The SEC truly sets the standard for excellence in women's basketball and in 2016 the goal for each and every squad is the same: to be the last team standing this April in Indy. To get us ready for what looks to be one of the most exciting seasons yet, your humble author reached out to our sister sites at SB Nation and am thrilled to share their thoughts about the state of women's hoops this year. Many thanks to jimhu at Good Bull Hunting, Kaci B at Garnet and Black Attack and David Hooper and Chris Pendley at Rocky Top Talk for their fabulous insights and participation!
How do you feel about the new 10-minute quarter format that will be in place this season?
GBH: Mostly neutral... maybe I'd be more enthusiastic if we had better concessions at Reed Arena! I'm not sure how coaches will adapt. I think it will be better for teams that play aggressive man-to-man defenses, since it will eliminate the situations where you get into the bonus early and that haunts you for a whole half. But I don't like the elimination of the 1 and 1, as I think that will make for fewer late game dramatics
RTT: David: Not a clue, honestly. I think I'd be in the off-my-lawn camp simply because Tennessee relies on depth, and that extra break minimizes the effect of fatigue. Since you didn't ask about rules changes I'd really like, I'll tell you: tighten up the whistles on hack-a-Shaqs in the paint, and loosen up the whistles on bad-touch calls against guards outside the perimeter. The discrepancy on physical contact is astounding.
Chris: I'm not against it; I'm just not sure it affects a whole lot with Tennessee. This year's squad should be a little deeper than last year's, but in theory it allows for more pressing and aggressive defense. In practice, I don't think it'll matter more than once or twice.
ASoB: I am really curious to see how it impacts teams who have depended on their ability to grind the other opponent down. It SHOULD lead to better flow within the game. The elimination of a one time out makes me very happy as nothing is more aggravating to watch than the last 5 minutes of a game taking 25 minutes to play.
That said I do think there are more opportunities to improve the flow, and clarifying the difference between defense and hack-a-Shaq is desperately needed for both the men and the ladies.
This past year fully half of the SEC made it to the tournament (Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi State and South Carolina) but only South Carolina and Tennessee made it to the Sweet 16. How can we a.) get more teams to the dance and b.) get more teams further into the tournament?
GBH: Overall, I'm not too worried about whether we get enough teams into the dance as much as whether deserving teams land on the right or wrong side of the bubble. Once conference play starts, we're just beating each other up, so key nonconference wins have to weigh into how teams make their case for being higher on the S-curve. As a conference, the SEC doing things like the SEC-Big12 challenge is one way to help our out of conference strength of schedule. This season it's still just two teams from each conference, but it's expanding in 2016.
GABA: I think the answer to both of these questions is pretty much the same and it's to just keep building the programs in the SEC. If the SEC Network is really the recruiting advantages that I think it is, that will be reflected in the quality of play over the next few seasons and will hopefully translate to postseason results.
RTT: David: A.) Better out-of-conference marks. The in-conference games will cause some teams to lose ground in the tournament selections, so it's imperative the middle-pack teams build up some good will early on. Really, there are only three or four teams in the conference who could afford to risk the Baylor throne-of-cupcakes path to tournament seeding glory.
B) Because the SEC is so physical in-conference, teams really can't afford to lean on one superstar too much. One injury and a season is wrecked (see Harrison, Isabelle). That said, a superstar is more effective in tournament format because, half the time, your opponent has no time to prepare for them. In UT's case, this is where DeShields could earn her (figurative) paycheck: get into the second weekend and turn her loose against an Elite Eight team that has all of 24 hours to prepare for her.
Chris: A) Look, just because Baylor can back into a 3-seed or 4-seed scheduling Sam Houston State fourteen times in out-of-conference play doesn't mean it's a good idea for other teams to do the same thing. Schedule up in the OOC, but I don't think the SEC will get more than eight teams in unless some of the other big leagues go through swoons.
B) Teams in the SEC tend to be defense-focused first and foremost, and that can only get you so far--typically the Elite Eight. I haven't seen many squads with a strong flip-the-switch-and-destroy-everything offense the likes of which you'll see from a Notre Dame. SEC squads don't need that kind of offense, but they need something more than they've been getting. There's also an interior-perimeter component where most SEC teams have doubled down on the interior but lack enough perimeter shooting to compensate when they run across a team who can play them to a draw on the inside. Then it's rocks vs. arrows and SEC squads don't normally win that.
ASoB: A.) We need to maximize the opportunities in our non-conference schedule as much as possible: the tougher the RPI the better. Not only does that put you in the best place possible as far as prepping for the brutal war that is conference play, it allows you to go up against different styles of play around the country. (This philosophy goes for every sport, IMHO.)
B.) We need to put every other conference into UConn and Notre Dame's bracket? (I say this only in light of the tradition we have on SB Nation to commiserate with one another when you see you're in UConn's bracket.)
Knowing how we maul each other during the regular season, what do you think the goal should be for your team's non-conference schedule? How do you think they do in meeting that goal?
GBH: The offseason is where Blair tinkers with his lineup and sees how players respond to game situations vs practice. Which means some of the weaker opponents give him a chance to do lots of experimenting without risking the W-L numbers. And we did play 3 ranked teams in the OOC and a pretty good Washington team, who beat us at their place. Some of our OOC schedule is driven by cost and travel, and I don't know how hard it is to get name teams to come to College Station. Like a lot of fans, I'd like to see some stronger out of conference opponents, especially at home. But that's speaking as a season ticket holder and fan.
GABA: I'm a big believer in playing a tough non-conference schedule because I think it helps teams better prepare for the regular season. Of course, doing that means running the risk of having an overall record that looks worse, but I think the experience is worth it for both the fans and the team. There's nothing wrong with having a few teams that are pushovers padding a non-conference schedule, but I think we should always have a couple of higher profile teams on the non-conference slate as well. The Gamecocks do a good job of this, and last year did very well against the non-conference schedule. I expect the Gamecocks to head into the SEC portion of the schedule with a winning record again this year, though there will be some tough games before they get there.
RTT: David: Honestly, I wouldn't change OOC much, other than to make sure everybody has a few quality games. It helps the overall conference RPI (so good games by MSU, for example, would potentially help Arkansas's RPI during seeding time). But most teams are already there, so there's not a lot to worry about.
Chris: Schedule up, but I'm also the guy sitting around annoyed that Tennessee's only playing five or six top-25 teams in OOC instead of nine or ten.
ASoB: Unlike the men's side of the house, most of our women's programs already schedule some pretty brutal non-conference games. I'd like to see more holiday tournaments for the women take place, as it gives the teams early practice in playing multiple games in a short time frame, and allows fans who may not be able to attend games during the regular season an opportunity to support their players.
How do you think the SEC can break the stranglehold Geno has on the title? 3 years straight is ridiculous. We haven't won the title since 2011! (because A&M is going to let us count that one, right?)
GBH: It's worse than 3 straight. It's five out of the last seven, while making the final four the other two times. And I'd say they have to be the favorite as long as Stewie is there. The good news for fans of everyone else, Stewart and Jefferson will be seniors this year. The bad news is that UConn will continue to reload. The question in my mind, however, is whether the weakness of the American conference will start to affect UConn recruiting when/if they have an off year. UConn fans like to think the American will elevate to be like the old Big East. I have my doubts about that.
GABA: Well the most direct route would be to get the entire UConn team for NCAA violations. But since that seems unlikely, this is a tough question. Geno is obviously a great coach and has built a fantastic program at UConn and it will be difficult to dethrone them. One thing working in our favor is that dynasties are hard to sustain, even with great coaching and recruiting. All we can do is continue to build our programs and hope that one of us is the team that finally gets in a position to steal the crown.
RTT: David: The SEC can't change things they can't influence. From this point to the end of his career, barring scandal, Geno will always recruit well and have his system running strong. The 10-minute quarters only help him as he runs a 7 deep system and he'll be able to keep the starters in even longer. UConn's also well-situated in a conference that poses zero physical challenge to UConn (i.e. very low injury risk), so they get two months of tune-up heading into the tournament, and Geno obviously knows how to use that well.
Let Geno do Geno things. UConn, for as good as they are, aren't much fun to watch. I mean, it's fun to watch how well they play as a team (and they're beautifully fantastic at it), but night after night of 40-point wins does get monotonous. Give me Thunderdome.
Chris: To some extent, it'll be easier for Geno late in his career because of how relatively weak the AAC is in the women's game . That means he has to schedule up in OOC to make sure they have the proper tourney feel. With that being said: I don't see Geno backing down any time soon. He's still a recruiting juggernaut, the team won't lack for national attention, and there won't be a shortage of women lining up to put on UConn's jersey.
If the SEC's gonna break Geno's streak, someone's gonna have to get a lot better. Just because South Carolina landed a one seed doesn't mean they were on the same line as UConn, if you track with me.
ASoB: Since apparently my birthday wish of having Geno and Kim Mulkey sent to Mars isn't coming true anytime soon, I guess we'll need to focus on what WE do well: aggressive non-conference scheduling and hope and pray we don't actually break one another into pieces during the regular season. I think the SEC turns out truly fantastic product to watch, and look forward to seeing this continue in 2016.
What do think the odds are that your team gets to play in Indy this April?
GBH: I would love to be pleasantly surprised, but I don't see us as a Final Four team this year, even with my most optimistic version of how Jones' knee comes back. I think we'll be a solid team, but I think it would be an upset for us finish in the top 2-3 teams in the SEC.
GABA: This is a team that's loaded with talent, returns most of the players from last year's historic season, and is coached by Dawn Staley. I wouldn't bet against the Gamecocks being there.
RTT: David: Today, I'll say 50%. Barring injury, Tennessee will get to the E8. Getting past that mark has been their stonewall ever since Parker left. But this year, it feels like Tennessee's weak spot will be at the 3, which is where you want a team's weak spot (relatively speaking) to be.
Chris: 30%. I like the composition of the squad this year (Warlick's slowly getting a smaller, faster, more flexible squad), but there is way, way too much that can happen between now and April for anyone to write their names in pen into the Final Four.
Except for Baylor and UConn. Y'all just go on ahead. I'm sure nothing will go wrong.
ASoB: Assuming we can get through the season relatively injury free (and at Kentucky, "relatively injury free" means something different than it does at other schools) I'm giving us a 40% shot. We have more size this year, which is great, but we don't have the depth of prolific shooting we've had in years past. Jennifer O'Neil is NOT walking back through that door. Happily Linnae Harper, Makayla Epps, Janee Thompson and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers ARE, and I suspect all of them have been working hard this summer with thoughts of Indy on their minds.