By Mike Siroky
The most powerful women’s basketball conference in the nation has had its usual eventful summer adventures of top players representing America on top international teams. One of them took the allowed European tour and got a jump start on practice and play as a team.
They have gathered on campuses across the Southeastern Conference to try and find identities as individual role players, as newly melded starting fives with additions.
Non-conference play – wherein the SEC annually has a better than .700 winning percentage against everyone else – started this weekend. The league went 17-3.
All are pointing towards Indianapolis and the coming Final Four.
The SEC has a legitimate chance to qualifying two there by being seeded as No. 1s in the big tournament and thus avoid – as recent history had proven – being steamrolled by UConn before the Final Four.
UConn will be in home state Bridgeport if it wants to be for its Regional.
The Huskies represents the forever truth is the women’s game: There is one truly elite team and everyone else is playing for No. 2 and the puncher’s chance (hello Ronda Rousey) in the showdown.
The best site for an SEC team will be Rupp Arena inn Lexington, Ky., not really a home arena for UK but at least in the same town.
The SEC tournament winner will land there.
Next best would be Sioux Falls, South Dakota because the other Regional is Dallas and resurgent Baylor will own that site. Would be nice if Texas A&M got there, too and avoided a threepeat as fodder for UConn.
We will continue to analyze and report on the ranked teams from the Associated Press poll in our weekly posts.
Last season, we were the only blog site to pick Tennessee as the SEC champ and, therefore, were the only one which got it right when they ended up as co-champs with South Carolina on the last day of the regular season.
SC is our No. 2 and Texas A&M as No. 3, slightly head of Mississippi State.
We choose Tennessee again on the premise you can only start five and the Lady Vol starters are as good as South Carolina’s. I am a sucker for a guard-oriented team.
But each has added a magnificent forward line player with experience. Each has an All-American caliber guard. The SC-UT game is Feb. 15 at Knoxville this season and that may be the tiebreaker for the regular-season title as the team that wins all of its home games for the past seasons has won the season title and that includes each team of last season’s tie.
For purists, it is the season struggle which means the most.
For money – and smaller conferences – the post season conference tournament is important and has been designated as the automatic bid to the NCAAs.
Should an also-ran win the SEC tournament, it means little as the top teams in conference (any team with a winning record) rides the conference strength of schedule and tradition into the draw anyway.
The NCAA is not required to award the automatic bid winner the best seed of conference competitors.
SC made its first Final Four. Tennessee, for the second straight season, was ended a game away by Maryland, now the best of the Big Ten.
*Holly Warlick is forging her own reputation as a coach, successfully following her mentor legend Pat Head Summitt. This year’s Tennessee team has none of Summitt’s recruits left, as the life calendar swiftly turns. Summitt did visit the first practice as a surprise start. She also was courtside for the first game.
In the coming seasons, the Lady Vol brand will also go away as the university has already erased it from all other women’s teams, but not basketball, in obvious deference to the ailing Summitt. A major uniform change has the Big Orange basically the Big Grey in its new system-wide look.
That is all backdrop of course, to the game and Warlick can present a mighty one.
Last season her starting center was lost in the closing weeks to a blown knee. It hobbled their remaining run.
This season, Mercedes Russell is here, all healed after a season of recovering from foot surgeries. She had a magnificent run as the rebounding leader of the USA Gold Medal team in the World University Games.
Another addition is All-American caliber guard Diamond DeShields, after sitting out her year of transfer from a devastated North Carolina team. She is a Lady Vol legacy (her mom lettered track at UT) and has since said she made a too-quick acceptance at North Carolina.
She was also on the Gold team with Russell but did not play as she was rehabbing her shins and feet. The coaches made her pre-season all-conference and AP made her preseason All-American. Not too much pressure before her first UT game. Senior forward Bashaara Graves joins her on the coaches’ preseason team.
DeShields averaged 18 points per game in her national Rookie-of-the-Year season. In the season opener, they had five players in double figures, including a career-best surprise double-double from Kortney Dunbar (24 points on 10-of-15) and from Russell (10 of 16), each with 13 rebounds.
But the new important ingredient is rookie point guard Te’a Cooper, the national high school guard of the year. She had 22 points, four steals and six assists in her debut. Tennessee has basically been without a dependable point guard for two seasons.
Yet another returnee after a year out is junior Jasmine Jones, sidelined last season with concussion problems. She is an SEC legacy as her mom lettered in hoops at Alabama.
Warlick said, “I don’t expect us to be at the very top of our game right now, but we are a team that is learning, getting better. I want to be more consistent on the defensive end.”
As for being ranked No 4 nationally to start the season, she said, some watching now would say, “Probably not. Maybe we aren’t top 100. I don’t care. We’re ranked fourth, and I’m loving it. You keep winning. When you keep winning, you stay where you are. Can we get better? Absolutely. That is why we play this game."
She has used flms of the 1985-86 Boston Celtics as a primer of how to play the game. She terms that team one of the best-ever in terms of cohesive play.
Ironically that was also season No. 1 in which the Lady Vols have been ranked wire-to-wire for 30 straight and the overall appearance streak obviously continues into Monday's AP women's poll, which is being raeleased after this column posts.
Counting several weeks ending 1984-85 and the current seasonal two weeks makes the Tennessee AP appearance run far better than anyone else, though UConn, which came later, is second behind the Lady Vols
Of DeShields’ opening play, Warlick said, "You saw why Diamond came to Tennessee, to have the opportunity to play with a team. That is not saying anything to slam North Carolina. I just think she wanted to have the opportunity to play a solid game.
“She is an unbelievable passer. I will say this about Diamond DeShields. Not too many people have a feel for the game. She has an unbelievable feel for the game. She sees the floor. That is hard to teach.
“Players like that can see things develop two to three plays before they happen, and that is one solid thing that Diamond has. I told her before she went in, `Enjoy this. You have been out for a year and couple months. This is what you wanted. This is why you came to Tennessee. Have fun.’
“She has. Her attitude here has been unbelievable. We haven’t had any problems whatsoever. She loves the game, and her getting back on the court was the most important thing for her."
*You’d think South Carolina, already loaded and with the proven best player in the conference – senior guard Tifany Mitchell – would not have any surprises.
Overlooked in these goofy national recruitment analyses are the new phenomena of players who can transfer in to a proven program and be eligible now, having graduated with eligibility left. Shades of the old AIAW no-waiting rule.
These are proven commodities who are here to be used, not projects who may develop or flee after a year or two. And they are impactful. .SC accepted only one incoming freshman but a formidable frontline got even better.
All-ACC player Sarah Imovbioh, brings more than 1,000 career points and more than 700 career rebounds from Virginia. She graduated and has a year of eligibility left. She gives SC five players at 6-2 or better.
In a substantial early-season win against visiting Ohio State, a Top 10 program, the Gamecocks outscored the Buckeyes, 52-20, in the paint.
"Our posts are our best passers to each other," coach Dawn Staley said. ‘I’m glad that they were able to make a connection. I’m also glad they weren’t able to make a connection so that they could see what they need to correct in those types of situations. And, Sarah Imovbioh -- we don’t win the game without her. We don’t win the game without her experience, her agility, her aggressiveness and her willingness to get back in transition. This type of game pays big dividends for her and her speed."
If SC were as free as UConn, in terms of no conference competition, they might go undefeated, with five proven seniors and four proven juniors.
Another player who will not make the recruiting assessments but who will immediately impact the Gamecocks next season is another All-ACC player Alisha Grey, with more than 1,000 points and more thsn 700 rebounds in two seasons at North Carolina. Gray’s last game for NC was a two-point loss to her new team in the Greensboro Regional. She has two seasons of eligibility. She also considered joining DeShields at UT or going to be the big Kat at Kentucky.
Back to the transfer vs. recruitment idea: NC once had the top recruiting class in the country, before an academics scandal was revealed. Two seasons after, there are none left.
But, as Staley said of the competition, “It makes our league attractive. The players are coming to play in the best league in the country. The SEC has the best competition. I don’t think there is a question what league is the best league in the nation. I don’t think any other conference can say we got a fight each night.”
Guard A’ja Wilson, the conference rookie of the year last season is the second Gamecock on the preseason coaches’ All-conference team. She played in the most games (37) last year. She was on the Gold Medal Under-19 World Championship team this summer.
*There is no doubt Gary Blair had the most disappointing ending to any of his previous seasons. They closed with two losses and were erased in the opening round of the elimination games.
But he remains the kind of coach any university would love. He has been at A&M since 2003, well before the school joined the conference. They took the national title in 2011.
He does not shy away from competition; witness scheduling UCLA for a pre-season scrimmage. His team is ranked No. 13 to start the real competition,
The “Two Courtneys” are back, “We saw right quick, Courtney Walker with 228 and Courtney Williams with 25“ where the perimeter points will continue to blossom, he said after the exhibition. They are coaches’ picks to be all-conference this season. A&M Is the final team with two on that list.
“Times are a’changing; kids want to play motion and I am adjusting,” Blair said. Jordan Jones and Jasmine Lumpkin gives him basically an aggressive four-guard attacking offense and defense.
But 6-5 sophomore center Khaalia Hillsman was the team’s best newcomer and 6-7 junior Rachel Mitchell make sure it isn’t all about guards.
*Mississippi State was the national fun ride of the past season
Rookie Victoria Vivians elevated them. They are No. 11 in the preseason. A quiet penalty was obviously applied last season when they were denied a Top 16 seeding and home NCAA games, likely due to the fact the campus still displayed a Confederate flag and the NCAA has banned tournament games in all sports (football bowls included) in such states.
Then again, South Carolina was so good, they earned (were not given, as the NCAA parsed it in a CYA move) a top seed and home games which the university played as if they had been denied for other reasons in previous seasons.
The NAACP was asleep at the switch and did not protest under after the bid was given and three other universities had travel plans made. The NCAA seeding committee would not answer questions about it
South Carolina the state has banned the flag. Mississippi State the campus has banned it. The difference between being a No. 4 at home and a No. 5 on the road was that close. It meant losing to Duke at Duke in the end.
Back to the court: State remains a conference contender with a refreshingly candid coach in Vic Schaefer and Vivians, who led all rookies in scoring at 14.9 per. She is a coaches’ pick to be all-conference in her second season.
Schaefer was the national choice for conference coach of the year, a nice marker for the third-place team. They also had school records for most wins (27) and conference wins (11). They did lose a home game, double overtime, to LSU.
Schaefer came to State after nine seasons with Blair through an A&M title run, specializing in defense
He is raring to make sure last season was no fluke.
“We have such high expectations, he said. “I have to remind the staff to hold back a little now. We know what we want to do.”
He has another impact freshman in 6-7 Teaira McCowan. She is from Texas and early reports had her going to Baylor or A&M. Then one recruiting service had her signed at Tennessee.
But the Parade All-American landed in Starkville.
Schaefer also accepted the transfer of Oklahoma State’s starting point guard, Roshunda Johnson, who will be eligible next season.
*Kentucky remains an enigma. Coach Matt Mitchell is tough. A big-name player on the national elite level, Linnae Harper, shockingly transferred out after UK lost a sub-regional game at home last year. Another player, Chrishae Rowe, was kicked off the team.
They are the last of the league’s pre-season ranked teams, at No. 18. The SEC had at least five ranked teams for the entirety of the past season. They have already won in overtime on the road at a team ranked higher than their own selves, Arizona State, to start 2-0. The Sun Devils were a Sweet 16 team last season. They were down 17 at the half.
The Kats have only one contributing senior. It will be an interesting, pressure-filled season. But it always is such in Big Blue country, where the men’s team overshadows even good teams. They were seventh in national attendance last season.
But the fans want more. Junior College Player of the Year, Evelyn Akhator has arrived. The 6-3 post player also considered Tennessee. She started her Kat career with a double-double, 16 points and 17 rebounds.
True freshman guards Maci Morris, Taylor Murray and Morgan Rich join rookie forward Batouly Camara. Cincinnati transfer Makenzie Cann will sit out the entire season.
“I am very excited about the team that we have and the work we are putting in as the season nears,” Mitchell said. “We have another challenging schedule this season, especially in the nonconference, and it’s important we don’t waste any opportunity to improve.”
Makayla Epps, the junior guard who was all-conference last season, was voted there by the coaches in the preseason. She led the upset win with eight of the Kats’ dozen OT points and four of the 6-0 run to end regulation. Akhator had 10 rebounds, six defensive.
uVanderbilt also had three players transfer away after the Commodores failed to make the NCAA draw while losing six of the final seven regular-season games. Melanie Balcomb has 13 seasons as the coach. So the pressure is mounting to return to at least one of the 64 best teams in America. Same for Florida, as Amanda Butler enters her ninth season as an SEC coach. The Gators also flopped out of the tournament last season.
*LSU slid backwards last season and moreso in the offseason. They lost to non-contenders Arkansas and Ole Miss before the win against A&M. They bopped away in the first game of the NCAAs.
Danielle Ballard started her junior season suspended for 14 games, recovered to make second team all-league then was dismissed in the summer. The coach is former Tennessee All-American Nikki (Caldwell) Farkas. At some point in each of her seasons in the bayou, she has had her team ranked but never strong at the end, when it counts.
Senior Anne Pedersen is the setup player, but the best player is junior Raigyne Moncrief, who would start on any league team. It is unknown and undemonstrated if she can be the player, however.
*Alabama is still newly committed to women’s basketball, but Kristy Curry is in her third season and it is time to show something with her own players. Schaefer has shown it can be done.
She represents those name coaches trying to break through in a tough league. She made a name for herself as Purdue’s coach, then fled for the brighter basketball lights at Texas Tech where she plateaued before coming on to reshape the Tide.
*At Ole Miss, this could be an elevator year for coach Matt Insell in his third season He likely would be competitive in any other conference, so this may just be a launching pad. He has no seniors, so he has pretty much cleared out the former regime. He did hype up a 7,407 attendance in the opening game, which is a state record for women’s college ball. Back to you, State.
“We’re looking more like an SEC basketball team every day on the court,” Insell said.
*Missouri is always one of those “yeah but” teams, so close, yeah but something happens. Pre-hoops news has been dominated by protests and changes on campus.
The Tigers have been coached since 2010 by Robin Pingeton. She has a contract through 2020. Their 19 wins last season was one loss short of the NCAA magic qualifier for the league – no SEC team with 20 wins has missed the tournament – but Arkansas slid in. They had split the season with the Razorbacks
*Arkansas made a liar out of this site and others by elevating a never-been coach from ESPN to the coach of a team which made the NCAA tournament. The best returnee is senior Melissa Wolf. She had six double-doubles.
*The most-watched team will be Georgia. A perennial power until recent years, Joni Taylor replaces Andy Landers as coach. He has the most SEC games coached, the most SEC national tournaments coached and was the last of those around when the NCAA adopted the league.
Taylor inherits a fine team after being associate head coach for three seasons. Obviously, she is the first woman to lead the program. She was a wonderful player at Alabama.
Senior Shacobia Barbee is the best of the inherited talent, a nice mix with representatives in every class. The only two freshmen are in-state recruits so Taylor will have to start with casting a wider net.
They started with a home win and four of five starters in double figures
But the team tanked the final eight regular-season games of last season, floundered in the SEC tournament and ended 19-12, or one short of a Landers’ gift pass to the NCAAs. Taylor is owed no such sentiment.
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