The unpredictable SEC heading towards an unforeseen finish

SEClogo_optThe Southeastern Conference has always been known for it’s consistently tough competition and unpredictability. But has this year been even more unpredictable?

It’s no surprise to see South Carolina sitting atop the standings, and it would take quite a few upsets and miracles for anyone else to win the SEC at this point in the season. Tennessee, which was projected to finish 2nd currently sits 7th, at 6-5. Then there’s Florida, tabbed to finish 12th and sitting in 3rd. Some other surprises are ninth-place Kentucky (5-6) and fifth-place Auburn (7-5). Every night it seems that SEC teams are shuffling positions.

  1. Forward A'ja Wilson has been a crucial part of South Carolina's punch this season. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.
    Forward A’ja Wilson has been a crucial part of South Carolina’s punch this season. Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics.

    South Carolina: 23-1, 11-0. Preseason Projection: 1st

The Gamecocks are currently ranked 2nd in the AP poll, and just suffered their first loss of the season to No. 1 UConn. South Carolina was tested in a couple of conference games, which include the wild finish at home against Texas A&M and their home stance vs Kentucky. Both Vanderbilt and Mississippi State played Dawn Staley’s team close as well. Florida, might have had a chance to pull off a major upset, but sent South Carolina to the free throw line 31 times in that game. A’ja Wilson, Alaina Coates, and Tiffany Mitchell have been as good as expected, and look ready to make another Final Four appearance and contend for the National Championship. However, the Gamecocks have had a couple of heart-stopping moments as both Mitchell and Wilson have suffered injuries this season. South Carolina will travel to Knoxville for a Big Monday match up vs the Lady Vols Feb. 15, will host the tough Georgia Bulldogs, and then will hit the road for games vs. Alabama and Ole Miss before finishing up at home vs LSU Feb. 28.

  1. Mississippi State: 21-5, 8-4. Preseason Projection: 4th

Behind the play of Victoria Vivians, Vic Schaefer’s Bulldogs are ranked 11th in the latest AP poll, and are a talented group. But Vivians hasn’t been the only star, as 5′-5″ Morgan William has been absolutely sensational despite battling a lower leg injury; and Dominique Dillingham has been a defensive stopper while adding in a few baskets at crucial times throughout the year. All four losses for the Bulldogs in the SEC have been on the road: to Missouri, Georgia, South Carolina, & most recently at Texas A&M. They had a come from behind overtime victory at home vs Tennessee, and were able to get revenge at home vs. Missouri, as well as taking down Florida on the road. Mississippi State will host Kentucky and Alabama, while traveling to Vanderbilt and Ole Miss to finish out SEC play.

  1. Florida: 19-5, 7-4. Preseason Projection: 12th

The Florida Gators may be the biggest surprise this season in the SEC, as they are currently 16th in the AP poll. It’s been a team effort by the Gators, who are led in scoring by Ronni Williams at 10.8 points per game; Williams was just named SEC Player of the Week. The Gators are averaging just over 80 points per game as a team, with twelve players averaging more than 5 points per contest for coach Amanda Butler’s squad. Florida was able to go into Knoxville and upset the Lady Vols, take down both Kentucky and Texas A&M at home, and they gave the Mississippi State Bulldogs everything they could handle, losing by just 6. Florida’s other three losses have come vs Georgia, at Missouri, and at South Carolina. They’ll see Auburn twice before ending SEC play, host Vanderbilt, and travel to both Georgia and LSU.

  1. Texas A&M: 17-7, 7-4. Preseason Projection: 4th

WNBA Prospect Courtney Walker has lead the way for the Aggies this year. Her fellow senior Jordan Jones was playing as well as any point guard in the country before a collision with Tennessee’s Jamie Nared in their overtime win vs the Lady Vols Feb. 7 sent her to the hospital for the day. Senior Courtney Williams may be getting her stride back after dealing with a back injury, as she scored 21 points in their win vs Mississippi State earlier this week. Gary Blair’s team is ranked 15th in the latest AP poll. Along with Mississippi State, the Aggies have defeated ranked SEC opponents Tennessee and Missouri. Their four losses in SEC play came at Arkansas, South Carolina, and most recently at Florida. Texas A&M’s remaining schedule has them hosting LSU and Kentucky, while traveling to Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Auburn.

  1. Auburn: 17-8, 7-5. Preseason Projection: 13th

The Tigers are another big surprise in the SEC, as they currently stand 5th but only have one “big win” over Kentucky. They weren’t able to knock off Mississippi State, Tennessee, or South Carolina, and couldn’t make it two-for-two vs. Kentucky. Their other SEC loss was a beat down at Georgia, where they lost 30-63. Brandy Montgomery and Tra’cee Tanner have lead Auburn thus far, and will have to continue to do so, as the Tigers will face Florida twice, Missouri, and Texas A&M to end SEC play. So while it’s unlikely Auburn will be able to hold onto their 5th seed, anything can happen.

  1. Georgia: 18-6, 6-5. Preseason Projection: T-9th

After the retirement of Andy Landers last year, Georgia made the right call by elevating associate head coach Joni Taylor into the top spot. Her Lady Bulldogs received votes in the latest AP poll and are lead by Tiaria Griffin, Marjorie Butler, and Shacobia Barbee. Three of Georgia’s five losses have come against ranked opponents: at Texas A&M, Missouri, and Kentucky. That leaves their other two conference losses head-scratchers, as they were defeated on the road by Alabama and at home vs LSU – both at the bottom of the conference. The Bulldogs will need to be playing some of their best basketball to finish out the season, as they will host Florida and Arkansas before traveling to LSU, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

  1. Bashaara Graves takes the ball up court. Photo courtesy of Tennessee Athletics.
    Bashaara Graves takes the ball up court for the Lady Vols, who have been beset by injuries this season. Photo courtesy of Tennessee Athletics.

    Tennessee: 15-9, 6-5. Preseason Projection: 2nd

The Lady Vols have been a surprise not only in the SEC but nationally, and not in a way they’d like to be. Tennessee started off ranked 4th in the country and now are clinging to the 25th spot in the AP poll. We’ve seen flashes of how good the Lady Vols can be, but they’ve struggled to put together a full game, causing some fans to question whether or not Holly Warlick should remain head coach. Even so, Warlick celebrated her 100th career win as head coach vs Arkansas earlier this month. Rumors have been flying around that Tennessee is interested in hiring Jeff Walz of Louisville for the position, which is news to him.

The talent is there for Tennessee, but injuries have affected most every player on the roster. Senior Nia Moore missed multiple games at the beginning of the year with a rib injury, while Bashaara Graves has battled back problems and most recently missed action due to a sprained ankle. Redshirt junior Jasmine Jones hasn’t seen action since November after another head injury, and redshirt junior Andraya Carter has been bothered by a knee injury suffered early in the season. Sophomore Jamie Nared missed games early in the season after fracturing her left wrist in practice, and Alexa Middleton has been out at two different times this year with ankle injuries. Sharp shooter Kortney Dunbar has missed action with an ankle injury, and newcomer Diamond DeShields continues to battle shin splints. Freshman guard Meme Jackson missed some time early in the season after being hit in the face during a game.

The Lady Vols lost their top three scorers from last year and welcome four players to the court who weren’t suited up for Tennessee last year. Tennessee hasn’t been able to finish the close games at Kentucky, at Mississippi State and at Texas A&M. They were shocked at home vs Florida and on the road at Arkansas, however, they were able to go into Colombia, Missouri and knock off the 20th-ranked Missouri Tigers. They host South Carolina in a Big Monday matchup in two days, and have a favorable schedule the remainder of the year: vs Ole Miss, at LSU, at Alabama, and vs. Georgia. If the Lady Vols can put together a run here, it would give them some momentum heading into the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. The 1996-1997 Lady Vol team won the National Championship with a record of 29-10.

  1. Missouri: 19-6, 6-6. Preseason Projection: 7th

The sharp shooters of Missouri have lead them to a perfect record heading into SEC play. Freshman guard Sophie Cunningham has been sensational, as has junior forward Jordan Frericks. But it’s not just about basketball at Missouri, it’s a family affair. Missouri has three pairs of sisters on their 2015-2016 roster: Sophie & Lindsey Cunningham, Bri & Cierra Porter, and Morgan & Maddie Stock. The Porter’s father, Michael, is also an assistant coach for Missouri, head coach Robin Pingeton is also the sister’s aunt. Missouri’s chemistry could be because of the family atmosphere, or it could be because Missouri has an outstanding coaching staff, starting with Pingeton. Whatever the case, the Tigers have been able to defeat ranked opponent Florida, and hang tough with Texas A&M and Mississippi State. Missouri can finish 10-6 in the SEC if they are to win out, which would include wins vs Arkansas, at Auburn, at #18 Kentucky, and vs Vandy.

  1. Kentucky: 16-6, 5-6. Preseason Projection: 5th

It’s been far from a normal season for Matthew Mitchell’s ball club. Four players have left the program, including rising star Linnae Harper. With the departures of Harper, Chrishae Rowe, Morgan Rich, and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, Kentucky is left with just nine players on scholarship. Despite this, MaKayla Epps and Kentucky were able to go undefeated during their nonconference schedule. They’ve stumbled in SEC playing losing to Auburn, Ole Miss, Florida and Vanderbilt, as well as losing to South Carolina twice. They were able to hang on and win an exciting game vs Tennessee, and they defeated Georgia by 11. They still have a tough schedule remaining, as they will travel to Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, and Texas A&M. They’ll also host Arkansas and Missouri.

  1. Arkansas: 10-14, 5-6. Preseason Projection: 8th

Jimmy Dyke’s squad hit quite a few bumps in the nonconference schedule, resulting in a 5-8 record heading into SEC. It may have seemed their woes would continue into conference play after opening up at South Carolina and taking a 32-85 beat down. However, in a three-week span, the Razorbacks were able to take down Texas A&M, Tennessee, Missouri, and LSU, falling just once in that span at Mississippi State. Their fifth win came Feb. 8, on a buzzer-beater vs Vanderbilt. Arkansas is led by Jessica Jackson, Devin Cosper, and freshman guard Jordan Danberry. They’ll close out SEC play with games at Missouri, Kentucky and Georgia, while hosting Ole Miss and Alabama.

  1. Vanderbilt: 15-9, 4-7. Preseason Projection: 11th

With just four wins in SEC play, Vanderbilt finds themselves as one of the four teams out in ESPN writer Charlie Creme’s latest bracket projections. Coach Melanie Balcomb’s teams have been well-known for their offense in past years, but the Commodores are averaging just around 63 points per game this year, and have just one player average double-digit scoring. One advantage they have is the ability to have an inside-out game. Rebekah Dahlman, Christa Reed, Morgan Batey, Jasmine Jenkins, and Minta Spears can all knock down the three, and Marqu’es Webb and Rayte’a Long can be dominant forces in the paint. Yet Webb is averaging just around 6 points a game, which is half of her average from last year. Vanderbilt was able to get a big win at Kentucky, but have suffered losses to Ole Miss, Arkansas, and Tennessee twice. Their other three wins have come against Alabama (twice) and LSU. The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Commodores as they finish up with road games at Florida and Missouri, and play host to Kentucky, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.

  1. Alabama: 14-11, 3-9. Preseason Projection: 14th

There weren’t many high expectations for Alabama entering the season, but they’ve managed to get a decent win vs. Georgia, and they defeated both Ole Miss and LSU. Coach Kristy Curry has a young squad, consisting of four freshmen and five sophomores. Sophomores Hannah Cook, Meoshonti Knight and Karyla Middlebrook have been impact players for the Crimson Tide. It has been a learning year for Alabama, but don’t sleep on them next year, as they may surprise. They will finish with a game at Arkansas, they will play host to South Carolina and Tennessee, and then travel to Mississippi State.

  1. Ole Miss: 10-14, 2-9. Preseason Projection: 6th

While many thought the Rebels would finish in the top half of the SEC, they’ll haven’t seemed to be able to figure things out. Their two wins in conference play came against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Coach Matt Insell will return all twelve players to next year’s team, who will look to improve mightily from this year. Like Vanderbilt, Ole Miss’ schedule won’t get any easier: they host Texas A&M, South Carolina and Mississippi State before traveling to Tennessee and Arkansas.

  1. LSU: 8-14, 2-9. Preseason Projection: T-9th

Nikki (Caldwell) Fargas’s time at LSU may be coming to end after five years, as the Tigers have struggled this season. Their only conference wins have come against Ole Miss and Georgia. Before offseason workouts began last year, it was announced that star player Danielle Ballard would not return. Ballard was a huge part of the Tiger’s past success, and was an All-SEC selection.  This year LSU has four players average 8 points or more in conference games, but as a team they’ve shot just 37 percent from the floor, including 22 percent from three-point land. LSU’s remaining schedule has them hosting Georgia, traveling to Texas A&M, hosting Tennessee and Florida, then finishing up on the road at South Carolina.

If the remaining SEC regular season is anything like what we’ve seen so far, we’re in for a good one, and it should make for an interesting SEC Tournament.