Women's SEC tourney dangerous from top to bottom, coaches say

jsmith3@herald-leader.comMarch 5, 2014 

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Georgia coach Andy Landers gave instructions during in the first half against Kentucky on Sunday. Photo by Jonathan Palmer

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Andy Landers was the coach at Georgia three seasons before Mississippi head coach Matt Insell was even born.

So suffice to say Landers has been doing this for a long, long time.

And in his encyclopedic memory of all things Southeastern Conference women's basketball, Landers cannot remember a time when the league was this loaded.

"It's the most competitive year top to bottom we've ever had in the Southeastern Conference," he said unflinchingly. It's "an exciting time for our league and certainly makes for a most interesting and exciting Southeastern Conference Tournament."

No team has been safe this season. Teams like South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee all have been rated in the top five at some point this season and been picked off by a fellow SEC team.

It's quite possible that trend will continue this week as the SEC Tournament plays out at The Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga.

Vanderbilt's Melanie Balcomb has lost more games in the league this season (nine) than she can ever recall. But the margin in those losses — sans a revenge game against Tennessee — were by 10 points or fewer.

There are no easy wins; no team is safe, not even at home.

"There is no bottom tier anymore, and what we used to say (about parity) is a lot more true than it used to be," she said.

Anyone on the outside needs only look at how well many of these teams were performing before they got to SEC play, Florida Coach Amanda Butler said.

Teams that once were in the Top 25 — like Georgia, Louisiana State, Vanderbilt and Arkansas — are still elite teams, Butler said.

They're just beating up on one another.

"There's just no other conference from top to bottom that's had to go through what we have every Thursday and Sunday," Butler said.

"So many close, close ball games that from the outside appear to be upsets when from the inside all of us coaches and players realize it was just quality competition."

The truth is in the numbers, said Texas A&M Coach Gary Blair, a league regular with stops at both Arkansas and now the Aggies. He noted that all but one team in the league has an RPI of 100 or better.

Half of the conference's 14 teams sport an RPI of 50 or better.

Eight of the 14 teams in the SEC have won at least one game over a top-10 team this season.

Landers said if the NCAA Tournament selection committee wants the best in, it should be taking a long look at SEC teams, even the ones with records below .500 in conference play.

It's been that competitive, he said.

"It's the charge of the basketball committee to put together a very competitive NCAA Tournament and they can't do that without including a large number of Southeastern Conference schools," he said.

Looking ahead of your next game is scary, confessed Tennessee Coach Holly Warlick, whose team has lost five games, including three in the SEC.

"If you look at the overall picture, it makes you get a little bit nervous because you see how good all the teams are," she said.

Because of how physical and exhausting each game could be in the early rounds, getting one of those top four seeds (South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Kentucky) is a blessing, UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said.

While a team that played the day before might have more energy out of the gate, the wear and tear of the first two rounds could be too much.

"The Friday games will be wild," he predicted. UK's Friday opponent will be the winner of the game on Thursday between Florida and either Mississippi State or Missouri.

"You look at the scores and who's beating who and what's happening and everything, it would suggest that any number of teams could emerge as the champion," Mitchell said.

At 26-3 overall and 14-2 in the SEC, regular-season champion South Carolina is the tournament favorite.

But Coach Dawn Staley knows that's not going to be easy: "There aren't any gimmes in our league."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com.

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