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.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Mike Siroky’s SEC Report: The Dancing Fun Begins

By Mike  Siroky

For the fourth straight season, the Southeastern Conference of women’s basketball in the NCAA eliminations has a No. 1 seed. But it wasn’t automatic.


The NCAA has a tough job. While we outsiders see the end result we have suspicions – but don’t know – how the sausage is made.


South Carolina won the alleged automatic bid. Notre Dame and Mississippi State did not. South Carolina and Notre Dame did not win the regular season. 

If you have written about the women as long as we have, we can recall the 32-team bracket and winning conference was all that mattered.

 Of course, back in the AIAW, you could lose in the Regional Finals and still make the Final Four because that group, with the help of dominant coaches, basically picked a Final Four.


Back then, there were a lot of objections if this sort of thing happened. 

Not now. 

Everyone is getting money. ESPN2 will have broadcast rights to every gamer so depending on where you lie, you’ll get what they allow you to get.

But the NCAA seems to be stepping on its own toes by declaring “automatic bid – again for money – designations then ignoring it.

 So the defending national champs are flung into UConn’s meat grinder – having already been trounced at home by them this season.


Truth is, of course, they all knew they’d be at home with a ticket punched for the Sweet 16. 

They all know any No. 1 has to play a No. 2 to get to the Final Four (Mississippi State last season).


Historically, 17 of the recent 20 No 1 seeds before this were automatic qualifiers as conference winners, with only UConn in 2013, SC in 2014, and Baylor last year as at-large top seeds.

 The last time two at-large qualifiers were No. 1s in a weak 2009 when Duke with five losses and Oklahoma with four were top seeds after losing in their conference tournaments.


When you are the SEC, you now expect multiple seeds, which means the sorority shares even Regionals. 

With seven in this season, three Regionals have two each.


The No. 1 is Mississippi State in the Midwest, from whence they advanced last season to the Final Four.


Vic Schaefer recognizes the win at the Final Four elevated the program. They responded.

They are one of two at-large No. 1s.


The most-recent game was the loss in the SEC tournament, again, to South Carolina.

“We were not pleased with how the tournament ended,” he said. “We didn’t play well. You give them credit. Dawn her staff did a great job. We didn’t hit shots. I didn’t need a close a game to get my attention.


“(The loss) is not something we needed, my staff, we were coaching to win.” 

He called Teaira McCowan a double/double machine. He said there is not another player in the country to improve her shooting percentage 13 percentage points in a single season, at this level when she gets the defensive game plan every contest, as Victoria Vivians has done.

 In last season’s tournament, he benched Vivians because the reserves were playing better. She got the message.

 McCowan was among the reserves to start their first game in the NCAAs.

So we go.
 
KANSAS CITY: Mississippi State

The best pressure basketball defense in America opens at home against Nicholls State.

Texas, the No. 2 seed, Syracuse, two seasons removed from the Final Four and the championship game and Maryland also lurk here.

 That makes this toughest bracket.

Yet another program record is the No. 1 seed. You better believe Schaefer put that on the shelf as soon as the selection was made.

The NCAA Selection Committee violated one of its own traditions by sending two teams State has already beaten this season to them again.

State opens play against the No. 16 seed  Saturday afternoon.

No. 8 seed Syracuse faces No. 9 seed Oklahoma State in the opening game at 3:30 p.m.

“I’m really proud of our kids and appreciate the committee’s consideration,” Schaefer said. “Our schedule, especially non-conference, was very difficult. Two of those same teams, Syracuse and Oklahoma State, we played really good ball games with.

 “If we get past Nicholls State, then we will have to play one of them. You get a conference champion in Nicholls State, and I’m very familiar with them. They have had a great year.


“I’m excited to play on a Saturday instead of a Friday afternoon. We won’t need to write any excuses for people to get out of work. I’m thrilled to have 10,000 fans in here for an NCAA Tournament game.”


Nicholls State is in Thibodaux, La., so not so far from StarkVegas. They won the automatic bid of the Southland  Conference by defeating the No. 5 seed, the No. 1 seed and the No. 2 seed in order. 

It is their first NCAA entrance. 

Tea Charles and Marina Lilly are their senior leaders.


Cassidy Barrios, a 5-10 junior guard, is their best scorer (17.1) and rebounder (9.3).
The Bulldogs hosted Oklahoma State on Dec. 3 in the Big 12/ EC Challenge, winning a 79-76 decision. State met Syracuse Dec. 21 in the Duel in the Desert in Las Vegas, claiming a 76-65 victory.


The Colonels claimed the first championship in program history with a 69-65 win over Stephen F. Austin on Sunday afternoon.
 
ALBANY: Georgia and South Carolina


OK, no one wanted to be in UConn’s brackets. Two SEC teams are now there. 

The play of SC in this Regional means a least one Final Four team of a year ago will not repeat.


Only four teams have ever successfully defended a title (UConn with multiples) SC starts here.

South Carolina won the automatic bid which turned out to be a No. 2 seed, lower than the team it defeated.


They open with No 15 seed North Carolina A&T and also host. No. 7 seed California and No. 10 Virginia. 

Their games start Friday.

AT&T coach Tarrell Robinson said, “My young ladies are excited and humbled to go against the 2017 National Champions. Our culture and daily values are on track for our program to continue to play in games such as these.


“Now my young women get to see if what we focus on every day in practice and talk about daily measures up to a program that has been to the top of the mountain in this sport.


He is an engaging speaker. The conference openings in the SEC could do well to attract such a coach.


N.C. A&T won its fourth Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, earning its fourth NCAA appearance, three in the past nine seasons. The Aggies are also the MEAC co-regular-season champs with a 15-1 mark.


The Aggies have won 11 straight and 19 of the past 20. They took down a Hampton team with six MEAC titles in nine years with a 72-65 win in the conference tournament championship game.


Led by the conference tournament’s most valuable, senior guard Kala Green, the Aggies ranked first in the MEAC in assists (442), offensive rebounds per game (17), rebounds (1.392), rebounds per game (67.0) and in turnovers forced (23.03).

 N.C. A&T’s 14.3 assists per game, 35.1 field goal percentage defense, 684 free throw attempts, 4.0 rebound margin, 5.13 turnover margin and 74.2 win-loss percentage all rank second in the conference. 


Robinson will coach in his second NCAA tournament game. 

They lost to No. 1 seed Notre Dame 95-61 in a first-round game at Purcell Pavilion on March 19, 2016 in South Bend.


“We want to advance in this tournament and there’s no better way of figuring out what it takes than to play the best in this sport,” said Robinson. “For me, competing against the likes of Dawn Staley, Hall of Fame player and Hall of Fame coach, is a dream come true. 

“She is the standard for minorities in this sport, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for her and everything she’s accomplished. This is also a great opportunity for our fans to really show their support for our program with us only having to travel three hours.”


“We stand here as conference tournament champions,” Staley told a packed house at the home area, gathered for the selection announcement.  To be champions in our conference says whole lot. We’re gonna play it. 

“We can’t control where we go but we can control how we play, the effort we put into it.  One of these days, we may earn the right to play in a  Regional which we can drive to.”


This is the third straight eliminations in which an SEC sire, Lexington, hosted a Regional and SC was never allowed there. 

Also unsaid, of course, is the NCAA ban on awarding Regionals to a state which flies the Confederate Battle Flag at official state sites like parks.

Last season, a neighboring business flew a massive Confederate Battle Flag adjacent to the SC campus. 

The play-ins are carefully parsed by the NCAA, are earned home games, not awarded home games. The same applies to Mississippi State.
 
No. 4 seed Georgia is back in a big way, hosting for the first time since another era, 2003. 

They play No. 13 seed Mercer. 

Others at this site are No. 12 Belmont and No. 5 Duke, two very dangerous teams.


Mercer won the Southern Conference, 14-0 season and the post-season tournament.

Senior guard Kahlia Lawrence – the three-time conference  Player of the Year – also won  the tournament Most Outstanding Player. She averages 19.2 points and five rebounds per game. 

Junior guard  KeKe Calloway (16.9 ppg) was also conference all-tournament. 

They are both Georgia natives. 

Junior Amanda Thompson averages 6.6 rebounds per outing. This is Mercer's first trip to the NCAA Division I Tournament in program history. 

The Bears are currently riding a 27-game winning streak and are ranked  an all-time program best No. 25 in the AP final poll.  Coach Susie Gardner has  been the top coach at Arkansas and a Florida assistant.
 
SPOKANE: Texas A&M and LSU


A&M is a four seed to Notre Dame’s one. They open in College Station against Drake.


The Aggies are in their 13th straight NCAA Tournament, starting with No. 13 seed Drake on Friday afternoon.


It is the fifth time in seven years that Texas A&M has hosted opening  games,  the 10th time in the past 12 seasons A&M has earned a Top 4 seed, seeded sixth or better in all 13 of their consecutive tournament appearances.


Also in Aggieland is No. 5 seed DePaul, the automatic qualifier out of the Big East and Oklahoma, another at-large selection.
 
The Aggies are among eight to have qualified for at least 13 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, joining Tennessee, UConn, DePaul, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Stanford.

“I had us in Spokane, which is fine with us. No one wants to go to Albany. I just wanted to make sure we were not the worst No. 4.

“Being here at home is the best thing to reward our fans. We are on spring break, so I am going to have every little kid within a 200-mile radius here, I am going to market myself.


“We have played a tough schedule. That is what the SEC gets your ready for.


“The game is won with the point guard. That’s where you start. This will be my 46th year. I have to be on the same page with the point guard. “


He has the best rookie in America, but is pushing Chennedy Carter to be consistent the entire game and not just the start. She has yet to miss double figures, but, as he said, this is not a democracy; he is still the boss.


He also said he had to explain to a couple of his players where Drake is and they returned the favor by explaining who the rapper Drake is.


Drake is from Des Moines, Iowa.  They have won two MVC titles in a row, its seventh conference tournament overall. 

They have four underclassmen averaging double figures: Sophomore guard Becca Hither (15.6), sophomore forward Sarah Rine (15.5), junior reserve guard Maddy Dean (10.7) and junior guard Sammie Bachrodt (10.2).. Rine (6.0)  is the leading rebounder.
 
LSU is on the road as a No. 6 in Columbus, Ohio.

Ohio State is also in this bracket, where the Buckeyes are the No. 3 seed. LSU takes on No. 11 Central Michigan in legendary St. John Arena.

No. 14 George Washington meets host Ohio State in the second game.

The Lady Tigers are making their 26th appearance in the NCAA Tournament and their sixth in the last seven years under coach Nikki Fargas.

 It is also the 18th time in the past 20 seasons LSU qualified for the eliminations.


“It feels great to get our momentum going again in the NCAA Tournament,” said Fargas. “This group has worked extremely hard. To see where we were a few years ago with all of the injuries and to have our name solidified and called today. 

“All of the hard work these young ladies have put in going back to the preseason with the 6 a.m. workouts to now, playing a tough schedule, playing in the toughest conference in the country. Job well done by them.”


The  Chippewas are the regular season and conference tournament champions of the MAC for the first time since 1993. 

Their gathering site for the draw was packed.


"It's the same thing like when we were at the MAC  tournament, all the people that were there, the community, the fans that were there," said  coach Sue Guevara. “Today I couldn't get a parking spot, which is awesome.


"That just tells you how invested the community is in us, and how invested we are in the community. We've said this all along, as a program if we give back to the community, they're going to give back to us.

‘ Central Michigan, Mount Pleasant, we're together. It's awesome, it's a great place to be.”


All five starters hit double figures: Senior Tinara Moore (18.7), juniors Presley Hudson (18.3) and Reyna Frost (14.1), senior Cassie Breen (12) and freshman DePaul transfer Micaela Kelly (11.4), The best rebounders are Frost (11.8) and Moore (9.8).
 
LEXINGTON: Missouri and Tennessee


Louisville, the top seed, earned the bid.by sweeping the ACC regular season and conference tournament. 

They have never been a No. 1 or No. 2.

They eliminated Tennessee in the second game, at home, last season. Baylor lurks here as the No. 2.

 From here on out, their point guard is a rookie, filling in for an injured senior.


The No. 3 seed Lady Vols are back to hosting, against no. 14 seed Liberty. The Flames are no newbies. They are in their 17th NCAA in 22 seasons and are Big South champs again.


Their coach is a UT grad, Carey Green. He grew up across the Tennessee River from the Knoxville campus in Maryville.


The balanced attack is led by the trio of 6-1 sophomore frontliner  Keyen Green, (13.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg), 6-1 junior frontliner  K.K. Barbour  (9.8 and 5.9) and 5-6 freshman point guard Ashlyn Baker (8.0 ppg). 

Green is the Big South Player of the Year, Baker is Big South Freshman of the Year and Barbour is Big South Championship MVP.


"(Getting to host) is huge for us,” said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick. “Getting a chance to play in front of your fans again and an opportunity to stay here and not have to travel. It's awesome. I love it."


The team knew they were in and hosting and the reaction was subdued as they pondered missed opportunities and a step back by the senior leaders.


“We have a business-like approach,” Warlick said.  “As long as we can channel our energy into Liberty and what we have to do.


“I've seen Liberty a little bit. I saw their championship game. I don't know a lot about them. 


"We took a couple of days off. After the SEC we practiced for three days. We practiced early Friday, so we gave them early Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday off. 

“We came back today, and we're not going to take another day off. I'm very mindful of our bodies. We're just banged up, and we need to heal.

“ We need to stay in shape as well, because the running game and the pressing is part of our game. We have to make sure they stay in shape, but we have to give them a chance to heal."

 No. 6 seed Oregon State will meet No. 11 seed Western Kentucky  in the Knoxville opener. 
 
Missouri, despite having the alleged coach of the year in conference returning, are still road feed as a No. 5. 

They are at Stanford’s qualifying games, taking on No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast on Saturday.  No. 4 seed Stanford and No. 13 Gonzaga are the others there.
 
 Awards Time
 
The post-season awards have started. As we have told you all along, South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson is the Player of the year, this time USA Today which sponsors the coaches’ poll agreeing with us.

 Victoria Vivians of Mississippi State is a first-team All-American too.  Chennedy Carter also answered our outcome prediction by being named Freshman of the Year.

Wilson is the first Gamecock to win National Player of the Year. It is very Ruth Riley-like.


Wilson was also Player fo the Year for College Sports Madness and Vivians is a first team All-American with Carter, fourth team All-American, nonetheless Freshman of the Year. Vic Schaefer is, of course, Coach of the Year.


As a side note, Asia Durr of Louisville made first team at USA Today as well. 

That kerfuffle started when Notre Dame coach Muffett McGraw referred to her as ‘”the other player” in the league when pumping her own star. The Louisville coach, with the two wins, paused in the handshake line after the conference final to reintroduce his player to McGraw, The player McGraw was positioning is second-team All-America.

Wilson was also ESPN’s Player of the Year, first team with Teaira McCowan of Mississippi State. 

Vivians is second team and Carter is rookie of the year.


For the third straight season we projected which coach was likely to leave an SEC team. The very night Matt Insell accepted a buyout at Old Miss, another (much more successful) coach wired us to ask how we did this.

Well, we pay attention. In Insell’s case, he is a fine coach who inherited a program in ruins in 2013 and the SEC does not allow its weaker teams to get up off the floor.


A long-term build like South Carolina and Mississippi State also requires spectacular upsets along the way and not a little bit of luck in acquiring recruits or transfers upon which to build.


Insell had neither, despite fostering four 1,000-point scorers in his time. He had little institutional support. He came from a then-successful Kentucky program. 

The fraternity of coaches in the league said all the right things about him. He was not scrubbed from the university website.

 Of course, the clown show on the SEC network did not mention his departure at all, even in a nice way.


He had five years in which to defeat, say, Tennessee. He did not. That 21-season loss streak continues.


At Tennessee, the inheritor of a legacy has done just swell and maintained a Top 15 ranking.

 Insell inherited a program whose glory days are long past, even if those times had a very good coach who later defined his legacy in the WNBA.


Of course, Insell’s immediate curse – besides a program under NCAA investigation – is the best team in the league arose in-state. That galled the Mississippi good ol’ boys no end.


He won 70 and lost 87, 18-62 in conference, 2-5 in the league tournament.

 They ascended to the booby prize that is the NIT as recently as last season. His 2015 team accepted two wins there and reached 19 overall, the most since 2009.

 But he won only one game in conference this season.

He may not be the only coach whose university tires of living at the bottom, but he was the main suspect.