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!
First off, talk to me about YOUR team: What should we expect to see for 2016? What are you looking forward to seeing this year?
Good Bull Hunting (GBH): 2015-16 is the senior season for the group who came in as the #2 ranked recruiting class after the 2011 national championship. After that group, led by the two Courtneys made it to the Elite 8 as sophomores, expectations were high last year. But 2014-15 was a bit of a letdown, as the team followed an 12-0 start by going 11-10 the rest of the way with an early exit from the NCAA tournament. Even before Jordan Jones' devastating injury, the team was inconsistent and struggled with focus, rebounding, and inexperience and instability in the post after the graduation of Karla Gilbert from the E8 team. So, despite having an experienced core of good to great seniors, there are a lot of unknowns going into this coming season.
The biggest question is: How is JJ's rehab going? Coach Blair is talking about Courtney Walker playing some point. This suggests that he's not ready to turn the team over to backup PG Curtyce Knox, who struggled when Jones went down. But it's also potentially a way for highly ranked freshman Danni Williams to get on the court without sending Walker to the bench. No matter how Jones return goes, there are still questions up front. At the 4, A&M lost leading rebounder Achiri Ade and sub Tavarsha Scott-Williams to graduation. Expect to see Courtney Williams playing more as an undersized PF, instead of as a 3, depending on how much Blair uses senior Chelsea Jennings and the progress we see from freshman Anriel Howard and transfer Jasmin Lumpkin, who will be eligible by SEC play. At the 5, one of the heads of the three-headed post monster, Jada Terry, is transferring. Khaalia Hillsman showed promise in her freshman year at the post, and is likely to be the starter. and that inconsistent 6-7 Senior Rachel Mitchell finally gets it together as the backup. Coach Blair loves to go small if the front court is struggling, but I hope we don't have to use CWill in the post, especially with the size that teams like S. Carolina and Tennessee can put out there.
I'm looking forward to sending the seniors off with a strong year and I'm excited about the newcomers. One interesting thing from last year is how Courtney Williams really grew as a team leader at the end. I'm hoping she comes back from the Pan Am games even more ready to take on that role. A lot of fans were frustrated by the Ags lack of 3-point shooting, which allowed opponents to pack the paint with zones. Danni Williams finished second a the HS 3-point shooting contest so there's a lot of excitement about what she could bring.
Garnet and Black Attack (GABA): I'm expecting another fun, successful season from the Gamecocks this year. This team has a chance to be better than last year's team, which is just delightful to think about. There were three seniors on last year's team and while they'll all be missed, particularly Aleighsa Welch, USC is returning tons of talent. Last year's leading scorers, A'ja Wilson and Tiffany Mitchell, will both be back. Sarah Imovbioh, who led the ACC in rebounds last season at Virginia, will join the team and is expected to make an immediate impact. The Gamecocks will have a deep bench with plenty of talented, experienced players. I think we'll once again see a Gamecock team that is capable of wearing their opponents down with a rotation that has little drop off in talent when players come in off the bench.
Rocky Top Talk (RTT): There's some volatility here having lost Harrison, Burdick, and Massengale to graduation. But the highlights, in completely random order, are:
- Andraya Carter, on-ball pitbull defender.
- Diamond DeShields and the never-ending hype wagon (but seriously, if she's the superstar this team's been missing since Parker...)
- Mercedes Russell and 6'-6" of hey-I've-been-in-strength-and-conditioning-for-two-years
- Bashaara Graves being a full-time 4 as Russell/Moore handle the 5.
Overall, there will be early questions at the point, but Reynolds/Carter will do well. We'll see how freshman Te'a Cooper looks. Russell is coming off injury, but seems to be in fine form. The chemistry between her and Graves will be a big deal.
A Sea of Blue (ASoB): I'm looking forward to a year when the Injury Fairy finds a new team to pick on. Last year we lost Ivana Jakubcova (our 6'6" Slovakian Amazon) before the season even started, then lost Bria Goss in mid December for 8 weeks with a broken thumb. After that we lost Janee Thompson in that horrific accident at South Carolina, and by tournament time, Makayla Epps was literally hobbling up and down the court with her Achilles issue.
Assuming a.) we can stay relatively healthy, b.) my team masters the fine art of driving without crashing, and c.) Makayla Epps earns her way off suspension and back onto the point, we could be setting up one of our best seasons to date. I can't wait to see how playing for her third gold medal with Team USA has impacted Linnae Harper's game, and really can't wait to see how Matthew Mitchell utilizes all the height he's amassed this year. Most of all, I cannot wait to see Janee Thompson take the floor at Big Blue Madness - the roof may actually blow off of Rupp when we welcome her home.
As far as what to expect, I'm assuming the 40 Minutes of Dread will continue, and that our speed will (finally) be supplemented be the serious size this team will have.
What was the best moment for your team last year? What was the worst?
GBH: Best moments from last year had to be the comeback win against Duke and the late win at UK (sorry, Jords). The Duke comeback was best for single game excitement, while the UK game gave us hope that the team was poised for a Gary Blair late run into the dance.
Worst moment is easily Jordan Jones clutching her knee at midcourt vs Mizzou.
GABA: The best moment for the Gamecocks was probably beating Florida State to advance to our first Final Four, although winning the SEC Tournament was also very special. There weren't a lot of bad moments (we only lost 3 games), but I'd say the worst was getting completely overpowered by UConn during the regular season. I don't care that the Huskies were on their way to their third straight title, when your team regularly beats opponents by 20+ it's difficult to watch that get flipped around.
RTT: Best moment: beating Stanford 59-40. That defense was as locked-down as it has been in years. Worst moment should have been the Chattanooga loss, but was in reality the Harrison injury.
ASoB: Best moment: Beating South Carolina on Senior Night. (Sorry, Kaci!) It was an incredible team effort, and an amazing accomplishment for our seniors.
Worst Moment: Hands down, Janee's injury. A freak accident that had both sides in tears, and haunted my Cats the rest of the season. (Side note: Hats off and many thanks to the Gamecocks for the great care they gave to Janee that afternoon.)
What was the biggest lesson for your team last year?
GBH: Make every play count. There were too many times when the Ags looked like they weren't ready to play, as if they thought they could just turn it on at will. Too many comebacks were unable to overcome holes dug in the first half.
RTT: Biggest lesson: can't assume a win. See: Chattanooga, Texas. Second biggest lesson: losing two All-American centers kinda hurts your chances in the offseason.
ASoB: No one is going to just hand you a win, and they certainly aren't going to do it just because your jersey says KENTUCKY. Also: free throw shooting is kind of important.
Overall attendance for the SEC set a record this year (+1m fans!), beating the Big XII for the first time since 1984. A big part of this was South Carolina doubling their average attendance (from 6k to 12K per game) but all schools had a healthy turnout. How much support does your women's basketball team get from the fans? How could it be stronger?
GBH: A&M is regularly in the good but not great group for WBB attendance. We average about 5K per game at home, where the upper deck of Reed is closed for the women. That's good enough to be top 15-20, but among the WBB fans there's a general feeling that Coach Blair deserves better support, especially from the student body. Like a lot of WBB programs, we tend to have a lot of "blue hairs" in the crowd (and we're not talking about people dying their hair blue for your Wildcats). Although moving to the SEC has had many benefits, I have to say that it's probably hurt WBB attendance, since we lose the bump we used to get from home and home games vs Texas and Baylor, who are in easy driving distance.
GABA: As is evidenced by the fact that we led the nation in attendance, our women's basketball support is outstanding right now. Attendance has exploded for the Gamecocks and it feels like this level of fan support is sustainable, although the rate of growth isn't. Colonial Life Arena holds 18K total, so there's still room for us to improve our attendance and I'm optimistic that we will. Last season our non-conference attendance was all below the season average and fans didn't show up in droves until we got into SEC play. I think now that everyone has realized that our team is ridiculously fun to pull for, the fans will start showing up in larger numbers earlier than they did last year. We also have several big non-conference home games, including a rematch with UConn, and I fully expect us to have huge crowds for those games.
RTT: UT support was actually down just a tick from normal, largely due to changes in ticket pricing, and to a lesser effect (I think) the increasing distance from the Summitt era. I mean, it's still great support, but they're suffering a bit under departmental admin that sees only financial ledgers and doesn't really pay attention to, you know, a good fan experience.
But enough about that, as it's kinda of complaining from the palace walls. League-wide, it's great to have several teams drawing big numbres (SC, UT, UK, A&M come to mind immediately).
ASoB: We're in what I consider the Golden Years of Women's Basketball at UK, and that is 100% due to the efforts of Matthew Mitchell. We're #7 in overall attendance in the country, and the 1 game a year the women have at Rupp is almost always a sell-out.
I know some fans who grumble about playing at Memorial instead of Rupp, but frankly I enjoy the environment within Memorial for our women's teams. I don't know that moving more games to Rupp would automatically equal more butts in seats, but maybe having our big conference games there would be an option. (I know we'd sell out against Tennessee!)
How much of a recruiting advantage do you think the SEC Network has given the women's programs?
GBH: As a fan, I love being able to watch so many games. I have to imagine that it can't hurt recruiting to increase exposure. But I also have to admit that I have no idea how much it helps, and as a scientist in my other life I recognize that it's very hard to do a well-controlled analysis. One unintended consequence of the SEC Network for us at A&M is that it probably rescued the Longhorn Network when ESPN packaged the two together for providers. The other place the SECN helps, of course, is money. Which can help all the sports including WBB, depending on whether the AD is willing to spend (looking at you, Georgia).
GABA: I don't know exactly how to measure how much of an advantage the SECN has given our WBB programs, but there certainly is one. I think the combination of big crowds and a regular television audience is a huge selling point for recruits.
RTT: The non-UT programs? Quite a bit. (Might add SC to that, as Staley has made her own name by now, but Carolina still focuses on regional recruiting.) UT is such a national recruiter, though, that it only matters so far as the SECN is nationally available (and watched).
ASoB: I'm not sure we will ever be able to measure this perfectly, but let's be honest: there is no way it can do anything but help with letting recruits know just how powerful the SEC is in women's basketball. The beauty of the SECN is the partnership with ESPN, and this led to having great sideline coverage for women's hoops. Having outstanding commentators such as Kara Lawson and Nell Fortner calling our games is an absolute feather in the SEC's cap. And as a fan, I always appreciate the chance to watch my team on my big TV, vs. my computer or tablet.
True or False: The SEC is the toughest conference for women's basketball.
GBH: True. There are different ways to think about what criteria should be used to rank conferences: top teams, all teams, conference average, conference median, etc. In some (e.g Sagarin average) the SEC is second or third after the Big 10 and the ACC (including Notre Dame). But as Coach Blair has been saying the past couple of years, the SEC has been upgrading from top to bottom.
GABA: We're the toughest conference for every sport, right? S-E-C! S-E-C!
(Really, I think it's hard to determine something like this, but the SEC certainly belongs in that conversation and could make a case for it.)
RTT: Yes, in the same manner as the football side of the house: so many tough teams to get through in the regular season, and a bit of a Thunderdome mentality league-wide. It's physically brutal. the ACC is pushing for toughest as well, but they're much more of a finesse league, relatively speaking.
ASoB: Based on how our toughest competition every year is each other? Absolutely. Yes, I know, there are outstanding teams in every conference, but generally speaking, the SEC seems to have more elite/emerging elite programs top to bottom.
That's all for part one of this roundtable. Stay tuned for part two, when we discuss the impact of rule changes for this year, and what it's going to take to beat Geno and his Ginormous Gals.