A'dia Matthies led Kentucky past Tennessee in the season finale, and we predict the Wildcats will do it again for the SEC Tournament Championship. (Photo courtesy of Kentucky Athletics)
A'dia Matthies led Kentucky past Tennessee in the season finale, and we predict the Wildcats will do it again for the SEC Tournament Championship. (Photo courtesy of Kentucky Athletics)

Race for SEC tournament title is wide open

Publisher
March 5, 2013 - 2:22pm

One thing is clear heading into this year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament: There is no clear favorite. The conference has six teams ranked in the top 25 -- No. 7 Kentucky, No. 9 Tennessee, No. 12 Georgia, No. 17 South Carolina, No. 13 Texas A&M and No. 22 LSU -- and any one of these squads has a legitimate chance of winning the tourney.

NCAA-bound top seeds  

Tennessee: No. 1 seed

In Holly Warlick’s first season as head coach, she defied the nay-sayers by guiding the Lady Vols to their 17th SEC regular season title. The Vols got there by leading the conference in rebounding and scoring thanks to the inside outside duo of Meighan Simmons and Bashaara Graves. But the team has been plagued by injuries, which could hur their chances to defend their title. Isabelle Harrison is day-to-day after suffering a knee injury in the Texas A&M game and Andraya Carter, who started the first five games, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. The Vols' bench is dangerously thin, and Warlick dressed just seven players in the regular season loss to Kentucky. Thankfully Tennessee has a first-round bye, but with the possibility of three back-to-back games, Tennessee fans need to hope Warlick’s locker room speeches are as motivational as coach Summit’s.

Kentucky: No. 2 seed

The Wildcats come in to the tournament full of confidence after closing the regular season with a 13-point win over Tennessee. The win is also significant because it made Matthew Mitchell the winningest coach in Kentucky history. This veteran squad, led by All-American candidate A’dia Mathies, just picked up its fourth consecutive 25-win season, but is still seeking its first SEC Championship of the Mitchell era. They showed signs of weakness this by falling to Georgia, South Carolina and LSU.  Winning the SEC tournament would prove the Wildcats deserve to be included in the conversation as a possible Final Four team.


Georgia: No. 3 seed

The Bulldogs handed Andy Landers his 900th career win this season, but a SEC tourney title would mean more to the Hall of Famer, who last cut down the nets in 2001. This squad, led by Jasmine Hassell and Jasmine James, has seven seniors and is arguably the deepest and most talented team Landers has had in recent years -- but the Dawgs have a funny way of disappointing come tournament time. They have a signature win against Kentucky and also defeated South Carolina, but haven’t beaten Tennessee or Texas A&M and just a week ago lost to Mississippi State, which is near the bottom of the standings. 

Texas A&M: No. 4 seed

In its first season in the SEC, Texas A&M proved to be a worthy opponent and definitely increased the strength of the conference. The Aggies are the hottest shooting team in the SEC, leading in both field goal and three-point percentages. Kelsey Bone, who may leave early to enter the WNBA draft, averages 17.9 points and 9.7 rebounds and freshman point guard Courtney Walker has been a pleasant surprise, averaging 10.5 points per game. This is a very good team that defeated Georgia and South Carolina this season but have lost four out of their last five games headed into the tournament. Now is the time for Gary Blair’s squad to clean things up and make a statement - which might also help Bone’s draft status.

South Carolina: No. 5 seed

Kentucky has dubbed its pressure defense “40 minutes of dread”, but it’s South Carolina that is leading the SEC in most defensive categories.  Dawn Staley has her squad holding opponents to an average of 49.7 points per game and the Gamecocks proved their defensive skill when they defeated Kentucky 55-49. However, South Carolina is the worst free-throw shooting team in the conference at a dismal 55% from the charity stripe.  Four of the Gamecocks six losses have been decided by four points or less -- which makes those free throw troubles hurt even more.

LSU is riding a six-game win streak into the SEC Tournament (Photo by Kelly Kline)

On the bubble

The SEC could send as many as seven teams to the NCAA tournament this year, which means this next group has a lot to prove at the Gwinnett Center. 

The hottest team heading into the tournament is No. 6 seeded LSU, which is riding a league-best six-game win streak and barring a first round upset, are a lock in the NCAA tournament. During the streak, the Tigers beat three ranked opponents in Kentucky, Georgia and Texas A&M, and lost to Tennessee by a bucket just before the streak started -- so spoiler alert is in full affect. The Tigers have really come together in the second half of the season and are led by 6-5 junior Theresa Plaisance, who is averaging 17.6 points per game (second to Simmons' 17.7 ppg) and is the conference leader in blocked shots. 

Middle seeds No. 7 Vanderbilt, No. 8 Arkansas and No. 9 Florida are all on the bubble. None of these teams have defeated Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia or South Carolina during the regular season, so an upset of one of the elite teams could sway the NCAA committee. Vanderbilt has to play Missouri, which won't be a walk in the park, for the right to face Kentucky. Arkansas and Florida will face off for a shot at No. 1 seed Tennessee. It will likely be a short trip for all three teams with the WNIT in their future.

Playing for pride

No. 10 seed Missouri is a young squad that is still adjusting to the culture shock of moving from the Big 12 to the SEC, but the Tigers proved they have the ability to be a threat by upsetting Tennessee and South Carolina, so a win over Vanderbilt isn't out of the question.

Auburn, under first year coach Terri Williams-Flournoy, didn’t have any signature wins, but a first-round upset of LSU could go a long way to boost morale for next season.

No. 12 seed Mississippi State will face No. 13 seed Alabama for the right to get spanked by South Carolina. The Tide should begin the coaching search ASAP and first year coach Vic Shaefer better get on the recruiting trail for the Bulldogs. Last place Ole Miss will not participate in the SEC tournament due to a self-imposed postseason ban.

Predictions

Kentucky defeats Tennessee to win its first SEC Tournament championship since 1982.

Coach of the Year: Holly Warlick, Tennessee
Co-Players of the Year: A’dia Mathies, Kentucky/Meighan Simmons, Tennessee
Freshman of the Year: Bashaara Graves, Tennessee
Defensive Player of the Year: Ieasia Walker, South Carolina
Co-6th Woman of the Year: Sarah Watkins, Arkansas/Morgan Eye, Missouri
Scholar-Athlete of the Year: Blanche Alverson, Auburn

All-SEC First Team
Jasmine Hassell, Georgia
A’dia Mathies, Kentucky
DeNesha Stallworth, Kentucky
Theresa Plaisance, LSU
Ieasia Walker, South Carolina
Bashaara Graves, Tennessee
Meighan Simmons, Tennessee
Kelsey Bone, Texas A&M
Tiffany Clarke, Vanderbilt

All-SEC Second Team
Hasina Muhammad, Auburn
Jennifer George, Florida
Jasmine James, Georgia
Samarie Walker, Kentucky
Adrienne Webb, LSU
Martha Alwal, Mississippi State
Bri Kulas, Missouri
Ashley Bruner, South Carolina
Aleighsa Welch, South Carolina
Adrienne Pratcher, Texas A&M
Jasmine Lister, Vanderbilt

All-Defensive Team
Jennifer George, Florida
Shacobia Barbee, Georgia
Samarie Walker, Kentucky
Danielle Ballard, LSU
Theresa Plaisance, LSU
Martha Alwal, Mississippi State
Ieasia Walker, South Carolina

All-Freshman Team
Sydney Moss, Florida
Shacobia Barbee, Georgia
Danielle Ballard, LSU
Lianna Doty, Missouri
Tiffany Mitchell, South Carolina
Bashaara Graves, Tennessee
Courtney Walker, Texas A&M
Heather Bowe, Vanderbilt

SEC Tournament Schedule, Gwinnett Center, Duluth, GA

Wednesday, March 6

Game 1: No. 12 Mississippi State vs. No. 13 Alabama, 6 p.m. TV-FSS

Thursday, March 7

Game 2: No. 8 Arkansas vs. No. 9 Florida, 12 p.m. TV-SPSO

Game 3: No. 5 South Carolina vs. Game 1 Winner, 2:30 p.m. TV-SPSO

Game 4: No. 7 Vanderbilt vs. No. 10 Missouri, 6 p.m. TV-SPSO

Game 5: No. 6 LSU vs. No. 11 Auburn, 8:30 p.m. TV-SPSO

Friday, March 8

Game 6: No. 1 Tennessee vs. Game 2 Winner, 12 p.m. TV-SPSO

Game 7: No. 4 Texas A&M vs. Game 3 Winner, 2:30 p.m. TV-SPSO

Game 8: No. 2 Kentucky vs. Game 4 Winner, 6 p.m. TV-SPSO

Game 9: No. 3 Georgia vs. Game 5 Winner, 8:30 p.m. TV-SPSO

Saturday, March 9

Game 9: Game 6 Winner vs. Game 7 Winner, 4 p.m. TV-ESPNU

Game 10: Game 8 Winner vs. Game 9 Winner, 6 p.m. TV-ESPNU

Sunday, March 10

Game 11: Championship game, 6 p.m. TV-ESPN2


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