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This week in the SEC: South Carolina has a big road test tonight against a UConn team with something to prove

Plus, Mississippi State remains undefeated in Southeastern Conference play but still lags in the AP Poll, Tennessee struggles to stay on track, our top picks for games of the week, and more!

South Carolina guard Victoria Saxton shot 100 percent from the field last week, earning her Freshman of the Week honors.
Courtesy of Gamecock Women’s Basketball via Twitter

The No. 5 Mississippi State Bulldogs remain undefeated (10-0) in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), while the No. 11 South Carolina Gamecocks have managed to stay right on their heels (9-1) — with designs on further distancing themselves from the rest of the SEC pack.

These teams are on a collision course for a March 3 meeting against each other, but before that decisive contest for ultimate SEC dominance, each team has several games to plow through first, with the Gamecocks having the tougher schedule thanks to a non-conference battle tonight (Monday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2) against No. 4 UConn.

The Gamecocks have a lot going for them heading into the contest, starting with a five-game winning streak. Adding to South Carolina’s current fire is Victoria Saxton, who shot from the field with 100 percent efficiency last week and was recognized for her perfection with the Freshman of the Week award. But any team coached by Geno Auriemma should be considered dangerous and unpredictable, despite recent struggles such as the loss to Louisville on Jan. 31, which dropped the Huskies to No. 5 in the AP Poll — their lowest ranking for UConn since the 2004-05 season.

The Gamecocks are 6-1 on the road in non-conference games, losing to Drake on Nov. 24, 2018, while the Huskies are perfect at home and allowing fewer points per game than South Carolina. But the victor of UConn versus South Carolina will be decided by the following tangibles and intangibles:

  • Poise — The team that plays this game as if it’s the only game they’ve played or will play this season will come out on top.
  • Shooting — Although the Huskies have the edge courtesy of Napheesa Collier, various shooters have emerged as reliable, efficient scorers for the Gamecocks, like reigning Freshman of the Week Saxton.
  • Hall of Fame coaches — As much as this is UConn versus South Carolina battle of teams, it is also very much Auriemma versus Dawn Staley, too. One has built a career legacy on UConn women’s basketball while the other brought South Carolina women’s basketball onto the national stage and has her legacy still in progress. Auriemma was a longtime winning head coach of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team, while Staley now holds that title and recently led the team to gold at the 2018 FIBA World Cup.

Yet, because of the weaknesses of both teams, this contest feels like it could go either way — a commanding win for either depending on which team’s weaknesses get exposed more. But a tight, down-to-the-wire game is also possible if both teams are playing at their best. Either way, the game should be exciting not only for a Monday night, but for any night.

Do the AP pollsters have something against Bulldogs?

Mississippi State has teetered and tottered between the No. 6 and No. 7 spots in the AP Poll for much of the season before, at last, rising up the poll — to No. 5. This ranking feels like an oversight of what the Bulldogs have accomplished this season (at best) or a slap in the face/highway robbery (at worst).

For the week ended Sunday, Feb. 10, Baylor remains at No. 1 behind a 21-1 record, Louisville stays at No. 2 (23-1) and Oregon remains at No. 3 (23-1). But Connecticut managed to move up from No. 5 to No. 4 on a 21-2 record after wins against two much lesser unranked teams: East Carolina and Temple. Yet, despite speculation — or, at least suggestion — that Mississippi State could rise to No. 1, the Bulldogs managed to climb just one spot to No. 5. behind a 22-1 record — one more win and one fewer loss than UConn — with a win against once-ranked Tennessee. So, what gives?

Elsewhere in the AP Poll, South Carolina has climbed to No. 11, Kentucky remains middling at No. 17, Texas A&M dropped four spots to No. 22 and Missouri received a few votes but did not make the top 25.

The Tennessee tumble

Although this may not be an official dance for the state of Tennessee, it is, sadly, becoming one for the Lady Volunteers who: 1) lost six straight games resulting in the team dropping from the AP top-25 poll as well as calls for head coach Holly Warlick’s firing; 2) pulled it together to win three games in a row; and 3) suffered a 91-63 blowout to Mississippi State on Sunday, Feb. 10.

More important than the loss, or the number of points by which the Lady Vols lost, is how they lost:

  • Tennessee struggled to move the ball and was out-assisted by Mississippi State, 17-9.
  • The Lady Vols were out-rebounded on offense, 15-8, with Bulldogs center Teaira McCowan grabbing almost as many offensive boards as the entire Tennessee team (6).
  • Tennessee turned the ball over 10 more times than Mississippi State.

The three wins they put together before yesterday’s loss showed signs of life. But a blowout drubbing by the top team in the conference has to diminish the morale of Tennessee’s players, leaving one to ask what it might take for them to get it back.

Games of the week

No. 11 South Carolina Gamecocks (17-5, 9-1 SEC) at No. 4 UConn Huskies (21-2, 10-0 AAC)

When: Monday, Feb. 11, at 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: XL Center, Hartford, CT

How to watch: ESPN2

No. 5 Mississippi State Bulldogs (21-1, 10-0) vs. Missouri Tigers (18-7, 7-4)

When: Valentine’s Day! — Thursday, Feb. 14, at 9:00 p.m. ET

Where: Humphrey Coliseum, Starkville, MS

How to watch: SEC Network

Notes: Mizzou enters this one on a two-game winning streak that includes a five-point overtime win over No. 18 Texas A&M (Feb. 7) and a 23-point drubbing of Vanderbilt yesterday (Feb. 10). Sophie Cunningham has come up big for the Tigers, so the Bulldogs can’t rest on their laurels.

No. 5 Mississippi State Bulldogs (21-1, 10-0) vs. No. 22 Texas A&M Aggies (18-5, 7-3)

When: Sunday, Feb. 17, at 2:00 p.m. ET

Where: Reed Arena, College Station, TX

How to watch: SEC Network

Notes: The Aggies suffered an upset loss to Mizzou on Sunday, Feb. 10, dropping them four slots in the AP Poll, with hopes of avoiding another loss that could drop them out of the top 25 for the second time this season. A win won’t be easy against the stalwart defense of the Bulldogs looking to stay perfect in the SEC. But, as they say, anything is possible.

Bonus game

Tennessee also plays on Sunday, Feb. 17 — against Mizzou at 5:00 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

To check out which other SEC teams are in action this week, review the complete schedule.

Elsewhere in the SEC:

  • Player of the Week recognition goes to Auburn sophomore Unique Thompson, who averaged 17 points and 10.5 rebounds last week in Tigers’ wins.
  • Player of the Year discussions should include Teaira McCowan who is now at 57 career double-doubles, having picked up her 56th and 57th last week in Bulldogs’ wins.
  • Texas A&M’s Chennedy Carter has scored at least 20 points in the Aggies’ last five games, which is the longest active streak of 20 or more points in the SEC.
  • Some old news, but in case you missed it: The SEC is making bank.