Champ Week: Bulldogs, Buckeyes and Lady Bears face big questions


Love them, hate them or feel indifferent about them, conference tournaments are the signal that March and its madness are about to arrive. Charlie Creme will keep you updated on the daily impact on bracketology as the league tournaments play out. But here’s a quick look at five key questions going into Championship Week.

1. Will Mississippi State finish running the table in the SEC?

How did the Bulldogs respond to last year’s disappointing national championship game loss to South Carolina? They haven’t lost since.

It seems symbolic of 30-0 Mississippi State’s current climb to the top that the Bulldogs are trying to match a feat that only Tennessee has achieved among SEC women’s basketball teams: Have a perfect season. The Lady Vols are the last SEC team to enter the league tournament unbeaten, which they did in 1998 when they went on to win the NCAA title.

It’s fitting because Tennessee was the team that Mississippi State simply could not beat for three decades, going 0-36 against the Lady Vols until that streak finally ended in January 2016 with an overtime victory.

Now Mississippi State has won four of its last five against Tennessee, which is the No. 7 seed in the SEC tournament. Now in the state of Tennessee, the Bulldogs are seeking their first SEC tournament title (after winning their first regular-season title).

Who might be able to stop the Bulldogs in Nashville? Only one team came within single digits of them during SEC play: No. 6 seed Missouri lost 57-53 on Feb. 1 in Columbia, Missouri.

Mississippi State had an 11-game losing streak against No. 2 seed South Carolina before that ended Feb. 5 with a 67-53 Bulldogs win. Forward A’ja Wilson missed the Gamecocks’ regular-season finale loss at Tennessee with vertigo, and coach Dawn Staley has said her availability for the Gamecocks’ SEC tournament opener Friday is a wait-and-see scenario.

But no matter who has taken on Mississippi State, the Bulldogs — led by Victoria Vivians (19.7 PPG) and Teaira McCowan (18.7 PPG, 13.5 RPG) — have had an answer.

2. Will Baylor do the same in the Big 12?

The 28-1 Lady Bears, whose only loss was in November at UCLA, finished perfect in regular-season league play for the third time on Monday with a victory over West Virginia. But a knee injury to point guard Kristy Wallace cast a pall over the game and might have altered what the Lady Bears face going forward.

If Wallace — who was averaging a career-best 13.1 points before getting hurt in the first half and leads the team with 155 assists — is out for the postseason, it’s a big blow to Baylor’s hopes of returning to the Final Four for the first time since winning the championship in 2012. Wallace has been the team’s on-court and emotional leader, and has spent a ton of time on the floor for a team with little depth.

The Lady Bears already had Natalie Chou out with a wrist injury, although she has been cleared to play. She briefly took the court Monday — albeit still wearing a huge wrap on her left wrist — to allow Dekeiya Cohen to make her senior exit in the final seconds. Four Baylor players were in for 40 minutes, and another for 30 after Wallace’s injury. The Lady Bear starters were going to log a lot of minutes even with Wallace. Now they’ll have to do that and hope younger guards like Juicy Landrum and Moon Ursin can respond as well as they did Monday.

Baylor has won the Big 12 tournament eight times, but didn’t last year as West Virginia surprised everyone by beating Texas and the Lady Bears back-to-back for the championship. Having finished 8-10 in the league as they did in 2017, the Mountaineers likely need a similar run this year to get into the NCAA tournament.

In fact, the Big 12 is in danger of having its fewest teams in the Big Dance since the league formed in 1996-97. The least it has had was four, in 1998 and 2006. Currently, the Big 12 projects to get three bids, and one of them — Oklahoma State — can’t afford an early exit.

3. Will Ohio State reclaim the Big Ten trophy?

Since Maryland came over from the ACC in 2014-15, the Terps have owned the Big Ten tournament title, winning three in a row. But graduation, a key player transfer and injuries have taken a toll on the Terps, who finished 12-4 in league play. Even so, they still have the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament.

But No. 1 is the Buckeyes, who last won this title in 2011. Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff is looking for his first Big Ten tournament trophy, and he knows what the Buckeyes’ biggest concerns are: defense and rebounding. The team that has superstar scorer Kelsey Mitchell typically has not had any trouble putting points on the board, but has struggled at times in keeping them off.

From the start of the season, McGuff has talked about needing consistency on the boards to be an elite team. He thinks the Buckeyes might have benefitted from what he called “an old-fashioned butt-kicking” on Jan. 22: a 99-69 loss at Maryland. That was one of three losses in a row, but Ohio State has won eight of nine since (the loss was a nonconference defeat at South Florida).

Maryland is currently projected as being out of the top-16 seeds. The chance to climb back into that — and host early-round NCAA games — is part of the Terps’ motivation as well this week in Indianapolis.

4. Will Louisville — or anyone else — end Notre Dame’s ACC reign?

The ACC tournament dates back all the way to 1978, and it has had different runs of dominance by two teams. In the early years, it was Maryland and NC State. Then it was North Carolina and Duke, who combined for 16 of 20 ACC tournament titles between 1994-2013.

Then Notre Dame joined the league in 2013-14 and has won the last four ACC tournaments in a row. The Irish are the No. 2 seed this year after their well-documented ordeal with multiple injuries.

The No. 1 seed is also an ACC newcomer: Louisville, in its fourth season in the league. The Cardinals and the Irish tied for the regular-season title at 15-1, but Louisville got the top seed on the basis of their head-to-head blowout of the Irish, 100-67, on Jan. 11.

Whether that gives the Cardinals an edge in this tournament remains to be seen; the Irish haven’t lost since that game. The Cardinals have lost to Florida State and in a nonconference game with UConn since beating Notre Dame.

(And if we’re looking at comparisons for how they fared against the unbeaten Huskies, the Irish fell 80-71 on Dec. 3 in Hartford, and the Cardinals lost 69-58 on Feb. 12 in Storrs.)

Both Louisville and Notre Dame are projected currently as NCAA No. 1 seeds, so the question is whether one will drop if it loses to the other in the ACC final.

5. Will Oregon win its first Pac-12 tournament title?

The Ducks won the regular-season title, their first since 2000. But there was no Pac-12 tournament back then; that didn’t start until 2002. So the fact that Oregon has never even made a Pac-12 final can be put into that context: There have been just 16 league tournaments, and Stanford has won 12. During a lot of that time, the Ducks were not consistently competitive: From 2002 until last year, in fact, Oregon made only one NCAA tournament appearance, in 2005.

But the 2017 postseason was when Oregon got back in the Big Dance and really began to blossom under coach Kelly Graves. After going 8-10 in league play, the Ducks made the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament and then the NCAA Elite Eight.

This season, the Ducks finished 16-2 in league play, and are 27-4 overall. Their two league losses were to Pac-12 No. 2 seed Stanford and No. 3 seed Oregon State, teams on the opposite side of the bracket. And Oregon’s nonconferences losses were to teams currently projected as NCAA No. 1 seeds: Mississippi State and Louisville.

Still, Oregon is going to have its hands full trying to get this title in Seattle, especially considering that there could be a rematch with UCLA in the semifinals — the Ducks beat the Bruins 101-94 in overtime on Feb. 19 — and the possibility of facing either Stanford or Oregon State in the final.

Source link