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.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Siroky's SEC Report: Seniors Will Decide Conference Title

By Mike Siroky

This will be the most exciting season of Southeastern Conference women’s basketball.

The league had the top two teams in the nation at the finish last season.  But this season’s elevated league wars, dominated by seniors, has all the anticipation of yet another lift.

It starts with the best coaching group in America. 

For the first time in years, there are no obvious dogs ready to be ejected. 

The new hires at Florida and Arkansas are of national quality. Yes, they may take a season to compete, but they also can be a wonderful challenge for any league team. 

Incidentally, one of the new hires is a man replacing a woman, which means there are six male coaches in the best league in America.

The coaching elite starts with South Carolina and Mississippi State. 

Neither coach was judged good enough to be the league coach of the year by their own conference, yet there they were, having eliminated everyone else and all other conferences, in the National Championship game.

 The SEC has yet to apologize for that error.

The league also announced a three-year commitment to having the conference championship in South Carolina.

The NCAA will not award any such games to the state that flies the Confederate Battle Flag at state institutions, like parks.

The SEC disregards any racist implications, using its own criteria – money – for choosing sites. Players and coaches have no say in the decision.

In the preseason Associated Press rankings, the league has South Carolina No. 4, Mississippi State No. 7, Tennessee No. 14, Missouri No. 16, and Texas A&M No. 20.

Those are the teams we will focus on as the weeks roll along.

The player of the year – and strongest contender for the national honor – is A’ja Wilson. The other pre-season conference nominees are the best seniors.

South Carolina

For SC, three of the five starters went in the Top 10 of the pro draft. In a sense, success led to a problem. But, if ever there was a sign the torch has been passed from the previous generation’s super team – Tennessee – to the current one it is a significant summer transfer.

Finishing the championship season, the WNBA draft revealed the expected.

The center was a senior and always going to be done. Dawn Staley’s two guns for hire, superlative junior guard/forwards, hung on until 10 days before the draft to declare.

Each had been in college for four seasons, one year sitting out as transfers, so they may well have earned their degrees as well. The SC public relations department did not include them in their graduation celebration stories.

One of them told the WNBA they made the decision within a week of the title game and just held the secret until it was time to announce their attendance at the draft.

Both Kaela Davis and Alisha Gray started for Dallas this past season and Gray was the league rookie of the year.

In reality, if they made a pact to leave irregardless of the tournament outcome – unlikely – they needn’t had attended spring semester classes. College football players have done this for years, register for classes at the start of their last fall, then just play.

The conference’s only All-American, A’ja Wilson, will be a first-round pick at the end of this season which will give the Gamecocks a rare four starters from a championship team all going in the first round. 

Connecticut's Sue Bird, Asjha Jones, Tamika (Williams) Raymond, and Swin Cash from the 2002 champions were among four of the top six picks while a fifth, Diana Taurasi, followed Bird, as an overall No. 1 the following season.

SC got the ring ceremony out of the way at a recent football game at halftime. The banner was raised at a preseason game.

From here on out, this season is about this season, as Staley so indicated Thursday at the annual NCAA women’s national preview day at ESPN in Connecticut.

The conference coaches picked them to win conference again with Mississippi State second and a thin UT third.

We pick State first and SC second, but it may once again be a one-game margin where any stumble or injury settles everything.

They will find the new three starters from others returning for SC include Tyasha Harris, given 26 starts and unlimited freedom as the freshman point guard. She made the Under 19 World Cup team representing the United States.

Bianca Cuevas-Moore is one of the best 5-6 speed guards in the nation. She only missed one game. 

Alexis Wilson sat out a year after fleeing Kentucky, but the 6-1 junior forward complements Wilson on the frontline, having competed two years in the league and working out with the national champions as a top scout team player all last season.

That is not at all a bad starting set for the true league coach of the year, Dawn Staley, to work with.

USA Basketball has had quite the run in the national age-group teams. This summer was no exception.

The SEC was well-represented, starting with Cooper, its point guard.

Competing for the fifth starter spot will also be late addition Lindsey  Spann, the starting point guard from Penn State. She redshirted her rookie season while having a knee rebuilt, played the next three and acquired her degree.

 But she had a year of eligibility and wanted one season with a competitive team.

“We are incredibly excited and fortunate to add Lindsey to our Gamecock family,” Staley said. “She brings a wealth of experience. Her ability to score and create for others is a welcome addition in our backcourt.”

Spann was a three-season double-digit scorer for Penn State, averaging 12.3 points, eighth in career made 3-pointers (143) and 11th in free throw percentage (.800, 168-of-210). She hit 1,091 career points, honorable mention All-Big Team.

The summer stunner is the transfer in Te’a Cooper, Tennessee’s starting point guard. She has this  season eligibile after taking last season off to rebuild a knee on Tennessee’s dime.

Then she fled for SC, an in-your-face slap if ever there was one. 

 “Adding a talent such as Te’a Cooper to our Gamecock family complements the players that we have,” Staley said. “Her experience playing against top-level competition will be a tremendous addition in sustaining our success.”

 Cooper was an SEC All-Freshman Team selection in 2015-16 after finishing fourth in scoring on that Tennessee team, which advanced to the NCAA Elite Eight. 

She averaged 8.6 points, 2.1 assists and 1.2 steals in her first collegiate season, drawing 15 starts among her 36 games played. 

Cooper’s knee injury came in summer workouts. As a high school senior, she was ranked as high as the No. 1 point guard in the Class of 2014.

South Carolina took a summer trip to Japan, scrimmaging before taking on the national team and absorbing a loss.

Wilson was the most impressive player of the experience, showing well in the time limited scrimmages and 20 points with 11 rebounds in the 78-57 loss.

Japan took a 12-0 run before halftime and a 9-0 run in the fourth to put it away.

The summer USA basketball competitions were 19-under and then it jumps to 23-under.

Tyasha Harris made the cut for the younger team, one of three conference players.

To start our recap of the pro league, Davis and Gray each hit double figures in their first exhibition game at Dallas, and were assigned uniform numbers. 

Rookies do not usually get numbers unless they are expected to make the team. Each played every game.

Two undrafted players were released the same day. Incidentally, Davis and Gray each are listed at 170 pounds. 

This level is where the women erase their own sexist tradition of not listing weights in college. Gray remained a starter and won rookie of the month honors each of the first two.

New teammate Evelyn Akhator, late of rival Kentucky, is at 180. She spent the season on the bench.

Still, that made three SEC players making the team. Gray scored 11 and started her first game, Davis had 20 off the bench. Both started after that. 

Gray was the league rookie of the year from  the opening month of the season.
The fact three rookies made the team is a record-setter. 

There were only eight rookies this WNBA season. 

Indiana, for instance, had none. Atlanta had none.  Connecticut and Los Angeles had one. San Antonio had the college player of the year. Dallas had four and broke a long playoff drought in the franchise's three-location history that began with  three titles in Detroit.

 Chicago had three, even without Alaina Coates, who was on reserve working on the rebuilt ankle. 

Two months after injuring her ankle and having the surgery the WNBA started without her with assurance from Chicago she could miss the entire season and still remain part of the team.

When SC won the NCAAs, she had to celebrate on campus because she was not yet medically cleared for travel.
But her contribution was acknowledged with the home town celebration.

“That was always part of my plan, which is why I went to South Carolina,” Coates said. “For them to go out there and finish the season, especially without me … we just kept talking about going to get these rings. I was just so proud.”

She did attend opening night in the WNBA and subsequent games with her new team.

Phoenix and Seattle also had three rookies. Minnesota and Washington also had two. New York had two, one from Canada. When she was activated, it gave the SEC another record of five in one season.

This is why we reported only the first-round draftees usually matter. Much like the Olympic team -- yet another level up --  the best players are generally already playing.

Back on campus, the state began installing championship signage. They will be forever honored.

One of the proposed true freshmen, Alabama native Haley Troup, decided the competition was too tough and withdrew before fall workouts. She is immediately eligible to transfer. She never indicated a second choice. She averaged 18 points and five assists for her senior season.

Another transfer out is sophomore   guard Araion Bradshaw. She played in 24 games of the championship season with negligible stats.

This is not new in the world of college basketball.

When Tennessee was triumphant it went through a routine of losing one player each season. When the Indiana men’s team had its undefeated season, six underclassmen fled the following year.

SC will play many, many games on national TV, u\including six on the ESPN networks.

The exposure will help recruits decide if they want to join the fun. It is another benefit of continued success.

Staley and Wilson ended September at the national training center for the next Olympic team. Wilson was one of a very few college players invited. Staley will coach the team.
Mississippi State

This is clearly 1A on the list and the likely league favorite this season. They lost to South Carolina three times, twice more in conference and were 34-0 against the rest of the world. Savor that thought: They never lost outside of conference and that included the win against UConn in the national semifinals.

ESPN rated them a top NCAA seed all season, then lost its guts at the end and dropped them from the elites. They had been right. Maybe they knew the NCAA Selection Committee was equally without backbone and did not grant them a top seed, falling for the pick-a-team-led-by-a-woman as the tiebreaker.

Didn’t matter in the real world.

Towards the end of the season, coach Vic Schaefer had seen enough of rollercoasters and started using players who practiced best to begin games, leaving multiple-game starters on the bench for amazing replacements. 

In the title game, he proved consistent, benching two of his most enigmatic players in favor of others down the stretch.

Expect more of the same this season. The players have bought into the idea that it isn’t who starts, but who plays that matters.

He also has a worthy point guard in 5-4 (if that) Morgan William. She hit major game deciders in the elimination games. The game winner over UConn in the national semifinals won  an award from ESPN viewers.

His best scorer for three seasons, all-SEC by acclamation Victoria Vivians, also returns. Both are seniors. They were the only double-figure scorers by average on a deep team. They outscored opponents by an average 15 per game.

At center 6-7 Teiara McCowan altered a lot of game plans as her sophomore domination emerged. Of the top three league centers last season, scoring and rebounding combined, she is the only returnee.

Their recruits include an Australian player from its national league, Chloe Bibby,  and three-time Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year Myah Taylor, all-state standout Nyah Tate, Florida native Jonika Garvin and Little Rock, Ark.’s Bre'Amber Scott, a 5-11 guard who focuses on defense.

They also have a topflight transfer from Arkansas, former recruit Jordan Danberry. She becomes eligible at the start of the SEC season. She was the Arkansas Player of the Year in high school.

Schaefer, unmatched in his willingness to take risks, is the only male coach in the league with no male assistants.
They hit the ground running, literally focusing on conditioning more than game situations from the start of practices.

“I liked the way we ended with our conditioning. Our kids went hard, and as we get in better shape, things will clean up a little bit,” Schaefer said. “I told them before we started that I want to see people compete and come to the top. I’m hopeful every day someone is going to step up and make me want to play them.”

 As befitting their national footprint, the Dawgs will have two non-conference games telecast on the SEC network, opening at home Nov. 10 against onetime powerhouse Virginia.

A Final 4 celebration ceremony will be staged.

The Dec. 13 game against Oregon will be a rematch from last season’s Rainbow Wahine tournament game won by State.

Fourteen of the 16 conference games will also be televised on the SEC Network.

In the first open scrimmage of the preseason, Schaefer unleashed sophomore Ameshya Williams, 35 points and 12 rebounds.

 Senior Roshunda Johnson added to the new balance with 24 points, 3-of-5 from 3-point range.

McCowan, the 2017 SEC Sixth Woman of the Year and the best returning center by statistics scored 22 with 15 rebounds. 

The women closed the scrimmage against the men’s practice players.

That’s when usual scoring suspect, senior Vivians, scored 15.

 Two of their graduates, undrafted by the WNBA, got training camp tryouts before heading overseas. Neither Chimwe Okorie (New York) nor Breanna Richardson (Minnesota) stuck. Okorie was waived before the end of April. Richardson was among the last cuts, a week before the season began. It is like moving from high school to college, from the among the best teams in college to being out at the next level.

It has always been true nationally there are elite teams and then everyone else. Regionally, the SEC started that trend in the Tennessee era of dominance.

The league has maintained the national  footprint  without the Lady Vols as the top team.

UT is working its way back towards the top. They are the only team to win at both South Carolina and Mississippi State last season, the second win costing the Bulldogs a conference title in their only home loss. State had won at UT. 

But that is also the Tennessee mystery. 

Great wins and occasional great players, but lots of uncontrolled behind-the-scenes drama and a lack of consistency.

Tennessee again returns the core of a good team. But there are only 10 players, a dangerous lack of depth.

There are two significant deserters. So UT starts this season undefined as the best of the rest.

At center, 6-6 senior Mercedes Russell reestablished herself after a year off for foot rehabilitation. 

Jamie Nared completes the 1-2 punch. She and Russell started every game. They were the only SEC players to win Gold on the top USA national basketball team that played this summer.

Both started the title game. Any other program would be immensely cheered. But this is Tennessee. 

America swept the initial Under-23 tournament. In the Gold game, Russell scored eight with nine rebounds, 4-of-5 from the floor.

Nared scored 4-of-6 from the floor with a 3, 2-of-4 from the line for 11 points. In the all-star format, playing time was limited to about half of each game.

Nared said, “It was fun, just getting this experience to know everybody and to play in this tournament. I’m super competitive, but I didn’t really know what to expect with overseas ball. But, it was fun to play with this group. 

“They are super talented, and it was cool to see our different styles of play come together.

We just played hard. When they got a transition point, we always came back. We didn’t hang our heads. We pushed it back at them. We knew that they would like to play a very uptempo game, and we know we like to play uptempo, as well, so I think that was hard for them, because they are so used to controlling the game with that aspect. But this was a great experience, with I’ve learned from our coaches. 

“Playing with this group of players was fun. It was just nice getting to know all these players and their styles of play. It helps you grow playing on a team of talented players. It makes you find a way to contribute in some different ways, so I think that was a big thing.”

Both started every game. 

The summer team had a point guard. UT does not, which spins the discussion to the four McDonald’s All-Americans, expected to contribute immediately in their initial showings. 

With a bulging roster, something had to give and it was veteran depth when Alexa Middleton and Te’a Cooper both decided to leave.

Middleton lands at Iowa State, playing a year from now after the sit out year.

Middleton started 13 games in her final UT season. She surprisingly leaves with just one year left. She is not an impact player by any means. She averaged eight points a game as a role player.

Cooper is a significant insulting loss, going to arch rival South Carolina.

This happens in the women’s game when young egos listen to whispers rather than reality. It is unlikely she will be of national prominence again, but perhaps is looking to  be on a deep established team instead of reestablishing one.

Then, in late June, Diamond DeShields revealed her final lie, after pledging to return for her senior season.  She went so far as to skip the WNBA draft, underlining the false commitment to UT.

DeShields was sometimes proposed as an All-American. A superlative rookie season at North Carolina put her on every watch list. But she didn’t even start every game at UT. Her ego often got in the way. It is hard to be considered an All-American if you don’t even start on your own team.

Warlick gave her more than enough rope. The 100 turnovers offset any positive statistics. She never did anything important in college.

The hint of her eventual betrayal come when Cooper left; DeShields praised both she and South Carolina for the mating. Of course, she and Cooper were deep, deep, deep intimate personal friends.

DeShields had previously said she welcomed the incoming freshmen and was expecting to be a “big sister” to them., Who knew she was going to be a big sister like the ones Cinderella had.

She did not even tell Warlick why she was running off, just that she was leaving for good.

She could surface in an overseas pro league. Given her erratic focus problems, she will be a “project” wherever she plays next.

Warlick immediately put the spotlight on the 10 players available – another thin roster -- as opposed to deserters.

The freshmen arrived on campus in June, immediately bonded over meals and when they discovered they wanted to attend the same church and that is the one former coach Pat Head Summitt attended.

“I am pleased with the commitment of our talented group of returnees and highly-regarded freshman class, and I have been encouraged with the talent, chemistry, attitude, work ethic and intensity that have been displayed thus far during off-season workouts,” Warlick said. 

“Our staff can’t wait to continue building on that. We look forward to welcoming senior Kortney Dunbar and freshman Evina Westbrook to campus for the second summer session and are very excited about the future of this program, both for the upcoming season and in the years to come.”

Freshman point guard Anastasia Hayes will be in focus from the beginning Tennessee had hoped its drought at the position would end with Cooper’s return.

At the start, it is instead all on Hayes.

Hayes is the seventh overall prospect in the 2017 class and the third-ranked point guard. She is from Mufreesboro Tennessee, so maybe her devotion started a while ago.

“It just means that I have to step up as a leader,” she said. “I still think we're going to make things happen. I'm not really upset or anything about it. It just makes me realize that I have to come in ready for anything.

“I'm excited to play with people who are really good, and who I trust.” said Hayes. “I’m going to make them look good, and they’re going to make me look good.”

 Evina WestbrookRennia Davis and Kasiyahna Kushkituah are the other freshmen. All four are McDonald's All Americans.

Hayes is looking to build on the legacy while (finally) rebooting the Lady Vols.

As for the real world, Hayes wants to be an orthodontist. She said her experience with braces makes the commitment. "I felt like when I got my braces off, I had the brightest smile," Hayes said. "I want to make other people feel that way."

The Lady Vols have not been to a Final Four since 2008. Hayes plans on this class of Lady Vols ending that. She wants to win an SEC championship and a national championship. Ask her for a timeline and she will tell you that this year is as good as any.

"I try to succeed in everything I do," Hayes said. "I hate losing."

Warlick also lost an assistant to South Carolina, Jolette Law leaving after five seasons to return to her home state and her friend Dawn Staley. Law had been the Illinois coach earlier in her career. She is a respected recruiter.

Warlick said she wasn't anticipating any more deserters. As for senior leaders Nared and Russell:  they also had the option of entering the WNBA draft in April.

"They were not going anywhere," Warlick said. "They're absolutely great."

Westbrook, one of the superlative freshman class, was invited to the USA Basketball 19-under trials.

Warlick is sometimes rumored to be on some sort of danger list, what with a new athletic director replacing the one that hired her with no head coaching experience.

Yet Warlick won the prestigious statewide Woman of Distinction Award, which is more than a sports honor, encompassing contributions to life in the Volunteer State. 

Academy Award Actress Patricia Neal, a congresswoman, an opera singer and Warlick’s predecessor are among previous honorees. Warlick was cited by the state legislature.

Among other accomplishments is a 100 percent graduation rate, and the fights against breast cancer and Alzheimer’s. As a coach, she is among five coaches nationally to guide a team to three or more Elite Eight finishes or higher in the past five seasons. All are in the women’s hall of fame.

Other SEC invitees included Teaira McCowan and Victoria Vivians (Mississippi State); and Sophie Cunningham (Missouri) .

Warlick also nabbed a superlative recruit for next season when 6-foot Texas guard Zarille Green swerved from a verbal commitment to Kansas State.

Despite the verbal, she still took the visit to Knoxville.

She said she was “wowed” by Warlick.

“I felt the school was calling my name,” Green said. “I knew this is the one.”

She also brings a winning mentality. Year in and year out, Duncanville is one of the top teams in the nation. Green helped lead Duncanville to state titles as a sophomore and a junior.

Other early commitments in her class are another 6-foot guard Jazmine Massengill and 6-3 forward Amira Collins
“I fell in love with Tennessee,” Green said. ‘I really feel this is my type of school.”

Jordan Reynolds lasted one WNBA exhibition game before being waived by Atlanta. 

A wild card word here on Alabama, the only 20-win SEC team overlooked by the NCAA Selection Committee. They finished 3-1 in the NIT and return every player.

This is the year they should elevate to the NCAA draw, having already proven they can beat Tennessee on a good night.

They scored 108 in their only exhibition so far.

“There were a lot of positives and anytime you can have seven in double figures, and score 108 points, it really doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” said Alabama coach Kristy Curry.  “I liked our presence offensively, and also the ability to change our defenses and show a lot of different looks, especially with those guys being in a zone. 

“There is a lot to learn from and a lot of positives, but I don’t call it negatives. I just call it improvement areas. It’s good for us." 
Texas A&M

The Aggies have a legendary coach in Gary Blair and he did a legendary job getting a team dominated by underclassmen to 20 wins and a 12th straight NCAA berth. He was rewarded with another contract extension, now good through the 2020-2021 season, They oughta just give him a contract for life.

“Because everything depends on recruiting,” said Blair.

“I have been very lucky. Every day I feel like a young kid, like I can coach forever.

“These young kids today, they keep me young.

“Last year was one of the most rewarding seasons. We had only 10 kids. We just banded together and said ‘We’ll find a way.’ Kids just stepped up.”

Blair has stayed ahead of the criticism curve of playing pancake games to start the season by taking advantage of summer opportunities.

He took the Aggies to Spain this summer.

In the first game, Danni Williams scored 18 and N’dea Jones had a double double with 11 points and 11 rebounds, downing Club Olimpico 64, 78-47.

 “We did so many good things,” said Blair. “N’dea Jones played very well, she came off the bench and was very relaxed and made some things happen. Basically, I was pleased with a lot of things.”

A&M’s newcomers all contributed to the win. In addition to Jones’ double double, Chennedy Carter added in 10 points and three assists and Lulu McKinney had four points, five assists, two rebounds and two steals. Kayla Wells added four points, Jada Walton had a basket, and Emer Nichols added five boards, having her only points of the game erased by an offensive foul call.

In the second game, A&M used a 22-1 second quarter run to defeat the combined team from Valencia by 60. Carter, scored 24 with eight rebounds, and Anriel Howard, scored 21 with 20 rebounds. Khaalia Hillsman added 14 points; Danni Williams 13.

They lost the best point guard (by assists) to graduation but return all the core scorers and rebounders, ready to step into the all-conference spots.

Last season, Williams hit 16 points per game, an improvement of almost 10 a game. Hillsman, 6-5 senior center, shot 63 percent and averaged 15.4 points and 8.3 rebounds. 

 Howard, 5-11 junior forward, averaged 10 rebounds. 

In the new world order of summer transfers A&M snagged a home state girl from Louisville with three years of eligibility left after sitting out this season, Ciera Johnson. She was the top-rated center of her high school class. She was a McDonald’s All-American and an academic All-American and now has a year to learn the system and offer a mammoth scout team.

Another incoming talent is an SEC veteran who also will sit out this season and have three left.

Arkansas lost its second player recruited by the former coach when 2016 McDonald’s All-American Aaliyah Wilson chose to jump to the Aggies.

“We are thrilled to add a player and person the caliber of Aaliyah to our team,” said Blair. “She is a strong guard, who can play either the 2 or 3 position and has her best basketball ahead of her.”

A 5-11 guard, her best rookie games was 20 against Texas A&M and 16  against South Carolina.

 She was twice the Oklahoma Player of the Year. Her high school won the 6A state title She averaged 19 points per game.

Carter made the USA Basketball 19-under World Cup team. She was on the Gold medal team for the 18-unders and introduced herself to the SEC and the rest of the world in the opening exhibition win over the host country, Italy, 62-36, the leading scorer with 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting, had four of the USA's 16 steals  and paced the defense. 

“We just played a little bit harder ,” said Carter. “We focused more on the defensive end. When you focus more on the defensive end, it creates offense, and that allowed us to run in transition and finish some breaks. We played together and played as a team tonight. We helped each other out. We stayed within coach's plan and we came out successful.”

“Defensively, we were much better,” said USA coach Suzie McConnell. “We were more aggressive picking up their guards full court and disrupting what they were trying to do defensively, limiting them to a shorter clock in the half court. We stayed in plays. We played good help defense, so I'm very pleased with our improvement from yesterday to today.

“Offensively, I thought the ball movement was good and we made a lot of good decisions in transition within the half court and the open floor. We still struggled to shoot the ball like we are capable of doing. 

“One thing I continue to tell this team is, continue to shoot the ball with a lot of confidence. As long as it's in rhythm and you’re open and it’s a good shot, then you have the green light to take it. We will be a dangerous team once we start hitting shots, because if we can put in a defensive effort like we had tonight with a great shooting performance, this could be a great team.

 “In a short time, we are asking a lot of them. They are coming together as a team, but we still have a ways to go. You never settle for anything you've done. You’re always trying to improve moving forward and going into the next game.”

They went 3-0 in exhibitions.

Carter scored 14 in 20 minutes as the USA opened with a 95-58 runaway over Mali in pool play.

“It’s a great start to the tournament,” said  McConnell. “We got contributions from each and every player. There was a lot of energy defensively. Our players stayed in plays and challenged shots. We did a great job on the boards. 

“Offensively, being able to put 95 points on the board was a great sign for this team and a great start to this tournament. This is something that we believed this team is capable of doing, so it was great to see them do it.”
Carter then scored 13 in a 91-51 victory over China.

 “We just started off with composure,” she said, “we stayed composed. We moved the ball a lot and swung it in our offense. We played as a team and we were successful. We got out to that great start.”

Carter scored 19 in handing Japan its only loss, 73-66. Harris scored 10 with a game-best six assists,
In the end, they took Silver to Russia in the championship game, 86-82. Harris scored a USA  record 33. South Carolina’s A’Ja Wilson had the previous record, 30.

After Carter gets a year in Aggieland, she will gain a one-year runningmate in former UTEP starter Lulu McKinney. She started all 31 games at point guard for the Miners as a junior, but will play her final season of college basketball at Texas A&M after sitting out the transfer year.

 “Lulu is a veteran point guard, that gives us the depth that we want,” said Blair. “With Chennedy Carter, an incoming freshman All-American, to combine with Lulu, we now have a great pair of point guards that complement each other. We think we hit a home run with someone who can run our ballclub at the point guard position and mentor young players.”

She can do that all year in practice.

“Lulu is a very good defensive player, and a team-first player who can score,” added Blair. “We feel very fortunate to add someone who comes from a family of coaches. She will be the ultimate team player.”

McKinney averaged seven points and 4.9 assists per game for UTEP in 2016-17, ranking fifth in C-USA in assists per game and sixth in the league with a 1.70 assist-to-turnover ratio. She also led the Miners with 31.7 minutes per game and 42 3-pointers. She had nine games with 10-plus points and five games with at least nine assists.

The Kats will finally feel the hit of six players leaving the season before last. Two of those are already starting at other schools. They graduated their only power players, Evelyn Akhator and four-year guard Makayla Epps.  One who fled – Linnae Harper --  was invited to USA Basketball’s 23-under tryouts.

UK should fall back to sixth or seventh in the league. They are happy with Hall of Fame coach Linn Dunn as an assistant. She signed for this coming season.

They have Stony Brook transfer and 2016 America East Conference Rookie of the Year Ogechi Anyagaligbo, who practiced with the team last season and is now available. Following the junior college transfer success of Evelyn Akhator, they add Amanda Paschal (5-6, G, Brooklyn, N.Y/Gulf State College).

UK adds true freshmen Dorie Harrison (6-2, F/C, Nashville, Tenn.), KeKe McKinney (6-1, G/F, Knoxville, Tenn.), Kameron Roach (5-6, G, Hopkins, S.C.) and Tatyana Wyatt (6-3, F, Columbus, Ga.

“I think the previous year, you try to learn what’s valuable. Everyone back is different, truly a brand-new team every year,” said Mitchell.

“I tell people, if you need proof of miracles, ‘Here I am, starting the 22th year at Kentucky. There are some places that are pretty great to coach and Kentucky is one of those.

“There are some places that helped to build the league, and I was lucky to start as an assistant under coach Pat Head Summitt. 

“People think I knew something about basketball just because I was around her.

“Her kids got the very best out of her every single day. There is no better life lesson.”

In the WNBA, Epps caught a break at Chicago when another guard, Jamieera Faulker, was lost for the season with an ACL tear while playing for the Polish National team. The Sky then waived three guards in one day in May, including a returning player, edging an opening for Epps.

Still, her situation was tenuous because two other guards – both sometimes starters – had roster spots but played on overseas as the season started and another player simply chose to not report.

Chicago opted to keep her over their first-round pick, showing an SEC player proved better than one from the Big Ten.

She played less than a minute per game but was nonetheless in the league which is more than hundreds of other players.

Epps proved the exception to the later in the draft rule by earning a position on the team. A good sign for her was earning a uniform number (25) after the final preseason game.

Akhator was granted more than a month off from the WNBA (she was limited in minutes anyway) to represent her home country Nigeria in the Afrobasket Tournament.

She scored a team-high 13 with seven rebounds in the title game and tournament sweep over Senegal. It is Nigeria’s third FIBA Women’s AfroBasket title. It qualifies them for the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup.

 Akhator led Nigeria the entire 8-0 tournament, averaging 15.3 points and 9.5 rebounds per game.

 The native of Lagos, hit 49.5 percent from the field and 75 percent from the line with 1.9 assists and 1.8 steals per game. She hit double figures in six of her eight games, with double-figure rebounds in four.

 Akhator led the All-Star Five Team and never returned to finish the WNBA season with the Dallas Wings.

Commodore leader Stephanie White is smart – heck she was installed in the Academic Hall of Fame this off-season -- and welcomes the league tournament to her home campus this year.

Between now and then, the fun is in watching a mad scientist percolate magic in her basketball lab.

As with most successful teams, you must first win the state in which you reside, in this case a wounded Tennessee program, then maybe the region, in this case, the best conference in women’s basketball.

Having been swept in her first season against UT, White quickly recruited two Top 100 players, both guards from Tennessee.

The immediate disclaimer is neither were recruited by the big sorority sister in Knoxville.

Still, Jordan Cambridge and Brinae Alexander are exactly what Tennessee needed, even with the top point guard in the nation coming in.

Interestingly enough, the seniors this season are guards Rachel Bell, Christa Reed and Myka Dancy.

Years from now, we may well regard two senior guards who started the same season and rose to national prominence. Would that we also knew now both coaches were still in place.

This will be a season of continued ascension as White rebuilds the Commodores

Another incoming credit is 6-5 transfer Mariella Sasoula from Boston College by way of Greece. She averaged 16.5 points for BC. She spent some of her transfer year leading her home country in the European Under-20 championships at 20.2 points per game.

Another eligible player is another 6-5 center, Bree Horrocks, from Purdue. Each is an upgrade from last season’s undersized center. But they graduated the top four scorers and finished on a 4-15 slide after a 10-1 start.

“I think, first of all, we are team first and share the basketball,”  said White. “We need to read and react. We need to dictate on the defensive end.

“We have the foundation of where we want to go. They have to trust their instincts. Everything cannot be laid out for them. In practice, everything is more competitive. You have to have joy. This is fun. This is a game.

“I’m not worried so much about UT yet,” said White. “If we can get to the point where that rivalry is the end-all be-all, that’s great. I can’t wait to get there.

“But we’re not there now. We have a long way to go in terms of where we want to get to first.”

What they can aim at is becoming the leader for the second tier in the SEC, surpassing Kentucky and Georgia.
If they do that they return to the NCAA elimination season.

The team took a detour when some payers knelt in  protest before an exhibition game.

Girls at private Schools can avoid the public funding thing. It is  doubtful they thought that deeply.

For many if not most adults, this is choosing sides, anti-police. So, if Vandy has problems with local law enforcement being insulted, here’s a reason.

The coach lost control of her team by sanctioning this, yet another problem. Late to the party, past teams have protested with pregame TShirts or private gatherings.

Other students on campus do not agree with the protest, so there goes a fan connection. Vanderbilt’s attendance was already at the lowest for the program. Some student fans said they will not attend after this.

It does not say if these were reserve players or starters or what the other players thought.

Some of the players joined the university’s mission trip, Soles4Souls journey in the Caribbean, distributing shoes and other needed items to children.

Freshman point guard Kayla Overbeck made the USA Basketball 19-under team, representing America in the World Cup, one of three conference players.

The Gators made a mammoth coaching upgrade by hiring Cam Newbauer from Belmont. He built an Ohio Valley Conference powerhouse at the private Christian school, but has the pedigree (former Georgia assistant among that) to recruit and compete in the SEC with a demoralized team that dismissed its best player at midseason in a tiff with an egomaniacal coach. We called that one early.

Most importantly, Florida is one of those schools which empowers its programs. They have the new basketball arena just waiting for benchmarks.

He has four returning seniors and one junior, so his recruiting can be impactful.

He immediately added a quality player when UCLA graduate student Paulina Hesler, a 6-2 native of Sweden, transferred. She played in all UCLA games as they advanced to the Sweet 16 before being eliminated by UConn. 

As an age group player, she was on the Swedish National teams in 2011 and 2012.

 “We are very excited to welcome Paulina to Gator Nation,” said Newbauer.

“She brings a wealthy of experience and a special skill set to our program and will have an opportunity to make an impact immediately. She was part of some special seasons at UCLA and has a confidence and maturity about her that will complement our current roster well. We look forward to her arrival on campus later this summer."

She said, “I based my decision on the connection with the coaches. The first time I talked with Coach Cam I knew that he and his staff were really good people and I could put a lot of trust in them. 

“The relationship with the coach – especially since for me it’s a one-year deal – is really important. The coaches have great, great personalities and basketball philosophies and that’s going to help me get the most out of myself. I’m really excited about becoming a Gator and have already been working on my Gator chomp.”

 The incoming class also includes: Mikayla Hayes,  (6-2, forward, Brooklyn Park, Minn, Park Center).
Tameria Johnson (5-6, point guard, Ocala, Fla., West Port), Jalaysha Thomas (6-2, forward, Ocala, West Port),and 
a transfer from Miami, 6-2 junior Zada Williams, who will sit out her transfer year. She is a Florida native, from Lake Wales.

“I think our players have done a great job in embracing it,” said Neubauer. “We have to play a number of different ways. Our team is doing a great job of accepting that.

“We have a young team and that problem is depth and experience.

“You have got to get players to forget they were bigger, faster and bring it every day. We can’t have the players thinking of that.

“It’s the ‘We Over Me.’ ”

Ronni Williams, a second-round signee, lasted one WNBA exhibition game

The Razorbacks enticed alum Mike Neighbors to leave Washington, which he led to the Final Four from within the tough Pac 12. He developed Kelsey Plum, the national player of the year. They went 29-6. The Huskies were eliminated by Mississippi State.

He inherits three seniors, all in the sop four scorers, but none in double figures. He replaces a non-coach, an alumni given the job with no head coaching experience. The 2-15 SEC run reflected that. They have not won a game since Jan. 19.

The players hunger for coaching, but whether the university will at last offer program support will be the thing. 

Neighbors is a buddy of Vic Schaefer’s. He brought in Lacey Goldwire from Iowa and Todd Schaefer from Washington. Schaefer had three seasons as a Mississippi assistant.

“I have been an Arkansas fan since birth,” Neighbors said.
“I always cried when they lost. 

“It was not easy to leave, with what we had coming back. But home is home and you have to recognize it when it comes.

“At the end of the day you have to take it when opportunity knocks. I always talk to my kids to be ready. It would not be me to not be ready.

“We have a rejuvenation of excitement, something they can be excited about. If we get the right people and the right backing, it’ll come. The wins will come.”

“It was a six-year situation at Washington. You have to remember what it looked like, what it smelled like.

“Those kids who were sitting in the (Arkansas) locker room since Day One, they want to be here. It was in Year Five we went to the Final Four.

“Everybody is a freshman, because we’re all new to each other. We’ll follow the blueprint and it’ll work.”

Sophomore Aaliyah Wilson was invited to the USA Basketball 19-under Trials. 

Jessica Jackson, all-SEC in the preseason of her senior year, was drafted and cut by the Los Angeles WNBA team in the preseason there.

Yes, there is another program in the state. They have been rebuilt under the gloom of NCAA punishments from the previous coaching administration.

The charismatic Matt Insell has kept the focus. He returns leading scorer Medinah Muhammed from a 17-14 season. A guard upgrade comes from Chipola (Florida) Junior College, the national 3 Seed, in double-digit scorer Barbara Johnson. The Rebels had followed her JC seasons closely. She played on age group national teams for her native Canada.

The Ole Miss home season was highlighted by a five-point win over Tennessee.

But the 1-9 road record did not encourage fans. Only 1,500 came to the UT game, for instance. And there is the blinding light from Mississippi State to deal with.

Insell is one of those coaches in his first assignment who would be a smooth steal for any other program. Talk about being on a national watch list. His contract is good through 2020-21.

“This is the most excited about a team I’ve ever had,” said Insell. 

“We came in with a depleted roster and all sorts of NCAA violations and we just started building.

“I have great recruits now and some great returning players.”

The rookies are 6-5 Promise Taylor from Washington state, 5-8 Milicia Read from the Bronx, 5-9 Chyna Nixon from Philadelphia and a southern girl to interpretate for classmates, Day’Neshia Banks from Jacksonville.
He has two junior transfers, Barbara Johnson from Toronto’s Chipola College and Marlee Hatcher from Itawamaba Community College.

His second group of seniors are Sandricka Sessom and Chrishae Rowe.

“We struggled on the road last season,” said Insell. “So we are going to DePaul, going to Temple to play, we’re going to Oregon and play to get that out of their head.”

“We are challenging them in the gym. I like this team’s consistency. If our name is not called on Selection Monday, we’ll be disappointed. They talk about them among themselves. I say that’s good. Let me show you how to get there.”

The Ben-Gals are a team always undervalued but an NCAA tournament regular, back in after skipping one. They had four straight before that. They have been in the Final Four five times with previous coaches, the latest in 2006-’07-’08. So they have a program pedigree.

They have a slightly reduced superstar in Raigyne Moncrief, back last year are having her knee rebuilt. But LSU was a one-trick pony. This is her senior season.

“She is doing amazing,” said coach Nikki Fargas, an All-American playing product of the late Pat Head Summitt at UT.

“She knows what is means to have someone on both sides of the basketball. She is seasoned. That allows the upcoming freshmen to know how our defense is played.

Two other program products were on the WNBA championship team this summer.

“When they do come back and you see them walking down the hall, that means the younger players can think that’s what I can be,” said Farkas.

“The best thing about this team is we have depth. But we’re young and we’re teaching a whole new defensive system for everyone.

“The game doesn’t know your age.”

Freshmen are Raven Farley, Khayla Pointer, Dekiriya Patterson, Fautine Alfuwa and Jalin Cherry.

LSU also accepted SEC transfer in little-used freshman Rakell Spencer, a New Orleans native. She comes from Texas A&M. After sitting out this season, she will have three seasons left. 

What an interesting team with an enigmatic coach in Terri Williams-Flournoy. A 17-15 record somehow qualified for the NCAA eliminations. 

They were recipients of the annual NCAA eighth league bid gift, a playoff tradition other conferences wish they had. She enters her sixth season, which tied her for fifth in SEC longevity, but that is with higher profile coaches Schaefer and Warlick.

They did pound Tennessee by 18, creating a publicity moment for this year’s preamble, but they also lost to Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama down the stretch.

They graduated their top two scoring players. But they will have five seniors. 

They have four freshmen and significant transfers. Crystal Primm, a 5-11 guard, comes in from Duke. She only missed one game in her first two seasons. She will learn the system while working out with the team this season.

What happens next is the uber-competitive league will make this a team to watch. Have they maximized their potential? How do you scout a team with new, experienced players?

“I remember most of our comeback wins,” said Williams-Flournoy. “We were twice down by 17 and came back to win.” 

She is building on last year’s individual game successes. I think it will be building plays for these players, creating an offense that fits this team.

“We have five players in the post.”

Clemson transfer Tiffany Lewis, at 5-8, has made an impact with her new team mates for her one season to come.

“She’s gonna be a big presence this year,” said junior guard Janiah McKay. “I am looking forward to be able to play with her this year.”

The coach, of course, knows the game turns on defense.

“On defense, I make them dream about it at night,” said Williams-Flournoy.
“Our pressure defense is who we are.”

“The young players are adjusting. Our defense takes a year.”

Unique Thompson, a 6-3 rookie, has impressed her teammates in workouts. “It’s a joy to be able to pass into the post and she’s a finisher,” said senior giard Jazzmine Jones. “She’s aggressive and everyone already knows their role. We’re all very close.”  

The ’Dawgs biggest news is attracting a 6-5 transfer from one season at Maryland in homestate player Jenna Staiti. She will learn the system in her sit out season.

Georgia is in an interesting position. Coach Joni Taylor inherited Andy Lander’ leftovers and made the NCAAs her first year. 

Then she did not in last season’s 16-15 effort. 

They were close to the gift NCAA bid awarded annually to the conference, but that went to Auburn, identical to Georgia’s 7-9 in the league. 

They averaged about 3,000 at home, about the same as the previous season. Georgia defeated Auburn and Tennessee towards the end of the season and it was not good enough.

They graduated three, including the leading scorer. But they return two double-digit scorers and two of the three best rebounders and will have a senior assists leader.

So this is the season to establish whatever trend Taylor will have, with a team still in transition.

Staiti was the Georgia high school player of the year in 2016 as Miss Georgia Basketball. Ae 6-6, Staiti was also a nationally-ranked swimmer. Her mother, Sandi, played volleyball at Providence College and her father, Jim, played basketball at Presbyterian and Erskine College.

The Lady Bulldogs signed four national recruits during the early signing period, including five-star guards Que Morrison and Gabby Connally, four-star guard Maya Caldwell and four-star forward Malury Bates. Each player is ranked in the top-15 at her position nationally.

“For us, it’s to be the best we can be every day. We have freshmen who have a learning curve that means they have to learn very quickly.

“There’s a lot of moments off the course, but my moments are to see when the lights click on and they can grow into their role.”

She is expecting much from 6-3 junior forward Caliya Robinson.

“It means me just coming every and working hard, trying to encourage my teammates,” said Robinson.
“Just to push everybody.”
For the second straight season, Missouri has declined to participate in our coverage.