March 15, 2023
What to expect from the SEC in first round of March Madness
Farewell, Mississippi State and Alabama?
Whether you need bracket tips or you’re an SEC fan seeking an opponent scout, we’ve got you covered for the seven first-round NCAA Tournament matchups featuring SEC teams. Coming from a competitive conference, many SEC teams could survive and advance, but anything can happen this time of year.
Here are my SEC predictions:
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No. 11 Mississippi State vs. No. 11 Illinois (First Four; March 15 at 7 p.m. ET)
Winning prediction: Illinois
Ceiling for Mississippi State: First round. If Mississippi State wins in the First Four, it will meet Creighton, a Cinderella darling last year, and although some people would argue that Creighton’s used up all of its tournament juju, I’d argue the opposite.
Illinois scout: To many people, Illinois being in the Final Four is a surprise. Similar to MSU, Illini is led by a first-year head coach who has had plenty of success. Shauna Green got buy-in from her team and turned it around to finish with a winning record. Illinois has the highest 3-point percentage in the Big Ten with elite guard play from Makira Cook (18.2 points per game) and Genesis Bryant (15.1) and excellent rebounding led by Kendall Bostic (9.9 rebounds per game). Like MSU, Illinois’ position in a competitive conference means that it has played a challenging regular-season schedule. The Fighting Illini lost to Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.
What Mississippi State needs to do: Head coach Sam Purcell is nothing short of thrilled about having postseason opportunities, but after MSU was upset by Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament, it’s unclear whether this team has the confidence for NCAA play. When the Bulldogs are scoring, they can win, and All-SEC Second Team member Jessika Carter is the key to their success on both ends. Anastasia Hayes is one of the grittiest players in the SEC, and she will need to use her veteran leadership to motivate the team. Mississippi State is often found flat-footed, getting upset or losing by big margins, so it’ll need to hype up its confidence to have a fighting chance.
No. 10 Georgia vs. No. 7 Florida State (March 17 at 1:30 p.m. ET)
Winning prediction: Georgia
Ceiling for Georgia: Second round. With No. 2 Iowa and No. 3 Duke lurking, it’ll be an uphill battle for the Dawgs.
Florida State scout: The most crucial part of the FSU scout is whether Ta’Niya Latson is healthy. The freshman phenom averages 21.3 points per game but did not play in FSU’s sole ACC Tournament game. Head coach Brooke Wyckoff says that Latson is “day to day.” With Latson, FSU is a solid team that could likely beat the Dawgs, but without her, it’s Georgia’s to lose.
What Georgia needs to do: This is a challenging matchup for Georgia, particularly because the Bulldogs are not a high-scoring team, which can often be key to a tournament upset. But if they keep their defensive focus and adapt well, they’ll be in good position. When it’s clicking, Georgia’s defense is one of the best in the conference: the Bulldogs are tough, force turnovers exceptionally well, and rebound aggressively. If they can keep their defensive identity, Diamond Battles gets cooking on offense, and Allisha Lewis distributes the ball as well as she did in the SEC Tournament, Georgia could easily pull off an upset. On the other hand, the most likely way Georgia will lose is if no one gets any scoring momentum, which is a serious possibility.
No. 1 South Carolina vs. No. 16 Norfolk State (March 17 at 2 p.m. ET)
Winning prediction: South Carolina
Ceiling for South Carolina: National champions. The undefeated Gamecocks are favorites to repeat, which hasn’t been done since UConn in 2016.
Norfolk State scout: Norfolk State beat Howard in the MEAC Tournament to earn its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2002. The Spartans do not have any high-caliber wins and lost to Alabama 92-30 in their one SEC match of the season. Their leading scorer is Camille Downes, who averages 11.9 points per game, and their leading rebounder is Kierra Wheeler, who averages 8.5 rebounds per game. This is a true David and Goliath story, but that’s what March is all about!
What South Carolina needs to do: The Gamecocks just need to be themselves. They’re the deepest team in the country, and the only thing that could get them into trouble is if everyone — and I mean basically everyone — gets cold. Nothing is certain in March, and South Carolina shouldn’t overthink or get overconfident. But with leadership from senior Aliyah Boston and head coach Dawn Staley, this team usually plays hard no matter the opponent.
No. 3 LSU vs. No. 14 Hawai’i (March 17 at 5:30 p.m. ET)
Winning prediction: LSU
Ceiling for LSU: Final Four. Kim Mulkey has told fans that they shouldn’t expect a Final Four appearance, but I think it’s definitely possible.
Hawai’i scout: “I’ve watched more conference tournaments [this year] than ever in my entire coaching career. … Ironically, I watched Hawai’i come back [against] Santa Barbara on a slip-the-screen [play],” Mulkey told media after Selection Sunday. “Hawai’i shoots a lot of threes from what I saw yesterday, but yet they also have inside play.”
Mulkey’s accidental scout is pretty spot-on: The Rainbow Wahines make 6.6 3-pointers per game. They’re undersized but are crafty inside and have solid scorers in guards Lily Wahinekapu (12.6 points per game) and Daejah Phillips (11.0). They’ve gotten on quite a hot streak in the second half of the season, including the comeback Big West Tournament championship win. This confidence and momentum will serve the Wahines well, especially compared to LSU, which was the victim of a comeback in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. This would be a tough win for Hawai’i, but with LSU’s weak nonconference schedule, it’s still unknown whether the Tigers can deliver in high-pressure moments.
What LSU needs to do: The Tigers have only lost twice this season, and in the game after their first loss of the season in February, star forward Angel Reese went off with 36 points and 20 rebounds. So after the disappointing SEC Tournament loss to Tennessee, LSU needs Reese to come with a similar energy. And beyond Reese, the whole team needs to bring focus and discipline. Guard Alexis Morris told media after the Tennessee loss that her team probably wouldn’t like her much leading up to the NCAA Tournament because she’d be using her veteran leadership to get the team where it needs to be. This LSU team is naturally confident and should be able to bounce back, and if just one of LSU’s guards can get hot from the perimeter along with a classic Reese game, it should be smooth sailing.
No. 8 Mississippi vs. No. 9 Gonzaga (March 17 at 10 p.m. ET)
Winning prediction: Mississippi
Ceiling for Mississippi: Sweet Sixteen. Albeit unlikely, I think there’s a world where Mississippi could beat Gonzaga and upset Stanford (its likely second-round opponent), considering its track record against elite teams.
Gonzaga scout: First, this may be the most exciting SEC matchup of the first round. Many are predicting this as an upset in the first round, and it very well could happen. Gonzaga leads the country in 3-point percentage at a whopping 41.5%. Gonzaga does a lot of things very well, led by Yvonne Ejim, Kaylynne Truong and Brynna Maxwell. Ejim, who is a finalist for Her Hoop Stats’ Mid-Major Player of the Year award, averages 16.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Truong is right behind Ejim, averaging 16.1 points and 5.0 assists per game, and Maxwell shoots nearly 50% from three. The Bulldogs beat Tennessee in November, played Stanford in the nonconference, and have lost only four games all season. Although they lost in the West Coast Conference Tournament finals, they are a skilled team that easily could’ve gotten a higher seed and, if they get hot from three, could seriously overpower Mississippi.
What Mississippi needs to do: Despite the chalk, this prediction may be my hottest take. It feels like everyone is predicting the Gonzaga upset, but I was in the locker room after the Rebels’ SEC Tournament loss to South Carolina, and every single player told The Next, “We didn’t play Ole Miss basketball.” After the loss, the players were upset but equally fired up to show what they’re made of. And in their first game against South Carolina this season, the Bulldogs took the Gamecocks to overtime, proving that they are a solid team that can throw elite opponents off their game. The key to Mississippi’s success is the duo of Angel Baker and Madison Scott. Although Mississippi doesn’t have incredible height, it has some length, particularly with Scott. If it gets offensive momentum, plays tough defense, and plays hard, it can fend off the Zags.
No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 13 Saint Louis University (March 18 at 1 p.m. ET)
Winning prediction: Tennessee
Ceiling for Tennessee: Sweet 16. The Vols lucked into one of the weaker regions, and if they play well, making it through the round of 16 is realistic. But if they eventually face off against UConn, that may be the end.
Saint Louis scout: Saint Louis’ season is a tale of two halves. Just 4-11 before A-10 play and 10-6 in the A-10, SLU is riding tournament and season momentum. Although the Billikens have some talent, they are definitely undersized compared to Tennessee. Brooke Flowers is a solid rebounder and inside shooter, averaging 3.8 blocks per game at 6’5. Kyla McMakin, who averages 17.4 points per game, is the key to the Billikens’ success; if she gets hot, things could take off for SLU, but she is often inefficient. They also have a disruptive defensive scheme, led by Julia Martinez‘ 3.8 steals per game, and if well executed could give a sometimes-inconsistent Tennessee team issues. But Saint Louis’ inconsistency and lack of size could get it into trouble.
What Tennessee needs to do: All the Vols need is consistency. Although the Vols are coming off a loss to South Carolina, they seem confident and sure of their identity and abilities. The team has struggled with consistency whistle to whistle but has done a good job overcoming that recently, as seen in its comeback win over LSU. In addition, elite teams have done an excellent job of extinguishing players like Vols star guard Jordan Horston for entire halves, which is far from ideal. Tennessee has a ton of size, particularly compared to SLU, which they’ll need to take advantage of. If sophomore Jillian Hollingshead can continue to play as confidently in the paint as she has recently, the Vols will be an even farther step ahead.
No. 10 Alabama vs. No. 7 Baylor (March 18 at 5:30 p.m. ET)
Winning prediction: Baylor
Ceiling for Alabama: Second round. If I’m wrong about this first loss, I think the end will be near for Alabama, as it will likely match up against UConn.
Baylor scout: Baylor is well-coached and a program that knows excellence, winning a national championship in 2019. Similar to Alabama, its 2022-23 season has ended with a skid; it has lost six of its last nine games, including back-to-back losses in the Big 12. The Bears are a high-scoring team, averaging the second-highest points per game in their conference. Defensively, they are some of the best in the Big 12 in points allowed and rebounds. Their leading scorer, Sarah Andrews, is averaging 15.0 points and 4.3 assists per game, and their leading rebounder, Darianna Littlepage-Buggs, averages 9.4 rebounds and 11.0 points per game. Both these teams are quite middle-of-the-road but can play well on both ends. If Baylor can’t deliver on defense and Bama is shooting well, the Bears will be in trouble.
What Alabama needs to do: Alabama needs a short-term memory. Although it’s had a solid season, it needs to forget its four straight losses, including No. 14 seed Kentucky upsetting it in the SEC Tournament. Alabama must go back to the basics and do what it knows best: shoot the lights out from three. The Crimson Tide lead the SEC in 3-point percentage, shooting nearly 40% from outside, led by Hannah Barber and Aaliyah Nye. If Barber and Nye get on a roll, along with All-SEC First Team member Brittany Davis, who is averaging 17.3 points and 7.1 rebounds, Alabama could pull the upset.
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As I see it, Mississippi State and Alabama are the SEC teams likely to go down in the first round. But Mississippi is in peril against a great Gonzaga team, which is sure to be must-watch television on Friday. We’ll see how the SEC fares between now and Saturday!
Additional reporting was contributed by The Next‘s Natalie Heavren, Mitchell Northam, Matthew Walter and Eric Rynston-Lobel.