By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
NASHVILLE - Cara Capuano is in her third season calling the play-by-play for Southeastern Conference women’s basketball on the SEC Network and the ESPN family of networks, having previously covered a wide variety of sports for a number of networks, including ESPN.
As the voice of SEC women’s basketball, Capuano is one of the league’s foremost media experts on the sport. She will call the semifinals and finals of this weekend’s tournament, and sat down with the SEC Digital Network on Tuesday for this Q&A preview.
SEC Digital Network: From your perspective, what makes the SEC women’s basketball tournament such a special event and why do you enjoy covering it?
“Where do I begin? Covering the conference the whole season and watching the teams mature and work toward their "March" form together, I've found the SEC Tournament to provide a festive celebration of the culmination of all their efforts. It gives teams with a wonderful opportunity to showcase their hard work while striving for that automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament as the conference tournament champion. As well, the event rewards the league's passionate fans with a unique chance to see all twelve teams, in the same place, over a short period of time. It's a veritable feast of hoops.”
SEC Digital Network: You have had the opportunity to emcee the SEC Greats program at the Commissioner’s reception prior to the tournament each year. Describe that event and what makes it so special?
“The Tip-Off Reception to honor the SEC Greats is genuinely one of hallmark events I've had the pleasure to enjoy in my career. The first year in Duluth (2010), I was in total awe just to be in the company of the SEC Greats - it was a challenge to focus on emceeing the event and trying to properly honor their remarkable achievements. The event is a lovely celebration of accomplished women who have helped shape the history of the conference and also serve as a fine example of what may lie ahead in the future for the current student-athletes.”
SEC Digital Network: This season, Kentucky won its first SEC Championship since the 1982 season. What has been the key to the Wildcats’ success this season?
“My first thought was, "Honesty, Hard Work & Discipline." For folks not close to the Kentucky women's basketball program, those are what head coach Matthew Mitchell calls his "winning tools" - and this Wildcats team started to employ them toward achieving certain goals, including the regular season title, long before fall practice began. It has been an impressive coalescence of past superstars, like A'dia Mathies, Amber Smith and Keyla Snowden, who have grown up together, with new faces like Bria Goss and Samarie Walker. Sprinkle in the valuable year of experience for players like Kastine Evans and Maegan Conwright with the fact that this team has remarkable chemistry, despite so many players making significant contributions, and the season has worked out extremely well for UK. Obviously, their ability to score off that pestering, turnover-creating pressure defense doesn't hurt.”
SEC Digital Network: It has been an interesting season for Tennessee, but the Lady Vols still enter the tournament as the No. 2 seed. What do you expect to see from Tennessee in this tournament?
“As South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley put it on the SEC Tournament Conference Call with the media Monday, ‘Tennessee is still Tennessee.’ There are eight McDonald's All-Americans providing a wealth of talent on the court, being led by a legendary hall of famer AND an amazing supporting cast of assistant coaches who could all be running their own D1 programs. There is a group of seniors who, per Shekinna Stricklen's post-game comments on our SEC Network game last Sunday, are well aware of the possibility of being the first class to graduate from Tennessee without playing in a Final Four. Skills sharpened by the toughest schedule in the nation, the Lady Vols have the tools and motivation to shine at a spectacular level - which we have seen. But we've also seen inconsistency... perhaps due to their facing an adversity rarely seen in collegiate athletics: playing for a beloved head coach who is managing a major illness. It's impossible to quantify the emotional impact that Coach Pat Summitt's announcement of early-onset dementia - and subsequent choice to continue coaching - has had on Tennessee. All we know is what assistant Mickie DeMoss told us recently: it's a ‘feel-good team’ - which means, when they're feeling good, these Lady Vols play really well. We've all seen them when shots are falling and smiles are bright. Coach Summitt has always preached that defense and rebounding are the tenets of UT's success. If the Lady Vols can start games strong, value the basketball, be disruptive on defense and dominate the boards, a trip to Denver isn't out of the question - nor is another SEC Championship trophy hoisted on Sunday. Tennessee has proven before the number of pre-NCAA Tournament losses doesn't matter: in 1997, the Lady Vols entered the Big Dance at 23-10 and eventually cut down the nets in Cincinnati for Coach Summitt's fifth national title.”
SEC Digital Network: What is your analysis of this year’s tournament bracket and how do you see it playing out?
“Oh no, you're not dragging me down that slippery slope. One thing I've learned about the SEC this season is that the only certainty is the total lack of predictability. By week four of the conference season, there had been so many surprising results that I gave up trying to forecast outcomes. Arkansas head coach Tom Collen was the first on the coaches' conference call Monday to declare the field felt more wide open this year than in many years past - a theme reiterated by many, including Kentucky's Matthew Mitchell, who admitted he's aware his Wildcats are far from a dominant number one seed. That said, LSU head coach Nikki Caldwell reminded us all that, in the face of this pervasive parity, the Wildcats fought extremely hard to earn that top seed with their first regular season conference title since 1982 - and they deserve it. Then again, as Melanie Balcomb of Vanderbilt pointed out, the fact that embattled Alabama could beat Kentucky late in February proves that "anybody can beat anybody this year" - and has. Repeatedly.”
SEC Digital Network: Both Auburn’s Nell Fortner and Mississippi State’s Sharon Fanning-Otis have announced their retirements following this season. What are your thoughts on their decisions to retire, their contributions to the game and do you think it will give their teams added motivation heading into the tournament?
“Certainly there is always added motivation to send out a respected leader on a "high note" and I am confident Auburn and Mississippi State will play their hearts out for their soon-to-retire head coaches. Both Pat Summitt and Melanie Balcomb made the same complimentary comments about Coach Fanning-Otis: that she always got the very best from her players and did things the right way, with admirable integrity. Certainly Fanning-Otis learned from the best - her first job was as a graduate assistant with Summitt in the mid 70's. Both have shared with me, in separate conversations, fond memories of each driving a Tennessee team van to games back in those days. Fanning-Otis is a staple in Starkville and I'm sure she'll continue to keep Mississippi State's best interests in mind in her new role of athletic development with the Bulldog Club. I'm very interested to see what is next for Nell Fortner. When I think of Coach Fortner, I think about how she has impacted the women's game as a coach at every level - finding success in college, in international competition with Team USA (GOLD!) and in the pros. I even had the pleasure of working alongside Coach Fortner during her time as a television analyst - and would relish the chance to do that again. Every step of the way, the professional choices she has made have been thoughtful and successful. I really respect her decision to listen to the inner voice telling her it's time to try something new.”
SEC Digital Network: Who are your “players to watch” in this tournament that you think will make a big impact?
“Another reason I love Tournament Time: this is a chance for the SEC's biggest players to shine on its biggest stage. There is a ton of talent spread throughout the league, as always, and I'm especially impressed by the upperclassmen who I've seen develop into high-caliber players the past three years. I liked our analyst Abby Waner's approach to how she chose her "Player of the Year" award for our final regular season SEC Network broadcast: which player's absence would create the biggest detriment for her team? Her winner: Glory Johnson of Tennessee. Johnson is definitely one "Player to Watch" - and I'm also focusing a keen eye on: A'dia Mathies of Kentucky, LaSondra Barrett of LSU, Anne Marie Armstrong of Georgia, Christina Foggie of Vanderbilt, C'eira Ricketts of Arkansas, La'Keisha Sutton of South Carolina and Jennifer George of Florida. Yes, that's pretty much a who's who list of All-SEC-level talent but realistically, tournament success is rarely due to the individual contributions of one special player. It's about those top players doing their thing while also elevating the level of play of their teammates. All the young ladies I've listed about have possessed that power this season.”
SEC Digital Network: Do you have an underdog team that might have a breakout performance in the tournament this year that fans should be on the lookout for?
“Auburn's Nell Fortner gave a shout-out on the coaches' conference call to Florida - but the Gators are hardly alone in enjoying a strong finish to the wild conference season. Consider: injury-depleted LSU had won six straight before losing at Georgia; the Lady Bulldogs own hot streak was snapped the week prior in Gainesville. We saw Arkansas and South Carolina both enjoy their program's first victories at Thompson-Boling Arena, while Vanderbilt routed Tennessee in a retaliation win in Nashville, just before Tennessee crushed Kentucky on a national stage in Knoxville, after losing in Lexington earlier in the season. Bottom line? This SEC Women's Championship typifies one of my Dad's favorite sayings in a close contest: “It's anybody's game.’”