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On SECond thought, maybe it's not the ACC's year

3/26/2007

SUNDAY'S NOTES

By Mechelle Voepel
The term "under the radar" never truly applies to the SEC. But as much as it possibly could, it somewhat fit the SEC this year.

Tennessee, which was perfect in SEC regular-season play, got its usual amount of attention. But the league that received most of the spotlight was the ACC, and for obvious reasons.

The ACC had three teams in the Final Four last year, and the title game was an all-ACC affair. For a chunk of this season, Duke, North Carolina and Maryland were ranked the top three teams in the country. When they met in Chapel Hill on Feb. 8, Duke and North Carolina were both still undefeated.

Six ACC teams made the NCAA Tournament field, and all of them got at least as far as the second round. No. 7 Georgia Tech won its first NCAA Tournament game in program history. Florida State, a No. 10 seed, knocked out No. 2 Stanford in the Fresno Regional to make the program's first Sweet 16.

But … Maryland exited in the second round, with Ole Miss making the Terps look like not nearly the team they actually are -- or at least what the sum of their parts makes us think they are. Duke lost in agonizing fashion to Rutgers in the Sweet 16, and NC State also went out in the regional semifinals, to UConn.

North Carolina is the ACC's lone remaining representative, while the SEC has three of the Elite Eight (Tennessee, LSU, Ole Miss) and the Big East has two (UConn, Rutgers). The other leagues still in play are the Big Ten (Purdue) and the Pac-10 (Arizona State).

What does this all mean? Did we underestimate the SEC and overestimate the ACC all season? Maybe we did the former, but not the latter.

Duke is a team that surprised most people this season. After losing Monique Currie, Mistie Williams and Jess Foley to graduation, the Blue Devils also lost Chante Black all year to injury. Duke was sixth in both polls to start the season. I think if someone had said in November that Duke would finish third in the ACC -- where the Devils were picked -- and make the Sweet 16, most would have thought that was a very fair projection.

As it turned out, of course, Duke won the ACC regular-season title and earned itself the NCAA Tournament's overall No. 1 seed. But if the Duke 2006 team played the Duke 2007 team -- not that such a thing is possible, of course, since several of the Blue Devils would have to play their own selves -- which would you pick? Duke 2006. That was the team that should have won the NCAA title, and would have, save a remarkable comeback effort by Maryland.

This year's team was a lot about individual improvement by players who finally got more of a spotlight and overall balance. It's not making excuses for the Blue Devils to say they overachieved to get to the position of becoming the so-called favorite for the national championship this year.

Maryland found out the hard lesson that it can be more difficult to be the hunted instead of the hunter. We kept waiting to see the Terps take off this season, but it never quite happened. Still, much of that team returns for next year … and the Terps will be back to feeling as though they are "hunters" again.

How about the Big 12? The league got in six teams, but only Oklahoma made it as far as the Sweet 16, where it was run ragged by Ole Miss. The Big 12 coaches raved about the parity in the league this year, and they were right -- from the standpoint that it was often difficult to predict who was going to win night in and night out during league season. But overall, there have been years when the Big 12 had more really strong contenders for making a long NCAA run. (Not that all those teams necessarily ended up making such a run.)

Which brings us back to the SEC. We knew Tennessee was going to be in the Elite Eight because … well, because. The last time that didn't happen was 2001. But third-seeded LSU, ranked No. 10 in the preseason, and No. 7 seed Mississippi, which was unranked, are the teams that have gone further than expected.

LSU was coming off three straight Final Four appearances but had lost superstar Seimone Augustus (no one had any inkling what else LSU would have to go through this season).

And Ole Miss had been off the national radar for a long time, even if star senior guard Armintie Price was a known commodity. When you see how Carol Ross' team has performed in back-to-back NCAA Tournament games against Maryland and Oklahoma, you wonder how it lost 10 games this season.

Had Georgia beaten Purdue on Sunday night, the SEC would have made up half of the Elite Eight and really would have crowed. As it is, three of eight is still pretty darn good -- especially considering SEC tournament champion Vanderbilt isn't one of them.

The SEC really doesn't need much of a "bragging rights" boost -- not with its history. Still, the league's performance in this NCAA Tournament so far does show once again how strong this conference is -- especially at the most important time of the season.

FRESNO LOOK-AHEAD

By Beth Mowins
FRESNO, Calif. -- The SEC sent more teams than any other conference to the Elite Eight. On Monday, LSU will try to become the league's first to secure a spot in the Final Four.

The third-seeded Lady Tigers -- who are seeking their fourth straight trip to the national semifinals -- face top-seeded Connecticut on Monday night (ESPN, 9 ET) in the regional final in Fresno. The winner will advance to the Final Four to play the Greensboro Regional champion, either Rutgers or Arizona State, which will be decided at 7 p.m. ET on Monday (ESPN).

At the teams' news conferences Sunday, there was much ado about the coming matchup in the paint between LSU's Sylvia Fowles and UConn's talented inside duo of freshman Tina Charles and junior Charde Houston.

But this game likely will come down to the point guard battle between 5-foot-7 Huskies sophomore Renee Montgomery and 5-3 Lady Tigers junior Erica White.

Their last meeting turned out to be a turning point for both. Montgomery had a huge game that night, scoring 20 points on 7-for-13 shooting, with seven assists and six rebounds, in one of her best performances of the season. When LSU tied the score with 17.1 seconds left, Montgomery was the one who answered with a 3-pointer -- over White -- to give the Huskies the lead again with 6.7 seconds to play. She scored UConn's final eight points.

And including the win over LSU, Montomery has averaged 15.2 points per game since, which is two more per game than her season average. She also has had five games with at least six assists.

White, on the other hand, didn't have a great game Feb. 11. Although she had no turnovers and dished out six assists, White was just 1-for-7 from the field for two points. Story

RUNNIN' REBELS

By Graham Hays

DAYTON, Ohio -- If you want to understand how the University of Mississippi women's basketball team has come within a game of the Final Four, you'd better bring sneakers. Because you aren't going to get anywhere just walking a mile in their shoes.

You'd better run.

And if you really want to understand the Rebels, you might as well keep running until Carol Ross and Darren Edgington tell you to stop.

Seventh-seeded Ole Miss scored its second straight upset against one of the supposed heavyweights of the "Regional of Death" in Dayton, moving within one win of a trip to Cleveland by beating third-seeded Oklahoma 90-82 Sunday. The Rebels now face top-seeded Tennessee in an SEC rematch in the Elite Eight. In their only meeting this season, the Lady Vols beat the Rebels 81-69 in Knoxville on Feb. 15; Ross is 1-19 all time against Tennessee, which includes 12 seasons at Florida.

Almost from the outset, Ole Miss dictated that Sunday's game would be played at coach Ross' preferred frenetic tempo. In an arena that was hot and muggy enough to wilt sheets of paper on press row, the Rebels simply wore down the Sooners.

"When we started, we played at a super-fast speed," Oklahoma sophomore Courtney Paris said. "It took me awhile to get into it with the heat. We knew how quick they are, but experiencing it is something else." More …

LADY VOLS STRICTLY BUSINESS

By Graham Hays

DAYTON, Ohio -- Business or pleasure?

After dispatching Marist in brutally efficient fashion in a 65-46 win Sunday afternoon, there's little doubt which box Tennessee checked before departing for Dayton.

Tennessee hasn't won a national championship since beating Louisiana Tech in 1998 and hasn't played for the title since losing to Connecticut three years ago. That's a drought of Dust Bowl proportions for a program with arguably the richest history in the sport, and perhaps it explains why the Lady Volunteers seem to be treating this weekend's regional a little like an unwanted layover on the way to Cleveland.

It's a team focused only on its own craft. Even if that means being the bully who takes the feel-good story of the NCAA Tournament and clinically reduces it to a few ineffective verbs, adjectives and prepositions.

A little less than an hour before Sunday's game, a sharp whistle from a trainer sent Tennessee's players, aligned in rows on their half of the court like a football team going through pregame stretching, slide-stepping to their right. And in Shannon Bobbitt's case, sliding directly into the path of a couple of Marist players making their way back to the team's locker room. Bobbitt didn't hesitate for a second, finishing her slide and forcing the players in red to sidestep around her. More …