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, December 25, 2017

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report: A Nation’s Impact With Christmas Wishes

By Mike Siroky

Let’s pause before the start of the best games in the best conference – the Southeastern Conference which currently has five teams ranked in the Top 20  by the Associated Press.

On New Year’s Eve, the next championship season appropriately starts, with only a few non-conference games before start of the NCAA eliminations.

There is a realistic chance two SEC team will get top seeds.

The defending national champs of South Carolina are likely to keep winning. No. 1s and the two home games that go with being in the Top 16.

UConn will be the No. 1 of all No. 1s as it has been for several seasons.

The best of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which could be Notre Dame again, should be there as well. So those two former Big East Conference competitors cannot meet until the national semifinals.

Mississippi State was jawjacked last season and sent on as a No. 2. No real complaint except the national seeding committee fell into the old time trap of picking a lesser team coached by a woman as the No. 1. The Bulldogs made the adjustment for them.

The point is, at this distance from national selection day, it may well be only one No. 1 seed is truly in play. If you wish to include the Big 12, the Pac 12 and the national host Big Ten, the No.  2s are few as well.

But back to the SEC.

Throw out the one team with a losing record and they are 119-28 against America right now. Only the ACC has bested them head-to-head. Obviously, undefeated Mississippi State and Tennessee have beaten everyone else, a combined 23-0. South Carolina has only lost to Notre Dame while Mizzou is also 12-1 so that makes the big four 45-2That’s a nice start on a claim of national domination.

Inside the conference, Ole Miss has finally shown signs of the successful build from ground up done by coach Matt Insell. They are 9-3. They may not win 20 in the regular season but they could get close enough by the conference tournament.

As we have written, all SEC teams which have ever won 20 games gets into the NCAA eliminations, usually a quarter of the Sweet 16 if not more. The league last season earned seven bids, including the aforementioned No. 1 and No.2 and two No. 5s

That’s two home games to start. The Big Four, with the fabulous start, have already guaranteed themselves 20 wins. Last season, only one team in the nation beat both the national finalists at their home gyms. That was Tennessee, lightly regarded on the national scene.

This season, they have earned respect and the fabulous freshman class had produced as it was scripted to do, merging with two sensational seniors.

SC, of course, has the league player of the year and a top national favorite. But what Dawn Staley has done is reinvent recruiting for lean years. Her second-best point producer is a now-eligible transfer from Kentucky. Her point guard was starting most if the championship season as a freshman and is undeniably a true leader. 

Staley saw the value of a graduate of Penn State with one season of eligibility left due to her non-playing year while rehabbing a knee. She brought her in for a one-and-done and has been rewarded with the best 3 shooter in the SEC. Right now, though, Lindsey Spann is nursing that rehabbed knee and has missed five games.

Still what the Gamecocks bring to destroy you are two players with an All-American and a new point guard with league experience and that potential of Spann as a long-range sniper.

Mississippi State is rocking and ready again if SC stumbles. It returns its best scorer, now past the 2,000 point career threshold you must respect with the best junior center in America, who came of age in a wondrous sophomore season. 

They have a dynamic point guard who made The Shot that eliminated UConn last year. Morgan William completed degree requirements this month. She joins 18 others with the graduate patch on their unifroms, Among those  from top teams: Mercedes Russell and Jamie Nared from Tennessee, Jessica Harden, Kentucky; Lulu McKinney, Texas A&M. This exemplifies another difference between the men’s and women’s game. Seldom does a top quality male player stay long enough to earn a degree while still playing.

It reinforces program legacy with maturity.

Vic Schaefer is as highly regarded as any coach in America, unafraid to realign the lineup for the national Regionals.

Out there somewhere is Gary Blair and the enigma that is Texas A&M. They can beat anyone. They can lose any time. He has the perhaps the national rookie of the year. Chennedy Carter has already hit for 45 (a program best) once, yet deferred all praise to her teammates setting her up.

Tennessee has the best rookie class, but they are an undeniable group of team players, chirping happiness when anyone of the team scores and ready to welcome in a second dynamic group after this season. Mercedes Rusell is either the best center in the league or darn close while Jamie Nared may be the best team leader for those rooks. 

Tennessee had 98 games as a No 1 seed in the NCAA tournaments and are the only program to have been in every one of them.

No other program other than UConn (with 100) has more than 43. That means all the other teams have to win one more than 50 straight seasons of No. 1 seeds to join the all-time conversation. 

It will never happen. The game keeps progressing and the competition has toughened to where, today, you could name the Sweet 16 and get at least 14 of them. You can place SC and UConn as half of the top seeds. Everyone else is playing to avoid them, right now.

It is still fun to project the Southeastern Conference. If you win all your home games, you win the conference, No one did that last season. If you win 20 games, you are in the elimination games. No SEC team with 20 regular-season wins has ever been left out. Any team can beat anybody at home.

The league has had six teams in the Associated Press Top 25. SC and national runner-up Mississippi State have been in the Top 7. Tennessee has been in the Top 10, using a flock of rookies, including one who resembles the start of the legendary Chamique Holdsclaw. Those are all NCAA home seeds.

 Tennessee is the only team in the nation to have beaten both South Carolina and Mississippi State in those teams’ runup to the national title game. At their homes. So there.

So the league is alright.

UConn will be a No. 1 seed. Mississippi State and South Carolina can win one as well. The nation is thus playing for one No. 1 seed. And to naturally avoid the other three.

It’s good to be the SEC.

Georgia is trying to recover past glory. Vanderbilt has yet to hit in its reboot. As long as Gary Blair is at Texas A&M, they will be competitive, but they did lose at home to the only ranked teams they played so far. UK is working miracles but lost to an unranked team when it was in the Top 20.

The real new trend is how to use graduate players and transfers, a rule just a few years old. In  other words, win with players you did not initially recruit. SC reloaded last season with a one-and-done backcourt. They reloaded this season with a magnificent sniper Spann from Penn State and the eligibility alongside Wilson of Alexis Jennings from Kentucky. Te’a Cooper from Tennessee ought to join them any game now. 

Mississippi State gained the former Arkansas high school player of the year in time for the SEC. She already is playing.

In the preseason, the SEC picked an all-conference team. The problem always is, they are voting on past accomplishments and past credits are no guarantee indicators of future success. Sometimes, creditability is lost.

For instance, only South Carolina’s Dawn Staley saw the value of Spann, an undisputed all-conference  if she plays in hers one-and-done season. If not for Wilson, she’d be in the conversation for player of the year. 

She certainly is all-conference. And yet received no preseason love.

Arkansas and Florida have real coaches at last. It looks as if LSU may be the one needing to make the change this season when the one trick pony finishes eligibility.

The still unbelievable hangover is last season’s the selection of SEC coach if the year. Neither of the coaches who made the NCAA title game won it. Nor did the coach who kept Kentucky on life support all the way into the playoffs.

The league has never explained nor apologized for selecting a coach who lot her only game in the SEC tournament (again) and then lost two games into the eliminations. Yep, two of her final three.

Let’s rectify that situation this season, folks.

Again the joy of the league is the Sunday calendar has New Year’s Eve as the start of league play. How appropriate.



No. 4 South Carolina 

Dawn Staley went back to her Temple roots, hometown, first coaching job, for the only tribute test before beginning defense of its multi-season SEC title. 

From the 26-9 start, another inflicting of defense over offense to a single-digit statement, they methodically took apart the Owls, winning every quarter to an 87-60 win and an 11-1 record.

A’ja Wilson, already the league player of the season, was one of five in double figures. The team set their season high with eight 3s. Wilson was 7-of-12 from the line, setting the program record at free throws made, 484, and, naturally, attempted, 684. She had a career-best 11 blocks. The 12 rebounds completed the triple/double.

Point guard Tysha Harris had a double/double consecutively, 13 points and 11 assists, another career first. They drew 3,185.

Lindsey Spann missed a fifth consecutive game with her banged-up restructured knee. If she is still unavailable after break, she will not be counted on for the season.

Staley had not been at her hometown school since leaving for SC in 2008. The city responded by naming a street after her, Dawn Staley Lane, a section of Diamond Street. It was a route she walked to the same gym in which the game was played.

“Thank you for being the place where North Philadelphians can come to start making their dreams a reality,” she said. “This place houses dedication, hope and love, and that is what a true Champion is made of! 25th and Diamond is where Dreams start!” 

They have a Christmas break this week until the first headline game of the SEC season welcomes when No 19 Texas A&M with another women’s Hall of Fame coach and the best darned rookie in the country. It’s the undeniable conference game of the week.

They go to 9-3 Ole Miss and the so-far conference coach of the year to close the week.

No. 5 Mississippi State

The Bulldogs participated in the two-game Duel in the Desert tournament in Las Vegas this week. It is not a round robin.

Teaira McCowan is the first non-senior to earn league layer of the week honors.

 They played Las Vegas to open. The home team in the Duel was welcoming. State led by 27 at the half, 17 by Victoria Vivians including three 3s.  

McCowan was one rebound short of a double/double and had 13 points Blair Schaefer matched Vivians in 3s and scored 11.

Vegas was outshooting the visitors from StarkVegas but it just didn’t matter. In another game where the bench got plenty of play, McCowan she grabbed her 10th a minute and a half into the third. It ended 103-64. McCowan scored 31, 7-of-7 from the line, with 15 rebounds, Vivians scored 22, with six rebounds, five defensive and four assists, Schaefer had  seven assists.

“We got going in transition there,” coach Vic Schaefer said. “We got some turnovers and hit some 3s. It gave us some momentum. (Vivians) was really on fire early. We were 9-for-17 at the half from 3-point range.

“Overall, for us, very proud of how we played.

“We gave up some easy stuff at the end,” Schaefer said. “We really wore them down. We got some good minutes from the bench. It was just a relentless effort and we stayed consistent throughout the game.”

State won rebounds, 42-34. The noon start drew 500.

So it was on to Syracuse. The No. 22 Orange still has players left from their national championship runnerup team of two seasons ago, though the majority now are rookies and sophomores for mercurial coach Quentin Hillsman. They ran into UConn in the second elimination game last season and lost there by 30. But they were 11-0 in this battle of unbeatens.

The game started cautiously, MSU in front at the quarter stop, 22-18. McCowan scored six with four rebounds and a block, Schaefer and Vivians each had nine, Schaefer all 3s. Coach Schaefer mixed in the bench early using three reserves. They were holding the Orange to 35 percent from the field.

Syracuse could not quite figure it out. State stayed steady, 22 in each of the first two quarters led to a 15-point halftime edge. Schaefer had 12 or her 15 already. The defense was at work, forcing 10 (of 15) turnovers and building a 15-1 advantage in points off turnovers.

Vivians was focused on winning and led the Bulldogs with 26, adding nine rebounds. Her calm was important because McCowan fouled out late, taking her 26.5 points and 14.5 rebounds per game in the past five to the bench. It is her first elimination of the season. 

Vivian’s points were also important because it helped her top 2,000 for her career, the third player in program history to reach the mark.

“With Teaira in foul trouble, I thought Victoria really put us on her back and willed us to victory, rebounding the ball on the defensive end and offensively she was really special,” coach Schaefer said. “We put in her some spots where she could go create and I thought she really responded.”

Vivians just sees a team effort.

“Once we settle down and get in the rhythm of the game, it helps us get stops and get those scores,” Vivians said. “(The career points) really doesn’t matter to me, because I know I have to take one game at a time. I know I can score. We got the wings and the point guards -- they make shots. Our team overall, they’re ready to knock down some big shots.

“We had to settle down,” Vivians said. “After that first timeout, we slowed some things down. We got some stops, some turnovers and turned that into points. We had a lot of players step up. I feel like (Roshunda Johnson) and (Blair Schaefer) can make any shot they take.”

Gabrielle Cooper Syracuse’s leading scorer, was a little exasperated at the first loss.

“We didn’t play our game, we got into some foul trouble with both our bigs and that left us to play small,” Cooper said. “And to play small against that team . . .  you’re not going to win like that.”

Her coach agrees.

“They’re a really good basketball team, they play really hard and they pressure you and their pressure is relentless,” Hillsman said. “We did a decent job handling the pressure, but what hurt us is we had live-ball turnovers. Our turnovers led to buckets.”

Coach Schaefer is building to the league season.

“We’ve got a little bit of added depth now,” he  said. “Not our best day inside with Teaira getting in foul trouble. Blair carried us in the first half ... and Roshunda Johnson made two really big shots for us in the second half when we were getting cold.”

Their last pre-conference test is winless Mississippi Valley State, which will cost $1 to get in in a charity fund-raiser. Last season they also started 13-0 on their way to the national finals. This will complete the home stated sweep. Others can only admire this program rising to the top of the national game with institutional support while they languish. It involves the other Mississippi conference team. Any non-State win is now an upset.

The SEC opens with two middling teams they need to beat to reinforce their elite stats, at Georgia then Arkansas at home, Georgia is 11-1 and reclaiming their reputation of two seasons ago, They also won their state. But to those Bulldogs this is a gut test.

Arkansas is successfully rebuilding with its first real coach in years. It gives former Razorback  starter Jordan Danberry, a sophomore in eligibility, a reunion with her old mates.

No. 7 Tennessee

The first road trip of the season ended at No 18 Stanford before a 10-day Christmas break.

The Cardinal is where the Vols were last season. Stanford is still a name team. They are a nice marquee win for the better ones. They won the Lexington Regional last season, eliminating Notre Dame and then ran into a nine-point elimination by South Carolina

UT had this 83-71 win in hand all the way and remains unbeaten as they scatter for home and a nice celebration.

Mercedes Russell had 11 points and 10 rebounds, eight defensive. Jamie Nared hit an astounding 3-of-14 free throws amid her 28m points. Evina Westbrook scored a career-best 17, 6-of-9 from the field.

“We’re very resilient. We play hard,” said coach Holly Warlick, “They’re outstanding.

“We’ve really done a great job of playing in the moment. We didn’t settle for really bad shots. We had kids come in and do their part.

“We have got to get  little smarter defending, We work on it really hard every day and it is showing.”

“We did not come out to a good start,” Russell said . “They came out to a good start and we ended it. Basketball is a game of runs and we answered it. Stanford id a great rebounding team. They rebounded us by 13. There were a lot of thing for us to clean up. They are a really smart team.”

“Overall, our big problem this week was rebounding. We know what we need to work on,” said Westbrook.

“I just like this tram competes,” said Russell. ‘Everyone comes and does their part. At the end of the day, it’s December still. We have so much basketball to go. We want to keep getting better.”

The rookie class gets SEC exposure – and visa-versa – at a very tough Rupp Arena which is not the home court of Kentucky, but is an NCAA Regional site for the third straight season and a convenient drawing gym for the occasional fan with a recognizable foe. This could be the year UK does not qualify in the Sweet 16 and so another league team could finally crack the conference code in the playoffs. The Vols then play Auburn in their conference home opener.

 No.19 Texas A&M

On top of her school-record 45 points earning her the expected league rookie of the week award,  Chennedy Carter also attracted notice as the national player of the week from the alphabetical network.

The Aggies joined South Carolina in the Duel in the Desert, against Hawaii and No. 10 Oregon.

Khaalia Hillsman made all 12 of her field goals – a program record and best in the country this season -- and scored 25, all in in 20 minutes. Danni Williams added 23, including a career-best five 3s, in 25 minutes.

\Hillsman’s effort is a single-game program record.

Anriel Howard had 11 points and 12 rebounds. Carter scored 10 with 11 assists, growing the program record with a 12th double-digit game to start a career and added a double/double in 20 minutes.

The Aggies led 57-27 at halftime with the program’s most first-half points since 2009, so the most in a Gary Blair coached team.

“It’s really about the guards giving me the ball,” Hillsman said. “They were giving me the ball in the perfect areas to turn and score. They are being pressured, so they work hard to get open and get me the ball.

“We work so hard in practice. They go really hard at me. So, sometimes in game.  I get the same footwork my teammates have and I have what  I need in the game to get free.”

The afternoon game drew 847.

Then came No. 10 Oregon, the rare double non-conference opponent in a season, which had won in Aggieland by 15 in the season-opening NIT using a 55-34 second half.  Williams had 10 points, Hillsman 17 and Carter 23.

It was déjà vu all over again as them Ducks won again, 84-62, probably knocking the Aggies out of the Top 20.

A&M started by getting doubled, 34-17, in the first quarter, They regained some defensive swagger by stalling Oregon with seven second-quarter points, but it was still 41-31 at the break,

Nothing much good came again.

A 23-14 fourth was just for Oregon emphasis and A&M sits at 10-3, impressive elsewhere but pedestrian in this league. Still, 10 wins is the sought halfway mark to the 20-win marker.

Carter kept her double-digit thing going with 13.  Williams doubled her effort from the first meeting, 22, and Hillsman scored 18.

It may be time to alter the forward line as well. Oregon, an Elite 8 team a year ago, had simply too much energy there (A&M won the boards by 11).

“Their offensive firepower is incredible. They have a very great post inside and they have a strong outside presence, so that’s hard because you have to pick and choose what you’re gonna do and how you’re gonna guard that defensively,” said Williams

“When you get behind by 17 points early in the first quarter, it’s tough to come back. But I’m proud of our team. We really fought hard today.”

 ”We were as good as we could’ve been, certainly offensively,” said Oregon coach Kelly Graves

“We talked about having a quick start. And since we’ve inserted Satou Sabally into the starting lineup, we’ve actually started better, so I think that’s helped. Defensively, we had a little bit to be desired. But offensively everything was clicking. We spaced the floor well, we made shots. We played well, but could even maybe do it a little bit better.”

Maite Cazorla scored 26­­­. “We just wanted to start hard and play hard and knew what we had to do knowing their personnel,” Cazorla said. “Our chemistry is really awesome. We’re good on and off the court, we know each other, and we knew not to relax because that team could’ve come back on us. We had to play all 40 minutes.”

A&M closes the pre-conference Thursday against SMU, to cement bragging rights for the state.  SMU has already lost to Alabama. After the home opener at South Carolina they get a marquee matchup at home against formerly ranked Kentucky.

Trend: Eleanna Christinaki scored a career-high 32 in her debut for No. 15 Maryland. The mishandling of Christinaki by the former egocentric Florida coach spurred the transfer. The coach is out; Christinaki is in and basketball is the better for it.

For the second straight season, Missouri, a ranked team, has declined to participate in our coverage.



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