The SEC women's tournament is at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Georgia, starting this Wednesday at 6 PM when Missouri and Mississippi State tip off. All Wednesday games are on FoxSportSouth (or something like that), the Thursday and Friday games are on SportSouth, Saturday is on ESPNU, and Sunday on ESPN. We'll have game threads for Tennessee, along with our usual disdain of the officials in the league and free runs at Kim Mulkey. We may also talk basketball. But for now, we'll take a quick recap of the SEC and look at some of the games, real and imagined.
Here's the bracket, for anybody who's interested.
First, the field:
|South Carolina (14-2)
|Texas A&M (13-3)
|Mississippi State (5-11)
|Ole Miss (2-14)
The SEC women's tournament works just like the men: teams 1-4 get a double bye; teams 5-10 get a single bye; and teams 11-14 get the pleasure of playing on Wednesday. Unlike the NFL, it's a fixed bracket, so Tennessee knows for certain they will play the 7/10 winner on Friday (Alabama/LSU, respectively).
The Breakfast Club
Realistically, it's not fair to lump a bunch of teams and treat them en masse, but Tennessee's not in the bottom four and that's the real interest around here. Of the four at the bottom, Arkansas clearly has the best odds of advancing the furthest, thanks to a very good point guard (Calli Berna) and a great game day coach (Tom Collen). It will be sad to see Valencia McFarland end her career on a likely invisible note; the senior Ole Miss point guard is far better than the team she ended up play with for four years. (Ole Miss did come very close to beating Baylor in Waco, however, having only one Lisa Mattingly standing between them and a hilarious upset.) Like Ole Miss, MSU has a new coach and is looking to retool themselves, but recruiting and program building is historically difficult for Mississippi schools. That leaves Missouri, who can be dangerous when the three point shooters heat up (hi, Eye!).
All Day Happy Hour
The 5-10 group all tip off on Thursday (5 and 6 vs. Wednesday game winners, 7 vs. 10, and 8 vs. 9). Easily the biggest disappointment is LSU, who was on pace for a top 4 slot before losing 6 in a row (7 of 8, which is the same as saying Seven of Nine). I wish I could tell you what ails the Tigers, although they dwell near the bottom of the league in assists and generally seem to suffer in halfcourt. Their game against Alabama is a rematch of the season closer four days prior, where the Tide rolled the Tigers 78-60. (It was in Alabama's high school gym, so maybe LSU had the same malaise Tennessee had there.) Alabama, meanwhile, is much improved over previous years. Their new head coach, Kristy Curry, seems to have had a positive effect on the team, and they may improve if recruits head her way.
Also mired in the middle of the conference are Vanderbilt and Georgia at 8 and 9, respectively. The two long-time coaches are very familiar with each other, but Vandy is buoyed by two hot-shooting senior guards (ed: and a hotshot
flopper freshman post), while Georgia is suffering massive roster turnover. This really should be the most interesting game on Thursday; unfortunately, it's the noon game, so nobody will see it.
Florida and Auburn are the 5 and 6, respectively. I'm not very surprised to see Florida here, as Butler tends to do well in conference play. Auburn has shown definite improvement over last year and won the bajillion tiebreakers in the field of 7-9 teams in conference (seriously, look at that table again). If we assume they advance to Friday (not a bad assumption; bottom four teams rarely survive the second day in the SEC), that Florida / Kentucky match will be fun, as Florida has already beaten UK twice this season.
Let's start with Kentucky. The Wildcats performed much closer to the middle of the pack than the top three teams, but earned the four seed nonetheless. They're certainly preparing for Florida, particularly because of the aforementioned losses. The raw talent level for UK is probably on par with the top of the league, but they have been hampered more than most by the new rules; last year's style of full court pressing with hand checks and bumps, looking for turnovers and transition points, is just not allowed anymore, and their lack of halfcourt development has really hurt them. They can thank Kim Mulkey for the rules changes (and did thank her, 133-130 in four overtimes in Waco). If UK wins that assumed game, they'll likely face Carolina, another team who beat them twice this season.
Texas A&M plays like they always do: very physical, with an emphasis on post play and winning by physically exhausting their opponent. Unlike Kentucky, they've adapted their style of play just enough to not completely foul themselves out of the game (having a halfcourt offense helps). They prefer to slow the game down, so Auburn's best hope against them will be to keep the pace up and turn it into a sprint. (It didn't work in the season, when A&M won 71-54.)
That leaves the two teams we saw in the Thunderdome on Sunday. That was the first game where it really felt like Tennessee put together 40 minutes on the floor. It was far from perfect; many missed bunnies and a horrid shooting night by Cierra Burdick allowed the margin to stay closer than it probably should have, but Tennessee's defense was exemplary all game long and kept Carolina from ever developing a rhythm. (Side note: Tennessee played man defense for 40 minutes despite Carolina being a post team with a critical weakness in three point shooting, and they never called a timeout in the game. This bodes well.) Simmons was patient and a true team player on her Senior NIght, which is a fact that should be noted. Also of note were Tennessee's 7 total turnovers in the game, easily one of the best ball protection nights they've ever had. If this game is representative of the effort and focus Tennessee has moving forward, they stand a strong shot at winning the conference tournament. Of particular note is that Tennessee's tournament road could very well be LSU-A&M-Carolina, which is quite possibly the most physically demanding set of games you'll see in any conference tournament in the league this year. Get your pillow ready.
South Carolina earned the regular season title by doing what Tennessee didn't: playing focused and to their ability in all their conference games. On Sunday, Tennessee held the lead all game except for a 10-10 tie, beating the Gamecocks at their own strength of interior play. But there are only two teams in the conference that can hang with Carolina in the paint, Tennessee and A&M, and Carolina can only play one of them at most (and that in the final game). Getting the #1 seed is great for your tournament hopes, and it'll be tough for anybody in that half of the bracket to take them down. Still, Carolina appears to be neck and neck with Louisville for a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament; whether that focuses or distracts them is a question that remains to be answered.
NCAA Tournament Implications
If Charlie Creme's Bracketology is to be believed (and it should be, as he puts in a great deal of work trying to see the tournament through the lens of the selection committee), the SEC can place 8 teams into the fold. Seven are pretty much guaranteed, in order: South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgia, and LSU (despite their late season collapse). Florida makes the "last 4 in" cut, but needs to win their Thursday game to keep their bid in play. If they do, they play a Kentucky team they've already beaten twice, and they may actually need that third win as well. The huge knock on Florida is a 67 RPI, partly due to a #50 SoS and a couple of damaging losses (especially to Missouri at home). The ideal for Florida is to win through Saturday (read: South Carolina). They can, but they can also flame out against Arkanasas/Ole Miss, so their NCAA future is anybody's guess right now.
In other news: Tennessee won't get a #1 seed, so don't worry about that. They likely won't be in UConn's region either; the Huskies will go to Louisville, where Louisville is a regional host and will take the #2 seed. (The alternative possibility is Louisville sneaking up to the #1 line, moving UConn to Omaha, but Tennessee would probably go to Louisville if that happened.) I wouldn't expect the committee to place Tennessee in Carolina's bracket, so Notre Dame and Stanford are the likely pairings for the Elite Eight. (Note that Louisville would get UConn, despite being in conference, because Louisville is hosting a regional. That gives an exception to the committee's tendency to avoid same-conference 1-2 pairings.)
South Carolina will also likely make the final SEC game and hold on to the #1 seed, barring a Louisville upset of UConn in their tournament. Texas A&M is solidly a three and not likely to move off that line. Creme has Kentucky at the 4 line, but showing up on Sunday would probably bump them to the 3 and get them away from the #1 seed in the Sweet 16, so expect Kentucky to carry that bit of motivation with them. Vandy, Georgia, and LSU are all somewhat flexible and could all land anywhere from 7 - 10 (though LSU is probably doomed to be a 10).
Final game prediction: 77 - 63 Tennessee over Carolina. I'll take the boring prediction and expect a rematch of the best conference game of the year, but with slightly better shooting by Tennessee and slightly better pace control by Carolina.
Metta Roberts / Lisa Mattingly / Carla Fountain / Dee Kantner Watch: In order of likelihood to be at this tournament: Roberts > Fountain > Mattingly > Kantner, based on the geography of their previous games. This is bad no matter the order, as the SEC will certainly have at least one of them, and they will certainly go all Teddy Valentine over the tournament.
Simmons 2,000th point. Championship game in the first half. She's 42 points away right now, and a couple of near-20 point marks will put her on the doorstep. For once, we can expect her to take quality shots over quantity, and to look for open teammates. Harrison waves hello.
First slump to break: Cierra Burdick. She and Graves are the two major holes in the offense right now, but the slate of teams that Tennessee will face does favor Burdick, as Graves can expect to get pounded all game long (and then whistled for phantom hand checks, but that's life).
Come on, pick an upset. Okay, fine. Florida over Kentucky, 75 - 68.
While you're at it, name a ref you like. Demanding, much? How about Bryan Enterline, who was part of the crew in the Tennessee/Carolina game. 36 fouls / game, and only a -1.88 home advantage rating (i.e. home team gets 1.88 fewer fouls on average). That's about as fair as you can hope for, which means he'll be reffing ACC games this weekend.