The year may be a low point for the SEC in the NCAA tournament, as only 4 teams made the field from the traditionally powerful women's basketball conference. Longtime stalwarts Auburn and LSU both missed the field - the former due to the loss of team leader Greenleaf due to injury, and the latter to a debatable omission from the selection committee. Of the four teams that did make the field, the Tennessee Lady Vols are the household name and are probably familiar to fans of women's basketball, but the other three teams are likely unknowns to most unless they really follow the college landscape or unless their own teams played these three out of conference. So here I'll take a look at the SEC's "other" teams in the tournament: the Kentucky Wildcats, the Georgia Bulldogs, and the Vanderbilt Commodores. For each team I'll highlight a few of their key players, talk about their style of play, and give a cursory look at their opening weekend matchups.
Kentucky Wildcats (22-7, 11-5 SEC, #4 seed in Spokane)
Tennessee may have had a historically easy run through the SEC (winning by 24 points / game), but a part of the problem was that no other team really distinguished themselves during conference play as being significantly better than the others. Still, for all the parity of the eleven non-Lady Vols teams, Kentucky is the one I am most confident will eventually become Tennessee's main challenger to the league title over the next few years. Their coaching staff, starting with head coach Matthew Mitchell, are all of the Pat Summitt coaching tree and have established a fast-paced, almost frenzied full-court press that creates significant problems for most schools
This year, Kentucky is led by 6'-1" senior forward Victoria Dunlap. The Nasvhille native leads the team in minutes (31.3/game), points scored (16.7/game), blocks (43), rebounds (8.8/game), and free throw attempts and makes (123 of an astonishing 174 attempts) in the regular season. Kentucky will lean on Dunlap heavily for as long as they remain in the tournament; as Dunlap goes, so goes Kentucky. Of all Dunlap's success, nothing will infuriate an opposing fanbase more than her tendency to get foul calls. She's a leaner; when she has the ball in traffic, look for her to seek out contact during any shot. Defenders playing against Dunlap will have to recognize her tendency to draw fouls and make sure the refs can see that they're not initiating contact.
Kentucky is not a one-trick pony. After Dunlap, A'dia Mathies is a sophomore point guard who is terrific on the dribble drive. Watch for Mathis to look for penetration opportunities. She isn't afraid of contact and has a habit of drawing fouls by leaning into defenders on the way to the rim. She's quick and can give a team fits with her speed and first step. (Drawing fouls is a Kentucky theme this year.) On the perimeter, Keyla Snowden is their three-point threat, having gone 55/136 through the regular season. Offensively speaking, Kentucky is summarized easily: Dunlap on the inside, Snowden on the outside, and Mathies on the dribble drive. Stop two of those three, and you beat Kentucky's offense.
But perhaps the most important talking point of Kentucky is their defense. They will play full-court press more than any other team in the tournament. Period. Kentucky lives and dies by defensive pressure. If an opponent can consistently get into their halfcourt sets, Kentucky becomes prone to fouls and unnecessary gambles. Ball control will be the theme of any game involving Kentucky.
I think Kentucky will give North Carolina more of a game than people realize. If Kentucky can get a Tarheel or two in early foul trouble, they could really run away with the game. If they make the Sweet Sixteen round against Stanford, then the game will come down to Stanford's ability to handle the press. If the Tree can break the press and play a halfcourt game without too many turnovers, then Kentucky realistically won't be able to overcome them. If the press gets under Stanford's skin, the Wildcats have a very real shot at pulling the upset.
Georgia (20-9, 10-6 SEC, #6 seed in Dallas)
The Bulldogs are one of three teams that have consistently challenged Tennessee in the past (the others being Auburn and LSU). Hall of Fame head coach Andy Landers is second only to Pat Summitt with wins, conference wins, and overall win percentage. Given the huge talent pool in the Atlanta area, Georgia has never suffered for talent and can be expected to bring a well-balanced, reasonably deep team every year.
This year, however, has been a roller coaster for Georgia. Once in the driver's seat for second place in the conference, Georgia went on a three-game slide to end the regular season, ending in 4th overall. Part of Georgia's decline was fatigue, but the more important reason was their one-dimensional nature on offense. Georgia's prime weakness is the lack of a true outside threat; though Khaalidah Miller shoots a respectable 33% from the perimeter, the team as a whole shoots 28% and takes about 12% fewer threes than their opponents.
Georgia must win by consistency and ball control. That starts with point guard Jasmine James, who averages 35 minutes per game on the floor, then extends to senior forward Porsha Phillips, an LSU transfer who switched to Georgia in the aftermath of the Pokey Chatman controversy. Phillips is the one who makes the offense go; the games where Georgia struggled most were the games where Phillips was in early foul trouble.
Georgia is not a blistering offensive team, though they did average 65 per game in the regular season. The team aims for balance in everything - an even mix of inside and outside offense, plus a balance of caution and risk on defense. If you ever needed a team to watch to explain the rules of basketball to a friend, Georgia is that great, middle-of-the-road choice.
In this particular draw, Georgia has a very uphill battle. #3 Florida State is awaiting them, assuming the two favorites win their opening game, and it's a matchup that I don't think many Dawg fans would enjoy. In conference play, Georgia beat Kentucky twice this year but failed to show up in either Tennessee game; even though both Kentucky and Tennessee play up-tempo and try to pressure teams into mistakes, the difference for Georgia was that Tennessee scored quickly and often while Kentucky didn't have early power surges. Their mechanistic approach to the game doesn't give the Lady Bulldogs the internal emotional energy needed to pull through an adverse spell, so if Florida State can get the early jump on Georgia, that should be enough to carry the game. If it's close, however, Georgia is level-headed enough to keep composure in the closing minutes. Either way, the first 10 minutes should tell you what kind of game ending to expect - a disappointing blowout or a thrilling race to the buzzer.
Vanderbilt Commodores (19-10, 10-6 SEC, #10 seed in Spokane)
Vanderbilt is exactly what you'd expect for a small private school in the athletics-addicted SEC: undersized, smart, and very disciplined. Their key player is Hannah Tuomi, a 6'-1" forward who has a knack for getting rebounds and getting under the skin of opposing interior players. She doesn't play dirty, but she'll drive opponents absolutely crazy with her ability to be right where they don't want her to be. (Picture Dennis Rodman before he went off the deep end - considered a little small for the position yet somehow effective and incredibly aggravating to play against.)
The Vanderbilt offense starts with Jence Rhoads (Jence is pronounced JEN-see), the 5'-11" senior guard from Pennsylvania. She's the team leader in points per game and in minutes per game, though neither is by a large margin (more on that in a bit). She is also the clear leader in assists and steals on the team and is the team's best ball handler. She's a bit prone to up-and-down games, but if she's playing well she can be a real handful as she rarely makes a questionable decision.
The player to watch, however, is 6'-4" center sophomore Stephanie Holzer. Holzer is the sixth man for Vanderbilt and usually spells Tiffany Clarke from the bench, but she is the highest-rated recruit ever to come to Vanderbilt and has had some excellent games for the Commodores this year. She represents the future of Vanderbilt basketball after Tuomi and Rhoads leave and, if Melanie Balcomb can put the pieces around Holzer, the Commodores could be fixtures in the NCAA tournament over the next couple years. Despite averaging only 18 minutes per game, Holzer is 4th on the team in points per game and leads the team in blocks.
Speaking of points, take a look at the PPG leaders for Vanderbilt: Jence Rhoads (11.9), Jasmine Lister (11.7), Hannah Tuomi (11.5), Stephanie Holzer (11.1), and Christina Foggie (10.1). There is no dominant scoring threat, and any of the five could be the clear points leader on any given night. The lack of an offensive leader has hurt them on occasion, but it also makes them a difficult team to scout, especially for the second game of a tournament weekend. If Vanderbilt can pull the upset over #7 Louisville (a very realistic proposition), their hopes of upsetting #2 Xavier will rest on their offensive diversity, as Xavier's very tall lineup will give problems to the aforementioned undersized nature of Vanderbilt.
As a writer for an SEC site (Rocky Top Talk) and a fan of an SEC school (Tennessee), I am bound by principle to post this: