March 23, 2023
What to expect from the four SEC teams in the Sweet 16
Stiff tests for Tennessee, South Carolina, Mississippi and LSU
Leaving the first two rounds of the tournaments with upsets and blowouts under their belts, this weekend, four SEC teams will play in the Sweet 16 of March Madness, fighting for a chance at the Elite Eight. Mississippi and Tennessee will take their talents to Seattle, facing ACC teams, and LSU and South Carolina will stay close to home in Greenville up against Pac-12 squads.
And with four teams on their own respective hot streaks, it begs the question: was the SEC underrated? For the vast majority of the year, AP ranked just two SEC teams: South Carolina and LSU. Despite tough wins, good records, and hard-fought seasons, the SEC was mostly absent from the national rankings.
But now, with four teams in the Sweet 16, a number only matched by the ACC, it’s clear the SEC is not to be trifled with, and this weekend will be a make-or-break test of how capable the SEC is.
No. 3 LSU vs. No. 2 Utah (March 24 at 5 PM ET on ESPN)
Winning prediction: LSU
Utah scout: Utah is known for their shooting, averaging over 80 points, shooting 49% FG and 35.6% from three. And even in the moments when the Utes struggle, like in their Princeton matchup when they shot 1-15 from the arc and committed 20 turnovers, they found a way to overcome. Much of this lies in star player and reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year Alissa Pili, who averages 21 ppg and 5.6 rpg, leading her team in both categories. But more than just their scoring, Utah moves the ball well, leading the Pac-12 in assists with a solid assist-turnover ratio. However, their defense is not as good as LSU’s. On points allowed, they are one of the worst teams in their conference, and so to beat LSU they’ll need to rely on a dominant performance from Pili and a quiet one for LSU’s Angel Reese.
LSU needs their defense: When you think of LSU, you think of Angel Reese, and rightfully so. The star forward averages 23.8 ppg and 15.7 rpg, putting her in the top few players across the country in both categories. And since the NCAA Tournament started, she has been on fire. On Sunday she recorded 25 points, 24 rebounds, and six blocks. But when LSU is really dangerous is when their guard play is clicking alongside Reese’s game inside. Alexis Morris and Flau’jae Johnson, among others, are both talented outside shooters, and when they get hot from three, it’s nearly impossible to come back from. As they match up against a high-scoring team like Utah, bringing a similar shooting tenacity will be key. But what will make them truly competitive is their defense. The Tigers average 47.2 rebounds, in comparison to the Utes’ 36.7, so they’ll need to continue to dominate the glass. They have looked defensively solid over the NCAA Tournament, and to get a win over a team that shoots the lights out, they’ll need to be physical and focused with their defensive game.
No. 8 Mississippi vs. No. 5 Louisville (March 24 at 10 PM ET on ESPN)
Winning prediction: Mississippi
Louisville scout: Louisville’s Achilles heel this year has been their inconsistency. And despite their embarrassing wins to Wake Forest and Middle Tennessee, this team has been playing extremely well recently. They beat a higher-seeded Texas by over 20 on Monday and have put up recent wins over Notre Dame and Miami, who both remain in the tournament. And although everyone talks about “The Viking Princess” Haley Van Lilth, who leads the team with 19.5 ppg, Mykasa Robison is another key component to the squad. After their Wake Forest loss, Robinson joined the starting lineup, and they’ve been 10-3 since. Their ball distribution is some of the best in the ACC and can play solid offense. But again, they are inconsistent: they could lose hard or win big. Similar to Mississippi, they are riding serious momentum and hitting their stride at the right time, making this a dangerous matchup.
Mississippi needs to keep their focus: The Rebels’ calling card this tournament has been making teams look unrecognizable. With Gonzaga, they kept the best three-point shooting team in the country to 6% from the arc, then extinguished Stanford’s ability to make a simple layup. And after upsetting the No. 1 seed to make their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2007, they know how to finish out a game and have confidence they can play whistle-to-whistle. Core to their success is their signature defense which knocks teams off their game and keeps the Rebels alive when they aren’t shooting their best. And although not known for it in the regular season, the Rebels look deep with freshman Ayanna Thompson leading the team in threes, Snudda Collins and Marquesha Davis having instrumental performances, and their regular leaders Angel Baker, Madison Scott, and Myah Taylor continuing to play well. And although their win against Stanford was historic, they won’t be able to get away with shooting so poorly again and need to watch out for foul trouble. Scott sat nearly two quarters on the bench, which they cannot afford, as well as Taylor, who got into trouble later in the game. The Rebels’ joy after their upset was a thing of beauty but also could get distracting, so Mississippi will need to take the week to refocus for this tough matchup. However, a ceiling with this much momentum and love for each other on and off the court is not one to doubt and is primed for an upset.
No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 4 UCLA (March 25 at 2 PM ET on ESPN)
Winning prediction: South Carolina
UCLA scout: South Carolina rarely matches up against teams that have given them serious competition, even in the SEC, but UCLA is in this elite group. In their late November matchup, UCLA led South Carolina until midway through the fourth quarter when Dawn Staley’s squad took off. Something that the Gamecocks and Bruins have in common is their depth. By the early second quarter of UCLA’s first-round matchup, Head Coach Cori Close had already played all ten of her available players, which is an invaluable asset when playing the deepest team in the country that continuously overwhelms teams with their bench. At the top of those ten players is leading scorer and senior guard Charisma Osborne who put up a career-high 36 points in Monday’s thriller against Oklahoma. And although they have scoring talent, with freshman phenom Kiki Rice close behind Osborne, sometimes their offense is not up to the test. However, UCLA is a defensive powerhouse, averaging over 40 rebounds a game with solid size, rostering over five players 6’3 and over.
South Carolina needs to be themselves: With two 30+ point wins in the first two rounds of March Madness, South Carolina has performed like the returning National Champions they are. UCLA has challenged the Gamecocks before, something South Carolina won’t forget and will scout for. They’ll need to do everything they can to cool Osborne and keep their composure playing a team with depth. What is most impressive about the Gamecocks is that despite first-half slips, they finish better than any team in the country with their discipline and focus, something that players and Coach Staley frequently bring up. So, similar to the first round, it’s all about the Gamecocks staying true to who they are, keeping composure, and not getting flustered.
No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 1 Virginia Tech (March 25 at 6:30 PM ET on ESPN2)
Winning prediction: Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech scout: Two words: Georgia Amoore. Australian guard Amoore has been unstoppable recently, averaging 21.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists at the ACC Tournament to bring home the Hokies’ first-ever conference tournament win. She’s averaging similar numbers across the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, helping bring Tech to a 13-game win streak with just a four losses on the season. Beyond Amoore, the Hokies have Naismith Trophy Finalist Elizabeth Kitley, who is averaging 18.2 ppg and 10.8 rpg. They lead the ACC in three-pointers, shooting 35% on an average 7.8 threes a game. Virginia Tech is chasing history to a first-ever Elite Eight, with this being just their second-ever Sweet 16 and the first since 1999. This team is consistently solid and have a lot of pieces that make the image of them losing a challenge to conjure.
Tennessee needs their confidence: Tennessee is on quite the hot streak, scoring 95 and 94 points, throughout the NCAA Tournament and winning by 45+ point margins in both games. For a team that was battle-tested over and over and lost 11 games over the season, they have found who they are. At the SEC Tournament, Harper said her team’s identity lies in their toughness and grit, built from their season. And although they have incredible offensive assets in Rickea Jackson and Jordan Horston, who average 19.3 ppg and 15.5 ppg, respectively, they also have a solid defensive identity. They rebound well and have size that few other teams do. Tess Darby, Karoline Striplin, and Jillian Hollingshead have all become formidable assets, although of varying levels each night. Tennessee is a team that knows their worth and confidence, and when Horston and Jackson get hot, it’s tough to counter. This game will be a tight one, and although Tennessee has had struggles from whistle to whistle throughout the season, their 17-point comeback over LSU at the SEC Tournament proves to themselves they can fight to the bitter end. Virginia Tech is a tough team, and to pull out the win, they’ll need things to go right offensively, on the glass, and mentally.