The South Carolina Gamecocks started the 2020-21 season as the country’s No. 1-ranked team and continues to be a top seed in Bracketology. But the Gamecocks aren’t the only Final Four-caliber team in the SEC, which illustrated again Thursday just how competitive and unpredictable it is. ESPN.com’s Mechelle Voepel, Charlie Creme and D’Arcy Maine take a look at which SEC teams have the potential to reach the national semifinals, discuss how Ohio State continues to impact the national landscape despite a self-imposed postseason ban and make their picks for the best games on the schedule this weekend.
Taking into account three upsets of ranked teams in the SEC on Thursday, how many Final Four contenders other than South Carolina does the league have?
Voepel: Thursday nights are often fun in the SEC, but this one was a blast. LSU gave No. 7 Texas A&M its first loss this season, Alabama beat No. 13 Mississippi State and Georgia topped No. 23 Tennessee, the latter two upsets coming on the road. No. 17 Arkansas also eked out a 84-80 win at home versus Florida in a guard duel in which the Gators’ Lavender Briggs had 41 points and the Razorbacks’ Chelsea Dungee 33.
The last time Georgia won in Knoxville, Tennessee, before Thursday was December 1996, when Chamique Holdsclaw was a Lady Vols sophomore. That 1996-97 SEC season, in fact, is legendary: Tennessee finished fifth, but went on to win the national championship.
That’s not likely to be repeated; the league’s best team now is No. 5 South Carolina, which steamrolled Vanderbilt 106-43 Thursday. The Gamecocks are 9-1 and 4-0 heading into Monday’s game against Arkansas (ESPN2, 7 p.m.). We know we could see South Carolina in the Final Four, but who else?
Texas A&M’s wealth of riches at guard gives the Aggies a legitimate chance to make it, too, but their one-point win at Arkansas last Sunday and the loss to LSU highlight some issues. The Aggies were outrebounded by nine at LSU, and although they forced 22 turnovers, they committed 21. Texas A&M has to do a better job of taking care of the ball and helping its post players in the paint.
“I thought we did a sloppy job of handling their matchup zone,” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. “Turnovers, bad free throw shooting. [Outscored] 38-28 in the paint, by far, that’s the worst we’ve gotten beat.”
How the rest of the conference shakes out is still hard to predict, and Thursday’s results muddied the water a little more.
Arkansas has a lot of experienced guard depth, but the Razorbacks have already lost to Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas A&M, with South Carolina coming up. Kentucky split its first four SEC games, all against ranked teams. Joining the Top 25 poll this week, Tennessee is the sixth SEC team to be ranked this season, but then saw a lead (and eventually the game) get away with a flat third quarter, outscored 29-9 by Georgia. Now Tennessee has to go to Alabama, with the Tide buzzing after their upset win in Starkville, Mississippi.
Creme: Thursday’s upset notwithstanding, Texas A&M is still a Final Four contender. The Aggies have the best combination of size, guard play, veteran experience and offensive and defensive balance of any other team in the SEC not named South Carolina.
Making that argument right after A&M loses at LSU, which entered the game at a disappointing 4-6, isn’t the best timing. But the game itself wasn’t the best timing for the Aggies. They were coming off two big wins over Kentucky and Arkansas, and have Mississippi State visiting College Station on Sunday. A letdown game is understandable, especially in this season of uncertainty and by an A&M team that had somehow managed to get in (and win) 12 games entering Thursday. Notre Dame lost a game by 33 points in 2018 and still won a national championship. Losing to LSU does not change the Aggies’ status as a possible Final Four team.
Georgia’s Que Morrison says coach Joni Taylor told them it would take toughness and discipline to get the big 67-66 win over No. 23 Tennessee.
Kentucky is the other SEC team that could make a big NCAA tournament run. The Wildcats mixed it up well with the Gamecocks last Sunday. That was Kentucky’s third loss, but the Wildcats, with plenty of new faces, are still figuring out some things that should be sufficiently solved by March.
They have a rookie head coach in Kyra Elzy, who is still trying to incorporate some transfers and new faces into the rotation. Given the lack of practice time and nonconference games to develop chemistry and the roles of several players who are in their first seasons in Lexington, Kentucky has played well. And don’t underestimate that every time the Wildcats step on the floor, they have the game’s best player in Rhyne Howard. With all that in mind, the Final Four doesn’t seem like so much of a longshot.
Ohio State was projecting as a No. 5 seed when the program announced it was imposing a postseason ban for 2021. The Buckeyes say they’re playing for pride and using this season to prep for 2021-22, but how do they continue to impact the national landscape and even Bracketology?
Voepel: The 7-0 Buckeyes won’t think of it this way, but they are kind of playing spoiler. They are not compiling wins for an NCAA tournament résumé, but they will have an impact on other teams’ résumé.
Ohio State’s 84-82 overtime victory over Iowa on Wednesday, ending the Hawkeyes’ 41-game home winning streak, showed a lot of moxie. They trailed by as much as 14 points, and again didn’t have top forward Dorka Juhasz (she has not played since before the Buckeyes went on a 24-day COVID-19 related pause that started Dec. 14), and they were facing freshman sensation Caitlin Clark.
But they forced 18 turnovers and were able to win despite being outrebounded 50-42. Sophomore guards Jacy Sheldon (18.3 PPG) and Madison Green (14.3 PPG) have been leading the way, and the motto of this team seems to be, “Play for today.” It’s the best mentality to have, because they know when the regular season ends, that’s it — no matter what their record is.
We’re not used to seeing women’s teams dealing with postseason bans. You could understand if the Buckeyes had a difficult time dealing with disappointment of that. But they’re focusing on what they can control, which is their performance every game. And hoping that whatever progress they make in this season can carry over to 2021-22.
Maine: Mechelle makes a great point here: The Buckeyes get to be the ultimate spoiler all season long. While that’s not exactly the position anyone on the team wants to be in, there’s still some fun to be had. In a sense, every team this season has to play like it might be its last game because, well, it might be (just ask the Virginia players). So perhaps knowing the team isn’t playing come March actually could be somewhat freeing and allow greater focus on the next opponent and the next game only. There might be nothing more dangerous for opponents than playing against a team with nothing to lose.
And while we don’t see this often on the women’s side, it’s not particularly uncommon in men’s hoops, and sometimes it can serve as extra motivation the following season. The 2012-2013 UConn men’s team was banned by the NCAA, and came back to win the national championship the very next year — with Shabazz Napier famously telling the crowd after the win, “This is what happens when you ban us.”
Creme: This won’t be a popular opinion in Columbus or even at the league offices in Rosemont, Illinois, but the Buckeyes’ success is bad for the Big Ten. Calling them a spoiler is probably being nice. Every win Ohio State gets against the likes of Iowa, Rutgers, Michigan State or Northwestern is another possible blow to the Big Ten maximizing its NCAA tournament teams. The Buckeyes are already out of the tournament. They could be taking other teams with them.
This isn’t meant to be a criticism of the players or the coaching staff. In fact, what Ohio State is doing given its youth, the long COVID-19 pause and Juhasz’s absence has been remarkable. The comeback against Iowa was as impressive a win as anyone has this season, especially for a team whose top two scorers — Jacy Sheldon and Madison Greene — are only sophomores. But that loss hurts Iowa’s résumé. With such a small amount of nonconference games for the selection committee to evaluate, every conference game is vital. With the shortened season, every loss is that much more critical.
Ohio State should be doing everything it can to win the Big Ten and make this the best season it can be even without the postseason as a reward. The consequences for the rest of the league are real, however, and the Big Ten could end up with two fewer NCAA tournament teams if the Buckeyes keep knocking off other contenders.
Iowa State beat Baylor, ending the Lady Bears’ 58-game Big 12 winning streak, last March in what turned out to be one of the final games of 2020. What do you expect when they meet Saturday?
Voepel: Due of the pandemic canceling the BIg 12 and NCAA tournaments, that loss turned out to be the final game for three Lady Bears seniors who were drafted into the WNBA. While Lauren Cox, Te’a Cooper and Juicy Landrum are gone, DiDi Richards — the player who committed the foul that sent Iowa State to the line for the winning point with less than a second left — is back. And the 2020 national defensive player of the year will be eager to try to erase that bad memory, as will other Baylor returnees such as NaLyssa Smith and Moon Ursin.
Iowa State’s Ashley Joens, the player who made the free throw to win that game 57-56, leads the Big 12 in scoring at 24.4 PPG. And on Wednesday, the Cyclones beat Oklahoma State, which came in 5-0 in league play. From a personnel standpoint, Iowa State should be able to stay with Baylor at least for a while, especially if the Cyclones are shooting their signature 3-ball well. But it’s hard to envision this as anything but a Baylor victory.
The Lady Bears went into a COVID-19 pause on Jan. 5 after coach Kim Mulkey tested positive, so they might have some rust to shake off. But Iowa State has beaten Baylor in Waco just once — in their first meeting in the inaugural Big 12 season in 1996-97, before the Mulkey era began in 2000-2001. In the 24 years since that initial win, Iowa State has defeated Baylor just seven times — six in Ames, Iowa, and once at the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City.
Creme: I’m curious to see if Baylor’s COVID-19 layoff produces a rusty Lady Bears’ team or one that is simply hungry and aggressive. If it’s more of the latter this could be a fairly comfortable Baylor win. The Lady Bears’ size and strength is likely to be too much for the Cyclones even if it takes Baylor some time to get its game legs back.
Iowa State was brilliant in making 16 3-pointers against Oklahoma State on Wednesday, but it can’t be ignored that the Cowgirls’ 6-foot-4 Natasha Mack dominated inside with 34 points and 13 rebounds. That is where Smith (17.3 PPG, 9.6 PPG) and Queen Egbo (12.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG), Baylor’s two top scorers, thrive. If Iowa State has as much trouble with their physical play as it did Mack’s, Joens and freshman Lexi Donarski might not be able to make enough 3s to pull a second straight upset in the series.
What game or team has the biggest impact on Bracketology?
Creme: In last week’s roundtable, we discussed how the Big Ten has become ultra-competitive this season and the conference’s depth is as good as it has been in a long time. That’s a big reason why Monday’s Michigan-Michigan State game in Ann Arbor is so important.
The Wolverines have been flying up the S-curve since being positioned as a No. 6 seed in the preseason Bracketology. Michigan is now the top No. 4 seed in the bracket (No. 13 overall) and could jump to the No. 3 line with a win over the Spartans — especially if the Wolverines follow it up by beating Ohio State on Thursday.
Michigan State wasn’t in the field when the season opened but is now a No. 8 seed. However, with losses in their last two games, the Spartans really need a win. Four of their next five games are against Michigan and Indiana. This is a critical part of the schedule for Michigan State. Getting a win on Monday, made even more valuable because it would be on the road, gives the Spartans some cushion should the rest of this upcoming stretch not go as well. Going 1-3 in the next two weeks might still cost Michigan State a spot in the field. Losing all four definitely would, and it could end up ruining what has been one of the surprise stories of the season so far.