By: Cara Capuano
“Anybody who loves basketball… loves this time of year.” That, the opening comment from Georgia head coach Andy Landers to the media who participated on Monday in a conference call leading up to the SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament.
On that same call, which lasted a mere hour and 50 minutes (!), Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell called this “One of the great sporting events of the world.” After experiencing it for the past three years, I couldn’t agree more. I simply cannot wait to get to Duluth.
With the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, the tournament structure has changed to include a pair of Wednesday night games. Because Ole Miss elected to self-impose a postseason ban, there will be only one game when the tournament tips off tonight at 6 PM ET, between 12-seed Mississippi State and 13-seed Alabama. The winner of that game will face 5-seed South Carolina.
I’ve talked to all of the SEC coaches over the course of the 12-13 season and had plans to pen a team-by-team tournament preview. Alas, it is called “March Madness” for a reason. The mania of postseason hoops is not limited to fans. Multiple other demands sprung up unexpectedly this week, leaving me paring down my thoughts. That’s probably for the best. As my SEC Network analyst partner Nell Fortner can attest, I could rant about SEC Women’s Basketball for days (fortunately, so can she, which makes us a great pair to bring you the semifinals and championship game this weekend on ESPNU and ESPN2.)
As Alabama head coach Wendell Hudson put it on Monday, “Basketball is a tournament game. You never know what is going to happen. It’s one shot for everybody.”
Indeed, one resounding theme from the SEC’s coaches is that this year’s field feels more open than in years past. There is a promise, as we saw repeatedly during the regular season, of the possibility for several down-to-the wire thrillers and potential upsets. That said, there is definitely a top tier, with four of the six SEC teams ranked in this week’s AP Top 25 enjoying a first-round bye.
TEAMS AT THE TOP
1. TENNESSEE (23-6, 14-2, 17th regular season SEC Title)
Early in the SEC slate, I asked Holly Warlick for a word to capture where the Lady Vols were in their development. She chose “discipline,” which has multiple meanings. Warlick said when Tennessee demonstrates solid discipline, the Lady Vols stick to their game plan, which includes firmly understanding who they are defending and also being patient on the offensive end.
On Monday, I asked Warlick if “discipline” was still the word she’d use to describe her team. Discipline has been supplanted by “toughness” and “resiliency.” Warlick told us these Lady Vols have really understood what it means to go back to work after losses and learn from their mistakes, which has created a togetherness and camaraderie. She said she has “enjoyed watching this group grow together and grow up.”
Injury woes continue to plague Tennessee. In the latest wave, senior leader Kamiko Williams sprained both of her ankles and Isabelle Harrison continues to manage knee trouble. Their availability for an already-depleted roster could dictate the Lady Vols longevity in Duluth. At full strength are SEC co-Player of the Year Meighan Simmons and SEC Freshman of the Year Bashaara Graves. That duo and the realization of Warlick’s goal for Tennessee to continue to “play hard and play together” could be enough.
2. KENTUCKY (25-4, 13-3)
The other SEC co-Player of the Year, A’dia Mathies, leads number-two seed Kentucky into Duluth. Mitchell said the Wildcats are very disappointed they didn’t meet one of their preseason goals, to defend the 2012 regular season title. A goal that is still available to them is to win the program’s first SEC Tournament Title since 1982. Mitchell loved the way the Wildcats played in their win vs. Tennessee on Sunday, saying, “they played with tremendous passion and intensity defensively… it reminded us what we can do when our attitude is right.”
Earlier in the season, Mitchell told us “hustle” was the word that leapt off the page to describe Kentucky. At that time, he said, “They sacrifice for each other and I don’t think there is anyone who cares about anything other than winning right now.” After the adversity of a few losses and a couple weeks where he felt the team didn’t practice well, Mitchell shortened his bench. Following the loss at LSU, he “hit the reset button” again, by having a meeting with the bench players to redefine their roles, wipe their slate clean and get back to a deeper player rotation that better suits their “40 Minutes of Dread” style.
The pulse of these ever-changing Wildcats now? Said Mitchell, “I have gotten the sense from the players that they understand to be a special team, they should win a championship.” He asserted that he thinks Kentucky has the championship-caliber players to cut down the nets this weekend.
3. GEORGIA (24-5, 12-4)
Last Thursday, Georgia, Texas A&M and South Carolina lost on the road. The Lady Bulldogs recovered with a season-ending win at home against Vanderbilt, but there is no denying a surprising inconsistency for a team led by three seniors who have been major contributors their entire careers: Jasmine James, Jasmine Hassell and Anne Marie Armstrong. Assuming that trio will give its very best in its last chance to win a SEC Tournament title, Georgia’s success will hedge on its talented freshmen. Landers complimented how adept his first-year players are at “connecting the dots.” In his experience, some freshmen can grasp important team concepts but don’t connect the dots between them. He said this group has done that since the onset of the season. Will they shine under the biggest spotlight yet?
4. TEXAS A&M (21-9, 11-5)
Aggies head coach Gary Blair boldly declared on Monday, “I’m going in to win this thing and get our confidence back.” Texas A&M has sputtered down the stretch, losing four of its final five games. Blair believes that his team “doesn’t need to go into the shop for total repairs. It just needs some Band-Aids and an attitude adjustment.” He said he wants to see the Aggies “play harder, play smarter and sometimes give credit to our opponent.” As an example to that last point, he brought up a comfortable first half lead on Sunday vs. LSU, one built without significant scoring from post star Kelsey Bone, that eventually evaporated after the Lady Tigers made some adjustments.
Blair’s lexicon contains a bevy of entertaining hoops-related one-liners. One he shared with Nell and I before the season finale vs. LSU is, “runnin’, jumpin’ and pressin’ are window dressin’.” Blair’s key to success is March: executing in the half court – both on offense and defense. That recipe helped him lead the Aggies to a national title in 2011, a team which Blair noted had great chemistry. The roster included seniors Adrienne Pratcher and Kristi Bellock were in reserve roles on that team and Bone was sitting out a NCAA-mandated transfer year. Blair said he recently told these Aggies that he wants them to develop their own legacy, “I want this team to realize their moment might be right here. Learn how to win the close games, get the chemistry going and learn to CLOSE the game.”
5. SOUTH CAROLINA (23-6, 11-5)
Thinking about that old adage “on the outside looking in,” one can basically envision the Gamecocks as having their noses firmly pressed to the glass. A two-point loss at Georgia. A two-point loss vs. Texas A&M. A four-point loss at Kentucky. If ANY of those games goes in USC’s favor, they’re resting until Friday.
Head coach Dawn Staley said on Monday that she is still hoping her team can find that player who can make plays down the stretch. Her query, “Who is going to be the player to put the ball in the hole when it is needed to win the game?” The good news? Staley thinks she has those players. The unfortunate news? She’s still waiting for that special player – or a few of them – to emerge.
If that saying “defense wins championships” rings true, South Carolina and Kentucky have two of the best chances this weekend. The Wildcats do it by forcing turnovers and taking care of the basketball. Kentucky’s turnover margin of +8.9 not only leads the SEC, it also leads the nation. The Gamecocks do it by keeping scores low – their defense allows only 49.6 points per game, tops in the SEC and 6th nationally, and their field-goal percentage defense is an SEC-best 35.4%.
6. LSU (19-10, 10-6)
LSU is on a hot streak, one that is gaining national attention, evidenced by their entry into the AP Top 25 poll this week and by this outstanding article written by my ESPN.com colleague Mechelle Voepel today.
LSU’s motto entering the season was “Win From Within.” During this recent streak of six straight wins, the motto has morphed into “Eight is Enough.” The Lady Tigers entered the season with only ten players. They’re now down two more players (one due to health, another to suspension). Head coach Nikki Caldwell joked Monday that she was genuinely concerned last Thursday that Adrienne Webb and Bianca Lutley might not have a chance to head to be honored properly by the crowd on “Senior Night” after one of their teammates fouled out.
Caldwell told me this past Saturday that LSU first turned a corner with improved energy and a renewed commitment to defense and rebounding in a loss at South Carolina January 17th. Following a heartbreaking home loss to Tennessee on February 7th, guard Jeanne Kenney delivered a passionate speech about her dedication to giving everything she could to make sure LSU’s seniors would not sit and watch the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament (Baton Rouge being one of sixteen host sites.) Caldwell loved the ownership demonstrated there and said she has seen it throughout all eight players, “we’ve become a better team. Players know their roles, we’re limited in numbers but there’s a sense of urgency now. They know what’s at stake and what needs to be done.”
7. VANDERBILT (19-10, 9-7)
Vanderbilt head coach Melanie Balcomb said she has never led a team more riddled with injuries. It started before the season with the loss of Stephanie Holzer to a knee injury. Not only was Holzer a key element in the Commodores’ post game, she was also the embodiment of the team’s toughness. Before a game in late January, Balcomb joked with us, “I have the nicest team in America.” When leading scorer Christina Foggie went down with a knee, it appeared Vandy would crumble. Instead, a crop of energetic freshmen grew up quickly and embraced the team’s new motto, “B.F.F.” The “B” stands for “belief.” Balcomb says belief in each other and knowing they can win has made all the difference in a late season stretch of success which included a 30-point outing from senior Tiffany Clarke in a home win against Texas A&M.
None of the coaches we spoke with on Monday seemed ready to declare a “favorite” in the field, so I certainly won’t. Those teams in the top half of the league seem most primed to make a deep run in Duluth, but that’s what is so great about March Madness. Once the ball tips, it is anybody’s game – and any team’s title for the taking. Discount the tenacity of Florida, the three-point shooting of Missouri or the high-pressure defense of Auburn? I wouldn’t dare.
I loved first-year Missisippi State head coach Vic Schaefer’s assessment from earlier this season, on what it’s like to compete in the SEC, “It’s a NIGHTMARE of a league. Tough, physical, aggressive… it’s basically the developmental league of the WNBA. “ Another great declaration came Monday from Arkansas head coach Tom Collen, as he reflected on the close games and surprises of the regular season, “the SEC has proven there is NO argument, whatsoever, that this is the best conference in the country.”
My only prediction is this: we have a WONDERFUL weekend in store! I’ll see you at The Arena at Gwinnett Center.