April 4, 2024 

The SEC rests its laurels on defense, but is also a battleground for bias

Dawn Staley: 'That's the way I coach. I'm not changing'

“In the SEC, we solely rely on defense. I mean, we score, but defense is a priority,” Tennessee center Tamari Key told The Next in March.

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Throughout the SEC, teams rest their identity on defense. At Mississippi, team shirts and rallying speeches cry, “We Defend!” Vanderbilt Head Coach Shea Ralph says her team “hang[s] our hat” on defense. And at LSU, when their tunnel vision on offense cost them their season opener, star Angel Reese spent all season dialed in on defense.

“It’s the fabric of who we are as a conference. We know that from time to time your offense is going to fail you at some point because the defense is so good,” South Carolina Head Coach Dawn Staley told media. “I’ve said this for a very long time, even before we won our national championship  — the SEC prepares you to win national championships with how we guard…if you’re able to score against the SEC, you’re doing something pretty good.”

Exhausted, SEC players and coaches remark that there are no days off in the SEC, because every night is a new defensive battle. But along with the exhausting matchups, the SEC is also pestered with tireless rhetoric about their defense and attitude that has clear prejudiced implications. While defense exemplifies their culture, it also acts as a gateway for attention that many deem unfair.

Defining SEC defense

When The Next asked SEC players and coaches about the characteristics of SEC defense, a range of answers followed. It’s clear that each SEC defense is distinct, but many have a strong transition game with a quick offense that feeds the defense. The SEC presses, whether it be in the full court of stifling in the half.

Some attribute defense to the league’s intense mindset and high level of talent.

“The SEC has a lot of players and a lot of teams with that dog mentality. There’s also some pretty incredible players. I’m not really big on how players are ranked, but you’re talking about size, athleticism, skill, versatility,” Ralph told media in March. “You’re also going to see a bunch of styles of defense. Some people switch a lot. Some people don’t. You’re going to see some zone, some sagging man.”

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But that “dog mentality” is also criticized heavily. When players talk trash or get physical, it’s often potrayed as a mark on their character, rather than defensive intensity.

The SEC is one of the few conferences in the country with consistent, strong, sizeable post players. The SEC leads the Power Five conferences in rebounds (39.69) and blocks (4.25) per game.

But the most common characterization from stakeholders in and out of the conference is the SEC’s physicality. And even though opponents scout the SEC’s physical, fast pace, there’s nothing like experiencing it night in and night out.

“I come from the Big Ten where it wasn’t as physical. Coming to the SEC was different,” Mississippi forward and Rutgers transfer Tyia Singleton laughed to reporters. “It was like a culture shock to me. I was like ‘Oh, Lord, what is this?”

Cultivating a cultural identity

Despite its defensive reputation, by some defensive metrics, the SEC is average. In points allowed, the SEC ranks solidly in the middle of Power Five conferences, and some coaches outside the SEC don’t have the same vivid association with the conference’s defense.

So what cultivated this internal culture? The answers are mixed.

Some feel it’s a recent phenomenon. Tennessee’s Jillian Hollingshead, who started her career at Georgia, feels defense has gotten more popular in her three years. Whereas others, including her teammates, think it’s been a longer period of growth.

“I think Pat Summitt,” Key explained about the conference’s defensive tradition. “Those were her things — making sure you were out rebounding the other team. So I think her legacy in pushing for women’s athletics in general.”

It’s also clear the reason for the SEC’s defensive character is cyclical. As stronger, bigger players joined the conference, teams got better, and everyone had to adapt. On any given SEC night over the last few years, one might have to go up against 6’ 7” Kamilla Cardoso or 6’ 6” Tamari Key in the paint, forcing a focus on rebounding and rim protection.

The culture is compounding. Teams were forced to make scouting, recruiting, and scheming changes. Whether defense grew over the last few years or during Summit’s reign, it’s become part of the SEC’s identity as a conference.

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The ugly

But some feel this overarching identity can also be the site of unfair treatment. And it starts with the “physicality.”

Taller players across the SEC believe they’re unfairly officiated because officiants can’t keep up with the realities of longer limbs and bigs’ style of play. Some lament that even when a team is getting pushed around, their athleticism hides the fouls, and the officiants don’t make the right calls.

And although the SEC might have longer, more athletic bodies, that doesn’t mean the play is sloppy.

“While the Southeastern Conference, our play is physical, we play a clean style of basketball. A lot of coaches like to come in here and use that against us and I don’t think it’s in a positive way,” Mississippi Head Coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin told media in March. “We’re not bush league, we’re not fouling you all over the place. We show our hands. We beat you to spots. We jump and block your shot.”

Often, fans, media, and officiating perpetuate a narrative that paints the SEC as unskilled and entirely resting on their size and aggression. McPhee-McCuin calls the narrative “lazy.”

A prime example is last year’s Gamecocks. South Carolina’s dominance was constantly attributed to its players’ size. Although they had significant size, they were also disciplined, well-coached, and deeply skilled. This narrative spilled over into the Final Four, when Iowa Head Coach Lisa Bluder told media that rebounding against South Carolina was like “going to a bar fight.” Staley took exception to this, conflating it with many comments she’d heard on social media about her team.

“We’re not bar fighters,” Staley said. “We’re not thugs. We’re not monkeys. We’re not street fighters.”

This is a moment in a sea of examples of how the SEC is often talked about. Black players are frequently portrayed differently than their white counterparts — whether it’s their performance on the board or their persona off the court.

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Bias defines the sport and conference

This narrative truly came to a head after LSU beat Iowa in the national championship, and Angel Reese received a particularly targeted onslaught of hatred with clear racial implications.

“I think that’s the implicit bias that this country has had forever. Unfortunately, that comes with the game,” Key said about last year’s SEC vs. Iowa March matchups. “Playing in the SEC, in the southern states, is another thing that people have to deal with. Especially with women’s basketball, men’s basketball, football, being predominately minority sports.”

Although much of this conflict climaxed during last year’s March Madness, the bias and mudslinging prevail. Reese recently spoke out about the bullying she’s received while one media member published a piece calling the Tigers “dirty debutantes.” (The piece was roundly denounced by journalists who regularly cover women’s basketball.)

So, while many feel SEC defense is the conference’s superpower, it also highlights the ugly, biased demise of the sport that needs to be confronted. And despite the battleground for bias that SEC defense breeds, there’s no plan to stop.

“So don’t judge us by the color of our skin. Judge us by how we approach the game,” Staley told media last year. “You may not like how we play the game, you may not like it, that’s the way we play. That’s the way I coach. I’m not changing.”

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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