can do is focus on how we practice, and we’ve practiced very well. They’ve gone hard. We’ve pushed them. We’ve practiced long—probably longer than we have closing out our season (in the past).
“But it’s a different feel; it’s a different focus. And I think they understand the sense of urgency we have, especially when you’re in the tournament and it’s one-and-done.”
The Flyers are also satisfied.
“I think every little kid grew up watching them,” junior guard Jenna Burdette said. She and rookie Kelly Audia lead the team with 12 point averages. Senior center Saicha Grant-Allen, at 6-5, has played for the Canadian national teams. She has 38 blocks and is the other double-digit scorer (10). Her backup, 6-3 junior Alex Harris, has 65.
“It’s like a dream come true,” said the other junior guard, JaVonna Layfield. She will playing in her hometown.
“I have a ton of respect for that program and what it’s about, what it’s always been about,” UD coach Shauna Green said. “That’s what I grew up watching, was Tennessee and Pat Summitt. So yeah, it’s a cool storyline. But it’s another game, and we’re going to prepare the same way.”
They head into the NCAA tournament having won 19 of 22 after a 3-6 start.
“It’s all about peaking at the right time and playing your best basketball in late March,” Green said. “How we’ve been playing, and especially this past weekend at the A10, I’m really, really happy with where we’re at. I think we’re playing with a great deal of confidence.
“We’re really just starting to gel and we’re making reads and we’re just playing very, very confidently, very, very smoothly,” she added.
It’s the program’s seventh trip to the NCAA tournament in eight years after failing to make it last season. And the first under Green, who took over as head coach on Sept. 11 after Jim Jabir’s abrupt resignation, citing poor health.
“Not making the tournament last year, this is special,” Green said. “Making it (six) years in a row here, I don’t want to say taking it for granted, but you start to get used to it. Having this feeling and being back here and watching and seeing your name called, that never gets old.
“I keep telling our team, do not take this for granted ever and enjoy every second,” she continued. “We’ve been enjoying our practices. We’ve had a ton of energy. It’s special.”
Warlick can say most anything. She could have talked about her summer motorcycle rides, for instance.
Because until tipoff, what her team will do and how long they will do it is anyone’s guess.
Texas A&M (21-11) No. 5 seed in Bridgeport Regional.
A&M opens at UCLA vs. Penn at 8 Saturday night. The winner gets the winner of UCLA vs. Boise State. The qualifier survivor gets UConn in the Sweet 16.
In 2014, they met the Huskies in the Elite 8 and came closer than anyone else against UConn’s championship season, Breanna Stewart’s sophomore year. Missouri is the other SEC team in this season’s bracket of doom.
Gary Blair is still the longest-serving SEC coach, 14 seasons an Aggie out of 32 overall which includes previous seasons at Arkansas. He won a national title before A&M joined the league.
So to replace four starters with a senior point guard who waited her turn and then burned the league’s assists record while leading a fabulous rookie class to 20 wins just shows his mastery.
He can probably game plan a heck of a game for his opener.
Point guard Curtyce Knox has missed 15 minutes all season. End of ironman discussion. She has 295 assists in her one and only starting season. She is second team for the AP conference awards.
When youth is served, they looked like rookies. At this point in the season, no one is a rookie anymore. That’s why they were in the league conference tournament semifinals.
Danni Williams averages 16.8 points per game, Khaali Hillsman 16.2, Knox 10.9 and Anriel Howard 10.2. Howard has 333 rebounds, or more than 10 per game. Hillsman has 263.
The Aggies had a packed watch party on campus. Blair, the epitome of old school, even had a pad and paper to record the event.
“Well first all along, bracketology was wrong. I’d though we were going to be a six seed,” he said.
“I am excited to be going to UCLA. We scrimmaged them last year. But I am looking forward to playing Penn.
“We have done a great job of handling adversity. We are resilient; you lose and get ready for the next one If you lose now, you’re done. We have never played them before, I have never seen them play, but I have seen their coach play.
“He used to play for the Washington Generals, against the Globetrotters and I always watched the Globetrotters.
”He’s done a great job at Penn.
"One of their players we recruited is from Houston, so I am excited to see her play now."
He kiddingly said UConn would be a nice challenge.
“Doggone, we’re not looking for Connecticut but we’re looking for California. I’m all about DisneyWorld, Disneyland, so I am all about the kids and we’ll take a side trip there.
“Well take a little side trip to Disneyland. I will ride the Avatar ride. You know, the last time we were out there my kids bought me a Tshirt. Grumpy.”
Penn won the inaugural Ivy League tournament title. At their bracket watch party, the Quakers had a packed gym, complete with streamers as their name came up on the big board. They embody the joy of college athletics, delighted to tears at qualifying wherever they get to play next.
Junior Michelle Nwokedi – the Texas native -- leads them at 15.1 points per game (9.4 rebounds). She is the league MVP. The only other double-figure scorer is senior Sydney Stepanovich (10.8), (8.7).
The former Washington General is league Coach of the Year Mike McLaughlin after back-to-back conference championships and three in four seasons.
His team will escape the wintry mess in Philadelphia and hit the beach in L.A., trying to capture the experience.
“We're just enjoying all this,” McLaughlin said. “Just going out to California is a challenge, especially with the weather, but we'll worry about it later. Right now we're just enjoying the moment.”
LSU (20-11) No. 8 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional
Mississippi State is also in this Regional, in the opposite pairings. LSU opens at Baylor vs. Cal in the other SEC Saturday night special. The winner gets the winner of Baylor/Texas Southern.
The Ben-Gals stumbled into the NCAA qualifying 20th win in the conference tournament then seemed happy to just be there and lost the next game. They appear destined for the same fate here.
LSU is one of those teams that have sort of a national imprint. They are usually good enough to make the Sweet 16, which sounds great to the casual fan.
But it is not really so much. Those who follow the game know the Sweet 16 teams before the first tip.
They also know it has always been so that there is usually an elite team, another one or maybe two very good teams and then marbles in a bag. Pour them out and line them up any way you want.
LSU has not been elite for a decade, two coaches ago, when the assistant of the late legendary Sue Gunter was run off for indiscreet behaviors.
They are good enough to pencil in to every NCAA tournament at about this level.
As a visiting team, they offer a showcase player in defensive-oriented Raigyne Moncrief, a dynamic player only slowed be reconstructive knee surgery and lase season in recovery.
The difference for her is not the mental game, but it is as difference between All-American and all-conference. She averages 16 points, 5.9 rebounds and has 89 assists and all lead the team.
They are essentially a one-trick pony. If she gets in foul trouble or hits a good defender, they are soon done.
They waved their pom-poms and cheered their inclusion at the campus viewing party.
Coach Nikki Farkas said, “It’s great. This team has worked extremely hard to put themselves in this position to see our name called. We’re just excited to still be able to play some more basketball.
“I’ll tell you, the SEC is tough. We have some of the best coaches and players. Finishing seventh in our league is not a bad finish. It’s not a finish that you’re accustomed to, but I know the competition in our league.”
For the players, happiness is evident.
“They’re relieved to see that their name was called,” Farkas said.
“We only have three kids who have played in a Sweet 16 and everyone else is a rookie. To see their reaction, it just brings a humbling feeling because I know all the work they put into this season. With all of the obstacles they’ve come across and overcame, I know they’re just ready to play basketball.”
From her time at UCLA, she is familiar with the California program.
“Cal has always been a steady team. They’re very well coached. Coming from the Pac-10, they were one of the top teams in the league at that time. I know that this will be a great challenge for our team, and one that we welcome. We’re just looking forward to getting back into the swing of things.
“You’re scouting, getting back on the floor and strategizing to give your team an edge.
“I think this group has to learn how to play for 40 minutes. If we can play for 40 minutes, we can play with anybody. They’ve shown their resilience in the SEC Tournament. During the season, we’ve had some quality wins too. If we can go 40 minutes, we can go far in this tournament.”
Cal (19-13) is not a team of great achievement, but the conference did have two Final Four teams last season.
They are led by 6-4 sophomore forward Kristine Anigwe, senior Courtney Range and juniors Mikayla Cowling and Penina Davidson. Anigwe, an all-conference player, scored 34 in the opening round of the Pac 12 tournament. She averages 20.5 and 30 minutes per game. Only six players in America average 20 or more.
The coach is Lindsay Gottlieb, in the tournament five of the past six seasons, but not last year, so they are hungry. She led them to the 2013 Final Four. She started in Berkeley in 2011, her sixth coaching assignment, having been an assistant there in 2007-08.
She told her players: “You 12 are the most locked-in, dialed-in team. When we at our best, you can do anything you want. You earned it.”
Auburn (17-14) No. 11 seed in Lexington Regional
The Tigers tied for eighth in the SEC regular season but broke the tie by defeating Georgia in the faceoff. That all but guaranteed inclusion in the elimination season, despite a 7-8 conference record. It seems unlikely they can win 20, but that is what building tradition is about.
Auburn plays North Carolina State in a Friday noon game in Austin, Texas.
The winner gets the winner of the host team vs. Central Arkansas. It is the opposite end of the bracket which includes UK.
The Tigers are in without a winning SEC season. This is the annual league gift by the National Selection Committee. They were also in last season, a program first since 2009. They show that a couple of the non-entrants could have been in with just two more conference wins.
Senior Katie Freking all but willed them into the NCAA games with 15.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Classmate Brandy Montgomery averages 13.7 points and sophomore Janiah McKay 13.0.
Coach Terri Williams-Flournoy has completed five seasons there. They beat both Tennessee and LSU this season.
This is a proud program which went to three straight NCAA championship games in the late ’80s. Early this century, Nell Fortner coached them into obscurity which led to her dismissal and the revival arrival of Williams-Flournoy.
“We celebrated,” said Williams-Flournoy of their bid.
“Now let’s see what we can do.
“It’s not like back in the day when you used to have to get on the phone and call up your best friend who’s not really your best friend, but you pretend like they’re you’re best friend just so you can get a tape and send your coach down the road to pick it up because you don’t have time to wait for it to come in the mail. Technology now makes life a lot easier.”
It’s Auburn’s second straight NCAA Tournament trip to Texas. Last year, the Tigers won in Waco, beating St. John’s in the first round before losing to Baylor.
“You want back-to-back NCAA Tournaments because it really does show that you’re building a program,” Williams-Flournoy said. “You changed the culture when you got here. Now everybody understands the culture.
“And now you set a standard. Our kids would have been very disappointed had we not gone to the NCAA Tournament this year. Now it becomes something that we know we need to do every single year.”
After the SEC Tournament two weeks ago, the Tigers took a four-day break.
“I think our coaches did a good job of communicating to us that we’re going to continue to practice like we’re an NCAA Tournament team,” said Frerking. “We never really struggle to practice with intensity. We play at such a high level of intensity that I think our bodies needed that rest. You’re going to see a team that comes out with a renewed level of energy.”
Frerking, the SEC’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year, is one of four seniors at Auburn.
“Any time a senior can go through four years with me, they deserve any and everything we can get,” Williams-Flournoy said. “Because we work hard. We work really hard. And now that it starts so early. It starts in the summer.
“And the way we play and the way we condition, it’s hard work. Why not reap the reward of the pain that you had to go through?”
The Wolfpack (25-8) are led by senior guard Dominique Wilson, 13.2 points per game, one of three in double figures. It sets up a nice senior guard battle with Frerking. They are a dangerous foe.
The coach is Wes Moore, with 22 20-win seasons and as many NCAA tournament appearances.
He learned his craft as an assistant to the legendary Kay Yow. It is his fourth year at State, so this is his magic first recruiting class. They finished fourth in the mighty ACC.
“Who can figure it out,” he said. “We had four Top 15 wins. No matter who it is, you’re going to get their best. We have a little bit of a chip on our shoulders.
“We have the best fans and hoped for a hosting opportunity. I feel good with four seniors out there.”
No. 24 Missouri (21-10) No. 6 seed in Lexington Regional
The Tigers play South Florida at Florida State, the winner gets the winner of the host team vs. Western Illinois.
They have declined to participate in this preview.