2014 SEC Tournament preview: More competitive than ever

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March 3, 2014 - 7:02pm
The 2014 SEC Women's Basketball Tournament tips off Wed., March 5, at 6 p.m. in Duluth, GA. (Logo courtesy SEC)

The 2014 SEC Women's Basketball Tournament tips off Wed., March 5, at 6 p.m. in Duluth, GA. (Logo courtesy SEC)

The days of at least a semi-predictable SEC Tournament are long gone, and perhaps no more so than this season. This year, the conference was so competitive -- not only at the very top, but all the way from top to bottom -- that when the regular season finally wrapped up on Sunday, conference administrators were likely whipping out their sliderules to compute all the tie breakers.

The one team to escape the tiebreaker mash-up was South Carolina (26-3), which clinched the conference title on Thursday for the first time in the history of the program, with its final game, a road match with Tennessee still on the schedule. That was fortunate for the Gamecocks, who lost in Knoxville but still finished atop the league with a 14-2 record and will have the one-seed throughout the tournament.

The Lady Vols (24-5), under second-year head coach Holly Warlick, have been fairly consistent with a squad that features a lot of young players, but finished in a tie for second with Texas A&M (23-7), both teams finishing at 13-3 in conference play. Texas A&M had a few losses early on, but came together and reentered the Top-25 rankings in January, where they have remained, hovering around the mid-teens.  Tennessee fared marginally better overall, and handed the Aggies a 55-76 shellacking in College Station in late January, thereby securing the No. 2 seed by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker.

That dropped the Aggies to the No. 3 seed, with pre-season top-pick Kentucky (22-7), which has dropped several crucial games but remains nationally ranked, finding themselves in the unlikely fourth spot with a 10-6 conference record. Florida (18-11, 8-8) slipped in at No. 5 in the regular-season standings.

From there, Georgia (19-10), Vanderbilt (18-11), LSU (18-11), Auburn (16-13) and Alabama (14-15) fell into a five-way tie for the sixth through tenth seeds that had to have the commissioners scratching their heads. And don't let the seedings, or the final records deceive you: Vandy, LSU and even Arkansas were all nationally ranked for a good portion of the season, and the Bulldogs and Razorbacks spent longer than most among the country's undefeated teams at the beginning of the season. But all of these squads struggled mightily in conference play, with each showing moments of brilliance scattered amid times of failure, and each playing spoiler to the others (as well as to some at the top).

In the end, it came down to winning percentages in games among the five tied teams. Auburn took the 6-seed based on winning percentage in those games only:  Auburn .667; Alabama .600; Vanderbilt .600; Georgia .250; LSU .250. Then, after taking Auburn games out of the mix, the same tiebreaker started over based on games among the remaining four teams, with Alabama, unbeaten in play against Georgia, Vanderbilt and LSU grabbing the No. 7 seed and the remaining teams finishing No. 8-10 in the following order: Vanderbilt .667; Georgia .333; LSU .000.

Not even the bottom of the pack finished without controversy this year, however, as Arkansas (19-10) and Missouri (17-12) also tied for the No. 11 and 12 seeds, each finishing at 6-10 in conference play. This time, the Razorbacks took the higher seed based on their head-to-head. That left No. 13 Mississippi State (18-12, 5-11) and No. 14 Ole Miss (11-19, 2-14) to round out the regular-season conference race.

Though the proverb tells us that the season starts over with a blank slate come playoff time, there's one thing that the SEC regular-season has taught us: On any given day, any one of these teams seems capable of beating any other. And that could very well make for one of the most interesting SEC Tournaments in years.
 

Wednesday, March 5

Game One: No. 12 Missouri (17-12, 6-10) v. No. 13 Mississippi State (18-12, 5-11) -- 6 p.m. EST (FSSO/SPSO)

The tournament tips off at 6:00 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday with all games through the quarterfinals televised on Fox Sports South and/or SportSouth. ESPNU will carry both of Saturday's semifinals, while Sunday's championship game will be carried live on ESPN.

Though Wednesday evening's games won't feature the conference's best, they should still provide some fun and evenly matched basketball for the entertainment of early arriving fans. The Bulldogs have a solid leading scorer in Martha Alwal (15.7 ppg), and reliable fellow starters in Kendra Grant, Dominique Dillingham, Breanna Richardson and Katia May. Sixth woman Savannah Carter helps with both points and rebounds.

Mississippi State's weakness is lack of depth. They have only four other available players, and none of them puts up more than five points per game. 

This is Missouri's second year in the conference; the Tigers are young and have a lot of fight.  Bri Kulas (18.8 ppg) and Morgan Eye (13.1 ppg) lead the offense, while point guard Lianna Doty averages 5.71 assists per game.

These two teams seem more or less evenly matched, as reflected by the final score in their regular-season head-to-head, in which the hosting Bulldogs came out on top of the Tigers by a narrow, 69-62, margin. Despite their low seeds, both teams rank squarely in the middle of the conference pack in major statistical categories. MSU, for example, ranks seventh in the league in scoring offense at 71.4 points per game, while Mizzou weighs in at No. 8 with 70.3. On the defensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs again stand in seventh position in scoring defense, giving up 63 points per outing, while the Tigers are eighth, allowing 65. Mississippi State doesn't have much of a three-point threat, coming in eight in the conference with a three-point field-goal percentage of 32.4 percent. That could be a real problem, as it's a strong point for Missouri, the second-best three-point shooting team in the conference, shooting 37.6 percent from beyond the arc.

The Bulldogs need to shut down the perimeter, and while they're at it, they'd better stay out of foul trouble, too: Missouri is the best free-throw shooting team in the SEC, averaging 76.2 percent from the charity stripe (though MSU is not half-bad, averaging 71.3 percent at the line, good for third place in the league.

Prediction: Mississippi State in a hotly contested and relatively close contest.

Game Two: No. 11 Arkansas (19-10, 6-10) v. No. 14 Ole Miss (11-19, 2-14) -- 8:30 p.m EST (FSSO/SPSO)

First-year head coach Matt Insell knew he was undertaking a rebuilding project when he arrived at Ole Miss, and a lot of the work is still ahead of him. Ole Miss brings the worst conference record into the tournament, despite the efforts of one of the league's better scoring offenses sprearheaded by high-scorers Tia Faleru (16.8 ppg), Valencia McFarland (16.6 ppg) and Diara Moore (10.4 ppg). The Rebels average 73 points per outing, good for fifth place in the SEC and significantly better than the Razorbacks, who field the league's 12th-place scoring offense, putting up 66.7 points per game.

Still, the Razorbacks are a well-rounded team, led by Jessica Jackson (16.7 ppg). They've got three starters and one bench player who can block, five good rebounders, and a great facilitator in Calli Berna, who averages almost seven assists per game. And wouldn't you know it, they feature the league's best scoring defense, giving up just 53.8 points on average, as compared to Ole Miss, which ranks dead last, allowing opponents 76.4.

That permeable defense accounts for a disparity in scoring margin that is much greater than the distance between the seeds of these two teams: Arkansas boats a scoring margin of +12.9 points per game, behind only league leaders South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. Ole Miss is second-last in the league, narrowingly beating out last-place Alabama, with a negative scoring margin of -3.3 points per game, which explains a lot of those losses.

Still, despite the numbers game, which would lead one to believe the Rebels are headed for the south end of a rout, when these two teams last met on the hardwood in Fayetteville in mid-January, Ole Miss lost by just three points (65-68). In fact, quite a few of Mississippi's losses this season have been squeakers, which suggests that there may be better times ahead for Insell and his charges. Bottom line, however: To get past Arkansas, Rebel personnel will all have to bring their A-plus games, and step up their defense, for all 40 minutes.

Prediction:  Arkansas, by six.
 

Thursday, March 6

Game Three: No. 8 Vanderbilt (18-11, 7-9) v. No. 9 Georgia (19-10, 7-9) -- 12 Noon EST (SPSO)

Historically known for its defense, where the Bulldogs rank fourth in the SEC this season, allowing just 58.7 points per game, Georgia has added more offense to the equation this year, though they still rank near the bottom of the SEC barrel in this category, where they stand in 11th place averaging 67.4 points per game. They are a team that might be low on super-stars, but has traded that for balance. Shacobia Barbee (13 ppg), Erika Ford (11 ppg) and Khaalidah Miller (10.8 ppg) lead the Bulldogs, with Tiaria Griffin (9.3 ppg), Krista Donald (8.9 ppg) and Merritt Hempe (8.1 ppg) rounding out the high-scoring core. This group is strong enough to make up for the comparative weakness of the Georgia bench.

Vanderbilt is nearly a mirror image: Led by the indomitable senior duo of Christina Foggie (19 ppg) and Jasmine Lister (14.1 ppg), the Commodores post 72.9 points per game, giving them the sixth-best scoring offense in the SEC, but are considerably weaker on "D," where they stand 10th, giving up 67 points to opponents. That gives the Lady Dawgs the better of the duel in scoring margin, with sixth-place Georgia averaging +8.8 points per game, though Vandy is not far behind, at eighth, still in positive scoring-margin territory at +5.9 points per contest.

Vanderbilt has struggled of late, due in part to the loss of several players. Sophomore center Kendall Shaw has missed the entire season with a knee injury; freshman guard Rebekah Dahlman, who started in the first nine games of the season, has been out ever since recovering from a blood clot; and most recently, sophomore forward Heather Bowe, the team's second-leading rebounder (4.6 rbg) who started in the 21 of the team's first 27 games of the season, is out for the balance of the year due to a reported violation of school academic policies.

Of the missing players, only the freshman Dahlman (11.4 ppg) was a significant scorer, but whatever the reason, after a strong start this season, the 'Dores have lost seven of their last 10 games. Playing at home, Vandy won the regular-season head-to-head against Georgia, 66-58. But that was on January 2. Vanderbilt has become a much different team since then, and the changes have not been for the better. The Commodores will need to get their collective heads back into the game to make an impact at the Tournament.

Prediction: Georgia, in a grinder. Virtual home-court advantage (the Gwinnett Center, where the tournament is being played is just an hour down the road from Athens, Ga.), especially this early in the tournament when fewer non-Georgia fans will be able to travel, give the Bulldogs a decided edge in this game.

Game Four: No. 5. Florida (12-4, 8-8) v. Winner Game One (No. 12 Missouri/No. 13 Mississippi State) -- 2:30 p.m. EST (SPS0)

Florida may have only eight available players, but they have plenty of high-scoring threats, making the Gators a dangerous opponent. Jaterra Bonds (15.7 ppg) and Kayla Lewis (11.4 ppg) both average double figures, and three others -- January Miller (9.8 ppg), Cassie Peoples (9.8 ppg) and Ronni Williams (8.3 ppg) -- average close to it and have the capacity to explode for a big game at any time. Bonds and Lewis are the only players who have started the entire season. All of their teammates have taken turns in the starting lineup, and they've done it well, averaging anywhere from 10.1-5.8 points per game, and combing for the SEC's third-best scoring offense at 75.4 points per game.

Lewis is also the team's leading rebounder (8.7 rbg), Bonds and Cassie Peoples can dish out assists (4.4 and 3.6 dimes per game, respectively), and everyone can steal. Bottom line: Florida plays a complete game, and each player is utilized to her fullest.

The weakness of this team comes on defense, where the Gators rank in the SEC basement, ahead of only Ole Miss, giving up 70.1 points per game. As noted above, both potential opponents, Missouri and Mississippi State, are fully capable of putting up that much or better. Florida won its head-to-head with MSU, 82-72, but lost to Mizzou, 76-81, when the Gators, who have a mediocre three-point scoring game at best (9th in the league, at 32.2 percent from beyond the arc) and the worst three-point defense in the SEC to go with it, found no answer to a veritable tidal wave of threes poured in by Missouri's Morgan Eye and friends.

Prediction:  Florida, if Mississippi State advances. Missouri, if the Tigers make it to Thursday.

Game Five: No. 10 LSU (18-11, 7-9) v. No. 7 Alabama (14-15, 7-9) -- 6 p.m. EST (SPSO)

LSU enters the tournament in the midst of a six-game losing streak, which was unexpected considering the Tigers' hot start. And that included a 60-78 blowout loss at Alabama in Sunday's regular-season finale, despite a near-triple-double by LSU's leading scorer, Theresa Plaisance, who posted a game-high 26 points, to go with nine rebouds and a school-record-tying nine blocks. The Tigers will have to recover psychologically to do well in the SEC Tournament.

The lesson: No matter how well Plaisance plays, she cannot do it alone. The LSU Tigers are headed by two seniors, Plaisance, who averages 15.2 points per game, and Jeanne Kenney, who is usually good for 11.6. But the Tide held Kenney to just eight points, and no one else stepped into the breach. Plaisance was the lone double-digit scorer for LSU, and her nine boards -- the Tigers are not a strong rebounding team -- were more than the rest of the starting five combined. Of course, the 24 turnovers the Tigers coughed up in that game didn't help much either.

In contrast, 'Bama presented a well-balanced offensive effort, with four of the five starters finishing in double-digits. The Tide are led by front women Shafontaye Myers (14.3 ppg) and Daisha Simmons (13.6 ppg), with help from freshman forward Ashley Williams (12.7 ppg). There's no one here who can be described as a rebounding machine; instead, the threesome rebound by committee with Williams (6.5 rbg) and Simmons (5.3 rbg) carrying the laboring oar. Against, LSU, the Tide core got a hand from 5-3 junior guard Sharin Rivers, who more often than not came off the bench for an average of 4.6 points per game, but joined the starting lineup Sunday and proved she belonged there with a 12-point, four-steal performance.

The other puzzling thing about Sunday's beat-down is that LSU has historically been known to do well on the defensive end, as would be expected from a Nikki Caldwell-coached team. This season, however, the Tigers rank in the middle of the pack in scoring defense (8th in the league, allowing 63.9 points per game. But on Sunday, the Tigers gave up 78 points to a Tide team that averages a league-worst 64.8 points. That tells us that the problem doesn't lie only in LSU's lack of a balanced offense; there are defensive woes that need to be cured -- and quickly -- if LSU is to avoid an early exit.

Of course, there are always the intangibles: The Tigers will no doubt be looking for revenge. But Kristy Curry has brought new pride and energy to the Tide in her inaugural year there, and Alabama, which enters the tournament with its highest seed since 2009 when it was ranked fifth, will be equally motivated to make the statement that they belong among the league's rising powers.

Prediction: Alabama. Perhaps that's predicting that lightning will strike twice. Still, the Tide are 4-4 since the beginning of February, and while that can hardly be described as momentum, it sure beats 0-6.

No. 6 Auburn (16-13, 7-9) v. Winner Game Two (No. 11 Arkansas/No. 14 Ole Miss) -- 8:30 p.m. EST (SPSO)

The Auburn Tigers are young, hungry and fun to watch. Terri Willliams-Flournoy has infused Auburn with new energy in her first two seasons at the helm. Still, this team has been nothing if not erratic over the course of the season. The highlights of their preconference schedule were wins over St. John's (69-55) and UCLA (66-60). But those were interspersed among losses to pretty much every other team of substance they faced -- see, e.g., @Temple (74-78); @Chattanooga (52-80); n.Iowa State (57-68); @Minnesota (54-67) -- which collectively suggest that this is a team that doesn't travel very well.

The Tigers kicked off conference play with a win @Mississippi State (82-74), then proceeded to drop seven of their next nine games. Things picked up a bit down the stretch, with the Tigers going 5-3 since the beginning of February. But, oh, that loss in the season finale, a 71-73 overtime heartbreaker at Ole Miss, which could be Auburn's first tournament opponent if the Rebels manage to get past the Razorbacks in Wednesday's opener. Auburn fared better at Arkansas, where they won, 56-48, which means that some Tiger fans might be rooting for the Razorbacks on Wednesday.

Despite having four double-digit scorers, led by the dynamic senior wing Tyrese Tanner (17 ppg) and freshman guard Brandy Montgomery (11.4 ppg), augmented by sophomore post Tra'cee Tanner (10.4 ppg) and junior guard Hasina Muhammad (10 pgg), the Tigers combine for the one of the lowest scoring offenses in the SEC, ranking No. 13 in this category (ahead of only Ole Miss) with 65.6 points per game. The Tanner sisters lead the way on the boards, each averaging a little more than six rebounds apiece, and the backcourt is also committed to rebounding with pretty much everyone contributing at least a few. The bench is long, but not particularly deep in scoring talent, collectively chipping in roughly 15 points per game. 

One of the big missing pieces is a perimeter game -- the Tigers rank dead last in the SEC in three-point field-goal percentage, shooting just 25.7 percent from beyond the arc. In terms of potential tournament opponents, Ole Miss is only marginally better in this department (12th place at 30 percent from three-point range), while Arkansas is while not a strong sharpshooting team is significantly better than either Auburn or Ole Miss, shooting 35.1 percent from beyond the arc (fifth place in the conference rankings).

Auburn ranks in the middle of the pack defensively, giving up 62.8 points on average, and the combination of poor scoring, no three-point threat and mediocre defense makes for the third-worst scoring margin in the league, barely in the plus column at +2.7 points per game -- the likely explanation for their inconsistent results.

Prediction: This is really too close to call and depends heavily on which potential opponent advances out of Wednesday's opener. If it's Ole Miss, we'll take Auburn, despite Sunday's stumble; if, as predicted above, it's Arkansas, we'll give the Razorbacks the nod, based on their somewhat better momentum down the stretch.

Friday, March 7 (Quarterfinals)

Friday sees the league's big dogs enter the picture, having earned byes through the first two rounds of tournament play.

Game Seven: No. 1 South Carolina (26-3, 14-2) v. Winner Game Three (No. 8 Vanderbilt/No. 9 Georgia) -- 12 Noon EST (SPSO)

The Gamecocks have simply dominated this season. Their only losses have come to n.North Carolina (66-74), at a December tournament; @Texas A&M (65-67, OT) in a January overtime squeaker, and @Tennessee (61-73), in Sunday's season finale.

In a significant improvement over last season, South Carolina is one of the best field-goal shooting teams, not just in the SEC but in the entire NCAA Division I, this season, shooting 48.1 percent from the field, including 35.4 percent from beyond the arc (the latter place them fourth in the SEC standings in that category). Sophomore guard Tiffany Mitchell (15.5 ppg), junior forward Aleighsa Welch (13.9 ppg) and frosh center Alaina Coates (12.2 ppg) provide the Gamecocks with multiple double-digit scoring options. Mitchell distributes the ball well, averaging over 3.5 assists per outing, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.2:1; as a team, South Carolina ranks in the upper half of the SEC in assists, averaging 14.9 dimes per contest. Welch, Coates and 6-5 junior post Elem Ibiam are also blocks queens, collectively averaging a league-best 7.2 swats per game and out-blocking opponents almost three-to-one.

As one might expect of a Dawn Staley team, the Gamecocks are also strong defensively. They stand atop the conference in field-goal percentage defense (.345), rank second in scoring defense, giving up just 54.9 points per game, and stand third in three-point field-goal percentage defense, holding opponents to just 28.4 percent from beyond the arc. Their relatively efficient offsense and top-notch defense combine for a scoring margin of +19 points per game, yet another league best. They are far from the league's best rebounding squad, pulling down 40.9 boards per game -- good for fifth place in the SEC, though with the next three programs all within a single rebound of that average, you'd have to place South Carolina squarely in the middle of the pack. But here, again, defense plays a role -- the Gamecocks hold their opponents to just 31.4 rebounds per game (first in the league), which gives them a rebounding margin of nearly 10 boards more than their opponents on average (second-best in the SEC).

Right now South Carolina has the momentum, and with their youth, they will be hard to beat for the title. True, there are teams that can do it -- A&M and Tennessee obviously among them. Of their two potential quarterfinal opponents, Vanderbilt came close in its regular-season meeting with the Gamecocks, falling by just four points (57-61). But that was in January, and as previously noted, the Commodores were playing much better then. Georgia succumbed to South Carolina by nine (56-66) and that was just a week ago.

Prediction: South Carolina, regardless of opponent.

Game Eight: No. 4 Kentucky (22-7, 10-6) v. Winner Game Four (No. 5 Florida/No. 12 Missouri/No. 13 Mississippi State) -- 2:30 p.m. EST (SPSO)

It has not been the season that anyone predicted for the Wildcats. After a strong start, highlighted by their 133-130 quadruple-overtime victory over Baylor, in a game that has to go down as a classic, they've had seven losses, including one to South Carolina (58-81), one to Alabama (55-57), one @Georgia (56-58) and two to Florida (73-83, 80-86). You might think that would leave Wildcat fans cheering for anybody but the Gators on Thursday, but Mississippi State took the 'Cats to OT before falling, 74-81, so that pairing might not be quite as good as it sounds. Kentucky fared better against Mizzou, whom they defeated, 80-61, in Lexington in early January.

What has to have fans, coaches and team members all scratching their heads is that there seems to be little rhyme or reason why the Wildcats perform well in some games and poorly in others. Even with 'Cats' star A'dia Mathies now playing in the WNBA, this team doesn't lack for talent. Jennifer O'Neill is Kentucky's leading scorer (13 ppg), but she and head coach Matthew Mitchell have been known to butt heads and suffer miscommunications during games. Six-three forward DeNesha Stallworth, who transferred to UK from Cal as a junior, is the team's other double-digit scorer, chipping in 11.9 points per game, though that seems like underachievement for a player with Stallworth's talent and athleticism. Bria Goss, Samarie Walker and Janee Thompson all average nine points per game or better, while Kastine Evans comes close with 8.8. Together they combine for the SEC's No. 1 scoring offense, averaging 82.4 points per game.

The Wildcats are also a solid rebounding team, pulling down 43.4 boards per game, second in the league only to Tennessee.

Surprisingly, however, given the notoriety of Mitchell's high-pressure "Forty Minutes of Dread" defense, this year's edition of the Wildcats has proven to be a relatively weak defensive team. Kentucky tied with Alabama for the dubious distinction of having the SEC's 11th-worst scoring defense, allowing opponents to put up 68.6 points per game. The only SEC teams with worse scoring defense are Florida and Ole Miss. The offense is strong enough that the Wildcats still rank third in the league in scoring margin (+13.9 points per game), but this is not the typical Matthew Mitchell standard of defense. They allow their adversaries to shoot 40.5 percent (10th worst) from the floor, though they do a much better job of defending the three-point line, holding opponents to just 29.7 percent from downtown (fourth best).

There is no reason, at least on paper, why the Wildcats don't have a legitimate shot at defending their title. But it's up to them.

Prediction: Depends on the opponent. If the Gators advance to the quarterfinals out of Thursday's match-up, history gives them the nod. Take Kentucky over either Missouri or Mississippi State.

Game Nine: No. 2 Tennessee (24-5, 13-3) v. Winner Game Five (No. 7 Alabama/No. 10 LSU) -- 6 p.m. EST (SPSO)

The day's when yet another Tennessee conference title was a foregone conclusion may be behind us, but this Tennessee team is solid, with three reliable double-digit scoring leaders in senior guard Meighan Simmons (16.2 ppg), 6-3 junior center Isabelle Harrison (13.4 ppg) and junior field-general Ariel Massengale (12.5 ppg) who also manages to hand out better than five dimes per outing. Sophomore post Bashaara Graves isn't far off the mark with 9.7 points per game, 6-2 forward Ciera Burdick (8.6 ppg) has shown the ability to explode for double figures, though she seems to be in a bit of a scoring slump of late, and the Vols have a competent and productive bench. Only two of their five season losses were not close.

The Vols rank second in the league in scoring offense (79 ppg), fifth in scoring defense (62.7 ppg), second in field-goal percentage defense (35.9 percent) and second in scoring margin (+16.3 ppg). They are efficient, shooting 46.4 percent from the field (second only to South Carolina) and 37.6 percent from beyond the arc (third-best in the league). They lead the league in assists (16.4 apg) and are the SEC's best rebounding team, hauling down 46 boards per game, and are third-best in rebounding defense, giving up 34.6 rebounds to opponents, for a league-best rebounding margin of +11.4 boards per game.

Their greatest vulnerabilities are in perimeter defense, where they are right in the middle of the pack, allowing opponents to shoot 30.3 percent from the arc, and excessive turnovers. The Lady Vols cough the ball up an average of 16.8 points per game, to their opponents' 15.7 average miscues, placing them in negative territory when it comes to turnover margin (-1.1 per game, third worst in the league). 

On the down side, Massengale missed 10 games this season after being hit in the face in late January in UT's 81-53 win over Florida. No date has been set for her return, and though she has been participating in non-contact practices since Feb. 19, she was not in the lineup for Sunday's season finale victory over South Carolina (73-61). With Massengale on the sidelines, the ball more often ends up in the hands of Simmons, who has many virtues but has never been known for the wisdom of her shot selection.

With only one senior in Simmons, the Lady Vols are a relatively young team. They've shown significant progress this year under second-year coach Holly Warlick, and they certainly possess the raw talent, but they may lack the experience right now to take home an SEC championship. They should make it at least as far as the semifinals, however. They handled Alabama in early February, handing the Tide a 70-60 loss behind standout games from Burdick and Harrison. LSU would be a more challenging match-up, having finished within five points (72-67) in their regular-season meeting with Tennessee just a week ago.

Prediction: Tennessee, regardless of opponent. LSU could pull off the upset, but the Vols are riding a four-game winning streak heading into the tournament and are 7-1 since the beginning of February, while the Tigers are ... not.
 

Game Ten: No. 3 Texas A&M (23-7, 13-3) v. Winner Game Six (No. 6 Auburn/No. 11 Arkansas/No. 14 Ole Miss) -- 8:30 p.m. EST (SPSO)

The Aggies could be the wild card in this year's SEC Tournament. After a mixed start, in which they dropped losses to many of their top-tier opponents -- see, e.g., n.Texas (58-69); n.Syracuse (63-78); @Penn State (58-66); n.St. John's (70-72) -- they picked up steam with the arrival of conference play and carry the momentum of winning 16 of their last 19 games into the tournament. They have beaten No. 1-seeded South Carolina (67-65, OT) in regular-season play, though it took them extra minutes to pull out the squeaker. They lost by double-digits to Tennessee (55-76) in late January and to Kentucky (74-83) by nine 10 days ago. They easily defeated potential quarterfinal opponent Arkansas, 77-54, last week in College Station, had little problem @Auburn (71-54) in late January, and rolled over Ole Miss (73-61) in Oxford late last month, making the Aggies an easy pick to advance at least as far as the semis.

Five-eight sophomore guard Courtney Walker (14.5 ppg), 6-1 sophomore wing Courtney Williams (13.5 ppg) and 6-5 senior center Karla Gilbert (11.2 ppg) lead a balanced Aggie squad that sits squarely in the middle of the SEC pack when it comes to scoring offense (No. 9 at 69.5 points per game), but makes up for it with defense, where A&M ranks third in the conference, holding opponents to just 58.3 points per game, for a league-fifth scoring margin of +11.2. They own one of the SEC's better field-goal percentages, shooting 44.6 percent from the floor (No. 4), while limiting opponents to just 36.1-percent field-goal shooting. Their lack of a significant three-point threat is a severe vulnerability -- the Aggies have the SEC's second-worst three-point field-goal percentage at just 28.7 percent from beyond the arc -- but they compensate for that with the league's best three-point percentage defense, holding opponents to just 25.9 percent from long distance.

They are strong on the boards, averaging 41.6 rebounds per game (league third-best) and typically out-board their opposition by +5.4 rebounds per game. They rank second only to South Carolina in blocked shots (five per game) and to Tennessee in assists (16.2 per game), though they cough the ball up nearly as often (15.9 TO per game) as they serve up the dish.

Prediction: Texas A&M, regardless of opponent. Coach Gary Blair should have his team prepared, as usual, for battle. Any of A&M's prospective quarterfinal opponents would have to up their games significantly from their regular-season performances to have any real hope of moving on.
 

REMAINING SCHEDULE

We'll take a closer look at the semifinal and championship matchups below as the tournament progresses and the participants are identified.

Saturday, March 8 (Semifinals)

Game Eleven: Winner South Carolina Quarterfinal (Game Seven) v. Winner Kentucky Quarterfinal (Game Eight) -- 12 Noon EST (ESPNU)

Game Twelve: Winner Tennessee Quarterfinal (Game Nine) v. Winner Texas A&M Quarterfinal (Game Ten) -- 2:30 p.m. EST (ESPNU)

Sunday, March 9

Championship Game -- 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)


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