The SEC’s coaches’ awards will be announced today and South Carolina should have several representatives among the teams. The Gamecocks impressively garnered Player, Coach, Freshman and Co-6th Woman of the Year awards last season, and could land some of the same hardware this year.
I think Tiffany Mitchell will definitely receive some votes for SEC Player of the Year, but for her to repeat will be difficult. When fighting with Victoria Vivians, a freshman who led the league in scoring; or the 1-2 punch of Texas A&M’s Courtney Walker and Courtney Williams; or Ole Miss’ Tia Faleru, the league’s No. 5 scorer and No. 1 rebounder, it’s a tough choice.
I don’t think Dawn Staley will repeat as SEC Coach of the Year due to Vic Schaefer guiding Mississippi State to a third-place finish – had the Gamecocks gone 16-0 in the league, that might have gotten Staley a repeat honor. USC was supposed to be a great team and it was. One couldn’t say the former about the Bulldogs – after 22 wins and a WNIT season last year, they were supposed to be much-improved, but I doubt anybody called 26 regular-season wins and a third-place league finish.
That leaves an intriguing race for SEC Freshman of the Year. On one side, there’s Vivians, who led the league with 15 points per game and was the Bulldogs’ most valuable player. On the other – USC’s A’ja Wilson, who ranked 10th in scoring, eighth in rebounding and third in blocks for a Gamecocks team that was loaded with talent.
It’s the coaches’ awards (the AP will release its selections later) and each coach was prohibited from voting for their own player. So what will the coaches look at when deciding this one?
THE CASE FOR VIVIANS
She led the entire league in scoring (15.0). With 5.1 rebounds per game (she is a 6-foot-1 forward), she was just outside the top 20 in rebounding. Vivians was 10th in field-goal percentage, eighth in free-throw percentage and third in 3-pointers per game (2.0).
Outside the numbers, Vivians was MSU’s offense. They designed the offense around her, and if opponents doubled or tripled her, it opened avenues for Morgan William, Breanna Richardson, et al (and it certainly doesn’t help that top shot-blocker Martha Alwal was always there to create fast-breaks with her constant rejections). Vivians started every game and played 26.4 minutes per.
If the Bulldogs didn’t have her, would they have won 26 games? Very doubtful. Wilson doesn’t have that going for her – while she had an impressive season, if she didn’t play at her best or had not played, the Gamecocks still would have had the talent to win the SEC title.
If there’s a knock on Vivians, it’s that MSU played an extremely soft non-conference schedule. Schaefer wisely decided to give his freshmen time to grow, and pad the win total so if the SEC wasn’t kind, they’d still have enough to get into the NCAA tournament. They only lost five games, all in conference.
It’s not Vivians’ fault who showed up on the other sideline, and she scored 39 points in one loss. But some of the coaches might (correctly) see that Wilson played against harder competition, and was the reason why USC beat Syracuse and Duke.
THE CASE FOR WILSON
She scored 13.7 points per game and averaged seven rebounds (keep in mind, while she is 6-5, Wilson plays much more guard than forward). She was second in field-goal percentage and third in blocks (1.7).
Wilson made the Gamecocks more unpredictable and dangerous. USC likes to play inside-out, and if the inside game was cut off last year, it heaped more pressure on the guards. Wilson changed that – able to score inside and out, all the Gamecocks had to do against a sticky defense was pass the ball to her and she would break it.
Again, USC would have won a lot of games without Wilson, but there is no question that she’s a major part of why the Gamecocks went from great to dominant. She’s second on the team in scoring despite only starting one game. While her points are less than Vivians’ (by 1.3), she’s scoring hers in nearly six less minutes of game time. She can be the focal point of USC’s offense, if need be, as evidenced by her taking over the last Kentucky game when nobody else would and her scoring 26 points at LSU.
Wilson is the better all-around player but Vivians has the lead in scoring, which heavily figures into postseason awards. It’s a tough decision for the coaches, but if Wilson doesn’t get the award (and it could be split), she seems to be a lock for SEC 6th Woman of the Year.