Where the Lady Tigers enter the tournament
LSU enters the SEC tournament as the 7 seed after finishing the season 19-9 overall and 9-7 in the SEC and will face 10 seed Florida at 5 p.m today. Before the season started, that would have been a pretty good result because LSU was projected by the SEC coaches to just finish ninth. However, LSU greatly exceeded expectations for most of the season with the Lady Tigers racking up 5 top 25 wins and starting 18-5 overall and 8-3 in SEC play. The Lady Tigers were not able to maintain their hot start as senior forward and all-SEC second team Ayana Mitchell was lost for the season to a knee injury. The Lady Tigers struggled in their last five games, pulling out just one win over 13th place Vanderbilt at home and dropped from the three seed to the seven seed. It further stings for LSU because if they had won one more conference game, then the Lady Tigers would have finished with the three seed and an extra round bye.
What to expect from the Lady Tigers
Despite LSU’s late season struggle, there is reason to be optimistic about their chances in the SEC tournament. For starters, the Lady Tigers seem to have righted the ship. LSU snapped a three game losing streak against Vanderbilt on Wednesday and played close on the road against #25 Arkansas despite losing. Furthermore, the Lady Tigers have shown to be significantly better when playing in friendly or neutral confines. LSU went 13-2 in home and neutral courts as opposed to a 6-7 record on the road. This means LSU is probably better suited to play in the SEC tournament in Greensville where most of the tickets should be going to South Carolina fans, a team LSU would not face until the championship.
Another major factor for optimism is that the Lady Tigers have suddenly gotten hot from behind the arc. In the last 9 games, LSU has made 38 three pointers which is nearly as much as the previous 20 games combined (43 three pointers). The Lady Tigers ability to make perimeter shots should make it easier for junior center and all-SEC defensive player Faustine Aifuwa to go to work in the paint where LSU has been strong for most of the season. It also opens up the dribble drive for junior guard and all-SEC second team Khayla Pointer who leads LSU in points and assists.
Ultimately, even with reason for optimism, the Lady Tigers probably are not going to win the SEC. There is a good chance they will get a round one win over 10 seed Florida, who the they beat with Mitchell playing limited minutes already, but after that it gets tougher. A win means that LSU would play 2 seed Mississippi State who beat a healthy Lady Tigers by 4. They would then face a difficult semifinal likely against 3 seed Kentucky and a championship likely against 1 seed South Carolina. That would be a tall task for LSU to complete even with a healthy team.
Regardless of what happens in the SEC tournament, LSU will almost certainly make the NCAA tournament. The Lady Tigers have 5 wins over AP top 25 teams and a top 40 rpi. They are also projected as a 9 seed in ESPN's bracketology. That means that even a deep run in the conference tournament likely will not earn them a top 16 seed and hosting rights that would come with it, but there is little chance of falling off the bubble which makes it a relatively low stakes conference tournament.
The Rest of the Conference
- South Carolina (29-1, 16-0 SEC): Last season, South Carolina may have recruited the best freshman class in the history of women’s basketball. Coach Dawn Staley managed to take her young team and run the SEC. The Gamecocks enter as the nation’s best team and it would be surprising if anyone else wins the SEC tournament.
- Mississippi State (25-5, 13-3): Miss State lost several seniors including center Teiara McCowan last year which has caused them to take a slight step back from the team over the last three years which made two final fours and an elite eight. Still, Miss State finished a strong second in the SEC and should be the favorite to play the Gamecocks in the Championship game.
- Kentucky (21-7, 10-6): Kentucky sophomore Rhyne Howard was named SEC Player of the Year after averaging 23.3 points per game. A strong SEC tournament performance by Howard and company could result in the WIldcats earning the rights to host in the NCAA tournament making this important for Kentucky.
- Texas A&M (22-7, 10-6): Texas A&M hit a rough patch when junior guard Chennedy Carter got injured in a January 18th match against LSU. Carter, who averages 21.3 points per game, is healthy now and the Aggies are as good as any team in the nation when Carter plays at her peak. If A&M can make the SEC semifinals, they would be poised to host the NCAA tournament.
- Arkansas (22-7, 10-6): The Razorbacks had an impressive run to the SEC championship last year that built up high expectations for this season. Arkansas's prolific offense has lived up to those expectations averaging 88 points per game and scoring over 100 four times. If the Razorbacks fire on a cylinders, they can win the tournament this time.
- Tennessee (20-9, 10-6): The Lady Vols enter this tournament with no significant wins and a record largely inflated by featuring a plethora of weak opponents. In fact, LSU is their highest RPI win and the Lady Tigers split the series with Tennessee. Simply put, the Lady Vols probably are not as good as their record. Tennessee is the tallest team in the SEC, however, and that size means Tennessee could make a run in the tournament.
- LSU (19-9, 9-7): To add to what I have already discussed, the Lady Tigers will need to make threes, avoid turnovers and win the rebounding battle to win the SEC championship. They have struggled to do all three at various times this season. I really would be surprised to see LSU make the semifinals in the SEC tournament.
- Alabama (18-11, 8-8): The Crimson Tide shocked everyone by beating Miss State and Texas A&M in the last two weeks of the season. This means Alabama might do something they have not done in 21 years, make the NCAA tournament. The Crimson Tide are in the first four out of ESPN’s bracketology and a win could be enough to push them into the tournament.
- Georgia (16-13, 7-9): UGA is in the next four out of ESPN’s bracketology and also need to win to make the tournament. Unlike Alabama, however, UGA probably needs a win and a strong performance against South Carolina to make the tournament since Georgia’s record is fairly weak and their RPI is 70.
- Florida (15-14, 6-10): Florida was beat by LSU in Gainesville in the regular season meeting. Ayana Mitchell played sparingly as she was sick during the game but the Lady Tigers managed to win. Florida could make the WNIT with a win, which would give them something to build off of after a weak season.
- Missouri (9-21, 5-11): Mizzou slumped into the bottom of the SEC after the graduation of star Sophie Cunningham who led them to the NCAA tournament. Mizzou was hurt by playing an incredibly tough non-conference schedule, but did not play much better when the conference schedule lightened. They did beat a healthy LSU team earlier this season, so they are capable of pulling an upset. Mizzou beat Ole Miss on day one of SEC tournament play.
- Auburn (11-17, 5-11): Auburn is another team that was a tournament team last season but fell to the bottom of the SEC this season. Auburn, like Missouri, managed to beat LSU in their home arena. Junior Unique Thompson, who has had a double double in all but one game this season, leads Auburn. Auburn defeated Vanderbilt to open up the SEC tournament.
- Vanderbilt (14-16. 4-12): Vanderbilt started SEC play 2-1 and finished 2-11 in the next 13 games. Injuries hampered the Commodores up until their last game against Auburn. Vanderbilt’s new Athletic Director will be faced with a difficult question about coach Stephanie White. White has gone 42-79 in four years at Vanderbilt and not finished with more than 4 conference wins any season.
- Ole Miss (7-23, 0-16): Ole Miss accomplished something truly special this season. They may have been the worst women’s basketball team to ever play in the SEC. Not only did Ole Miss not win a single game, they often lost in exceptional fashion. In Knoxville, Ole Miss scored just 28 points in loss to Tennessee. Against South Carolina, Ole Miss did not score for 18 minutes and scored just 2 points in the first half. Ole Miss did not come close in most of their SEC games with only two games finishing within a single possession.