The story is the same as most years: the Lady Vols are the favorites to win the SEC, and they have the highest tally of preseason first- and second-team all-SEC members. But Tennessee notwithstanding, this may be an interesting year of transition for the rest of the league, as some teams are in position to make moves upward in the pecking order while other teams are at risk of sliding down from their perches. Based on last year and on the events of the offseason, here are a few of the things I expect and that I am interested in seeing play out. Just for simplicity, let's assume UT takes first (even though, with a freshman point guard leading the charge, that's obviously not a certainty).
Ready to Move Up
In no particular order, the first team set to improve is the obvious one: LSU has a new head coach in former Lady Vol Nikki Caldwell. At UCLA, Caldwell had an undertalented team playing above their heads for pretty much the entire season. Meanwhile, under Van Chancellor, last year's LSU appeared to be a team with plenty of talent but perhaps some doubt that they were on the right path to success. Peanut butter meets chocolate as Caldwell gets an instant talent upgrade, particularly with LaSondra Barrett, and LSU gets a coach with everything to prove and an absolute drive to win. (I still think of her and Summitt's eventual successor.) The media projected them 4th, which is where they finished last year's regular season. That is a very reasonable expectation, and they have a great shot at 2nd.
Another team with a chance to move up is South Carolina. Last year, they were effectively playing a five-guard offense and couldn't match depth, but played as hard as anybody and pulled off a few wins that they really had no business taking. Former Virginia standout and current head coach Dawn Staley has the team bought into her system in a big way. They now have two players over 6'-0" tall with freshmen 6'-1" Pam Decheva and 6'-3" Elen Ibiam. It's still a short team and those two have no experience, but they should have plenty of time to learn before league play starts, and it's enough height to help close the gap a bit - perhaps enough to make a serious move. The media placed them 8th again. I expect 7th; even though that's not really much of a numerical move, it does put them firmly in contention with teams like Georgia and Vanderbilt rather than teams like Mississippi State. If Staley continues to improve this team, they'll be in the upper half of the league soon enough.
It's easy to say that last year's 12th place team is going to move up, but that looks quite reasonable for Arkansas. They have some good pieces in Sarah Watkins and C'iera Ricketts - both second team all-SEC media selections (and in women's basketball, at least, the media only selected 5 per team). Overall, this is a more experienced team than last year. The media listed them 7th; I don't think they'll move that much as I like South Carolina more, but 8th is good to me, which is really no different.
But the one team I want to watch here is Florida. Head Coach Amanda Butler had a rough start to last year as a very inexperienced team had a lot to learn, but they were one of the most entertaining teams to watch by the end of the season and she should have had more recognition for the job she did. It's still a very young team, but with only three freshmen and more overall experience than last year. The media see Florida a 6th in the league; I see them as 4th at worst.
Some teams are in a lurch and have significant rebuilding ahead. The first two are Ole Miss and Mississippi State, where thin recruiting and a lack of reputation has held them back over the last couple of years. Ole Miss struggled last year, but they do have a bright spot in sophomore point guard Valencia McFarland, who is certainly one of the better points in the league. The lack of a supporting cast will inhibit them, but a standout PG can always surprise. Meanwhile, MSU finished third in the SEC last year and may have stood on their heads a bit to get there. Their oddity is the sheer number of JUCO transfers (4) and a Kentucky transfer (Catina Bett) on a roster of 15. What do you do with 15 basketball players? I fear the answer is: play all of them and none of them enough. It's a volatile situation and it's hard to project them high until they prove they can make it work. These two are projected 11th (MSU) and 12th (Ole Miss) by the media and until either gives reason to believe, that's probably where they should be right now.
Nearby Alabama is in a similar boat. Last year's 11th place SEC team is without last year's standout Tierney Jenkins, who now plays for Israel. The entire team is 6'-1" and under, which will inhibit their ability to guard posts (of which most other teams have). They have some good talent, but they'll likely lose several games by the mismatches they'll face, and the media's projection of 10th is reasonable.
From a historical perspective, the disappointment is Auburn. Once a traditional SEC power, they will be hard-pressed to replace Alli Smalley, who played her senior campaign last year. (Hint: anytime the school has a bobblehead night for you, you'll be missed.) I think Auburn's women's program has suffered with the disaster that is the men's program, which is unfair to them but seems to be the case. Their one hope is that they have a 6'-5" center (Davis) and a 6'-8" center (West); if either are effective, they'll create matchup nightmares with most of the league. Until they prove it though, the media's 9th place projection makes sense, though that's very much a lower bound.
Kentucky loses a terrific (albeit very annoying, from an opposing fan's perspective) player in Victoria Dunlap, but returns A'dia Mathies, Keyla Snowden, and Amber Smith, who were very effective in their own right. Summitt disciple Matt Mitchell has this team believe, and they have every reason to believe in their 3rd place projection, with 2nd place (or even 1st) not out of the realm of sanity. Their one warning sign is that they have 15 players like MSU; I inherently distrust basketball rosters of that size as the management of it all can make it hard for coaches to be as effective as they should be. But Kentucky fights hard and looks poised to take the spot in the conference that Auburn once occupied. I think they'll be 2nd in conference this year.
Ready to Slide
The two teams at greatest risk of a downturn are Georgia and Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt loses Jence Rhoads and Hannah Tuomi, the latter of which should make LV fans particularly happy. Both were huge contributors for Vandy, and losing both in one offseason hurts. I can see some rough transitions for this team. The media lists them as 5th which is probably about right, but 6th or 7th would certainly not be surprising unless some of the younger players (like Stephanie Holzer) step up. Consider it a high-variance team with a disconcerting amount of potential for downturn.
But even Vanderbilt has to take a backseat to my fears for Georgia. The last couple of years, Georgia has been a very fundamentally sound team who has struggled with scrappy, emotional opponents. The Lady Vols got in their heads in the regular season, and UGA never really showed up for the tournament rematch. Andy Landers is a great guy who has had the misfortune of playing in the Summitt Eastern Conference, but I worry that he's lost the emotion in this team. I could very easily be wrong about all of this. If the emotion in the players doesn't show up this year, however, they could easily slide down. The media has them second in their projections due to talent (which is reasonable), but I can see them behind Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU, and even Florida and Vanderbilt to be as low as 6th in conference.
For the record, here's my preseason guess. May it be full of ridicule and hilarity at season's end (except for UT; they're fine right where they are).
- South Carolina
- Mississippi State
- Ole Miss