WBB Conference Tournament Preview: SEC

Photo by Russell Wilburn

It's conference tournament time! The SEC gets things going, playing its conference tournament about a week before most conferences do.

On Sunday, Texas A&M defeated South Carolina 65-57 in College Station, a win that gave the Aggies the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. So, what should we expect to see in this tournament? Can the Aggies keep rolling and lock in the SEC's automatic bid, likely guaranteeing them a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament?

How did Texas A&M get here?

The national consensus on Texas A&M coming into this year was that this senior-laden team would be good, but they wouldn't be this good. With Chennedy Carter leaving before her senior year for the WNBA, there wasn't one bonafide star you could point to in College Station, which is why the first AP poll of the season had them 13th, the fourth-ranked SEC team.

But A&M now sits second in the poll. How'd we get here?

Experience, experience, experience. This senior class of N'dea Jones, Ciera Johnson, and Kayla Wells has a lot of experience playing together. Aaliyah Edwards had only two years with the Aggies coming into the season, but the senior has also been a key part of this team, while the team brought in grad transfer guard Destiny Pitts. Add in that Jordan Nixon — a sophomore who played her freshman year in 2018-19 at Notre Dame — has adapted quickly to Gary Blair's system, and you get a strong recipe for success.

The Aggies rate well in virtually everything except for 3-point shooting, with their 21.2 3-point attempt rate ranking in the fourth percentile. The rest of the things? It's been big stuff on both sides of the ball.

Offensive, A&M is in the 90th percentile or above in the following stats: field goal percentage, offensive rating, free throw attempt rate...they've even shot well on the limited 3-pointers they take, connecting on 39.3 percent of them.

On the other end of the floor, A&M ranks in the 89th percentile in defensive rating. They limit opponents' rebounds and while they aren't posting elite numbers in terms of blocks and steals, they are managing to not commit many fouls per block or steal.

On an individual level, four Aggies are scoring double-digit points per game. Ciera Johnson, N'dea Jones, and Alexia Morris all shoot over 50 percent from the floor, as does Anna Dreimane, who has seen a recent uptick in her minutes.

And while not a lot of threes get taken in College Station, Aaliyah Wilson and Destiny Pitts both shoot over 45 percent from deep. This team has the personnel to connect from deep, even if they don't attempt to do so too much.

 

What should we know about the rest of the SEC?

The discussion about the rest of the SEC begins with the team A&M just beat: South Carolina.

The preseason No. 1 team despite the graduation of Tyasha Harris and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, the Gamecocks have the best net rating in the SEC and the best big in Aliyah Boston. But South Carolina has had its struggles against good teams, losing four games this season: NC State, UConn, Tennessee and A&M. They've lost two of the past four games and the team seemed to struggle with A&M's physicality on Sunday.

Dawn Staley's group is still one of the 10 best teams in the country, though, and could easily get hot and win a national title. Despite the Aggies beating them, SC is still the biggest threat A&M will face in the tournament.

Speaking of the tournament, A&M's first game will be on Friday, when they face the winner of the Mississippi State and LSU game. That's notable because of LSU, who handed the Aggies their only loss of the season, a 65-61 overtime defeat on January 14th. A&M struggled during the rematch as well, pulling away late to win 54-41 in a game that was closer than the scoreboard suggests.

The Tigers' defense just seemed to have A&M's number in the regular season. In that first game, A&M had an offensive rating of 79.3 — on the season as whole, that would rank in the 20th percentile. LSU forced them into bad shots and also forced turnovers. The Aggies are the better team, but they'll also be rooting for Mississippi State to win this first-round game.

In the semifinals, it's likely we see A&M matched up with Kentucky. The Wildcats have arguably the best player in the conference in Rhyne Howard, who scored 22 points in the first meeting of these teams. But the Aggies won that game by 17, with Kentucky struggling to contain all of A&M's top players. A&M held Kentucky to its third-lowest point total of the season.

In fact, Kentucky has scored 60 points or less five times. Three of those times were against the top three teams in the SEC. Kentucky has Howard, but I think a valid concern is that they don't have enough else offensively to compete with the top teams in the conference.

The other big team that we need to keep an eye on is Tennessee. Postponed multiple times, A&M and Tennessee finally faced off on Valentine's Day, with the Aggies winning 80-70.

Tennessee is seventh in the conference in offensive rating but fourth in defensive rating. This is a Vols team that can slow down anyone, forcing low-scoring, grind-it-out affairs. Players like Rennia Davis give them an advantage when the game slows down, but the Aggies are used to playing slow games, which negates a big Tennessee advantage.

One team to keep an eye on, even if they're unlikely to face A&M: Arkansas. Because of the bracket, Arkansas has to get past Ole Miss, then Tennessee, then likely South Carolina before they could face the Aggies. Arkansas is one of the most exciting offenses in the country, but struggle on defense. That's equaled a pair of one-score wins for A&M when these teams have faced.

Not many teams have the guard-play to establish an outside game that negates the size inside for A&M. Arkansas has that. At their best, the Razorbacks can beat anyone, with Destiny Slocum and Chelsea Dungee forming one of the best backcourts in America. They can force A&M to play a different kind of game and in the regular season we saw Arkansas almost come out ahead twice, even with the Aggies defense limiting what Arkansas usually does.

So, who wins?

That one-seed is huge, because it means A&M doesn't have to play both South Carolina and Kentucky. Because of that, the Aggies should be considered the top pick to win the SEC Tournament.

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